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The Daily Debate - 10/25/2013

By Robert Tracinski

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October 25, 2013

1. Regulations for Thee But Not for Me

2. Dispatches

———

1. Regulations for Thee But Not for Me

How bad is the launch of healthcare.gov, the Internet front end of ObamaCare? Jay Leno is now joking that it's easier to join al-Qaeda online than it is to sign up at healthcare.gov. And he's right.

Slowly, it's dawning on the left that ObamaCare (and Obama's presidency) is dependent on "just a website." And Peggy Noonan is trying to convince them that it really is a disaster of Titanic proportions.

Some on the left are already trying to control the damage by shifting the blame to those greedy private contractors who were hired to implement it—as if they imagine that a National Department of Information Technology would do such a better job.

Along these lines, others are describing this as a failure of "neoliberalism," the Clintonian middle way between capitalism and socialism that relies on things like means-testing of welfare entitlements and reliance on market mechanisms and private contractors. The idea is that this attempt to combine government with private insurance made the whole system too complex—whereas it would be so much simpler for the government just to take over the whole system and pay for everything directly. "[U]tilizing 'the market,'" in this argument, "can be far more cumbersome and inefficient than the government just doing things itself."

This is an absurdity. If dealing with a website and private insurance companies is so horribly complicated that it fails instantly, how is the government going to deal effectively with doctors, nurses, hospitals, medical researchers, drug makers, and millions of patients?

As I have argued, this is what the left was preparing to do all along: to point to problems created by ObamaCare and clamor that the government "just doing things itself"—i.e., socialized medicine—is the solution. But the failure of ObamaCare came too soon and too catastrophically to blame it on anyone except government, and one of the most unintentionally revealing post-mortems of the healthcare.gov fiasco comes from Clay Johnson and Harper Reed, two of the IT wizards who helped transform the electoral apparatus of the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign. They point out that technology failures are endemic to government.

"For the first time in history, a president has had to stand in the Rose Garden to apologize for a broken Web site. But HealthCare.gov is only the latest episode in a string of information technology debacles by the federal government. Indeed, according to the research firm the Standish Group, 94 percent of large federal information technology projects over the past 10 years were unsuccessful — more than half were delayed, over budget, or didn't meet user expectations, and 41.4 percent failed completely."

Then they answer the big question everyone has been asking.

"So why is it that the technology available to Mr. Obama as president doesn't compare to the technology he used to win an election? Much of the problem has to do with the way the government buys things. The government has to follow a code called the Federal Acquisition Regulation, which is more than 1,800 pages of legalese that all but ensure that the companies that win government contracts, like the ones put out to build HealthCare.gov, are those that can navigate the regulations best, but not necessarily do the best job. That's evidenced by yesterday's Congressional testimony by the largest of the vendors, CGI Federal, which blamed everyone but itself when asked to explain the botched rollout of the new Web site."

So the problem is too many government regulations. But what do they imagine ObamaCare is, if not a massive set of new regulations? If a mere 1,800 pages of federal procurement regulations cause 94% of federal IT projects to fail—how about the 2,000-plus pages of the Affordable Care Act? Or the thousands of pages of additional regulations issued by the IRS, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other government agencies just to implement it? Are these regulations likely to produce the insurance that is best for individual consumers—or the insurance that is best at complying with regulations? Are they likely to give us the best doctors and hospitals—or the few remaining providers who are willing to get paid less for putting up with a complicated new bureaucratic system?

In this context, Johnson and Reed's analysis comes across as a kind of annoying special pleading: 1,800 pages of regulation is too much for us IT guys to deal with—but go ahead and load the regulations onto insurers and hospitals and doctors. It sums up a lot of the hypocrisy and thoughtlessness of Silicon Valley types who prosper in one of our economy's least regulated industries—and then go out and advocate for big government to ride herd on everyone else. Their creed is: regulations for thee but not for me.

And the irony is that you would think tech guys would know better, because they know the actual work required to make a complicated system run well. Virginia Postrel argues that one of the reasons behind the failure of ObamaCare was a magical conception of technology.

"So why didn't the administration realize that integrating a bunch of incompatible government databases into a seamless system with an interface just about anyone could understand was a really, really hard problem? Why was even the president seemingly taken by surprise when the system didn't work like it might in the movies?

"We have become seduced by computer glamour.

"Whether it's a television detective instantly checking a database of fingerprints or the ease of Amazon.com's '1-Click' button, we imagine that software is a kind of magic—all the more so if it's software we've never actually experienced. We expect it to be effortless. We don't think about how it got there or what its limitations might be. Instead of imagining future technologies as works in progress, improving over time, we picture them as perfect from day one."

In effect, the administration was tripped up by Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

This is not a problem limited to technology and pervades the world view of the left. That's where Tracinski's Corollary to Clarke's Third Law comes in: "Any sufficiently advanced economy is indistinguishable—in the minds of the left—from magic." They treat economic production as if it happens automatically, by some mysterious process, and they can simply seize the results as if they came out of fictional Star Trek replicator. Yes, really—follow the link to find out about this school of "Star Trek economics."

So it's no wonder that the administration expected magic to make their technology sufficiently advanced. And it's no wonder that they failed.

———

2. Dispatches

Did the White House make up Dick Durbin's anecdote about a Republican snub of Obama?

Of course we spy on our allies.

Is China turn into "a giant North Korea"?

London is experiencing a rein of terror from "Muslim patrols" attempting to enforce Sharia law.

Why are we wringing our hands about increased longevity?

———

—Robert Tracinski

The Daily Debate

edited by Robert Tracinski

Brought to you by RealClearPolitics.

Robert Tracinski is also editor of The Tracinski Letter.

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