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.