Latest Health Care Flap Shows Media at its Most Boring

Eric Van Den Brulle
A footnote in the Congressional Budget Office's latest report has sent both sides of the political aisle wild.

Democrats and Republicans strike exaggerated poses of outrage over the latest Congressional Budget Office report

There's a reason why people hate politics in this country. Or, at least, a reason they hate reading about it: It's boring.

It's the same kind of boring that prevents all but the most desperate from getting off with bots in chat rooms. When you want to interact with a human being, and get a machine instead, it's pretty much always a disappointment.

Yet this is the way our political media is delivered. Every new news item goes through a mechanized process, traveling through a flow chart designed to break down all information into one of just two types of product: meat for Republican readers, and meat for Democrat readers. Nobody else gets to eat. And even if you don't mind one or the other, nobody can stand the same meal a million days in a row. It's the numbing sameness and predictability that makes you crazy, as the latest flap over Obamacare proves once again.

Two days ago, the Congressional Budget Office released "The Slow Recovery of the Labor Market," a dry and painful report that makes the twin obvious points that a) the economy has really sucked since 2007, and b) the long-term outlook for jobs in this country is less than thrilling.

It's a depressing document, about the last thing in the world you'd voluntarily read on the toilet, but from the point of view of horse-race Hill politicos, it contained a bombshell passage. This is from a section about labor participation, i.e. the number of people willing to go to work:

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) will tend to reduce participation, with the largest impact from new subsidies that reduce the cost of health insurance purchased through exchanges. Specifically, by providing subsidies that reduce the cost of health insurance purchased through exchanges. Specifically, by providing subsidies that decline with rising income (and increase with falling income) and by making some people financially better off, the ACA will create an incentive for some people to choose to work less.

The passage then sends the reader via footnote to yet another page-turner of a CBO report, "The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024," where one learns that congress has estimated that as many as 2 million people may ultimately choose not to work by 2017 because of Obama's health care reform, which may make it feasible for people to leave (typically low-paying) jobs where they were only staying on the rolls for the insurance.

This development was quickly swallowed up by the Republican-friendly press and regurgitated in the form of myriad "Obamacare kills two million jobs" headlines. The unredeemingly dreary John Podhoretz of the New York Post wrote a typical piece, "Congressional Budget Office Sends Death Blow to Obamacare," which described the CBO budget report as "a devastating analysis of the inefficiencies, ineffectualities and problematic social costs of ObamaCare." (Actually only a small fraction of the report was about the ACA, but whatever.)

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal countered with a gloating article entitled "The Jobless Care Act" that examined the report and hissed, with near-audible contentment, that health care reform would incentivize people to quit working, go home, and just suck up taxpayer-subsidized health care like a bottomless milkshake. "Extending 'free' coverage skews job search decisions," the paper wrote, "by offering an in-kind bonus for unemployment."

With a few exceptions (Ross Douthat of the New York Times was one of the few conservatives to get it mostly right) these commentators missed the crucial distinction that the CBO was not predicting a loss of two million jobs, but a decline in available labor – i.e., people voluntarily deciding not to take jobs, not employers deciding not to offer jobs.

The result was a blizzard of bluntly incorrect headlines, like "CBO: Obamacare to Cost 2.3 Million Jobs"  (UPI) and "Obamacare Will Push Two Million Workers Out Of Labor Market: CBO" (Washington Times). Even the Washington Post had to change the phrase "two million fewer jobs" to "two million fewer workers" in a headline.

As soon as these error-filled articles hit the net, the centrist/Democrat-leaning press jumped in to bash Republicans for misreading the document. A good example would be Glenn Kessler's "The Fact Checker" column in the Washington Post ("No, the CBO Did Not Say Obamacare Will Kill 2 Million Jobs"), which published a lengthy list of the headline errata. Kessler's Post colleague Erik Wemple followed up with his own piece ("The Media's Massive Revisions on the CBO-Obamacare Story") which included before-and-after versions of the humorously wrong, then abashedly corrected, headlines.

A few outlets hedged by simply reporting that the Republicans, right or wrong, were taking political advantage of the CBO data (NPR's "Republicans Use Latest CBO Report to Rail Against Obamacare" is a good example). But for the most part, non-conservative press outlets ran with the easy-and-obvious "Right-Wing Media Fucks Up Again" storyline. It was either that, or plant a foot in the ground and make a bold turn in the other direction, to assert that the CBO report was actually a win for the White House.

The LA Times, for instance, ran a piece called, "Why The New CBO Report On Obamacare is Good News," while Paul Krugman wrote a difficult-to-follow online entry called "Reverse Notch Blogging," which used a complex theoretical model to show that it's not always a bad thing when people work less, or as he put it, "the argument that work effort actually should fall, for some people, isn't crazy."

I couldn't actually follow Krugman's point, although he did provide a bunch of graphs that lumped together would make a pleasing duvet-cover pattern. The Times editorial board was a little more transparent, writing a house opinion piece called "Freeing Workers From the Insurance Trap" which not only flatly quashed the "ACA, Job Killer" theme ("It is no such thing") but cast the 2-million-retreating-workers data-bit as a glimpse of a stirring social triumph in our future, saying "the new law will free people, young and old, to pursue careers or retirement without having to worry about health coverage."

The CBO report was a piece of news that seemed pretty clearly to cut both ways. On the one hand, it was a reminder that all of us have spent a generation living in an overpriced catastrophe of a medical system, one that forces people everywhere to swallow all kinds of crass idiocies – like having to stay at work even when you can afford retirement, because there's no other way to get insurance. If the ACA fixes that problem, and the CBO projection predicts that it will, it's pretty hard to deny that that's a good thing.

On the other hand, a CBO projection that predicts two million people leaving work for any reason, whether to consume government subsidies or not, probably isn't all good news. Pretending otherwise is always going to sound lame, kind of like exclaiming "I'm so glad!" when seven of your in-laws decide to stay on another month past Christmas.

The Republicans didn't need to lie about this one. They could have just pointed out that the CBO expected lots and lots of people to consume taxpayer largesse in the near future, and left it at that. As David Weigel of Slate put it, "Conservatives had their pick of possible spins. Subsidies were turning more people into 'takers,' for example." 

Instead, they ran with an easily-debunked campaign about Obamacare killing millions of jobs. That prompted the White House-friendly press to churn out an array of "Asshole Republicans Lie Again!" articles, followed by a spate of opinion pieces pretending two million people leaving the workforce was something to tap-dance about.

Any intelligent person reading this stuff is going to conclude both sides are in the tank and focused way more on each other than on the issue. It's boring as hell and it always gets worse the closer we get to a presidential election. Get ready for 21 more months of the same.

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