Vox: Explained

by Patrick Brennan
Why the vanguard of explanatory journalism fails to live up to the hype.

Vox.com, the new journalism venture by liberal policy wunderkind Ezra Klein, is intended, we’re told, to “explain the news,” provide context for it. Unfortunately, explanations and context per se aren’t very interesting. A gray-and-yellow-themed version of Wikipedia, which seems to be what the site’s “cards” constitute, isn’t enough to win a seven-figure capital investment, as the site is rumored to have done.

No — “explaining the news” means taking a side on the news. This doesn’t mean the site is all bias or political cant, because there are some political arguments that really are terrible, and rest on such tendentious interpretations of the facts that they ought to be discarded. Similarly, some empirical or factual questions in our politics are deeply misunderstood, so it’d be nice to have someone set the record straight.

Klein says that most Americans believe such misunderstandings lie behind our ideological differences, and that that assumption “courses through the Constitution.” I really don’t know what to make of that. But if Vox really is about fulfilling the constitutional mandate to resolve the thorniest empirical issues facing our politics in a fair-minded way, it’s failing badly.

The site’s “cards” aim to offer a comprehensive list of all the questions one might have on a particular topic and offer balanced takes about both sides of a debate — what happens if we raise the minimum wage, say — and some offer definitive answers.

Thursday night, if you checked out the Obamacare card and wanted to know “What does Kathleen Sebelius’s resignation mean for Obamacare?” here is your answer — the news, explained:

It largely means that Obamacare is on firm footing.

How we do we know this is true? Because the sentence links to Ezra Klein saying so. The author of the card, superb health-care reporter Sarah Kliff, doesn’t start by explaining to you whether the law is a policy success — she just lets you know that her boss thinks it’s a political success.

This would be the first law on firm footing in American history, I assume, that has an approval rating hovering around 40 percent. Klein is right that the law notched a couple of political victories recently, but Kliff’s explanation quickly veers off into trying to explain, a good deal less convincingly, why Sebelius gets to go golfing because the law is a success as a policy matter, too:

The evidence has piled up in recent weeks that the strategy [of not panicking and firing Sebelius] worked. Obamacare’s first year, despite a truly horrific start, was a success. More than 7 million people look to have signed up for health insurance through the exchanges. Millions more have signed up through Medicaid. And millions beyond that have signed up for insurance through their employers. 

The last sentence, you might realize, probably has little to do with the health-care law at all (and is based off one survey with a huge margin of error that Klein nonetheless called “the best evidence we have that Obamacare is working”). And millions sign up for the dubiously useful Medicaid every year — it’s really unclear how many the Affordable Care Act covered. So we’re left with 7 million exchange sign-ups, touted as significant by the same reporter who wrote (correctly) two months ago: “There’s nothing magical about getting 7 million people signed up for insurance — the more crucial task for the exchanges is luring healthy people into insurance coverage.”

Kliff continues: “We don’t yet know how many young people signed up in March, but it’s clear that there are enough of them to keep premiums stable in 2015.” Those would be the premiums that insurers are worried will rise 10 to 15 percent next year, even more in some markets. That doesn’t in fact have much to do with how many young people signed up for insurance through the exchanges, and Kliff knows this. It’s about uncertainty surrounding the law’s risk pools — where the worry is more about how sick people are than how old they are — and that uncertainty is huge. It’s not enough to doom the law, she’s right, but it’s enough to trouble it, and the problem has actually been exacerbated by . . . the White House’s panicking. She’s, again, right that “insurers are going to stick with the program in 2015,” but I have no idea where she gets the notion that next year will see a “wave of young, healthy applicants,” any more than this year did. (It didn’t.)

This isn’t explaining the news; it’s defending the news.

Klein might well be right that Sebelius’s resignation is a vote of confidence in the law by the White House that implemented it, because they hit overall enrollment projections. But his site, which people are supposed to be able to trust to cut through the spin, does a disservice to readers by pretending this means very much about Obamacare’s future as a policy matter. (And whether Klein’s political analysis is sound is a whole other question.)

The essay with which Klein introduced Vox made the case for a form of journalism so clear and convincing that it would help us get past our empirical disputes (which will mostly be resolved in favor of the Left) and our cheap talking points.

Why — besides his weird understanding of what courses through the Constitution — is this so important? He writes about a recent “cutting-edge” experiment in which people with different political leanings and varying mathematical skills were given a difficult math problem. For some of them, it was framed in a way where the right answer flattered liberal political ideas, and for others, it was framed in a way where the right answer flattered conservative ideas. According to Klein, “Being better at math made partisans less likely to solve the problem correctly when solving the problem correctly meant betraying their political instincts. People weren’t reasoning to get the right answer; they were reasoning to get the answer that they wanted to be right.”

This isn’t quite what the study found: Yes, even the good mathematicians had a harder time solving a problem when the answer didn’t suit their politics than when it did. But being better at math still made people more likely to solve the problem, whether it suited their political instincts or not. The margin by which good mathematicians beat bad ones was just much greater when the correct answer did suit their political instincts. That’s still an interesting finding, though not as “utterly insane” as Klein says the study’s finding is.

The less-surprising finding isn’t that flattering to Klein, or anyone engaged in relatively highbrow ideological journalism. It suggests you’re only going to get readers to understand complicated concepts, no matter how smart they are, when you present arguments they’re already inclined to agree with.

Then again, that won’t be a problem for most of Vox’s readers, since they aren’t being presented with many facts that go against the grain of their political inclinations. Take a piece by Vox on an extremely popular political talking point — that President Obama has presided over unprecedented levels of deportations and is therefore tough on immigration enforcement. This idea upsets Hispanic liberals, but moderate liberals who like Klein love to throw it at Obama critics and immigration-reform skeptics.

The conventional wisdom here happens to be totally wrong. But the piece, by Dara Lind, ignores the data that debunk it and goes to great, utterly uninformed lengths to perpetuate the existing talking point. The piece does, in other words, literally the opposite of what Vox is supposed to do.

The headline reads: “Obama Is Deporting More Immigrants than Any President in History: Explained.” Why is the piece wrong? Well, the U.S. government is sending far fewer illegal immigrants back to their home countries than it did under George Bush, as Sean Davis explains at the Federalist. Deportations of illegal immigrants classified as “removals” have gone up under President Obama, but “returns,” which involve a less complicated legal process, have dropped dramatically. Lind’s claim of record-setting enforcement is counting only the removals, but the combined result is that many fewer illegal immigrants are being, you know, deported. Here’s that, as they say, in one chart:

Vox makes no mention of the scale of this contrast, except to say that critics of the president argue that his deportations don’t count because today’s deportations would once have been “returns.” But that’s not what critics are saying, which is clear if you go read Davis’s takedown or any of the Center for Immigration Studies’ work on this. Anyway, she says, because “removals” carry more legal consequences for deportees, the fact that they’re taking the place of “returns” represents a tougher policy.  But we’re replacing a certain number of returns with a much smaller number of removals, so you’d have to consider returns almost meaningless for Obama’s policies to be tougher. It’s impossible for the reader to make this comparison anyway, since she doesn’t show that returns have dropped dramatically, ignoring their prevalence entirely.

“The bottom line,” Lind writes, is that “the evidence is pretty clear. Lots of people are getting deported under Obama.” That’s a good deal less than the article’s headline claims.

The other problem is with the 2 million deportations prosecuted since Obama took office. About half of them are “border removals,” which, Lind notes, Obama skeptics think are less meaningful than interior deportations. But they’re not, she says, because border removals are any deportations that take place in Border Patrol territory, which “is not what most people think of as the border” — it stretches 100 miles into the U.S. and encompasses places where lots of illegal immigrants live long-term.”

This is flat-out false: The Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency defines a border removal as “an individual removed by ICE who is apprehended while attempting to illicitly enter the United States at or between the ports of entry by a CBP officer or agent.”

If that piece seems careless, take Libby Nelson’s article claiming that the University of Connecticut’s basketball team has a “dirty secret”: an 8 percent graduation rate. It was accompanied by this chart, showing that UConn does remarkably worse in graduating its players than the other schools that made it to the Final Four this year:

Except this represents just three years of data — a couple of dozen players for each team, maybe — which just happens to make UConn look bad.

Why did Nelson use these numbers? The NCAA’s most recently released graduation rate for the program covered the 2003 to 2006 cohort, which looks at players who started school in those years and what percentage of them had graduated six years later. Does it make sense to say anything about UConn this year based on that data?

The tiny sample was recruited and taught by a different coach, a comparison that’s really not too different from blaming the Obama administration for poor results achieved under the Bush administration. And a little context would have helped: The 2003–2006 cohort was the worst in recent history.

There are two ways to measure these schools: Given that UConn has a new coach, you can look at the NCAA’s much more up-to-date statistic, the Academic Progress rating. Nelson writes, “By that standard, [which measures whether players are academically eligible and not dropping out,] UConn’s new crop of players is doing fine.” UConn’s dirty secret (which wasn’t really a secret to people who followed the NCAA tournament the last few years) is that it had one truly atrocious cohort of players, under a coach who doesn’t work there anymore.

And if you look at the larger historical context, UConn doesn’t stand out either. If you move to the previous entirely separate cohort, 2000–2003, the team’s graduation rate was 31 percent. Not good, but not nearly as bad as the one cohort Nelson picked. In the 1999–2002 cohort, the University of Kentucky, which looks so good on the above chart, had a graduation rate of . . . 31 percent (though, like UConn, Kentucky has only had its current coach for a few years). The University of Florida, for the 2002–2005 cohort, had a graduation rate of just 17 percent, down from 60 percent in the Vox chart. If Nelson had looked at this data, I don’t know how she could have concluded that there’s a story worth telling about UConn in particular, historically or today. At the very least, if she thought the 8 percent statistic was newsworthy, she could have provided the proper context to show that it’s an outlier.

I don’t know how a site whose executive editor is a Harvard alumnus got a college-basketball story wrong, but it’s less hard to divine what’s going on with Vox’s unsurprising obsession with the idea of a single-payer health-care system. (Or, as they call it for the benefit of the rubes, a “single tube” system.) Sarah Kliff has a two-minute video explaining how it works, and a neat longer piece on how Vermont is building one. That would appear to be the only “news” that justified this bit of explaining (some liberals, of course, look at the troubles of Obamacare and would prefer that it be replaced with a single-payer system, but they represent quite a small political constituency).

Klein and Matt Yglesias have been publicizing the single-payer idea recently by focusing on how it could save money, and lots of it. As a matter of cross-national comparison, this is true: Single-payer systems in other countries spend a lot less than the U.S. health-care system. But that’s a lot different from saying that it would make sense for the U.S. to transition to one, or, especially, that you’re going to see this work out in Vermont alone.

Kliff’s video explains that Vermont’s single-payer plan will save between 15 and 30 percent of health-care costs by reducing overhead, according to . . . the architect of Vermont’s single-payer plan. The reason given for this is that the savings from single-payer health care tend to come from the ability of the government to bargain hard with doctors. But Vermont will find it nigh impossible to do that without driving them out of the state.

Vermont has to raise an astonishing $2 billion in taxes to launch the system, Kliff writes, in a state that takes in only $2.7 billion a year. In return, you’re not going to get a system like Britain’s or Canada’s that Vox says those countries love — you just get a state version of Medicare, an extremely expensive system with low overhead, respectable access, and high rates of fraud.

I could nitpick more: Yglesias’s take on the equal-pay debate is reasonable, but by far the most mendacious side in that debate — the one engaging in the ideological denial of facts — is the side that continually claims that women are making three-quarters what men do for the same work. That’s false, but Yglesias doesn’t really seem to care. He devotes his effort to pointing out that the statistics do find a 5 or so percent remaining gap when accounting for hours worked, job choice, and some unexplained factors, which almost all skeptics of the equal-pay gap admit. This is interesting enough — except that the debate we’re having right now is over whether it needs to be much easier for women to bring legally actionable claims regarding discrimination. Women’s earning 23 cents less for the same work might suggest we need such legislation; their earning some unknown fraction of 5 cents less doesn’t.

A new study finding that Obamacare’s enrollees in the first few months are using extremely expensive prescription drugs at high rates was reported by Vox with the headline “Early Obamacare Enrollees Might Cost More.” Because these drugs are so expensive, the reality is that early Obamacare enrollees do cost more; what we don’t know is whether overall enrollees will cost more. There’s important news here, but the headline is all context.

Yglesias’s video on why the federal government’s debt doesn’t matter states that “the national debt” is $12.5 trillion, when in fact it’s more like $17 trillion (he was citing debt held by the public, which excludes debt the federal government owes to the Social Security Trust Fund and therefore Social Security beneficiaries — which is part of the “national debt” as in, it’s debt the federal government owes). He also described inflation as “too much money chasing a fixed amount of stuff,” which isn’t how economists describe inflation anymore — but fair enough, it’s a two-minute video.

There’s some excellent work on Vox: Matt Yglesias’s take on the Ryan budget is pretty fair, for instance (though I’d have preferred if he could have donned his lavender glasses and purple windowpane jacket and delivered it on video. We can’t have it all, I guess). Their piece on what would happen if the U.S. repealed the minimum wage presented the academic consensus fairly, though it was answering a question that approximately no one was asking. To the great benefit of readers, Tim Lee’s post on Bitcoin took a position, but a remarkably convincing one, on what the currency will mean.

If you’re going to tell someone what they should think about something under the guise of “here’s what you need to know about” something, it really ought to include . . . everything you need to know about something.

That’s nearly impossible, of course, which is why most people trying to persuade you are a little more upfront about it. This new venture isn’t going to do that, but that doesn’t mean it can’t sometimes be a useful resource and a helpful corrective.

It’s just not going to stand apart or herald a new era of political honesty. Or as people might have put it more than 100 years ago, Vox non clamantis in deserto.

— Patrick Brennan is an associate editor at National Review.

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