Avik Roy and the wonk gap

Updated
Avik Roy and the wonk gap
Avik Roy and the wonk gap

Among conservatives who care about substance and policy detail – not just everyday pundits and columnists, but genuine, grade-A wonks – Avik Roy has a reputation for being a pretty serious guy. He advised Mitt Romney on health care policy, for example, and has written extensively on the subject for a conservative think tank.

With this in mind, note that Roy was on “All In with Chris Hayes” last week, and as Kevin Drum noted, Roy “offered up a criticism of Social Security’s disability program that was so misleading that Michael Astrue, a former commissioner of the Social Security Administration appointed by George Bush, nearly had a heart attack on the air.”

Shortly thereafter, Roy weighed in on the latest report on California’s exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. While most of us saw the news from the Golden State as excellent news and proof that “Obamacare” implementation is proceeding apace, Roy published a remarkably dishonest piece arguing the opposite, deliberately omitting relevant details.

The always-mild-mannered Jonathan Cohn explained in detail why Roy is plainly, demonstrably wrong, but added an important point about the larger issue.

If you want to know why we can’t have an honest debate about Obamacare, all you have to do is pay attention to some recent news from California – and the way a highly distorted version of it, by one irresponsible writer, has rippled through the conservative press.

Right. Jon, Krugman, and Ezra, among others, have detailed reports explaining why Avik Roy’s analysis simply doesn’t make sense – I won’t recreate the wheel here – and I hope folks will follow the links to understand the underlying policy dispute. It’s not just of a gray area; Roy is simply wrong.

But it’s the point about “why we can’t have an honest debate” that resonates with me.

Indeed, it reinforces the “wonk gap” thesis I’ve been kicking around for a while.

Remember, Avik Roy isn’t just some guy who shows up on Fox to rant and rave about “death panels”; Roy is one of the conservatives who hopes to prove that serious policy scholarship still exists on the right. He publishes content with a credible tone; he doesn’t fly off the rhetorical rails; and he genuinely understands the policy details.

But when it comes to advancing a partisan/ideological agenda, Roy is nevertheless willing to publish “Obamacare” criticisms that are transparently ridiculous.

I believe this is yet another data point that highlights the wonk gap. As Republicans become a post-policy party, even their wonks – their sharpest and most knowledgeable minds – are producing shoddy work that crumbles quickly under mild scrutiny.

Indeed, it’s not just health care. The Heritage Foundation – an ostensible think tank – produced an academic paper on immigration reform, which was intended to provide such intellectual backup for conservatives opposed to the comprehensive legislation, and which was torn to shreds by even casual observers who noticed its careless errors of fact and judgment.

We see the same dynamic on display on economic and tax policy discussions, in which House Budget Committee Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is supposed to be a standout for his intellectual rigor, only to find his arguments crumbling in the face of evidence, too.

But health care is certainly where the wonk gap shines brightest. As we’ve discussed before, this came up in earnest during the fight over health care reform. In 2011, for example, after National Review ran a piece with obvious factual errors about health care policy, Jon Chait noted, “One of the unusual and frustrating aspects of the health care debate is the sheer imbalance of people who understand the issue at all from a technical standpoint. Even the elite policy wonks of the right make wildly incorrect claims about the issue.”

Most people are not policy wonks. We really on trusted specialists to translate these details for us. This is true as well of elected officials and their advisors. Part of the extraordinary vitriol of the health care debate stems from the fact that, on the Republican side, even the specialists believe things that are simply patently untrue. As with climate change and supply-side economics, there isn’t even a common reality upon which to base the discussion.

Paul Krugman added some related thoughts at the time.

First of all, I don’t think this is unique to health care, or especially unusual. Monetary policy, fiscal policy, you name it, there’s a gap, although not quite as large as on health.

Second, I’m surprised that Chait doesn’t refer to Upton Sinclair’s principle: it’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it. In fact, in general right-wing think tanks prefer people who genuinely can’t understand the issues – it makes them more reliable.

Doesn’t this apply to both sides? Not equally. There was a time when conservative think tanks employed genuine policy wonks, and when asked to devise a Republican health care plan, they came up with – Obamacare! That is, what passes for leftist policy now is what was considered conservative 15 years ago; to meet the right’s standards of political correctness now, you have to pass into another dimension, a dimension whose boundaries are that of imagination, untrammeled by things like arithmetic or logic.

I write often about the asymmetry in American politics, and the consequences of a radicalized party in a two-party system. But this wonk gap points to something related but different: it’s not just Republicans who’ve become more extreme and less interested in substance; it’s also conservatives who’ve allowed their intellectual infrastructure to atrophy and collapse.

Credible policy debates are rendered impossible, not because of the chasm between the two sides, but because only one side places a value on facts, evidence, and reason.

Affordable Care Act and Obamacare

Avik Roy and the wonk gap

Updated