Libertarian Columnist Timothy Carney Is In Way Over His Head

By
Tim Carney is fighting for your rights, bros -- fighting with FACTS. Or fact-esque assertions, anyway. Photo: Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis

One of the perils of spending a lot of time pointing out the wrongness and lack of intellectual honesty of others is that there are a lot of people waiting to pounce on you when you get something wrong yourself. I write pretty often, and it’s a matter of time before I get caught not merely making a prediction that doesn’t pan out — I have made many — but badly bungling the facts.

I thought that moment had come yesterday evening, when Washington Examiner columnist Timothy Carney published a column headlined, “Jonathan Chait keeps being wrong about Obamacare, again and again,” which was gleefully recirculated by David Freddoso and Avik Roy. They finally got me!

But upon reading it closely, and double-checking all of Carney’s facts, it turns out they didn’t get me. Carney is utterly wrong here. He makes three factual charges against my work. All of them are completely false — which is a bad thing for a column entirely devoted to accusing somebody else of being wrong. Let’s go through them in order.

1. Yesterday, ABC News reported that House Republicans may kill immigration reform in that chamber over Obamacare, prompting me to write an item arguing, “House Republicans' hatred of Obamacare is at such deranged levels that it is leeching into even largely unrelated problems.” Carney insists I bungled this fact:

Chait writes as if Republicans are trying to block immigrants on the amnesty road ONLY from getting Obamacare. This is the heart of Chait’s case that the GOP is deranged. And it’s false.

First, catch this quote from Nancy Pelosi:

“It is stated very clearly in the Affordable Care Act [and] it is our position in the immigration bill: no access to subsidies in the Affordable Care Act. Secondly, no access to Medicaid; no cost to the taxpayer,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol. “That has always been the Democratic position.”

Seems like Dems are the ones singling out healthcare here. Also, contrary to Chait’s claim, House Dems are not fighting for the rights of these immigrants to get government benefits.

Now, if Carney were right about this, it would be a case of me getting immigration reform wrong, not Obamacare — which I could easily imagine in a hastily written item, since my understanding of health care is a lot deeper than my understanding of immigration reform. But Carney is not right about this.

Carney holds up a Pelosi quote to prove that Democrats are the ones insisting that Obamacare be denied to any undocumented immigrants. He seems to think the idea that House Republicans are fighting over extending Obamacare to immigrants is something I just made up because I hate Republicans. But I am not the source for this claim, ABC News is. (It reported, and I quoted, “The stumbling block is GOP insistence that newly legalized workers now working in the shadows have no access to government-sponsored health care during their 15-year pathway to citizenship.”)

ABC is not the only source that has reported that access to Obamacare is an important potential hurdle in the immigration debate. This dynamic has been discussed by reporters like Politico’s Seung Ming Kim (headline: “Raul Labrador warns that Obamacare could kill immigration bill”). GOP Representative Sam Johnson has said, ““We want them to have health care, not Obamacare.” The Idaho Statesman quotes Republican Raul Labrador explaining that he is walking out of immigration talks over Obamacare -- "It bothers me that they don't have to pay for their own health care." -- and does not mention any other government program at issue.

What about that Pelosi quote? TPM reporter Sahil Kapur explained:

Granted, Pelosi’s quote was vague, and didn’t distinguish between undocumented immigrants who remain undocumented and those who obtain provisional legal status. But later on in the same press conference where she gave the quote Carney uses, Pelosi took a follow-up question and said, “We are doing an immigration bill. We couldn't pass that in the health-care bill. So, we can't pass it in an immigration bill.” The “that” seems to mean extending Obamacare to undocumented immigrants who haven’t obtained provisional legal status — after all, during the Obamacare debate, there was no provisional legal status.

Pelosi still didn’t define her terms explicitly there. It’s possible she either dissembled or simply misunderstood her party’s position. But Carney’s interpretation — “Dems are the ones singling out healthcare here. Also, contrary to Chait’s claim, House Dems are not fighting for the rights of these immigrants to get government benefits” — is obviously incorrect, unless every other report on this is wrong. If the Democrats want to deny all undocumented immigrants benefits, why are the two parties fighting over undocumented immigrant benefits? What does he think the widely reported policy disagreement is about?

Carney proceeds to make a slightly different point in support of his argument. It’s also wrong. He quotes amendments filed by Ted Cruz and Jeff Sessions that would deny any previous undocumented immigrant a wide range of government programs, not just Obamacare, and concludes, “if Chait is correct that “Obamacare is in a different category in [Republicans'] minds,” he must be a mindreader — because it’s not in its own category in their legislation.”

But Cruz and Sessions are opposed to the bill altogether. They’re not fighting over whether immigrants should be allowed in but denied Obamacare. They’re against any path to citizenship. In any case, my item described “House Republicans’ hatred of Obamacare.” Cruz and Sessions are Senators. Different body! Carney actually transitions from one chamber to the other in consecutive sentences:

contrary to Chait’s claim, House Dems are not fighting for the rights of these immigrants to get government benefits.

And we know Senate Republicans, at least, are not singling out health-care or Obamacare.

He’s refuting a description of House Republicans who are considering supporting immigration reform except for Obamacare by citing Senate Republicans who are not considering supporting reform under any circumstances. You can’t do that.

2. Carney’s second charge is also not only wrong but weirdly picayune. In a separate, pro-Obamacare post, I conceded that there certainly are people who lose out from the new law:

There are, to be sure, clear losers from the new health-care law. Rich people have to pay higher taxes to fund its subsidies. Many doctors and hospitals will lose some of their income stream from the law tightening up unnecessary care. 

Carney shoots back:

That caught my eye because the hospital and doctor lobbies were among the most vociferous and most powerful lobbies in support of Obamacare in 2009 and 2010. The American Hospital Association even filed an amicus briefs with the Supreme Court siding with the Obama administration on two different Obamacare issues.

Note that he is purporting to correct my claim by citing something that doesn’t directly, or even almost-directly, address it. I argued that “many doctors and hospitals” will lose some income from the law. Could that be true and it also be true that the hospital lobby supported the law? Well, yes, it could. And in fact it is. The American Hospital Association clearly explains on its website:

With so much at stake, the AHA ultimately positioned itself as a partner in health care reform. After a series of negotiations, the AHA, along with two other hospital associations, agreed to accept $155 billion worth of cuts in Medicare reimbursements and other payments throughout the next decade in order to help the government fund other reforms. Recently, Umbdenstock commented on the final legislation, saying, “We supported it, imperfect as it is. Now it is much more important to build on it and improve it.”

The hospital association also has another page describing the cuts to Medicare reimbursement that it opposes — almost as if these cuts will somehow reduce the income of some doctors and hospitals.

The notion that “many doctors and hospitals will lose some of their income stream” is not a controversial one. Medical specialists, device-makers, and others have been screaming theirs heads over cuts for years.

In any case, the point — while clearly true — was ancillary to my argument anyway. Why would Carney so fervently and incorrectly disparage me for noting that some stakeholders stand to lose money from the law? This is one of his personal ideological tics. Carney is a kind of populist libertarian who sees big government as benefitting the rich and powerful. Of course, government can benefit the rich and powerful, and sometimes it does, but Carney insists on seeing this dynamic everywhere, even where it isn’t. We have sparred over his strange insistence that Wall Street was strongly supporting Obama and his reforms in 2010 and 2011, when the industry had demonstrably turned against him and toward the Republicans.

I’m not trying to dredge up old Carney errors here; I’m merely trying to explain his bizarre tangent. It explains why Carney would see my point about some doctors and hospitals losing income from the law and conclude I’m wrong — that’s the kind of fact that Carney habitually assumes must be false because it runs against his ideology.

3. Finally, Carney attacks me for summarizing an extremely misleading column by conservative health-care adviser Avik Roy — which compared Obamacare rates to those found online at eHealthInsurance.com — like so:

[Avik] Roy compared California’s plans to the teaser rates available on eHealthInsurance.com. Those teaser rates turn out to bear little resemblance to actually available health-insurance rates — they exclude swaths of potential consumers for even minute health problems.

I’m wrong, wrong, wrong, says Carney:

But according to one of the sources Chait cites, those rates bear very close resemblance to actually available health-insurance rates for 74 percent of the population. Liberal blogger Ezra Klein wrote:

According to HealthCare.gov, 14 percent of people who try to buy that plan are turned away outright. Another 12 percent are told they’ll have to pay more than $109. So a quarter of the people who try to buy this insurance product for $109 a month are told they can’t.

So 74 percent of comers can get those rates, if Klein is right, and Chait says that makes those rates imaginary.

Well, first of all, I think denying the listed rate to a quarter of the people who apply is a lot. Vast swaths? I’d say yes, but it depends on how you define “vast.”

But Carney is only quoting one piece of the case against Roy’s comparison. I linked to three thorough demolitions of Roy’s statistic. One of them, by Ezra Klein, noted that to get a policy through eHealthInsurance, “you’ll have to answer pages and pages of questions about your health history.” That means many people, who are aware of the difficulty of getting insurance with preexisting conditions, would see the questions and not submit their application. Another dissimilarity is that, as Jonathan Cohn points out, eHealthInsurance.com shows rates that may not last, because carriers will jack up premiums for existing customers (as Cohn has explained elsewhere, this tends to happen in an unregulated individual insurance market).

So, to summarize: eHealthInsurance.com:

  1. offers listed rates but attaches onerous conditions likely to discourage all but the healthiest customers from submitting an application
  2. of those who do apply, a quarter don’t get the listed rate anyway, and
  3. it subsequently can and probably will go raise the rate

Is it accurate to say that the listed rates have “little resemblance” to its actual rates? Especially in the context of comparing it to California’s Obamacare exchange, which does not discriminate based on health history and can’t jack up its rates later on? Well, little is another subjective term, but I’d say yes, it is accurate. Roy’s comparison was grossly misleading.

Carney concludes by insisting, “There are many other problems with that Chait post, but I’ll leave it there.”

Really? Many other problems? What are they? Because so far Carney has claimed that “Chait keeps being wrong about Obamacare, again and again,” but he has successfully cited zero examples of Chait being wrong, while compiling three clear examples of Carney being wrong. If the three items above are Carney's A material, what does he have that didn't make the cut? I'm morbidly curious.

Update: Carney responds. He now says he won't bother defending his 2nd and 3rd arguments at all:

Chait has other disagreements with me in his latest post. But one is his psychoanalysis of me, which would be a waste of time for me to respond to. The other involves the sort of policy specifics where it’s better to engage the more careful claims of Chait’s wonkier colleagues.

Okay, so two of the three accusations have been withdrawn, which leaves him with one left, from his original claim that I'm wrong "again and again," plus the unstated other mistakes of mine he claimed to have spotted but didn't share.

The one remaining limb Carney now insists has not been hacked off is his argument that the House immigration bill is not, contrary to multiple published reports, in trouble over Obamacare. You can read his post for the Jesuitical distinction between Obamacare and federal health care benefits for non-retirees, a distinction that Carney finds vital and I don't. In any case, if he's uncovered something about the negotiations that has escaped multiple reports, good for him. His argument is with the reports I relied on. Whether or not he has scooped the national media on the state of immigration reform talks, his larger claim that I'm "wrong about Obamacare" is in complete shambles.