Cooking the Books, or Just a Kooky Column?

April 21st, 2014 · 1 Comment · financial coverage, health care reform, journalism

By Denise Tessier

“Cooking the books” is a sizzling charge against anyone. The Albuquerque Journal, via a column by Bloomberg News columnist Megan McArdle, levied that claim Friday against the president.  (“Census books cooked to boost Obamacare? ” April 18)

The style of the column was off-putting enough. McArdle referred to herself with the word “I” 18 times over 13 column inches – “I’ve been saying…,” “No, I’m not kidding. I wish I was,” “I just don’t get it.”

Beyond that, and perhaps in part because of that, the premise of the column raised red flags that it might warrant some background checking. The Journal itself had not provided background by way of a news story from which one could gauge the column’s merit.

As stated in her column, McArdle’s piece was a response to The New York Times’ (April 15) report, “Census Survey Revisions Mask Health Law Effects ,” which is worth a read in its entirety to understand what McArdle is railing against.

In her defense, her original column appeared as a blog that not only linked to the Times piece for reference but included whole block-quoted paragraphs from the article that ran in the Times.

As a column atop the Op-Ed page in the Journal, however, there was no news story to refer to, and even the blog-quoted Times’ paragraphs were excised, leaving it strictly as opinion response.

Readers of her blog might have thought McArdle was raising an interesting point about the timing of changes at Census, because it had context, which would give some credence to the provocative premise in its headline, “Is Obama Cooking the Census Books for Obamacare?”

But readers of the Journal were likely left with just the railing part – and saw blame left solely with President Obama. Using essentially the same headline as the blog, the Journal included a sub-headline that offered this summary: “A good way to judge ACA is to look at census data, but the White House has made the information unavailable.”

What the Times’ reported:

The Census Bureau, the authoritative source of health insurance data for more than three decades, is changing its annual survey so thoroughly that it will be difficult to measure the effects of President Obama’s health care law in the next report, due this fall, census officials said. . . .

Census officials and researchers have long expressed concerns about the old version of insurance questions in the Current Population Survey, and for more than a decade the agency has been trying to make it more accurate. (emphasis added)

The questionnaire traditionally used by the Census Bureau provides an “inflated estimate of the uninsured” and is prone to “measurement errors,” said a working paper by statisticians and demographers at the agency.

So, the Census Bureau has come up with new questions, “intended to improve the accuracy of the survey,” which are “being conducted this month in interviews with tens of thousands of households around the country.”

But the Times said the new questions are different enough that Census officials say the findings about numbers of uninsured and insured before and after the Affordable Care Act will not be comparable:

An internal Census Bureau document said that the new questionnaire included a “total revision to health insurance questions” and, in a test last year, produced lower estimates of the uninsured. Thus, officials said, it will be difficult to say how much of any change is attributable to the Affordable Care Act and how much to the use of a new survey instrument.

. . . The Department of Health and Human Services and the White House Council of Economic Advisers requested several of the new questions, and the White House Office of Management and Budget approved the new questionnaire. But the decision to make fundamental changes in the survey was driven by technical experts at the Census Bureau, and members of Congress have not focused on it or suggested political motives. (emphasis added)

That the change was driven by technical experts at the Census Bureau was supported by the last paragraph of the Times’ story, which said:

Kathleen Thiede Call, a professor at the University of Minnesota who was consulted by the Census Bureau, said: “I am excited about the redesign of the survey. For the first time, we will be able to look at monthly changes in coverage over a 14- or 15-month period.”

McArdle’s reaction, which was picked up and run by the Journal:

I’m speechless. Shocked. Stunned. Horrified. Befuddled. Aghast, appalled, thunderstruck, perplexed, baffled, bewildered and dumbfounded. It’s not that I am opposed to the changes: Everyone understands that the census reports probably overstate the true number of the uninsured, because the number they report is supposed to be “people who lacked insurance for the entire previous year,” but people tend to answer with their insurance status right now.

But why, dear God, oh, why, would you change it in the one year in the entire history of the republic that it is most important for policy makers, researchers and voters to be able to compare the number of uninsured to those in prior years? The answers would seem to range from “total incompetence on the part of every level of this administration” to something worse.

McArdle does mention (and her blog included a link to) the response by former Washington Post reporter Sarah Kliff, now with the new online site Vox, which gives a very different perspective. In “Don’t freak out about the changes to the Census yet,” Kliff wrote that:

What’s being missed here is that the Obama administration will use the new survey questions to collect data for 2013, the year prior to Obamacare’s health insurance expansion, a senior administration official says.

The Census Bureau reports the health insurance rate with a one-year delay; in September 2013, for example, the agency reported the percent of Americans without coverage in 2012. It will most likely report the uninsured rate for 2013 sometime this coming fall.

In other words: The survey will make it difficult to compare the uninsured rate for 2012, the last year for the old questions, and 2013, the first year for the new questions. But making the change now means that 2013 and 2014 – the year before and after Obamacare’s big programs started – are using the same question set. (emphasis added)

Kliff also found it “worth noting” that:

. . .the Census numbers are not the only measure of how many Americans are uninsured. Gallup, for instance, also surveys this question, and some wonks prefer their methods anyway.

McArdle, however, preferred to “freak out” and blame the president, saying:

If the administration is really serious about transparency and data-driven policy, as I’ve been told for a year now, then it will immediately rectify this appalling mistake and put the old questions back into circulation double-quick.

Put the old questions back into circulation? According to the Times article:

The old questionnaire asked consumers if they had various types of coverage at any time in the prior year. The new survey asks if they have insurance at the time of the interview — in February, March or April — then uses follow-up questions to find out when that coverage began and what months it was in effect. Using this technique, census officials believe they will be able to reconstruct the history of coverage month by month over a period of about 15 months.


The new survey was conceived, in part, to reduce a kind of bias or confusion in the old survey. When asked about their insurance arrangements in the prior year, people tended to give answers about their coverage at the time of the interview — forgetting, for example, if they had Medicaid for a few months early in the prior year.

People are continually moving on and off Medicaid rolls. The number of people who say in surveys that they have Medicaid coverage is almost always lower than the enrollment figures reported by federal and state agencies that administer the program.

The new survey asks people if they have coverage through an exchange, if it has premiums and if the premiums are subsidized.

Census Bureau research in Massachusetts found that consumers “inevitably conflate Medicaid and the subsidized exchange.” And many people with subsidized private insurance, purchased on the exchange, said they were receiving coverage from the government or the state.

Such perceptions are understandable. “Exchange coverage is a hybrid, partly private and partly government,” said Joanne Pascale, a Census Bureau researcher who helped develop the new questionnaire.

The new questionnaires are intended to make the findings more accurate.

McArdle would prefer the alternative.

The Journal’s use of this column was this reader’s first exposure to McArdle. A quick check online revealed she came under fire from Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi in January (“A New Low in Health Care Rhetoric ”) for a Bloomberg column McArdle wrote that asserted Obamacare would do nothing to help control costs, nor would it help people with their health issues. Her launching point was a report of increased emergency room use in Oregon. A similarly unwarranted reaction to the ER report from the Journal was addressed near the end of a previous JournalWatch post.)

And in running the “cooked books” column – apparently McArdle’s first in the Journal – the Journal has once again demonstrated its predilection for running articles that emphasize the negative when it comes to Obamacare and to President Obama.

Other examples from this past week:

From Bloomberg News, a story (April 18) headlined “Obama budget has tax hikes, deficit cut” led with, “President Barack Obama’s proposed 2015 budget would increase taxes by $1.4 trillion over the next decade compared with current law, the budget agency said Thursday.” Not until the seventh paragraph of this eight-paragraph story is the reader told that those tax increases would mostly be via “limits on deductions and exclusions for some high-income filers,” which alone would raise $498 billion over 10 years, helping to further reduce the deficit.

And in its Around the Nation section, the Journal ran a three-paragraph wire story headlined, “Wage hike bill to cost $15B.” That story said a Democratic bill that would gradually increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour (the Journal generally opposes minimum wage increases) would “require private businesses to spend $15 billion more in salaries when it takes full effect in 2017,” according to Congressional Budget Office estimates. In its last paragraph, the story does point out that the increase amounts to 0.003 percent, or about one-third of a penny for every dollar spent on salaries.

Even the original Associated Press story from which this brief was derived failed to provide, however, how much an increase in wages would benefit the economy – and businesses – through increased spending by those with more in their paychecks to spend.


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One Comment so far ↓

  • Arthur Alpert

    Another excellent report, Denise. Permit me to append two items in support.
    One, while at the Washington Post, Sarah Kliff (whom you quote) consistently wrote top-flight analysis of Obamacare’s strengths and weaknesses.
    The Albuquerque Journal used none of it.
    They relied instead on an AP Washington reporter who politicized almost everything.
    Two, when Obamacare enrollment hit 8 million, the Journal put the story on A6.
    Arthur Alpert

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