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Spin Control

Sunday Spin: Is “alternative facts” just a nice way of saying “liar, liar, pants on fire”?

There was a time when a politician would be careful about suggesting an opponent was lying. Back in the halcyon “good old days” it was deemed more appropriate to accuse a fellow official of being stupid than dishonest.

Now, however, politicians quickly toss out the term “alternative facts,” a phrase coined by the chief spokeswoman for President Trump to suggest that the inaugural crowd could be described as larger than photographic evidence showed that it was.

Since it is easy to have alternative opinions, but almost impossible to have an alternative fact, it is quickly becoming an acceptable way to accuse a person or one side of a debate of not being truthful, without actually calling them a liar.

Just days after Kellyanne Conway coined what may be 2017’s favorite political phrase, it came up in the back and forth between U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Gov. Jay Inslee over health care. As a leading House Republican, it’s not surprising that McMorris Rodgers is itching to do away with the Affordable Care Act immediately, if not sooner. With her party in control of all levers of the federal government, the only thing keeping the itch unscratched is the teensy problem of what, if anything, they should put in its place.

As one of the nation’s dwindling supply of Democratic governors in a state that benefits from the new law by significantly more residents with health insurance, it’s not surprising Inslee wants Congress to keep the law, with maybe a tweak or two. Late last year, Inslee and Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler wrote to McMorris Rodgers and some other GOP reps, urging them not to guillotine the law. McMorris Rodgers, et al, wrote back about a month later suggesting they were ready to let the blade come down because of a “list of horribles” about the downside of Obamacare:

Premiums went up an average of 13.6 percent this year in Washington, they wrote, as did deductibles, and the number of plans available went from 143 plans from 12 insurers to 98 plans from nine insurers. Plus 80 of the newly insured were “forced” into Medicaid, which a Harvard University study of the government health care program in Oregon showed has high costs and low performance.

A spokeswoman for Inslee promptly labeled those figures “alternative facts” which ignore the fact that three-quarters of a million folks in Washington who didn’t used to have health insurance now do. A spokeswoman for McMorris Rodgers almost immediately shot back that the facts came directly from a state’s website, so they could hardly be alternative.

Kreidler, whose office curates most facts about health insurance for the state, suggested later that the facts cited by the Republican congresspersons are not so much alternative, as “cherry picked” in such a way to ignore historic context.. There are fewer plans and insurers this year than last, but more than Washington residents had available before the law took effect.

The 13.6 percent average increase is correct, and is the highest since the law passed. But it’s lower than the average increase of 18.6 percent for the three years before the law passed in 2010. The average increase for the three years of Obamacare is 6.7 percent, because the average increase in 2015 was 1.5 percent and in 2016 was 3.9 percent.

One of the problems with throwing out these numbers is that averages don’t mean much to individuals. So it would be easy for McMorris Rodgers to find someone in 2015 whose insurance rates skyrocketed because their old stripped down plan was canceled and they had to buy a different, more comprehensive plan, just as it would be easy for Inslee to find someone who got insurance through Obamacare, went to the doctor, discovered they had a life-threatening disease, for which they were treated and saved from bankruptcy by having insurance.

Such anecdotes often make up the bulk of our political debates, because they can grab one’s attention and even bring a tear to one’s eye. But they should not be used as alternatives to facts.

The phrase also came up in the recent debate over money for public schools, of which the Legislature must find more, a fact for which there is no alternative. Senators sparred on Wednesday over whether the latest GOP alternative takes money away from more than half a million the kids in Washington’s public schools as Democrats contend, or a just a couple here and there, as Republicans insisted.

Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, accused Democrats of presenting “alternative facts that just don’t add up” because he had a sheet in front of him that showed increased spending for the very districts Democrats were mentioning.

Not an alternative fact, countered Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island. “Our side of the aisle doesn’t know what that is. It came from somewhere else.”

One might think this is an easy argument to solve, but only if one has not spent much time around the Legislature. As a very helpful staff report later pointed out, the numbers depend on what years a person is comparing, what one assumes happens in between those years to taxes and programs, and how one then accounts for all of those changes.

In other words, not so much alternative facts but complicated data spread over different scenarios to produce alternative results. But until Democrats and Republicans agree on the data and the most accurate scenario, a solution to the public school debate will remain out of reach. And that’s not a good alternative.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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