A human being lives there: Grubergate

Jon made some really misguided and condescending comments that fueled the #Grubergate frenzy. So I am both angry with and sad for him today. In the apocalyptic politics of Obamacare, it’s easy to forget that he’s also a good person and a distinguished scholar who is getting the full internet-frenzy gang tackle right now.

Ezra Klein captures well my own sadness:

I’ll offer a slightly smaller final thought here: Gruber increasingly looks like a casualty of Obamacare. He’s become a liability to the law’s supporters — “I don’t know who he is,” said Nancy Pelosi, who had cited Gruber’s analyses during the health-care debate — and a villain to its opponents. He has been made into the worst comments he ever uttered on tape.

That’s a shame. Gruber tried to make it a better bill than it is. He tried to make what was in it clearer and more known than it was. And then — and this is where all the tapes come from — he traveled the country trying to explain it to people. And Gruber, as is perfectly clear now, was not an experienced political operator who knew how to talk carefully in front of a camera. The lesson other academics will take from his humiliation is that they best stay out of big policy debates, and they had really better make sure they never say anything interesting on tape.

Washington has always done this to people, but it’s happening more frequently, and more viciously, in the age of Twitter and YouTube. And while it makes sense in every individual case, it is, on the whole, bad for American politics. “It’s a healthy world where academics can speak their minds at conferences and the like without their words becoming political weapons in a bigger fight,” writes Tyler Cowen.

Cowen goes on to suggest that “perhaps we should subsidize people who end up looking foolish, rather than taxing them.” We’re not going to do that, of course. But we can at least try to be a bit more generous. We can remember people are more than the most controversial thing we’ve ever heard them say.

I am reminded of Philip Roth’s comments about a much more megawatt and sordid scandal. Roth also advised President Clinton to hang a banner outside the White House: “A human being lives here.” On all sides, we easily forget our humanity and compassion these days. The ecstasy of sanctimony is an ugly thing to see.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

10 thoughts on “A human being lives there: Grubergate”

  1. Lots of very nice people have found themselves crucified in the media and the blogosphere — some of them even on this blog. (Though not by you, I think.) We should feel sorry for all of them. But Dr. Gruber has long been virulent in his language about his opponents. You yourself have quoted him as saying that those who disagree with him "are not just not interested in covering poor people, they are willing to sacrifice billions of dollars of injections into their economy in order to punish poor people. It really is just almost awesome in its evilness." He's done his best to demonize ACA opponents. He's now learning that the price of rabid partisanship is . . . rabid partisanship in return. Hate speech begets hate speech. Human beings live in the homes of people who voted against the ACA, too.

  2. The 15 minutes of hate fades pretty quickly, but man does it sting when you're the target. They're ought to be a club of previous victims to offer a sympathetic shoulder.

  3. A man who contributes to important debates but lives in an ivory tower and is perhaps a bit unfamiliar with public speaking should be supported and forgiven for the reasons given by Keith. But unless Gruber has been living in a cafe for the past twenty years, he had to have known that he was pouring gasoline on the fire. What he said, particularly about how stupid the American people are, is simply unforgivable in someone who has been associated with and given the trust of political leaders who are trying to bring about much needed reforms in the health care system.

    1. I think that this may have been more of a Romney-style gaffe: playing to an audience you think agrees with you, without considering how what you say will be considered in a different context. It's become much more common in the past 5 years or so for things said to a particular audience to get spread to a lot of other audiences.

  4. I agree very much with the spirit of this post. Our political discourse is not what it should be.

    Having said that, isn't it a little bit true that the administration did not exactly want people to know how much it was going to cost even those of modest means? I get that it is not supposed to be called a tax, and legally perhaps it isn't one. But. We basically doubled the "taxes" of people who are just above being actually super-poor. That is more or less what happened. They are now also getting health insurance for that money, which is nice. But. Did not this man accidentally tell the truth? (Except for when he said "stupid" when he should have said "ignorant.")

    1. I'd love to see where you came up with the idea that the ACA doubled taxes for those just above being super poor.

      1. It was during a conversation on this site, during which we in the comments were discussing the premium burden that would be on a person making maybe the late 20s, to early 30s annual salary. (I think — I searched and can't find that page now. Maybe it was an even higher salary.) Such a person would be expected to pay, iirc, something around $85 to $100 a month. Most people here thought that was okay. I did not, since people making so little money have very little extra. (And that is probably with a subsidy, which imo, doesn't change the basic point.)

        And anyway, the point I am making here is, during the whole debate, the administration *was* pretty darned quiet about the practical results – for many people who don't make much, but aren't "poor" — of an individual mandate. I understand why, and overall, the system *is* a teensy bit better with Obamacare than it was without. But I sure don't see why we should stop now. We should keep pushing forward until we get to single payer.

        And of course, it is not technically a "tax," which is why I used the darned quotation marks to begin with.

        1. Even the numbers you are providing don't constitute doubling the taxes of people in that income range. If you're paying $85-$100 a month as a single member household after subsidies and you've chosen a silver plan then you're probably making around $20,000 per year. In other words, your FICA taxes alone are more than three times what you're paying in premiums. If you go with a bronze plan, the ratio is going to be even greater.

  5. I really hate to keep kicking a man when he's down but Ezra Klein's defense that poor misunderstood Gruber was just traveling around the country explaining the law to people like a good academic when he misspoke and became the victim of a Washington insiders feeding frenzy rankles. I listen to the clip twice more just now. What Gruber seems to be explaining is that the Obama administration basically deceived and misdirected everybody to get the ACA passed but that's okay because the American people are too stupid to know the difference. You know, I personally think that Obama deserves a lot more loyalty and consideration from Gruber for the $400K.

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