Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush got into hot water this week for his comments that… well, let’s look at the statement taken in whole:
“My aspiration for the country and I believe we can achieve it, is 4 percent growth as far as the eye can see. Which means we have to be a lot more productive, workforce participation has to rise from its all-time modern lows. It means that people need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families.”
In context, it’s pretty clear he was talking about getting the unemployed and underemployed back in the full-time workforce, hardly a controversial take. “You can take it out of context all you want, but high sustained growth means people work 40 hours rather than 30 hours and that by our success they have disposable income for their families…” Bush said the following day.
But in today’s media landscape, that got simplified into headlines like “Jeb Bush: People Need to Work Longer Hours.” Liberal outlets like MSNBC leaped at the “gaffe” (Actual quote from “wonk” host Steve Kornacki: “Did Jeb Bush really tell Americans to suck it up and work longer hours?”). Meanwhile, Jeb’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton tweeted, “Anyone who believes Americans aren’t working hard enough hasn’t met enough American workers.”
But more than a few wonks were brave enough to say what others wouldn’t: Jeb was essentially right.
“Jeb Bush’s claim Wednesday that Americans ‘need to work longer hours’ may have been bad politics, but he got the economics pretty much right,” writes FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman, an outlet not exactly known for its staunch conservatism.
“Jeb Bush says Americans need to work longer hours. He’s (mostly) right,” was the Christian Science Monitor‘s headline. The subheadline was more explicit: “Jeb Bush drew fire for his comments about American workers, but he’s right that millions of part-time employees need to work more hours.”
“Democrats say they’ve found a devastating Jeb Bush gaffe, but he’s mostly right,” was Business Insider’s take. Even Vox liberal Matt Yglesias, in a Voxsplainer that was mostly critical of the governor’s remarks, straight-up admitted “Jeb is not mistaken: Longer hours worked would push up the GDP growth rate.”
Most outlets hedged their endorsements of Jeb’s statement (notice all the “mostly”). But that’s the nature of economics, an inexact science. Harry Truman famously joked he wanted a one-armed economist, since every one he consulted told him “…but on the other hand.” Outside of Paul Krugman-esque partisan hackery, a “mostly right” from an economist is basically the best you’ll get.
I’d say Bush’s comments were a rehashing of Economics 101, but they were more like a rehashing of second-grade math. A part-time hourly worker who works X hours a week will earn Y wages. If X goes up, Y goes up. That isn’t some vile capitalist conspiracy; it’s math. You might say it’s insensitive to tell people who are struggling that they would earn more money by working more… but they would.
The fact that “more people working longer longer hours is good for the economy” ought to be obvious considering the fact that we cheer every time the unemployment and underemployment rates drops. Last month saw 375,000 people leave the ranks of the long-term unemployed. Would I be insensitive for suggesting that it’s a good thing that Americans are now working millions of hours more a week since May?
But economics be damned: Jeb’s comments sounded bad, and for that sin he was lambasted by the press for two days straight. He could had given a simple, fact-free, red meat economic speech and no one would have batted an eye. “We’re in the midst of an unprecedented economic downturn because of our ineffective president,” Jeb could have said. “His era of Big Government and Obamacare has choked economic development in this country, and if you vote for me, I’ll turn things around.”
Democrats would have yawned, Republicans would have cheered. The world would have kept spinning and our trench warfare era of politics would have remained entrenched. But instead, Jeb didn’t talk down to us, and for that he was crucified.
Mind you, like all candidates at this point, Bush’s economic plans are still half-baked. It’s one thing to say you’ll boost full-time employment, it’s another thing to say how. I expect many ways of doing so (such as tweaking the number of employers covered by Obamacare) will be controversial on and off Capitol Hill.
But at least he took a baby step towards moving beyond bland platitudes and started treating voters like adults capable of listening and learning. It pains me that in today’s media climate, that qualifies as a “gaffe.” And so long as it does, voters will get exactly the politicians they deserve.
[Image via Gage Skidmore]
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