I got scammed in a grocery store parking lot a few weeks ago. I was in my usual hurry in the late afternoon, and I let the liar who took my money talk to me long enough to trust him – just long enough for his story to work. I’ll have to say he was good. When he first approached me, I recalled another instance of being asked for money under unexpected circumstances. That time I knew I wouldn’t get the money back. I was so suspicious of the parking lot guy that, first chance I had, I called the telephone number he gave me and confirmed that it was a false number. As I said, he had me just long enough.

Funny thing, you get more angry at yourself for being so stupid than you do at the guy who scams you. Part of me even admired how good an actor he was. He had one giveaway in particular that should have made me suspect everything else, but his acting, his quickness on his feet in carrying the conversation – this man was not an amateur. I know I was not his first victim, but I wish I could do something to make sure I was his last.

Do you know what would make me especially angry at this thief, who takes people’s money after he lies to them? I would be especially angry if I overheard him boasting to his fellow thieves about how stupid his victims are. “Call it the stupidity of the American shopper,” the thief might say, “but telling them just enough to win their sympathy is what you have to do. Don’t tell them too much.” How would you feel then, if you heard a person like that share fine points about how he took you?

That’s what happened with American taxpayers when Jonathan Gruber’s 2013 panel presentation at the University of Pennsylvania went viral this week. You can see the hamster rev up in Gruber’s smug, MIT-trained academic mind as he recalls drafting, promoting, and passing the Affordable Care Act:

This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO [Congressional Budget Office] did not score the mandate as taxes. …Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really really critical for the thing to pass.

Have I got a deal for you! Jonathan Gruber promotes his comic book.

Ah yes, the joys of calling the American people stupid behind their backs, when you are with other professors, who also hold the people who pay them in contempt. And yes, thank you for the internet, where no one – not even stupid MIT economists – can hide for long. You can tell, from the reaction to Obama’s famous lie – if you like your health plan, you can keep it – that the American people feel their leaders have scammed them one too many times. Yes, perhaps you can say we’re stupid if we let it happen more than once, but we do want to give leaders who seem to be acting in good faith the benefit of the doubt. When it turns out they lie to us for their own benefit, that they make a career of it and brag about their exploits among themselves, that makes you annoyed.

Not to dwell on this source of irritation too much, but how many interpretations of Jonathan Gruber’s asinine remark about the stupidity of the American voter can you come up with?

  • Because of the stupidity of the American voter, deception was necessary to pass the ACA.
  • Because American voters are so stupid, it didn’t really matter what we said about the ACA.
  • Because American voters are so stupid, it didn’t matter that much what the Affordable Care Act actually contained.
  • Lying about the Affordable Care Act worked because American voters are too stupid to distinguish what is true from what is false in their leaders’ remarks about the bill.

You could even add another one: that passage of a health reform bill this bad demonstrates the stupidity of the legislators who passed it, the architects who designed it, the propagandists who marketed it, and everyone else who tainted their reputation by getting within a shooting mile of that pile of paper. That would be a little off the subject, though.

You know what’s coming next for President Obama: more disgrace. With friends like Gruber fighting the good fight for him, who needs Republicans for enemies? Put another way, why should Republicans expend energy to oppose the Affordable Care Act, when the law’s main architect argues that the stupidity of the American voter was essential to its passage? This wasn’t a slip of the tongue, by the way: Gruber offers a comprehensive account of the devious methods the Obama administration used to make sure the bill would pass, and adds off-handedly that the stupidity of the American voter made the deception work.

People who read my posts on the Affordable Care Act should know that I’ve had a lot of time to warm up. That’s because I live in greater Boston, where Jonathan Gruber and Mitt Romney gave birth to the idea that people should be forced to buy health insurance, with penalties for non-compliance administered via the tax system.

As this program took shape here in Massachusetts, as it passed the legislature and became a real law, it was hard to believe that something so coercive and poorly thought through could actually come into being. It was clearly not going to achieve its primary goal of reducing health care costs in the Commonwealth, and it caused a lot of other problems that didn’t exist before.

Logo for the Massachusetts health exchange.

Then I found out an academic was behind it. That explained almost everything. Academics don’t know what they don’t know. When you work the way academics work, you start to think that you know everything in your narrow little field. Because you know so much in your specialty, and because you are obviously smart, you start to think that other people, who don’t know what you know, are stupid. Thinking you are smarter than other people can get you in a lot of trouble.

At first I could not figure why a smart man like Mitt Romney would sponsor legislation like that, but then you remember that Romney is a numbers man himself. He could get pulled into Gruber’s equations and models and forecasts as easily as anyone. Still, the attraction of numbers and complex equations does not explain how something that feels wrong at its core could actually become a law. The 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act in Washington felt surreal. You felt that the national legislature had actually negated itself, in that you could never have confidence in it again.

Why did I say, “That explains everything” when I found out an academic was behind the Massachusetts health reform law? I had been an academic for quite a long time before moving to Massachusetts. I was familiar with how academics think. Admittedly, not all academics think in tight little self-contained circles that have virtually no connection to the way people live their lives, or with the way organizations actually operate, but enough of them are smug fools, like Jonathan Gruber, that you have to keep them away from making public policy. We keep academics locked up in universities for a good reason. You would not let a surgeon fly a Boeing 747, and you certainly would not let an MIT economist design a health reform law. You are going to crash and burn, which is exactly what happened to the Affordable Care Act.

When it became apparent that the Democrats in the Obama administration wanted to use the Massachusetts system as a model for the national system, that’s when real disaster loomed. While this small potatoes train wreck played out in our diminutive state, you could say, “What do you expect? This is Massachusetts.” At least, you could think, other states will know what to avoid now. Then you see that the president wants to apply these same ideas to the whole country, and you say, these guys really don’t know what they are doing. That’s not just a comment on their incompetence. They also had no idea how bad the consequences would be. They took as their model a system that did not work in one small state, and thought they would deploy that system in a much more complicated environment. You see the results before you.

Related article and videos

See a related article, and video of the panel where Gruber made the remarks here:


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