WASHINGTON — The ace political and baseball prognosticator Nate Silver titled his book about prediction and statistical mastery The Signal and the Noise. Rarely has it been more important to distinguish between the two than in the uproar over the launch of the Affordable Care Act.
As Silver put it, “The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth.”
The truth about this controversy is that there is a broad debate in our country over how much government should do to correct for market outcomes that leave so many Americans without enough income, opportunity or access to the essentials of modern life, notably health insurance.
Supporters of Obamacare, including those who wish it had gone even further, believe that social justice requires government to give significant assistance to those who find themselves on the wrong end of an economic system that is producing an increasingly unequal society.
Opponents of Obamacare want government to let the market do what the market does. That’s why the program’s critics have not come up with a plausible alternative to covering the uninsured — and why many in their ranks have been trying to hack away at Medicare and Medicaid. Their overarching purpose is to get government out of the way. If the market generates vast inequalities, this must be because such inequalities maximize efficiency.
Thus, foes of the Affordable Care Act aren’t against it because its website worked badly or because the president once said that everybody could keep their current policies when it turned out that some in the small individual insurance market got cancellation notices. For those trying to kill the law, such noise is designed to distract attention from what they really think, which is that we should let non-elderly Americans sink or swim in the insurance arrangements that existed before Obamacare.
This market logic also underlies the GOP’s unconscionable attack on food stamps, known now as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). By helping some 47 million Americans buy food, SNAP does, indeed, intervene in the private marketplace, albeit to the benefit of farmers and grocery stores as well as the poor and near-poor.
Such “meddling” violates market dogma, as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) suggested during a 2011 Republican presidential debate. She is retiring from Congress, which is too bad in a way, because she often provides subtitles for conservative arguments by putting into candid words what many on her side say in more guarded language. “If you look at China,” Bachmann said, “they don’t have food stamps. If you look at China, they’re in a very different situation. … They don’t have the modern welfare state. And China’s growing.”