Politics & Policy

The CBO’s Obamacare Scorecard

Obamacare by the numbers, according to the Congressional Budget Office — labor lost: equivalent of 2.5 million full-time jobs over the next decade; insurance enrollment: down 1 million from earlier first-year estimate; cost: $1.2 trillion over the next decade; number of Americans uninsured: 30 million.

Which is to say: We are spending $1.2 trillion and taking a blowtorch to the work force in order to fund a semi-public insurance system that still leaves tens of millions uncovered. And that’s assuming that CBO has not taken too rosy a view of Obamacare, which it may well have. 

There is more wrong with Obamacare than a bumble-thumbed website.

The White House has tried, with hilarious results, to spin the labor-force data, emphasizing the CBO’s estimate that the so-called Affordable Care Act will cost the economy the equivalent of 2.5 million full-time jobs not because there will be a pink-slip bloodbath at Walmart but because fewer people will choose to work, or will choose to work fewer hours, once their federally subsidized health insurance makes the prospect of quitting their jobs less enticing. In the considered view of the Obama administration, that is good news. We are happy to see that the White House seems finally to have stumbled upon the concept of economic incentives — give people less reason to work and they will work less. But the administration still does not seem to be able to get its collective head around the fact that American workers are not just hungry mouths that have to be filled with paychecks: They are people who provide economically valuable goods and services. Those 2.5 million out of the work force may be happier at their leisure, but the economy as a whole will be substantially worse off without their contributions. We could, in theory, simply have the federal government deliver checks to every household and allow each and every one to follow his bliss as he sees fit, but the shelves of the grocery stores soon would be empty. The depth of the Obamacare crater in the labor force isn’t some abstract unemployment rate, but the lost value of the work those Americans would have done.

The spending largely speaks for itself: $1.2 trillion is a great deal of money. The CBO still holds out the possibility that the expenses associated with the program may yet outweigh the cost of its benefits, meaning merely that that $1.2 trillion in spending will be accompanied by approximately $1.2 trillion in taxes, or slightly more. “Revenue-neutral” is not a synonym for “free.” We are still to spend $1.2 trillion, regardless of the combined ledger impact on our bloated deficit.

Spending $1.2 trillion on what? That is the most galling bit. Obamacare was sold as a response to the alleged emergency presented by 40-odd million Americans’ lacking insurance. That number was hotly disputed at the time, but even if we were to take it at face value, getting the figure down to 30 million at a cost of more than $1 trillion is hardly a bargain. 

We are familiar with the phrase “money for nothing,” but had always understood it to denote a positive cash flow rather than a negative one.

We already have begun to experience the effects of Obamacare as they relate to health insurance specifically: canceled policies, chaos in the insurance markets, insecurity for consumers. But the more significant cost may in the long run prove to be its structural hobbling of our economy, reducing the work force and redirecting trillions of dollars away from the productive economy into a system of rewards and subsidies for cronies and political constituencies. The CBO’s increasingly bleak economic forecasts suggest that it has begun to take the measure of the long-term costs of the Obama administration’s economic misgovernance, of which Obamacare is one, but only one, significant part. But detailed as those estimates are, they can only begin to suggest the damage. 

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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