Paul Krugman: prophets of disaster came up short on Obamacare maths

Whatever your view of Obamacare, one indisputable fact is that it is costing taxpayers much less than expected

The only people hurt by health reform are Americans with very high incomes, who have seen their taxes go up, and a  small number of people who have seen their premiums rise because they’re young, healthy and affluent

The only people hurt by health reform are Americans with very high incomes, who have seen their taxes go up, and a small number of people who have seen their premiums rise because they’re young, healthy and affluent

 

There’s a lot of fuzzy maths in American politics, but Representative Pete Sessions of Texas, the chairman of the House Rules Committee, recently set a new standard when he declared the cost of Obamacare “unconscionable”.

If you do “simple multiplication”, he insisted, you find that the coverage expansion is costing $5 million per recipient. His calculation was a bit off – by a factor of more than a 1,000. The actual cost per newly-insured American is about $4,000.

Now, everyone makes mistakes. But this wasn’t a forgivable error. Whatever your view of the Affordable Care Act, one indisputable fact is that it’s costing taxpayers much less than expected – about 20 per cent less, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

A senior member of Congress should know that, and he certainly has no business making speeches about an issue if he won’t bother to read budget office reports.

But that is how it’s been all along with Obamacare. Before the law went into effect, opponents predicted disaster on all levels. What has happened instead is that the law is working pretty well.

So how have the prophets of disaster responded? By pretending that the bad things they said would happen have, in fact, happened.

Imaginary disasters

Well, Obamacare went into effect fully at the beginning of 2014 and private-sector job growth actually accelerated to a pace we haven’t seen since the Clinton years. Meanwhile, involuntary part-time employment – the number of workers who want full-time work but can’t get it – has dropped sharply.

But the usual suspects talk as if their dire predictions came true. Obamacare, Jeb Bush declared a few weeks ago, is “the greatest job suppressor in the so-called recovery”.

Finally, there’s the never-ending hunt for snarks and boojums – for ordinary, hard-working Americans who have suffered hardship thanks to health reform.

As we’ve just seen, Obamacare opponents by and large don’t do maths (and they’re sorry when they try). But all they really need are a few sob stories, tales of sympathetic individuals who have been impoverished by some aspect of the law.

Remarkably, however, they haven’t been able to find those stories. Early last year, Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers-backed group, ran a series of ads featuring alleged Obamacare victims but not one of those tales of woe stood up to scrutiny.

More recently, Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state took to Facebook to ask for Obamacare horror stories. What she got was a torrent of testimonials from people whose lives have been improved, and in some cases saved, by health reform.

In reality, the only people hurt by health reform are Americans with very high incomes, who have seen their taxes go up, and a relatively small number of people who have seen their premiums rise because they’re young and healthy (so insurers previously saw them as good risks) and affluent (so they don’t qualify for subsidies). Neither group supplies suitable victims for attack ads.

In short, the attack on health reform has come up empty-handed. But the public doesn’t know that. The good news about costs hasn’t made it through at all. According to a recent poll by Vox. com, only 5 per cent of Americans know that Obamacare is costing less than predicted, while 42 per cent think the government is spending more than expected.

Public perceptions

Medicare

At a deeper level what we’re looking at here is the impact of post-truth politics.

We live in an era in which politicians and the supposed experts who serve them never feel obliged to acknowledge uncomfortable facts, in which no argument is ever dropped no matter how overwhelming the evidence that it’s wrong.

And the result is that imaginary disasters can overshadow real successes.

Obamacare isn’t perfect but it has dramatically improved the lives of millions. Someone should tell the voters. – Copyright New York Times 2015

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