On The 'Obamacare Effect'; "Anecdote This," Dr. Furman

Submitted by F.F. Wiley of Cyniconomics blog,

If you caught the NBC Nightly News segment last week about one of the unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), you’ve probably guessed where I’m going with this. For those who missed it, NBC’s Lisa Myers reported speaking with “almost 20 small businesses and other entities around the country” and that “almost all said that because of the new law, they’d be cutting back hours for some employees.” Of course, NBC was merely adding to the extensive media coverage of organizations reducing workers’ hours to limit ACA costs. But the Obama administration doesn’t see why there’s such a fuss.  According to Myers:

The White House dismisses these examples as “anecdotal.” The president’s top economic advisor [CEA Chair Jason Furman] told us “he sees no systematic evidence the health care law is having an adverse impact on the number of hours employees are working.”

So, should we take our government’s word and dismiss the examples as anecdotal?

Let’s first review some of the information that’s leaked into the press:

More broadly, NBC’s report dovetails with a Chamber of Commerce survey of small businesses finding that:

  • 71% felt that Obamacare makes it “hard to hire,” and
  • Half said they would either cut hours to reduce full-time employees or replace full-timers with part-timers.

Backing Dr. Furman’s soothing melody, cue the Obama chorus

It seems safe to conclude that there’s been a deluge of, well, anecdotal evidence of an ACA part-time jobs effect. But is it “systematic?” Significant? Does it matter? Dr. Furman isn’t alone in answering “no,” “no” and “no.” The blogosphere’s legions of Obamanomics Obamapologists (I know, too much word creation) are stepping up to second the White House’s claim that there’s nothing to see here. To them, “anecdotal” apparently means “not real, invisible.”

Of the defenses I’ve read, they typically ignore actual news reports such as those listed above. Instead, they offer bland observations about the employment statistics published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Evan Soltas, for example, claims that the “next conservative argument against President Barack Obama’s health care law” is “wrong,” but backs his bold assertion with little more than a weak argument that jobs statistics are “far too volatile to draw reliable conclusions from small samples.”

Helene Jorgensen and Dean Baker take the denial strategy further, purporting to offer a rigorous look at the data but conveniently leaving out the May and June periods when the part-time jobs trend gained momentum. (Notice that the Jorgensen/Baker article is dated July 24, well after the May and June BLS releases became available).

But here’s the thing about the BLS data that’s been heavily massaged and filtered by the punditry: Many of the announced working hour changes remain in the implementation stage and aren’t yet reflected in the data, while other organizations are contemplating changes later this year or next. After all, the added costs that employers are scrambling to avoid won’t be in place until the delayed roll-out of the employer mandate on Jan. 1, 2015, at the earliest. And yet, the data is beginning to show the uptick in part-time work that you would expect to see in the future.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying there aren’t times when it’s wise to question anecdotal information. But this isn’t one of them.  In this case, a better word for the evidence would be “overwhelming.” Other good choices would be “tangible,” “real world” and “conclusive.” And policymakers and pundits who suggest otherwise are once again (as here and here) displaying a shameless dishonesty.