John is 59, has had a good career as a mechanical engineer, has saved pretty diligently his whole life, and also has a chronic heart condition. He's got the cash to retire early, but he's not yet eligible for Medicare. So he needs to keep working more than he wants to for a few more years. Or at least he would have if not for the Affordable Care Act, which makes it feasible for him to buy insurance on the private market and get a jump start on his fishing plans.
Mary is 27 and pregnant. She'd like to start working part-time once the baby is born. But even though her husband's company is doing okay it's too small to provide health insurance to its employees. So the family really needs Mary to put in enough hours to qualify for benefits at her office. That is, they would need her to work full time if not for the Affordable Care Act, whose small business tax credits are going to let her husband's boss start offering insurance.
Those are good stories, right?
Well, certainly I framed them as good stories. Tuesday's Congressional Budget Office update on the state of the labor market frames them as bad stories by estimating that the Affordable Care Act will shrink the size of the American labor force by about 2 million full-time equivalent employees. I just gave you the story of how the ACA will cost the country 1½ full-time equivalent jobs. And it sounded like a good story.
But aggregate all those happy stories of early retirements and shifts to part-time work, and it can look like a bad story. A society where health insurance is less tied to full-time employment is a society in which more people will choose not to work full time.
If the latest news from the CBO changes our thinking about anything, it should be about the status quo that prevailed as of last year. If Obamacare really does cause millions of people to voluntarily leave full-time employment, that shows us how much avoidable suffering the earlier system was causing. Not just in terms of the problems faced by the actually uninsured but by the hidden cost of keeping people locked into jobs for fear of losing coverage.
Obamacare will kill jobs in the same way that Social Security kills jobs. By making it easier for people in certain circumstances to get by without a job. But your mileage may vary on this. The point, however, is that we're talking about people quitting, not about people getting fired.
Matthew Yglesias is the author of "The Rent Is Too Damn High."
© 2014 Slate