The lie of the year

Politifact has announced its lie of the year, and I was rather surprised by it. As one might expect, it has drawn some criticism from liberals. The background here is that this year, as in the last few, a lot of political fighting has centered around medical care. The Ryan budget was a large part of that this year, and for good reason. Apart from ridiculous features like increasing the Federal deficit and giving permanent tax cuts to the already low rates for the wealthy, it proposed replacing the current Medicare program with a voucher system.

I think it’s important to begin by accepting that there was indeed a lot of Democratic dishonesty on this topic. Ryan’s plan specifically exempted seniors from the proposed changes, and many Democratic attacks ignored or outright denied that fact. Politifact was doing their job as fact checkers to point out those falsehoods.

But that doesn’t seem to be the focus of Politifact’s complaint. Every one of the statements they ruled false or pants on fire includes language that implies an end to Medicare. The core of their complaint seems be the idea that replacing Medicaid with a completely different program can be called ending it. I think we can all agree that if Medicaid ceased to pay for health care for seniors then it would be accurate to say it had ended or been destroyed, even if the program continued in some other form. Likewise, I assume we can all agree that modest cuts could not be characterized that way. Ryan’s plan would replace the government insurance program with a simple voucher, intentionally providing future seniors far less of their healthcare than the current system. People on the old system would have a completely different healthcare experience than people on the new system. So how much could Medicare change before it could said to be destroyed or ended? Politifact doesn’t address this.

Fairly often Politifact will rate a statement that contains both truth and distortion, and when they reach their conclusion they base it “on balance.” The idea is to consider the intent, the underlying point trying to be made as well as the semantic and technical truth. In this case it seems like they haven’t even considered balance. The meaning conveyed by the “end Medicare” statements is that the government would no longer provide insurance for seniors. That is exactly the intention of the Ryan plan.

I don’t fault Politifact for calling Democrats on their language. But they completely neglected to provide balance, to point out that the idea that the statements were intended to convey was actually true. The combination of an overly harsh criticism with no counter balancing explanation has made their analysis of this issue as misleading as the statements they are criticizing. The truth is, the Ryan plan, supported nearly unanimously by the GOP, would indeed “end Medicare as we know it.” For people under 55 Medicare would no longer provide health insurance. Instead it would force future seniors to buy health insurance for themselves, and it would pay an increasingly small portion of that cost.

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