Following the CBO report that Obamacare will induce many people to leave the workforce or cut back on their hours, I have read numerous blog posts suggesting this is benign or possibly even favorable. After all, why should people be forced to work just to keep their health insurance? Imagine a 57-year-old man, freed from the necessity to grub for pay at a second-class retail job, which he had to take just to get insurance to cover the bills for his periodic back treatments.
Alternatively, when I read about demand-side shocks which induce unemployment, I am reminded of the work of Alan Krueger. In two papers, one of which is quite recent, and does not stem from the Heritage Foundation, Krueger shows rather convincingly that the unemployed maintain reservation wages which are simply too high. They would be better off lowering those wages, being more realistic, accepting work, and getting back on their feet again. In other settings (not considered by Krueger), other workers seem to be too slow to move to new areas for new jobs, given the costs of being unemployed long-term.
A lot of Keynesians try to maintain the communication of the feeling (if not the outright statement) that demand-driven employment shocks have very little to do with the choices of workers but that is closer to wrong than right. (By the way, sarcastic comments about soup kitchens causing the Great Depression belie an understanding of both this argument and of contemporary search models for the labor market.)
OK, given all that, when those workers, hit by negative shocks, do not rush to go back to work at lower reservation wages, we then read a portrait of hysteresis, despair, and soul-crushing joblessness, a psychic swamp so difficult to escape that even summoning up the strength to go back to work may be difficult.
In other words, would-be workers irrationally undervalue the benefits of having a job and they also underestimate the costs of remaining unemployed.
Now let’s switch settings. A benefit shock comes along, positive for many people, and it induces many of them to work less or not work at all. How happy should we be? And here I mean happy at the margin, due to their change in employment decision.
People, it is rather difficult to have it here both ways. I guess it is possible that workers are irrational in changing their employment decisions in response to changes in relative dollar wage opportunities, but rational when changing their employment decisions in response to changes in relative benefit opportunities. It really is possible. But are any of you actually arguing that or holding some deep-seated reason for believing in that difference, other than perhaps the reason this post might have induced you to come up with? No, I see one assumption about a destructive choice in one context and the opposing assumption about a beneficial choice in the other context, without much regard for the tension or contradiction between those two assumptions. A lot of you may be subbing in general feelings — “unemployment is terrible,” and “ACA is good,” and simply transferring those general feelings to feelings about the respective marginal changes in employment in each case. That is a fallacy and dare I say it is a “mood affiliation” fallacy?
And by the way, the distinction between a substitution effect and an income effect is a little tricky in this context. But providing ACA-subsidized health insurance for non-workers is in general a substitution effect which switches them out of working in a way that, if pro-ACA stories about adverse selection and uninsurability are true, a simple equivalent cash grant would not.
A simpler possibility is that people undervalue the long-term benefits of having a job and thus in both settings the contraction in employment is a quite negative outcome. That is then very bad news for ACA, if only in expected value terms.
I am reading what people write on this topic and seeing massive fog through my spectacles, a bit on both sides of the debate in fact.
Addendum: Ross Douthat made a good point:
Ross has additional comments here.