FIRST IT was the debacle of Healthcare.gov, the botched ObamaCare website, that dominated coverage of the Affordable Care Act's rollout. The new insurance exchanges were a disaster — technical malfunctions, frozen screens, interminable wait times, error messages, lost data. President Obama had promised that the new system would make getting health insurance as easy as shopping online — "the same way you'd shop for a plane ticket on Kayak or a TV on Amazon," he'd said. What he delivered instead, as Democratic Senator Max Baucus predicted months ago, was a "huge train wreck."
Last week that train wreck grew huger.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans are being notified that their health insurance policies will be cancelled, notwithstanding Obama's endlessly repeated assurance that "if you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan." But that claim, voters now realize, was also untrue.
As NBC News reported on Monday, "the administration knew that more than 40 to 67 percent of those in the individual market would not be able to keep their plans, even if they liked them." ObamaCare regulations promulgated in 2010 were designed to force millions of consumers into getting more comprehensive, more expensive, insurance coverage than they want or need. Yet over and over the president insisted that wouldn't happen — a falsehood so egregious it earned "four Pinocchios" from the Washington Post's fact-checker. And that was before Obama's trip to Faneuil Hall last week to scapegoat "bad-apple insurers" for selling Americans health-care plans they liked.
Remember Joe Wilson, the South Carolina congressman who yelled "You lie!" during Obama's health-care speech to Congress in 2009? His outburst was inexcusably rude. But in retrospect, it looks increasingly prescient.
Which shoe will be the next to drop? What other ObamaCare promise will voters discover was bogus? Perhaps it will be the claim that the president's health law won't add "one dime to our deficits — either now or in the future." Or the rosy pledge that it will lower premiums for the typical family by $2,500 per year. Or the vaunted assurance that it will "bend the cost curve downward." Or all of them.
But will it make any difference?
Complaints that politicians tell lies are as old as politics — and so, most of the time, is the public's willingness to live with those lies. Nearly all of us say we don't like being deceived by elected officials, but even brazen liars are routinely reelected. Polls consistently find that members of Congress have a rock-bottom reputation when it comes to ethical standards — in a recent Gallup survey, only 1 in 10 Americans gave Congress a high rating for honesty— yet the vast majority of congressmen seeking reelection are successful. Candidates preceded by a reputation for mendacity and insincerity get elected to the White House: Think of "Tricky Dick" Nixon or "Slick Willie" Clinton.
On the whole, society tends to be more tolerant of politicians who break their word or fail to keep a promise than of businesses that do so. Consider the CEO of Southwest Airlines, Gary Kelly, who has been adamant in recent years about not charging passengers for baggage. "Bags Fly Free" has been a mainstay of Southwest's advertising. "I don't want to be waffling on this," Kelly told an interviewer last year. "We're not going to charge bag fees, no way." In a conference call in April, he underscored the point: "Our brand includes 'bags fly free.' Period."
Representative Joe Wilson blurts "You lie!" during President Obama's health-care speech in 2009. His outburst was certainly rude. It was also prescient.
So it made news when Kelly hinted this month that Southwest's policy may change, if the company concludes that passengers will accept "an à la carte approach." Business leaders, like politicians, would rather paint a 180-degree reversal as an evolution, not a broken promise. But Kelly knows his margin for error is precarious. Unlike politicians, he and Southwest are answerable to the marketplace, where the penalty for deceiving customers or betraying shareholders can be swift and ruthless. No corporate executive would dare to be as cavalier about consumers' expectations as the White House has been with regard to the promises the president made about ObamaCare.
If Obama were the CEO of a private company, writes George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux, "he would be sued, publicly lambasted by all the major media, perhaps hauled before an admittedly grandstanding Congressional committee, and possibly prosecuted, convicted, fined, or even imprisoned for fraudulent misrepresentation." But politics isn't the marketplace, and politicians are held to a different standard. We entrust elected officials with far too much power, then routinely fail to hold them accountable when they abuse that power and betray our trust.
Ultimately the only solution to the problem of faithless politicians is to put less faith in politicians. For as government gets bigger, citizens get smaller — and public servants become impossible to control.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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