18.11.14

THE POSTER BOY FOR THE FATAL CONCEIT.

Various writers for National Review have given MIT health economist Jonathan Gruber fifteen minutes of fame, but probably not of the kind he dreamed of in graduate school. Start with Charles Krauthammer, characterizing what might be imprecise seminar inside jokes as world-class cynicism.
Remember: The whole premise of Obamacare was that it would help the needy, but if you were not in need, if you liked what you had, you would be left alone. Which is why Obama kept repeating — Politifact counted 31 times — that “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan.”

But of course you couldn’t, as millions discovered when they were kicked off their plans last year. Millions more were further shocked when they discovered major hikes in their premiums and deductibles. It was their wealth that was being redistributed.
Wealth being redistributed precludes changes in the health insurance market being a Pareto improvement (in business jargon, win-win-win), but does not rule out a Marshallian improvement or a policy change that satisfies either the Hicks-Kaldor or the Scitovsky criterion for a gain in aggregate social welfare.  That's a little wonkish for so late on a Tuesday football night.  I will be returning to this point again, so come back again.

For now, it's the Social Engineering Vice (thanks to Deirdre McCloskey for that formulation) that I wish to highlight.  The Democrats and their willing accomplices in the media and the universities might be able to conceal or forget the specific instances of Professor Gruber disrespecting voters, but in Ian Tuttle's essay there's a general concept that readers ought retain.
Gruber’s comments have been much-remarked-upon, particularly on the right, not only for confirming what Obamacare critics have said for five years but also for capturing at least in part the ethos of modern progressive liberalism: smarter-than-thou zealotry masquerading as for-the-greater-good pragmatism. (That he did it at sound-bite length is simply an added perk.) But for a movement that touts its stratospheric intelligence, the response to Gruber’s comments from his longtime supporters, both on Capitol Hill and in the media, reminds observers of something else: that liberalism tends to handle its PR nightmares with an iron first.

Consider what is happening to Jonathan Gruber: In frantic damage control, many liberals have reflexively indulged their despotic inclinations and try to “disappear” him. The University of Pennsylvania pulled the original video of Gruber’s remarks from its website. No doubt if it were possible, Democratic staffers, Politburo-style, would be scrubbing him from photographs.
Individual instances of arrogance might be downplayed, or spun away.  But what the self-styled progressives call Expertise and what Professor Hayek called the fatal conceit is precisely "zealotry masquerading as pragmatism."  And the best response, due to Professor McCloskey is, "if you're so smart, why aren't you rich?"  Why?  Simple.  Any inefficient allocation of resources produces efficiency gains, if you are clever enough to identify them and make them happen.  Win-win-win.  Thus, Expert Correctives are likely to be present only in situations where at least one of those wins is a lose.  And now, channelling Frederic Bastiat, the state becomes that grand fiction by which everyone attempts to live at the expense of everyone else.  It's either a unicorn, or as Rich Lowry suggests, it must be elaborately disguised in order that Lose perceives a Win.
This denies Gruber his due. He has done us all a favor by affording us an unvarnished look into the progressive mind, which values complexity over simplicity, favors indirect taxes and impositions on the American public so their costs can be hidden, and has a dim view of the average American.

Complexity is a staple of liberal policymaking. It is a product of its scale and reach, but also of the imperative to hide the ball. Taxing and spending and redistributive schemes tend to be unpopular, so clever ways have to be found to deny that they are happening. This is what Gruber was getting at. One reason Obamacare was so convoluted is that its supporters didn’t want to straightforwardly admit how much the law was raising taxes and using the young and healthy to subsidize everyone else.
Exactly. Hope and Change look appealing in front of Sculptamold columns.  Trade-offs are messy, and I wonder if Professor Gruber didn't decide not to drag his audiences into compensation arguments, or if he feared that any compensation argument would turn out badly for his project.

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