. . . on every story we report, we should always be the outsiders; most important, we should always, always identify with our readers over the insider experts. That doesn’t mean we can’t root for a political party, or a policy, or a company. We are customers and citizens as well as writers, and we have a rooting interest in our own society. But it does mean that we should not think of ourselves as part of the policy elite; we should identify ourselves with our readers, who are not only less informed than the insiders, but also less informed than we are.
So when I see journalists saying that Gruber’s revelations don’t matter because he’s just kind of awkwardly saying something that everyone knew, I get a little jittery. I am not “everyone,” and neither are any of those journalists. We’re a tiny group of people with strange preoccupations who get paid to spend our time understanding and explaining this stuff. The fact that we may have mentioned it once to our readers, in the 18th paragraph, does not mean that readers read it and understood what it meant. (In fact, if you actually interact with your readers, you’ll be astonished at how little they remember of what you told them, especially if you didn’t go out of your way to headline it. Their minds are already crammed full of information that they need to, you know, live their lives. So they tend to take away a few big bullet points, not the piddling details.)
Obamacare was designed — as many laws now are — to exploit this lack of understanding. It is huge and complex for a reason, and that reason is that this complexity is an effective thicket in which to hide what you are doing. Don’t want to go after the tax subsidy for employer-sponsored health insurance? Pass the bizarre and unwieldy Cadillac tax instead. Don’t want to talk about rationing care? Create the Independent Payment Advisory Board, with a complicated mechanism for defunding certain treatments and a far-off start date. Use mandates instead of cash payments and taxes. Delay the start date so that the arcana of CBO accounting allow you to claim that it costs less than $1 trillion over 10 years. Strap on unrelated provisions, such as a student loan bill that was due to pass anyway, or unworkable provisions, such as the CLASS Act and the 1099 rule, so that you can claim it is deficit-reducing. The list goes on and on and on, but I am trying not to, so I will stop here.
The net effect of this was that the administration could make claims that were impossible to effectively refute in debate, because doing so required voters to follow lengthy technical discussions, and the readers had whole lives to live and didn’t have time to master the arcane art of CBO budget rules. So politicians gamed the CBO process, and then wielded the numbers as a weapon against critics. Many journalists also used the CBO score pretty uncritically, because that was a lot easier than walking readers through an abstruse argument. So stuff got done that couldn’t survive public scrutiny, and highly contestable “facts” about things like deficit reduction entered the media stream. Jonathan Gruber comes along and tells us that this was deliberate, which was obvious to anyone who was paying attention, but not actually much remarked upon in many quarters.
That politicians should try to exploit the accounting rules was inevitable; that is what people do with accounting rules. I’m not saying that’s what the rules are for, or that they do no good; I’m just saying that about eight seconds after your rules are made, some bright Johnny will start figuring out a way to game them.
What is not inevitable is that journalists should effectively sanction this by saying it’s no big deal. We don’t have to get elected, after all. And those politicians and policy makers aren’t our bosses; the reading public is. We shouldn’t act like we’re part of the insider clique that decides what other people need to know — no, worse, that decides what other people do know. If we knew this all along and voters didn’t, that doesn’t mean voters don’t have a right to be outraged. It means that we’ve lost track of whose side we’re on.