Politics & Policy

Fail Leviathan

It’s not a bug, it’s an undocumented feature.

As the woefully misnamed Affordable Care Act and its new online exchanges were rolled out this week, a weary nation received a reminder about the efficiency and effectiveness of government-run enterprise. The damned things just didn’t work. From Connecticut to California, Americans went online and check out such richly subsidized deals as were available under the new law — and one gets the distinct impression that a goodly share of those doing so were reporters and political activists — and they were greeted with the federal version of the Twitter “fail whale” — call it the Fail Leviathan.

But the Democrats had their talking points down. Everybody from the secretary of health and human services to the president himself cited Apple’s rollout of iOS 7, and the inevitable software updates that will follow, as a model of federal action. It wasn’t incompetence, they assured us, or inability, or lack of aptitude, just a few “glitches.” And soon, the story goes, we’ll have some updates, we’ll work out those glitches, and all things Obamacare will move with the intuitive ease of an iPad.

And a weary nation might wonder: Who plays Richard Williamson in this drama?

Mr. Williamson (no relation) was the fellow responsible for one of the great glitches in modern Apple history, the fiasco that was the rollout of Apple Maps. To make a not-brief story of corporate misadventure short, Apple Maps was a disaster inasmuch as the maps did not reliably reflect the real location of real things in the real world, making them of limited use as maps, and in many cases the app failed to offer navigators any plausible route to get there, if there was indeed a there there. It was a rare misstep for the sages of Cupertino, and it produced howls of rage and derision among the faithful, solemn pronunciations that Steve Jobs must be generating posthumous torque, etc. Apple responded by firing the guy responsible for the maps mess. And then it fired the head of its mobile-software operations and fired its retail chief. There are companies that just like firing people; Apple isn’t really one of them, though it maintains a relatively formal internal standard of individual accountability. But sometimes things go so wrong so spectacularly that somebody has to go.

But don’t expect Kathleen Sebelius to be walking the plank over the exchange rollout. That’s not a bug in the political system — it’s an undocumented feature. The ability to command other people’s capital and resources with no direct market accountability is the single most attractive feature of a career in politics; indeed, it may be the only attractive feature. The other benefits of a political career — the oversized pay-and-benefits packages, the job security, the chauffeurs, the possibility of leveraging a political curriculum vitae into a very large payday in a private sector growing less private every year, etc. — all those proceed from that one feature. The point of Obamacare is not helping economically marginal Americans secure health insurance — there are easier ways to do that. Its raison d’être is a raison d’état: The administrative class in Washington is not held hostage by any special-interest group — it is a special-interest group.

With that in mind, Obamacare is a bit like Apple Maps in another way, too: Apple Maps was a non-solution to what was, from consumers’ point of view, a non-problem. Google Maps worked just fine; indeed, one of the first orders of business for Apple customers subjected to the new Apple Maps was trying to figure out a workaround to get Google Maps back on their iPhones. But letting Google have a prominent place in the Apple mobile universe did not sit well with Cupertino. Apple Maps was a classic example of a company blowing it spectacularly by putting its own narrow strategic corporate interests above the interests of its consumers.

Obamacare is not quite that: It is a non-solution to an actual problem, the expense and unreliability of medical coverage for Americans outside of the economic elites, for whom the loss of one’s job — itself a traumatic experience that has become more common and will become more common still — is compounded by the loss of medical coverage for themselves and their families. But like Apple Maps, Obamacare is about putting narrow strategic corporate interests, in this case those of the Democratic party, ahead of consumers’ interests. People who were told that they could keep their coverage if they like it did not read the fine print: “You can keep it . . . if you can keep it.” But coverage mandates mean that some insurance products have been driven off the market, and the Obama administration’s hostility toward real market prices and the economic realities underlying them means that premiums are skyrocketing, particularly for the young and male. Again, that is not an accident: When you decide that you cannot charge women much more than men, even though men tend to have considerably lower medical expenses, or older people much more than younger people, or sick people more than healthy people, what happens is that everybody pays the going rate for old ladies with osteoporosis even if they are young men without a health care in the world. It’s not an accident that prices were the thing most conspicuously absent from those defective exchange web sites. For the Left, prices are not expressions of supply and demand, but simply a tool for administrative control. It does not matter what the prices are — it matters who has the power to set them.

After the Apple Maps disaster, Mr. Williamson ended up at Facebook, where he works alongside such former Obama-administration figures as Sheryl Sandberg, and Joe Lockhart, late of the Clinton administration. No doubt Facebook, which has been building its political footprint in Washington, would be tempted to snatch up a player of Ms. Sebelius’s stature should she come onto the market. But she won’t, because people in Washington don’t get fired for being bad at their jobs, because their jobs aren’t what you think they are. The job of the people behind Obamacare is not to serve Americans’ health-care interests, but to achieve and retain political power. Operating a website? Associating products with prices? That’s somebody else’s problem, and, eventually, everybody else’s problem.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent at National Review.


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