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Krugman: Inequality, dignity and freedom

Now that the Congressional Budget Office has explicitly denied saying that Obamacare destroys jobs, some (though by no means all) Republicans have stopped lying about that issue and turned to a different argument. OK, they concede, any reduction in working hours because of health reform will be a voluntary choice by the workers themselves — but it's still a bad thing because, as Rep. Paul Ryan puts it, they'll lose "the dignity of work." So let's talk about what that means in 21st-century America.

It's all very well to talk in the abstract about the dignity of work, but to suggest workers can have equal dignity despite huge inequality in pay is silly. In 2012, the top 40 hedge fund managers and traders were paid a combined $16.7 billion, equivalent to the wages of 400,000 ordinary workers. Given that kind of disparity, can anyone really believe in the equal dignity of work?

In fact, the people who seem least inclined to respect the efforts of ordinary workers are the winners of the wealth lottery. Over the past few months, we've been harangued by a procession of angry billionaires, furious that they're not receiving the deference, the acknowledgment of their superiority, that they believe is their due. For example, last week the investor Sam Zell went on CNN Money to defend the 1 percent against "envy" and he asserted that "the 1 percent work harder. The 1 percent are much bigger factors in all forms of our society." Dignity for all!

And there's another group that doesn't respect workers: Republican politicians. In 2012, Rep. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, infamously marked Labor Day with a Twitter post celebrating ... people who start their own businesses. Perhaps Cantor was chastened by the backlash; at a recent GOP retreat, he reportedly urged his colleagues to show some respect for Americans who don't own businesses, who work for someone else. The implication was that they haven't shown that kind of respect in the past.

On the whole, working Americans are better at appreciating their own worth than either the wealthy or conservative politicians are at showing them even minimal respect. Still, tens of millions of Americans know from experience that hard work isn't enough to provide financial security or a decent education for their children, and many either couldn't get health insurance or were desperately afraid of losing jobs that came with insurance until the Affordable Care Act kicked in last month. In the face of that kind of everyday struggle, talk about the dignity of work rings hollow.

So what would give working Americans more dignity in their lives, despite huge income disparities? How about assuring them that the essentials — health care, opportunity for their children, a minimal income — will be there even if their boss fires them or their jobs are shipped overseas?

Think about it: Has anything done as much to enhance the dignity of American seniors, to rescue them from the penury and dependence that were once so common among the elderly, as Social Security and Medicare? Inside the Beltway, fiscal scolds have turned "entitlements" into a bad word, but it's precisely the fact that Americans are entitled to collect Social Security and be covered by Medicare that makes these programs so empowering and liberating.

Conversely, the drive by conservatives to dismantle much of the social safety net, to replace it with minimal programs and private charity, is, in effect, an effort to strip away the dignity of lower-income workers.

And it's something else: an assault on their freedom.

Modern American conservatives talk a lot about freedom and deride liberals for advocating a "nanny state." But when it comes to Americans down on their luck, conservatives become insultingly paternalistic, as comfortable congressmen lecture struggling families on the dignity of work. And they also become advocates of highly intrusive government. For example, House Republicans tried to introduce a provision into the farm bill that would have allowed states to mandate drug testing for food stamp recipients.


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