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Scaring People with Big Numbers

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One of the rhetorical techniques much favored by intellectually bankrupt political hacks is the deliberate effort to scare people about an issue by throwing out big numbers which seem scary to the average listener, but may actually be largely meaningless when you understand what they really represent. One of the most shameful masters of this technique is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who cranked out the big red calculator to scare the sheep-like masses in a recent speech on health care reform.

In his opening speech for the new session of Congress, Reid made a deeply emotional statement about how 14,000 people are losing their health insurance every day in America.

No one knows where Reid got this scary big figure from, though some have postulated that the Democrats have a special think tank whose job is solely to make up bizarre and unverifiable statistics. Politicians like Reid then mention those figures and the friendly media repeats them, so that when the politicians are asked where they got their numbers they can point to the media as the source, even though it is just repeating their original claims.

Reid’s dramatic announcement drew a lot of attention. 14,000 people a day seems like a lot of people losing their insurance. That’s twice as many people as live in my town. That’s more people than many of us are likely to even meet in our lifetimes. When it’s apparent that government schools have reduced most Americans to counting on their fingers and then referring to any number over 10 as “a whole lot,” it’s easy to get people wound up with any number that has some zeroes in it.

Granting the possibility that the number might have even a smidgen of validity, just for the sake of courtesy, when you start to look at what it means and apply some math skills you may have learned in a private school or can find on a handy iPhone calculator application, the number starts to look a lot less scary. 14,000 people losing their health insurance a day adds up to about 3.6 million people losing their health insurance every year, assuming people only lose their insurance on weekdays. If you accept Reid’s statement that they’re losing insurance on Saturdays and Sundays too (evil insurance barons work overtime) then the number is closer to 5 million. So let’s be nice and say it’s 5 million.

That’s an even bigger, scarier number — it’s the whole population of a major city — so let’s put it in terms we can actually relate to. That’s 1.6% of the American population losing their insurance every year, or about 1 in 62 citizens. Put that way it doesn’t look so scary. That means maybe 1 person in your office, or 1 person in the restaurant where you had lunch. Hardly an epidemic of people losing insurance. Or consider it this way. On a purely statistical basis if you start counting from the age of 18 when you become an adult, the chances are very good that you’ll die of natural causes before you lose your health insurance. Now that’s not so scary, is it?

Then consider this. How many of those people lost their insurance because they changed jobs, became unemployed, decided to join a different plan or became eligible for Medicare because they turned 65? Let’s just look at one figure. It also says nothing about how many of them immediately got onto a different insurance plan. About 2 million people a year turn 65 and leave their insurance to go on Medicare. That alone accounts for 5500 people a day out of Harry Reid’s 14,000. So that leaves him with only 8500 or almost exactly 1% of the population per year. Even less scary now.

Does a failure rate of 1% or even 1.5% represent a crisis in health insurance? It’s better than the 2% rate of lost mail at the Post Office, and yet we just keep giving the USPS more money every year. It’s substantially lower than the 2% chance you’ll be in a car accident or the 2% chance you’ll lose your job. So are all these things crises? Do all these situations cry out for governmental intervention, massive spending and urgent reform? We’ve been living with some of these statistics for years, even centuries, and we never saw the need to take drastic action.

Admittedly, every one of the much smaller number of cases where someone loses insurance and becomes uninsurable or can’t qualify for insurance is a personal tragedy. But why don’t Reid and the Democrats focus on addressing that real problem rather than trying to scare people into letting him screw around with a system which seems to be working just fine for most of the population?

So maybe Senator Reid’s big number isn’t really so terrifying. In fact, maybe he’s just trying to manipulate us and take advantage of our ignorance to stampede us into supporting something we don’t really want or need. Nah, he’d never try to do something like that. Next thing you’ll tell me he compared the health insurance industry to slavery or something crazy like that.

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About Dave Nalle

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/christine-lakatos/ Christine

    Yeah, Reid did it…compared it to the slave industry and all those that oppose are likened to the ones that didn’t want to end slavery. Guess, playing the “racist” card got worn out, they needed a new strategy! What a bunch of damn idiots.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    Yep. That slavery comparison ranks right up there with the classic Hitler comparisons which invoke Godwin’s Law. I begin to understand why so many people call Reid “shameless” — thankfully he’s up for deelection next year.

    Dave

  • smiley

    No one knows where Reid got this scary big figure from, though some have postulated that the Democrats have a special think tank whose job is solely to make up bizarre and unverifiable statistics.

    Given this, it seems odd to draw your conclusions based on any variant of it.

  • http://www.leavingthelandofwoo.com Bob Lloyd

    That means maybe 1 person in your office, or 1 person in the restaurant where you had lunch. Hardly an epidemic of people losing insurance. Or consider it this way. On a purely statistical basis if you start counting from the age of 18 when you become an adult, the chances are very good that you’ll die of natural causes before you lose your health insurance. Now that’s not so scary, is it?

    I’m amazed that people are so incredibly cynical about the provision of health care for the citizens of the US, that they’ll haggle about how big the numbers are.

    That 1 in 61 are losing their health care is a national disgrace – surely you should be making sure that in a civilised society, no-one should end up without health care! Instead you try to talk down the problem by quibbling about how big a number counts as big.

    The problem is not that the figures are being manipulated, though probably all politicians do that because they don’t trust the moral values of the people, but that there can even be a debate about how many people to leave without adequate health care. What kind of society does that?

  • Baronius

    They’re not losing their health care, Bob. They’re losing their health care insurance (for now). They can still get health care out of pocket, and if they can’t afford it, they can get government assistance.

    Considering how most of us get our health care insurance through our employers, Reid’s number isn’t surprising in a recession.

    There’s nothing cynical about discussing this. It’s recognition of the reality of economic downturn. The cynical thing is Reid using the number to push through unpopular and ultimately damaging legislation.

  • Lumpy

    This kind of numerical fearmongering is just like lying but easier to get away with because numbers intimidate people and turn off the rational part of their brains.

  • http://handyfilm.blogspot.com handyguy

    Since Dave has engaged in multiple fear-mongering, truth-stretching efforts of his own on the health care issue for several months now, I guess he is just the man to recognize such tactics coming from the other side.

    Or at least to pretend he has, loudly.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    To be fair, Handy, the rhetoric from the left tended to be just as shrill and paranoid when it was GW’s bottom warming the Oval Office swivel chair.

    It just seems to be the way politics are discussed in the US.

    Where I come from people get heated and upset over politics, sure, but the general philosophy seems to be, “I don’t like the government’s policies and things are going to be bad for a while, but I’ll grin and bear it and vote the bastards out at the next election.”

    Here, it tends to be more like, “If the government doesn’t follow the policies I agree with, the world will end.”

    :-)

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    Dr. D., that laissez faire attitude is a good one, up to a point. There does come a moment when you realize that if you lay back and let the natural ebb and flow continue, it’s not going to get better again, and we’ve reached that point here in the US.

    Dave

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    it’s not going to get better again, and we’ve reached that point here in the US.

    You guys’re absolutely fine, Dave – just as you were in 1776. [shudder]

    We’re well rid of you if that’s the way you prefer to carry on! ;-)

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    Dr. D. Watching Gordon Brown I think you guys could use a bit of the Spirit of ’76 as well.

    Dave

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    See, Dave, there you go again. Watching Gordon Brown, we Brits know full well we have an election next year.

    You Americans just don’t seem to have the knack for stable mediocrity in your politics…

  • http://www.leavingthelandofwoo.com Bob Lloyd

    [They’re not losing their health care, Bob. They’re losing their health care insurance (for now). They can still get health care out of pocket, and if they can’t afford it, they can get government assistance.]

    I suppose it depends on the level of cover. This article seems to cover quite a lot of the relevant information.

    It’s a strange (to me) American philosophy that says people should be financially penalised for being unlucky enough to fall ill – why are they held financially responsible for illness? A far more socially progressive philosophy is to ensure that all people are guaranteed comprehensive health care by evening out the cost across all people. But that conflicts with the selfish attitude asking why I should pay for anything that someone else gets.

    And it’s not even down to placing responsibility for self-care on individuals since the level of care is linked to the ability to pay. Someone on low pay can’t pick and choose which illness they might get, yet they have to do so implicitly because they can’t afford comprehensive cover. If you’re unfortunate enough to have low pay in the US, you also pick up poor health care. How is that morally justifiable?

  • Baronius

    The AFL-CIO says that employers should pay their fair share. The more I look at the US health insurance system, the more convinced I am that employers should be eliminated from the equation entirely. If each individual is responsible for his health care and insurance, he can shop around and get the best deal. There would be no pooling discount, which would prevent the system from punishing those who don’t pool. Loss of employment wouldn’t be potentially fatal. I know that some people want to see a single-payer plan, but basic economics tells us that 300 million people, each negotiating among a multitude of interstate insurers, and purchasing their own health care, would absolutely drive down prices.

  • http://www.republicofdave.com Dave Nalle

    You’re dead on, Baronius. Everyone should be insured individually. This whole practice of bundling insurance into groups has enabled the growth of monopolies and hindered the free market.

    Dave

  • annie for Palin

    Come election day hopefully dirty harry loses his health insurance and he can add one to his fictitious count.