Gruber, the Grey Lady, and Gullibility

It was on Veteran’s Day that non-health-care-policy wonks first heard of Jonathan Gruber.  Embarrassing revelations from the architect of the ACA had originally surfaced last July, but it was Gruber’s remarks about the stupidity of the American voter that caused the video Rich Weinstein had unearthed to go viral after Fox News aired it on November 11th.

The fact that an Obama advisor thought American voters were stupid should not have been news. 

What was significant about the excerpt was Gruber’s concession that the bill was written to mislead the CBO into not labeling the ACA a tax measure.  The CBO took the bait, but the Supreme Court didn’t.

The earlier July video also revealed something more important than Gruber’s contempt for the electorate.  The Six-million-dollar Man stated clearly and unequivocally that the citizens of any state failing to set up a health care exchange would not be eligible for tax credits.  This is exactly what opponents of the ACA are arguing in King v. Burwell, a case the Supremes are expected to hear early next year.  The administration is attempting to argue that this language in the bill represents a “typo.”

More videos followed.  Gruber’s confessions were big news. 

Dems began backpedaling from the MIT prof faster than you can say Jeremiah Wright.  But it was not hard to find clips in which Obama boasted he had “stolen” Gruber’s ideas, or find praise for Gruber on Nancy Pelosi’s website.

Willfully misleading Congress about Obama’s signature piece of legislation is the stuff of headlines.  So is the torpedoing of the Administration’s case in King v. Burwell.

But not in the New York Times.  The Gruber gaffes were never covered as a news story.

Three days after they surfaced, an article about the scandal was tucked away in the “Politics” section.  (It appeared online a day earlier.)  The angle:  the GOP and conservative groups have been handed a propaganda weapon.  Two online opinion pieces by Neil Irwin on the 12th and 14th attempted a little damage control.  Substituting iPhones for health-care, he made the case that the government purchasing the device for everyone versus mandating it with a tax credit for purchasers was a distinction without a difference, and that everybody tries to mislead the CBO. Readers weren’t buying the analogy or the excuse, and ripped into the ACA in the comments section.  I scrolled through the first 60 comments of the 140 “Readers’ Picks,” and they were brimming with sarcasm and indignation.  No one defended Irwin.

The columnist tried again two days later with a couple of real world examples, but had no better luck with readers.  (It’s not clear how the demographics of online readers compare with their print edition counterparts, but the evidence suggests that the former are a lot more savvy and conservative.)

Finally, on Nov. 18 (a day earlier online), the Grey Lady cleared her throat and delivered a huffy editorial.  It included nearly as many lies as words:

--Republicans “were well aware of what was in the bills.”  This was not even true of earlier versions, but certainly not of the 11,000-page final version, which had to be passed so we could find what was in it.  In a media-orchestrated campaign, it was hustled through the House as if the health care system would come crashing to the ground in hours if nothing were done.

--The Democrats, the Times conceded, “did not make clear how many people would have to pay more for insurance, or how much more, but few politicians trumpet the downside of their bills.”  Right.  Americans were told repeatedly by the President that “the average family” would see savings of $2500 in their insurance bill.

--The “Cadillac tax” on employers providing insurance, the Times admitted, would indeed be passed along to everyone, and the administration counted on the fact that voters “were too stupid” to grasp this.  But this was not a problem for the Grey Lady:  after all, the inevitability of the “Cadillac tax” being levied on Ford Escort owners “was clearly understood by economists.”

--“Republicans are crowing over Mr. Gruber’s remarks because he has been portrayed as a major architect of the health reform law,” the GL concluded. “In truth, his role was limited.”  The evidence:  he was just “one of 13 experts that advised the Senate Finance Committee.”  Anyone capable of Googling Gruber knows this is not true.  Among the articles that come up is this one from the Times itself, from March 28, 2012.  It begins:

After Massachusetts, California came calling. So did Connecticut, Delaware, Kansas, Minnesota, Oregon, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

They all wanted Jonathan Gruber, a numbers wizard at M.I.T., to help them figure out how to fix their health care systems, just as he had helped Mitt Romney overhaul health insurance when he was the Massachusetts governor.

Then came the call in 2008 from President-elect Obama’s transition team, the one that officially turned this stay-at-home economics professor into Mr. Mandate.

… Along with these credentials, Mr. Gruber’s position as an adviser to the influential Congressional Budget Office also left him perfectly positioned to advise the White House on health reform.

“The most important arbiter of everything was the C.B.O.,” said Neera Tanden, who was a senior adviser for health reform at the Department of Health and Human Services.

The story makes it clear Gruber was indeed a major architect of the bill.  “I know more about this law than any other economist,” the modest modeler explains in the article’s conclusion.

The failure of the Times to cover the Gruber revelations as news raises one of two possibilities.

1.  The Times believes its print-edition readers are not computer-literate.  “What’s all the fuss about this-here gol-dang newfangled innernet thing, Ma?  Pass me the book review, will ya, I want to take a gander at what Michiko Kakutani has to say about Donna Tartt’s new novel.”

Evidence for this view comes from the fact that the editors discount the possibility of readers finding the paper’s own puff-piece of March 2012.

2.  The New York Times does not see itself as a purveyor of news, but as the dispenser of the party line, something like Pravda or Der Stürmer.

In other words, they are letting readers know what is “objectively” true, as Communists used to put it.

In the 2012 article, readers learned that Gruber and his wife are big fans of parrots.  They own seven.  You can bet the Grubers subscribe to the New York Times.

It’s important to remember exactly why Gruber’s candor is so unwelcome.

Deception has always been essential to the marketing of the ACA. 

A health-care mandate was originally a Republican idea.  The plan was to eliminate the free riders -- the folks who didn’t buy insurance because they knew they could show up at the nearest ER with a gunshot wound or a cold and get treated gratis.  By definition you can’t mandate responsibility, but you could lower the costs for those who were conscientious and had forked over the cash for their premiums.

This was not at all what the Dems wanted.  They had something much bigger and braver in mind -- a new National Health Board and an expanded Department of Health and Human Services dictating the provision of health care, what was once called “socialized medicine.”

Obama originally declared that he was opposed to the mandate.  But at some point, mulling over the fate of Hillarycare, the President’s advisors opted for the “salami strategy” -- the incremental method practiced by the Hungarian and other European Communist parties to seize power over a period of time by a series of small, subversive measures. 

Just as he once promised to shut down the coal industry by taxes on emissions (“if somebody wants to build a coal plant, they can -- it’s just that it will bankrupt them”), so he would eventually eliminate private insurance companies by mandating coverage that no fiscally responsible company could provide, taxing employers continuing to provide health insurance, and taxing those who didn’t sign up for a plan.  The taxes would be ratcheted up, and up.

But that’s not how the plan was sold.  Americans were told it would both cut their costs (“$2500 for the average family”) and they would retain their right to choose (“If you like your plan, you can keep your plan”).

So, yes, Jonathan got it right.  The administration was counting on the gullibility of the American voter.  Extending coverage to 20-40 million uninsured (the number kept fluctuating), extending the age limit for dependent children, mandating coverage of services that few people wanted or needed, eliminating provisions regarding previous conditions -- all of these great things would be cost-free.

That’s why Gruber’s indiscretions are not fit to print in the New York Times.

Too bad we didn’t have a Gruber in the late ‘90s, when voters seemed to believe that eliminating down payments and credit checks for mortgage applicants in order to expand minority home-ownership was a cool idea.

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