Medicare and the Philosophy of Language

Paul Krugman on whether or not House Republicans voted to end Medicare:

I’ll just quote the blogger Duncan Black, who summarizes this as saying that “when we replace the Marines with a pizza, we’ll call the pizza the Marines.” The point is that you can name the new program Medicare, but it’s an entirely different program — call it Vouchercare — that would offer nothing like the coverage that the elderly now receive.

To be persnickety about it, the line should be that when we replace the Marines with a pizza, we’ll call the pizza “the Marines.” The point is that simply taking the name for something (i.e., “the Marines”) and applying it to a pizza doesn’t change the fact that the Marines are not a pizza. Jon Chait delves deeper explaining that when you change a program’s characteristics “you have a gray area where you can legitimately debate whether a change constitutes ending Medicare.”

This idea, particularly Chait’s version of it, reflects the traditional descriptivist theory of reference outlined by Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell. On the other side is Saul Kripke’s causal theory of reference, which I always thought was bogus. But on Kripke’s account, the Social Security Act of 1965 created a program named “Medicare” and as a result of that dubbing event any program descended from the original creation continues to be Medicare. To try to make this plausible, consider that the just-announced Lion version of Mac OS doesn’t actually have more characteristics in common with System 5 than it has with Windows Vista or any number of contemporary Linux releases. Nonetheless, we think it makes sense to say that both Lion and System 5 represent evolutionary steps in the story of Mac OS. In that light, the GOP’s proposed health care program doesn’t need to actually have any common attributes with Medicare to qualify as a kind of Medicare.

Now if you ask me, this Kripke/GOP view is nonsense and all the Mac OS story shows is that Apple owns the intellectual property and can call things what they want. But it also highlights a lot of the folly of political “fact checking.” There’s simply isn’t a rigorous boundary between a factual question and a political one. Now that said, I don’t think this is a difficult political question. Normally the risk when a politician proposes a brand new kind of program is that he’ll exaggerate its originality. Thus when George W Bush signed a bunch of amendments to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act he called it “No Child Left Behind” because he liked the slogan and wanted the branding. But Paul Ryan is doing the reverse. He’s replacing a popular program with a program that would be totally different—and much worse—and trying to use linguistic bullying to obscure the extent of the change from people.