Obamacare Ethics: Prof. Gruber’s Conflict and Democratic Deceit

Professor John Gruber, meet Armstrong Williams. Obama Democrats, meet the Bush Republicans. The names and faces may change, but the unethical tricks remain the same.

Back in 2005,African-American columnist and pundit Armstrong Williams was thoroughly embarrassed and the Bush Administration exposed when it came out that his tub-thumping  for the Administration’s “No Child Left Behind” initiative was accompanied by a large check ($241,000) from the Education Department, in part to encourage his advocacy. In other words, the opinion was bought and paid for, and any admirers of Williams were intentionally misled into believing his words of praise for the program were motivated purely by his expert analysis.

Media pundits pounced on Williams, as well they should have, though some claimed they did so with a bit more enthusiasm because he had the cheek to be both conservative and black. His reputation has never recovered.
Now we learn that MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber, a health care policy expert with sterling credentials, has been signing op-eds, giving interviews, writing scholarly articles and anything else he could muster in support of the Democrat health care reform efforts while conveniently failing to let anyone know that he was being paid $297,600 by the Obama Adminsitration’s  Department of Health and Human Services. The New York Times, among others, feels deceived: it printed a mea culpa stating that it should have been told, along with Times readers, that Gruber’s various endorsements of the health care effort were not the objective opinions of a disinterested expert.

But it is worse than that. Indeed, it is worse than the Williams affair, for Williams was only a partisan talking head, and his opinion carried little substantive weight. But Gruber’s “honest opinions” about the health care bill were central, for example, to the arguments made in an Atlantic Monthly article by Ron Brownstein that the Administration widely cited to counter critics of the bill’s cost calculus. You see the strategy? Pay the expert for a positive opinion of a policy, then use the opinion as an example of objective support for the policy. This is exactly the blatantly deceptive practice drug companies have been justly criticized for, the only distinction being that their paid “objective” experts are scientist and doctors.

Similarly, White House budget director Peter Orszag used a letter from Professor Gruber and other economists endorsing the Senate bill in a December conference call with reporters. Orszag said then that he agreed  “with Jon Gruber that basically everything that has been put forward in health policy discussions for a decade is in this bill.”
Gruber has protested that his opinion on health care reform is a sincere one, and has not been influenced by being on the Administration’s payroll. Armstrong Williams said the same thing in 2005: it doesn’t matter. The credibility of Gruber’s opinion and  its weight as independent analysis is materially altered by the fact of the payment, and it was…

  • …unethical and deceptive for him not to reveal his consulting arrangement from the start,
  • …unethical and deceptive for Administration officials to use his writings on the topic without revealing that he was on the payroll, and
  • unethical for media sources, columnists and pundits to fail to register at least as much outrage over Gruber’s unrevealed conflict of interest as they did regarding Armstrong’s.

Tell me again how there is no left-leaning, pro-Obama bias in the news media. Nonetheless, Republicans braying about the “double standard” used to pillory poor Armstrong Williams miss the point. The media was doing its job with Williams, and is not doing its job now. The standard never changed: policy analysts and experts, be they scientists, economists or columnists, have an absolute ethical obligation to reveal financial interests that compromise their independence.

Meanwhile, one has to ask: how many more ethical principles will the Democrats trample to achieve their health care goals? It is already a long list.

8 thoughts on “Obamacare Ethics: Prof. Gruber’s Conflict and Democratic Deceit

  1. Wait, let me get this straight.

    The FTC is requiring bloggers (http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2010/01/15/ftc-not-sure-how-to-enforce-blogger-disclosure-rules/) to disclose if they get anything that might be seen as payment for a service for writing something favorable about it, including a free book (for a book review) under pain of legal action …

    But …

    The same administration can pay an expert to pump up their health care policies without having him disclose the fact he is being paid by the administration? And six figures, no less?

    So I can get in trouble for accepting a free book for a book review, and this guy can’t get in trouble for doing the exact same thing in principle, while collecting almost 300K.

    Heh. Sometimes, there is absolutely no way you could make this up. The most ethical government in history, indeed.

    • Indeed is right. But almost nobody cares about this stuff, so it slips right by. Unless you’re an iconoclastic right-wing black pundit, in which case you’ll be destroyed.

      I am depressed.

  2. “Unless you’re an iconoclastic right-wing black pundit, in which case you’ll be destroyed.”

    Wrong! Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice are admired. Armstrong Williams is simply very weak.

    “Poor Armstrong Williams?”


    My mother was a die-hard liberal and she appreciated both George Will and William F. Buckley.

    I am the youngest of 12 kids; we are both Democrats and Republicans.

    Above all, we are thoughtful.

    • Judith, Condoleeza and Powell are not on point—at ALL. The fact is that Williams deserved to be destroyed (I never said “poor Armstrong Williams”—did you even read the link?), but the media did the right job for the wrong reasons—it would probably not have attacked a black liberal columnist—a Bob Hebert—or even white conservative one with as much fervor. How otherwise to you explain the near total apathy regarding the professor now?

      Colin Powell is clearly a special case, as he transcends race, to some extent, as an American hero. Condoleeza Rice was often sneered at by the liberal media, and often attacked on racial grounds by the black media ( and she was a poor Sec. of State, among other things covering for the Bush Administration’s torture policies—but what do Powell OR Rice have to do with conflicts of interest? Neither she nor Powell have anything in common with Williams.

      It’s good you are thoughtful. I wish more of the news media was.

      • My bad, Jack. I merely skimmed your post. I understand your point about fairness in the media which can be said for both left and right leaning papers and broadcast news. Much to my chagrin is pure opinion now.

        I’m also glad you posted my comment. My assumption elsewhere that you did not post it because I disagreed with something that I did not read thoroughly was unfair. Sorry for that. The comment has been deleted.

        By the way, you did write “poor Armstrong Williams” in your last paragraph, but perhaps not in the context that my “ha” indicated relative to your post.

        Thank you.

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