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Glitches (on Websites) get Stitches (for Entire Laws)

November 18, 2013

Late last week, I got an e-mail from one of my senators that I think illustrates an important point about the way critics have been talking about the problems with the Healthcare.gov website. See, somehow I’ve found myself on PA Senator Pat Toomey’s e-mailing list, despite having never contacted him or voted for him, and being perfectly happy to admit that I probably never will (we, um, don’t see eye to eye on very many things). He sends out e-mails pretty frequently, and his latest one led with a story about the ongoing problems with the Affordable Care Act, problems summed up fairly nicely in this New York Times article. In a nutshell, though, the website for purchasing federal healthcare has been busted since it debuted in October, and lately it’s come to light that President Obama was knowingly fibbing back in the day when he said that all Americans could keep their existing coverage if they wanted to, no matter how crappy it was. Old hat for anyone that’s been paying even the slightest bit of attention to the news lately, but still, this e-mail from Mr. Toomey (handily archived here) made me glad I’ve been too lazy to unsubscribe from his mailing list.

As you can see, it’s not that the e-mail says anything particularly out of the ordinary or surprising, but something about how it condenses these problems with the Affordable Care Act into 200 words under the heading “The Whole Law is Unworkable” got me thinking about how the terms of this debate have been troubling me for awhile.

Particularly, the last paragraph is what gives me pause:

The faulty website is only the tip of the iceberg. It is not technical glitches that will doom this system; it is the fact that the President’s health care law forces people to buy overpriced health plans they don’t want, hikes taxes, and puts important, personal health care decisions in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats instead of patients and their doctors. The whole law is unworkable.

Here, Toomey, or whoever writes this newsletter for him, writes that the technical problems with the website are just “the tip of the iceberg,” but what iceberg is it exactly? Apparently it’s an iceberg that also contains all the other criticisms opponents have ever leveled against the Affordable Care Act, or maybe even the iceberg is the act itself. Either way, even if for the sake of argument we grant all the other stuff about the plans being overpriced, about taxes, politicians, and bureaucrats (concessions I’m honestly not willing to make, but bear with me), one of these things is not like the other. Technological problems on a website, although a real asspain, have nothing to do with the quality of an idea that said website may represent.

In other words, if Pat Toomey’s own website itself crashed and his tech people couldn’t seem to fix the problem, would he be struck with a crisis of confidence, thinking this makes him a bad senator? Or would it spark debates about his political stances because it somehow symbolizes an affiliation with “big government?” Unlikely. It just means, worst-case scenario, that maybe he needs new tech people. Or, conversely, if the Healthcare.gov website went live without a single hitch, would Toomey and all other critics of the Affordable Care Act be forced to admit that they were wrong all along and the law was actually a great idea? Of course not.

So while it’s maybe easy to understand the “tip of the iceberg” comment, equating verifiable problems with the website to alleged problems with the act itself, I want to challenge that equation. It’s unfortunate that the website isn’t working, but the website and the act itself are two totally different icebergs.

If you want to know more:

  • What Toomey’s newsletter does here is called synecdoche. It’s a pretty basic form of symbolic representation, where a part of something (the website) is taken to represent the entire thing itself (the act). We do this a lot with landmarks, for instance when we think of the Statue of Liberty as representing America or the Eiffel Tower as representing Paris. While these examples are a little banal, as I’ve argued above, sometimes this representation can be used rhetorically to highlight some negative (or positive) features of the aspect chosen as the symbol and allege that these features are shared by the whole. If this is done inaccurately, it’s what we in the industry call a “fallacy of composition.”
  • I’m picking on Pat Toomey here, but he’s certainly not the only one to take an easy potshot at the website as a means of criticizing the entire law.
  • The administration has responded to these criticisms somewhat; a few weeks ago President Obama gave a speech in which he said that the the ACA isn’t “just a website.”
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