By MICHAEL KINSLEY | 1/25/11 4:50 AM EST
It’s a standard item in the Republican checklist of what’s wrong with Obamacare: that advocates of the program, in computing its costs, compare six years of expenses with 10 years of revenues. Because the most important benefits don’t kick in until 2014, the health reform program has an extra four years (2010-2014) to collect money before it has to start paying out. When the first 10 years is up (government costs and revenues are usually reported over 10-year periods), and every year’s income is compared with every year’s outgo, Obamacare will turn out to cost 60 percent more than projected, Republicans say. According to the official stats of the Congressional Budget Office, Obamacare will actually reduce costs and save the government money over 10 years. Not so, say Republicans (who voted last week in the House to repeal the whole thing). The accounting is phony. The Democrats are giving themselves a four-year head start.
The first time I heard this particular argument, months ago, I thought, “That can’t be right.” The deception, if it exists, is too obvious. Democrats aren’t that stupid. Nor do they think voters are that stupid. Or at least I hoped not. Besides, it makes no sense. Think about it for a second: Virtually all the new revenues from health care reform are inextricably tied in with the costs — penalties for not carrying insurance and so on. If it’s not yet required that everybody carry insurance, there can’t be any penalty for not carrying it, can there?
“The only thing supporters of Obamacare
have going for them is the truth.”
But then, Republicans are not so stupid, and they don’t think voters are so stupid as to think they could get away with this, are they? Almost any issue involving economic statistics is complicated enough, or can be fudged enough, to create some ambiguity — some argument for your side that isn’t completely wrong. Could this be one of those rare exceptions?
And sure enough, if you go to the Congressional Budget Office documents, you see that the CBO estimates that the revenue from penalties on corporations and individuals for not carrying insurance are exactly $0 for the first four years. Total revenues from all sources for the first four years are $32 billion, out of a total for the first decade of $525 billion.
Furthermore, the Republican 10-years-in-six charge has been repeatedly debunked in great detail by prominent liberal bloggers like Ezra Klein of The Washington Post, Paul Krugman of The New York Times and Jonathan Chait of The New Republic. Chait even includes an attractive chart showing that, as you would expect, the costs and revenues of Obamacare phase in more or less together. No one on the right, at least no one I could find, has even attempted to debunk the liberal challenge to the right’s charge, but the charge keeps getting repeated.
You can challenge these figures if you want. They are 10 months old, and both the economy and the legislation have changed a bit. But CBO’s director, Doug Elmendorf, said in a letter this month to House Speaker John Boehner that the numbers haven’t changed much. You can even question the good faith of the CBO, though Republicans’ efforts to discredit this scrupulously neutral organization tend to come and go, depending on whether they care for its conclusions. But the accusation of counting 10 years of revenues against six years of costs is based (to the extent that it is based on anything beyond raw assertion) on the terms of the legislation, not the CBO’s estimates of its effects.
To be sure, Democrats have their own flimflammery. And, like most government programs, especially entitlement programs, it’s a good bet that this will cost more than anybody’s current estimate. The CBO has said Obamacare will actually save the government money (that is, reduce the deficit) over its first 10 years. Well, maybe.
But this is not about Obamacare. It’s about honesty. As I say, this particular charge is special. There is no ambiguity here. It’s not like the question of what John Kerry did in Vietnam or how often Bill Clinton raised taxes as governor of Arkansas or even if Barack Obama was really born in Kenya. On issues like these, someone absolutely determined to climb the tree can always find some limb to hang onto. But on the 10-years-in-six business, there are only two possibilities: Either supporters or opponents of Obamacare are attempting a laughably obvious deception.
The opponents have all the advantages except one. By making their charge, they got to go first. They also benefit from the media’s traditional reluctance to settle arguments like this. “Fairness” and “balance” create pressure to offer both sides of every story, even stories with only one side. The only thing supporters of Obamacare have going for them is the truth.
Michael Kinsley is a columnist for POLITICO. The founder of Slate, Kinsley has also served as editor of The New Republic, editor-in-chief of Harper’s, editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times and a columnist for The Atlantic.
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