Saturday, November 9, 2013

On Greg Mankiw And Conservative Punditry

Greg Mankiw is the chair of the economics department of Harvard University. He is also a life long Republican political actor who was Dubbya's chairman of Council of Economic Advisers and latter became one of Mitt Romney's chief economic gurus. For some strange reason he, like Niall Ferguson, has decided to venture out of the stuff confines of academia (and ruining the national economy) and step into the silly world of conservative political punditry.

Why? I have absolutely no idea. But it has resulted in the chair of Harvard's economics department saying a lot of silly stuff. Take this recent post about how Obama is a dirty filthy liar for the whole "if you like your plan you can keep it" phrase we've been hearing a lot recently. Here's Mankiw's epic argument that employes Watergate rhetoric in the title for some reason:
President Obama is getting heat over his often repeated claim that, under his healthcare reform, "If you like your plan, you can keep it." It is clear now that for millions of Americans, particularly those who participated in the individual insurance market, that is simply not true. You can argue that the plan they will get under the Affordable Care Act is better, but it seems undeniable that the President's sales pitch was factually incorrect.

As someone who has previously worked for a President, I am fascinated by how the White House staff let President Obama so consistently and so publicly make a false statement. Presidential speeches undergo a painstakingly thorough review process. It seems that there are only three possibilities:

1. The White House staff did not know the statement was false. That is, they did not understand the law the administration was promoting.

2. The White House staff knew the statement was false, but they decided to keep this fact from the President. That is, they let the President unwittingly lie to the American people.

3. The White House staff knew the statement was false and told the President so, but the President decided to keep saying it anyway. That is, the President consciously decided to lie to the American people.

These are the only three possibilities I can envision. None of them reflects particularly well on what has been going on in the White House.
Unpacking this is going to be tough but let's give it the ole (Midwestern, wannabe-Ivy-League-but-not-quite-there-Northwestern) college try.

First of all Mankiw is being really vague and unhelpful when he talks about "staff" (even if he is someone who has "who has previously worked for a President" he really shows a lot of ignorance for how the institution of the modern American presidency actually functions). To review, yes there are the senior staffers that we all know from The West Wing. There are also around 2000 odd people who "work for a president" in the sense that they are staff members of the Executive Office of the President. So when Mankiw complains that "That is, they did not understand the law the administration was promoting." I would say, "Yes, junior staff assistants in the Office of National Drug Control Policy, do not in fact know "the law" works."

Just as Mankiw doesn't in fact know how the law works. That is if I were to ask him to make a comprehensive list of all the changes to people who get their health insurance through there employer, he could probably just list some general points. Because that's how national health care policy works. It's monstrously complex and few people actually really understand the ins and outs.

But to point our how his general post is really wrong, I'd say that there is a fourth reasons (in fact I can think of more of them than that). That is President Obama used talking points, rhetoric really, to advance his agenda when talking about how to change our health care system. Basically one of the biggest impediments to expanding access to health care historically is that middle class suburban constituencies (those vital swing voters that decide national elections) react to plans of changing health care policy as attempts to strip away their decent health care. This is the story from the Clinton era, or Ronald Reagan announcing that Medicare will destroy the medical profession for that matter.

So while saying "if you like your plan you can keep it" might be not the most truthful talking point to say, it still makes sense from a presidential standpoint. Basically you need to sell the idea of giving poor people access to health care to to suburban moderates, and if it all works its like how Medicare Part D is part of the American policy structure.

Mankiw's decision to moonlight in conservative punditry strikes me as being really weird. Like Furegson weird. I don't know why he does it, so I'll just file it in the more evidence that the Republican Party is dysfunctional file.

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