I once swore to myself I’d never write about abortion because it is such a politically charged issue, but here I go, violating that rule. Please bear with me…this article isn’t really about abortion, but more about those political issues that divide us and how our elected representatives choose their sides on such issues.
Before I begin, though, let me be clear about something: National Underwriter Life & Health does not have an official position on abortion, nor is this editorial meant to be construed as such. It is, however, meant to be an official position on the state of our governance, which I am sad to say is in sorry shape indeed, regardless of party or policy. That this article touches on abortion is merely the result of there being a lot of political opportunism regarding abortion lately. Disclaimer over.
A few days ago, Representative John Fleming (R-La.), an outspoken critic of abortion, posted a link on his Facebook page to what he thought was a legitimate news story about how Planned Parenthood was planning to build an $8 billion “abortionplex” that would allow women to abort with unprecedented speed, luxury and convenience. Fleming added a little editorial on top of it: “More on Planned Parenthood, abortion by the wholesale.”
The problem, of course, is that Fleming didn’t link to a legit news piece, it was a satirical article from the Onion, itself a satirical newspaper that has been around for a long time. (You can even get print copies for free in plenty of big cities.) Moreover, the article itself was more than a year old, which makes Fleming look like twice the rube for linking to it. Surely, had such a sprawling abortionplex been built, it would have been on the news more than once, right?
Fleming soon deleted the post once he (or more likely, his staff) realized he had goofed, but by then the horse had left the barn. The website Literally Impossible got a screen capture of it, and the image has since gone viral. But more than that, the story of the goof was picked up by sites such as the Huffington Post and Politico, and soon afterward, became grist for many other mainstream news outfits, including the Atlantic, the Hill, CBS News, and even local Fox affiliates.
Alas, we cannot really be all that surprised by Fleming’s comment. Lest we forget, at the time he posted the link, there was a fairly substantial public relations dust-up over the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation’s decision to wthdraw its funding for free breast cancer screenings at Planned Parenthood because Planned Parenthood performs abortions. This, amid Komen’s long-standing relationship with Planned Parenthood. The resulting social media furor was perhaps a lot more than the top leadership at Komen figured on, and in the end, Planned Parenthood raised well more than the $650,000 Komen normally would have provided in private donations. Meanwhile, the controversy has claimed the head of Karen Handel, a Komen VP who announced her resignation earlier today. Handel, who opposes abortion personally, was behind the decision for Komen to quit funding Planned Parenthood.
Undoubtedly, we will hear more about this, especially in the supercharged political atmosphere leading to the presidential election. You could even argue that we never really stopped hearing about it ever since whether or not the federal government would fund abortions became one of the many points of argument over health care reform.
The more we do hear about it, the more one thing becomes clear: our legislators know precious little about the topics they are supposedly taking stands on in the interest of their constituencies. It is common knowledge that, in Washington, most Representatives and Senators never read the full text of the various bills they argue over. Rather, they read the Cliff’s Notes version of them, cobbled together by overworked staffers in the legislative equivalent of writing up instructions for showing your grandparents how to turn on the cable box. Having reached the uppermost echelons of government, our representatives live in bubbles so hermetically sealed that they cannot even spot satire when they see it – and from one of the most well-known satirical brands around, no less. You would think that in an environment such as Washington, the very first thing any legislator would do is familiarize him- or herself with every source of satire and political comedy just to make sure one doesn’t wander into their crosshairs by mistake. But no, that is too much to ask these days. And it says much about that old saw of how, in a democracy, you get the kind of government you deserve.
Ranting about the health of our Republic aside, there is a more pressing, more tactical element to consider here. Fleming fell for the Onion article not because he is an idiot (maybe he is; I don’t know, but he deserves the benefit of the doubt) but because he wasn’t savvy enough to know when he was being baited. On a topic as heated as abortion, the sides often fall prey to that self-destructive impulse to argue on what you know in your gut rather than what you know in your head, and that is a path that can lead to all kinds of blunders, gaffes and bad decisions. When it comes to legislating insurance matters, we have the same general result, but from a different set of causes. Insurance rarely rises to the height of controversy as so many other battle lines in Washington, but it does suffer from the grim condition of being that thing which is a) really important and b) really boring to those not in the business. As such, it becomes the prime example of something legislators feel they have to address but really would rather not spend their time on, and so they pursue points prepared by others and deferring the really hard work of examining the facts until some other time. How else did we get PPACA? How else did we get Dodd-Frank? How else did we get any other kind of insurance lawmaking so complex and inherently un-implementable? That’s how, my friends. That’s how.
The answer is education, as opposed to lobbying. The industry already spends enough on lobbying, and while it delivers the occasional victory (or more than the occasional one, depending who you talk to), it still fails to deliver the underlying case of so many of this industry’s regulatory and legislative problems: ignorance. Just as John Fleming was ignorant of the Onion and cost himself a fair bit of credibility, most of the folks making the really important decisions for this industry, but who are not actually of the industry, remain fundamentally ignorant of how the industry works, delivers value, and serves the public. Conversely, they also don’t know what it looks like when the industry goes askew, follows financially unsound practices, or treats its customers poorly. One must know the first to know the second. Otherwise, all you think you know is what you think falls into that second category, and that is good for absolutely no one. Obviously, it’s bad for the industry because it leads to bad laws that overly restrict the industry from doing its business. But it’s bad for the public too, because they cannot get as much value from insurers as they would otherwise, and because their elected officials are wasting time and resources punishing a line of business inefficiently and, often, unnecessarily.
The world needs smart legislators to oversee a complex and important industry. But as long as we have people in Washington who can’t even assemble a staff smart enough to keep their boss from making a stupid PR mistake by getting worked up over comedic nonsense, there appears to be little hope for anything as substantive as medical loss ratios, health insurance exchanges, AG 38, the classifications of CDAs, or any other of the million moving parts that make up this business. Frankly, it’s enough to make one pine for a benevolent monarch. At least there, you don’t have the disappointment of having inflicted poor rulership upon oneself.