Consumer Reports: Mindless Shills for "Health Care Reform"

Consumer Reports (CR) devoted nine of the 68 pages in its August 2009 issue to an article titled "A prescription for health care". I believe it's accurate to say that it's an unpaid ad for ObamaCare as currently conceived: an insurance "exchange" containing private plans, but also a "public plan" run by the government. Exchanges will be sliding-scale taxpayer-subsidized to accomodate the non-rich. Insurers will be required to accept "everyone", and everyone must get insured. The usual blue-sky handwaving about how current practices will be reworked (by edict) to make them cheaper and more effective. And so on.

If you ramble around the political side of the web at all, you can find plenty of substantive claims, counter-claims, and arguments on all sides of this issue. I don't want to duplicate that here, but instead concentrate on CR's advocacy style: it's full of Obama-like rhetorical tricks and fallacies, without Obama's distracting charisma. Not a full-fledged fisking, just some comments about things I found irritating and/or amusing.

At the above link, one of the first things you'll read:

On the political right, you'll find conservatives for whom "reform" is just the first step toward European-style socialism. You've seen their ads pop up on TV, sponsored by groups you've never heard of, full of scary warnings about faceless bureaucrats standing between you and needed care (as if you didn't have that now from insurance companies).

On the flip side, you'll hear some left-leaning commentators claim that the only solution is to nationalize health care as the British and Canadians have done. Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, has long argued for stronger government protection for consumers. But that doesn't mean we'd favor creating a huge new federal bureaucracy to manage an industry that constitutes a whopping 18 percent of the economy.

The right solution in today's environment lies somewhere between those poles.[…]

This is almost the "argument to moderation" fallacy: what we're advocating is between these two extremes, so it must be correct.

But look a little closer, and you'll notice it doesn't even rise to the level of fallacy. CR doesn't bother to describe what "conservatives" advocate. So their "poles" are effectively (a) the status quo, and (b) complete socialization. Conveniently, they arrive at the "moderate" position of halfway-socialization. (That's today. Once we're halfway there, do you really think we'll stop? There are plenty of reasons to doubt that.)

Also note the characterization of "conservatives": obscure groups sponsoring "scary" and (allegedly) misleading TV ads. Accusing the other side of being fear-mongerers is kind of a reflex on the left these days; but it rings especially hollow when surrounded by lurid anecdotes of sick people unable to afford needed medical services, people driven to financial ruin, and the country as a whole being bankrupted by skyrocketing health costs.

But we're not fear-mongering; it's those other guys.

Immediately after the above quote:

And it must be a truly American solution, one that takes advantage of our traditional ingenuity and entrepreneurship while preserving freedom, fairness, and choice.
CR combines flatteryyou're so ingenious and entreprenurial, America!—with an array of features nobody could be against.

One will, of course, look in vain for any of those features in the actual policies CR proposes. On this page, CR tries hard: they provide the anecdote of a small-business owner struggling with health benefits costs for employees. It's sad! But their "solution" doesn't take advantage of "entrepreneurship"; instead it advocates cost-shifting from the employer to—guess who? You and me, pal. ("Under the health-care reform that we support, small firms that couldn't otherwise afford coverage could buy it--with a subsidy, if needed--through the same National Health Insurance Exchange available to individuals.")

This Obamaesque feint toward moderation is amusing:

Not every reader will agree with each position here, of course, and we respect those differences of opinion.
This is after they accuse "conservatives" of being fear-mongering liars, so you might want to take that with a grain of salt. Like Obama, CR's "respect" for differences of opinion doesn't extend to presenting dissenting opinions fairly.

CR's overview concludes with a stirring call to action—one that the writer almost certainly imagined himself delivering with a triumphal trumpet-heavy soundtrack evoking thunderous applause:

Fixing health care will take hard work by many and some degree of sacrifice by all. But Americans have faced, and conquered, bigger challenges in the past. Consumers Union thinks the effort is well worth it. And we support reform as an essential investment in our country's future, one that will result in lower costs and better health for you, your family, and the generations to come.
When those moving words just sit there on the page, though, they invite skepticism: "hard work" and "some degree of sacrifice"—how much, exactly? And by whom? "Lower costs" and "better care"—enough to offset the "sacrifice" you're telling me I have to make?

CR provides no answers to this skepticism, which is unfortunate. Probably their readers would appreciate an honest, independent take on costs and benefits, winners and losers under the Democrats' plan. Instead CR just wields a big rubber stamp: "Don't ask questions, just trust us."

CR provides a whole separate section devoted to "fears about health reform".

Now that health-care reform is a possibility, the forces of opposition are gearing up. Anti-reform campaigns with names like Patients United Now, Partnership to Improve Patient Care, and Conservatives for Patients' Rights are trying to make meaningful reform sound dangerous.
Even in the webbed version, CR doesn't link to those "anti-reform" organizations; readers might—heaven forfend!—check out the opposing arguments for themselves, rather than rely on CR's caricatures. So I've added the links myself.

It's probably worth pointing out that, while "Patients United Now" and "Conservatives for Patients' Rights" are straightforwardly opposed to the "reform" advocated by Obama and CR, throwing "Partnership to Improve Patient Care" under the same bus seems misguided. The PIPC website appears to be a low-key non-ideological advocacy for "Comparative Effectiveness Research" (something that CR claims to support itself). The PIPC member list includes such right-wing organizations as Easter Seals and the National Latina Health Network.

The response to one "fear" reflects the unfortunately long lead time faced by magazines:

Fear Health reform will take away the good coverage from your job.
And how does CR counter that "fear"?
Fact If you're satisfied with your job-based coverage, you would be able to keep it.
Ah, we've heard that (and more) before! Obama's June 15 speech to the AMA:
I know that there are millions of Americans who are content with their health care coverage -- they like their plan and, most importantly, they value their relationship with their doctor. They trust you. And that means that no matter how we reform health care, we will keep this promise to the American people: If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. (Applause.) If you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan, period. (Applause.) No one will take it away, no matter what.
And a few minutes after that, like CR he was deriding "naysayers" who were "not telling the truth."

It took about 43 seconds post-speech for skeptics to say hey, wait a minute! Eventually Obama had to walk back that language.

But -- as the president acknowledged at his news conference Tuesday -- that's not really a pledge he can promise to deliver on. Private companies are always free to choose different health plans for their employees, and that's not something Obama's plan would change.

"When I say if you have your plan and you like it, . . . or you have a doctor and you like your doctor, that you don't have to change plans, what I'm saying is the government is not going to make you change plans under health reform," the president said Tuesday.

While Obama had to admit that his "be able to keep" promises were empty, apparently CR didn't get the memo in time; they just echo the President's original talking point uncritically. Clearly the "Fear" in this case is more factual than CR's "Fact".

Which is kind of the point of this whole exercise. Consumer Reports does a decent job of sorting through competing products, testing for quality, skeptically and independently checking out producer's claims.

But when it comes to politically-tinged issues, CR drops its independence and skepticism faster than you can say "Obama's so dreamy!" They have no problem engaging in the kind of specious argument that they'd rip to shreds if offered up by a corporate bigwig.

They should stick to reviewing cars, appliances, and electronics.

Last Modified 2009-07-09 6:19 PM EDT