“Ready, aim, fire!”
“We’ve done it, sir. The messenger has been shot.”
That seems to sum up the current state of political discourse. This past week, a libertarian-leaning think tank released a report about Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare For All” proposal. The bottom line of the study? “Medicare For All” would cost the federal government $32.6 trillion over 10 years.
The response was ad hominem attacks against the authors. Sanders shot the messengers, deeming them agents of the dreaded Koch brothers. One of America’s most prominent — and proudly socialist — senators eschewed a reasoned critique. Instead, he led an angry mob in the denigration of people, rather than challenging their ideas and assumptions.
However, there is one little detail he missed. In 2016, while Sanders was running against Hillary Clinton, the left-leaning Urban Institute conducted their own analysis of “Medicare For All.” They concluded enacting the law would cost the federal government $32 trillion over 10 years.
Yet those messengers got to live.
Setting aside the politics and policy of health care reform for the moment, this example reflects a larger problem. It is not a Republican or Democrat — or Green, Libertarian, Socialist, or independent — issue; it is much larger.
The default today seems to be personal attacks and emotionally-charged allegations if someone on “the other team” says something. We see it here in Maine as well. Gov. Paul LePage trumpeted the strength of Maine’s rainy day fund. Democrats attacked, claiming all sorts of nonsense, including that it was only built on the backs of poor Mainers.
That is an incredibly serious charge.
Of course, in 2006, Gov. John Baldacci used his State of the State address to boast of rebuilding the rainy day fund to $100 million. Was that built by depriving underprivileged Mainers? Well, the state poverty rate that year was 12.9 percent. In 2017, it was 12.5 percent. So if LePage’s rainy day fund is morally culpable, so too was Baldacci’s. But of course, neither are.
Numerous other examples abound. And yes, Republicans do it, too. That does not mean it is right. Shooting messengers on the battlefield in war is a valid tactic. Metaphorically “shooting the messenger” through ad hominem attacks in an idea debate in a democracy is a logical fallacy.
And when it comes to policy making, logical fallacies are dangerous. Elected officials should be encouraged to consider evidence and analysis with an objective lens, even when it comes from the “other” team. Sanders should have looked closely at the report from the Mercatus Center, the libertarian-leaning group, on his health care proposals, instead of resorting to name calling. Where their conclusion matched the Urban Institute, maybe it was a credible analysis.
Or maybe both groups were wrong, making a bunch of unsupportable assumptions. That is entirely possible. But that debate is focused on the idea and its evaluation, not innuendo and invective against individuals.
Some left-leaning groups have taken a different — and better — approach than Sanders. With copious amounts of spin, they have heralded the Mercatus report as vindication of the “Medicare For All” plan. While that conclusion may be fairly subject to debate, at least there appears to be a consensus forming around what the cost really looks like. And if we can start agreeing on facts again, maybe we can get somewhere.
Trying to make policy is an incredibly complex challenge. There are philosophical differences on basic principles. Resources are inherently limited; this requires prioritization. The second and third — and tenth and eleventh — -order effects are often unpredictable. And when all is said and done, with a decision made? You need to go forth and explain the rationale.
But if we keep shooting the messenger, no one will want to do it. And if we can’t explain it, we won’t improve it. So let’s fight over the ideas, and let messengers live for another day.