Nothing to worry about

In the seemingly endless battle between conservatives and the White House over Obamacare, that is, the health insurance reform that is, however pathetic, Barack Obama’s most significant accomplishment.[1] the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released a report which, after the dust settled,[2] appears to mean that some workers will no longer be as desperate for work, because Obamacare means that they no longer need to be employed full-time to obtain health insurance.[3]

It seems this is part of a larger trend, in which there is a decreasing need for middle-skilled work, resulting in middle class wage stagnation, fewer jobs, and something called wage polarization, in which a few do very well and the rest, if they are employed at all, barely scrape by.[4] The obvious conclusion is that a somewhat more robust social safety net will be required, which a Washington Times article, reacting to the fuss over the CBO report, attempted to blame on Obamacare:

While some critics focused on a finding by the CBO that Obamacare will result in 2.5 million fewer workers over a decade, conservatives said the bigger fundamental issue highlighted in the report is one familiar to the welfare state — that taxpayer-funded government subsidies provide disincentives for full-time work.

“People used to be stuck in jobs because they needed the health insurance,” said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a practicing physician and a specialist on health care policy at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “Now they’re going to be prevented from taking jobs because they need the subsidies.”[5]

They will, of course, “be prevented from taking jobs because they need the subsidies,”[6] because employers don’t pay employees a living wage. At the New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat adopted the more nuanced view.[7] He concluded:

But in the Obamacare debate and elsewhere, it’s not always clear whether this larger welfare state is supposed to promote a link between work, security and mobility, or to substitute for work’s gradual decline. On the left, there’s a growing tendency toward both pessimism and utopianism — with doubts about the compatibility of capitalism and democracy, and skepticism about the possibility for true equality of opportunity, feeding a renewed interest in 1970s-era ideas like a universal basic income.

On the conservative side, things are somewhat clearer. There are libertarians who like the basic income idea, but only as a substitute for the existing welfare state, not as a new expansion. Both “rugged individualist” right-wingers and more communitarian conservatives tend to see work as essential to dignity, mobility and social equality, and see its decline as something to be fiercely resisted.[8]

Some might ask what sort of busy-work can be created that lends “dignity, mobility and social equality”[9] to those whose services are redundant, and those whose jobs have been technologically obsoleted.[10] But for some of us in the real world, who can’t find work to save our lives, this could be a surreal moment. We are supposed to accept the notions that in the U.S. we have “equal opportunity,” that is, that “talent, skill, hard work, and achievement largely determine life chances;”[11] and “that employment is a market relationship like any other — there’s a buyer and a seller, and it’s just a matter of mutual consent.”[12] These are both myths, as the authors I quote go on to explain, and as those of us on the losing side of job polarization, regardless of merit, are being forced to recognize.

But the subtext with the furor over the CBO report is that the power relationship between employers and the labor force is becoming a little less uneven, that is, that the labor force might actually gain some leverage: “Instead, they can work part-time and retire sooner, and, because of the way subsidies reduce with income increases, some low-income workers will have less incentive to seek small increases in hours or wages—although this also means that their employers will have an incentive to pay them more.”[13]

This is not just about who pays for the social safety net. It strikes at a power relationship that traditionalist conservatives believe to be essential for social order.[14] It means that people must, in order to survive, receive that which they have not earned, horrifying Ayn Randian capitalist libertarians.[15]

Douthat, of course, ignores the nature of work as it has become, that is, anything but a means to “dignity, mobility and social equality.”[16] It has instead become, for far too many workers, a hell-hole.[17] The fear that an increasingly harsh dominator society, that is, one based on an increasingly brutal of rule of human beings by other human beings,[18] might be slightly ameliorated ignores the vast pool of unemployed, including the long-term unemployed,[19] with the situation for the latter being worse than often reported: Seasonal adjustments are boosting the reported number of people in the labor force,[20] even as unadjusted numbers tell a different story. My spreadsheet indicates that the labor force participation rate has not been lower than it is now since April 1978.[21] While some attempt to attribute this to demographic factors, the fact is that there is still a large pool of people who want work and can’t find it,[22] which is why the stock market was up 160 points on unemployment data that most saw as bleak at best.[23]

And what Obamacare giveth, the recently-passed farm bill taketh away. I might be more secure in health care, but it appears my food stamps will be taken away. And I’m far from alone.[24] That the social safety net might now in any way be expanded seems ludicrous in an era when even unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed apparently cannot be renewed.[25]

But most of all, this ever so slight amelioration of an increasingly harsh dominator society strikes at the petty and venal power that employers enjoy over employees and over the unemployed. This is the power to compel people to all appear at a certain time in a certain place even when the work could be done from home or on flexible schedules. This is the power to say no to someone who really needs a job. It is the power to fire workers arbitrarily and at will. It is the power to view human beings as infinitely replaceable. It is the power to treat people like shit.

This fuss is far from an acknowledgment that a frayed safety net may need mending and bolstering, but rather yet another attack on it and on workers and the unemployed.

  1. [1]Brad Jacobson, “Obama received $20 million from healthcare industry in 2008 campaign,” Raw Story, January 12, 2010,
  2. [2]Erik Wasson, “CBO: O-Care slowing growth, contributing to 2.3M job losses,” Hill, February 4, 2014,; Justin Sink, “White House pushes back on CBO report,” Hill, February 4, 2014,
  3. [3]Matthew Yglesias, “The Media Is Blowing It on Obamacare and Jobs,” Slate, February 5, 2014,
  4. [4]Michael Boehm, “Job Polarisation and The Decline of Middle-Class Workers’ Wages,” Naked Capitalism, February 9, 2014,; Tim Fernholz, “It’s not just Obamacare. In the future, we’ll all work less,” Quartz, February 6, 2014,
  5. [5]Dave Boyer, “Specter of welfare state jolts Democrats; CBO hits election pitches for jobs,” Washington Times, February 5, 2014,
  6. [6]Dave Boyer, “Specter of welfare state jolts Democrats; CBO hits election pitches for jobs,” Washington Times, February 5, 2014,
  7. [7]Ross Douthat, “Leaving Work Behind,” New York Times, February 8, 2014,
  8. [8]Ross Douthat, “Leaving Work Behind,” New York Times, February 8, 2014,
  9. [9]Ross Douthat, “Leaving Work Behind,” New York Times, February 8, 2014,
  10. [10]Michael Boehm, “Job Polarisation and The Decline of Middle-Class Workers’ Wages,” Naked Capitalism, February 9, 2014,
  11. [11]Thomas M. Shapiro, “Introduction,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 3.
  12. [12]Paul Krugman, “The Plight of the Employed,” New York Times, December 24, 2013,
  13. [13]Tim Fernholz, “It’s not just Obamacare. In the future, we’ll all work less,” Quartz, February 6, 2014,
  14. [14]Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, 7th ed. (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2001); Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of our Time (Louisiana State University, 1964; Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995).
  15. [15]Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957; repr., New York: Plume, 1999).
  16. [16]Ross Douthat, “Leaving Work Behind,” New York Times, February 8, 2014,
  17. [17]Harry Brill, “Government Breaks the Law: The Sabotaging of the Occupational Safety and Health Act,” Social Justice 19, no. 3 (1992): 63-81; Josh Eidelson, “Wal-Mart faces warehouse horror allegations and federal Labor Board complaint,” Salon, November 18, 2013,; Josh Eidelson, “Freezing for Wal-Mart: Sub-zero warehouse temperatures spur Indiana work stoppage,” Salon, January 13, 2014,; Josh Eidelson, “Amazon Keeps Unions Out By Keeping Workers in Fear, Says Organizer,” Alternet, January 22, 2014,; Allison Kilkenny, “Cleveland Walmart Holds Food Drive For Its Own Employees,” Nation, November 18, 2013,; Paul Krugman, “The Plight of the Employed,” New York Times, December 24, 2013,; Paul Krugman, “The Fear Economy,” New York Times, December 26, 2013,; Mac McClelland, “I Was a Warehouse Wage Slave,” Mother Jones, February 27, 2012,; Alana Semuels, “As employers push efficiency, the daily grind wears down workers,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,,5976597,1009581,full.story; Alana Semuels, “How the relationship between employers and workers changed,” Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2013,,0,716422.story; Yves Smith, “The Rise of Bullshit Jobs,” Naked Capitalism, August 22, 2013,; Spencer Soper, “Inside Amazon’s Warehouse,” Morning Call, September 18, 2011,; Veruca [pseud.], “Which Ten Companies Pay Their Employees The Least?” Everlasting GOP Stoppers, November 17, 2013,; Jordan Weissmann, “McDonald’s Can’t Figure Out How Its Workers Survive on Minimum Wage,” Atlantic, July 16, 2013,; Spencer Woodman, “Labor Takes Aim at Walmart—Again,” Nation, January 4, 2012,
  18. [18]John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008); William J. Burroughs, Climate Change in Prehistory: The End of the Reign of Chaos (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University, 2008); Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (1987; repr., New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995); Gerhard Lenski, Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966); Max Oelschlaeger, The Idea of Wilderness (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 1991).
  19. [19]Lucia Mutikani, “U.S. adds just 113,000 jobs,” Reuters, February 7, 2014,; Matthew Yglesias, “The Unemployment Rate Is Falling, but the News Is Bad,” Slate, February 7, 2014,
  20. [20]Hugh, “The BLS Jobs Report Covering January 2014: Revisions and Seasonal Lows,” Naked Capitalism, February 8, 2014,
  21. [21]David Benfell, “Employment calculations,” February 8, 2014,
  22. [22]Binyamin Appelbaum, “Evaporating Unemployment,” New York Times, February 4, 2014,; Samuel Kapon and Joseph Tracy, “A Mis-Leading Labor Market Indicator,” Big Picture, February 4, 2014,; Paul Krugman, “Demography and Employment,” New York Times, February 3, 2014,; Yves Smith, “Over 1 in 6 Men in Prime Working Years Don’t Have a Job,” Naked Capitalism, February 6, 2014,
  23. [23]Robert Reich, “Why the Lousy Jobs Report Boosted Wall Street,” February 8, 2014,
  24. [24]Ron Nixon, “Senate Passes Long-Stalled Farm Bill,” New York Times, February 4, 2014,; Michael D. Shear, “In Signing Farm Bill, Obama Extols Rural Growth,” New York Times, February 7, 2014,; Justin Sink and Mike Lillis, “Obama muddles his message,” Hill, February 7, 2014,
  25. [25]Charles M. Blow, “The Appalling Stance of Rand Paul,” New York Times, December 11, 2013,; Brian Beutler, “GOP’s deep moral failing: Why it won’t extend unemployment insurance,” Salon, December 10, 2013,; Ramsey Cox, “Senate rejects jobless benefits,” Hill, February 6, 2014,; Josh Eidelson, “Rand Paul’s patronizing excuse for screwing the poor,” Salon, December 10, 2013,; Burgess Everett, “Senate blocks jobless aid,” Politico, January 14, 2014,; Caitlin MacNeal, “GOP Rep. Says It’s ‘Immoral’ To Extend Long-term Jobless Benefits,” Talking Points Memo, February 5, 2014,; Eugene Robinson, “Where is the Democrats’ outrage about unemployment?” Washington Post, January 13, 2014,; Joan Walsh, “Meet the poverty liars: GOP peddles more garbage in war on the poor,” Salon, January 8, 2014,; Matthew Yglesias, “The Long-Term Unemployed Are Doomed,” Slate, December 11, 2013,

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