Saturday, January 9, 2010

Milton Friedman circa 1980

With Phil Donahue and his entirely too large microphone and hair.

Topics: deregulation, drug legalization, suicide, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, the Fairness Doctrine, vested interests and do-good-ism, military/industrial relations, foreign policy, government bail-outs...

A consummate communicator as relevant in 2010 as 1980.

This is part 1 of 5. Watch the whole thing.

Talking head MIT prof. Gruber is not fully forthcoming about his HHS paid consultant position as he holds forth on health care reform: Ethical lapse?

Wherein we are introduced to the "The Spruce Goose Defense"

Found this at..

John Lott's Website: Academic fails to acknowledge that he was being paid by the Obama administration while he was pushing for their policies in the media

From the linked FOX report:

MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, one of the leading academic defenders of health care reform, is taking heat for failing to disclose consistently that he was under contract with the Department of Health and Human Services while he was touting the Democrats' health proposals in the media.

He wrote op-eds, authored studies in support of the plan, made appearances on talking head shows, the usual...all without disclosing in a consistent manner his relationship with HHS:

Gruber, according to federal government documents, is under a $297,600 contract until next month to provide "technical assistance" in evaluating health care reform proposals. He was under a $95,000 HHS contract before that.

That's some nice cabbage. Lefty blogs caught on first, when they began digging. Why did they dig? As happens with any legislative process, they are not pleased with certain evolutions in the behemoth health care bill being cobbled together by the Democrats in congress. It doesn't live up to their expectations. They were not pleased, in fact peeved with his criticisms of the so called "Cadillac health plan taxes," i.e., taxes on more generous heath care insurance plans, so as to provide coverage for those with lesser plans. This taxation would obviously threaten the pocketbooks of those that have over the years negotiated such nice plans for themselves, in particular unions. Unions are part of the Democrat base.

And he has recently written columns defending specific provisions in the House and Senate bills, particularly the "Cadillac tax" on high-cost insurance plans.

The liberal base of the Democratic Party is widely opposed to that tax, out of fear that it will cut into union benefits -- which may explain why the first criticism of Gruber came out of liberal blogs.

"I have never seen it disclosed that he was a paid consultant to the Obama administration," a blogger for Firedoglake wrote Friday morning. "For months I have been angry with Gruber because I thought he was simply an exaggerator whose dangerous love of the spotlight was hurting the efforts of progressives to make sure the Senate bill adopted more progressive cost control solutions. ... Now it is clear something much more sinister was at play."

The Daily Kos declared that, given Gruber's contract, the "fix was in" for the Cadillac plan.

So the progressives dug a little, and found out that Gruber's on the dole, so to speak. The righty Fox News folks contacted Gruber. To his credit, he isn't hiding from this, and spoke to them. In his defense he proffered:

"None of the work I have done in public, or any public declarations I (have) made, has been in any way funded by the administration," he wrote in an e-mail. "That funding was strictly for internal work that I did for the administration and, via the administration, for Congress. All externally visible work and comments, such as my editorials or public reports, have been done on my own time."

Gruber said he "firmly" believes in the positions he advocates, and he said he has not been secretive about his contract with HHS. "I have told reporters whenever they asked," he said.

He noted that he disclosed his relationship with the Obama administration in a Dec. 24 column for The New England Journal of Medicine. Indeed, the "disclosures" link at the bottom of that article online takes the reader to a form showing Gruber is a "paid consultant to the Obama administration."

But a column in The Washington Post on the Cadillac tax just a few days later did not disclose his relationship with the administration. Gruber was listed merely as a "professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."

Hold on a minute..Let me repeat a small part of that with some emphasizing text:

Gruber said he "firmly" believes in the positions he advocates, and he said he has not been secretive about his contract with HHS. "I have told reporters whenever they asked," he said.

It doesn't take a professional philosopher to see that's a pretty lame defense. Analogy time kiddies:

Let's say that I am looking to buy a used car, and I enlist the aid of a master mechanic. I also believe he is objective, in that he is not under the employ of any of the three dealerships we visit. I buy a car from dealership #1 after a day of looking at vehicles from all three. All along he had accompanied me, looked over the vehicles, offered his opinions etc.. That car, from dealership #1 is the one that he declared the best of the bunch.

Well, I go home with my new used car and come to find out that the master mechanic has a consultant's contract with dealership #1. This is something he never told me.

Do I have reason to worry that his advice may not have been completely objective? Sure I do. So, I call up the master mechanic and ask him why he didn't tell me he was being paid by dealership #1. He says, "Hey look man, I've helped others and haven't been secretive about this, I tell people about that gig any time they ask. You didn't ask."

Would that fly? Like the Spruce Goose it would.

It might kind-a-sorta get off the ground for a minute or two, but I would be well within my rights to be steamed.

There is an elementary ethical distinction that I'm sure the sage Mr. Gruber must have run into once or twice in his academic career, a distinction that he has clearly run afoul of:

Sin of commission v Sin of omission.

The latter, as applied to proffered information: If someone willingly chooses to refrain from giving another person information that the second person would reasonably be considered to have wanted when making a decision, a decision based upon information given, then that person is committing the sin of omission.

Yes, I know we are told that Gruber had in fact offered said information once for author info appended to an article written for the NEJM, but he also admits that in at least one other venue (a WAPO piece) he did not offer the information. Why?

I hesitate to speculate, but in the context of an academic journal he may well have considered the risk of being caught out by peers, and decided it would be to risky to his reputation and career, whereas in the non-academic publication, he thought that the general readership would not be quite so keen to check on fiduciary matters, and more prone to uncritically accept him as an objective subject-matter expert. Less risk, and the payoff would be to move forward a package of reforms he "firmly" believes in.' So, a cost benefit analysis suggested to him that he needn't be fully forthcoming.

He needed to disclose, just as surely as those consultants in the employ of the insurance industry should disclose. Why? While it may be true that he can be objective in his judgments, that is beside the point. Just as in my case with the master mechanic, even if he did in fact render an accurate judgment, I would have liked to know his true circumstance. To voluntarily withhold that information from me, in a knowing manner, is to treat me as less than entitled to that information, as something akin to a child, not able to make the necessary discernments and judgements. In short, it's patronizing.

Treat the public like big boys and girls Mr. Gruber, not just your peers reading the New England Journal of Medicine.