Friday, June 29, 2012

Affordable Care Act - Victory - And Media Framing

Fox News:  The ruling is a victory for the president
New York Times:  In a striking victory for President Obama

Michael Moore on Democracy Now: "This really is a huge victory for our side, in spite of all of my concerns with this law,"

CNN:  Thursday's narrow 5-4 ruling was a victory for Obama,
There's lots to speculate about the Supreme Court's ruling on the Affordable Care Act. Too much.  So I'll just focus here on the media reaction, particularly all those who have framed it in terms of zero-sum games, in terms of winning and losing. 

Game Theory (in brief)
Zero-sum games are those where [the outcome is a fixed amount]  there can only be one winner and one loser.  What I gain, you lose and vice versa.  If there are five slices of pie, the more I eat, you fewer you can eat.  Classic zero-sum games are, in fact, games, like chess or basketball or boxing where there is one winner and one loser.  If we think only in terms of winning and losing though, only about the immediate outcome, we fail to see that these are really, in the larger context, variable sum games.

Variable-sum games are ones where the outcomes can vary, they can be larger or smaller depending on how the players play the game.  For example, in the pie example, if two people fight over the pie, instead of having five pieces between them, the pie pan could crash and smear the pie all over the floor and fill it with glass leaving no edible pieces.  (I've discussed game theory in previous posts - here's one with more detail.)

And a boxing match may have a winner who is given $1 million and a loser who gets $100,000.  That may be the win-lose part, but beyond that the loser may get valuable publicity, even a book deal, or he may get serious brain damage, or all three.  The important game to follow in most situations is bigger than who won and who lost.  It's about all the side effects of the game that ripple into many areas. 

Focusing on victories, on winners and losers, takes our attention off the broader consequences.  Sure, some people's lives will be improved by ACA and others possibly harmed, but let's get our facts right about this and acknowledge it's not zero-sum.  And sure, the health care bill could be much better.  But the Republican insistence on 'market based'  solutions to everything has blocked many options and is another example of either/or thinking, that ignores market failures - such as tens of millions without access to health care - that require government intervention.   Treating everything as black or white, as you're either for us or against us, or you're a good American or a traitor, blurs all the gray in between. 

We see this in the conservatives who have turned on Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for what they see as his betrayal.   They made the Affordable Care Act into a loyalty test.  If you are for it, you're the enemy, if you are against it, you are an ally.  Until you fail the next test.

And the media, by focusing on this idea of winning and losing, play into this way of seeing the world.  Life is not a zero sum game.  The economies of nations can have many outcomes from the bleak world of North Korea to the bustle of Brazil.  We can have everyone poor, we can have many poor and a few rich, we can have many relatively well off with a few poor and a few rich, and many other combinations.  We can have health care where millions of people cannot get care.  We can have a system that distributes care based on wealth,  or based on the number of years of life a procedure will save, or based on corruption and connections.  It's a variable sum game.  And we must get past simplicities, like, "poor people are poor because they are lazy."  It may be true for some, but there are lots of other explanations, including how society is structured, and why, for example,  baseball players can make tens of millions of dollars and teachers can only make tens of thousands of dollars. 

Not all the media focused on the winner/loser meme.  And the President himself recognized the problem with framing the decision as a victory for Obama.  
President Obama:  I know there will be a lot of discussion about the politics of all of this - who won and who lost. That discussion completely misses the point.  Whatever the politics, today's decision was a victory for people all over this country, whose lives will be more secure because of this law and the Supreme Court's decision to uphold it.
But he's still talking in terms of victory.

Court Questions

There are lots of other issues in this decision to parse out.  What does it mean about the court?  Earl Warren, a Republican Chief Justice appointed by a Republican president got his court to vote unanimously in their landmark 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision to end school segregation.  Was Roberts thinking about Warren in this decision?  Was Roberts unable to get a unanimous decision or didn't he try?  Was he worried about the reputation of the court as partisan so he found a way to support ACA?  Or did he think that this was unquestionably constitutional?  Or did this simply fit his pro-big business bias?   Was he trading this one for a negative vote on a future important case?  Say gay marriage?  Or more power for business?  Are there hidden precedents embedded in this decision that he can use to forward his Federalist Society values in future cases?  We don't know what he was thinking and probably won't for quite a while if ever.

Health Care Questions
There are questions about how to get better health care for Americans.  About the cost of health care and the affect of ACA on the US budget deficit.  And how this will affect the election.  The Republicans during the primaries were worried that the creator of the Massachusetts health program wouldn't be the strongest candidate against Obama.  Will Romney's obvious shift from being a supporter of universal health care with a mandate in Massachusetts to a harsh opponent of Obama's very similar plan be credible?

Media Questions
And there are questions about the media's rush to be the first to announce the Court's decision that led to Fox and CNN incorrectly reporting the outcome.  Ironically, HBO's new program The Newsroom's first episode which was broadcast Sunday and posted online, included a newsroom debate over how to report the just beginning to unravel story about a BP oil well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The media, of course, will argue that the market demands digestible soundbites, brevity, simplicity, so they need to use understood story lines like winners and losers.  Israelis and Palestinians have been caught in a zero sum game for decades now.  Is that what is ahead of us as Republicans* force Democrats into a zero sum game over the future of the US?  Or can we step back and and see our common interests and get off this road to destruction and back onto the road toward more justice, more peace, more cooperation, more prosperity for more people?

So, while the media felt compelled to dissect this decision before they even read it, it seems to me that we'll be figuring out all the implications for a long time.

*I think there's plenty of evidence of Republicans stonewalling everything Obama, epitomized with the Republican Senate minority leader's declaration that their top priority was to prevent Obama from getting a second term.  Anything that might put Democrats in a favorable light, they opposed.  Democratic animosity exists, but not nearly at the same the level.

1 comment:

  1. Did you see Alaska Business Monthly's horribly slanted, opinionated Tweet on ACA's constitutionality?

    "First of billions of dollars in new taxes take effect the end of this year on businesses and working individuals...."

    I noticed an Editor's blurb on there a few years ago where he blamed Godlessness in school for the Bethel High School shootings in 1997. It was a callous, insulting and irresponsible editorial.

    I'm finally seeing that crap-mag for what it is, everything that is ugly about conservative free-market principles wrapped in a Chamber of Commerce flag.


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.