Gruber's (And the Obama Administration's) Disclosure Problem

I am sympathetic, for my own personal reasons, to people charged with not disclosing conflicts of interest. For the most part, I doubt that people say things they do not really think because someone gave them a check. I think they generally get the check because of WHAT they think. I think that is the case with MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber, now embroiled in a brouhaha over his failure to disclose his government contract with the Obama Administration.

To be clear, it is my view that Gruber surely should have disclosed his government contract and the Obama Administration should never have referred to him as an "independent" voice. That said, the more intriguing question for me is what did the Obama Administration's contracting of Gruber mean about its views on health care reform? R.J. Eskew writes:

Why do President Obama and his advisors keep touting the tax? And why do journalists like David Leonhardt of the New York Times keep asserting that "health economists" think it's a good idea? Uwe Reinhardt - the most respected health economist in the country - said the idea that "with high cost-sharing, patients will do the only legitimate ... cost-benefit calculus ... surely is nonsense." The best-known advocate for the tax is MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who was hyping it as recently as a week ago, without mentioning new and contradictory data.

The Post described Gruber in 2007 as "possibly the party's most influential health-care expert and a voice of realism in its internal debates." How can a "voice of realism" claim that this is "a tax that's not a tax," one that affects "generous" plans? That statement was published only nineteen days after a paper in the influential journal Health Affairs (summarized here) disproved it. Using actual benefits data, the authors showed the tax would not target "generous" plans. Instead it would unfairly affect plans whose enrollees were older, worked in the wrong industry, or lived in an area where treatment costs are high. A leading actuary came to a similar conclusion.

Gruber also claimed that the money employers save (by slashing benefits to avoid the tax) would be returned to workers as wages or other compensation. But two leading health benefits firms (2) had already published surveys in which the vast majority of employers polled insisted they would do no such thing.

These are intelligent, ethical, dedicated people. So what's going on? I suspect the problem is an inability to reject an attractive idea, even when confronted with contradictory facts. There is a simple truth in the world of ideas: Theories can be beautiful. Reality can be ugly.

(Emphasis supplied.) I think Eskew is right but incomplete. At this point, the Obama administration and its advocates, like Jonathan Gruber and Ezra Klein, know that the Senate bill is probably the only path for passage of a bill. It behooves them now to ignore the problems with the bill and to tout it as best they can. Of course therein lies the problem with selling Gruber as an "independent" voice on the issue. He is not an independent voice.

I oppose the excise tax in the Senate bill. I think it is bad policy and certainly bad politics. But maybe it can be fixed somewhat. John Kerry wrote:

Does the Senate-passed bill cast too broad a net by setting the excise tax threshold too low? Yes. This could affect some of the hardest working American families. So let's fix it, not nix it. I believe the final health care reform bill will include appropriate adjustments to preserve its cost containing benefits while increasing the fairness of this provision. But let's get back to the business of doing that instead of fighting to kill a provision that improves health care -- and improves the chances of passing health care this month.

Fine. Get to work Senator Kerry.

Speaking for me only

< Friday Morning Open Thread | College Football "Wonks" >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    I can't believe I voted for someone and (5.00 / 4) (#1)
    by esmense on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 12:34:07 PM EST
    contributed money to the party that wants to make health coverage -- simply because, as the result of age, pre-existing conditions and the region of the country we live in, we are already paying through the roof -- even more expensive for me and my husband.

    I feel like an idiot.

    At least Richard Eskew has finally seen the light (5.00 / 2) (#2)
    by shoephone on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 12:45:27 PM EST
    regarding Obama. He was one of the more obnoxious Obama cultists during the campaign season.

    There's probably a lot of stuff... (5.00 / 3) (#4)
    by desertswine on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 01:08:36 PM EST
    I'd like, if I was paid $400,000 to like it.

    You could have an expert "Aha flash" (5.00 / 0) (#10)
    by Militarytracy on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 01:36:01 PM EST
    for $400k?

    Ummm is that single-payment or (5.00 / 1) (#16)
    by oldpro on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 02:37:12 PM EST

    I think I could do it for 300K...depending, of course.  Devil's in the details.


    I'm not greedy... (none / 0) (#18)
    by desertswine on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 03:17:55 PM EST
    I'll settle for what Gruber got.

    Academic supporter of Obama-endorsed conservative Senate health care reform bill paid $400k by Obama admin

    by Joe Sudbay (DC) on 1/08/2010 11:34:00 AM
    Call him the Cadillac Consultant. He's Jonathan Gruber. One of the most quoted defenders of President Obama's proposal to tax so-called "cadillac" health care plans, and a big defender of the more-conservative Senate version of health care reform. He also has secretly received nearly $400,000 from the Obama administration to consult on... what? Health care reform.

    People may not say things because (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by Anne on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 01:12:01 PM EST
    someone is giving them a check, but they might have been given the check because someone had reason to know what they were going to say.

    It's hard not to be skepical about the whole thing, especially given how much opacity - as opposed to transparency - has surrounded the entire effort.

    Some people might not speak for money (5.00 / 0) (#8)
    by Inspector Gadget on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 01:33:57 PM EST
    But, many people are happy to say anything for a check. In fact, I think your skepticism is reasonable.

    I think of the executives from the tobacco industry, the world of advertising, appears journalism has gone that way, and lawyers who defend corporations in liability suits just as a starting point.

    My guess is actually that they pay the voices they want; respected voices that can lead people where they want them to go.

    People who speak against could find themselves in a nasty scandal.

    Disclosure is good for all parties.


    I don't mind the government (5.00 / 2) (#6)
    by Zorba on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 01:17:09 PM EST
    hiring an economist or two to analyze costs of this bill, etc.  They should be doing that.  What I object to is always using this guy's analysis without disclosing that he's under contract to the government.  They should be saying "Our analyst Dr. Gruber noted...," not referencing him as though he were an independent expert.  And Gruber should be right up front about his contract with the government, every single time he is interviewed by a reporter.  Disclosure, disclosure, disclosure should be the name of the game.....to do otherwise is unethical.  

    When helicopter pilots want to fly (5.00 / 1) (#11)
    by Militarytracy on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 01:39:12 PM EST
    but the weather report isn't good and they can't get cleared for take off where they are going, they call all the towers in the area until they get a weather report from someone that will allow them to take off.  It's called shopping for weather.  Sounds to me like the Obama administration did a little shopping for weather too.

    Gruber has become unbelievable (none / 0) (#21)
    by norris morris on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 10:58:16 PM EST
    Simply stated Gruber's opinion has been bought. And disclosure of this has been deceptively hidden from the public.

    Obama team on healthcare has lost credibility and belief in their ethics as their pursuit of a HC bill has been disgustingly driven by bribes and corruption, backroom deals, and no clear information diseminated to the public. C-Span as promised?  Forget it.


    I understand your point, but when Bush had (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by Buckeye on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 01:24:50 PM EST
    ex-generals under contract promoting the Iraq invasion all over the news, it was wrong not to disclose their conflicts of interest - even if they really believed what they were advocating.  I know what happened here is not exactly the same, but it needed to be disclosed nonetheless.

    It was wrong then (none / 0) (#12)
    by Zorba on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 01:45:05 PM EST
    and it's wrong now, whether you're talking about generals or economists.  You're right, it should have been disclosed.  I thought that one of the things that Obama said he stood for was "transparency in government."  Maybe not so much.

    Bush? Again? (none / 0) (#22)
    by norris morris on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 11:10:29 PM EST
    It's tiresome to hear how terrible Bush was as though this exonerates Obama from doing the same, or other snarny stuff.

    Bush thank God, is gone.  Now we face a guy who promised to give us a break, and we've been sold down the river.

    It's like if Bush was bad about an issue, then it's ok for Obama?

    Bush was wrong on almost everything. Obama stinks with Geitner sellout to AIG and Goldman Sachs, Healthcare backroom deals, and I should stop here.

    Obama's Afghanistan has no stated end goal strategy.
    So we're there for years and years? This is Bush again.

    Wall St regulations? Loopholes all over and Geithner made a backroom deal with AIG. Just wait till all the emails come out...which they will as they are being looked over now and Geithher has it all over him.  Knowledge of undisclosed bonuses for AIG were share with Geithner, and he allowed this.

    I dint give a s**t about Bush.   He's not here any more, and the lack of responsibility and corrupt and secretive deal making in HC will sink us Democrats this midterm.  I'm only praying that Obama and Co don't put us in the wilderness again for 20 years.

    It stupidly being touted by Obamatons that its
    traitorous to object to Obama's policies and apparatchuks when they need criticism to hopefully become honest.


    I agree with your post. (none / 0) (#24)
    by Buckeye on Sat Jan 09, 2010 at 09:45:46 AM EST
    And I was not trying to imply that because Bush did it, it is okay if Obama does it.  My point in fact was the opposite.

    Gruber has damaged himself here. (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by inclusiveheart on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 01:35:08 PM EST
    We don't see Armstrong Williams much anymore.  The media take this stuff seriously - at least they do when they aren't willing participants in ignoring the conflicts of interest.

    This is eerily (5.00 / 2) (#13)
    by KeysDan on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 01:52:53 PM EST
    reminiscent of the thinking from the  "Downing Street Memo", wherein the facts were fixed around the policy.  Gruber's 'gold standard', the Rand Health Insurance Experiment, along with the Dartmouth Atlas,  the newer "bible" (a good term, since it is,at best, subject to multiple interpretations), are providing the foundations for the health insurance reforms.   The attractive premise for the Obama health economists is the seductive: if you pay more you reduce use of medical services, and, by golly, you save money in so doing without making anyone sicker. And, more is not better, based on studies that showed more care did not affect results (e.g.UCLA Hospital v Mayo Cllinic).  However, these results only involved those who died, and not those who lived; the demographics of LA and Rochester not taken adequately into account, and the illnesses were not included.  The researches claim that these factors do not make a difference--a way of thinking that would make even Cheney proud.

    I was just over (5.00 / 2) (#14)
    by Jackson Hunter on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 02:05:23 PM EST
    at Slink's diary at DK.  The Obama movement has completely lost it's d@mn mind.  They hounded poor Slink until she gave up the pittance she was paid but they are just hunky dory with this guy getting paid 400,000 to jack Union members.  What a bunch of syncophants.

    I hope we get some progressive stuff done in Obama's one and only term.  The media has turned one him, and now the vultures are going to pick his carcass clean.  Too bad, it's his fault for being gutless and acting like it's 2002 instead of a man with a strong and clear mandate.  What could have been, what could have been.


    Jackson you're OK (none / 0) (#23)
    by norris morris on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 11:13:11 PM EST
    I agree. Good post. Thanks.

    Unbelievable (5.00 / 1) (#15)
    by mmc9431 on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 02:22:23 PM EST
    Another nail in the coffin of the "change and transparency" agenda of the Obama administration.  His administration is sounding more like GWB with every month.

    And shame on the Democratic Party for accepting this whole absurd concept in the first place. It's as pathetic as the trickle economy theory.

    To think corporations will pass on savings to employees is past being naive. The premise that if you price health care out of reach for everyone the costs will go down because people won't use it is even more revolting. This is HCR?

    Any politician that accepts either of these concepts should be run out of Washington. They certainly have no interest in representing the people.

    Yes, indeed, it is unbelievable (none / 0) (#17)
    by Zorba on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 02:57:39 PM EST
    I cannot understand why they never even considered adopting the French system, which basically amounts to "Medicare for All."  You can see who you want, the doctors are free to prescribe the care they feel is medically necessary, there are no deductibles, just modest co-pays (unless you're chronically ill, in which case there are no co-pays), and they have better health-care results than we do.  You can even buy a supplemental policy to cover things like private rooms, dental care, and eyeglasses.  It's true that they are also struggling with rising health-care costs that has resulted in higher taxes, but they still spend less of their GDP on health care than we do (10.7% vs our 16%).  Link.  The Obama administration made a big mistake in not trying hard for "Medicare for All" from the start.  We might not have gotten that (I still doubt that our country is ready for this, unfortunately), but it might then have gotten a robust, widely-available public option as its alternative, fall-back position.

    Eskew (5.00 / 0) (#19)
    by DancingOpossum on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 03:26:56 PM EST
    He was one of the more obnoxious Obama cultists during the campaign

    If he's calling this gang "intelligent, ethical, dedicated people," then it appears the Kool-Aid has had lingering effects.

    you're probably correct BTD. (none / 0) (#20)
    by cpinva on Fri Jan 08, 2010 at 05:39:08 PM EST
    For the most part, I doubt that people say things they do not really think because someone gave them a check. I think they generally get the check because of WHAT they think.

    however, the failure to disclose an obvious conflict of interest, when discovered, taints everything that person says, and destroys their credibility, rightly or wrongly.