Gruberism And Our Democracy

In general, I tend to agree with Tyler Cowen that off-the-cuff remarks by academics at conferences should not be vulnerable to political use and abuse. We need spaces where we can riff and think out loud without being held responsible for every phrase. But then again, this is 2014, where nothing anyone has ever said or written can be forgotten if you have a dogged web researcher to root it out. And when those remarks come from someone who helped design and write the ACA, and speak to the way in which it was constructed and sold to the public, it’s a legitimate gotcha.

Of course, a large amount of what Gruber said is hardly unusual in Washington. Gaming the CBO scoring, framing the pros and cons in deceptive ways, making it easy for congressmen to vote for something without being hit by 30-second ads in the next election cycle: all this is part of messy governance. But Gruber’s remarks about the stupidity of the American electorate are so typical of a certain Democratic mindset they’re worth unpacking.

And as we noted earlier, Chait makes the point that Gruber really means ignorance rather than stupidity:

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.

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.

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, 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.

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.

I support the ACA; but I cannot support the kind of politics that made it happen. And 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.