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Obamacare and the ‘good governance standards shuffle’

Brian Levy's picture

This is the third post in a three-part series from Brian Levy on the manner in which the media, activists and politicians talk about the role of government. This post is about Obamacare. It’s hardly news anymore, I know. But my focus is less on the details of America’s ongoing efforts to reform its health sector, than on the way the discourse has played out – making the post  another in my series on the dysfunctional ways in which we speak about government.

Barack Obama signing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at the White HouseIn an earlier post, I explored Great Gatsby-style carelessness. This time, I want to introduce a dance move —  the ‘good governance high standards shuffle’, a display of exuberant glee (disguised as disappointment) whenever the real world intrudes, and the outcome of one or another public initiative  is less than perfect.

In the same way that it can be difficult to distinguish between real tears of disappointment, and malicious glee hiding behind crocodile tears, sometimes the ‘high standards shuffle’  can be difficult to detect. Sincerity can all too easily get ‘played’ by cynicism in disguise. While some dancers of the standards shuffle are clumsily obvious,  others have the moves down pat — making it hard to tell whether or not one is being played. (And some exponents might even be unaware that they’re doing the standards shuffle.)

Each year, as part of my teaching at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I select a ‘live’ example of the challenges of public management. A few weeks ago, as I described in another post in this series, I used the case of Washington’s Metro to explore with my students at SAIS the costs of careless in our discourse about government. In 2014, my focus was on the  ongoing American debate on health care reform (also known as “Obamacare”). That debate offers a marvelous  opportunity for seeing the high standards shuffle in action – an opportunity that has not diminished with the passage of time.  So: come dance with me……

An exchange in the United States Congress early this past summer illustrates what the clumsy version of the standards shuffle looks like. Here (as reported by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank) is  President Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human services, Sylvia Burwell, being grilled by Sam Johnson, Republican Congressman of Texas:

Modes of Punditry, Modes of Influence

Sina Odugbemi's picture

As the global system endures another round of crisis, leaders and policy makers in many countries are under pressure. The tip of the spear ---barring riots and protests -- tends to take the form of inflamed punditry: on air, on line, and on newspaper op-ed pages. Since we live in an age of volubility, or what someone calls the paradox of plenty in the global media, punditry is everywhere these days and yet most of it is of dubious quality. The outlets for punditry grow exponentially every week. The question, though, is this: how do we assess the quality of the massed punditry that we are being bombarded with these days?

I see at least two categories of influential pundits:

Jeremy Bentham and Dictators Around the World

Sina Odugbemi's picture

A desperate, totally fed up young graduate sets himself on fire in a small, provincial town in his country and within weeks eddies of violent protests by citizens all over the country bring down an authoritarian regime. And everyone is stunned by both the suddenness and the scale of it all. But the philosopher, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), would not have been surprised. He would have reminded the world of three things that he always said in the course of his long life:

Is Rhetorical Restraint for Wimps?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

I am so fed up with public affairs broadcast media in the US right now that I avoid them as one would avoid a madman howling in the marketplace. The noise level is so high it deafens. Almost every public affairs broadcast is overrun by sundry shouters and ranters. They are called 'bloviators'. There is no middle ground on any issue, no penumbras. Everything is either black or white. The intensity is so great you are always hoping that the next election will lead to a lessening of the noise level. But, no, the intensity continues unabated. What is worse, leading broadcasters and political figures have given themselves permission to say anything...just about anything. To escape the vehemence of it all, I find myself retreating into the embrace of the BBC, France 24 and such outlets because (1) they cover the rest of the world as though it mattered, which it does, and (2) they don't threaten my equanimity with profligate intensity and verbal incontinence.

The Burglar Alarm Standard of News

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

In my last post, I mentioned some of the problems that public opinion as a political force can pose when citizens aren't sufficiently informed or just don't care about political issues. I mentioned Walter Lippmann's suggestion to relieve citizens of their participation in political decision making and leave it all up to experts. Another suggestion comes from political scientist John Zaller, who calls for a "burglar alarm journalism." The principle is related to Lippmann's: Zaller proposes to leave the evaluation of political issues to, of all things, the media.

Blogging and the Flooded Brain

Sina Odugbemi's picture

What you are reading here is a technical blog. In the World Bank they are (pretentiously?) known as 'Expert Blogs'. I post these reflections once a week, for instance, and, as you would expect, I tend to think about them before I do so. But, as we all know, all over the world these days are bloggers of a very different kind. They blog not only everyday but several times a day.