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Jonathan Gruber and the Greek Chorus of Progressive Wonks

In 1972 film critic Pauline Kael gave a lecture in which she said, “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted forNixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. Butsometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”

Kael is often maligned for a shorthand version of this comment. In the shorthand version she says something like “I can’t imagine how Nixon won. I don’t know anyone who voted for him.” The real comment, reported by the NY Times, is more insightful. Kael may not know any Nixon voters but she is at least vaguely aware of her own looming ignorance.

Today’s progressive journalism has more in common with the shorthand version of the Kael story than the true story. The closed loop of praise and adulation surrounding Jonathan Gruber may have ended outside Washington but it’s a testimony to how tightly knit it was over the past 5 years that many of the wonks in question refuse to throw him under the bus of public outrage. On the contrary, this week has been a series of “Captain, my Captain” moments for Gruber devotees to stand on their desks and proclaim admiration for him.

On Saturday Ezra Klein wrote about the time he spent talking to Gruber and asked his readers to “remember people are more than the most controversial thing we’ve ever heard them say.” That’s advice I don’t remember Klein offering about, say, Todd Akin or Scooter Libby. Over at the New Republic Jonathan Cohn was even more explicit about his closeness with Gruber:

Like my counterparts, I have relied heavily on Gruber’s expertise overthe years and have come to know him very well. He’s served as an explainer of basic economic concepts, he’s delivered data at my request,and he’s even published articles here at the New Republic. My feelings about Gruber, in other words, are not that of a distantobserver. They are, for better or worse, the views of somebody who holds him and his work in high esteem.

Now for just a moment let’s switch gears to another relevant aspect of progressive journalism. When Ezra Klein launched Vox he did so with a long piece about Yale’s Dan Kahan and the science of cultural cognition. I won’t rehearse the whole argument again, but in very short strokes it’s the idea that people often fail to engage their brains fully when someone says something they agree with culturally, i.e. when someone is a member of their tribe. They are far more likely to do the mental work of uncovering the truth if someone says something they fundamentally disagree with. As Klein put it, politics makes us stupid.

It shouldn’t take much cognition on the reader’s part to see where I’m going with these two lines of thinking–one that progressive wonks are very friendly with a group of like-minded experts and two that people don’t tend to challenge the ideas of their own tribe with much energy or inspiration. What you get is…well, you get the reporting we’ve had on Obamacare for the past 5 years from Ezra Klein et. al.

Last night Bret Baier’s Special Report devoted a segment to the process as it actually unfolded in 2009-2010. Notice how information launched by Gruber cycles through and is amplified by the progressive commentariat and then works back to Congress where it is cited as independent justification that everyone involved is right.

What Gets Lost in the Shuffle

I have my own personal experience with Jonathan Gruber’s work and how it metastasizes through the progressive blogosphere and the political sphere without ever really being checked for accuracy. Last year when the launch of Obamacare was looking very much like a disaster guess who stepped forward with a reassuring anecdote about Massachusetts? If you guessed Jonathan Gruber, you’re right.

Gruber gave the New Republic‘s Jonathan Cohn access to some numbers from Mass. which purported to show that only 123 people had enrolled during the first month of the program. Gruber also apparently gave the same data to the White House which, without citing Cohn’s story, published the same claim on the White House blog.

On the progressive left, the 123 enrollment claim was as popular as a life raft on a sinking ship. It was cited by the President and by Jay Carney as evidence that there was no need to panic. But it wasn’t true. The Washington Post gave the administration a slap on the wrist but after many hours digging into the source material I uncovered a very different picture of what had happened in Massachusetts.

For starters, Gruber hadn’t come close to making an apples-to-apples comparison. His 123 enrollees figure excluded two entire categories of people who directly correspond with people eligible to buy insurance under the ACA. If those categories were added back in the true number of first month enrollees would be in the thousands.

Even more disturbing to me was what appeared to be a lie of omission by Gruber. In Massachusetts the health rollout began on January 1, 2007, but the state didn’t hire a PR company to begin promoting the rollout until January 22nd. It’s hardly fair to compare this to Obamacare which had a PR rollout in the hundreds of millions. And this was no oversight. Gruber knew the state hadn’t done any PR for most of January because, according to the minutes of state meetings, he was present when the PR firm was hired.

To his credit, Jonathan Cohn did add an update to his post about the Massachusetts enrollment figures, but by then the story was everywhere and most of the people who wrote about it, especially the White House, didn’t see fit to point out any of the inconvenient facts to the contrary.

And that’s a pattern we’ve seen over and over. The White House makes claims about the ACA which specialist blogs may or may not point out are bogus in various ways. When asked the White House usually denies they are misleading anyone, as they did in 2010 when asked about the Cadillac tax. But the bulk of the populace never even hears the details, much less knows that the White House shouldn’t be trusted. Megan McArdle summarized this process in a post at Bloomberg View last year which, in light of Gruber, reads like prophecy:

It’s absolutely true that every policy wonk who was writing orspeaking about the law in 2009 and 2010 understood that it would meanpremiums going up for at least some people, many of whom would loseinsurance that they would have preferred to keep…But I think it’s also clearly true that the majority of the public did not understand this. In 2008, the Barack Obama campaign told them that their premiums would go down under the new health-care law. And the law’s supporters believed it.

[…]

the wonks were living in what I think of as “Expertopia.” It’s a shiny,happy place where everyone knows all the salient facts that the expertshave agreed on. The problem is, everyone else was living in the realworld, where what “everyone knows” is some compendium of anecdotes fromfriends, the political speeches they watched, and what they managed toread on the Internet or hear on the news in five-minute bursts snatchedfrom their workaday lives.

The point of all this is that Gruber didn’t help the Obama administration take advantage of the voters on his own. He had a reliable partner in the Greek chorus of progressive wonks who would unite their voices on the public stage to promote him and his work. This same coterie often failed to do the harder work required to question his/administration claims about a bill they all wanted to see advance. This is not a recipe for smart politics.

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