Updated below with a response on Twitter to this post.
I’ve had a couple of lively Twitter exchanges lately with people who think differently than I do, in particular about the Affordable Care Act. Typically they start with me calling BS on some sweeping statement that gets made with no backup, they continue with both of us arguing our positions, and they end with the other person wishing me a “blessed day” and terminating the conversation, neither of us having convinced the other. After the most recent one, I decided I’d like to try to have the conversation in more than 140 characters.
First, where I’m coming from: I am what Political Compass calls a Left-Libertarian. I believe in market solutions where they’re sufficient, and appropriate public intervention when they’re not, as long as that intervention has a justifiable public purpose based on promoting safety and welfare. And I define those terms pretty narrowly. I also believe, as someone famous once said, that the hallmark of a great society is how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. I think letting the free market work must be tempered by the installation of government guard rails to prevent it from doing real harm to those who can’t defend themselves.
Most conservatives disagree with me about where that point of government intervention should be, so let me also say this: I acknowledge and respect the beliefs of conservatives. I engage in Twitter conversations like the one I describe below because I want to understand those beliefs better. We might even agree as much as we disagree. But I confess to some recent difficulties in trying to peel back the layers of some conservatives’ arguments, and that’s really the reason for this post.
The Twitter exchange that prompted this came my way as a result of David Corn from Mother Jones magazine – he of the Mitt Romney 47-percent video – collecting stories via Twitter of people for whom the ACA will represent an improvement: coverage where it wasn’t available before, lowered premiums, etc. Here’s one tweet in response:
Since Twitter is public, a conservative newspaper blogger felt moved to weigh in with this:
You can read the ensuing conversation over on Twitter, but, contrary to the above, the facts (which Ms. Wright was under no obligation to share, but chose to) are:
- Both Ms. Wright’s children work. They are eligible for free Medicaid because of their income, not because they are unemployed:
- Until six months ago, her children were covered for free, but for the last six months she has been paying via COBRA for their coverage (I infer this to mean she no longer has the job through which they were originally covered);
- Her spouse has a retiree policy, under which she is covered but her children are ineligible;
- She has used all her savings paying the COBRA premiums, so her children are now uninsured until January 1, 2014, when their Medicaid coverage kicks in:
Before having all these facts, Ms. McKinley accused Ms. Wright of leading her children into a life of government dependency, and encouraged her to pay for their insurance in order to “give them dignity.” She told her to tell her kids to “get better jobs” so that they’ll have their own insurance, as though that’s a piece of cake for entry-level workers lately. Understandably, Ms. Wright quickly gave up trying to have a civil conversation on the specifics of her situation.
I jumped in (Twitter is public, after all):
Ms. McKinley and I went back and forth for a while, and she ended the conversation by wishing me a “blessed day.” I’m left with the following observations, all too long for 140:
It helps to get the facts before you presume to tell someone what to do. As noted above, Ms. Wright had no obligation to share her individual situation, but she chose to, to explain why she made a choice she was perfectly entitled to make and that she thought was the best thing for her family. None of the things you said to her was relevant, or helpful to your case. And if you work for a newspaper, that presumably still lives by the old adage, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out,” it seems a pretty low bar to clear to wait until you have the specifics before opining.
Not everyone who takes assistance when it’s needed is by definition headed for a life of government dependency. That is a hugely offensive generalization, and to suggest that Ms. Wright was teaching her children to do that, or was robbing them of their dignity, is just insulting. Following that line of thinking, no low-income students should get Pell grants, and no laid-off workers – including me, for what that’s worth – should collect unemployment, because government dependency will inevitably follow. In addition to being insulting, this lack of logic is also not helpful to your case. (I do want this to be a civil conversation, and I regret the trouble I’m having containing my indignation on these first two points.)
Glorifying your experience doesn’t make it ideal. So you worked minimum-wage jobs in your 20s; good for you. Just because you managed to get through with no health insurance assistance doesn’t mean that’s what’s best for the country or the economy overall. If you work for minimum wage and you have no insurance and you get hit by a truck while you’re cycling to your job, those of us with insurance pick up the tab from the emergency room if you can’t pay it. If you work for minimum wage and have no insurance and get a cancer diagnosis, you will quickly run out of money to pay for your treatments. Under the ACA, many more people will have the insurance necessary to cover those emergency room visits, and those treatments (and lots more). Going without insurance because you can’t afford it rather than accepting assistance until you can is not a badge of honor, it’s foolhardy on your part and a bad bet for the rest of us. I realize you had no choice, but that doesn’t mean nobody ever should. We’re always aiming for a more perfect union.
I like my public policy data-driven. You think the ACA is will be an unmitigated disaster for the country; fine. You say that taking public assistance inevitably leads to government dependency; fine. Show me the numbers. Show me rigorous, independent analysis that indicates the ACA is bad policy, or that demonstrates that the majority of recipients of public assistance drop all ambition and move instantly to a life of indolence on the taxpayer’s dime. I’m happy to believe you, but you have to prove it. Don’t shriek at me (or at Ms. Wright for taking advantage of a program designed to help just such as herself) with sweeping generalizations based on no empirical evidence. The plural of your anecdote is not data.
You get lots of government assistance, even though you say you don’t. Your food is cheaper because of government agricultural subsidies; user fees don’t begin to pay for the upkeep of the roads and bridges you use; if you have a mortgage and take the mortgage interest tax deduction your housing is being subsidized (and others’ housing is being made more expensive); and so on. To say you take no government assistance is disingenuous and silly.
None of these things is the real issue. Overall, this ultimately boils down to two questions: What is the proper role of government? And what are the things we owe our fellow citizens? Those are worthy conversations to have, and I suspect we might agree on more than you think. It’s quite possible I can be convinced, but making sweeping and accusatory generalizations is not the way to do it.
Update: I invited both other people involved in the conversation to read and respond. Here’s what I have so far; I’ll post additional responses if I get any.