How Jake Tapper and the Mainstream Media Got Played by a Koch Brothers Think Tank

In the medicare for all debate, Tapper opts for a pointless, wrong "fact check"

Politics Features Medicare for All
How Jake Tapper and the Mainstream Media Got Played by a Koch Brothers Think Tank

A new talking point has arisen on the left regarding Medicare-for-all, and accompanying a push from a Koch brothers-backed group, the mainstream media (defined as the 90% of media owned by six conglomerates) has responded with an erroneous “fact check.” There is a lot to unpack here, and not just because health care policy is incredibly complex and wonkish, but if you stick to the end as we recap this ongoing madness, you will see why I put the words “fact check” in quotes.

What Bernie Sanders Said

Because healthcare policy is incredibly wonkish and uncertain, I’m going to try to boil this down to its most elemental principles. First, Bernie Sanders cited a partially Koch-funded study a few weeks ago while promoting Medicare for All.

CNN later filed a “fact check” on this claim, which included a bizarre decision to interpret Sanders as saying that Medicare for All would save the “American people” money, when he actually meant that “it would save the government money.” This was retracted, and if that was the end of the story, you wouldn’t be reading this piece.

What the “Fact Checks” Say

We need to lay everything on the table so the sarcasm in those quotes actually translates into a legitimate criticism (and I promise you it will). Respected fact checkers have all come to roughly the same conclusion, but before we dive into their argument, some context around this most recent dust-up is required. Here is an e-mail sent out yesterday by the partially Koch-backed Mercatus Center.

Now, on to the “fact checks.” Here is the link to CNN’s entire three-minute video if you need it, but here is what their report boils down to. Per Jake Tapper:

“And we’re not here to make a judgement on the viability of Medicare for All, and we have no idea if the Koch brothers influenced the writing of this Mercatus Center study, but it does seem pretty clear that the presentation being made by Senator Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, about this study, lacks a lot of context, and the author of the study says they are not being accurate.”

The Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler reached a similar conclusion back on August 7th:

All too often, politicians mischaracterize conclusions that are contained in academic or think tank studies. At the Fact Checker, we rely heavily on how a study’s author says the data should be presented. In this case, it’s clear that Blahous bent over backward to accept Sanders’s assumptions, only to find they did not add up. Democrats cannot seize on one cherry-picked fact without acknowledging the broader implications of Blahous’s research.

Politifact gave Sanders’ claims a little more credence than CNN or WaPo, while still following their lead by saying that because the author of the study said that the scenario they are citing is implausible, their claims that it is plausible are “half-true.”

This is the key to every fact-checkers point: Charles Blahous, the senior research strategist at the Mercatus Center who produced this study, said that the Medicare for All assumptions in his study were unrealistic, therefore Bernie Sanders is being misleading in citing Blahous’ research—research which said that as proposed, Medicare for All would be $2 trillion cheaper than we presently pay for health care. So let’s take a look at the specifics of that research. Per Charles Blahous’ first paragraph of the “Costs of a National Single-Payer Healthcare System”:

The cost of adopting a national single-payer healthcare system is a critical factor in assessing whether such a system is desirable or practicable. The leading current bill to establish single-payer health insurance, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) Medicare for All Act (M4A), would under conservative estimates increase federal budget commitments by approximately $32.6 trillion during its first 10 years of full implementation (2022-2031), assuming enactment in 2018 (Paste Edit: this is where you normally would indicate that we currently spend around $34 trillion on health care—strangely, they did not, the next sentence is filled with spooky numbers relative to GDP—weird, huh?).

The fact is that Charles Blahous ran Bernie Sanders’ numbers and found that it would save us $2 trillion over the current system, and Charles Blahous says he doesn’t believe that Bernie’s numbers are realistic. What the “fact checks” are saying is that because Blahous doesn’t believe Sanders’ numbers, Sanders’ claim that his numbers were validated by a study partially funded by the Koch brothers is misleading. These fact-checkers are siding with Blahous despite the fact that Blahous’ facts are dependent upon Sanders’ facts.

The reason they side with Blahous is because, like Jake Tapper said, they’re not here to make any judgement on the viability of Medicare for All. They’re here to say whether or not Sanders’ claims are factual, per the terms of the debate (which the fact-checkers have set). WaPo explicitly stated that their fact checks “rely heavily on how a study’s author says the data should be presented.” The problem here is that not only are there legitimate questions around both the author’s and the employer’s credibility behind the study, but also that the study relied on numbers from a group of leftist policy wonks who should have at least as much credibility as anyone taking money from the Koch brothers. Confirming that people said words is not the same kind of fact as those words having truth behind them.

Again, for those in the back: Blahous scored Sanders’ plan and it said it would save us $2 trillion. What’s happening is because it’s a partially Koch-funded study using a report by the Sanders’ team, the authors of the study get the last word, per the “fact checks.”

These sarcastic quotes around “fact check” aren’t meant to denigrate these fact-checkers’ overall journalistic integrity, just their assertion in this specific instance. The argument they are making is not a fact-check, so much as it’s a “who-said-what” check. They’re wrong to characterize their argument as factual in this manner, and it’s a case study in how journalism which seeks to remove itself from the policy implications of a policy debate cede ground on who is the arbiter of truth in said debate. It’s a fact that the author of the study said that Sanders was being misleading about his study. It is not a fact that his assertion is correct.

How Would We Pay for Medicare for All?

I’m going to tag in a few policy wonks for this section in an attempt to answer the perpetual question from elite media, who never seem to want an actual answer: how are you going to pay for it?

First off, in the face of this weekend’s “fact checks,” Sanders re-upped the table his team is citing from the Mercatus Center.

Trillions in savings over the current mess are certainly one part of it. Sanders went on to cite Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Jeffrey Sachs, writing in CNN:

The economics of Medicare for All championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders are actually quite straightforward. Under what advocates call “M4A,” health care coverage would expand while total spending on health care — by companies, individuals and the government — would decline because of lower costs. More would be paid through the government and less through private insurers.

M4A would reduce health care costs for three reasons. First, Medicare pays hospital and doctors at lower rates than private insurers. Second, drug prices would be lower. And third, there would be administrative savings.

These conclusions are robust. Recently, the libertarian-leaning Mercatus Center published a study with data that bear out these conclusions. Indeed, these sensible conclusions jump out of any straightforward analysis.

Matt Bruenig, the founder of the crowdsourced leftist think tank, People’s Policy Project, practically fought a war on Twitter over the weekend explaining how the Mercatus Centers’ claims about the supposed titanic tax increases to fund M4A are misleading at best.

Think about it: you sign up for a health care plan at work, and that money gets taken out of your check to pay for it. If it went to the government instead, would you even notice? You would if your health care was cheaper. Any big change in the health care system would no doubt create massive upheaval and unforeseen consequences, but there is a lot of stuff we know that can and will happen, and there are smart people out there who have been able to quantify most of it. That manifested into Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill that was submitted to the United States Senate—which was then validated as $2 trillion cheaper than the current system by a Koch brothers-funded think tank.

When thinking about how Medicare for All works, think about Costco: buying in bulk reduces prices. The government can bring trillions upon trillions to the health care table and get better prices than what is produced by the dance between a handful of insurance companies, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies all chasing profit motives. The conservative Koch brothers don’t like that liberal ideal, therefore they’re pushing a study with big scary numbers and they’re hoping that no one will think to contextualize them with our current unsustainable figures.

Why This Matters

Our present health care system is so abhorrent and exclusionary that GoFundMe has become one of the larger insurers in America. Seriously.

GoFundMe says they can bring in as much as $140 million a month in donations. That’s $1.68 billion per year, and GoFundMe’s CEO said that one-third of their donations are health-related. That comes out to around $560 million in donations to people in dire need of health care on GoFundMe’s platform.

This is quite a big red flashing sign that our health care system is broken. Frankly, the current state of affairs is Medicare for All’s most convincing argument. When poorer people are forced to choose between bankruptcy and/or death, any other system sounds preferable. Especially one in which everyone receives health insurance—a pretty positive selling point that seems to get lost in most of major media’s finance-based profiles of the policy.

This is what’s at stake here. I’m not writing this simply to dunk on elite media groupthink (although I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t part of the appeal). I’m writing this because I was a skeptic of government-run health care until 2016, and I finally became convinced on the merits of Medicare for All, and I want other skeptics to learn what I learned. This dynamic will be playing out across the country this fall, as Medicare for All is ostensibly on the ballot for a plurality of Democrats. It is vital that voters be armed with the right information before going to the polls, and portraying a thesis of “technically because the guy Bernie Sanders is citing says that Bernie Sanders’ numbers are unrealistic, Bernie Sanders citing him is inaccurate” as a “fact check” does a disservice to the word. Go ahead and promote the fact that a Koch brothers-funded think tank semi-endorsed Medicare for All, folks. The fact-checkers got this one wrong.

Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.

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