Republicans need a class in economics

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The dysfunctional launch of America’s health insurance website, healthcare.gov, should have been a gift for a GOP desperate to destroy Obamacare. But instead, it’s become a brilliant spotlight exposing the intellectual bankruptcy of the American right.

“The Obamacare website fiasco shows that big government can’t deliver on extensive endeavors,” right-wing columnist Glenn Harlan Reynolds wrote Monday. “The obvious response is to not entrust the federal governments with big projects on which it can’t deliver.”

Instead of attacking with reasonable and practical criticism, Republicans are trying to make the temporary technical glitches of a single website the lynchpin of a colossal and expansive political philosophy and a comprehensive indictment of liberal government. It’s a ridiculous conclusion out of all proportion to the actual problem, and it’s based on speculation that has nothing to do with actual economics.

Pseudoscientific blame game

“The problem is that government is not the best means to do anything well,” Jeffrey Tucker writes on his blog Laissez Faire Club. “This is what happens when you eliminate the profit-and-loss system.”

Right-wing blog Zero Hedge agrees: “When the government really sets its mind to it, it can screw something up better than the entire private sector possibly ever could.”

It’s a line of argument that appeals – at least superficially – to the analysis of neoclassical economics. The website is flawed because it was produced by the government, which isn’t subject to the free market forces that demand quality and performance from private businesses.

If only the right understood its own argument.

Nothing about capitalist theory even aspires to explain the specific technical problems afflicting healthcare.gov. Its analyses of market competition and government monopoly have nothing significant to say about this issue.

What capitalists actually believe

If neoclassicals and their critics agree on anything, they agree that causal explanations of this sort are completely beyond the scope of modern economics.

Capitalist theory proposes that government ventures will tend to be less useful and effective than private business ventures operating in a competitive market. Even if that’s true, it doesn’t follow that every government venture will probably be inferior; that’s like saying Kevin Durant is probably inferior to Spurs benchwarmer Derrick Byars simply because San Antonio beat OKC in the playoffs.

More to the point, science simply has not developed a theoretical basis or analytical framework for decisive attributions of economic cause to incidents of such particularity and complexity. Economics is studied in the controlled environment of the lab or through the extreme abstraction of computer models precisely to isolate it from the tangled web of non-economic factors that makes certain kinds of field work impossible.

For instance, one of the website’s problems evidently stemmed from an extremely trivial typo: a programmer wrote “requiredFeild” instead of “requiredField”. Why did this happen? Did he have too much coffee that morning? Did he just fall victim to an extremely common spelling error? Or was it that the Pareto efficient allocation of resources assumed by general equilibrium theory that imposes absolute efficiency in labor markets is distorted by state monopolies in a way that guarantees human capital unusually susceptible to basic linguistic performance problems?

Simple explanations do a much better job of helping us understand the problems with healthcare.gov than the amazingly convoluted, politically convenient nonsense coming from Republicans. The bugs and design flaws are often so ridiculous – dozens of CSS files for a single page, script tags around html code – that it’s needlessly complicated and far too kind to blame them on grand, impersonal economic theories.

A bunch of dudes suck at coding. How hard is that to understand?

Top Photo: Republicans blaming the Obamacare website’s problems on the government need to take a basic class in economics. (edbrambley)

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