Democrats made hay with a comment from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) that they say shows he’s out of touch with average Americans.
On Wednesday, Democrats seized on Bush’s comment in an interview with the editorial board of New Hampshire’s Union Leader. He said that growing the economy would require people to “work longer hours.”
But there’s much more context to that statement, something Bush’s campaign tried to explain when it spent Thursday morning clarifying that he was talking about part-time jobs.
Here’s the full exchange:
BUSH: My aspiration for the country and I believe we can achieve it, is 4 per cent 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. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of this rut that we’re in.
QUESTION: To keep us from taking it out of context, what you meant to say — when you say more hours you mean full-time work.
BUSH: Given the opportunity to work. Yeah, absolutely.
QUESTION: Not that a full time guy or somebody working two jobs needs to be working even more time.
BUSH: Absolutely not. Their incomes need to grow. It’s not going to grow in an environment where the costs of doing business are so extraordinarily high here. Health care costs are rising. In many places the cost of doing business is extraordinarily high and the net result of that is that business start up rates are at an all time low. Work force participation rates are low. If anyone is celebrating this anemic recovery, then they are totally out of touch. The simple fact is people are really struggling. So giving people a chance to work longer hours has got to be part of the answer. If not, you are going to see people lose hope. And that’s where we are today.
He has a point, both on the part-time jobs and in general.
First, on part-time work.
Here’s a chart that shows the number of people working part-time for economic reasons. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, 6.5 million people are doing so, meaning they prefer full-time employment but had their hours cut back or could not find a full-time job.
“To the extent that he was talking about moving involuntarily part timers into full-time jobs, I agree!” said Jared Bernstein, the former chief economist and economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.
He added that he didn’t agree with his policy positions to fill those full-time jobs — “supply side tax cuts or random calls for 4% growth” — but the point about moving part-timers to full-time stood.
Bush is also right on the general economic theory: That a country’s economic output is measured by its total number of workers, how much they can produce from one hour of work, and how many hours they work.
Getting one, or all, of those to jump is key to increasing economic growth. And right now, all three are lacking. The labour-force participation rate is at its lowest level since 1977, productivity has staggered over the past decade, and the number of hours worked has held over the past 10 to 15 years.
It’s unclear, however, that increasing hours worked beyond those part-timers who want full-time jobs is the answer.
People who already have full-time jobs tend to work more hours when they really need to stretch to increase their paychecks. You can see in the chart below that globally it’s poorer countries that tend to have a higher number of hours worked per person.
That said, the US has had periods of higher average annual hours. But do we want to go back?
Matt Yglesias points out that the 1990s were the last time we saw regular GDP growth at or above 4%, and the Clinton years did include an increase in average annual hours. However, he writes, “at the time this was typically offered as a critique of the 1990s economy … on the theory that economic growth obtained through more toil rather than higher hourly pay is illusory.”
The other thing about increasing hours worked is that they can go up only so far (unless our days start getting longer). That’s not a good solution for long-term GDP growth. On the other hand, there isn’t a daily cap on worker productivity. Productivity increases often come from technological leaps.
The question for the candidates might be: What’s your plan for innovation?
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