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February 05, 2014 11:54 AM A Choice of Conservative Narratives About Obamacare and Work

By Ed Kilgore

There’s an interesting split already developing in ConservativeWorld about the implications of yesterday’s CBO report suggesting that Obamacare will reduce employment levels (there’s less interest, for obvious reasons, in the same report’s decisive repudiation of the GOP claim that “risk corridors” will produce taxpayers subsidies to insurance companies). As TPM’s Dylan Scott reported yesterday, many big conservative outlets are promoting the hammer-headed argument (not supported by the report itself) that Obamacare is “killing” two million jobs, or pushing people out of them. This claim, of course, meshes nicely with the pre-existing conservative attack-line on Obamacare as a job-killer and death to the U.S. economy.

But conservatives who either don’t want to lie blatantly, or who have other axes to grind, are conceding that the “job losses” the report talks about are actually voluntary relinquishments by people who were hanging onto jobs they don’t much want in order to hang onto health insurance. They are then harnessing this more accurate claim to the meta-talking point that a too-generous “welfare state” is discouraging work generally.

Here’s Ross Douthat:

[I]t does seem like we may be dealing here with something that isn’t just a consequence of rejiggering the employer-provided model, and that actually reflects a more universal dilemma of welfare-state liberalism: Namely, that when the government moves to help people at the bottom of the income distribution, its assistance often creates perverse incentives, both by making it easier for the beneficiaries not to work at all and (when the assistance is means-tested) by imposing a steep marginal tax rate on upward mobility of any kind.

This last point by Douthat is legitimate (he quotes Kevin Drum as agreeing with it). But I feel quite sure we will hear a less nuanced version of his first argument quite soon from other conservatives: give poor people “free stuff” (as Mitt Romney elegantly put it after losing the 2012 presidential election) and they stop working. So don’t give them “stuff,” even if they have trouble securing it from employers or need it to survive.

It will be worth watching which line of attack GOP/conservative gabbers choose: Obamacare is wrecking the economy or Obamacare is corrupting marginal job-holders. Either way, of course, they will agree Obamacare is paving a highway straight to Hell.

UPDATE: Paul Ryan votes decisively for the “free stuff” angle.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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