What the media could learn from the NFL
In football, you have one set of players that runs offense and another that runs defense. That makes sense: Your linebacker should be learning how to be an excellent linebacker, not a mediocre running back. Specialization! Adam Smith! The pin factory! This is what made America great, and Europe terrible, or something.
Sadly, the political media isn't as well organized as your average football team. There are two big things that go on in this town: Politics and policy. It would make a lot of sense to have people who focus mainly on one or the other, and news outlets do. But because lots of people read about politics and very few people read about policy, the political reporters end up prospering, and they're left with the megaphones when the election ends and policy begins. David Gregory, for instance, was a campaign reporter who now anchors a show that is, in theory, substantially about policy. And that's not an accident: He was hired because of what a good political reporter he was, as that skill is considered pretty much identical to policy reporting.
The idea that knowledge of politics is the same, or even particularly related, to knowledge of policy is really poisonous, and utterly pervasive. Take Peggy Noonan's column arguing that "the public in 2009 would have been happy to see a simple bill that mandated insurance companies offer coverage without respect to previous medical conditions" but, instead, the White House got "greedy for glory." You don't need to know a lot about health-care policy to know why the administration didn't do this, and the answer isn't "glory."
Crudely speaking, insurance premiums are the average of the expected risk of that particular pool of customers, plus a bit for profit, administration and so forth. If insurers don't discriminate against sick people and there's no mandate or subsidies bringing healthier people into the pool, then the average premium price begins to reflect the price of the average sick person. That's intuitive enough: Sick people need insurance more, so they sign up for it in greater numbers. That means costs rise to reflect the average of sick people rather than sick and healthy people, and those high costs drive more healthy people out of the pool, and that makes coverage unaffordable for everyone. The name for this is an "insurance death spiral."
But assume, for a moment, that there was no such thing as an insurance death spiral. Reread under that light, Noonan's take is, if anything, worse. She doesn't even entertain the idea that the administration sought to cover 30+ million Americans because doing so is important. Instead, it was all about political, uh, "glory." When all you know is politics, everything looks like politics. And when the media is dominated by that perspective, the public comes to believe it, and from there, it's only a short jump to the corrosive cynicism that's eating away at our civic culture.
And I don't even really mean to pick on Noonan. I think she's a pretty good political columnist, actually. And she's certainly not alone. Check out Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a GOP 2012 hopeful, writing that balancing the budget will require Congress to "reduce discretionary spending in real terms, with exceptions for key programs such as military, veterans, and public safety." As Stan Collender points out, discretionary spending with these exceptions is about $400 billion a year. The government spent about $4 trillion in 2009. You could cut 20 percent from Pawlenty's category and have done fairly little for the short-term budget deficit and virtually nothing for the long-term budget deficit, which is driven by the growth rate in health-care costs.
If political editors knew policy a bit better, they might have challenged Pawlenty on that point. But they don't. And why should they? They've probably heard the same stuff from their writers for years now. And the American people have been hearing this stuff from everybody, so it all sounds like truth to them.
Photo credit: By Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
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