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Monday, November 18, 2013


While I was away, I read a new book by Sasha Issenberg called The Victory Lab.  It is a detailed historical account of the increasingly sophisticated methods used by political campaigns and number-crunching geeks to slice, dice, parse, and palp the electorate in an effort to identify supporters and get them to the polls.  The book culminates, as you might imagine, with two chapters on the two Obama presidential campaigns, which were far and away the most sophisticated, complex, expensive, and successful efforts ever made to bring high-powered social science to bear in the heat of a campaign.  It was an impressive effort, far more impressive than I imagined from my ground-level participation in one small part of that campaignin North Carolina.

While I was reading the book, the disastrous roll-out of the ACA website was dominating the news, and it left me mystified.  There has never been political campaigns that invested so heavily in high-tech data-crunching manipulation of voter information, and it is quite clear that the drive for this effort came right from the top, from Obama himself.  This was not something done on his behalf by people who in effect left the Big Man to make lovely speeches while behind the scenes they got him elected.  How on earth could a president who ran those campaigns make such a total botch of the implementation of his signature achievement?

To be sure, the Republicans have done everything they could to destroy Obama and his health care reform.  Their behavior has been despicable, beyond redemption, callous, destructive, shameful.  But they were not in charge of the implementation of the ACA!  Obama was, and is.  And the responsibility for the present disaster is entirely his.  I do not mean simply that as president he is responsible in some bureaucratic sense for everything that is done by any of the two million federal employees.  I mean that he is responsible in the ordinary every day use of that word.  He is an extremely intelligent man, totally committed, by the evidence of his campaigns, to the most advanced use of IT in all of its manifestations.  He has been aware for years that the Republicans would do everything they could to undermine the Affordable Care Act.  Why on earth did he not start planning for its implementation three years ago?  Why did he not make certain that competent people were put in charge of its implementation?  Why did he not demand in this instance, as he did repeatedly during the campaigns, that websites be tested and debugged and tried out experimentally before launching them?

I confess I do not know the answers to these questions.  Reading Issenberg's book forced me to focus on the details of Obama's unparallelled use of IT during the campaigns.  His failure in this instance is, as Tallyrand said of Napoleon's murder of the Duc d'Engien, worse than a crime;  it is a blunder.

One last word.  At the moment, Obama is being pilloried for his repeated statements that "if you like your health care insurance, you can keep it," which is not exactly true under the ACA.  This repeated promise was not a blunder, nor was it a crime.  It was a deliberately calculated half truth, designed to reassure people with lousy health plans who will benefit enormously under the ACA but are freaked out at the thought that they will end up without even the lousy coverage they are now over-paying for.  Whether it was an unwise political choice on Obama's part remains to be seen, but it is perfectly comprehensible.  The botch of the website rollout is not.


Stephen said...

I suspect that the ACA was kind of like the U.S. invasion of Iraq in that it was too complicated to succeed, even had the perpetrators prepared more thoroughly. That Republican rhetoric about how long the bill was, how no one read it, etc. did have a point. With the connections between so many private insurers and the federal government and state governments, there were just too many "moving parts" for the thing to work without the problems we've seen. Some of the wisest commentary I have seen on this pointed out that Medicare started a year after the legislation was passed and seems to have done just fine, even without the fancy web interfaces.

Marinus said...

The problem with the ACA website is an engineering problem the scope of which is easy to miss. It is an *enormous* technical undertaking to run allow a large audience to all simultaneously engage with the large database for which the webpage acts as a front-end. It isn't a problem to create such a webpage and database, though it takes time and effort. The problem is to shore up the servers against the enormous amount of usage it receives. It's easy to miss this, since we don't stand in lines to get into crowded offices or anything similar, so we don't see the strain the system is under. It also isn't a webpage like any other, because the servers on which they run don't need to handle only providing the webpages themselves, but running the databases underneath. Each time you send a query to such a database, where it does a search through its records or matches various records with each other, puts a large load on the computers in addition to delivering the pages themselves to everybody who is using it at that time. If the database is large enough, and there are enough people trying to use it at the same time, the servers are under *enormous* strain. Correspondingly, failures of similar internet services--ones which run on top of databases of any complexity--are common, even expected for sufficiently large services. And the ACA website is certainly sufficiently large. There are no clever fixes for this problem, you simply have to see how bad things get and throw more server capacity at the problem (which is another, separate engineering challenge).

Jerry Fresia said...

"He has been aware for years that the Republicans would do everything they could to undermine the Affordable Care Act."

"Everything" would include sabotage. Given the means and motivation of the Koch brothers, are we to believe they didn't have their fingers in the IT pie?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Marinus, thank you. That is very helpful. Now let us hope that those in charge of the project manage fixes to it in a timely fashion. I think your point is well taken about the big difference between the sort of data crunching the campaign did and what is required by the ACA website.

Unknown said...

I have no special insight, but according to some, the root of the problem is that the project was contracted out to political insiders.

Unknown said...

I have no special insight, but according to some, the root of the problem is that the project was contracted out to political insiders.

Unknown said...

I have no special insights, but according to some, the root of the problem is that the project was contracted out to political insiders.

Unknown said...

And I don't know why that was posted multiple times. :-(

Magpie said...

Maybe some kind of echo? :-)

Nick Urfe said...

A note about Obama's 'promise' that those who liked their plans/doctors could keep them.

I do not think that Obama uttered this as a half-truth - that is, that he lied. I think he and his administration did not think that any significant number of people who would lose their insurance under the ACA would be among those who liked their policies. After all, one can imagine an insurance policy that covers exactly $1 of coverage per year and costs $2 on 1 January each year. Of course the administration knew that such policies were banned by the ACA, but who could have thought that anyone with such a policy could be said to like that policy?

What's frustrating about Obama's response to this snafu is his apologetic tone. He made an overbold claim in an effort to calm the irrational, deeply selfish fear that those with insurance might have their policies altered in order that those without insurance could have access to better care. The real problem here has two faces. On the one, Americans are to blame for so fearing the plan that the Administration proposed. On the other, the Administration is to blame for not having better explained the ACA in the first place, thus alleviating at least some of the uncertainty that engendered the irrational, selfish fear in the first place.

It's also probably worth noting that the misinformation campaign waged by Republicans and conservative groups contributed to each face of the problem I described.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Aaron, I quite agree. It is a mystery to me that someone as smart and as effective a public speaker as Obama is such a wretched teacher. He seems quite incapable of clearly, forcefully, and persuasively explaining his policies and actions even when they are entirely defensible. It is a genuine failing in someone who makes his career in politics!