Paul Greenberg

(With apologies to George Orwell)

Pity the poor Congressional Budget Office, which is routinely identified as a nonpartisan source of information about the federal government's budget and maybe the statistical mysteries of economics in general. But it wandered into the usual partisan crossfire when it issued a routine, even predictable, estimate that Obamacare, aka the Affordable Care Act, would cost the economy two million or more jobs over the next decade.

The analysis wasn't surprising, just shocking. Knowing something is coming isn't the same as seeing it in cold print. Reality begins to dawn. Anybody who follows the more-heat-than-light debate over the (not always) Affordable Care Act will soon get used to these recurrent shocks, after-shocks and shocks to come. Much like folks who live along the San Andreas or New Madrid faults. It's the nature of the poli-socio-economic beast. Federalize a good sixth of the national economy and complications will ensue, including the usual string of unintended consequences. Like a massive loss of jobs.

Why? Doubtless because of a variety of factors. But the big one in this case is the perfectly rational and highly predictable decision of workers to become former workers. Because they wouldn't need to be on anybody's payroll to get health insurance. (Except the government's, of course, that is, the taxpayers', that is, yours and mine.)

It's a free country -- so far -- and we're all entitled to choose not to work. It's choosing to work, that is, finding a job, that can be tough. Though maybe not as tough as providing one, which explains why a lot of employers have had to cut their payrolls and a lot of workers have quit looking for work. Now millions who work largely for the health insurance their jobs provide may decide to quit. Why not? Let the government pay for it. That is, somebody else.

This perfectly rational economic decision on the part of citizens perfectly free to make it set off a rhetorical firestorm. Or rather one of those polemical brush fires that will soon burn itself out when folks douse it with a little perspective.

In the meantime, the usual high-decibel voices on the right began their hue-and-cry. "Job Killer!" cried Majority Leader of the House Eric Cantor. "False Claims! Dishonest! Media Malpractice!" replied the ever-temperate Paul Krugman, speaking for any Keynesians still extant.

A colleague of Professor Krugman's on the Princeton economics faculty, Alan Blinder, chimed in with equal condescension to explain that it's all a simple matter of supply-and-demand, and the fewer people who choose to supply their labor, the higher wages those of us who are still working can demand. Eureka!

Professor Blinder should also have been thrilled with the effect of the Great Recession of 2007-9, which cost the economy even more jobs than Obamacare is likely to do. By reducing the number of jobs in the American economy, it must have increased the value of those jobs that remained! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! The recession, it seems, was actually good for labor. Who knew?

As the professor explained to those of us who may not be exactly thrilled by the prospect of millions of Americans not drawing a paycheck, "the decline in work does not mean jobs being destroyed but rather that some people are choosing to work less -- or not at all. That doesn't sound so bad." Or as another great teacher, Dr. Pangloss, tried to tell his student Candide, "all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."

As good as all this sounds to the professor, Princeton has yet to announce that he's resigning his prestigious post for a life of leisure. That may be the sort of thing he recommends only for the lower classes and lesser breeds.

Why doesn't the distinguished professor himself quit and just take it easy? Maybe because he understands that economic decisions affect a lot more than the economy, that they have something to do with dignity, self-respect, the satisfaction of a job done well, and even basic questions like: What is the good life? And how should we live it -- idling away dependent on others, or self-reliant and even able to help them on occasion?

Or have such questions become as irrelevant as the old Greeks and Hebrews with all their antiquated crotchets and pieties? Now that we have professors of economics to guide us, who needs Epictetus or Ecclesiastes? We have Alan Blinder and Paul Krugman!

We also have these professors' mirror-images over there in the Free Market Above All Libertarian Ayn Rand corner. Now each side is ready to come out swinging as soon as the Congressional Budget Office rings the bell by issuing what it might think is just another nonpartisan finding, the poor innocents. Now the CBO gets to be used by both sides with their reflexive (not to be confused with reflective) response to its report on the effects of an increase in the minimum wage.

All this is scarcely a novel phenomenon. To quote a columnist named George Orwell back in the long ago year 1942: "When I talk to anyone or read the writings of anyone who has any axe to grind, I feel that intellectual honesty and balanced judgment have simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Everyone's thought is forensic, everyone is simply putting a 'case' with deliberate suppression of his opponent's point of view, and, what is more, with complete insensitiveness to any sufferings except those of himself and his friends. ... But is there no one who has both firm opinions and a balanced outlook? Actually there are plenty, but they are powerless. All power is in the hands of paranoiacs."

Never learning, the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the newly proposed increase in the minimum wage will eliminate another half a million jobs while raising the wages of almost another million. Those mad socialists are at it again! Or, conversely, it's all the fault of evil capitalists like the Koch Brothers! (Don't let their philanthropic activities fool you.)

Let the Games Begin! as the Romans used to say before one of their gladiatorial duels-to-the-death in the Colosseum. But in this, thank goodness, purely rhetorical match, all that matters is the fireworks, not the facts, as one side's War Room strives to outdo the other's Op Research team. What counts in these polemical scrimmages is speed and punch, not facts or fairness.

If the object of debate in a republic is to raise the level of civil discourse, the object of these recurring tiffs in what has become only a mass democracy must be to lower it.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.