Details of the War – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!
Seth Ackerman has a blistering piece in Jacobin, which goes on the warpath against Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias at Vox regarding their recent comments on Bernie Sanders. Ackerman’s thesis: the Vox folks are marshalling a cynical attack against Bernie, grounded in a growing fear emerging from the center of the Democratic Party about the genuinely radical possibilities embodied in the Sanders campaign. In the face of threats by their base to actually pursue single payer health care, he thinks, the establishment is striking back.
This argument isn’t entirely wrong. In fact, I’m generally sympathetic to the premise. Vox clearly stands for a certain portion of the center-left intellectual establishment. And Sanders clearly represents an oppositional force in left-wing politics.
But while Ackerman does a fine job of characterizing the dispute in general terms, man alive does he take a terrible route to get there. It’s almost to the point that I can’t help but wonder if it’s a piece of elaborate performance art, in which literally every accusation hurled outwards is then mirrored by the accuser.
Because otherwise, I find it hard to understand how someone could write a piece with the basic thesis of: be more generous in your interpretation, which itself is so utterly without generosity or fairness.
One example: Ackerman is very unhappy with Klein “inexplicably dismissing the possibility of administrative savings,” and then cheekily references Klein’s work from 2007, noting that that back then he saw administrative savings as awesome. The implication being: Klein has been bought off, and no longer is interested in facts.
It’s a nice bit of rhetoric, but it’s totally unfair. It levels an accusation based on tone, and then hides the ball while purporting to reveal the facts. Because look: Administrative costs for health insurance in the US are approximately $1000 per capita vs. $300 or so for Canada. So let’s assume that Sanders’ plan brings those costs down to Canadian levels. That’s great! That’s $700 savings per capita, by Sanders’ numbers.
Okay, let’s check on the overall savings he promises. Oh, it’s $5000.
So why is it unfair for Klein to point out that Sanders still needs the vast majority of his cost savings to come from other sources??
A second example: the entire broadside against Yglesias is hypocrisy-based. Basically: He used to say vagueness was okay back when his boy Obama was the vague one, but now that Bernie isn’t spilling the details, he’s hyper-critical. And there is a certain rhetorical force to that point, but A) people are surely allowed to change their minds over the course of eight years and B) it’s not like it’s impossible to identify a gap between ‘vagueness is okay’ and ‘details are totally unnecessary.’
But those two objections aren’t even my real issue here. What really bugs me is that this charge of hypocrisy so fundamentally misses the point of the Yglesias argument. Which isn’t ‘moar details!!!!’, but is a far more specific critique that Sanders seems fundamentally uninterested in filling in the details. Which is very different.
Ackerman seems at least vaguely aware of this fact:
Warming to his theme, Yglesias spends a paragraph dilating on the complexities of administering Britain’s National Health Service (a different system than the one Sanders is proposing), and then after reviewing those intricate issues, complains that “Sanders’s ‘plan’ doesn’t cover any of this ground.” Worse, he says, Sanders’s “worldview” is unable even to “accommodate the questions”; for the Senator, “the only relevant issue is ‘whether we have the guts to stand up to the private insurance companies and all of their money.’”
But there’s something missing from this paragraph. Namely: any actual answer to these charges. Apparently, for Ackerman, these statements are so obviously foolish that simply giving them voice reveals their vacuousness. But these aren’t rude asides from Yglesias, or evidence of some irrational disdain for Sanders. This the core of his argument.
His criticism is that Sanders has an overly simplistic worldview, which considers passion and commitment sufficient, which actively eschews the sort of nitty-gritty work that comes from having to build complex policy instruments, under less than perfect conditions. Sanders, that is, seems to believe that if we just care enough about an issue, that’s enough.
I think that concern is probably overstated (though I do have some sympathy for it). But it’s an argument that is specific to Sanders, and which Yglesias makes repeatedly in the linked piece. It’s certainly not an unfair issue to raise.
So it’s bizarre to write a 6000 word screed, and still not find time to actually answer it.
One final example. Ackerman writes:
How could Klein have felt such warmth back then for the single-payer systems of Canada or France (let alone Britain, with its socialized NHS!), while being so hostile to Bernie Sanders’s plan now, when the latter claims to draw its inspiration specifically from the former?
If true, that would be damning. But…it’s pretty clearly not true. I went back and scoured the Klein piece, and I found no evidence of hostility to single-payer systems. Quite the opposite. His piece reads like a general endorsement of such systems, combined with a political argument that Sanders isn’t going to win many converts unless he provides details.
The point being: single payer is broadly popular (it polls right around 50%, sometimes a fair bit higher depending on how the question is asked), but that popularity is pretty thin. Basically: it’s got lots of tepid supporters, but they tend to evaporate when the rubber meets the road.
So if Sanders really wants to move that needle, he’s going to have to take that problem on directly, not push it to the side.
In all of this, it’s absolutely fair to say (as Ackerman does) that ‘most other countries in the West have better health care systems than us, and we should be more like them.’ But it’s also fair to point out that the American public, on the whole, is extremely allergic to change in health care policy, and isn’t going to be knocked off their perch by ‘it works in lots of other places.’ Remember how much flak Obama got for ‘if you like your plan, you can keep it’? The single payer debates multiples that times 10,000. And that’s a genuine problem, one that a candidate who really cares about making this policy probably should engage with.
As someone who likes Sanders a lot, I wish he’d do more to fill in those gaps. Because right now, as much as I like him in theory, I have a hard time actually believing in his political revolution, precisely because it’s grounded in the faith that being right is sufficient, and that all our failures are simply due to the folks in charge not being steadfast enough.
And on this point, it doesn’t strike me as entirely coincidental that the blistering attack on the Vox folks comes from Jacobin magazine.
Because this primary campaign really is fundamentally a debate about whether to consolidate existing gains, or to continue pressing forward in service of revolutionary ideals.
More thoughts on that analogy forthcoming, if I can find the time.
In the meantime, let me just close by saying: I like single payer. I think the US should have single payer. I’m glad it’s part of the conversation in this campaign. I wish it were a bigger part, and I don’t think the Vox position is unfair on that point. I think they also wish it were a bigger part. And they’re looking for evidence that Sanders wants to make it a bigger part. I’m looking for that, too. I hope to find it.