Give Them What They Need But Don’t Seem To Want

Eat your spinach! Yeah, kids don’t know what’s good for them – they want pizza or something vaguely like a hamburger, from McDonalds or some such place, with fries and a shake. They also don’t want to be yelled at. They have to be tricked into eating their spinach, which is why those of us who grew up in the fifties were suspicious of those Popeye cartoons. Popeye would be getting the crap beat out of him by Bluto, who was about to ravish Olive Oil – a female character of dubious charm – and Popeye would somehow come up with a can of spinach, from who knows where, rip off the top, pour that spinach down his throat, and immediately turn into a muscle-man and beat the crap out of Bluto. Olive Oil would swoon in admiration. The secondary character, Wimpy, was the one who ate hamburgers, and he was a pathetic nothing. Surely this was a parable of sorts – the Allegory of Spinach – but it seemed as if it was part of a ruse cooked up by the mothers of America, a manipulative deception to get kids to do the right thing. Superman didn’t eat spinach. Hell, Superman didn’t eat, as far as anyone could tell. We were being had. We knew it. We stuck around for the violence.

Then we grew up, but retained a certain resentment of people thinking we were too stupid to know what was good for us, or too childish (or childlike) to know. We would now, as adults, resent anyone trying to fool us, even if it was for our own good, and even if we knew perfectly well it was for our own good. That explains the current outrage about Obamacare playing out mainly on Fox News, where the median age of the network’s viewers is 68.8 and Bill O’Reilly’s median viewer is 72 – the kids who grew up wondering what that Popeye crap was about. Here we go again. Once again someone seems to have decided that we’re too stupid to know what’s good for us:

Three years ago, as President Obama fought for reelection, his team was more than happy to have Jonathan Gruber, a well-known Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, mouthing off.

Mr. Gruber, a health care expert who helped develop Mitt Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts and later was a consultant for Mr. Obama’s Affordable Care Act, was no stranger to the pundit circuit, and repeatedly called attention to the similarities between the two plans – a politically helpful fact for the Obama 2012 campaign.

“They’re the same bill,” Mr. Gruber declared once, adding an expletive before the word “bill.”

But now, Mr. Gruber’s bluntness is clearly less appreciated by those in the West Wing, thanks to the emergence of a series of videos that show Mr. Gruber calling the American public “stupid” and suggesting that the president’s health care law passed by fooling Americans about how it works.

He admits that:

“This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes,” Mr. Gruber said in October 2013, referring to the Congressional Budget Office. “Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the ‘stupidity of the American voter’ or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.”

Make it seem really subtle and complicated and people will just give up and go along with it? That seems to be the general idea, and the White House wasn’t happy:

Josh Earnest, the president’s press secretary, said he disagreed “vigorously with that assessment,” and insisted that the “process associated with the writing and passing and implementing of the Affordable Care Act has been extraordinarily transparent.”

In short, it was subtle and complicated. No one lied about anything or hid anything, and the walk-back began:

Mr. Gruber, an unabashed supporter of the Affordable Care Act, has expressed regret about his comments, telling MSNBC that he was “speaking off the cuff” and that he “spoke inappropriately” at the academic conference where the video was taken. In an email on Friday, Mr. Gruber declined to comment further.

Yeah, but now there’s a fifth videotape – so he said pretty much the same thing, off the cuff, over and over – and the Republicans pounced:

Republican lawmakers, Tea Party activists and conservative pundits have declared Mr. Gruber to be their new truth-teller, using the videos as contemporaneous evidence that their own critiques of the health care law were supported, even by the most ardent backers of the president’s efforts.

A Twitter post on Friday from Speaker John A. Boehner said simply: “Arrogance + deception = #Obamacare.” A news release from the Tea Party Express said that “Gruber oozes the elitist arrogance of the Obama administration that thinks their ‘superior’ Ivy League backgrounds will allow them to pull the wool over our eyes.”

And Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said on Twitter on Friday that “Jonathan Gruber said what most Americans recognize: that #Obamacare was sold on a lie.” The post linked to a news article with the headline: “ObamaCare Architect Thinks You’re Stupid.”

Yep, those arrogant bastards with their so-called superior Ivy League backgrounds are sneering at the good hardworking folks who dropped out of school in the eighth grade, who are the ones who always know what’s what. Technically, MIT is not part of the Ivy League at all – MIT is a few miles down the road from Harvard and full of nerds, not the children of privilege – but if you’re going to stir up redneck class resentment, details hardly matter. People drive Volvos in Cambridge – enough said. They probably watch obscure French movies too, and you can be damned sure they don’t listen to country music about pick-up trucks and heartache, the music of America. This was a gift to the Republicans, and so was this:

Mr. Gruber also made headlines in July when a video surfaced that showed him agreeing that the health care law’s tax subsidies were supposed to go only to states that set up their own health exchanges. Thirty-seven states chose not to. That put Mr. Gruber on the opposite side of the White House in a lawsuit that is heading to the Supreme Court.

He said at the time that he “made a mistake in some 2012 speeches,” and reaffirmed his belief that the law’s tax subsidies are proper and constitutional. But Republicans have decided to believe what they see on the videos.

“The epic search of the Greek philosopher Diogenes for an honest man is finally over,” Rich Lowry wrote in National Review on Friday. “His name is Jonathan Gruber.”

Good hardworking folks who dropped out of school in the eighth grade have no idea who Diogenes was, but they can look him up, but something strange is going on here, as Slate’s John Dickerson explains:

Before he was causing problems for the Obama administration, the Obama team was using Gruber to unsettle Mitt Romney. In the 2012 campaign, Obama’s camp was claiming that the Massachusetts health care plan was the intellectual model for Obamacare, just as Romney was trying to disavow it. Gruber was essential to this case. In a video produced by the Obama campaign celebrating the anniversary of “Romneycare,” Gruber says, “I helped Gov. Romney develop his health care reform or Romneycare, before going down to Washington to help President Obama develop his national version of that law.” The spot includes old footage of Romney thanking Gruber for his work on the Massachusetts health bill. “The core of the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare and what we did in Massachusetts are identical,” Gruber says. The MIT professor was such an important part of the creation of Obamacare that his association with Romney’s effort proved the link between the two programs. If that involvement in Obamacare was sufficient to condemn Romney in 2012, it’s sufficient enough for Republicans to raise it now over Gruber’s claims about the Affordable Care Act.

Romney won’t be running for president now. He’s on tape praising the guy who called Americans stupid, and there is that other matter that’s Obama’s problem:

Gruber’s name came up earlier this year in another skirmish over the law. In yet another talk, he suggested that the Affordable Care Act was written so that states that didn’t set up insurance exchanges would not also get tax credits. “If you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits,” he said. (He since has said that he was speaking off the cuff and didn’t mean to say what he said.) That’s a key argument in the Supreme Court case against the law in which plaintiffs argue that the subsidies that go to states with federal exchanges are illegal.

Still, Dickerson is willing to cut the guy some slack:

One possible defense of Gruber that can be made is that he was merely describing a truth both parties know: that in order to achieve policy objectives, laws have to be written in convoluted ways to avoid political traps, including a politically bad assessment from the Congressional Budget Office. Also, what Gruber describes was a part of the open policy debate surrounding the law. That would return a conversation that is about duplicity back into one about policy differences. The law wasn’t trying to fool the American people, just the Congressional Budget Office.

But that’s not much of a case. Given how often the administration has used the Congressional Budget Office as metaphysical guarantors of truth, this argument just lands you back into hoodwink territory. If the Congressional Budget Office is an institution of such solemnity, why would you want to trick its analysts? The better defense is the one the White House is giving, which is that millions of people are now covered by the law and they seem to like it.

The country ate its spinach and damn, it was good for them, but now that doesn’t matter:

As Republicans try to dismantle the Affordable Care Act from their new position of power in Congress, Gruber will become an oft-cited Oracle of Obamacare. But he confirms a broader critique that conservatives have of the president, which is that he either cynically thinks people can be fooled or he thinks people aren’t smart enough to know what’s good for them. That means we’re likely to hear Gruber’s name in debates over issues like immigration, in which he has played no role at all.

There’s a new meme out there, and Peter Suderman expresses it:

For one thing, it is an explicit admission that the law was designed in such a way to avoid a CBO score that would have tanked the bill. Basically, the Democrats who wrote the bill knowingly gamed the CBO process.

It’s also an admission that the law’s authors understood that one of the effects of the bill would be to make healthy people pay for the sick, but declined to say this for fear that it would kill the bill’s chances. In other words, the law’s supporters believed the public would not like some of the bill’s consequences, and knowingly attempted to hide those consequences from the public.

Most importantly, however, it is an admission that Gruber thinks it’s acceptable to deceive people if he believes that’s the only way to achieve his policy preference.

Philip Klein is more succinct:

Gruber, in a moment of candor, acknowledged what has always been true about Obamacare and liberalism – that the masses have to be tricked into ceding control to those who know what’s best for them.

Tyler Cowen pushes back:

It’s a healthy world where academics can speak their minds at conferences and the like without their words becoming political weapons in a bigger fight. Or how about blogs – do we want a world where no former advisor can write honestly about the policies of an administration? I’ve disagreed with Gruber from the beginning on health care policy and I thought his ObamaCare comic book did the economics profession – and himself – a disservice. But I’m simply not very interested in his proclamations on tape, which as far as I can tell are mostly correct albeit overly cynical. (If anything he is overrating the American voter – most people weren’t even paying close enough attention to be tricked.)

Kevin Drum weighs in:

First, he noted that it was important to make sure the mandate wasn’t scored as a tax by the CBO. Indeed it was, and this was a topic of frequent discussion while the bill was being debated. We can all argue about whether this was an example of the CBO scoring process being gamed, but it has nothing to do with the American voter. Rather, it has everything to do with the American congressman, who’s afraid to vote for anything unless it comes packaged with a nice, neat bow bearing an arbitrary, predetermined price tag.

As for risk-rated subsidies, I don’t even know what Gruber is talking about here. Of course healthy people pay in and sick people get money. It’s health insurance. That’s how it works. Once again, this was a common topic of discussion while the bill was being debated – in fact, one that opponents of the bill talked about constantly. They complained endlessly that healthy young people would pay relatively higher rates than they deserved, while older, sicker people would get a relative break on their premiums. This was no big secret, but the bill passed anyway.

Brian Beutler is on the same page:

Nearly everyone who’s attacking Gruber as if he were a White House political employee or a Democratic senator is simultaneously trying to require the Congressional Budget Office to say that tax cuts pay for themselves…

The people who brought you the phony arithmetic of the Bush tax cuts and Medicare Part D and the self-financing Iraq war are upset about the ACA, which is genuinely fiscally sound. By any reasonable standard, ACA respected budgetary constraints much better than most other laws. That the authors took pains to meet concrete budgetary goals actually underscores the point that they took CBO and budgetary questions in general very seriously. If they didn’t take CBO seriously, they could’ve just ignored it, or fired the messenger.

That’s what the George W. Bush administration threatened to do when the chief Medicare actuary prepared to say the Part D drug benefit would cost more than the White House was letting on.

Jonathan Chait suggests a poor choice of words:

“Stupidity” is unfair. Ignorance is a more accurate term. Very few people understand economics and public policy. This is especially true of Obamacare – most Americans are unaware of the law’s basic functions or even whether their state is participating.

Since people know so little about public policy in general and healthcare policy in particular, they tend to have incoherent views. In health care and other areas, they want to enjoy generous benefits while paying low taxes and don’t know enough details to reconcile those irreconcilable preferences.

Gruber’s error here is that, by describing this as “stupidity” rather than a “lack of knowledge,” he moves from lamenting an unfortunate problem both parties must work around to condescending to the public in an unattractive way.

Yep, no one wants to eat their spinach, but Andrew Sullivan is still unhappy:

I actually think this makes it worse. The only reason Americans are ignorant about the ACA is that they were never clearly told what it was designed to achieve and how it would work. The debate was had among elites, using often technical language – who really knows what a vague “public option” means, for example? – and then sold to the public with either blanket reassurances (if you have an insurance policy, you can keep it) or terror stories about a government take-over (which it wasn’t). The reason for this failure by both sides to lay out the actual plan in ways anyone could understand was political. Neither side wanted a free-wheeling debate with unknown consequences; one was aiming for passage (something never achieved before), and the other was rooting for failure (for rank partisan reasons). Neither side was really interested in a real debate about the pros and cons.

Sullivan thinks that’s the real problem here:

This remains a huge disservice to democracy and it helps explain why our elites are so despised. I mean: why couldn’t Obama or leading Democrats actually make the simple case – we’re going to give subsidies to the working poor to get private health insurance and force insurers to take anyone regardless of pre-existing conditions. We’re going to make this affordable for the insurance companies by mandating that everyone get insurance, thereby including more young and healthy people in the risk pool to offset the costs of the sick. And we’re going to make sure that insurance is better than in the past, and is not subject to lifetime caps or getting booted off the minute you get sick.

That wasn’t that hard, was it?

Most people understand that there are trade-offs in life; most people have insurance of one sort or another and are cognizant of how insurance works – the bigger the pool the better. And to my mind, the trade-offs are worth it. If someone were willing to explain the ACA in simple, clear and honest terms, I think most Americans would back it. What’s maddening is that American politicians never speak this way. A proposal is either all honey or all vinegar. And each side assumes that that’s the only kind of argument Americans are prepared or able to understand. So, it isn’t really ignorance that’s the problem – because that can be fixed. It really is a cynical assumption of most Americans’ stupidity.

That is how things seem to work:

The Republicans are shameless in their deployment of this – Tax cuts always good! No trade-offs ever! But so too are the Democrats. There really is a mentality out there that sees politics as finding a way to deceive voters to give them what they need but for some inexplicable reason don’t actually want. They really do treat people as if they were stupid. If some smidgen of honesty could be used against a politician in a sound-bite, he’d prefer bullshit. The most obvious example was Obama’s categorical pledge that no one with insurance would ever be forced to change – even though the minimal benefits of an ACA plan were greater than those in many existing private sector plans. You can call this a lie – which it was – or you can call it a cheap dodge to get what you want with a little flim-flam. But no one would ever have said such a thing if they had bothered to make the good faith argument that change for the better requires some trade-offs, that some will benefit and others may take a hit. Obama pledged to be that kind of honest, straight-talking president. Often he is. On the most important domestic policy achievement of his presidency, he wasn’t.

This is unacceptable:

I refuse to believe that a democracy has to operate this way for change to occur. Gruber’s arrogance and condescension are just meta-phenomena of this deeper dysfunction. Someone needs to treat Americans as adults again before this democracy can regain the credibility it so desperately needs to endure.

Sullivan can refuse to believe what he wishes, but that doesn’t change matters. Because of Popeye, many kids did eat their spinach, and it was good for them – and that was a cartoon. This is too.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Give Them What They Need But Don’t Seem To Want

  1. Rick says:

    Once again, Sullivan nails it.

    Also, I suspect Gruber was just over-enjoying his role of historical insider by spouting off, and went too far. Will his “stupidity” comment have any sway in Republican efforts to take Obamacare apart, bit by bit? Maybe it will encourage them, but their bills still face a presidential veto.

    Maybe the more dangerous thing he said was that stuff about the states and the subsidies, since it blows a big hole in the White House argument that all the architects of Obamacare, to a man, disagree that this was Congress’s intent. We’ll just have to see if the Supreme Court chooses to do anything with that.

    By the way, I never realized until you pointed it out that we never saw Superman eating! Did Lois Lane ever make a deal out of the fact that Clark Kent never seemed to eat?

    Also, I never realized Wimpy was designed to show us what happens to people who eat hamburgers instead of spinach — but yeah, that makes sense! I wonder if the people who started that hamburger chain called “Wimpy’s” realized that!

    Or more importantly, did their customers realize they were eating unhealthy food? I guess it’s true what H.L. Mencken said about nobody ever going broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

    Rick

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