How Stupid Do They Think We Are? – Plutocrats Using Logical Fallacies to Defend the Health Care Status Quo

In the early 21st century, the debate about health care reform in the US ramped up.  The result ultimately was the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA, ACA, “Obamacare”), which arguably improved access to health care, made some reforms in the regulation of health care insurance, but did not affect the fundamental reliance of the US on employer-paid, for-profit health care insurance to finance health care for many patients.  Nor did it really affect the issues we discuss on Health Care Renewal (look here for details).

After the tumultuous election of President Donald Trump, the debate started up again with his and his party’s attempt to “repeal and replace” Obamacare.  Arguably, Obamacare ended up damaged but not repealed.  Once again, the issues we discuss on Health Care Renewal were ignored, including threats ot the integrity of the clinical evidence base, deceptive marketing, distortion of health care regulation and policy making, bad leadership and governance, concentration of power, abandonment of health care as a calling, perverse incentives, the cult of leadership, managerialism, impunity enabling corrupt leadership, and taboos, or the anechoic effect.  (Look here for a detailed discussion. )

It is time once again to discuss health care reform in the US.  Now the push is from the Democrats and the left, with the stated goals of making care more universal, and perhaps decreasing or even ending the role of for-profit commercial health care insurance companies.

It is no surprise that those who benefit the most from the current system (even as modified by Obamacare) are rushing to its defense. 

Dark Money to Defend Commercial Health Insurance

We already discussed  how large health care corporations, including pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, have been using dark money to funnel money for distinctly partisan purposes, to defeat whom they perceive as too left-leaning politicians, almost all Democrats.  They seem to fear such politicians might promote health care reform efforts that would be based on “anti-free-market, anti-business ideology,” that is efforts to decrease the role of commercial, for-profit health insurance in financing health care.

More recently, the focus has shifted to Democratic proposals for government run single-payer, or “Medicare for all” health insurance. In early January, 2019, the Hill reported

Thomas Donohue, the president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, on
Thursday vowed to use all of the Chamber’s resources to fight
single-payer health care proposals.

‘We also have to
respond to calls for government-run, single-payer health care, because
it just doesn’t work,’ Donohue said during his annual ‘State of American
Business’ address.

The US Chamber of Commerce historically has had many executives of big health care corporations on its board.  We listed 10 such members in 2015.   It also historically has received financial support from some corporations.  We listed 17 in 2018.

Then later in January, The Hill reported that a group called Partnership for America’s Health Future started digital ads attacking “Medicare for All.”  The Hill stated its

members include major industry players such as America’s Health Insurance Plans and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America

So here we have the leaders of big health care corporations funneling corporate money into propaganda campaigns to defeat government run single payer health insurance, an old policy idea that suddenly is looking politically credible.  Current US regulation and practice allows them to hide the exact amounts spent on such campaigns by processing them through dark money organizations.

Such stealth health policy advocacy is now not new.  What is surprising now is how some top leaders are willing to jump into
the debate themselves, rather than just trying to manipulate public opinion through
public relations/ propaganda proxies.  Here are some telling examples. in chronological order.

Quest Diagnostics CEO Attacks “Medicare-for-All” Using an Appeal to Authority, an Argument by Gibberish, the Non Sequitur Fallacy, (and an Incomplete Comparison) 

On January 24, 2019, Yahoo Finance reported

A top health care CEO is sounding the alarm on ‘Medicare for All,’ an idea gaining steam in political circles, including from newly-elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

Most people don’t understand the basics of health-care economics in the United States,’ said Steve Rusckowski, chairman & CEO Quest Diagnostics (DGX), in an interview with Yahoo Finance editor-in-chief Andy Serwer at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland….

Mr Rusckowski implied that he knows a lot more about health care economics than most people, so most people should listen to him.  Thus, he began with an implied logical fallacy, the appeal to authority.

He then presented the justification for his argument.

‘The majority of people get their health care from their employers, and the majority of healthcare costs are paid by employers and employees,’ he said. ‘If you look at the $3.5 trillion spent on healthcare costs, that portion is actually funding the Medicare and Medicaid programs throughout this country.’

The syntax was fractured, and so this was incoherent and confusing. In particular, it was not clear to what “this portion” referred.  $3.5 trillion? Health care costs paid by employers and employees?

The context of  his use of that phrase did not help.  Note that US total health spending was reported to be approximately $3.5 trillion in 2017 by the US Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)
However, that was total health spending, not just the amount spent by
Medicare and Medicaid.  Furthermore, Medicare and Medicaid are funded by
sources other than employers and their employees.  While employers and employees pay tax on employee income to fund Medicare, general funds from the federal government, and from state governments funds Medicaid. Furthermore, many employers pay parts of their employees’ private health insurance premiums, while the employees make up the difference in premiums. Self-employed people may may for their own insurance, etc, etc.

Mr Ruskcowski, not to put to fine a point on it, seemed to speaking
gibberish, and would use this gibberish to justify his next point.  So
in formal terms, he used the logical fallacy of an argument by gibberish.

When incomprehensible jargon or plain incoherent gibberish is used to
give the appearance of a strong argument, in place of evidence or valid
reasons to accept the argument.

In any case, Mr Rusckowski went on to argue that he

remained skeptical of a Medicare-for-all plan funded by corporations and
employees. ‘I don’t think [corporations and employees] can afford to
provide that access as described.’

However, not only were his earlier statement gibberish, they were not clearly arguments in support of his contention that corporations and employees cannot “afford to provide that access as described.”  So this appeared to be an example of the logical fallacy of the non-sequitur.

Mr Rusckowski’s total compensation as CEO of Quest was over $10 million in 2017, as estimated by Bloomberg News.  So it is perhaps not surprising that is self-interest in preserving the status quo was strong enough to motivate him to jump into the debate.  One would think, however, that someone who managed to become a rich CEO of a medical diagnostic company could manage to be a bit more logical.

Anyway, he has some strange bed-fellows in this cause, including two billionaires who are not directly involved in health care corporations, but who have obviously benefited from the current economic status quo.

Michael Bloomberg and Howard Schultz Used the Incomplete Comparison Fallacy

Two billionaires provided striking examples of one logical fallacy. 

First, from the New York Times, January 29, 2019:

Mr. Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor who is considering a 2020 bid on a centrist Democratic platform, rejected the idea of ‘Medicare for all,’ which has been gaining traction among Democrats.

‘I think you could never afford that. You’re talking about trillions of dollars,’ Mr. Bloomberg said during a political swing in New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first primary in 2020.

‘I think you can have ‘Medicare for all’ for people that are uncovered,’ he added, ‘but to replace the entire private system where companies provide health care for their employees would bankrupt us for a very long time.’

Second, from CNN on January 30, 2019:

‘Why do you think Medicare-for-all, in your words, is not American?’ CNN’s Poppy Harlow asked Schultz on Tuesday.

‘It’s not that it’s not American,’ Schultz said. ‘It’s unaffordable.’

‘What I believe is that every American has the right to affordable health care as a statement,’ Schultz said, lauding the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, as ‘the right thing to do.’

He added, ‘But now that we look back on it, the premiums have skyrocketed and we need to go back to the Affordable Care Act, refine it and fix it.’

He argued that the Democratic progressive platform of providing Medicare, free college education and jobs for everyone is costly and as ‘false as President Trump telling the American people when he was running for president that the Mexicans were going to pay for the wall.’

So both billionaire Bloomberg and billionaire Schultz stated that Medicare-for-all would cost too much.  Yet neither addressed how much our current health care system costs.  However, as a subsequent op-ed in the Washington Post by Paul Waldman pointed out, it only makes sense to talk about affordability in the context of a comparison with a reasonable alternative, say, the current health care system:

there is one thing you absolutely, positively must do whenever you talk about the cost of a universal system — and that journalists almost never do when they’re asking questions. You have to compare what a universal system would cost to what we’re paying now.

there have been some recent attempts to estimate what it would cost to implement, for instance, the single-payer system that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) advocates; one widely cited study, from a source not favorably inclined toward government solutions to complex problems, came up with a figure of $32.6 trillion over 10 years.

That’s a lot of money. But you can’t understand what it means until you realize that last year we spent about $3.5 trillion on health care, and under current projections, if we keep the system as it is now, we’ll spend $50 trillion over the next decade.

Again, you can criticize any particular universal plan on any number of grounds. But if it costs less than $50 trillion over 10 years — which every universal plan does — you can’t say it’s ‘unaffordable’ or it would ‘bankrupt’ us, because the truth is just the opposite.

These are text-book examples of the fallacy of incomplete comparison.

By the way, buried amongst his use of gibberish and non-sequiturs, Quest Diagnostics CEO Rusckowski also opined that Medicare-for-all would be unaffordable without any reference to the costs of the status quo, and hence also provided an example of an incomplete comparison.

The Waldman op-ed noted

The fact that these two highly successful businessmen — whose understanding of investments, costs and benefits helped them become billionaires — can say something so completely mistaken and even idiotic is a tribute to the human capacity to take our ideological biases and convince ourselves that they’re not biases at all but are instead inescapable rationality.

Maybe.  However, it may also be a tribute to their arrogance bred by decades of public relations (which Bernays thought sounded better than “propaganda“) and disinformation meant to soften up the minds of the public so that they will follow the lead of the rich and powerful.  

Schultz Also Added an Appeal to Tradition (or to Common Practice)

Also on January 29, the Washington Post reported that

Schultz referred to a town hall hosted Monday night by CNN in which Harris embraced a ‘Medicare-for-all’ single-payer health insurance system and said she would be willing to end private insurance to make it happen.

‘That is the kind of extreme policy that is not a policy that I agree with,’ Schultz said on ‘The View,’ adding that doing away with private insurers would lead to major job losses.

That’s not correct. That’s not American,’ Schultz said on CBS. ‘What’s next? What industry are we going to abolish next? The coffee industry?’

Presumably, by saying “that’s not American,” Schultz means that is not what we have always done, that is not what has been traditional American practice, begging the question of whether that practice could be ill-advised.  Thus Schultz appeared to ladle on an appeal to common practice, otherwise known as an appeal to tradition

As an aside, the quote also suggests that Schultz’s real concern is not with the affordability of Medicare-for-all, particularly in comparison with that of the current system, but with the financial health of the insurance industry.  But that is for another day….

Summary

So, to protect against the dread “Medicare for all,” that is, proposals for a government single-payer health insurance system to replace our current practice of financing health care through large, mainly for-profit  insurance companies, we see an acceleration of public relations/ propaganda paid by undisclosed donors, that is, via dark money.  We also see prominent multi-millionaire and billionaire executives laying down a barrage of logical fallacies to support the status quo. 

It is hard to believe that the defenders of the current system are not mostly self-interested.  That status quo has made some people very rich.   

It is also hard to believe they are stupid.  However, a close reading of their arguments suggests they may think we are stupid, or at least befuddled by repeated public relations/ propaganda/ disinformation campaigns.

In 2011, we wrote,

Wendell Potter, author of Deadly Spin, has provided a chilling picture of health care corporate disinformation campaigns and the tactics used therein.

In particular,

Mr Potter recounted how deceptive PR campaigns subverted the health care
reform plans of US President Bill Clinton, reduced the impact of
Michael Moore’s movie, ‘Sicko,’ and helped to remodel the recent health
care reform bill to reduce its threat to commercial health insurers.  He
further noted how PR distracted public attention from the growing
faults of a health care system based on commercial health insurance, and
how practical and legal safeguards against abuses by insurance
companies were eroded.

Furthermore, Mr Potter

described ‘charm offensives;’ the deliberate creation of distractions,
including the planting of memes for short-term goals that went on to
have long-term adverse effects; fear mongering; the use of front
groups, including ‘astroturf,’ (faux disease advocacy and/or grass roots
organizations), public policy advocacy groups, and tame (and
conflicted) scientific/professional groups; and intelligence gathering. 
He provided some practical advice for detecting such tactics. For
example, be very suspicious of policy advocacy by groups with no
apparent address or an address identical to that of a PR firm, or with
anonymous leaders and/or anonymous financial backing.

Now it is 2019, once again health care reform is in the air, and once again the defenders of the status quo are hard at work.  Now, they are even wealthier than they were 10 years ago, and have even more sophisticated tools, like social media and its hacks, at their disposal.  Still, however, their arguments are ultimately built on sand.

As I did in 2011, it makes sense to quote Wendell Potter

onslaught drastically weakened health-care reform and how it plays an insidious and often invisible role in our political process anywhere that corporate profits are at stake, from climate change to defense policy.
[Potter, Huffington Post]

So,

The onslaughts of spin will not stop, the distortions
will not diminish, and the spin will not slow down. To the contrary,
spin begets spin, as the successes of corporate PR functionaries
increase the revenues of their employers, further funding their
employers’ efforts to create a more hospitable climate for their
business interests. Americans are thus being faced with increasingly
subtle but effective assaults on their beliefs and perceptions. Their
best defense right now is to understand and to recognize the
sophisticated tactics of the spinners trying to manipulate them.

Most important is a singular mandate: Be skeptical.
[Potter, Huffington Post]

I still hope that summarizing some of Mr Potter’s amazing points will help us all to be much more skeptical.

You heard it here first.

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