Michael Meeropol: When Will The Media Stop Falling For Right-Wing Talking Points?

Aug 9, 2019

[This commentary was recorded before the terrorist attack in El Paso Texas and the subsequent one in Dayton, Ohio.]

Last week (ten days ago) , I watched the CNN debates and follow-up coverage and I’m so mad, I could spit!

If the questioners had let the various speakers explore the issues involved in the dispute between the so-called “moderates” and the progressives within the Democratic Party it might have been an illuminating discussion – though even that is uncertain because it is actually rather hard to condense complicated arguments into 2 minute oral responses.   Most questions answered “yes or no” do not get explored sufficiently to make the yes or no answer understandable.

[And it goes without saying that whatever differences emerged among the Democratic candidates, those differences paled to insignificance when the entire Democratic field called out the racism and exhortations to violence from Trump as a direct link to the actions of the Nazi-sympathizer who murdered 22 people in El Paso to “protect” the whites of America from annihilation by the alleged hordes of Mexicans who, according to Trump, were “invading” the United States. ]

Here’s an example of a meaningless request for a yes or no answer  – not from the debate --- “Next year, will the majority of American workers have to pay more in social security taxes than they did this year?   Yes or no?”   The short answer is “yes” and we certainly HOPE that most (not just the majority) of American workers can answer yes to that question.  The reason is (something not captured by a simple “yes” answer) that the majority of American workers will receive higher wages next year (it won’t be much – perhaps as low as two percent more) and therefore the payroll tax they pay to social security [at an unchanged rate by the way] will be higher than this year.   Notice the details in the longer answer which would not even begin to be explained by the “yes” answer.   That same problem emerged over and over again in the first CNN debate.

In an extremely interesting (if disturbing) article published on-line by Common Dreams, author David Dayen analyzed the impact of the CNN questioners’ framing the entire discussion as a “fight” between moderates and progressives and putting their thumbs on the scale with what the author calls “persistent right-wing assumptions in every question.”   [The article is entitled “CNN’s Debate Fail” and was retrieved on July 31, 2019.]

CNN moderator Jake Tapper “led off by asking whether taxes would have to go up to pay for Medicare for All.”   Note again, a “yes or no” question that obscures rather than illuminates.  MSNBC’s Chris Matthews illustrated the absurdity of this approach when after the debate he demanded a “yes or no” answer from one of the supporters of Medicare for All, Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Matthews:   “Won’t taxes go up?  Why won’t you answer yes or no?”

Warren:  “Costs will go down --- that’s the important issue.”           

Forcing these kinds of policy discussions into the “yes or no” rubric is bad journalism, even if it perhaps makes for entertaining television by letting politics degenerate into mud wrestling.  The argument between Warren and Matthews and the efforts made by Sanders and Warren at the first CNN debate to counter the charges from both moderators and so-called “moderates” running against them is not just a matter of semantics and verbal gymnastics.

Instead, it goes to the heart of the debate between right-wing so-called conservatives and progressives --- and it’s been going on ever since Franklin Roosevelt got Congress to create social security and a minimum wage.   Every time, the government proposes to do something, those in opposition do their best to IGNORE THE BENEFIT that would occur and emphasize that someone will have to pay for it.

Think about how absurd this is.   Of course someone has to pay for it --- even the air we breathe and the rain that falls from the sky to water the world’s crops aren’t totally free --- It costs money to protect the air from pollution and the rain from acidification.   Similarly, it costs money to deliver health care to people.

The question before us as Senators Warren and Sanders tried over and over again to make clear is --- HOW MUCH do we want to pay for health care as a nation – and TO WHOM?   Right now, the system of private health insurance means that in order to get the insured people the health care they need, society bribes insurance companies with billions of dollars of profit in exchange for a PROMISE  to pay doctors and hospitals to treat us.  Is this really the best way to deliver health care to every member of society?  Remember, insurance companies are not medical professionals (though they certainly hire many) bound by the first line of the Hippocratic Oath, “first, do not harm.”  Instead, they are private businesses whose sole goal is to maximize shareholder value --- which means that over some appropriate time period, they need to garner as much profit as possible.   The business model for an insurance company is to charge as high a price as they can while delivering as little coverage as they can get away with. 

The Affordable Care Act introduced new controls on how these businesses pursued those profits.  Whereas before 2010, these companies could either deny coverage to potential customers with pre-existing conditions or charge them extremely high premiums, the ACA forbade both.   There were a large number of new rules imposed on insurance companies – all designed to limit their ability to follow the basic business model of highest possible price and least possible service.

The people opposed to Medicare for all think that imposing rules as in the ACA or even adding new rules and strengthening enforcement are all we can expect to rely on in order to deliver health care to the people of this country.  People like me who support Medicare for all argue that there is a better way.  

Instead of paying premiums to private for profit insurance companies in hopes that the rules will force them to behave well when you need to have a particular treatment covered, you pay taxes to the Medicare trust fund and the trust fund will pay doctors and hospitals directly.   Because Medicare’s administrative costs represent a miniscule proportion of the dollars of service delivered (about 2 percent as opposed to over 12 percent in the private insurance industry) and because the Medicare trust funds do not need to earn profits to satisfy shareholders, the REDUCTION IN PREMIUM COSTS to those currently receiving employer provided health insurance will be GREATER than the rise in taxes.

This was actually corroborated by a right-wing think tank’s analysis of the long run costs of a Medicare for All bill introduced by Senator Sanders over a year ago.  The study attempted to scare people with a prediction of a massive $32 trillion tax increase over 10 years – a wildly exaggerated number.  However, even with these exaggerated claims, the numbers generated by the study came to the conclusion that the premium reduction written into the proposed legislation would be even greater, leading to a $2 trillion SAVINGS on balance over the same ten years.

[For a so-called even-handed assessment of that figure by Politifact, see www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2018/aug/03/bernie-s/did-conservative-study-show-big-savings-bernie-san/.   For a much better analysis that doesn’t fall into the trap that caught Politifact, see www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/8/23/17769130/medicare-for-all-costs-bernie-sanders-mercatus-study]

Tapper asked a related question as part of the assault of Medicare for All --- wouldn’t unions who had negotiated “good” health insurance coverage from their members’ employers lose out if Medicare for all replaced that particular policy?   Again, “yes or no” is an impossible answer.  Faced with the end of an expensive employer-financed health care plan (paid for by deductions from wages and employer “contributions”) unions would be in a position to negotiate a wage increase at least enough to cover what was previously an employer contribution.   From the point of view of any business’s bottom line, it makes no difference whether the cost of hiring an employee is 90% wages and 10% benefits (premiums to health insurance companies) or 100% wages.   (Yes, employers might resist such union demands but it is hard to imagine they would not give something.)

The same right-wing talking point can be utilized to attack the Green New Deal or raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour or whatever it would take to become a “living wage.”   The Green New Deal would cost a lot of money and be highly disruptive.  Yes, ending society’s addiction to fossil fuels would require lots of restructuring.   Yes, to the extent that government would spend money subsidizing the energy transformations required to wean our country off of fossil fuels taxes would probably go up.   Yes, guaranteeing jobs to those who would lose them as a result of the restructuring of society would also cost a lot of money.   But the benefits of the Green New Deal (and other policies to stop climate change from blowing past the 2 degrees Celsius danger point) are almost infinite.  The survival of human life on earth is in the balance – at some point, rising temperatures could release sufficient methane gas trapped in the crust of the earth to kill off virtually all air-breathing creatures including us.   Even if escaping methane does not kill us, the transformation of the earth will kill hundreds of millions if not billions.   “Disrupting” the current economy of the United States is a small price to pay for preventing such disaster.

Similar arguments have always swirled around raising the minimum wage.   Here, economists have weighed in.   Yes, costs to certain businesses will go up – but will that mean that people who previously got minimum wage jobs would suddenly become unemployed?   In fact, there is a lot of economic research that shows that such job loss will be little – or even non-existent.  Again, it’s because those who argue against raising the minimum wage (including too many economics textbook writers) ignore the impact of the rising wage on both spending by workers and the intensity and productivity with which minimum wage workers with a good living wage would do their jobs.  If workers respond to the rise in their incomes by working harder and more diligently, the business will “pay for” the rise in wage costs by the increase in output per hour of labor.  If workers with higher wages spend those increased wages, then business in general will see an increase in sales --- which means an increase in income to go with the rise in wages.

It just amazes me that pundits keep asking these “yes or no” questions and don’t even explore the details when people try to answer in sentences rather than sound bites.  

Let’s go back to the hectoring by Chris Matthews of Elizabeth Warren.  One might ask WHY Warren didn’t just say, “Yes, taxes will go up – BUT costs in general will go down because premiums will be cut more.”   I hope all readers can guess why.   The opposition would take the first part of her answer – “Yes, taxes will go up” and put that into a 30 second ad.   By refusing to say that and merely restating the costs will go down, Warren was preventing the creation of a misleading sound bite for an ad by her next opponent.

Michael Meeropol is professor emeritus of Economics at Western New England University. He is the author with Howard and Paul Sherman of the recently published second edition of Principles of Macroeconomics: Activist vs. Austerity Policies.

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