Last week, Jeb Bush accidentally said something interesting.
It came in the context of saying something ridiculous: At a campaign event in New Hampshire, Bush reiterated his promise to bump the economy to sustained 4 percent growth. It's a goal that most economists view as ridiculous, and that even the George W. Bush Institute admits was chosen primarily because it sounded good.
(For comparison's sake, the economy has grown, on average, at 2.7 percent per year since Ronald Reagan's inauguration. No president in recent American history has managed sustained 4 percent growth.)
But here’s the interesting part. To get to 4 percent growth, Bush said that "people [would] need to work longer hours and, through their productivity, gain more income for their families."
Democrats quickly pounced on what they perceived as a huge gaffe. "Anyone who believes Americans aren't working hard enough hasn't met enough American workers," tweeted Hillary Clinton.
Bush's campaign was fast to clarify that Bush didn't mean most Americans needed to work longer hours. He was just talking about the 6.5 million workers who are working part time but want to find full-time jobs.
But the clarification obscures the more interesting reality: Quite a bit of Bush and the GOP's economic agenda really does revolve around pushing Americans to work longer hours or more years. But the means differ sharply by class. For the rich, Republicans want to push them to work more through tax cuts; for the poor and middle class, Republicans want to push them to work more through social service cuts.
How the government can push Americans to work more
Bush has endorsed raising the Social Security retirement age, which would push workers to spend more years in the labor force, and repealing Obamacare, which makes it easier for workers to retire early. Republicans want to sharply cut Medicaid and food stamps, and perhaps add a work requirement to one or both programs.
These policies aren't usually framed as efforts to increase economic growth by making Americans work longer hours or more years, but that will, in part, be the result.
At the same time, tax cuts on the rich continue to be core to the Republican agenda. This, too, is an effort to increase the time Americans spend working — in this case, by giving the well-off reason to work more hours, more jobs, or more years.
And here's the thing: These policies really would increase economic growth. They probably wouldn't push the economy all the way up to 4 percent — or even anywhere all that close — but they would help. And they do represent a point of differentiation right now between Republicans and Democrats.
Democrats are pushing a raft of social policies that are likely, on the margin, to reduce the number of hours Americans work. Obamacare reduces the labor supply by making it easier for older Americans to retire early (see, for instance, this Tea Partier who loves Obamacare because it let him leave his job and spend more time shooting guns and going to the gym). Food stamps and unemployment insurance, similarly, make it easier for people to pass on jobs they don't want. Policies guaranteeing parental leave and paid sick days make it possible for low-income workers to work fewer hours in a year. Democrats don't frame these policies as efforts to shrink the economy by helping Americans retire early or spend more time out of the labor force, but that is, in part, the result.
(On the other side, Democrats back wage supports — like an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, a higher minimum wage, and a larger tax credit for child care — that could increase the hours low-income Americans work.)
What is an unpleasant, low-wage job worth?
This is one of the quiet fights in American public policy right now, and it forces the consideration of questions we tend to ignore: What is economic growth really worth? What is the value of forcing people into crummy, low-wage jobs? If we could grow at 4 percent of GDP every year but it meant every able-bodied American had to work three extra hours a day as a telemarketer, would we want to? Is the future of America a crummy service job stamping on a human face, forever?
Politicians are so used to venerating jobs and work and growth that they don't even have the language necessary to discuss the fact that many jobs are horrible and some kinds of economic growth may not be worth pursuing.
But behind this fight is another, deeper dysfunction in the American economy. Economies aren't supposed to grow by forcing people to work ever-longer hours. Indeed, if you look at the list of countries that work the longest hours, you see poor countries, not rich ones, topping the charts. That might seem like a paradox, but it's not: Richer countries are more productive — their workers produce more value per hour — than poorer countries.
But for all the talk of technological revolution, the American economy has not been getting much more productive in recent years. At the same time, the gains of productivity increases have started going primarily to the rich, so it's not even clear that productivity gains really matter for average workers. Fixing the dual problems of the productivity slowdown and the unequal distribution of the gains of productivity is the most pressing task in economic policy today. But neither party has a particularly persuasive program for doing it.