“Call It The Stupidity Of The American Voter”

This video of Obamacare architect Jon Gruber is going viral:

Money quote:

The bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes. If [CBO] scored the mandate as taxes, the bill dies. Okay, so it’s written to do that. In terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you had a law which said that healthy people are going to pay in — you made explicit that healthy people pay in and sick people get money — it would not have passed … 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 for the thing to pass.

Gruber has apologized for the remarks. The White House is distancing itself while Republicans are talking about making Gruber testify. Suderman feels the video “validates much of what critics have said about the health care law, and the tactics used to pass it, for years”:

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 goes further:

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.

But Tyler Cowen is uninterested “in pushing through the mud on this one”:

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.)

Neil Irwin is likewise underwhelmed by the comments:

Mr. Gruber was exposing something sordid yet completely commonplace about how Congress makes policy of all types: Legislators frequently game policy to fit the sometimes arbitrary conventions by which the Congressional Budget Office evaluates laws and the public debates them. … This kind of gamesmanship is very much a bipartisan affair. President George W. Bush’s expansion of Medicare in 2003 was carefully designed so that its costs were backloaded, rising sharply just after its 10-year mark. Estimating costs in the 10-year window is an (arbitrary) convention for C.B.O. scoring of pending legislation. The design of the law made it seem less costly than it was expected to be over a longer time period.

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.

Beutler notes that “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.

And Chait’s take:

“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 health-care 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.