A Most Dangerous Era By John Mauldin February 9, 2014

Where Will the Jobs Come From?
More Unintended Consequences
The Great Divergence: Productivity and Wages
A Most Dangerous Era
How Do You Spell Assume?
Los Angeles, Miami, Argentina, and South Africa

“In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

“There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

“Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.”

– From an essay by Frédéric Bastiat in 1850, “That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen”

The devil is in the details, we are told, and the details are often buried in an appendix or footnote. This week we were confronted with a rather troubling appendix in the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) analysis of the Affordable Care Act, which suggests that the act will have a rather profound impact on employment patterns. You could tell a person’s political leaning by how they responded. Republicans jumped all over this. The conservative Washington Times, for instance, featured this headline: “Obamacare will push 2 million workers out of labor market: CBO.” Which is not what the analysis says at all. Liberals immediately downplayed the import by suggesting that all it really said was that people will have more choice about how they work, giving them more free time to play with their kids and pets and pursue other activities. Who could be against spending more time with your children?

Paul Krugman noted that the data means that potential GDP will be reduced by as much as 0.5% per year, which he dismissed as a small number. And he states that people voluntarily reducing their work hours does not have the same economic effect as people being laid off or fired. Which is true, but not the point nor the import of that pesky little appendix.

Where Will the Jobs Come From?

To me the economic and employment effects of Obamacare are another piece of the larger puzzle called Where Will the Jobs Come From? This may be the most important economic question of the next 30 years. Because this topic has been the focus of my thinking for the past few years, I could be reading more into the CBO’s report than I should, but indulge me as I make a few points and then see if I can tie them together in the end.

First let’s look at what the report actually said. The CBO stated that the implementation of the Affordable Care Act will result in a “substantially larger” and “considerably higher” reduction in the labor force than the “mere” 800,000 the budget office estimated in 2010. The overall level of labor will fall by 1.5% to 2% over the decade, the CBO figures. The revision was evidently driven by economic work done by a professor at the University of Chicago by the name of Casey Mulligan. (When you do a little research on Professor Mulligan and look past the multitude of honors and awards, you find people calling him the antithesis of Paul Krugman. I must therefore state for the record that I already like him.) For you economics wonks, there is a very interesting interview with Professor Mulligan in the weekend Wall Street Journal. For those who don’t go there, I will summarize and quote a few salient points.

Let’s be clear. This report and Mulligan’s research do not say Obamacare destroys jobs. What they suggest is that Obamacare raises the marginal tax rates on income, and to such an extent that it reduces the rewards for working more hours for marginally higher pay at certain income levels. The chart below does not pertain to upper-income individuals but rather to those at the median income level.

What Mulligan’s work does demonstrate is that the loss of government benefits has the same effect on an individual as a tax increase. If you lose a government subsidy because you work more hours, then for all intents and purposes it is the same as if you were taxed at a higher rate. Quoting now from the WSJ piece:

Instead, liberals have turned to claiming that ObamaCare’s missing workers will be a gift to society. Since employers aren’t cutting jobs per se through layoffs or hourly take-backs, people are merely choosing rationally to supply less labor. Thanks to ObamaCare, we’re told, Americans can finally quit the salt mines and blacking factories and retire early, or spend more time with the children, or become artists.

Mr. Mulligan reserves particular scorn for the economists making this “eliminated from the drudgery of labor market” argument, which he views as a form of trahison des clercs [loosely translated, “the betrayal of academic economists” – JM]. “I don’t know what their intentions are,” he says, choosing his words carefully, “but it looks like they’re trying to leverage the lack of economic education in their audience by making these sorts of points.”

A job, Mr. Mulligan explains, “is a transaction between buyers and sellers. When a transaction doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. We know that it doesn’t matter on which side of the market you put the disincentives, the results are the same…. In this case you’re putting an implicit tax on work for households, and employers aren’t willing to compensate the households enough so they’ll still work.” Jobs can be destroyed by sellers (workers) as much as buyers (businesses).

He adds: “I can understand something like cigarettes and people believe that there’s too much smoking, so we put a tax on cigarettes, so people smoke less, and we say that’s a good thing. OK. But are we saying we were working too much before? Is that the new argument? I mean make up your mind. We’ve been complaining for six years now that there’s not enough work being done…. Even before the recession there was too little work in the economy. Now all of a sudden we wake up and say we’re glad that people are working less? We’re pursuing our dreams?” The larger betrayal, Mr. Mulligan argues, is that the same economists now praising the great shrinking workforce used to claim that ObamaCare would expand the labor market.

Paul Krugman interprets the CBO estimates to mean a loss of the number of hours that would be equivalent to the loss of 2 million jobs. The Wall Street Journal sees that same number as equivalent to 2.5 million jobs. Professor Mulligan’s research suggests that they are still off by a factor of two and that it could be closer to 5 million job equivalents.

That means a drop in potential GDP growth of somewhere between 0.5% and 1% per year.

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