Sunday, August 09, 2009

False Equivalence

The Washington Post wants to make fault for the "unhealthy debate" over healthcare reform a bipartisan problem. So it offers up this:
When it comes to health-care reform, August is shaping up as the loudest month. Angry protesters, spurred by conservative groups, shout down Democratic lawmakers at meetings to discuss reform, with congressional Republicans cheering these "recess roastings." Congressional Democrats lash out at what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) described as "villainous" health insurers making "immoral profits."
Nancy Pelosi is one person. Did they mean to say "Congressional Democrat"?

The major newspapers have started to hyperlink to other sources, and certainly know how to hyperlink internally, but they provide no context for Pelosi's statements. I was able to track down the "immoral profits" quote:
Well, the way we have heard it coming over from the Senate -- and, of course, we haven't seen it yet -- is that they want to tax the insurance companies for the Cadillac, Rolls-Royce, whatever the top-of-the-line is of the day. I prefer a domestic model, but to tax the insurance companies for those high-end insurance policies.

I think there's a lot of interest in taxing the insurance companies, because people really do see across America, they know that they have caused the problem that we have, with their antitrust exemption that they have and the immoral profits. They're making billions of dollars in profits while they're cutting off people for benefits that they are entitled to under their insurance policy.
In context, Pelosi's reference to "immoral profits" appears to mean those derived from "cutting off people for benefits that they are entitled to under their insurance policy." In that context, "immoral" seems pretty soft. What word would the Post have her use?

As for calling insurance companies "villanous", I apparently need to read Michelle Malkin and her ilk, as the insane right is all over that one. Between that, and the fact that Pelosi apparently made her statement after a press conference in response to a question that's not reported (did the reporter bring up the notion of "villains"), and there's no full transcript. Here's the longest version I've found:
They are the villains in this. They have been part of the problem in a major way. They have been doing everything in their power to stop a public option from happening. The public has to know that. They can describe their arguments any way they want, but the fact is they don’t want the competition. They don’t even want anti-trust laws. They have had a good thing going for a long time at the expense of the American people and the health of our country. Our members have to go out there ready to take on a big special interest that has not made our country healthier and have made our cost spiral upward and for whom that is coming to an end.
So health insurance companies aren't "villanous" as such, but Pelosi sees them as the "villains" in obstructing a healthcare reform bill? Okay, let's strip out the rhetoric and go with what Pelosi clearly meant - that private health insurance companies are the greatest current impediment to healthcare reform, and are actively working to scuttle reform. Would that be inaccurate? The Post needs to worry less about form and more about substance.

The Post's remaining criticism is pointed at Obama, and can be described either as incompetent or as an intentional distortion; I don't see a third possibility:
President Obama has been more restrained but hardly more accurate; in a news conference last month, he inaccurately complained about insurers making "record profits, right now." In fact, among U.S. industries generally and other parts of the health sector in particular, insurers are not particularly profitable. The latest Fortune 500 ranking of most profitable industries has pharmaceuticals third, medical products and equipment fourth, and health insurers down at No. 35. Drugmakers reported a 19.3 percent profit margin; insurers, 2.2 percent.
I expect that Obama was alluding to reports like this:
Profits at 10 of the country’s largest publicly traded health insurance companies rose 428 percent from 2000 to 2007, while consumers paid more for less coverage.
Now we've had an economic downturn since 2007, so it's possible that health insurance companies have seen their profits slide. Although that raises another interesting question - how do we define profits? If we're talking net income, that could slide in a recession as employers lay off employees (who lose their health benefits). But if we're talking about profits per enrollee, that could conceivably rise even as net profits drop. So it's difficult to assess Obama's comment without first asking him what he meant. But I digress.

Does this need to be explained? Let's say that throughout the history of my company I've turned a .0001% profit. This year, thanks to remarkable improvements in efficiency, I up that to .00011%. Miniscule profits? Certainly. But they nonetheless are record profits. When you compare me to me it matters not one lick whether any other business has higher profit margins.

That is to say, although there may be valid grounds to dispute the accuracy or relevance of Obama's claim, the Post's effort fell flat on its face. To the extent that the Post has a point - this is an unhealthy debate - the Post itself is part of the problem.

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