A Human Being Lives There: Grubergate

Jon made some really misguided and condescending comments that fueled the #Grubergate frenzy. So I am both angry with and sad for him today. In the apocalyptic politics of Obamacare, it’s easy to forget that he’s also a good person and a distinguished scholar who is getting the full internet-frenzy gang tackle right now.

Ezra Klein captures well my own sadness:

I’ll offer a slightly smaller final thought here: Gruber increasingly looks like a casualty of Obamacare. He’s become a liability to the law’s supporters — “I don’t know who he is,” said Nancy Pelosi, who had cited Gruber’s analyses during the health-care debate — and a villain to its opponents. He has been made into the worst comments he ever uttered on tape.

That’s a shame. Gruber tried to make it a better bill than it is. He tried to make what was in it clearer and more known than it was. And then — and this is where all the tapes come from — he traveled the country trying to explain it to people. And Gruber, as is perfectly clear now, was not an experienced political operator who knew how to talk carefully in front of a camera. The lesson other academics will take from his humiliation is that they best stay out of big policy debates, and they had really better make sure they never say anything interesting on tape.

Washington has always done this to people, but it’s happening more frequently, and more viciously, in the age of Twitter and YouTube. And while it makes sense in every individual case, it is, on the whole, bad for American politics. “It’s a healthy world where academics can speak their minds at conferences and the like without their words becoming political weapons in a bigger fight,” writes Tyler Cowen.

Cowen goes on to suggest that “perhaps we should subsidize people who end up looking foolish, rather than taxing them.” We’re not going to do that, of course. But we can at least try to be a bit more generous. We can remember people are more than the most controversial thing we’ve ever heard them say.

I am reminded of Philip Roth’s comments about a much more megawatt and sordid scandal. Roth also advised President Clinton to hang a banner outside the White House: “A human being lives here.” On all sides, we easily forget our humanity and compassion these days. The ecstasy of sanctimony is an ugly thing to see.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.