I’m not the egomaniacal, deceptive monster you think I am.
Making the rounds on the internet is an unflattering video of me speaking at an academic conference, a place where great minds share the fruits of scholarship. To the uninformed viewer, one of my remarks may seem disparaging, as if I were suggesting American voters suffer from below-average intelligence. The 22-second clip if often viewed out of context, and it’s a far cry from what I was clumsily trying to express, which was simply this:
You stupid. Me not stupid.
Here’s the rub: I was recruited to help with the architecture of the Affordable Care Act. My only goal, I can assure you, was to humbly offer my expertise to improve the way health care in the U.S. is financed, administered and regulated. In short, we wanted to reduce overall costs, improve efficiency, and extend quality coverage to everyone. However, we faced seemingly insurmountable political barriers, because people wanted to know who the hell was going to pay for everything. Voters wouldn’t accept a law based on raising taxes or costs to individuals, even if everyone would benefit from it. Pardon me, I’m using too many long sentences. If I may, I’ll put my thoughts in terms I think you’ll find rather comprehensible:
Me smart, but me good. Me use brain to help you. You stupid. But me like you.
After thousands of hours of pure thinking, during which I literally burned millions of calories, I understood we needed to obfuscate the content of ACA, to spread its many provisions, sections, bells and whistles between thousands of pages, thereby hiding the costs and confusing legislators into concession. People are more likely to support something they don’t fully understand, especially if you assure them it’s for their own good. What we came up with was a nation-sized Rube Goldberg machine, beautifully complex and clever. Yes, we took a few liberties with the truth, but only to impose a law on people for their own good. That’s not wrong, is it? What is wrong is a few self-interested politicians and fear-mongering demagogues trying to get in the way. Oh dear, I’ve adopted my fancy speak again. Allow me to rephrase:
Bad guys say: we no want doctors for all people. Bad guys say: we like people get sick and have no doctors. Not me. Me good and me smart. Me write law with many big words to trick bad guys. Bad guys say: we ok with law, now. Ha ha.
That’s to say, we wrote the bill in tortured way so the Congressional Budget Office would not score the health insurance mandate as a tax. It would have been much better to simply give people money to offset their health care costs, but that was not feasible, politically speaking, so we had to make changes to the tax code that no one can understand anyway. Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage, as you can see my dear imbiciles. Oh my, I’ve slipped into brainy talk again. What a goof. Believe me, I don’t in any way doubt your intelligence, it’s just that we economists tend to communicate in academic shoptalk. Let me summarize this heartfelt mea culpa by putting my thoughts in the simplest terms.
You stupid. Me smart. Really.
Jonathan Gruber is the Nathaniel Dubbles Professor of Advanced Superior Economics at MIT. He has written many books, most notably “If My Brain Could Talk” and “Mitt Romney Is My Baby Daddy.” He is the 2013 recipient of the “Smartest Guy in the Room” award by the Swedish Institute for Cognitive Gymnastics.