Why Are We Not Outraged By Deaths From The Status Quo?

UninsuredThis morning, Ezra Klein pointed out that Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (I-CT) opposition to health care reform will kill the bill and the thousands of Americans who will go uninsured because of it. Klein’s post may have been simply “pointing out that Lieberman’s actions have consequences,” but it elicited a sharp response from Washington Post editor Charles Lane. “Klein essentially accuses Lieberman of mass murder because he disagrees with him on a policy issue about which there is considerable debate among people of good will across the political spectrum,” Lane wrote:

This is disgusting, and pretty illogical, too. Klein brandishes a study by the Urban Institute showing that the lack of health insurance contributed to the deaths of 137,000 people between 2000 and 2006. But last time I checked, Joe Lieberman does not oppose insuring everyone. Indeed, he is on record favoring “legislation that expands access to the millions who do not have coverage, improves quality and lowers costs while not impeding our economic recovery or increasing the debt.” He simply opposes the public option, as well as Harry Reid’s last-minute improvisation on Medicare. Klein’s outburst only makes sense if you assume that there is one conceivable way to expand health insurance coverage, and that Harry Reid has discovered it.

Matt Yglesias points out that “stark moralistic language….makes people very uncomfortable. Lieberman’s people are squirming at the accusation that he bought his Medicare concessions by threatening to kill people. Lame Washington Post editors are squealing.” True, but I would argue that Americans are far less comfortable with arguing that the status quo and insurance market deregulation kills people and far more comfortable believing the government death panels will euthanize grandma.

Compare, for instance, reactions to Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-IA) ‘pull the plug’ remarks with the fire storm that brewed over Rep. Alan Grayson’s (D-FL) argument that Republican health care reforms would result in more deaths. Grayson was asked to bow at the alter of Rep. John Beohner (R-OH) while pundits tried to ‘debate’ the merits of end-of-life counseling provisions. Why are Grassley’s claims given more credibility than Grayson’s indictment of the status quo and GOP insurer-friendly health care proposals?

One argument fits a neat and familiar narrative that goes back to the days of Medicare. The other suggests that some combination of government inaction and corporate malfeasance are at least partly responsible for a great number of needless American deaths. Only the latter argument has the benefit of being true, but it’s also the one that’s venomously smeared.