By Marek Fuchs
Out in this week’s public square, the mobs took a break from shouting at each other over Obamacare only because they were too busy shouting at each other over the government shutdown.
As a result, the news was filled with stock photos of Capitol Hill and an endless parade of anecdotes and conjecture about the impact and effect of a shuttered government. As the media obsessed, the stock market reeled. At one point midweek, the fact that football games at United States military service academies were to be canceled this weekend, a single outgrowth of the wide-reaching shutdown, earned nearly as much ink and pixels in “The New York Times” as did Obamacare.
But what of the Affordable Care Act? After all, it is going to be around a lot longer than the shutdown.
Obamacare was not, to be certain, abandoned in a lightproof container this week. But as we pull up on its one-week anniversary and the government shutdown grinds on, it appears that Obamacare stands to get the same half-baked consideration it has to date, leaving investors and everyday Americans in the lurch.
If there has been a through-line in the early return coverage of Obamacare, it is the simplistic notion that the program’s initial mishaps told all. The words “glitches”and “snags” were perhaps never as prevalent in news accounts, alternately held out as symbols of the great demand or testament to the disorganization and incompetence to come. Problem is, it’s very hard to extrapolate from these early difficulties to the future course of business, good or bad.
Moreover, Obamacare is no symbol. Everyone is playing politics with Obamacare. If anyone is telling you they already know with metaphysical certitude that Obamacare will be either pathbreakingly great or a big heap of misery, it’s their politics talking. Forget politics. From a financial perspective all you should care about is the pennies, and we still don’t know where those will land.
On that note, quickly drawn conclusions on who will win and lose from Obamacare, which parse out the victors and vanquished without touching upon the concept of unintended consequences, will probably steer you wrong.
Anything with this many moving parts will tilt in ways that we can barely imagine at this point. While focus has been on the obvious -- companies like Caterpillar (CAT), IBM (IBM) and UPS (UPS), that have all said they will cut down on health care coverage and/or suffer cost overruns -- the nation’s municipalities, many of which are reeling with financial trouble that has largely been ignored by media and traders, might now have a politically feasible excuse to cut the part-time workers that have bloated their payrolls.
That said, the nation can ill-afford any disruption to the health care field. While the debate focuses on computer “glitches” and “snags” and the raw cost of health care to the consumer, many often neglect to mention that more than one in eight Americans is employed in the field, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Along with entertainment and technology, health care is the crown jewel of American industry. Roughly 16 million people, a good chunk of August job growth -- 33,000 out of 169,000 --came from the health care industry.
Any turmoil or lasting confused caused by Obamacare will dent the employment picture like little else – and at a perilous time when economic statistics contradict themselves and job growth can't gain meaningful traction.
A busy week
Another outgrowth of this week’s overwrought focus on the drama in DC – which Thursday even featured a car chase and shooting that ended near the U.S. Capitol building – was that with Obamacare playing second fiddle, several other big stories were all but ignored.
Who would have ever thought a week would pass without a mention-a-minute of the Federal Reserve's tapering plans? But the prospect of tapering still exists; now, it stands to sneak up on the market a bit.
Further, Microsoft’s (MSFT) board moving to kick Bill Gates to the curb proved another significant story that essentially hit the week’s cutting room floor. This velvet revolution (perhaps timed to pass unnoticed) was highly symbolic and could prove to serve notice to Dell (DELL) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) that there is no tweaking their way back to prominence. If they are to survive in this new tech landscape, change has to be headlong – and come sooner than later.
But when it comes to the government shutdown and Obamacare, just remember which will be around longer – and pay more attention there.
Those Navy football games will be back long before Obamacare is gone.
Marek Fuchs was a stockbroker for Shearson Lehman Brothers before becoming a journalist who wrote The New York Times' County Lines column for six years. Fuchs speaks regularly on business and journalism issues at venues ranging from annual meetings of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers to PBS to National Public Radio. His recent book, "Local Heroes: Portraits of American Volunteer Firefighters," earned widespread praise. He is on the writing faculty at Sarah Lawrence College. When Fuchs is not writing or teaching, he serves as a volunteer firefighter. You can contact him on Twitter: @MarekFuchs.