Prominent Voice in Health Care Debate Took Money from the Administration

MIT economist Jonathan Gruber has become the go-to economist for fans of the health care reform wending its way through congress.  He regularly produces analyses showing how great reform is going to be for people buying insurance in the individual market, and has been a vocal advocate for the excise tax.  His prominence made him a natural lead-in for Ron Brownstein's recent piece on the health care bill for Atlantic Politics:

When I reached Jonathan Gruber on Thursday, he was working his way, page by laborious page, through the mammoth health care bill Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had unveiled just a few hours earlier. Gruber is a leading health economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is consulted by politicians in both parties. He was one of almost two dozen top economists who sent President Obama a letter earlier this month insisting that reform won't succeed unless it "bends the curve" in the long-term growth of health care costs. And, on that front, Gruber likes what he sees in the Reid proposal. Actually he likes it a lot.

"I'm sort of a known skeptic on this stuff," Gruber told me. "My summary is it's really hard to figure out how to bend the cost curve, but I can't think of a thing to try that they didn't try. They really make the best effort anyone has ever made. Everything is in here....I can't think of anything I'd do that they are not doing in the bill. You couldn't have done better than they are doing."

He shows up in the work of the left-half of the health care commentariat so often that if I tried to round up representative cites, this piece would be published sometime next month, and you'd die of old age before you made your way through it.

But he probably wouldn't have been cited with quite the same authority--particularly by mainstream media--if he'd been more upfront about the fact that he's being paid almost $300,000 by the Obama Administration for "special studies and analysis" of the health care bills, as a blogger on Firedoglake revealed last night.  Ben Smith has the rundown; apparently most of the health care beat reporters were as unaware of the relationship as I was.

I certainly would not have written about him the same way, even though I am sure that what Gruber is saying comports with what he believes.  My guess is that like me, most journalists would have treated him as an employee of the administration, with all the constraints that implies, rather than passing along his pronouncements as the thoughts of an independent academic.  Christina Romer is a very, very fine economist.  But her statements about administration policy are treated differently from statements by, say, her colleague Brad De Long.

Given how influential Professor Gruber's work has been during the health care debate, that's rather a large problem.

Gruber's explanation that "he disclosed this to reporters whenever they asked" is not very compelling.  I don't see how anyone even tangentially connected to policy work could fail to realize that this was a material conflict of interest that should have been disclosed, and reporters cannot take up all their interview time going through all the sources who might have been paying or otherwise influencing their interviewee. 

The standard is even higher for people who are taking public funds, and not only Professor Gruber, but the administration had a responsibility to disclose the relationship.  Yet a post on the OMB blog signed by Peter Orszag cited Brownstein's Gruber quotes without mentioning the relationship. 

To be clear, I'm sure that Jonathan Gruber is in favor of passing this health care bill, and thinks it will do a lot of genuine good.  I don't think that funding automatically discredits the message; his work should stand on its own merits.  But journalists and academics are granted a presumption of independence that is not given to most other professions, and that gives them a special duty to make it clear whenever there is a relationship that people might reasonably think has affected their views.  Lefties were rightly furious when journalists turned out to have been taking money from the Bush administration, and I'm glad to see that at least some of them are holding Obama to the same standard.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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