Monday, December 20, 2010

Politifact and the Leak of the Year

PolitiFact, the non-partisan political fact-checking site, has named the Lie of the Year - that Obamacare was a government takeover of health care.

Wow! They admit that the phrase was used more times than they could count so they have just called nearly every conservative including the new Speaker of the House liars. Given PolitiFact's claim to be neutral, they must have a really good case for this, right? Well, not so much. In fact, their whole case rides on semantics and preconceived ideas of what constitutes a government takeover.

Their case is:

"Government takeover" conjures a European approach where the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are public employees. But the law Congress passed, parts of which have already gone into effect, relies largely on the free market:

Employers will continue to provide health insurance to the majority of Americans through private insurance companies.

• Contrary to the claim, more people will get private health coverage. The law sets up "exchanges" where private insurers will compete to provide coverage to people who don't have it.

• The government will not seize control of hospitals or nationalize doctors.

• The law does not include the public option, a government-run insurance plan that would have competed with private insurers.

• The law gives tax credits to people who have difficulty affording insurance, so they can buy their coverage from private providers on the exchange. But here too, the approach relies on a free market with regulations, not socialized medicine.

The biggest issue here goes unremarked. Obamacare was not health care reform. It was health care insurance reform. It essentially transformed medical insurance from a regulated business into a utility. Granted, Republicans did not make this distinction but neither did the Democrats. Did Obamacare amount to a government takeover of medical insurance? PolitiFact never even considers this.
What they do give is a straw man definition of a government takeover. What they describe is not the approach that most European countries have used. Even in the UK hospitals are government-owned but doctors are still in private practice and able to accept patients who pay for their services (in exchange for preferred treatment). Their description comes closer to Cuba than Europe. Similarly, did anyone making the claim takeover claim ever imply that it would cover everything as PolitiFact claims?

Other points that PolitiFact missed:
  • It includes an expansion of the government-run Medicare and Medicaid systems.
  • The insurance exchanges may consist of private insurers but the exchanges only exist because of government mandate.
  • The law includes incentives to make it less desirable for employers to offer insurance.
  • According the to CBO Obamacare represents an unprecedented expansion of government power by requiring the population of purchase something as a condition of citizenship.
PolitiFact gives this poll result as evidence of the lie's effectiveness:
By March of this year, when Obama signed the bill into law, 53 percent of respondents in a Bloomberg poll said they agreed that "the current proposal to overhaul health care amounts to a government takeover."
Since all of the details of the plan had been played out in public for months, my take on this is that the general population is using a different standard for government takeover than PolitiFact uses.

PolitiFact did not offer a single contrary opinion. Instead they quoted the editor of the left-of-center-and-proud-of-it site Slate.

To completely jump the shark, they went on to interview former DNC chair Howard Dean about the meaning of their finding.

Naming this the lie of the year will hurt PolitiFact in several ways. The fact that they consider their argument to be iron-clad shows that they are in a political echo-chamber without a dissenting opinion to keep them intellectually honest. Most conservatives really believe that Obamacare represents a government takeover (at least one of medical insurance). Their reaction will not be to apologize for misleading the nation. Instead they will attack PolitiFact's piece, just as I am right now. The long-term damage will be that conservatives will be able to dismiss PolitiFact as being another liberal attack site like Media Matters. Any negative finding from PolitiFact can be waved off as partisan.

This cannot be dismissed as an isolated incident, either. Last year's Lie of the Year was Sarah Palin's prediction of death panels. What she meant was that government health care would lead to panels making life or death decisions based on cost/benefit. The UK already has these. They are ironically named NICE.

A runner-up for this year's award was the claim that Obama's trip to India cost $200 million per day. This figure came from an Indian news service was was quoted by Michele Bachman. PolitiFact attributed it to her because she repeated it directly instead of verifying it first. Hey, Politifact, you guys are in the news. Are you saying that repeating what you tell us counts as lying? The original story gave a number of specifics in how the trip could cost so much. These included sending several navy ships to patrol the area and building a temporary tunnel for the President's car to use. I never saw any of these invesitgated not did the White House ever give a rough figure for what the real costs were. They simply denied that it was $200 million.

Politifact's record on Social Security and global warming is similarly poor. They already know the "truth" so on these issues they quote a single favored authority and rate contrary claims as false.

This does not mean that PolitiFact is totally partisan. On most of their rulings they actually give the person quoted a chance to document the claim. They usually present both sides then rank the claim. If you bother to read the whole piece then you can make your own decision. That said, the final rating on a six-point scale ranging from true to pants-on-fire is a judgment call and often comes down harder on the conservative.

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