Jeb Bush’s instantly controversial argument to the editorial board of the New Hampshire Union Leader—that “people need to work longer hours” if the U.S. economy is to attain perpetually high economic growth—has created a great deal of confusion, when the real implications of his view are clear and troubling.
Part of the confusion stems from the fact that it’s politically dumb to suggest, even unintentionally, that voters don’t work hard enough. Democrats and the political press are treating Bush’s statement as a gaffe, because his words can be plausibly construed to mean just that. The rest stems from the muddled context of his remarks, and his equally muddled attempt to clarify them. Both sets of comments betray a shaky grasp of basic economic terms. But the key difference between them is that in round one, Bush said people “need” to work more, whereas in round two he said people should be given “a chance” to work more. This is a real and crucial distinction—a true walkback, rather than some weaselly attempt to say the same thing using softer language. The problem is that there are plenty of reasons to suspect Bush was being more forthright in the first instance. It’s quite clear, when you examine Bush’s past statements and conservative orthodoxy more generally that Bush doesn’t merely want to use carrots to encourage work—he wants to use sticks as well.
Bush’s improbable goal is to make four percent annual economic growth normal rather than extraordinary. Both sets of comments speak to meeting that objective, and he reasons, quite sensibly, that it won’t happen unless people who aren’t currently working begin to work, and people who are currently working begin to work more.
The real controversy arises not from the bloodlessness of the words he chose, but from the tactics he would use to extract the necessary labor…