Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday November 23rd, 2014

This Just In 255


If you asked a hundred Americas at random who Jonathan Gruber is, I would bet no more than two or three would know.  But if you were to phrase the question, “What about that Obamacare guy who says the American people are stupid?” chances are a lot more would at least be vaguely aware of him.

For the record, Jonathan Gruber is a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a noted expert on public health policy, and is considered to be one of the key players in designing the 2006 Massachusetts health care reform plan known as Romneycare, and the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. And he has been working on a contract for up to $400,000 with the State of Vermont, to run economic models on the proposed single payer government health plan.

Those accomplishments alone make him a major figure in his field. But some video clips have suddenly come to light in which Professor Gruber was remarkably candid while speaking in academic settings, about his work. This has made him so infamous that a few headline writers have been adding “ gate” to his name, making it Grubergate, as in Watergate,-  the ultimate political scandal. Whether such hyperbole is deserving depends pretty much on how you feel about Obamacare.

Among other things Gruber said a “lack of transparency” helped Congress pass Obamacare and that the law’s passage relied on “basic exploitation of (voter’s) lack of economic understanding.” And then, there was the line that got him into the most trouble - that Americans “are too stupid to understand” the complexity of the health care law. With that Gruber, broke the first commandment of American politics- never, under any circumstances, publicly insult the intelligence of the American voter.

The Republicans, who want to gut Obamacare and now control both Houses of Congress, were gleeful to have this new ammunition in their hands. The Democrats tried unsuccessfully to disown Mr. Gruber, but the White House did apparently pay him handsomely as an expert consultant. Meanwhile editorial and op-ed writers of both parties around the country have expressed indignation and shock

Yet a few brave souls from academia, have been about as shocked as Captain Renault was that gambling was taking place at Rick’s club in Casablanca. Daniel W. Drezner, is a professor of international politics at Tufts University. In an op-ed in the Washington Post in early November, Drezner wrote,” what got Gruber into trouble, is the same thing that would get any social scientist into trouble: He spoke a truth that is obvious in the social sciences but is taboo to admit in the political arena.” He continued: “Gruber’s underlying statement about the ignorance of American voters is spot on. Most political scientists categorize most voters as 'rationally ignorant.' This doesn’t mean voters are stupid, but it does mean they are uninformed. This is because they are busy people” and not inclined to study the intricacies of health care legislation.

According to Professor Drezner, “Indeed, when Gruber discusses the ignorance of American voters, no political scientists who knows even a smidgen about American public opinion would have raised an eyebrow. This isn’t because political scientists look down on voters. It’s because they have surveyed voters repeatedly and discovered that rational ignorance is just the way it is.”

Recent polling would seem to bear this out. According to the Annenburg Public Policy Center, more than half of Americans did not know which party controlled the House or the Senate.

 At the end of October the respected Ipsos-Mori Poll, published a new survey of the world’s top 14 industrialized nations. It involved interviews with more than 11,000 people, These are a few of the questions, the American answers, and the reality.

 What percentage of working-age Americans are unemployed and looking for work?  The majority of American respondents guessed 32 percent. The reality is about 6 percent.

What percentage of the U.S. population identifies as Muslim?
Americans guessed: 15%
Reality: 1%

What percentage of the population do you think are immigrants to America?
Americans guessed: 32%
Reality: 13%

MORI chose to call this poll, the Ignorance Index. Of the 14 countries on the list, Sweden and Germany ranked 14th and 13th, meaning they were the best informed. The U.S. ranked 2nd, after Italy which was deemed the least informed.

It is self- evident that having an ignorant electorate matters. When voters go to cast their ballots, if they think more than thirty percent of Americans are unemployed they will fear for their own jobs. And if they don’t really know which party is in power, they will blame the president and his party. That may explain why voters say they are fed up with the grid-lock in Washington politics, and then vote for the party that has been largely responsible for said grid-lock.

When we are choosing Washington bad guys to punish, Jonathan Gruber may be an arrogant elitist, But he is small fry among the long line of politicians who have repeatedly shown contempt for the American voters by exploiting their biases and, let’s face it, their ignorance, For example, persuading ill-informed voters that climate change is a hoax, empowers global warming deniers who now dominate among Congressional Republicans. 

There was a time when many people would look to a mostly non-partisan mainstream media to help guide them.  But not any more. Today’s splintered and highly partisan media have merely become still another American institution that the people now no longer trust.

So where does that leave us? CNN”s Global Public Square ended an analysis on this subject with a quote from Founding Father James Madison, warning of the necessity for democracy to have a reasonably informed electorate. Said Madison, “Popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”

 Yet I would argue that our problem today may be too much information, but without enough understanding or wisdom to make sense of it.

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