Dehumanizing the Opposition

It is a whole lot easier to get people to kill or vilify other people when they think the opposition is less-than-human.

During World War I the Wilson administration called Germans “the Huns” to dehumanize them and undermine any allegiance German immigrants might have for their country of origin. Calling the foes “Japs” in World War II made it easier for the Roosevelt Administration to bomb civilian targets and place American citizens of Japanese origin in internment camps. It is notable that in both cases, these were extremely “progressive” administrations.

So, it may not be that surprising that during the current progressive administration the opposition has been dismissed as “racists” and “tea baggers.” Who cares about protecting the rights of racist tea baggers? They are illegitimate. They are not worth paying attention to. They are not your friends and neighbors; they are people to be shunned. Go ahead and audit them. Don’t allow them to organize or get tax exempt status ― their views are beyond the pale ― voicing racist tea bagger ideas is probably a hate crime anyway. So it goes in these days of total political war.

Still, it is jarring when the same approach bleeds into what should be a fairly innocuous discussion of insurance costs.

The California insurance exchange recently announced what its rates are likely to be once it becomes effective next January. It was big news because California is the state with far and away the greatest number of uninsured people. If ObamaCare can work there, it can probably work anywhere.  Some people were excited because the rates seemed lower than they expected. Others were skeptical because the rates are still higher than what people with individual coverage currently pay.

Hardly seems like the stuff to launch a war over.

That is, until one of the excited people decided to rip into one of the skeptical people. The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn went on a tirade because Forbe‘s Avik Roy saw the glass half empty (article here). Cohn accused Roy of being an “irresponsible writer” who made a “bogus argument” that “distorted the debate.” YIKES!

In particular. Cohn writes −

Roy never acknowledged that, even as young and healthy people would have to face higher premiums, older and sicker people would face lower premiums. He said absolutely nothing — not a single word! — about the federal subsidies available to people with incomes below 400 percent of the poverty line…it’s entirely possible (I’d say likely) that, with the subsidies, the majority of people buying on the exchange next year will pay less than they pay for insurance today.

I’ll respond to that in a bit, but first some guy named Steve Benen raised the stakes on, of all places, Rachel Maddow’s blog. Apparently Mr. Benen considers himself quite a “policy wonk” because he informs us that in the world of policy wonks Avik Roy is thought to be “a pretty serious guy.” (As far as I can tell Benen himself hasn’t done much more than write blogs and appear on MSNBC from time to time. I guess that qualifies for Wonkdom in the Progressive World). In any case, he writes –

While most of us saw the news from the Golden State as excellent news and proof that “ObamaCare” implementation is proceeding apace, Roy published a remarkably dishonest piece arguing the opposite, deliberately omitting relevant details.

So Roy is “dishonest” because he disagrees with “most of us.” But he goes on –

I believe this is yet another data point that highlights the wonk gap. As Republicans become a post-policy party, even their wonks — their sharpest and most knowledgeable minds ― are producing shoddy work that crumbles quickly under mild scrutiny.

He concludes –

I write often about the asymmetry in American politics, and the consequences of a radicalized party in a two-party system. But this wonk gap points to something related but different: it’s not just Republicans who’ve become more extreme and less interested in substance; it’s also conservatives who’ve allowed their intellectual infrastructure to atrophy and collapse.

Credible policy debates are rendered impossible, not because of the chasm between the two sides, but because only one side places a value on facts, evidence, and reason.

So what’s going on here?

Well, first, the level of hysteria suggests that the progressives are not all that confident that their hopes will come true, so they are lashing out at those who point out that the emperor has no clothes. As I’ve written about repeatedly here, everything ObamaCare has tried to do to date has already failed (except for the mandates on insurance companies to cover preventive care and remove dollar limits on coverage). Everything the government itself has been responsible for (the federal risk pools, the subsidies for retiree health programs, the small business tax credit, the “CLASS Act” for LTC coverage, the CO-OPs, etc.) has failed. So, while the exchanges haven’t yet failed (because they are not yet in effect), the prospects are not bright.

In light of that, the Left can’t simply make a civil argument that they are right and the conservatives are wrong. Since they have no victories to point to, they have to resort to the old progressive tactic of dehumanizing and delegitimizing the other side — conservatives aren’t just mistaken, they are irresponsible, stupid, lying, distorters. Not even worth talking to. Pay no attention to what they say.

More importantly, the question of whether people who are currently insured will pay more or pay less misses the essential issue. Any change in rating and underwriting rules will advantage some people and disadvantage others. But the purpose of ObamaCare was not to tinker around the edges of the currently covered, it was to extend coverage to people who are uninsured!

The real issue is whether what California is offering will appeal to people who don’t currently buy insurance. Here we have a problem. As Philip Klein reminds us, “a young American who chooses to go uninsured under the current system pays $0 per month in premiums.” So even with a subsidy the vast majority of young adults will have to pay more, sometimes a whole lot more than they did before. Klein also points out –

The success of ObamaCare hinges completely on the young and healthy. The reason is that the dream of a system in which sicker individuals can obtain coverage at affordable rates is predicated on the idea that the government can corral a lot more young and healthy individuals into the insurance market to offset costs. As long as insurers are raking in profits by collecting premiums from individuals with virtually no medical costs, they can afford to take on more expensive patients.

Lowering premiums for the currently insured older or sicker Californians does absolutely nothing to grow the population with insurance.

Now, I hate to upset Steve Benen by going all wonkish on him, but it might help to review some data from the most recent EBRI report on the uninsured.

First, as mentioned above, California has far and away the greatest number of uninsured of any state — 7.1 million. Texas is next at 6.1 million, then Florida at only 3.6 million.

The uninsured are overwhelmingly young adult men. 31% of those men between the ages of 21 and 24, and 32.1% of those between 25 and 34 are uninsured (compared to only 14.1% of men between 55 and 64). For women it is 26.4% (age 21 to 24), 24.5% (age 25 to 34), and 15% (age 55 to 64).

They are also in very good health. 59.3% of the uninsured report themselves to be in “excellent” (27%) or “very good” (32.3%) health. Another 29.9% report themselves to be in only “good” health. A mere 2.5% say they are in “poor health” and 8.4% are in “fair health.”

Since they are so healthy they can easily get coverage already, and pay a lot less for it than what California’s exchange is charging (Avik Roy goes into great detail on this here). They also don’t feel much need for comprehensive health coverage since they rarely get sick.

The subsidies don’t provide much help, either. Megan McArdle at the Daily Beast did a pretty thorough review of the subsidies, and found –

So I got a sort of a shock today when I started playing with the Kaiser Family Foundation’s subsidy calculator.  I had it at the back of my mind that a single young freelance writer living in California, Washington, or New York, and making $32,000 a year, would qualify for insurance at a basically nominal cost.  (The profession doesn’t matter so much, but for obvious reasons, this is a type that I’m particularly familiar with.)  It turns out that this person will qualify for a subsidy of about $213 a year, based on an expected “Silver Plan” (the medium coverage package) cost of $3,018, or about $235 a month.

$213 a year for a $3,018 policy!? Obviously if you make less you will get a bigger subsidy and if you make more you will get a smaller subsidy, but the argument from ObamaCare enthusiasts is “don’t worry, people will be subsidized!” That isn’t much comfort to people who are paying $0 today and will have to pay $2,805 tomorrow.

Of course to qualify for that subsidy, people will have to fill out a lot of paperwork disclosing every source of income under penalty of perjury. Is $213 a year worth the effort?

Everyone, even conservatives, accept the existence of a penalty. Progressives think people will pay the premium to avoid the penalty, while conservatives think people will pay the penalty to avoid the premium. Neither is true. There is no penalty unless you ask your employer to withhold more money than you are likely to owe. If you have no refund coming to you, there is no penalty.

Bottom line — no matter how big a tantrum the progressives throw, no matter how many names they call their opponents, no matter how badly they distort the facts, the probability of very many young healthy people signing up for coverage in California or anywhere else is extremely low.

Obviously we won’t know for sure until the program actually kicks in, but I wonder what odds I could get in Las Vegas.

There have been tons of articles written about all this, including –

Ezra Klein in the Washington Post.

Trudy Lieberman in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Anna Gorman in the Los Angeles Times.

Josh Barro in Business Insider.

W.W. Houston in The Economist.

Wall Street Journal Review and Outlook.

Tami Luhby in CNNMoney.

Comments (31)

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  1. JD says:

    A lot of people buy into the dehumanizing rhetoric. Greed or “sheer spite” (to quote Krugman) are commonly considered the motivation for resisting government expansion. They just can’t conceive that someone could reasonably disagree with them.

    • Dewaine says:

      “Bottom line — no matter how big a tantrum the progressives throw, no matter how many names they call their opponents, no matter how badly they distort the facts, the probability of very many young healthy people signing up for coverage in California or anywhere else is extremely low.”

      Hopefully failure will discredit them, but it hasn’t seemed to in the past. Somehow half of the country will buy that Obamacare’s failure is the Republicans fault.

      • JD says:

        Take a look at the comments from the “Rachel Maddow’s Blog” link. Those people won’t be bothered by facts.

  2. JD says:

    I think that most people don’t realize that the funding for this will come from the young and healthy. People assume that the money is going to come from some fat cat’s “private jet savings fund”.

  3. John Fembup says:

    “Those people won’t be bothered by facts.”

    Yeah, and I wonder whether they will even be bothered by reality – when it strikes in October

    That’s when people will first be able to look at real coverage and real prices, and enroll in a real policy offered thru a real Exchange, at least for the Exchanges that are actually real as of October 1st.

  4. Randall says:

    Both sides try so hard to prove they are right that they both end up getting to wrapped up emotionally and things get personal.

    • JD says:

      That is definitely true, Randall. We need to remember that this isn’t just a one-side (of the aisle) problem. There are reasonable and unreasonable people defending both positions.

  5. Devon Herrick says:

    Those who believe the government should subsidize health plans for the less fortunate view their goals as social justice. They believe social justice demands families all have access to affordable, comprehensive health plans regardless of income. Moreover, most progressives believe cost-sharing should not encumber access to care. Anyone who differs from this view is painted as uncompassionate, hardhearted or mean spirited.

    I don’t consider myself to be mean spirited, or uncompassionate. But I believe it is inherently unfair to expect future taxpayers (who cannot yet vote) to fund services that benefit people today — knowing that the same level of public service will not be sustainable in the future.

    In addition, I believe there is evidence that the health care system can only become more competitive and efficient if patients behave like consumers. Patients will only act like consumers if they control more of their medical funds, and benefit financially from prudent decisions and suffer the consequences of bad ones.

    American families would be better off it they practiced a lifecycle theory of saving for medical needs using a system of personal and portable insurance, tax credits and with HSAs. But this type of proposal is often dismissed as uncompassionate because it comes from hardhearted, mean spirited people.

  6. JO JO says:

    Interesting post.

    “current progressive administration the opposition has been dismissed as “racists” and “tea baggers.”

    – Its easy to marginalize people you don’t agree with!

  7. Tom says:

    Regarding the first part of the post, I honestly think paralleling the polarization today in American politics with WWI and WWI racism and hatred is quite a stretch. That being said, there certainly are far right extremists who are racist but that can be the case with far left or anybody with any ideology for that matter. It’s correct to categorize people, yet we do it all the time. Not all “progressives” demean “libertarians” and vise-versa, although there needs to be more debate and less finger-pointing theatrics in Washington.

    • Tom says:

      It’s not correct to categorize people*

    • Dewaine says:

      True, Tom. We all need to be on our toes not to fall into this type of behavior.

    • Neil S says:


      I respectfully disagree. The number of progressives who do not demean libertarians is vanishingly small, and the attacks tend to be on the character of the libertarians. From my reading, libertarians tend to characterize progressives (as well as conservatives) as wrong, where progressives strongly tend to characterize libertarians (as well as conservatives) as either evil, venal, stupid, or some combination of all three.

      I would welcome counter-examples.

  8. Midge says:

    How is it “dehumanizing” to call someone dishonest?

    • David R. Henderson says:

      Same question as Midge. This is a good blog post and some of the critics of Avik Roy were unfair and nasty, but being unfair and nasty isn’t necessarily the same thing as being dehumanizing. That’s a whole other level.

    • Dewaine says:

      Because it is being used as a personal attack, not an attack on facts. If Roy’s critics had offered tried to convince him using counter-evidence, that would be different, but they simply called him a liar to discredit him.

  9. Mike Bond says:

    I have worked as a professor for decades. This type of behavior is rampant in universities. It is always presented as concern for the poor, the uninsured or whoever the latest victims are out there. Knowing many of these professors personally, I can assure they would not give the time of day to most of the people they say they want to help. It is a good front for what they are really angry about. That is that they make far less than most businessmen. Plenty of journalists fit into this category as well.

  10. Buster says:

    Mike is on to something. It’s amazing how envy on the part of otherwise sensible people will bring out the philanthropist in them then they’re spending someone else’s money.

  11. Dee says:

    Avik Roy rushed his analysis and as a result there were errors in his conclusions. We need to acknowledge that. However, his errors on some things do not mean that his overall analysis of the Covered Ca exchange are completely wrong. Here are some basic points that I would like to make as to what needs to be said about the California Exchange program.
    1. The comparison to group rates skewed the perception as to how bad the rate increase was for those purchasing individual health insurance. Please remember that in Ca. group health insurance is more expensive than individual health insurance. That is because the state has put requirements on what group must cover that are not required on individual. In addition, many businesses use high coverage, high expense plans to attract employees, especially in tech or other high revenue businesses. The exchange engaged in some obfuscation by comparing the three lowest exchange plans with the average of all group plans, plainly seeking to have a high threshold so that they could claim that the rate increase was not the bad. When comparing apples to apples what is currently available in the individual market with what the exchange plans will be, the rate increase is almost 100%. Admittedly, the exchange will cover pre-existing conditions, so that is a plus for the exchange. However, the exchange plans that were touted will only have limited accessibility to doctors and hospitals (Blue Shield of CA says that their exchange provider list is only 36% of their regular list).
    2. While everyone is point to the subsidy as helping people purchase insurance, possibly at a lower cost then currently is the case, no one has pointed out that the people who will be going to the exchange to get subsidized coverage will be going into a program where they will not have access to the best hospitals or many physicians. Are we willing to tolerate a split system like this where those who can afford to purchase outside the exchange will have better providers and access to better hospitals while the lower income people who have to use the exchange to comply with the mandate will be subject to long waits to see providers, less access to the best hospitals, and, possibly, the newest technology. No one on the left has pointed out this particularly nasty turn in the provision of healthcare to low income people.
    3. Notice when the left talks about the subsidies there is never any mention of how the subsidy will stifle the attempts of people to achieve economic improvement. If you make a dollar more than the amount where the subsidy cuts off you lose the entire subsidy. When your children leave home, if your income at two people no longer qualifies, you lose the entire subsidy. People will turndown raises and adopt children to keep the subsidy, because they will not be able to handle the hit to their income from loss of the subsidy (I am somewhat, but not completely joking about the adopt point). People will not be able to take better jobs because they will lose the subsidy. The PPACA may be the beginning of creating a permanent underclass in the United States.
    Overall, the PPACA will probably fail, but we should be preparing for what will replace it. Let’s monitor what is good about is as well as what is bad so that we can come up with something better.

    • Avik Roy says:

      Which of my conclusions were erroneous? Out of curiosity.

      • Dee says:

        Sorry, I have been moving my office. Perhaps I should have been more clear in my post. What I meant to say was that by using a Internet search engine to find the lowest rates you ended up comparing some very poor individual insurance polices with some fairly good policies available on the exchange. So, your conclusion that rates were going up(which they are) could not be supported by the evidence you presented. My own rather limited examination of policies currently available in the open market with what will be the exchange plans leads me to believe that the rate increase is close to 100% for similar coverage. The exchange policy has the advantage of being guaranteed issue, pre-existing conditions covered and with a subsidy available for low income people. The exchange policy has the disadvantage of being twice as expensive for those who do not need these things. So, for the poor and sick the exchange policies are an improvement. For everyone else they are not. I think that we have to face the fact that the PPACA does help many obtain health insurance. Whether it is a sustainable model is the question. I don’t believe that it is. I also think that as a society we need to decide does the help for some justify doubling prices for everyone else.

  12. Jon Kessler says:

    Lets not confuse cause and effect. If I hang out with high class people am told over and over again how valuable my services to society are, and I don’t get paid much, it that the system is flawed. Conversely, if I feel I have or could earn a great living even though I’ve been told over and over again that I’m worthless to society, then the system MUST be pretty good. Many academicians fall into the former category. Many self-made business people fall into the latter.

  13. Ron Bachman says:

    Keep in mind that ObamaCare was never intended to pass by either party. Because of the Brown (Ma) election to the Senate the only bill they had on the table was the Senate version passed on Christmas eve 2009. Never did the bill go to conference to “fix” it or improve it with compromises.

    Lots of fatal details remain that will kill the even the best intentions of ObamaCare. Regardless, the overall strategy was to put in a process that would ultimately fail so that a single payer system would be the end game. However, the early failure of Obamacare and the recent federal scandals may finally resonate with the populace of voters that big government can not be effective or trusted with our health. We can only hope.

    BTW – Thomas Sowell’s book, “Conflict of Visions” is a good read to understand the liberal (unconstrained) view of the world and forms of debate arguments. Greg – you hit on one of them, demonize, demonize, and demonize you opponents (also the suggested tact from Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals – the playbook for this administration).

  14. John Harkey says:

    I’m not sure I see much difference between Mr. Cohn’s or Mr. Klein’s use of disbelief and scorn to describe Roy’s article, and Mr.Roy’s similar use of scorn and put-down to describe some of the commentary around the release of the California rate results.

    The Republicans and their allies have not been playing nice about the ACA since it was passed, predicting economic catastrophe and the end of the world as we know it, so why should Greg be upset that a few journalists supportive of the law should play hardball and offer a mocking critique of Mr. Roy’s piece.

    • Frank Timmins says:

      @John Harkey

      “Not been playing nice about the ACA”? Exactly what is there to applaud about the facts that have surfaced about the ACA since its passage?

      • John Harkey says:

        The original column was about tone rather than substance. My comment was about the tone of those opposing the ACA.

        To your question, I think the ACA is a huge advance for the nation, providing coverage that will be close to universal using a market based approach.

        • Frank Timmins says:

          Actually John, I was asking what “facts” have become apparent since passage that would lead you to believe that the ACA is as promised by Obama. It certainly could not be much further from a “market based approach” if we use any reasonable definition of same.

  15. Kenneth Almquist says:

    The attacks on Avek Roy may be a bit over the top in this case, but they didn’t just come out of the blue. Back in 2012, Avak Roy wrote that: “In the Senate, the Gang of Six—Democratic Sens. Baucus (Mont.), Conrad (N.D.), and Bingaman (N.M.), and Republican Sens. Grassley (Iowa), Snowe (Maine), and Enzi (Wyo.)—failed to come to an agreement because the Republicans were concerned about the bill’s dramatic increase in taxes and spending.” He added that, “Simply expanding coverage without raising taxes would have been enough [to obtain bipartisan support], as contemporaneous reporting makes clear. But the Democratic leadership had no interest in a bipartisan deal.”

    What is Roy’s evidence? Well, in 2008 Bacus had written a proposal for health care reform which included (on page 90) the idea of limiting the tax deductability of employer provided health care. Roy writes that: “But the President, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) were having none of that. As Roll Call reported at the time, ‘According to Democratic sources, Reid told Baucus that taxing health benefits and failing to include a strong government-run insurance option of some sort in his bill would cost 10 to 15 Democratic votes; Reid told Baucus it wasn’t worth securing [Republican] support.'”

    First, Roll Call wrote that, “Reid told Baucus it wasn’t worth securing the support of Grassley and at best a few additional Republicans.” In other words, taxint health benefits would potentially cost 10 to 15 votes for the bill, while picking up maybe 3 or 4, for a net loss of 6 to 12 votes. If Grassley had been able to line up 10 to 15 Republicans then the calculus would be different.

    Roy’s claim is that the Democratic leadership “had no interest in a bipartisan deal,” when his evidence (once you read the original quote rather than his paraphrase) simply shows that the Democratic leadership wanted to put to put together a bill that would pass.

    Second, Reid didn’t interject himself into the process until there was considerable evidence that the Gang of Six wasn’t going to reach a deal. The same Roll Call article tells us that: “Baucus for months has worked with Grassley on a health care reform bill that could garner bipartisan support. But the Finance chairman was forced last month to delay the markup of his committee’s bill because such a compromise remained elusive.” By the time Reid issued his directive, the other congressional committees with jurisdiction over the bill had all reported versions of the bill.

    Third, Roy provides no evidence that Reid’s decision actually cost any Republican votes. Grassley supported the idea of limiting deductability, but John McDonough, in the same book that Roy cites, tells us that, “By the end of July, Grassley and Snowe were still in play, while Enzi was considered a lost cause.” (Grassley ended up voting against the Committee bill, while Snowe voted for it. Both tried to block the Senate from acting on the bill after it was merged with the version of the bill produced by the Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions Committee.)

    In short, Roy made three claims:

    1) The gang of six failed to come to an agreement because the Republicans were concerned about the bill’s dramatic increase in taxes and spending.
    2) Expanding coverage without raising taxes would have been enough to obtain bipartisan support, “as contemporaneous reporting makes clear.”
    3) The Democratic leadership had no interest in a bipartisan deal.

    The sources he cites don’t support any of these claims. I can’t prove deliberate dishonesty on his part, but it strikes me that we are dealing with enough distortion here that it is unlikely to be accidental.