Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Obamacare and the Fear of Good News

David Leonhardt has an interesting essay this morning about Douglas Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office. Many Republicans are arguing that he has to go because, they say, he overestimated the benefits of the Affordable Care Act and understated its costs.

But as Leonhardt points out, this is just wrong. After all, the CBO's projections for government health spending are written down where anyone who cares can consult them, and by comparing them to this year's budget you can see that the CBO underestimated the benefits of the ACA and overestimated its cost. In fact four years ago it overestimated what the government would be spending on health care this year by 20%.

Is it just politics, or is there more to it? I agree with Leonhardt that there is something more important going on here. Big swaths of contemporary America have built their worldviews around the belief that things are going to hell. Besides Republicans who think the government can't do anything right, there are environmentalists predicting global catastrophe, conservative Christians afraid of moral collapse, paranoids who think the black helicopters of global dictatorship are waiting in underground hangars for the signal to launch the New World Order, and just plain curmudgeons. Thus the huge difficulty convincing Americans that the crime rate is falling, teenage pregnancy is going down, the divorce rate is down, computers have gotten more reliable, or almost anything positive about the world.

I saw a poll some time in the 90s that said Americans thought the world had gotten more dangerous since the end of the Cold War.

The way to win big in American elections, as the Democrats showed in 2006 and the Republicans this year, is to sound the trumpets of impending doom.

It's a puzzle.

Obviously the world has problems. The world always has problems. It seems to me that ours are less dire than what humanity has generally faced, and a lot less dire than crises we have faced in living memory.

I know some of my friends would say that our uncomfortable pessimism shows there is something fundamentally wrong with modern civilization, which has taken us too far from the natural rhythms of the world we evolved in. Hidden away in steel and glass towers, our muscles atrophying, never really seeing the stars, too far from soil and sweat, we are overtaken by anxiety like wild mice placed in cages. Yet it seems to me that prophets of doom have been with us for a long, long time, and either there have been more of them or they get remembered better. Zechariah and Cassandra lived in traditional societies but weren't any more comfortable with the world as they saw it.

I suppose this must be part of our evolutionary heritage. It is easy to see why evolution would produce a human species with both bold adventurers and stay at home conservatives -- after all, either trait might be the right one in a given circumstance. Reading over the news, it seems to me that pessimists are generally dominant, and therefore that staying at home and storing up lots of food against bad times to come must have been more often the best evolutionary course.

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