On Krugman’s Critique of Sanders’ Single Payer Plan

I’m not going to attempt an exhaustive look at the critiques of Bernie Sanders’ single player health care plan. There are a lot out there, which is not surprising given how big an idea Sanders has put into play. For weeks the drumbeat from the Clinton campaign, surrogates and some in the press has been to ask, “Where is Bernie’s single payer plan?” Now that he has produced one, the immediate pivot has been to tear it down with an argument that amounts to, “Bernie’s single payer plan is unrealistic because it is a single payer plan.”

There’s a lot that gets packed into these criticisms, but I wanted to take a look at one from a very respected source: Paul Krugman. Paul Krugman’s takedown of Bernie Sanders single payer health care plan contain three main fallacious arguments in my view.

The first is his lede & description of Obamacare: “It more or less achieves a goal — access to health insurance for all Americans — that progressives have been trying to reach for three generations.” That is a re-writing of history. The long standing goal, as Senator Sanders repeatedly pointed out last night in the debate, was universal health care, not access to health insurance. To wit, if the goal had always been the sort of insurance access kludge we got in Obamacare, Obamacare would have been arriving as the clear demand, not the bartered, lobbied, crafted, kludged end-product that we ended up with. Obamacare might be an effective delivery vehicle for “access to health insurance for all Americans” – and its expansion of Medicare are even more effective – but it certainly did not deliver health care as a right. To that end, as much as it was a generational accomplishment for the Democratic Party, it did not leave the health care box permanently checked on the list of goals for the the Party.

The second issue I take with Krugman is that his first two objections to Sanders’ plan are attempts to be pragmatic, yet ignore what Sanders is actually saying. They are, effectively (1) incumbent players have lots of power and (2) it will be hard to convince the public that the tax costs to them are worth it (as rich people will spend lots of money opposing the bigger hit to their wallets).

I don’t doubt that these are accurate descriptions of reality and why passing single payer would be hard. But I think it is incredibly disingenuous to raise these points as reasons that Sanders’ plan is bad, while ignoring that they are fundamentally connected to Sanders’ argument that we need a “political revolution” in America that gets money out of politics and ends the influence of major lobbies like the health insurance, pharmaceutical and financial industries so that we can do the things we need to do like pass single payer healthcare.

Sanders has throughout the campaign presented a coherent argument about how fighting income inequality, passing single payer healthcare, achieving criminal justice reform, and fighting climate change (among many other issues) are all intrinsically linked to the need to reduce the influence of mega corporations, millionaires and billionaires in the political process. Not only is it not news to Sanders that there are major forces aligned against him, it is fundamental to his whole campaign’s argument.

It is dishonest to look at Sanders’ single player healthcare play in the absence of the political analysis that it exists in, then try to discredit the Sanders’ plan as unfeasible on the basis of this exclusion. This is what Krugman’s first two points about Sanders plan being likely to face opposition from powerful lobbies and rich people does. It ignores the fact that Sanders is saying the exact same thing.

Krugman’s third point is that voters wouldn’t stand for this sort of disruption to their insurance plans. Well, today, maybe that could be true. But if we envision a future where we have had our “political revolution,” where money is being forced out of politics, the rich are being made to pay their fair share to help healthcare exist as a human right, then perhaps Americans will be not only willing, but anxiously awaiting the minor disruptions which may come in the process of switching from the kludge of health care and insurance programs we now have to a more unified one that offers them richer benefits.

Sanders’ whole campaign has told the story of how he wants to create a different America, one that is more equitable, that is less corrupt and is built to work for the people, not billionaires. It is no doubt an aspirational story. There are no doubt many pragmatic arguments to be made against such a vision being achieved in the next year or two or four. But focusing into one part of the Sanders vision and trying to discredit it for lacking the very terms found in the rest of that vision is fundamentally dishonest.

Moreover, the highly pragmatic and conveniently disingenuous critique of Sanders is no accidental artifact induced by Sanders’ specific proposals. The likelihood is that there is no single payer plan that could be constructed and presented in such a way so that the political pundit class, establishment Democrats and the entire Republican Party would look at it and say, “Gee, that is a highly pragmatic and achievable plan that we can all see passing within the first four years of a Sanders administration.” None. The response we are seeing now is always the response that we would see from Clinton and centrist self-described wonks.

That is what it is. It does not mean Sanders should not be campaigning for single payer nor that he made a mistake by articulate a plan. Presenting a vision, grounded in a wider analysis of the political process, for how we can deliver health care as a right in America is a critically important step that Sanders has taken. It pushes the envelope on what has been presented by American presidential candidates. We are having a debate about single payer health care in America – that is a good thing! This is a necessary step for us ever actually getting single payer. It isn’t going to happen absent a politician running on it, building a movement of support for it, and having that movement force it forward over loud, monied opposition.

Bernie Sanders knows this would be a dogfight. He’s told us so for a long time. And as of January 2016, he’s the only candidate pushing forward into the fray.

Is it time for everyone to leave everywhere?

In The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg has asked “Is it time for Jews to leave Europe?” The piece has received praise around the American political press for the shear hotness of Goldberg’s take, built heavily on anecdotes and anti-Muslim suspicions. Fredrik deBoer has an excellent response to Goldberg here, as well as a detailed explanation as to why he doesn’t feel compelled to layer his response to Goldberg with heavy caveats about his belief in the existence of anti-Semitism.

I’ll differentiate from deBoer slightly and add some caveats to my post. I’m Jewish. I believe anti-Semitism is real, as it has been a real phenomenon for millennia. I believe it exists in Europe, in the Middle East, in Africa, in the Americas.  I believe that there are anti-Semitic Christians in positions of power in Europe. I believe there are poor and working class anti-Semitic Muslims who are themselves powerless in Europe. I believe anti-Semitism exists because the horror of the Holocaust and the global recognition of that horror did not, in fact, magically dissolve millennia of anti-Semitism – just as the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, like the Emancipation Proclamation before them, did not end racism in America.

The problem with a hot take like Goldberg’s is that it argues fallaciously via anecdote and a presumably deliberate misrepresentation of power dynamics, both in history and today. DeBoer:

One point of Goldberg’s is the most absurd, the most toxic, and the most dangerous. Goldberg argues that there is a chance that Europe’s Muslims will form a coalition with Europe’s rising far-right political parties. He then explicitly analogizes that possibility to the conditions that led to Nazi party. This is utter, absurd lunacy, an idea so inherently ridiculous and straightforwardly wrong that it should totally disqualify his piece even from the many people who are bent on agreeing with it. As his own reporting makes clear, Europe’s actually-existing far-right parties hate Muslim immigrants and would never, ever form a coalition with them. The National Front, a white supremacist group, they’re going to get cozy with a bunch of poor Arabs and Persians? Really? Golden Dawn, which literally contributed to war crimes against Serbian Muslims? They strike you as a group eager to join forces with Muslims? The English Defence League, a movement that started explicitly to harass and exclude and degrade Muslim immigrants in the UK? Really? Indeed, the very rise in those far-right parties that he describes is happening because of anti-Muslim sentiment. The very idea of explicitly Aryan-supremacist, pro-white, anti-immigrant, pro-“Western civilization” parties forming a bloc with the very people they are rising up to oppose is so farcical that only a publication as motivated by intrinsic bigotry as the Atlantic could allow it to be published.

Indeed the existence today (as there has existed for millennia) of individual acts of anti-Semitism in the forms Goldberg articulates – graffiti, casual curses, an outrageous “comedian” and recently a small number of violent acts – are oceans away from the structural anti-Semitism in the form of the political machinery of the German state in the 1930s and 1940s. To equate the two is, as deBoer writes, insane.

But suppose we indulge Goldberg’s hot take for a moment. If he’s right, who else should consider packing their bags and leaving their land of residence for greener pastures?

As deBoer notes, Muslims in Western Europe are the target of large political parties, slurs, graffiti and sporadic individual violence. Following 9/11 there were ample examples of anti-Muslim acts across America. Today the US government wages a transnational war against Muslim terrorists and anyone who is in the same remote geography as these terrorists. Even here in America in a non-governmental capacity in recent weeks, Muslims have been shot and killed for the photographing snowfall and dropping their daughters off at school.

Surely Goldberg and his editors at The Atlantic would want us to ask,  “Is it time for Muslims to leave America?”

In the last year, there have been thousands of instances of rape and violence perpetrated by American men against American women. Women who have publicly objected to sexism have been targeted with death threats, rape threats, harassment, and doxxing of their private information. When women have complained to social media companies like Facebook and Twitter that they are being abused, the platforms have largely protected their male attackers.

Surely Goldberg and his editors at The Atlantic would want us to ask,  “Is it time for women to leave the internet?”

But perhaps the most concerning question must surely be related to the sickness of white supremacy and racism in America. Despite previously passing laws that ended slavery and largely ended segregation, white supremacy and racism still exist in America. In the last couple of years, there have been the repeated killings of unarmed black men and women. Sometimes it’s been by vigilantes like George Zimmerman or other home “defending” sociopaths who naturally escape legal sanction due to permissive Stand Your Ground laws supported by the gun lobby and NRA, historic bastions of white power. But more recently and more concerning to blacks is that police officers have repeatedly killed unarmed black men and not only gotten away with it, but never charged for these murders in the first place. In Missouri, in New York, in California, across the South, and in Ohio, it’s quite simply the case that the government has legally sanctioned the killing of black Americans.

Surely Goldberg and his editors at The Atlantic would want us to ask, “Is it time for blacks to leave America?” 

The simple reality is that as a global society, we have problems to overcome. We have structural inequities and historic hatreds that have not been expunged by the passage of time nor the recognition of past horrors (like the Holocaust or slavery). Anti-Semitism exists. Islamophobia exists. Homophobia exists. Racism exists. Transphobia exists. It is entirely reasonable and necessary that smart people around the world discuss these scourges so as to shine light on them and hopefully make them regress further from not just individual consciousness but from the halls of political power.

But this project is not aided by alarmist, dishonest, bigoted pieces like Goldberg’s. If we want to confront the sickness of hatred in our world, we need to do it without the baggage of hatred. You can’t end anti-Semitism with Islamophobia. It just doesn’t work that way.

This is what it’s about

At the tail end of an outstanding dismantling of Jonathan Chait’s recent hippy punching, anti-speech-that-makes-him-feel-uncomfortable screed against the so-called “pc movement,” Jessica Valenti offers up an excellent description of why it is so important to give space for historically marginalized people to voice their opinions and raise their objections to the policies, assumptions, and behaviors of the powerful and privileged. Valenti writes:

We are finally approaching a critical mass of interest in ending racism, misogyny and transphobia and the ways they are ingrained into our institutions. Instead of rolling our eyes at the intensity of the feelings people have over these issues, we should be grateful that they care so much, because racism, misogyny and transphobia can and do kill people. If the price we all pay for progress for the less privileged is that someone who is more privileged gets their feelings hurt sometimes – or that they might have to think twice before opening their mouths or putting their fingers to keyboards – that’s a small damn price to pay. That’s not stopping free speech; it’s making our speech better.

When I look around, I see tremendous progress being made not necessarily in policy (though sometimes things get better) but in sentiment and public culture. There is widespread, multi-racial support online for ending racism and fighting police brutality. There is pushback against misogyny, not just from feminists but from anti-racist and pro-worker activists. There is open support and love for transgender people who are helping to shed light on what it is to be trans, from Wikileaker Chelsea Manning to punk rocker Laura Jane Grace to former Navy SEAL Kristen Beck.

The rise of vibrant, vocal support for “ending racism, misogyny and transphobia” has meant things like the sports blog Deadspin and the celebrity(ish) blog Gawker are consistent sources of bleeding edge thinking on how to wage these fights and call out problematic moments. Which is to say, as Jessica does, that this is not a marginal movement, it’s cultural progress on a transformative scale. It might mean that white dudes (like, say, me or Jonathan Chait) are forced to feel uncomfortable sometimes, but that’s a miniscule price to pay for the elevation of dignity and equality to all people, especially those who have historically not been granted it by straight white dudes. It doesn’t just make speech better, but it creates space for more speech by more people. I’m pretty excited about these developments and if you’re threatened by them, you probably need to check your privilege settings.

On polling & punditry

This piece at the sports blog Deadspin by David Roher on the spurious attacks on poll analyst Nate Silver from the right, as well as from established Beltway pundits like David Brooks and Joe Scarborough, is must-read.

In particular:

In fact, we’ve reached the point in our screwed-up political media culture where the polling companies and forecasters—not the pundits, not the spokespeople, and certainly not the candidates—are the only people being evaluated rigorously on the substance of their arguments. If Nate Silver and Sam Wang screw up, their popularity will suffer as a result, and they’ll have to reconsider their models. Meanwhile, if Brooks, Jordan, Scarborough, Rubin, or Byers make another poor argument, they’ll continue to collect their paychecks as if nothing had happened. Likewise, the Curse of the Bambino stopped working long ago, and yet Dan Shaughnessy is still getting book deals.

Just like their colleagues in the sports section, the political pundits see the wrong kind of uncertainty in Nate Silver. They associate statistics with mathematical proof, as if a confidence interval were the same thing as the Pythagorean Theorem. Silver isn’t more sure of himself than his detractors, but he’s more rigorous about demonstrating his uncertainty. He’s bad news for the worst members of the punditry, who obscure the truth so their own ignorance looks better by comparison and who make their money on the margin of uncertainty, too.

Taibbi on the crappy media

This is from last week, but I just realized I hadn’t linked up to Matt Taibbi’s vice presidential debate post mortem. In it, he had one of the sharpest analyses I’ve seen about the failures of the modern American political media’s penchant for fetishizing objectivity over accuracy. He writes:

Sometimes in journalism I think we take the objectivity thing too far. We think being fair means giving equal weight to both sides of every argument. But sometimes in the zeal to be objective, reporters get confused. You can’t report the Obama tax plan and the Romney tax plan in the same way, because only one of them is really a plan, while the other is actually not a plan at all, but an electoral gambit.

The Romney/Ryan ticket decided, with incredible cynicism, that that they were going to promise this massive tax break, not explain how to pay for it, and then just hang on until election day, knowing that most of the political press would let it skate, or at least not take a dump all over it when explaining it to the public. Unchallenged, and treated in print and on the air as though it were the same thing as a real plan, a 20 percent tax cut sounds pretty good to most Americans. Hell, it sounds good to me.

The proper way to report such a tactic is to bring to your coverage exactly the feeling that Biden brought to the debate last night: contempt and amazement. We in the press should be offended by what Romney and Ryan are doing – we should take professional offense that any politician would try to whisk such a gigantic lie past us to our audiences, and we should take patriotic offense that anyone is trying to seize the White House using such transparently childish and dishonest tactics. [Emphasis added]

A similar thread would be Romney’s refusal to release his income tax returns beyond a paltry two years. Recent standard has been twelve years. Romney is getting away with this because reporters are allowing him to get away with it. There’s no other reason. In fact, much of Mitt Romney’s ability to be a viable candidate at this point in the election is premised on the media’s abject refusal to confront his campaign’s lying and obfuscation with scorn and outrage, as opposed to obsequious acceptance.

Ezra Klein’s Honesty

In an interesting piece about how Paul Ryan convinced people in Washington that he is a Serious and Deep Thinker, Alec MacGillis of The New Republic reports an incredible development in the self-identity of young Beltway pundit and reporter Ezra Klein. Klein has moved from ostensibly progressive blogger to a gig at The American Prospect to a column and blog at The Washington Post. He also is a regular guest on MSNBC and even occasionally fills in for progressive MSNBC hosts.

While Klein is considered an expert on healthcare policy and has proven himself a reliable mouthpiece for the Obama administration, there have been plenty of people (myself included) who have questioned whether he was actually liberal or someone seeking to climb the ladder of the Beltway centrist press elite. MacGillis finds and answer to that:

I talked to Klein shortly after the convention and asked whether he thought Ryan had used wonkery to cloak a rigid ideological agenda, partly by engaging with fellow policy geeks like himself. Klein demurred, saying that it should have been clear to everyone for some time now that Ryan is a “very, very ambitious politician who is also a very fluent policy wonk.” He disputed the premise that he had given Ryan bipartisan cover at a crucial point in the congressman’s career: “I don’t think of the blog as making an argument for liberalism. At this point in my life, I don’t really think of myself as a liberal. That’s not the project I’m part of, which is to let the facts take me where they do. That’s why I gave him better coverage when the numbers added up and less so when they didn’t.”

First, anyone who’s followed Paul Ryan’s career from the left has been pretty clear throughout: the numbers he uses don’t add up to the positions he takes. Paul Krugman and Dean Baker are two easy examples.

But more importantly, Klein is saying he’s not a liberal. Without making any normative judgment about what it means for someone who emerged from the progressive blogosphere to declare themselves no longer a liberal, I would hope that this means that liberal groups and liberal media outlets take Klein at his word and stop treating him like a liberal reporter. If MSNBC needs a substitute for one of their liberal news show hosts, they should turn to a self-identified liberal, not Klein. If a progressive advocacy group wants positive coverage from a sympathetic reporter, they should not count on Klein as a good liberal reporter. There are plenty of good, liberal reporters and opinion journalists out there – they should be supported by being given stories by liberal groups.

Hopefully Klein’s honesty leads to changes in how groups relate to him and how MSNBC views him on their roster of commentators.