Well, I thought I’d heard some bad similes when the botched HealthCare.gov rollout was likened to Hurricane Katrina or the Iraq War. (Those were nicely rebutted by the likes of Ezra Klein and Jon Stewart.) But Slate Editor David Plotz has topped them all. Here he is on the most recent Slate Political Gabfest:
I wonder if this is going to have a similar kind of effect the Vietnam War and the Pentagon Papers did. You have these government bureaucrats, government leaders who claim to be so smart, claim to be so capable, so on top of it, to have a strategy. And then suddenly the curtain is pulled back on the Vietnam War, and then you realize it’s all a sham…. This is a similar thing, which is that so many people, and I count myself one of the suckers among them, thought, Well, Obama is a very smart, analytical guy, he clearly is capable of using technology very effectively, at least as a political campaigner, of course this is going to be taken care of. And the fact that they botched it so badly makes you think that no institution can be trusted, that government really can’t do the job.
Let’s just get this out of the way: No, this is not like the Vietnam War. One was a tragedy that lasted over a decade, killed more than 50,000 Americans and likely millions of Vietnamese and wounded many more, created class and racial rifts in this country that persist to this day, served up a humiliating defeat for the United States in the midst of the Cold War, and revealed several presidential administrations willing to sacrifice substantial blood and treasure to avoid admitting that they didn’t know what they were doing. The other is a crappy website. A crappy website that somewhat delays people’s ability to sign up for health insurance (rather than, say, die in a foreign jungle), and a crappy website that is being repaired as you read this and is apparently functioning more or less as advertised now. (In fairness, Plotz did express concern that his own metaphor was a strained one.)
Ensuring that millions of people obtain access to health insurance is not an easy job. If it were, it would have been done by now.
OK, so the hyperbole is clearly unwarranted. But what about Plotz’s larger point? Will this botched rollout damage people’s beliefs in the power of government to solve problems? No, it probably won’t. Nor should it, any more than the iPhone 4′s antenna problem undermined people’s beliefs that Apple could build a cell phone, or that the private sector could produce working electronics products.
For one thing, people’s beliefs over whether government works is a deeply ideological question and is often divorced from empirical reality. When the financial sector collapsed in the fall of 2008 and the economy appeared to be in free-fall, actions by the federal government, economists broadly believe, helped stabilize the situation, saving the financial sector, limiting the rise in unemployment, and keeping a large recession from turning into another depression. The feds stepped in when the private sector was ailing and arguably saved the day. Did the government get credit for that? No. If anything, people’s faith in government to do the right thing went down during that time.
Given how ideological the question of government effectiveness is, people will generally resort to their predispositions when evaluating HealthCare.gov. Conservatives will point to the website as evidence that the federal government can’t solve big problems well and shouldn’t try. Liberals will point to the military, Social Security, and Medicare to point out that the federal government actually can go big very effectively, and that we shouldn’t judge this new endeavor based on a weak website rollout. Few minds will be changed.
For another thing, we should keep in mind that the federal government always gets the dirty jobs. It’s not like large swathes of the public are sitting around dreaming up things for the feds to do. Rather, people turn to the federal government as the problem-solver of last resort. The free market, even operating at its best, will still fail to produce some needed goods, such as systems of education, health care, housing, and transportation that meet the needs of all the citizens. State governments often have limited resources and can’t run deficits or print money. So people turn to the federal government when something has to be done but no one else will do it.
All this is to say that ensuring that millions of people obtain access to health insurance is not an easy job. If it were, it would have been done by now. No, the website didn’t need to be as bad as it was—California’s health exchange system seems to be functioning fairly well and serves a population more than a tenth the size of the United States, showing that this sort of thing can actually be done. So, certainly, those responsible for HealthCare.gov thus far deserve all the criticism coming their way. But we might keep in mind that the federal government is still just in the initial phases of addressing a problem that’s been vexing Americans for decades before we start organizing campus protests, putting together another Woodstock concert, or filming a new generation of Rambo pictures.