Paul Krugman’s Proof By Repeated Assertion

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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Most good college teachers know they need to repeat themselves – not necessarily with the same words but with the same facts, or concepts, or theories. Repetition raises the odds of penetrating distracted adolescent brains.

Unfortunately, in today’s increasingly politicized academy, repetition serves not just to educate, but to establish as fact that which is mere conjecture, wishful thinking, or just plan false. Readers of the New York Times commentary pages should be familiar with the repetition method of proof if they read columnist (and Nobel laureate economics professor) Paul Krugman.

For unnumbered columns after the ineffective Obama stimulus of 2009, Krugman repeated ad nauseam that the problem was not with Keynesian stimulus theory but rather with Congress’s failure to spend enough. Vastly more taxpayer dollars would have revived the economy, asserted Krugman, over and over again.

Now Krugman is applying the same approach in asserting that the Affordable Care Act is a smashing success. On April 3 of this year Krugman wrote that “the Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare, has made a stunning comeback from its shambolic start.” On April 14 Krugman avowed that “the Affordable Care Act is one of the great comeback stories of public policy.” On June 26 he declared that “almost all the [ACA} news is good. Indeed, health reform has been on a roll ever since March.” On July 13 he described the ACA as “an immense policy success.” And so on.

Ironically, Krugman’s June 24 celebration of Obamacare took Republicans to task for the sin of incessant repetition of claims that the law has failed. Quoting from Seneca, he wrote: “To err is human, to persist is diabolical.” The master of persistence should know.

It is certainly true that Obamacare’s opponents on the right are guilty of uncompromising and repetitive insistence that the health reform law is destined for failure. And it is true that they wish it to be so, just as much as Krugman wishes the law to succeed. But surely the jury is still out, and will be for years if not decades.

Krugman’s evidence for success is that several million people now have health insurance – never mind that wealthy older folks and healthy younger people are paying more than they used to. Obamacare’s objectors respond, not without good cause, that we have never had a wealth transfer program of this magnitude that was not destined to bankrupt the American taxpayer.

Krugman contends that the newly insured are delighted with the law. And why not? They are paying a fraction of the actual cost of their health care. But beyond the happiness of the newly subsidized, Krugman’s evidence of ACA success is pretty thin. It could be no other way. The law is barely out of the starting gate. Insurers, doctors, hospitals, employers and ordinary people along with Nancy Pelosi are just starting to figure it out.

The only thing we can know for sure is that all of these actors, save perhaps the congresswoman, will gradually adjust their behavior as they come to better understand how the law impacts on them. Even if the members of Congress had read the law before voting on it, there is no way they could have anticipated how people would respond. Only the people know what is in their best interests, and in a free society we can rest assured that they will act accordingly.

So we will wait and see. But in the meantime we can expect Professor Krugman to insist over and over again that Obamacare is a great success, while the law’s opponents continue to proclaim impending doom. Such diabolical persistence has long been the stuff of politics. But we might reasonably hope for better from a Nobel laureate.