It’s Time to Cool It On “People Need to Work Longer Hours”

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Maybe I’m just being naive here, but I wonder if liberals could give it a rest mocking Jeb Bush for saying “people need to work longer hours”? Yeah, he really did say it, but then again, Obama really did say “You didn’t build that.” Little snippets taken out of context can make anyone sound dumb.

In this case, Bush pretty quickly clarified that he was talking about the underemployed, people who want to work more hours but can’t get them. This didn’t sound to me like some hastily concocted excuse. It probably really was what he meant, and it just didn’t come out quite right. That’s common in a live setting.

Now, after the idiotic way Republicans plastered “You didn’t build that” everywhere short of Mount Rushmore in 2012, maybe they deserve a taste of their own medicine. And sure, politics ain’t beanbag. You get your licks where you can find them. Still, there’s a limit to how hackish we all should be. We’re pretending Bush meant one thing when we all know perfectly well he meant something else. Let’s be better than the Republicans, OK?

UPDATE: Let me respond briefly to a few criticisms of this post. First, over at the New Republic, Brian Beutler says, essentially, that Obamacare makes it easier to work fewer hours, since workers no longer depend on a full-time job to get health insurance. Bush opposes Obamacare, which means he opposes things that allow people to work fewer hours. By inference, he’s therefore in favor of using “economic policy as a cattle prod” to get people to work more hours whether they want to or not. Your mileage may vary, but this strikes me as a real stretch.

On Twitter, Dean Baker says that Bush’s clarification doesn’t fit with his previous positions on work. In fact, his original statement is “consistent with his plans to raise Social Security retirement age. He wants more work.” But that’s a stretch too. “Work longer hours” just isn’t the same thing as raising the SS retirement age. No one would phrase it that way.

Via email, Michael Hiltzik points out that average hours worked swung sharply up after the recession and the number of involuntary part-timers swung sharply down. “It raises the question of where exactly Bush’s longer hours are supposed to come from. Any way you slice it, he seems to be blowing smoke and not have a coherent picture of the employment situation.” I agree that Bush doesn’t have any kind of coherent economic plan, but that’s a very different thing than suggesting he wants full-time workers to start putting in 50-hour weeks instead of 40-hour weeks.

More generally, I’d make two points:

  • First, it’s not enough to say that Bush really does want people to work longer hours because it’s “consistent” with some of his other stated policies. We should just criticize those other policies, not twist them like a pretzel to fit the theory we’re trying to sell.
  • Second, does anyone seriously think that Bush believes full-time workers in the US should be working more late nights and weekends? That flatly makes no sense. His clarification about the underemployed, on the other hand, makes perfect sense. It might make only a small dent in his goal of 4 percent growth—something he probably doesn’t realize—but it’s still a reasonable component of it.

The real problem here is that Bush has things backwards. You don’t get growth from workers deciding to work more hours. You get growth from good macroeconomic policies that spur employers to offer more hours. So the question is: What is Bush’s economic plan? If it’s a good one, then the underemployed will work more hours. If not, they won’t. The horse needs to pull the cart, not the other way around.

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