The Blog

On Ben Carson, Fake History and Obamacare

In order to substantiate this particular historical insight, Carson said that Obamacare was a lot like slavery since it was all about control. And to "prove" his point about control, Carson quoted none other than Vladimir Lenin.
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The world renowned neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who doubles as a darling of the American right, drew a lot of attention this past week for his assertion that Obamacare was the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery.

In order to substantiate this particular historical insight, Carson said that Obamacare was a lot like slavery since it was all about control. And to "prove" his point about control, Carson quoted none other than Vladimir Lenin. Lenin, according to Carson, said, "Socialized medicine is a keystone to the establishment of a socialist state." Talk about a smoking gun.

According to the transitive properties Carson is invoking here, any policy that can be connected to something a Communist leader said or did is, essentially by definition, itself an emblem of Communist tyranny. Of course, every advanced industrial democracy in the world already provides or mandates health insurance coverage on a more comprehensive scale than the Affordable Care calls for (since millions of Americans will still be without it). By the logic, therefore, of the relentless right-wing fear-mongering and mania about the Affordable Care Act, countries like Canada, Switzerland, Finland and so on must themselves be bastions of Totalitarianism.

Back to the specific point of Carson's transitive historical principle. If it's valid, then because Joseph Stalin himself ordered all abortions outlawed in the Soviet Union in 1936 (except in cases where the life of the mother was in jeopardy), it must follow that to oppose abortion in America today makes you a Stalinist.

To be clear, I don't actually think that's true at all. Opposition to abortion doesn't make you a Stalinist, just because Stalin himself outlawed it. But it's a fair reminder of what passes for historical analysis on the right these days.

Back to the Lenin quote. By now it shouldn't be a surprise to learn that -- leaving aside whether the quote itself has any probative value relative to the Affordable Care Act -- in all likelihood, Lenin never said it.

According to David Blumenthal's and James Morone's The Heart of Power, when Harry Truman proposed a national health insurance system in 1949, it was subject to withering attack. None attacked harder than the American Medical Association (which also opposed the creation of Medicare some fifteen years later). According to Blumenthal and Morrone, despite the fact that Truman's proposal was already likely dead in the water, "the AMA mobilized for this campaign as if Armageddon were at hand."

The AMA hired Leone Baxter and Clem Whitaker, considered pioneers in modern political consulting, to organize a major national campaign against Trumancare (OK, that's not what it was called). Among other things, according to Blumenthal and Morone, they distributed widely a 15-page brochure, in the form of a Q and A, titled "The Voluntary Way is the American Way." It included the following:

Q: Would socialized medicine lead to the socialization of other aspects of American life?

A: Lenin thought so. He declared: socialized medicine is the keystone to the arch of the socialist state.

Blumenthal and Morone write that when, in a subsequent inquiry, the Library of Congress was asked to locate the source of the quote, "they found nothing like it." In other words, it was almost certainly a fabrication (unless the Library of Congress was part of the Communist conspiracy. Which, come to think of it...).

Nearly 65 years later, the apparent fabrication lives on.

Quotes get misattributed all the time. What's noteworthy about this particular misuse, though, is the purpose for which it is being deployed. For decades now, conservatives in America have been railing against the specter of people actually having secure, affordable health care. Ronald Reagan warned of the death knell of freedom in America were Medicare to become law (he was hired by the AMA to do so). Right-wingers railed against the abomination that was the extension of health care to millions of uninsured children in the late 1990s through the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP). And Lenin has been deployed for well over half a century in an attempt to scare people into believing that universal access to health care will destroy America as we know it.

As I've written before, the attempt to link the Affordable Care Act to Soviet Communism is idiotic beyond belief. Leave aside the actual millions of Soviets sent to the Gulag or their deaths (or both) under the reign of Stalin himself. Or the total government control of all means of communication. On that score, Ben Carson can rest assured that if he actually lived in anything like a Stalinist state, he would not be appearing on media all over the country to denounce the president in the most vigorous terms. But just on the question of Obamacare as a means of control, what are we talking about exactly? The individual mandate? The mandate, as it were, stipulates that if you can afford to pay for health insurance and choose not to purchase it, you can be fined. That's it. And how much could you pay? In the first year, no more than 1 percent of qualifying income as defined by the law, rising to no more than 2.5 percent of income in 2016 and beyond, more or less. If you make $50,000 a year, with an estimated tax threshold for 2014 of $10,000, you would pay one percent of $40,000, or $400 in year one and $900 in year three. That's not nothing, But it's certainly not a back breaker. It's also not going to apply to the large majority of working Americans, since most full time workers have health insurance already. And that fine could be as little as $95 in the first year (no missing zero there - ninety-five dollars), for those who can't get a hardship waiver.

How is the penalty to be dealt with? As a liability on your income tax filing, for which there can be no criminal liability, liens or levies. So whatever that penalty is, it much more closely approximates Seinfeld's description of libraries - and their puny fines - as government-funded pathetic friends, than it does totalitarian control.

Carson justified his invocation of Lenin by insisting: "if you know anything about history, how can you not bring this up?" Which begs the question -- if you are, in fact, ignorant of the relevant history -- what is your obligation then?

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