The trouble with factiness

Politifact, the estimable St. Pete Times-based checker or political facts, has decided that the Republican labeling of the Obama health care bill as a “government takeover” of the U.S. health care system is the “Lie of the Year.”

It was uttered by nearly every Republican in the land and, as Politifact reminds us, it originated in a memo from Frank Luntz, who has grown rich telling conservatives what words to use. Suffice to say, Luntz is not burdened by an overstrong devotion to accuracy. His words-to-use advice is about seeking political advantage. It’s a little late for us to act shocked that words are used this way, or that it works.

Of local note, Michele Bachmann’s recent claim that Pres. Obama was going to spend $200 million a day on a trip to India,  “a lie that still sprouts,” was chosen by Politifact’s editors as the runner-up for LOTY (Lie of the Year).

The choice of “government takeover of health care,” hereafter GTOHC, is based partly on the enormous political impact Luntz’ talking point seems to have had. But, as a fading connoisseur of truth, falsity, facts and factiness, I think we need some category for it other than “lie.”

Politifact relies on this:

“The phrase is simply not true.

Said Jonathan Oberlander, a professor of health policy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill:  ‘The label ‘government takeover’ has no basis in reality, but instead reflects a political dynamic where conservatives label any increase in government authority in health care as a ‘takeover.’ ‘

An inaccurate claim

‘Government takeover’ conjures a European approach where the government owns the hospitals and the doctors are public employees. But the law Congress passed, parts of which have already gone into effect, relies largely on the free market.”

I don’t really buy that. The “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act” (nothing but straight, blunt talk in that official title, eh?) didn’t turn U.S. health care into a single-payer system, nor come anywhere near crossing the line into “socialized medicine, but it certainly does increase the role of government in the health care system, and not by a little. I don’t know why I’m bending over backwards here, but I don’t think supporters of the bill are in charge of deciding where on the spectrum from a total free market in health care to a government-owned-and-operated health care system the line is crossed that could be called a “government takeover” of the health care system.

Politifact includes the fact that the “public option” was taken out of the bill as evidence that the bill did not constitute a “government takeover.” But was the bill as originally written (with the “public option” still in it) a “government takeover?” Politifact doesn’t say.

The trouble is we’re on a spectrum from less to more government involvement in the health care system and it isn’t really a question of “fact” where on that spectrum the line is located at which GTOHC would be an accurate statement.

The real juice behind the GTOHC half-truth or quarter-truth is not its falsity but that it’s so damned effective at scaring the public, connecting with pre-existing suspicions/beliefs that Democrats don’t respect the sanctity of the private sector and with the apparently beloved conviction that the best thing about America is that it isn’t Canada (that hellhole) or Sweden (likewise).

I fear we’re out of the jurisdiction of Politifact here, and deep into the Lakoff analysis that I linked to the other day. The real problem with GTOHC is that it succeeded (not, one must note, in stopping the bill, but in winning the political battle).

Lakoff says it’s a mistake to repeat the words of your opponents, even to point out that they’re false. Politifact, of course, is not, at least officially, on the Lakoff team. Pointing out what’s false is what they do. But the trouble with factiness is that statements that purport to be factual cover a wide range of levels of abstraction.

I’ll close by lifting a smart comment, by my libertarian friend Craig Westover, that appeared in the thread under the Lakoff post:

“There are three ways to communicate: deception, perception and conception. Deception is easy. It is lying — knowing the truth but intentionally communicating something different. This article is about changing perceptions — not changing the facts, but communicating to change perception irrespective of the facts. The difference between communicating to change perceptions and lying is in order to lie one must know the truth; communicating to change perceptions, the truth doesn’t matter. The end justifies the means.”

 

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Don Medal on 12/17/2010 - 11:56 am.

    Whatever your point of view on the bill, a “takeover” would be something like Canada’s system, or Britain’s (or all the other industrialized economies?). But here doctors still work for insurance companies, and hospitals are run by their own boards. Doctors still decide how to treat (within somewhat less limits than the current insurance practice).

    Calling it GOTHC is a bit like calling the IRS code government takeover of business. Which is also arguable, but very very weak. Or government takeover of the food industry.

    GOTHC is a scare phrase aimed mostly at those voters who don’t much get concerned with facts.

    Health care was already controlled. By the size of our pockets and the rules of our insurance companies. That hasn’t much changed, except for those who were excluded from the old system.

  2. Submitted by Jon Marson on 12/17/2010 - 12:32 pm.

    “There are three ways to communicate: deception, perception and conception. Deception is easy. It is lying — knowing the truth but intentionally communicating something different. This article is about changing perceptions — not changing the facts, but communicating to change perception irrespective of the facts. The difference between communicating to change perceptions and lying is in order to lie one must know the truth; communicating to change perceptions, the truth doesn’t matter. The end justifies the means.”

    ———

    I would argue that labeling the HCR bill as “GTOHC” in the first place fits that definition very comfortably. Maybe there would be less of a need in the political realm for organizations like Politifact if we could have public discussions based on facts rather than emotion.

    Eric, it doesn’t matter what was in the original HCR bill, or how much you try to murk up what the true definition of GTOHC actually is, the claim that the bill amounted to a government takeover was simply done to steer people away from fact and draw out an emotional response from the public.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/17/2010 - 12:41 pm.

    As Mark Twain was supposed to have said:
    “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
    Republicans have mastered that principle; they don’t handicap themselves by worrying about truth.
    “Truthiness” is a singularly Orwellian construct.

  4. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/17/2010 - 03:18 pm.

    Even if I bought your argument, Eric, which I don’t, the Republicans have won this contest two years in a row. Last year it was also for a health care claim, that the government was going to create ‘death panels.’ It’s a pattern.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/18/2010 - 10:51 am.

    Eric a takeover is a takeover, this not an ambiguous concept. The government is far more involved in the regulation of public utilities than it will be the health care system, yet no one would say the energy industry is a government run system. Even when the airlines, and phone companies were totally regulated they were not considered government entities, or government run corporations. Government regulation is in no way shape or form comparable to a government take-over.

    An increase in government involvement is not a take-over. Hell, during WWII the government converted almost every factory in the country over to war production, and even THAT wasn’t considered a government take-over. The health care bill doesn’t even create any new government agencies that would ostensibly “run” the countries health care system.

    A casual observer who is completely ignorant might be forgiven for thinking some kind of take-over is in the offing. Such people however were not the promoters of the health care take-over myth. This was a lie.

    Lakoff is examining the rhetoric being deployed on the political landscape. What people frequently forget about rhetoric is the fact that while it may shape perceptions, it doesn’t change meaning of words. Words still have agreed upon definitions. Rhetoric is about convincing you that something fits a definition, not changing the definition. Again a take-over is a take-over. If the government isn’t running something, ether directly or in a de facto fashion, than the government hasn’t taken it over. The government runs the VA hospitals. The government will not run Fairview University hospital. Just because you can blur a distinction, doesn’t mean the distinction is blurry. THAT’S the nature of rhetoric. Lakoff isn’t doing a linguistic analysis, he’s doing a rhetorical analysis, there’s a difference. Supporters of HCR didn’t decide what a “take-over” is, the English language has already done that. Republicans rhetoric has been an effort to alarm the public by convincing them the government is about to take over their health care, and that’s a lie. Just because something is rhetoric, doesn’t mean it isn’t also a lie.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/18/2010 - 11:05 am.

    A couple of minor notes on the boojums running around:
    There is no Canadian system: each province has its own health care system. They are all more regulated than ours, but in various ways and degrees.
    There is also no European health care system.
    Britain’s is probably the most centralized and state run; on the other end there is Germany’s, which is tightly regulated but also private, with funding controlled by thousands of small insurance companies.
    There are many models out there to learn from.

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