What do you do when The New York Times lets you down?
It's not like it hasn't happened before. The run-up to the war in Iraq was one long disgrace for the Times along with most of the rest of the media establishment. But in hindsight we can be generous and chalk that up to the profound unhinged-ness that afflicted the country for years after Sept. 11.
But to what trauma are we to attribute the front-page story by Annie Lowrey and Jonathan Weisman that appeared Feb. 4 under the headline "Health Care Law Projected to Cut the Labor Force"? Fox News-related repetitive cortical poisoning? Congressionally-induced Obama-bashing response?Hopeless reportorial addiction to pure politics?
The subject of the piece was a Congressional Budget Office report projecting that, due to the availability of affordable health insurance, more than 2 million (mostly older) Americans will voluntarily quit working, or opt to work fewer hours, in the next few years. Why? Because they've only been working full time for the insurance.
Naturally, the Republicans jumped on this as evidence of an economic catastrophe. Over there in right-wing opposite-land, the word "killer" automatically follows the word "job" in the Obamacare script, and they're sticking to it, no matter what the facts. But it was just plain strange to see Lowrey and Weisman, along with much of the rest of the mainstream press, fall down the rabbit hole. They led with the Republican misrepresentation of the report—the phrase "job killer" actually appeared in the second paragraph of the story—while devoting almost no time to what the numbers said about what's happening in the country. (It was up to the great Paul Krugman, a few days later, to right the Times' ship in a column neatly titled "Health, Work, Lies.")
Hearteningly, hundreds of Times readers noticed and registered their dismay. A correction that ran with the Feb. 4 article on the Times' website indicates that the headline—which is still somewhat misleading—has been altered. It originally indicated that millions of jobs, not workers, were leaving the building. Apparently it was changed after readers pointed out that this was not what the CBO report said. It was what Republicans said it said.
What was even weirder about the media's bewitchment was that the Republican line was never going to hold up for more than one news cycle with anybody except the dim souls who believe everything on Fox News. Any adult with normal brain activity understands the difference between losing a job and quitting one. It's a pretty drastic distinction.
So what's the story that the Times missed while shoveling through the he-said-she-said du jour? It's this: Decoupling health insurance from employment is starting to shift the balance of power between employers and employees. This is only the beginning of big changes in the labor market, and it's going to be fascinating to watch them play out.
Health insurance has been distorting the relation of workers to bosses for decades. The idea that coverage should be tied to employment is an accident of history peculiar to the U.S.: Wages were limited by law during World War II when labor was scarce, and employers and unions began throwing in health insurance to attract workers. Coupling health insurance to employment made no functional sense but it was what we got used to. And because health-care costs ran wild in our gaga, for-profit system, this seemingly benevolent perk over time became a straitjacket locking people into jobs they otherwise wouldn't have put up with. (This has only become more the case since 2008, as employers have been able to exact more work for less pay from employees anxious about layoffs.) For those with pre-existing conditions, or dependents with pre-existing conditions, working for a company that offered benefits has been the only hedge against economic calamity.
This infuriating, anachronistic situation is now changing, and as a result more than 2 million jobs, mostly held by older workers, are projected to open up. This is terrific news for the roughly 10 million Americans looking for work, many of whom are young. (Oh yeah. Them.)
And it's also pretty great news for the future of the country. I'm American, so I tend to think that anything that gives millions of people more freedom to shape their own lives is good. Obviously it's not so good for the Koch brothers and the other bazillionaire funders of the relentless campaign against Obamacare, or they wouldn't be pouring so much money into it.
And that, folks, was the real story.