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Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? Yet More Misinformation from the Washington Post Edition

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Jonathan Chait watches the latest dirigible explosion:

"Mediscare" And The Conventional Wisdom: The Washington Post editorial clucking its tongue at Democratic attacks on the GOP Medicare plan is a useful encapsulation of the vacuity of the conventional wisdom on this subject. It's worth paying some attention to the editorial, because it takes at least a half step toward making explicit the assumptions that undergird most of the coverage of this issue. Here are all the parts of the editorial that make, or gesture toward, arguments. First:

Democrats have effectively scared seniors as a political tactic for many years. Republicans turned the tables in 2010.... Now Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has given President Obama and his party a chance to reclaim the low ground, and they haven’t hesitated.

Mr. Ryan’s budget, which the House passed, is wanting in many ways, as we’ve noted. It would expand the nation’s debt because it doesn’t acknowledge the need for more revenue. It contains far too much risk of harming the most vulnerable.

But it’s honest enough to acknowledge that simply preserving Medicare as we know it is not an option.

The ubiquitous term "scare" is perpetually attached to any description of opposition to reductions in Social Security or Medicare, but is rarely used to describe opposition to other policy changes. If you're warning against a proposal to raise taxes or cut defense spending or increase the minimum wage or legalize gay marriage, you are not trying to scare people. You are only scaring people if you're opposing a reduction in Medicare or Social Security.... This is a deeply enshrined premise of Beltway wisdom. Next, the editorial adopts a version of Ryan's argument, namely:

  1. Something must be done about Medicare
  2. Ryan's plan is something
  3. Ryan's plan must be done....

[T]he Post... deems opposition unacceptable. He is doing something! The need to do something is deemed so overwhelmingly vital that it's immoral to criticize any plan that does something, however harmful or poorly designed that something may be.... After a recapitulation of some basic facts, the editorial arrives at the only other portion that can be called an actual argument:

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a House panel that seniors would “die sooner.” The Democratic National Committee proclaimed in an ad: “Their leaders have called for cutting Medicare, and now for killing it.” This is false, inflammatory and, as we said, useful — for winning elections, that is. When it comes to solving the government’s most pressing problem, it threatens to set things back.

Are these claims false? No, they aren't....

[O]ne could argue that Ryan's program preserves enough of the same elements [of Medicare]... that it should be considered the same thing. But this is a highly contestable interpretation, and disagreeing with it is hardly "false." Indeed, the description of ending Medicare seems like the most persuasive description of the deeply radical changes proposed. As for Sebelius's terribly mean statement, here is what she said:

If you run out of the government voucher and then you run out of your own money, you’re left to scrape together charity care, go without care, die sooner.

This not only seems to be defensible, but obviously true. I don't see how a plan to replace Medicare with private insurance vouchers that will eventually cover just a small fraction of the cost of private insurance could have any other result.... Indeed, the Post doesn't even endorse Ryan's argument, so it's not clear what part of this claim it deems untrue.... [T]he logical train seems... ["]since cutting Medicare is necessary... any attempt to describe harmful consequences of any proposal to cut Medicare is inherently false.["]

Update: Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler... writes a column today reflecting the same assumptions.... Kessler... concludes:

Certainly, serious questions have been raised about what the proposed changes would mean for people facing suddenly high health costs. But the budget debate in Washington is fierce enough that senior officials should avoid the temptation to make outrageous charges.

That's his basis for calling Sebelius's statement "outrageous" and awarding it three Pinocchios. The debate is fierce and we people should avoid outrageous charges, therefore any strong characterization of a plan to reduce Medicare is false.... This assumes out of existence the possibility that a plan to reduce entitlement spending might actually have dire real-world consequences that can be truthfully described.

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