On being wrong about healthcare reform

People, it happened: after decades of effort; after 14 rollercoaster months of the Obama administration; after (long after) the need became glaringly obvious -- but, miraculously, sometime before the Second Coming -- healthcare reform has finally passed.  Despite my suspicion that it will still be a long time before the average freelance writer can afford her health insurance, I'm thrilled about this development. 

In the midst of all the huzzahs, it's worth pausing for a moment to look back on the naysayers.  I don't mean all the people who predicted that healthcare reform will bankrupt the country or turn a visit to the doctor's office into a trip to the DMV or mark the onset of a precipitous slide into blood-sapping, wussy-making socialism.  All those forecasts have yet to be subjected to the test of time, so let's ignore them for now.  I  mean the people who just said, plain and simple, that the reforms could not pass. 

The folks at Media Matters have helpfully assembled a list of premature obituaries for healthcare reform.  Among them:

  • "The health care bill, ObamaCare, is dead with not the slightest prospect of resurrection."  Fred Barnes, the Weekly Standards, Jan. 20 
  • "Prince Harry [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] has to accept the fact that his heath care bill is dead."  Sean Hannity, Fox News, Jan. 21
  • "I hereby say, health care is dead." Fox Business host Stuart Varney, Fox News, Jan 19

What's striking about these comments is their absolute confidence -- how boldly the winner was announced before the game was even close to over.  Whence such supreme certainty? One possibility is that the speakers see themselves (not inaccurately) more as players in the game than as pundits, and as such were trying to do their part to stop healthcare in its tracks.  (As William James once put it, sometimes impassioned beliefs "help to make the truth which they declare.") Another possibility (ably defended by Philip Tetlock in Expert Political Judgment, and reasonably self-evident to the rest of us) is that U.S. media culture favors experts who pronounce absolutes over those who linger in the gray zone.

A third possibility is that these folks truly believed that all chance of healthcare reform was dead.  Given the Democrats' remarkable ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, it wasn't an unreasonable guess.  But it was an unreasonable certainty, as history has now shown.   Question is, will any of them cop to it?

And, more pressingly: is Rush Limbaugh now bound for Costa Rica


Okay, maybe you don’t have strong beliefs about the “right” way to load a dishwasher, or about your sweetheart’s propensity to do it “wrong.” In that case, either you are unusually saintly or (like me) you don’t own a dishwasher. But you almost certainly get involved in domestic disputes about who’s right and who’s wrong all the time; we all do. Although interpersonal arguments can have a number of causes – from serious and painful breaches in trust to the fact that we haven’t had our coffee yet – an impressive number of them amount to a tug-of-war over who possesses the truth. We fight over the right to be right.