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December 18, 2014

A Big Thank You to Jonathan Gruber

Patricia A. Kelly

A lot of people are very angry with Jonathan Gruber these days. He is the MIT professor who wrote the Massachusetts health care law, and earned $393,000 consulting with the White House on the writing of the Affordable Care Act, under President Barack Obama.


The Affordable Care Act was largely patterned after the Massachusetts law.


People say Mr. Gruber has called the American voter stupid and declared that the lack of transparency is a powerful tool of government.


I’ve listened carefully to his comments. What he said was that the Affordable Care Act was written in a tortured fashion to make sure the Congressional Budget Office did not see it as a tax – or else it would never have passed.


He said you could call it the stupidity of the American voter if you liked, but that this tortured writing, or lack of transparency, was a powerful tool and critical to the bill’s passage. In the course of several talks, he indicated the bill would never have passed if people understood, as did the Supreme Court, that it was a tax. He agreed that he would like to have transparency, but said he would rather have the bill.


The uproar that ensued after the revelations of his remarks caused him to appear before Congress, deny being the architect of the Affordable Care Act, and apologize profusely for thoughtless, flippant, and arrogant remarks.


Whether he actually said what he apologized for or not, he has actually done the people of the United States a great service.


First, he perfectly clarified why government operates in secret so much, and why bills are so long and hard to read. Yes, people, if we really understood what they were doing, we would often tell them to stop. They get this.


The Affordable Care Act imposes a tax on the health insurance benefits of the wealthy in order to pay for the care of the poor, sick and underserved. Although we don’t usually pay attention to this, health insurance benefits are really tax-free income. Just think of it. If health insurance costs a non-group purchaser $1,000 per month, and your employer gives it to you free, that’s the same as paying you $1,000 per month without you having to pay taxes on it.


Under the Affordable Care Act, people with high incomes and very extensive health coverage no longer get health insurance tax-free. Mr. Gruber said, at Massachusetts’ Sen. John Kerry’s staff’s suggestion, this revenue idea was twisted into a tax on the insurance companies to keep us from understanding it, but the effect is the same – the well-off pay for the poor.


I’ve always been in favor of transparency in government. I think bills should be short and simple enough for a curious person to find the time to read and understand them. I think the pork part should be obvious, either in a separate bill or as a short addendum to the bill.


I think the operation of government agencies should be transparent, too. What does the Department of Labor do, for example? Thousands of people work there, a big restaurant and a lovely rooftop deck for viewing special events in the capitol are there, but I’m not sure exactly what they do.


I think the tax code should be transparent, too, short and sweet. I personally believe in a flat tax, with every person and institution paying, except those with an income at or below the poverty line, who should pay nothing.


Thanks to Jonathan Gruber, all Americans willing to pay attention can clearly see the plan behind all this obfuscation. Rather than being offended, we owe him a debt of gratitude.


That said, there is a limit to what our government should announce to the world. When there are overreaches, departmental errors, policy mistakes, or personal failures, we should be counted on to correct them and provide consequences, not in secret, but without fanfare such as Sen. Diane Feinstein’s recent public criticism of the CIA. This is especially true when we are at war, and the lives of American citizens throughout the world are put at risk.


Our federal government is very willing to tell the world how bad we are, but not so willing to trust us with the knowledge of what they’re up to.


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