If you are masochistic enough to read the “reporting” of the legacy media on Obamacare, you will have noticed a spate of recent stories with titles like the following from CNBC: “Health spending post-Obamacare seen $2.5 trillion lower.” This headline is not only awkwardly worded. It is, like the article over which it appears, misleading. It misrepresents a new study from the left-leaning Urban Institute concerning projected health care spending in a way that suggests the nation has saved enormous amounts of money thanks to the “Affordable Care Act.”
This is absurd, of course, but it highlights an underappreciated element of the health care reform debate—the adversarial relationship that exists between Obamacare’s partisans in the press and basic statistics. This running gun battle between math and the media manifests itself in two ways, depending on the limitations of individual journalists: Most just can’t handle the numbers, and are thus easily taken in by specious studies and grifters like Jonathan Gruber. A far smaller group can manage the math but must ignore its implications in order to support “reform.”
A prominent member of the former cohort is Jonathan Cohn, who writes that the Urban Institute study is “one more reason” to feel good about PPACA: “The nation’s total spending on medical care hasn’t exploded, as legions of ‘Obamacare’ critics predicted.” Noting that the government originally expected 2014-2019 health spending to be $23.6 trillion, he gleefully reports that the Urban Institute projects a mere $21 trillion: “The total will be $2.6 trillion less than the government’s number crunchers thought it would be. That’s a pretty big windfall.”
Cohn seems confused about the definition of “windfall.” Merriam-Webster defines the term thus: “An unexpected amount of money that you get as a gift.” But the Urban Institute study is not about actual money. It simply provides projections based on a downward revision in the forecasts of Obama administration bureaucrats. Moreover, it uses “information on actual health spending through 2012.” In other words, the Urban Institute’s rosy prognostications are built on data collected a year before the major provisions of Obamacare were implemented.
But that doesn’t stop Cohn from giving the law credit for the “windfall”: “Does Obamacare have something to do with this? Probably.” If he really believes this bilge, his parents should demand a refund from whatever university he attended. The study itself concedes that “it is impossible to quantify how much ACA has truly contributed to reduced spending projections over time.” Nonetheless, Cohn claims that the Urban Institute has provided “a reason to think Obamacare’s more sophisticated efforts at re-engineering medicine might just be working.”
Not all of Obamacare’s media cheerleaders are as clueless as Cohn, of course. In addition to the “can’t handle the numbers” contingent to which he belongs, there is a far smaller group of journalists and pundits who can do the math but studiously ignore its implications for the health care law. The obvious leader of this cadre is Paul Krugman. Krugman is an economist and Nobel Laureate, so his routine misrepresentations of PPACA’s “successes” cannot be written off to ignorance. He knows the truth but chooses to give his readers the mushroom treatment.
Krugman has not, as of this writing, weighed in on the Urban Institute study but his claims about recent CBO projections for Obamacare make the point. For example, he recently wrote, “Remember all the ridicule heaped on the spending projections in the Affordable Care Act? Actual spending is coming in well below expectations, and the Congressional Budget Office has marked its forecast for the next decade down by 20 percent.” In this disingenuous passage, Krugman leaves out an important fact in order to make this sound like a success.
When Krugman writes about “actual spending” coming in “well below expectations,” he’s referring to subsidies that aren’t being paid because the number of Obamacare enrollees has been lower than initially projected. In other words, spending is down because Obamacare has failed to hit its goals. As Avik Roy points out in Forbes, “The CBO now thinks that 8 million fewer U.S. residents will gain coverage from the health law, compared to its original estimates.” Krugman knows all this, yet he keeps his readers in the dark and feeds them… incomplete data.
He also feeds them Obama administration propaganda that doesn’t even come close to passing the laugh test, In this column, for example, he complains that “the favorable experiences of the roughly 16 million Americans who have gained insurance so far have had little effect on public perceptions.” This passage links directly to WhiteHouse.gov, though Krugman knows perfectly well that the numbers reported at that site were produced by HHS bureaucrats who have already been caught—twice—promulgating fraudulent Obamacare enrollment figures.
He compounds all this dishonesty by abusing anyone with the temerity to do the Obamacare math and arrive at the correct answer. But, like many progressive pundits, Krugman has a gift for unintentional irony. Ten days ago he churned out a blog post in which he bemoans the “cheap, dishonest way” that conservatives (here and abroad) discuss policy. As a particularly heinous example, he offers the following: “In the case of health reform, this amounts to the assertion that it has failed because many Americans continue to believe the opponents’ lies.”
This is a textbook example of projection, but not the type produced by the Urban Institute or the CBO. The irony is that Krugman’s own lies, combined with the clumsy misrepresentations of math-challenged people like Cohn, have contributed heavily to the skepticism that most Americans feel about Obamacare. Most voters intuitively understand that the numbers don’t add up. Sadly, the same cannot be said about most of the law’s media cheerleaders.