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Words, words, words.

I can’t remember what set me off this time, so I don’t have a link, but about ACA/Obamacare… it’s the mandate that’s unpopular, right? Most of the other provisions are popular, and why wouldn’t they be, and the mandate is what pays for them, more or less the bribe we give to the insurance companies to make it all work. I know, it’s not even close to a bribe, but I’m just saying: the rest of it is the stuff everybody wants, and the mandate is the stuff we have to have to get the rest of it. Right?

But what polls badly, I assume, is the word mandate. We have some negative connotations with it. Even funded mandates don’t seem like a good thing, and of course we assume now that the word before mandate is supposed to be unfunded, which is actively a bad thing (and probably is a bad thing) so mandates are bad. Even more than that: if it’s mandated that you must have health insurance, and you have negative connotations with health insurance companies (and who doesn’t), it sure seems like the law is forcing you to spend hours filling out paperwork, sharing embarrassing personal details, and waiting on hold to talk with intransigents jobsworths in customer so-called service. That’s not going to be popular at all.

The thing is, though, that as far as I can tell, the law does not actually force you to have health insurance at all. You can choose not to. You just pay a sort of premium to stay outside the system. It’s called a fine, in most of the things I have read about it, and that’s not the sort of word that tests well, but essentially, you pay a certain amount of money and you can exempt yourself from the mandatory health insurance. Which means it isn’t exactly mandatory. It’s opt-out, with an opt-out fee.

Which means that in essence, unless I am vastly misunderstanding this, we are just raising the taxes on uninsured people. And helping people become insured, and making sure that they are really choosing to be uninsured, and insisting that insurance companies are willing to insure them, and having all the other good stuff, and also: raising taxes on uninsured people. Would that be more popular than a mandate?

If you still don’t like it, how about this: since any time you have two different levels, you can arbitrarily decide which of them is the benchmark, what we are doing is giving a tax break for people who have health insurance. You can call it a mandate, or you can say that people who have health insurance will pay less in taxes than people who choose not to have health insurance.

That doesn’t seem to me like a lie. And it doesn’t seem to me like it would be horrifically unpopular. It would be unpopular with the people who don’t want to pay for health insurance, sure, but that’s because the entire policy is designed to eliminate the free rider problem, and the free riders aren’t going to like the policy no matter what it’s called. And people who don’t like the actual policy, that is, the people who know what the policy is and don’t like it, well, people have actual policy preference that are different one to another, which is what makes governing interesting and fun. But for most people who only have the vaguest notion what ACA actually is, and are really only half-listening to the pollster anyway, I suspect that you could change the poll answers pretty easily. You could just announce: instead of a mandate, the new Obamacare plan has a higher tax rate for people who choose not to enroll in a health care plan and a tax break for everyone who has health insurance.

Some Gentle Readers (who haven’t disagreed with me about it from the beginning of this note) are now asking themselves or their nearest and dearest, why don’t they do that? Why don’t they artificially inflate the poll numbers of their signature legislative achievement? Here’s another question, though: why should they bother? The policy is what it is; when it finally gets implemented people will have real feelings about it. In the meantime, it doesn’t actually make much difference whether people like part of it but not the other part. And, I suspect, even if they liked all the parts individually, it might well not move the numbers on the whole thing together. In the meantime, I’m sure somebody would screw up the new language, because people always do screw up the new language, and it would be a hassle. While people writing speeches should craft their words carefully, and it’s generally worth paying attention to the connotations of words as much as their meanings, the real point is that the policy—people who choose not to pay for health insurance will pay a higher tax than those who choose to pay for health insurance—is not going to be unpopular just because it’s called a mandate. Rhetoric matters, but that doesn’t mean that the polls accurate reflect the way it matters.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


You totally called this one. Well done!

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