Like rewarding hard work? Then support Obamacare.

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What the hell are you talking about?
What the hell are you talking about?

Hi, everybody. Matt Campbell has handed me the keys to his blog, and I’m going to take it out for a spin. But where to start?

How about with a little talk about a poll? Two right-leaning ones were released this week claiming to show the inevitable triumph of the GOP in the state’s top tier elected offices – right, fifteen months before the election – but I’m more interested in the AFSCME survey highlighted by the Arkansas Times earlier this week. After gauging the popularity of 2014’s candidate field, the poll asks respondents several questions about raising the minimum wage. It asks for a response to this statement: “raising the minimum wage is just the right thing to do”. 72% strongly agreed or somewhat agreed. (Our state minimum wage is currently a pathetic $6.25/hour, although the hugely generous federal rate of $7.25 applies to the vast majority of workers in the state.)

The next set of questions concern the Affordable Care Act. Would you be more or less likely to cast your vote for a candidate if s/he supported Obamacare? 55% say “less likely”.

It gave me a jolt to see these two numbers juxtaposed – not because the figures are surprising, but because my mind’s internal rationalization machinery almost snapped a gear in the speed of its reversal. I switched from the self-righteousness head nodding of the Populist

(The People! The People want to raise the minimum wage! By God, let the will of the People be done!)

to the self-righteousness head shaking of the Progressive

(The People! The People are idiots and dupes! Save them from themselves with qualified health plans on a graduated income-dependent scale!)

and all in less than a second. What the hell, People?

Well, first, let’s be clear: if you support raising the minimum wage, you should support the ACA. That’s because in a very real way the ACA is essentially raising the minimum wage. It’s a law that, among other things, aims to ensure workers at companies (that have grown to 50 or more employees) receive fair compensation for their labor. Businesses built on the toil of minimum wage workers – such as fast food companies – will soon be forced to offer decent health care policies as a part of employment; that is, Obamacare is going to require employers to give their most neglected employees a little more than they currently do. (Albeit not yet…thanks to the White House’s recent decision to defer the employer mandate for another year.) Other minimum wage workers may work for employers who are small enough to duck that requirement to provide benefits. Those employees will be eligible for government subsidies to purchase an individual policy at little or no out-of-pocket cost.

So what’s the problem? Why is this so different than requiring companies to pay their workers at a higher rate?

Conservatives would give three answers, I suspect.  (Aside from some sort of abortion or “death panel” rant, which…let’s not even.) The first is that Obamacare won’t work as intended simply because it’s a mess. Unfortunately, that’s a possibility – there are a ton of moving parts to the system and worries about implementation are genuine. However, making sure the ACA works as planned would simply be a matter of tweaks and adjustments if Republicans at all levels of government weren’t nihilistically determined to strangle the law to death; it’s their destructive intent that makes logistical failures possible, not the policy itself. The second is that Obamacare isn’t the same as raising the minimum wage because the law forces workers to accept health care rather than giving them money to spend as they see fit. This is an affront to their freedom, I suppose. But of course, the executives at Papa Johns and similar places who have whined and thrown truly nauseating fits of self pity at the proposition that they give health care to the slaving millions whose miserable, fryer-oil stained labor funds their bloated salaries – these are the same business forces that lobby relentlessly to keep minimum wage laws abysmally low.

The third conservative answer is the most powerful, and the most interesting. This hypothetical conservative would likely say that a higher minimum wage rewards work, whereas Obamacare? It’s a government giveaway to the dependent masses. Obamacare is one more handout. Obamacare is socialism.
The fact is that people don’t like the ACA for exactly the same reason that they do like the idea of a higher minimum wage: it insults their sense of justice. Regardless of ideological affiliation, the majority of America feels deeply that the existing order of things is unfair, that labor and effort have come disconnected from reward, that the country is intolerably rigged in favor of the people with power. There’s just profound disagreement about who’s benefiting, who’s losing, and who’s being manipulated. Welfare hordes? Fat cat bankers? Washington bureaucrats? Small town bigots? Big city elites? Lobbyists? Minorities? SPECIAL INTERESTS?! The sense of frustration and injustice that makes people want a higher minimum wage comes from the same place as populist anger over “takers” who “live off the government.” It’s a feeling that indolence and trickery are rewarded over hard work.

In reality, of course, the vast majority of the beneficiaries of the Medicaid expansion and the ACA subsidies – those of us about to get those sweet, sweet handouts – do work. Many of them work two or three jobs at 60+ hours per week and don’t have a whisper of health care to show for it, relying on free clinics and the ER to tend to medical crises. Many of them work part time or are unemployed, because it’s damn hard to find a decent job in this economy. But when opponents of Obamacare visualize who’s going to get benefits, they don’t see workers; they see takers. (Of course, there’s also a good deal of racism greasing the wheels in there, but that’s a swamp for another day.)

One more thing. Lest we assume that this is all about self-interest – that is, Arkansans support a minimum wage hike just because it benefits them — look at a few other figures from that survey. “Raising the minimum wage will raise the cost of goods and services in Arkansas”: 74% agree. “If we increase the minimum wage, businesses will pass the increased labor cost on by raising prices”: 64% agree. A majority of people think that a minimum wage hike might “hurt” them a bit, but a majority still thinks it’s the right thing to do. Why? Because it seems fair.

Affordable health care for all is fair, too. Now we have to convince Arkansans that that’s true.