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Monday, March 23, 2015

'When Reasonable Policy Discussions Become Unreasonable Personal Attacks'

I don't think Robert Stavins is happy about a story challenging his credibility and reputation:

When Reasonable Policy Discussions Become Unreasonable Personal Attacks: Recently I was reminded of the controversy that erupted late in 2014 about remarks made by the distinguished health economist, Jonathan Gruber... Professor Gruber, one of the country’s leading experts on health policy, had played an important role in the construction of the Obama administration’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, subsequently derided by its political opponents as “Obamacare.”
A brief but intense political controversy and media feeding-frenzy erupted when videos surfaced in which Professor Gruber – largely in a series of academic seminars and conferences – explained how the Act was crafted and marketed in ways that would make it easier to develop political support. For example, he noted that insurance companies were taxed instead of patients, fundamentally the same thing economically, but vastly more palatable politically. He went on to note that this was possible because of “the lack of economic understanding of the American voter.” His key point was that the program’s “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage.” Is that a controversial or even unique observation?
A Truism of Political Economy
Any economist who has worked on the development or analysis of public policy – in areas ranging from health care policy to environmental policy to financial regulation – recognizes the truth of the key insight Gruber was communicating to his audiences. It is inevitably in the interests of the advocates of a policy to make the policy’s benefits transparent and to make its costs vague, even unobservable; just as it is in the interests of the opponents of a policy to make that policy’s benefits obscure and its costs as clear as the light of day.
The specific construction of hundreds of public policies are explained by this truism. ...
So, the central lesson Professor Gruber was offering is hardly controversial... He doesn’t need me to defend him, but he was unfairly demonized, simply because people disagreed with him politically regarding the merits of the public policy he had helped develop and support.
Unfortunately, I was reminded of this recently when I found myself subject to attempted demonization, because someone did not agree with a policy I supported. What happened to me is trivial compared with what Professor Gruber has gone through, but it prompts me to write about it today. ...
A young and – I’m sure – well-intentioned climate activist and journalist, writing in the Huffington Post, implied that my assessment in the New York Times of the Washington political debates regarding Keystone XL and my support for Harvard’s divestment policy, are because “Stavins has done consulting work for Chevron, Exelon, Duke Energy and the Western States Petroleum Association.”
The author of the Huffington Post piece selected those three companies and one trade association from a list of 92 “Outside Activities” that I voluntarily provide as a means of public disclosure. The author chose not to note that the vast majority of my outside engagements are with universities, think tanks, environmental advocacy NGOs, foundations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, other federal agencies and departments, international organizations, and environment ministries around the world (not to mention a set of Major League Baseball teams, but that’s another story altogether). ...
It is nothing less than absurd – and, frankly, quite insulting – for someone to suggest that my views on divestment and my New York Times quote on the politics of Keystone XL are somehow due to my having worked with an oil company, a trade association, and two electric utilities. This was an unfortunate move to question my credibility and damage my reputation in a misguided attempt to demonize me, rather than engage in reasonable discussion and debate. Unfortunately, most of those who have read the activist/journalist’s original commentary and have possibly repeated his claims to others will not see the response you have just read.
This is surely nothing compared with what Professor Gruber has gone through, but it has certainly increased my empathy for him, as well as my admiration.

    Posted by on Monday, March 23, 2015 at 12:15 AM in Economics, Environment, Politics | Permalink  Comments (57)


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