Selling a Lie
For the better part of the year, the airwaves have been bombarded with ads detailing unrealistic and often disingenuous campaign promises for thousands of candidates across the country. Whether it be promises to fully repeal Obamacare, increase the minimum wage, or to take some grand action on immigration reform, candidates will sell a platform to a willing voter base while likely having no intention of actually following through with the rhetoric. Political realities combined with the influence of special interests ensure that nearly every promise a candidate makes will certainly never come to pass.
MIT economics professor Dr. Jonathan Gruber spoke this week a bit too candidly about how things really work behind the scenes to pass legislation. Gruber, who is generally credited as one of the chief architects of the Massachusetts healthcare system (“Romneycare”) as well as the following Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) based on the Massachusetts model, gave an interview stating that the passage of the law counted on “the stupidity of the American voter.” He immediately stated that he was simply “speaking off the cuff” before two more videos of him stating the same thing surfaced online. This follows similar commentary he gave on the merits of a legal challenge to the ACA, before writing it off in similar fashion as more videos surfaced.
The issue in question was that the supporters of the law had to pass off the “Cadillac tax” of increasing healthcare premiums, while not equating it with a tax to avoid breaking promises of not raising taxes. Gruber summed up Americans’ inability to tell the difference as an instrumental part in successfully passing the law. While this is an unusually open admission by the economist, it’s certainly not anything new. It’s a very open secret; politicians lie. The bills that are passed rarely are in practice what they are said to be.
There are quite a few examples of this in recent legislative history; from the “reform” of mass surveillance by the NSA that doesn’t do much reforming, to education bills that do in fact leave children behind, and not very neutral net neutrality. Republicans that have campaigned on absolute repeal of Obamacare are now backtracking only days after winning the midterm elections, and one can look to President Obama’s own failures to deliver on issues such as closing the Guantanamo Bay detainment centers.
Despite blatantly obvious backpedaling on promises, politicians are consistently re-elected, and the American public is often left with nothing but bad policy in exchange. Is Jonathan Gruber correct in stating the American voter is stupid? Perhaps not, but they may be disengaged.
Public choice economists such as Bryan Caplan have suggested that the average voter, while individually a rational actor, often makes poor choices when at the ballot box. Because the mathematical chance of one’s vote having an infinitesimally small chance of changing the outcome of an election, there is no incentive to become perfectly informed on the policies and candidates one supports. Whereas in most of our day-to-day choices we are careful to weigh our decisions, especially monetary ones, there just simply is not enough cost in making the wrong choice at the ballot box.
An individual vote effectively becomes no different than throwing a penny into a fountain; no real cost to you, but perhaps worth the wish of good fortune. On the flip side, a politician has a lot to gain from producing content-lacking soundbites and promises with the public.
Professor Gruber thinks this dishonesty was the means to a better end, others may say it was proof that the Affordable Care Act’s own designers knew the bill was a disaster. Either way, this is a chronic problem in our political system. One of the best predictors of future behavior is past behavior, and until voters gain the incentive to hold their leaders accountable for their poor behavior, we’re going to continue to have elites proudly proclaiming how effectively they tricked the public into supporting their policies. The American public needs to ensure that there is no demand for the lies our leaders sell us.