Ending Medicare

Today’s outrage of the day is PolitiFact’s announcement that the 2011 Lie of the Year is the Democratic claim that “Republicans voted to end Medicare.” This was a reference to GOP support for Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which would have changed Medicare from a government-run program to one that provides vouchers for seniors to buy insurance on the private market. Those vouchers would have increased in value very slowly, which means that within a couple of decades seniors would probably have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket in order to purchase Medicare policies.

Does this count as “ending Medicare”? Matt Yglesias, former philosophy major, parses it this way:

Mitt Romney, for example, lauded the plan as reflecting “the need to fundamentally transform Medicare.” If friends of the plan describe it as fundamentally transforming the program, can it really be wildly illegitimate for its foes to describe it as ending Medicare? That doesn’t make sense to me. According to Mitt Romney, we’re fundamentally transforming Medicare. According to the DCCC we’re ending Medicare and replacing it with a fundamentally different program. This is a hair-splitting disagreement, not a gaping void of factual error and deliberate deception.

I guess I wish we lived in a world where it was possible to believe multiple things at once about highly charged subjects. Should PolitiFact have chosen this as its Lie of the Year? Not a chance. Ryan’s plan was an existential change to the current program, which guarantees essentially unlimited medical coverage to all seniors in return for a nominal annual premium. Ryan’s plan doesn’t, and describing that as an entirely different kind of program is perfectly legitimate. Hell, even some conservatives agree that PolitiFact made an elephant out of a mouse.

But does that mean Democrats were justified in describing the Ryan plan as “ending” Medicare? I know we all have our tribal loyalties here, but come on. There’s no question that this is intended to mislead people into thinking that medical coverage for seniors will literally go away entirely. But it wouldn’t. Ryan’s intention is that growth caps plus privatization will lower costs so that his vouchers will remain sufficient to purchase coverage similar to today’s. Meanwhile, low-income seniors would receive subsidies if they couldn’t afford the premiums even with a voucher. It’s a terrible plan, with virtually no evidence to support its central idea, and it would turn Medicare into a far stingier program than it is today. You can quite accurately say that the Ryan plan “privatizes” Medicare, that it “eviscerates” Medicare, or that it abolishes Medicare’s guaranteed coverage.

But ends Medicare? No. This means that there are two things to say about all this. (1) PolitiFact made a ridiculous choice. They elevated a real but modest rhetorical difference into the biggest lie of the year, and it just isn’t. (2) Nevertheless, Democrats shouldn’t say that Ryan’s plan “ends” Medicare. It doesn’t, and there are plenty of short, punchy ways of making the same point more accurately.

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