Jeb's double flub on work hours

Jeb Bush at a town hall meeting in Henderson, Nevada, June 27, 2015.
David Becker | Reuters
Jeb Bush at a town hall meeting in Henderson, Nevada, June 27, 2015.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush made a big flub yesterday when he said that people need to work longer hours. It wasn't that what he said was entirely wrong, it was just woefully incomplete. Because it's not that we want people to work more hours, we want to see more hours worked. There's a difference, and let me explain by asking a few questions:

What do we want from our economy? Is it more jobs or more wealth? Think about your answer for a second because more jobs doesn't necessarily mean more wealth and more wealth doesn't necessarily mean more jobs.

Okay, wait one more second before you answer and think about how you would answer that question for yourself specifically. Do you want more and better work, or more money?

Finally, wait yet another second and answer the question as if you have been out of work for more than a few weeks. Has getting any good job become more important than the wealth factor?

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I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that most people answering honestly would say they'd prefer more wealth to more work. But I'm also going to say that people who are out of work for any considerable time will say the dignity of working in a good job outweighs much, if not all, of that job's ability to create or add to their wealth.

Emotion and economics are more intertwined than people realize. So it would be foolish to discount emotions, and that's what Jeb Bush did with his remarks. Because no matter how you answer the above three questions, you wouldn't sign up for a new job or accept more hours at your current job without knowing a lot more details about the work and the compensation. Even someone out of work and desperate for a job would have to know what the job was and what it paid before accepting the offer for added work hours.

But as CNBC's Larry Kudlow often preaches, hours worked + productivity = real GDP. We do actually need more hours, and more productive hours worked to grow the economy and the wealth. Here's the thing, does it matter if the people already working are the ones who get the added hours? As the labor participation rate continues to fall to almost historic low levels in this country, wouldn't it be just as good if the people currently not working at all added some productive work hours to the mix? Simple math tells us the answer is "yes."

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By that measure, Bush flubbed twice. First he made a public relations gaffe by making it sound like the people already working in America need to work more hours per day. He was on the right track by citing the low workforce participation rate at the beginning of the sentence, but then he blew it by not making it clear that we need people to work more if they are not working at all or only part time. The Democratic National Committee predictably pounced all over it in hopes of making him sound elitist. Of course the DNC knows darn well that Gov. Bush wasn't saying he wants Americans to be forced to stay longer at work, but all's fair in "gotcha" politics. Still, Bush should be forgiven for this first mistake.

Bush's second mistake is a little more troubling. Because he really missed an opportunity to show Republican voters that he knows the crucial economic truth that presidents and governments can't really create jobs or increase work hours, but they sure can shrink and destroy them. And that's what the Obama administration has been doing with Obamacare and increased spending and regulation across the board.

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Based on this speech and others he's made in the past, I'm not 100% sure Jeb Bush gets that. Too often he sounds like someone who thinks government is the answer. There are lots of other Republicans running and not running for president who don't seem to get it either. Republicans shouldn't keep talking like Democrats and promising they'll create jobs. Government can't create a real job that creates real wealth. Conservative voters who will dominate the voting pool in most of the GOP primaries know this very well. But many of those conservatives are also struggling economically. So Bush and the other GOP candidates need to take a different tack. They should hammer home the positive and honest message that they can help the American people who want to find more and better work by pinpointing and eliminating the things government does to make that harder to do. That's a much more palatable message that conservatives will like without turning off moderate swing voters.

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And what about those non-conservatives who are really convinced that more government is the answer to our economic problems? They're not likely to vote for Bush or any other Republican, but as the late Jack Kemp said; "don't fear the voters!" If I were a GOP candidate for president, I'd spend a lot more time on the ground in the most economically devastated parts of the country. While there, I'd talk face-to-face with the people and point out all the government-controlled factors that have made their lives worse and narrowed their opportunities. It may not win over many core Democrats, but it will make it a lot harder to call that candidate "out of touch" or "uncaring."

Jeb Bush is very much trying to present himself to the entire electorate as a more acceptable form of Republican. He's not going to be successful at that by going to newspaper forums and sounding like a statist at one moment and then a harsh plutocrat the next.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.