Jeb Bush Accidentally Revealed What Conservatives Really Think of American Workers

Getty Images

Early Wednesday evening, the Democratic National Committee delivered a breathless email to the country's political reporters. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, now the Republican presidential frontrunner, had told the editorial board of the New Hampshire Union Leader on Wednesday that American workers "need to work longer hours" if they wanted to help deliver the extraordinary economic growth he is promising voters.

"Through their productivity," Bush explained, workers would "gain more income for their families" and use this newfound spending power to jumpstart the stagnant market.

Democrats were predictably overjoyed. Here was Bush saying his plans for 4% annual growth — dismissed as a nearly impossible goal by most economists — could be achieved on the backs of already underpaid and overburdened wage earners. "It is easily one of the most out-of-touch comments we've heard so far this cycle," DNC spokeswoman Holly Shulman said in a statement. Later Wednesday, Hillary Clinton jumped on the pile. "Anyone who believes Americans aren't working hard enough hasn't met enough American workers," her campaign said in a tweet

Muddled message: Smelling blood in the water, a wave of Democratic operatives, along with a few quick-to-draw news outlets, pounced before Bush could clarify his point. As he would make clear later, after the initial round of blowback, those "longer hours" were meant for underemployed workers, like the millions of part-time employees looking for full-time jobs.

"You can take it out of context all you want, but high-sustained growth means that people work 40 hours rather than 30 hours and that by our success, they have money, disposable income for their families to decide how they want to spend it rather than getting in line and being dependent on government," Bush said at a town hall meeting, according to a Washington Post report.

In his reconsidered explanation, Bush sounds more like a wonky liberal economist than a bloodless industrial taskmaster. No one in mainstream politics would deny that adding full-time jobs would help spring a sluggish economy. But untangling his rhetoric from this uncontroversial suggestion presents a different, if less politically scandalous, range of questions.

Bush is also confusing the issue: The first is a matter of simple economics. In his talk with the Union Leader, Bush said "we have to be a lot more productive," then tied longer work hours to increased worker "productivity" and subsequent gains in personal income. This is both a fundamental misunderstanding of basic economic definitions and a worrying dismissal of recent labor trends. 

To start, he conflates "productivity" with growth. More people logging longer hours on the job does not translate to a more productive economy. Productivity is calculated to measure what the average worker yields in a given hour. It is not the simple aggregation of total output. In fact, many economists believe longer workdays eventually give way to diminishing returns. In any event, American workers are already among the most productive on the planet. 

Which leads us to the bigger problem, both for Bush and the working class voters he is working to convince. According to data crunched by the Economic Policy Institute, the gap between worker productivity, which has grown at a dizzying clip for more than six decades, and hourly compensation is large and growing. If Bush's argument is that greater productivity will help workers "gain more income," he is either misinformed or disingenuous.

Source: Economic Policy Institute
Source: Economic Policy Institute

Who really benefits? Most political debates, especially in an election season, boil down to this simple question. Bush is promising 4% annual growth, but there is scant evidence showing his plan to "reform" the tax code would do anything to swing the benefits toward American workers. The greater likelihood is that, much like in the past, the wealthy would bank whatever new cash comes into their coffers and workers would continue on their race to the bottom. Full-time employment is a worthy goal, but its effects are diminished if wages don't rise with those added hours.

In Bush's construction, there is no accounting for this question. Adding jobs is not the same as creating decent, better compensated work. His comments on Wednesday, a kind of voodoo economic word salad, underline the inherent problems facing Republicans attempting to appeal to frustrated American workers. Conservative orthodoxy — and make no mistake, Bush is a true believer — shackles productivity to wage growth. Any breakdown in that connection renders most GOP politicians inert.

Bush is no different. His own lucky brand of inertia may well carry him to the White House, but his way of thinking about economic policy is colored by the same disproven theories that have ground down American workers with considerably greater force for the better part of 35 years.