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BREAKING! Person Good At Running Econometric Models Says Silly Things About Politics!

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Before dealing with the latest reported comments of President, Speaker of the House, Senate Majority Leader, Secretary of State, Chief Justice of the United States, Prime Minister, and Grand Poobah Jonathan Gruber a reminder about his actual role in crafting the ACA:

Mr. Gruber was not, as many claim, the architect of the health-care law. He is an MIT economist who, as a consultant to the Department of Health and Human Services, modeled the impact of various subsidy levels and rules. He did not make policy, nor did he work for the White House, HHS, or any congressional committee. Earlier, he advised the Massachusetts legislature when it created the health-care reforms that were a model for the ACA.

He did some informal consultation with the White House when putting together exactly the kind of proposal anyone following the Democratic primaries knew he would, and had grad students run some models to test various outcomes.  Again, this is not a trivial role, but assertions that he was the “architect” of the ACA or “wrote” it are demonstrably false.  In addition, in this context it apparently has to be emphasized that he was being paid for his expertise as a health care economist; he wasn’t being paid to tell Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid how to pass legislation.

At any rate, Gruber’s attempts to portray himself as some kind of Machiavellian super-genius are getting ever more annoying:

In a 2011 conversation about the Affordable Care Act, MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, one of the architects of the law more commonly known as Obamacare, talked about how the bill would get rid of all tax credits for employer-based health insurance through “mislabeling” what the tax is and who it would hit.

[…]

“It turns out politically it’s really hard to get rid of,” Gruber said. “And the only way we could get rid of it was first by mislabeling it, calling it a tax on insurance plans rather than a tax on people when we all know it’s a tax on people who hold those insurance plans.”

Ah, more proof that economist’s disease — where expertise in one subject area convinces someone that they are experts in everything — isn’t confined to the right.  First of all, how on earth is it “mislabeling” to call a tax on insurance plans a “tax on insurance plans?” It’s like saying that it’s lying to call a tax on imported goods a “tariff” because consumers bear some of the cost. Gruber seems to think that it’s dishonest to use merely accurate ways of describing your policy proposals, as if it’s the job of people proposing something to portray the proposals in the worst light possible.  I don’t know if Gruber noticed, but plenty of people on the other side of the aisle were busy making things up about the ACA to attack it; I don’t think that Democrats were obliged to do the same.

And, second, as with his previous own-goals the argument is not merely wrong but self-refuting even if you grant the false premise. Precisely because the public is ill-informed on policy details it doesn’t matter to mass public opinion what you call the tax on insurance plans.  Informed stakeholders, meanwhile, knew exactly what the tax did and didn’t like it. Gruber’s comments could not be more wrong on every level.  As a political analyst, he’s a hell of a health care economist.

Part of me feels bad for piling on; I don’t doubt that he was well-intentioned and it can’t be pleasant to be the right-wing villain du jour.  But Gruber has, at the very least, not discouraged the exaggerations of his role in creating the ACA, and he’s made a truckload of money from his reputation.  When you take on this kind of role, you really do have be responsible in your public comments, and Gruber has failed spectacularly in his self-appointed role again and again, saying things that are politically damaging (potentially OK) and wrong (very much not OK.)

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