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WHAT, THEM WORRY? CNN reported an astonishing fact—in just over 300 words: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 19, 2009

Maher and Maddow, at the heart of our politics: Yesterday, two important new polls took us to the heart of American politics. These “polls” were actually information surveys: Voters were asked a series of questions about the contents and consequences of President Obama’s still un-formulated health reform plan.

In this post, Steve Benen discussed the first of these information surveys, the one conducted by Research 2000 for The Daily Kos. Respondents were asked four questions—questions which were formulated about as well as is possible. For example, here’s one of the questions:

QUESTION: Does the health care reform plan being considered by President Obama and Congress require elderly patients to meet with government officials to discuss "end of life" options including euthanasia?

A “plan” is not a bill, of course. A bit of uncertainty thus lurks in that question, given the fact that Obama’s plan hasn’t produced a final bill. But a fully-formed bill does exist in the House, and it seems to have been the principal source of the angst which has surrounded this particular question. And no: The House bill would not “require elderly patients to meet with government officials to discuss ‘end of life’ options including euthanasia.” Instead, it specifies a Medicare payment provision; under the proposed bill, Medicare would pay for a consultation between a recipient and her doctor about end-of-life options. No one would be “required” to meet with her doctor. No “government officials” would be at that meeting. Euthanasia would still be illegal.

But so what? In the Research 2000 poll, 19 percent of respondents answered “yes” to this question; an additional 23 percent said they weren’t sure of the answer. Here’s another of the four questions: “Is Medicare a government program or not?” Seventeen percent of respondents said it isn’t, or that they aren’t sure.

This brings us to heart of our American politics.

As we’ve noted here for years, the American public is almost always stunningly misinformed, on almost every major issue. Steve Benen offers a good post on this poll, one we’d recommend. But we’d have to say that Steve seems a bit under-informed in this passage as well:

BENEN (8/18/09): There have always been at least two key angles to the right-wing attacks against health care reform: 1) the willingness of conservatives to lie; and 2) the willingness of the public to believe the lies. It's one thing for prominent far-right voices to talk up imaginary “death panels,” for example, but who's going to believe such garbage? We're talking about a radical, isolated fringe, right?

Wrong. A Research 2000 poll for Daily Kos, in what I believe is the first national poll on the question, gauged public opinion on this. Respondents were asked whether the reform proposals under consideration would create "death panels" that would dictate medical care based on Americans' "productivity in society." Nearly three-fourths of the public (72%) said no, 11% said yes, and 17% weren't sure.

Steve goes on to note “the partisan numbers.” By far, Republicans were more likely to be misinformed on these four questions than Democrats or independents. But Steve seems to be amazed at the degree of false belief. Later, he cites Greg Sargent:

BENEN: But specifically on the "death panel" confusion, we're in the midst of a national debate in which a clear majority of rank-and-file Republicans either believe "death panels" are a serious proposal or aren't sure.

Greg Sargent, who called this “astonishing,” added, "The key here is that the question was specifically worded to mirror Palin's assertion that Obama's death panel will evaluate a person's right to medical care based on whether they're productive in society. More than a quarter of Republicans believe this, and nearly a third are not sure.”

We have no idea why this would be “astonishing.” In fact, it’s a typical pattern in American politics. The public is almost always misinformed on matters like this. To our ear, when Steve and Greg react this way, they seem slightly misinformed too.

As we’ve said in recent weeks: This country is full of people whose political thinking is quite “unsophisticated.” They didn’t go to graduate school. They never got to be Rhodes Scholars. They didn’t grow up in a fancy Village, featuring wonderful “Village services.” They tend to believe the things they’re told—on talk radio, for example—and their beliefs are thus constantly wrong. By the way: We liberals often behave this way too. Remember when Candidate Obama seemed to say that he would meet with Kim Jung-Il in his first year, without preconditions? At the time, we noted a blindingly obvious fact: Plainly, no such meetings would ever occur. Readers swore we were wrong—and Obama got to call Hillary Clinton “Bush-lite” because she said she wouldn’t hold such meetings. Foolishly, waves of liberals believed what Obama said.

We liberals can be a bit dumb on occasion too. But then, how many Einsteins do you see around here? “Dumb” is the human condition!

At any rate, the public is always misinformed about major policy matters. This perpetual state of ignorance is as American as apple pie. If you don’t understand this basic fact, you don’t understand our politics. (Every pol understands this fact, although they don’t discuss it.) The public was wildly misinformed in 1993 about the Clinton budget plan (see THE DAILY HOWLER 7/26/06, with links to earlier reporting.) After that, the public was wildly misinformed about Clinton’s health care proposal. (Duh! Betsy McCaughey invented some of the basic bullshit about the Clinton and Obama plans! And we liberals keep letting her do it.)

This is the norm in American politics—and yet, we liberals are constantly caught by surprise when more ignorance appears. We’re surprised when the sun comes up—and we insist on calling folks on the other team dumb!

We thought Steve’s focus was off a bit in that post. Last night, Rachel Maddow and Bill Maher took matters substantially further. By now, a new NBC News poll had also appeared. (To see the full poll, just click here.) It too featured some grisly results about four factual questions (see question 15)—although we’d say its questions tended to be more problematic than those in the Kos poll.

(Full disclosure: We’re big admirers of Maher around here; almost no one can do what he does. Wait a minute, people often say. Didn’t you and Bill do New Years Eve 1983 at the Richmond Comedy Club—along with Dan Rosen, of course? Well yes, we did, we promptly reply. Earlier that week, we were impressed by the way Bill got on the phone and forced the club’s owner to send over light bulbs for the condo. Bill was a comedy veteran then—and we were just a raw rookie. How clueless were we in those days? We’d have purchased the light bulbs ourselves!)

Last night, Rachel asked Bill to discuss these new information surveys. As usual, Rachel seemed utterly clueless about the results of these polls. She even used that word again! The ignorance this summer has seemed “inexplicable,” she said, before she brought Bill on. To watch the full segment, click this:

MADDOW (8/18/09): The influential lefty Web site, Daily Kos, has recently commissioned some polling from a respected nonpartisan firm called Research 2000. And the result, especially combined with new some hot new data that we just got from the new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, they’re like a cipher machine for decrypting what has seemed like inexplicable, intractable ignorance on display in the fight over health care this summer.

On Monday, Rachel found Obama’s apparent shift on the public option “inexplicable.” Last night, she said this summer’s public ignorance had seemed that way too. Soon, Rachel and Bill (“Mr. Maher!”) were scratching each others’ backs—and Rachel was revealing more of her political inexperience:

MADDOW: Joining us now is the host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher. Mr. Maher, thank you for having me on your show a couple of weeks ago and thanks for being here now.

MAHER: Always, Rache. How are you doing?

MADDOW: I’m weirded out by this, honestly. There’s this huge disconnect, not in opinions about what to do, but in beliefs about what is true. What is going on?

Maddow was “weirded out” by the most predictable pattern on earth. In the liberal world, our Rhodes Scholars react this way! And we rush to call disabled former employees of Murrys Steaks dumb.

In our view, Bill didn’t bathe himself in glory as he discussed the current ignorance—but his host’s analysis was just plain weak. At one point, she suggested that Republicans get these ideas from Fox—while offering no examples from the network’s actual programming. (We’ll guess that, on some of these questions, the disinformation may come from talk radio more. But would it kill us to offer examples of disinformation being dished?) She basked in the fact that only 41 percent of MSNBC/CNN viewers “wrongly believe health care reform will give coverage to illegal immigrants.” That seemed good, because 72 percentage of Fox viewers think the same thing. (By the way: Since no final bill exists, we’re technically dealing in speculation in questions like this.) As she introduced Mr. Maher, she voiced her surprise at the fact that Republican voters are so misinformed. (“They exist in their own fact-impaired mini-verse inside what we thought was a universe. No wonder we’re not getting anywhere.”) Finding this whole thing “inexplicable,” she was soon asking Bill what to do:

MADDOW: Do you fight feeling with feeling? Do you say, “All right, we have facts on one side of this debate and you believe things that are not true on your side of the debate. So since we can’t agree on the facts, let`s just try to make you have a different feeling about the myths that you believe?” How do you actually move people? How do you fight?

Maybe we should spend another week making sex jokes about these people and calling them stupid tea-baggers! Maybe that will help! (Maybe Keith should bring Janeane Garofalo out again to announce that they’re all “redneck racists!”) Maddow, surprised by this state of affairs. seemed bollixed about the best way to proceed. But then, people who don’t understand that a problem exists rarely spend a lot time figuring how to address it. Soon, she dreamed a wonderful dream—a dream of the unsophisticated:

MADDOW: Maybe people will be mobilized by the extremism of the people who are calling Obama Hitler and calling him a Nazi and bringing their AR- 15s to the town halls. Maybe the Obamaites who came out in such numbers in the election will be turned out specifically because they’re so horrified by the atmosphere that’s happening whenever Obama does one of these town hall meetings and people show up with guns.

Maybe root beer will come out of water taps too! “Well, you think it would have happened by now,” Mr. Maher gently said, “because this has been going on for weeks and weeks at this point.”

Soon, Rachel was on to her standard claims about how we have those 60 Dem senators. The fact that many come from bright red states rarely seems to intrude. (Two examples: Lincoln and Pryor come from Arkansas. Their state favored McCain by 20 points—and that was before the damage which has been done in the recent commotions. To a political ingenue like Maddow, it’s “inexplicable” if they don’t support the public option.)

For our money, Maddow has been doing better work in recent weeks. She has largely dropped her insultingly tedious pseudo-reporting about John Ensign’s sex romp. At long last, she has begun to report on the health reform issue. (What a shame that she wasn’t using her brain to figure out ways to approach this topic long ago.)

But people! Until we manage to solve the problem, massive public disinformation will lie at the soul of American politics! Rush Limbaugh broadcasts complete total shit—and people believe it, in droves. Those people are driven further into Rushbo’s arms when people like Maddow diddle themselves with endless sexual insults and other forms of name-calling—when they insist on “kicking down” at the working-class people below them. It’s stunning to think that our liberal Rhodes Scholar finds the current ignorance “inexplicable.” No wonder her approach to these matters has at times been so crude and counter-productive. Despite her ballyhooed brilliance, she apparently never knew about the basic problem.

But then, her boss had no background in news before he came to her network. His background was in sports and comedy. He was on the air in one of Maddow’s comedy skits last night.

Alas! We’ve been noting this misinformation syndrome for years. We’ve begged liberals and liberal journals to start “kicking up”—to go directly to working-class people and tell them they’re being lied to by Rush. To approach major news orgs and insist that they treat disinformation as what it is—major news. But we’ve learned a key fact along the way: The modern “liberal” can’t be educated. We prove it when we rush into the streets, eager to call disabled workers from Murrys Steaks “crazy.” When we insist on kicking down. When we trash the Craig Anthony Millers, instead of going right at the people who lead people like Miller astray. When our highest lords praise the Tony Blankleys, and mock the average voters.

To borrow from Pogo, we’ve met the clueless. Explicably, it seems to be us.

Special report: Pure madness!

PART 2—WHAT, THEM WORRY: Atul Gawande and his associates announced a familiar framework. “We’re not Europe,” they announced, at the start of their piece about health care costs (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/18/09). They would ignore the foreign experience, focusing on some American systems which had reduced the cost of providing health care.

Like so many before them, they would thereby ignore the data which suggest the stunning waste involved in American health care. Here are two such figures; we’ll post two more below:

Total spending on health care, per person, 2007:
United States: $7290
United Kingdom: $2992

According to the OECD, Great Britain spent about 40 percent as much per person as the United States did. But so what? Telling us that “we’re not Europe,” Gawande’s team moved past the challenge of explaining those stunning data. Instead, they focused on relatively minor savings found in some parts of the U.S. health system.

No, Gawande isn’t involved in a plot—and his piece was quite informative. But the American discourse concerning health care is routinely conducted this way. The discussion we’ve maintained through the years often seems like a form of pure madness. It seems that no data, no matter how startling, can pierce the lethargy gripping the mainstream press—and the career liberal world.

Just consider the data CNN reported last Tuesday—barely batting an eye as it did.

John Roberts, guest hosting on AC 360, teased the upcoming segment. “Up next, the cost of doing nothing. The staggering amount of waste in health care,” the handsome anchor intoned. And the waste is massive, Roberts promised. “You think it's millions—billions?” he asked. “Think higher—way higher!”

Thus teased, the analysts all sat forward in their rough wooden chairs.

When Roberts returned from commercial break, he outlined the upcoming report. The United States is “flat-out wasting” half the money it spends on health care, he said. He struggled to suppress a yawn as he made this remarkable statement:

ROBERTS (8/12/09): As you have no doubt noticed—who could miss it?—the debate over health care reform seems to be get louder each and over day. As the decibels climb, here at 360 we are committed to filtering out the racket and focusing on the facts.

So tonight we are digging deeper on a new number that was recently thrown into the debate: $1.2 trillion. According to the accounting firm Price Waterhouse Coopers, that's how much of our health care dollars are flat-out wasted each and every year.

It's also fully half of what the U.S. spends each year on health care.

Say what? According to a new PriceWaterhouse study, the United States is “flat-out wasting” fully half of what it spends on health care! Given the European data, that number should hardly be shocking, of course—but Roberts was willing to give it the old CNN try. “How could we be wasting that much money?” he wondered. “And what's it being wasted on?” Tom Foreman came on to deliver the report, detailing the remarkable claim made in that new study.

You can read CNN’s full segment yourselves; just click here. And it shouldn’t take you long to do it: CNN gave Foreman all of 334 words to report the startling fact that half our health care spending is wasted. “Staggering amount of money,” Roberts said, before moving on to another key topic. “A new raid in the Michael Jackson investigation,” he said, teasing his viewers again.

Must we tell you that this report went on about three times as long as Foreman’s? Half your health care spending is waste? Michael Jackson is more key, by far.

What did Foreman actually report about U.S. health spending? To see the PriceWaterhouse study, click here—although, to our taste, the study has a few problems. The alleged waste is broken down into three categories—and it seems to us that we’re dealing with a bit of an apples-and-oranges problem. (To us, allegedly preventable disease is a different cat from useless paperwork.) But for what it’s worth, how did PriceWaterhouse reach the claim that up to $1.2 trillion is wasted? Here’s the nugget graf from the study’s “Key Findings:”

PRICE/WATERHOUSE: Our research found that wasteful spending in the health system has been calculated at up to $1.2 trillion of the $2.2 trillion spent in the United States, more than half of all health spending. Defensive medicine, such as redundant, inappropriate or unnecessary tests and procedures, was identified as the biggest area of excess, followed by inefficient healthcare administration and the cost of care necessitated by conditions such as obesity, which can be considered preventable by lifestyle changes.

Do patients ever get redundant treatment for preventable disease? If so, might we have some double-counting here? (At the end of the Key Finding, PriceWaterhouse seems to say no.) But Foreman reviewed the three categories, giving (partial?) dollar figures for two. Oddly, he seemed to treat preventable disease as the most significant of the three areas, although Price Waterhouse plainly said that redundant/inappropriate/ unnecessary medical procedures represented “the biggest area of excess.” Who knows? Maybe CNN didn’t want to be piling on the doctors. Doctors are popular in the U.S. CNN would like to be too!

There are two ways to look at Foreman’s report.

On the one hand, he seemed to reported a staggering fact—authoring the type of report few other news orgs are attempting. Where does all our health spending go? Anyone would ask that question after reviewing the data from Europe—data Foreman never mentioned, of course. We’re spending more than twice as much as Britain—and we’re getting similar outcomes? Who is looting all our money? It’s astounding to see how rarely any news org tries to answer that question. To CNN’s credit, it authored such a report last Tuesday night.

Foreman at least went through the motions, reporting that half your money is wasted. On the other hand, there was very little sign that CNN had the slightest sense of the magnitude of the claim made in Foreman’s report.

Half our money is being wasted? On CNN, this stunning claim rated 300 words. But then, watching your nation pretend to discuss health care is often a great deal like watching mental illness spread.

Your nation’s intellectual culture is deeply challenged; we’re intellectually sick to the core. We seem incapable of real discussion. Tomorrow, we’ll watch a cable star report the foreign experience. On Friday, things will get worse.

Tomorrow—Part 3: Omigod! A cable star goes there!

A few more data: Trust us: Globetrekker will cover these data before the press corps does! Today, we add spending figures for Italy and France (click here). Each system is highly regarded:

Total spending on health care, per person, 2007:
United States: $7290
France: $3601
United Kingdom: $2992
Italy: $2686

Those data are simply astounding. The “press” doesn’t seem to have heard.