Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Odd Man Out: Sack's Article Was OK IMHO

Regarding that Kevin Sack article in today's NYT, I have to disagree with my fellow e40 bloggers.

Here are two substantive criticisms that have been made:

1. Sack doesn't come to a conclusion about which plan is better. True. But, I looked at the front page scan of today's Times (I read it on my Kindle, since our local delivery person refuses to deliver the dead-tree version to my house). And the piece isn't an analysis piece, it's a straight-news article. As my wife the accomplished journalist will tell you, there's a big difference: straight-news articles report what's out there, hopefully with sufficient info to allow people to draw reasoned conclusions on their own, while analysis pieces have some room for the reporter's own conclusions. 

Now, I understand that many people would like reporters to do more refereeing, and on some things I agree. But if that's the problem, blame the current model of journalism, not Sack personally.  

Moreover, I have a bigger problem with Uwe Reinhardt than with Sack:
Dr. Reinhardt offered voters the same instruction he delivers to his students, that economics as practiced in the political arena is often “just ideology marketed in the guise of science.”

“I give a lecture on whether you can trust economists, and I tell them no,” Dr. Reinhardt said. “I tell them that if at the end of the year I tell you the time of day and you trust me, I have failed.”

Reinhardt's view is not exactly gospel: there are some things that are more plausible than others, and the idea that all economists are just hacks out to sell you snake oil is a pretty damaging one. (Not because there are none who are hacks, but rather because the rest of us wind up working pretty hard to undo the damage they do, a job made much harder by the position that Reinhardt is selling.) Reinhardt is a pretty eminent guy among health policy scholars, though, and I can understand why Sack would print that quote. The one criticism I'd offer of Sack here is that he doesn't question whether Reinhardt's right about this, i.e., he doesn't quote anyone else addressing that quote (uh-oh: now I'm arguing for he-said/she-said journalism!).

Finally, on the merits, I will say that I am less sure than others about the effects of the candidates' health insurance proposals, particularly McCain's plan (whose details I know better than I do Obama's plan's). McCain's plan would involve a pretty massive change in the system, with the extent of adverse selection hard to predict ex ante. For that reason I think almost any estimate is highly speculative. Indeed, that's a major reason to oppose the plan, in my view. Its advantages appear to me to be slight by comparison to its potential adverse effects. Since we can't reasonably predict how likely the really bad cases are, why take the risk? But honestly, I'm skeptical of any point estimates on McCain's plan. And I'm betting I'd feel similarly if I knew more about Obama's.

2. Sack reports the results of a study paid for by the McCain campaign. Also true. But I think Sack did a good job of providing lots of info about who's who, and who benefits from which association (e.g., noting that Parente is a co-owner of the firm that was paid by the McCain campaign for their report). I don't agree that Sack should "toss in the trash can the analysis" of that paper, simply because it "was paid for by the McCain campaign", as Don Pedro suggests. The fact that the report was paid for is enough for readers to know. (My one real criticism in terms of giving readers info they need is that Sack doesn't identify Kate Baicker as a former Bush appointee at CEA, though nothing she says is particularly colored by that fact, so it's a minor sin.)

[Update: adding this line for consistency] Here's a third criticism:

3. Mis-spelling Goolsbee's name. I am happy to note that, as journalistic mistakes go, this is considered a very big one. My lovely wife will tell you that journalism students get auto-fails on assignments with errors like this. It's shocking that Sack would make this mistake, esp given the fact that he's probably been working on this article for a while, not under a tight deadline.  That said, personally I think newspapers should worry more about content and less about stuff like that than they do. (And they really do worry a lot about stuff like mis-spelling names; I've picked up my share of 1 am phone calls from copy editors calling to check with Gwyneth on stuff like that.)


Don Pedro said...

I agree there's a lot of uncertainty about the effects of the McCain plan. But that's not the message in the article. The article leaves with you with the impression that you can't believe anybody's analysis. Much better would have been something along the lines of Henry Aaron's piece, which explains why there is that uncertainty:

I don't think I buy the "it's not an analysis" argument. A reasonable person reading the article would conclude that rather than trying to understand how the plans would work, you're better off just going with your gut feeling. This is not a helpful message.

I suspect that Reinhardt feels he was misrepresented in the article. The quotes were probably pulled out of a half-hour interview, and I would guess the point he was trying to make is that you shouldn't blindly trust any particular economist but that instead you should do your own critical thinking.

Jonah B. Gelbach said...


i guess we'll have to agree to disagree on the first 2 grafs of your comment. on the third, i'm curious: why do you "suspect Reinhardt feels he was misrepresented"? have you seen him comment further? (i'm not being snarky, it's just that you seem to be assuming a lot about both the interview and his intentions.)

Don Pedro said...

I could give you my thought process on this, but instead of speculating, I'll send him an email and ask him.