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December 15, 2009


Not only does Ezra Klein's smear mischaracterize Lieberman's position and ignore the politics of achieving a 60-vote majority, it also uncritically accepts an estimate of the number of deaths caused by being uninsured. Despite that estimate being fundamentally flawed, it has become an article of faith on the left.

BTW, a shout-out to Brendan for continuing his pattern of gratuitously including in any denunciation of smears by the left a reference to past smears by the right, no matter how unrelated to the subject they may be. When Brendan denounces smears by the right, of course, he rarely if ever evens the scales by citing previous smears by the left. One wonders, is this asymmetrical way of discussing smears intentional or simply a reflex?

Klein is engaging in a continued discussion with Lane, which you can find here. Whether you agree with his point of view or not, I think you will find it addresses the objections you raised.

Nyhan smears Klein on Klein's correct statements.

Lieberman's vote for the Iraq war already made him a mass murderer.

I don't believe that a government-controlled health-care system will save any lives. Quite the contrary.

Socialist schemes always sound good, but their reality turns out to be the opposite. Compare the health and well-being of East Germany vs. West Germany, North Korea vs. South Korea, Hong-Kong vs Singapore, Chile vs. Argentina. These are comparable pairs, except that the people living under socialism wound up poorer and less healthy.

Even worse, the bills in Congress are not even well-designed socialism, They were created by a committee to reward a bunch of special interest groups, including plaintiffs' attornieys and insurance companies. Even a well-designed government health care system would be worse than a free-market approach in the long run, but Congress has created a poorly designed sausage of a plan.

bullshit, brendan. you're trading in false equivalences. ezra does a more than adequate job in continuing to press his argument, but apparently it needs to be repeated that the GOP argument about liberal dissent was crystal clear innuendo (liberals hate america), while ezra's argument is true: no health reform means the death of tens of thousands every year.

moreover, ezra's deduction on why lieberman is willing to allow people to die is supported by the facts. as far as I can see, neither you nor lane have a good, supportable counterargument for what's driving holy joe.

but the more odious aspect of your post is what yglesias raised: that bloodless policy discussions elide an acknowledgment of the human consequences of those policies.

and arguing, as essentially you and lane are, that polite conversation has a greater moral imperative than saving lives is not only morally wrong, but it all but insures the nation never has an real discussion about progressive legislation. that and it guarantees more misery for more people. forcing the liebermans of the senate to grapple with the repercussions of their votes is the more honest conversation to have.

there's something screwy about your and lane's pearl-clutching moment here.

Thanks for the continued coverage of these responses to dissenting views.

You and other readers might find some recent research on how moral responses influence the application of the concepts of intention, decision, etc. Do people regard known side-effects of intentional actions as done intentionally? This seems to be influenced by whether they approve of the side-effect.

Joshua Knobe and other have written a good deal about this. See, for example, http://pantheon.yale.edu/~jk762/pervasiveness.pdf

I'd love to see Brendan summarize (and then refute) what he considers the strongest possible arguments for the following propositions:

a) Lieberman believes that HCR (again, given a generous definition of HCR) would save some reasonably large number of lives.
b) Lieberman's primary motivation in his "negotiations" over HCR have been to stymie and frustrate Democrats rather than improve the legislation.
c) Given (a) and (b) that Lieberman has made a calculation that (b) is more important to him than (a).

Can Brendan do this without resorting to his absurd hobby-horse that other people's beliefs and motivations are inherently unknowable?

Personally, I think Ezra's position falls apart on trying to establish (a); but whatever Lieberman's beliefs about the potential benefits of HCR, Ezra I think has made a strong case that Lieberman has decided that those benefits aren't as important to him as frustrating Democrats.

That doesn't make it true, but just because it is a statement about a third party's motivations doesn't automatically make it wrong.

Douthit says that the type of extreme language used by Klein doesn't work to convince people. The latest NBC poll bears out Douthit's point:

As the Senate sprints to pass a health-care bill by Christmas, the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that those believing President Obama's health-reform plan is a good idea has sunk to its lowest level.

Just 32 percent say it's a good idea, versus 47 percent who say it's a bad idea.

In addition, for the first time in the survey, a plurality prefers the status quo to reform. By a 44-41 percent margin, respondents say it would be better to keep the current system than to pass Obama's health plan.

By comparison, in September's and October's NBC/Journal polls, the American public preferred changing the system to the status quo, 45 to 39 percent.


I'm disappointed in this post. It is factually and conceptually sloppy, and engages in exactly the same sort of argument by smear that it pretends to deplore.

It isn't polite, (and not necessarily effective) to point out the costs of derailing health care reform, but you really haven't called into question any of Klein's factual claims here. Moreover, your analogies fail by conflating "being willing to bring about X" with "being motivated to bring about X".

1. "Worse-case scenario" is your description of Klein's appeal to the results of lack of health insurance from 2000-2006 in his description of the likely results of the failure of health care reform. A true future worse case scenario involves the health care bill failing and a total break down of the present insurance system that leaves many more people without health care and thus many more deaths than in 2000-2006. This is a rather banal point, but this sort of inattention to the (supposed) facts at issue in your account suggests bias on your part.

2. The point is not that Lieberman's actions are necessarily likely to lead to preventable deaths. Rather, the point is that he is OK with blowing up the bill with these results in order to prevent a rather measly public option or a Medicare buy in for 3 million people. Otherwise his threat to fillibuster is just a bluff. Now, perhaps, Lieberman is just bluffing and would back down if it came to that in order to expand health coverage. In which case Klein would be wrong. But this isn't the point that you are making. At least not explicitly. In this case, Lieberman would just be pretending to be willing to let X number of people die. In which case, Klein would be wrong, but his comments wouldn't be unfair insofar as they take Lieberman's position at face value. The defense of Lieberman, on the other hand, would involve some "mind reading."

3. "Being willing to cause X" isn't the same thing as "being motivated by X." Klein seems pretty careful about his use of language. You, on the other hand, accuse Klein of saying things he clearly doesn't say. I think that you are just confused here. Bush was "willing to cause" civilian deaths in the Iraq war as this was a clearly foreseeable result of his actions. But it doesn't mean that he was motivated by these deaths. We might not know what his motivations were. But if the deaths were foreseeable and he know that when he caused them, then it is fair to say that "he was willing to cause them" even if we were unsure if his true motivation was to bring freedom to the Iraqi people or get back at Sadam Hussain for trying to kill his father. In other words "being willing to cause X" is actually a pretty weak claim. All of your supposed analogies are actually about "wanting X." Presumably Bush did not want to bring about civilian deaths even if this was a foreseeable result of his actions (at least one would hope so!). Klein doesn't say that Lieberman wants to bring about the deaths, but merely that he is willing to bring them about in order to get what he wants, in this case torturing liberals.

4. I don't see any reason to be more polite about liberals who are willing to blow up health care reform at this point in the game either. This seems pretty morally irresponcible for the same reason. Although usually in such cases, the problem is magical thinking about the political consequences of the failure of health care reform rather than failure to put moral weight on the costs of having lots of people uninsured. So I find this argument pretty unpersuasive. The more serious point here though is that Lieberman have leverage precisely because he seems morally irresponcible enough to blow the whole thing up over whatever he doesn't like. Senate liberals aren't able to make this threat because it isn't really credible both for reasons of political self-interst and moral commitment.

5. Some people sincerely believe that the Medicare buy-in is a bad idea, that the health care reform bill will do more harm than good and so forth. This doesn't seem to describe Lieberman. Since virtually nothing that Lieberman has said against the public option or the Medicare buy-in makes any sense whatsoever, it is hard to conclude anything except that (a) he is really stupid, (b) he is just mocking the Democrats, or (c) he has reasons to oppose these provisions, but they would be even more embarrassing to say aload than the series of factual misstatements and non-sequitors that he has uttered (for example, "my insurance company lobbyist friends are against it").

I think that a rejoinder to point 3 is in order at least. I think that you need to get the philosophical basics right here before moving to cutting edge experimental philosophy.

Unified demonization is the defining characteristic of today's liberals. Gail Collins of the New York Times has now jumped on the bandwagon, calling Lieberman "bitter", "not-that-bright", and motivated by "barely suppressed rage." That's an example of the typical ganging up to to attack the designated target du jour.

Maybe liberals deserve credit for being equal opportunity persecuters. They will unite to smear someone, regardless of whether the victim is black (Thomas), Hispanic (Estrada), Asian (Jindal), female (Palin), or Jewish.

When people disparage the intelligence of Joe Lieberman (Yale College, Yale Law School), imagine how uncomfortable poor Joe Biden (University of Delaware, Syracuse Law School--76th of 85) must be.

More coordinated sliming from a New York Times editorial about Costco:

...in a world with daily reminders that an embittered, small-hearted senator from Connecticut can hold up health care for millions...


I thought Brendan's post was terrific, as usual. I have a few questions for Klein and people who support his view. Is Dennis Kucinich also a mass murderer for opposing the health care reform bill? How about Howard Dean? Should these people be sent to the electric chair? How about liberal intellectuals like Marcia Angell who have written against the bill at the Huffington Post? Should be charged with inciting violence?

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