On Jonathan Gruber's Conflict Of Interest

Given the prominence with which I quoted Jonathan Gruber of MIT in several recent pieces, I've been asked today whether his work for the administration came up at any point in our interviews on health care. I looked through my notes this morning of the two conversations I had with him last fall on health care, and in the notes there is no indication that his work for the administration came up-it wouldn't have occurred to me to ask and he didn't raise it. That is also my personal recollection. Frankly I cannot imagine any way in which I would have known about his ties and not disclosed them in anything I wrote about him. I checked with Gruber today and that was his recollection as well: that I did not ask about it (anymore than I would have routinely asked any other academic analyst), and he did not raise it.

With disclosure, I don't think I would have completely put him outside the pale of people to talk to-he's really about as sharp as they come on this stuff and I still believe that readers would (and did) benefit from his perspective. But I am confident that knowing about his relationship would have led me to emphasize other analysts to a greater extent, and again, to definitely disclose the connection any time I did quote him.

I would, however, point out that even in my conversations with him last year, I don't feel that Mr. Gruber was ever simply an advocate for the administration or the congressional Democrats: for instance, while his comments in my Atlantic post were quite favorable to the direction of the final Senate legislation (a view that hardly mae him unique among health reformers), he was much more critical of the direction of the Senate bill in a conversation earlier last fall which I quoted him from in a National Journal column in October. Here's the link to that piece.

And I would also note that in my conversations with him in 2008, Gruber actually was a supporter of the John McCain financing approach to health care-that is, replacing the employer tax exclusion with a credit for individuals, which of course Obama fiercely opposed. Gruber's view was that the problem with the McCain approach was linking an end to the exclusion (which would have inevitably pushed more people into the individual insurance market) with deregulation of insurance markets by allowing any policy sold anywhere to be sold everywhere (interstate sale); rather he believed that a good approach would be to marry the McCain financing actually with the Obama insurance reforms. Here's language from my May 17, 2008 column:

But some experts, including centrists such as prominent health economist Jonathan Gruber, would take the gamble of McCain's tax credit plan. They consider it fairer than the exclusion, which reduces taxes most for affluent workers and penalizes people who buy insurance as individuals rather than through their employers. The catch is that many credit supporters (Gruber included) say it can work only if it is joined with reforms that ensure more risk-sharing and equity in the individual marketplace.

As late as my column of June 13 of this year, I quoted Gruber as strongly advocating a cap on the employer-exclusion-not exactly a position popular among most Democrats.

Bottom line from my view: readers should have been aware of Mr. Gruber's relationship with the administration so they could make their own judgments on whether that would qualify or color their assessment of his analysis. Personally, I don't see evidence that he functioned as an advocate for the administration, rather than an analyst with his own distinctive views. Still readers should have been aware of the connection so they could have made that judgment for themselves, and I wish I had known about it during my conversations with him.

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Ronald Brownstein is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is Atlantic Media's editorial director for strategic partnerships, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for the National Journal, contributes to Quartz, and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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