There has been a recent flap over the appearance online of a video
of Jonathan Gruber telling the truth about the Obamacare bill:
This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score
the mandate as taxes. If [Congressional Budget Office] scored the
mandate as taxes, the bill dies. Okay, so it’s written to do that. In
terms of risk-rated subsidies, if you had a law which said that healthy
people are going to pay in -– you made explicit that healthy people pay
in and sick people get money — it would not have passed… 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. And it’s the second-best
argument. Look, I wish Mark was right that we could make it all
transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not.
What he is saying, pretty clearly, is that he wishes one could both be honest and get good legislation passed but approves of dishonesty if necessary to get the job done.
My guess is that his view is shared not only by most politicians but by most academics involved in the political system, although I expect many would be unwilling to say so, especially on camera. Part of the reason I believe that is an experience that happened almost fifty years ago. I was spending a summer in Washington as a congressional intern. My congressman lent me for four days a week to the Joint Economic Committee. They lent me to the Project on State and Local Finance of George Washington University, aka the Project on State and Local Finance of the JEC, aka the Project on State and Local Finance of the Governors' Conference. The Project was producing a fact book, a volume to provide the ordinary voter with information on state and local finance.
I discovered a fact. It was a demographic fact about people already born. It was a fact about future financial requirements for the largest expenditure in state and local budgets. The people running the project refused to include the fact in their factbook, not because they thought it was not true or not important but because it pointed in the wrong direction. Knowing it would make voters less willing to support increases in state and local revenues, which was the opposite of the result they wanted.
The fact itself is one you can easily check. The date was about 1967. For the previous fifteen or so years, as the baby boom came into the school system, the ratio of students to taxpayers had been going up, which meant that taxes for schools had to increase in order to keep per pupil spending from falling. For the next decade or two, as the baby boom came out of the schools and into the labor force, the ratio of students to taxpayers would be going down. That meant that per pupil spending could be kept at its current level while taxes for schools went down. Schooling was and is the largest expenditure of state and local governments.
I had assumed that professional academics, people I liked and respected, were committed to honesty in their professional work. I think of the discovery that they were not as my loss of innocence.
My gut reaction is to disapprove both of what the people I worked with then did—pretending to inform people while deliberately misinforming them—and what Gruber describes and approves of, but I cannot prove that my reaction is justified. Gruber's position is that he is willing to sacrifice one value for another that he thinks more important, and I cannot show that he is wrong. I can, however, point out a danger in the approach. Once academics accept the principle that dishonesty is justified if done for the greater good, their work cannot be trusted on any subject with regard to which they have an incentive to misrepresent it. I offered an example in one of my previous posts
Consider the relevance for the current climate controversy. No single academic knows enough to base his conclusion solely on his own work and expertise. Each of them is relying on information produced by many others. The economists estimating the net effect of AGW rely on the work of climate scientists predicting the effects on temperature of increased CO2, the work of other climate scientists predicting the effect of increased temperature on rainfall, hurricanes, and other relevant variables, the work of agronomists estimating the effect of changes in CO2 concentration, length of growing season, temperature on agricultural production, the work of statisticians confirming the models of the climate scientists on the basis of their analysis of paleoclimate data, and many others.
What happens if each of those experts feels entitled, even obligated, to lie just a little, to shade his conclusions to strengthen the support they provide for what he believes is the right conclusion? Each of them then interprets the work of all the others as providing more support for that conclusion than it really does. The result might be that they end up biasing their results in support of the wrong conclusion—which each of them believes is right on the basis of the lies of all the others.
That is one of the reasons I am not greatly impressed by the supposed scientific consensus in favor of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming.
There is a quote usually attributed to Bismarck but apparently due to Saxe:
Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.
Science too. At least when it intersects politics.