Mensch and Grubermensch

I am stupid and, as if that were not bad enough, I lack economic understanding. These characteristics are innately mine by dint of my status as an American voter, according to the criteria established by Jonathan Gruber. We are all Grubermensch now, and any resemblance to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch is purely phonetic. Some kudos is due to Gruber: while I don’t know about the rest of you, I have to admit that he was right about me. Any jury presented with a representative sample of the public policies I have propounded over the years would convict me on both counts–(1) stupid and (2) lacking economic understanding–and they would not have to deliberate for more than a minute or two.

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For those of you who do not attend to the news, Jonathan Gruber is the MIT professor who helped design the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In 2006, Candidate-in-Waiting Obama described Gruber as someone whose ideas on health care he had “liberally stolen,” and six years later the Obama campaign described him as the man “who helped write Obamacare.” In between, the administration had paid Professor Gruber $400,000 for the use of his proprietary method for predicting how the Congressional Budget Office would score said health-care measure. Now the President calls him just “some adviser who never worked on our staff,” a dismissive description that may have something to do with the reason Professor Gruber has been in the headlines recently: In front of two separate audiences he referred to Americans as “stupid,” and quipped to a third audience about “the lack of economic understanding of the American voter.” And those are just the instances that were digitally captured for posterity.

Yes, a man who repeatedly denigrated the entire country in a snide and condescending manner while he knew he was being recorded thinks we are stupid.

Gruber became a person of interest to conservatives, and an embarrassment to progressives, because he contradicted the administration’s key argument in King v. Burwell, a case about the ACA now pending before the Supreme Court of the United States. The administration claims that the ACA permits the IRS to treat state exchanges and federal exchanges alike for the purposes of subsidies in the form of premium tax credits. It does not. The intent of Congress, as Professor Gruber explained, was to allow subsidies to state exchanges—not federal exchanges—so as to give states an incentive to establish them, rather than leave the job to the feds.

In January 2012, Gruber said: “By not setting up an exchange, the politicians of a state are costing state residents hundreds and millions and billions of dollars… That is really the ultimate threat, is, will people understand that, gee, if your governor doesn’t set up an exchange, you’re losing hundreds of millions of dollars of tax credits to be delivered to your citizens.”

Later in 2012, Gruber said: “What’s important to remember politically about this is if you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits, but your citizens still pay the taxes that support this bill. So you’re essentially saying [to] your citizens you’re going to pay all the taxes to help all the other states in the country. I hope that that’s a blatant enough political reality that states will get their act together and realize there are billions of dollars at stake here in setting up these exchanges.”

You can watch a lengthy video here (skip to minute 31:30 for the pertinent part), or via the July edition of the libertarian magazine Reason, which describes Gruber’s position prior to the lawsuits.

I write about Gruber not to join the chorus of commentators castigating him and his former client for the contradiction, but to raise a point about the definition of victory. Professor Gruber’s statements about the dirty little secrets of the ACA’s passage sound like those of a famous thespian conducting a master class, someone who believes that he has already won his bouquets and plaudits, that the curtain has fallen, and that the drama is over. Or if I may tweak the metaphor a little, Gruber, breaking through the political equivalent of what theater-types call the fourth wall, speaks as if the audience will hear him but that the actors, having quit the stage, cannot. Professor Gruber seems not to have noticed that the show is not over. The fat lady ain’t sung yet.

As an American voter by choice not by birth, I wear my slow-wittedness as a badge of honor. Call me a Grubermensch and I will puff out my chest with pride. But even I, an open and notorious dullard, was not so stupid as to think that after the enactment of the ACA the law’s opponents would simply shrug, sigh, and shake it off. And my understanding of economics was not quite so lacking as to lead me to suppose that those whose bank accounts the Act threatened to drastically diminish would, post presidential signature, just let it go.

Politics, like other contact sports, is a game of two halves. For example, some rugby teams pride themselves on being strong second-half teams, able to absorb losses in the first 40 minutes only to bounce back with such gusto after half-time that when the referee blows the final whistle they have more points than the other guys (who don’t look so smug any more). When the President signs a bill into law, what is over is merely the first half, not the whole contest. In the second half of a political match-up, rather than switching ends the players relocate the whole game to the courthouse. Often it is there, in the judicial branch, where the laurels and trophies are handed out.

Perhaps Professor Gruber forgot how many branches of government we have (there is a nasty strain of constitutional amnesia going around Washington, D.C., these days) and figured that success in the legislative and executive branches amounted to total victory. Perhaps he has never played rugby, by which I certainly do not mean to imply that as an MIT man his veins carry dilute cat’s milk instead of blood. Or perhaps as a professor of the dismal science Gruber has no time for the political kind.  Political scientists Theodor Skocpol and Lawrence R. Jacobs mention in their 2010 book Health Care Reform and American Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know the fact that even while the President was signing the bill into law “conservative Republicans were filing lawsuits to try to have key provisions of what they derisively called ‘ObamaCare’ declared unconstitutional” (p. 7). Gruber should have perused the book. He gets a mention on page 191, footnote 8, as the “health economist… who advised both the Romney and Obama Administrations as they instituted health care reform.”

I admit that events can range from the highly improbable, those that Nassim Nicholas Taleb would categorize as Black Swans, to the well-nigh inevitable, those that are bound to occur absent some novus actus interveniens. But Republicans filing lawsuits over Obamacare would tend to fall toward the Sure-Thing end of the spectrum.

Take, for example, those Republicans who had already expressed the intention of doing so. In early 2010 Governor Rick Perry of Texas and the State’s then Attorney General, now Governor, Greg Abbott, said they would bring a case, as did a number of other Republican governors and conservative groups. That should have been a heads-up.

So you did not have to be a genius to foresee that some Republicans somewhere might challenge the law in court. Just Grubermensch like you and me.