Tag Archives: Jonathan Gruber

Grüberdämmerung

Ah, Jonathan Gruber, the gift that keeps on taking.

The latest twist in this uncomic opera: Auditor Doug Hoffer has examined Gruber’s invoices for consulting work on behalf of the Shumlin adminstration, and found them seriously wanting.

In Hoffer’s words, his review of documents “raised questions about Dr. Gruber’s billing practices and the State’s monitoring and enforcement of particular contract provisions.” More:

Dr. Gruber’s invoices referred only to “consulting and modeling” and offered no details about specific tasks. In the broadest sense, those three words describe the work performed, but such generalities do not appear to satisfy the intent of the contract.

It’s like taking a math test where you’re asked to show your work, and you turn in a sheet with “WORK” in big letters on an otherwise blank page.

Hoffer further states that top Shumlin officials Robin Lunge and Michael Costa “were aware of the need for more details in the invoices, but approved them nonetheless. … [they] had an obligation to request additional detail from Dr. Gruber, and they failed to do so.”

Gruber’s first and second invoices raise suspicion because each showed the same round number of hours worked (100 for Gruber and 500 for research assistants). Hoffer judges the round figures, and the fact that two invoices totaled exactly the same, “implausible.” He concludes that the administration “ignored the obvious signs that something was amiss.”

To me, this is the real Gruber scandal. The conservative shitfit over a handful of intemperate remarks — made during a period of years in which Gruber must have spoken on the record hundreds of times — was nothing more than political opportunism by the opponents of health care reform. But this?

Even if Gruber was invoicing to the best of his ability, it certainly reveals shoddy management by the Shumlin administration. Which is, unfortunately, of a piece with the administration’s general performance on health care reform. Did they take a relaxed approach to spending money because so much of it came from the federal coffers? Perhaps.

Here’s another fact that reinforces my interpretation. Late last year, Gruber submitted two more invoices. In an email to Hoffer earlier this month, according to VTDigger’s Morgan True, Lunge wrote that the administration was “no longer satisfied with the level of detail provided” in those later invoices.

Why “no longer”? Because Hoffer was examining the invoices and they knew they’d be embarrassed? If there’s another explanation, I’d like to hear it.

There are other problems, as reported by True: Tax documents appear to show that Gruber actually paid his research assistant far less than the amount received from Vermont for the RA’s work. DId he pocket the rest? Did the state’s lax oversight let him get away with it?

I’m a liberal, and I’m strongly in favor of universal access to health care. Our current system is an expensive stinkin’ mess, and no amount of wrongdoing by Gruber or others will convince me that reform is a mistake. But in my book, my fandom only feeds my desire for sound management by those we’ve empowered to enact reform on our behalf, and with our dollars.

The Gruber fiasco makes me wonder about the administration’s oversight of all the other consultancies associated with the reform effort. And, for that matter, its handling of the entire process.

Hoffer has referred his findings to Attorney General Bill Sorrell, who says Gruber’s invoicing raises “major questions.” He says he will meet with administration officials to see “what evidence and records are available to justify the billing amount.”

On behalf of health care reform supporters, and those who backed Peter Shumlin because of his promises to institute unversal coverage, all I can say is I hope there are no more shoes to drop. I fear that we’re only just getting our first peek inside the closet.

Of course the right wing is still Grubering

Yesterday, I wrote about Neal Goswami’s journalistic self-sacrifice — reading 2,400 pages of government emails so we don’t have to. The emails in question were between the newly-notorious Jonathan Gruber and various Shumlin administration functionaries. And Goswami found a conspicuous absence of scandal. Indeed, the emails painted a picture of some very dedicated people working very hard to devise the best possible single-payer system.

Naturally, though, the lack of scandal hasn’t stopped the right wing from desperately fanning the Gruber flames. This is not at all surprising; in fact, it’s the right wing’s modus operandi. Talking Points Memo:

Gruber-mania has gripped the conservative mediasphere in a way that few stories have, becoming another brand-name controversy like Benghazi and the IRS. An academic who had been little known outside of Washington or Boston has been mentioned nearly 2,800 times in English-language news since news of the most recent video broke last month. Prior to that, across a career that spanned decades and after playing an important role in Massachusetts and national health care reform, he’d been named less than 1,000 times, according to a TPM LexisNexis search.

The lesser members of the mediasphere who operate in this lonely outpost are taking their cues from their big brothers, and trying to make mountains out of molehills.

Take Rob Roper, the Eddie Haskell of Vermont conservatism. He pulled out one brief excerpt from Goswami’s report, which I’d cited as a positive. Key quote from Gruber:

I am really excited to work with you all — I think we have the chance to really make history here.

In Roper’s imagination, this statement immediately disqualifies Gruber. He’s too enthusiastic, see?

So would Gruber mislead Vermont voters because he’d rather make history than not? With over $2 billion at stake, we have to assume the answer is yes.

One little evidence-free assumption, and we can dismiss the entirety of Gruber’s work. Plus any proposal Gov. Shumlin makes because, even if he fired Gruber today, all the work on single-payer has already been thoroughly Grubered.

This is exactly the same rationale used by the far right for ignoring climate science: the scientists have a stake in climate change, so their work can be dismissed.

Look, it’s only natural that an expert would have a lively engagement in her/his field of study. Aren’t you interested in what you do? I hope so. But the academic world — unlike the world of conservative faux-outrage — has ethical standards and principles. Academics have an interest in doing honest work, to ensure that their work has an impact. And, of course, academics who commit fraud see their careers end in shame.

But the Rob Ropers of the world know nothing of this, because their purpose is rousing the rabble. Adhering to the truth is a professional impediment. And fraud is a tried and true method of career advancement.

And that, by the way, is it: The only thing Roper could find in Goswami’s story to yammer about is Gruber’s enthusiasm for his work.

Meanwhile, serial failure Darcie “Hack” Johnston has been busily retweeting stuff from Breitbart.com, one of the sleazier outposts of the conservative mediasphere. For some reason, Breitbart has posted a series of stories about Gruber’s work in Vermont. Seems like small potatoes for a national website, but whatevs.

Johnston is so far out there, she seems to believe that Breitbart is a convincing source of news. In fact, the guy who’s writing its Vermont stories is a proud Tea Partier with no journalistic credentials outside the conservative mediasphere.

But again, I’m not surprised. This is SOP for Johnston: Accept (and broadcast) every conservative source, no matter how shameless, as the Gospel truth.

When, in fact, “truth” has nothing to do with it.

No smoking guns in the Gruber file

Now I know how Neal Goswami’s been spending his spare time lately:

The Vermont Press Bureau obtained nearly 2,400 pages of emails between Jonathan Gruber and state officials that detail the work Jonathan Gruber, an MIT economist, has been doing for the administration.

Woof. That’s a lot of emails to wade through. The result of all that work was published in the Sunday edition of the Mitchell Family Organ. (The article is paywalled; if you don’t subscribe, Get Thee To A Library.)

So what did he find? More impolitic comments about stupid voters and conservative pundits? Arrogant pronouncements over how he’s gonna pull the wool over our eyes?

Er, no.

Emails… highlight the administration’s work since the summer preparing a long-awaited financing plan for Gov. Peter Shumlin’s proposed universal, publicly financed health care plan.

… In a July 7 email to Michael Costa, Shumlin’s deputy director of health reform and the tax expert spearheading the administration’s financing plan, Gruber expressed unbridled enthusiasm at the opportunity to help the state craft a single-payer health care plan.

In short, the emails depict a top-shelf policy expert avidly engaged in a very difficult project, and using his economic model to test countless iterations of single-payer.

And seeing Vermont as a ground-breaking opportunity: “I think we have a chance to make history here,” he said in a July email.

Goswami describes a lengthy, painstaking process that seems to validate Gov. Shumlin’s claims that he couldn’t release his plan because it wasn’t ready yet. This was, the emails show, a long, tough slog. Which still continues; reform chief Robin Lunge expressed confidence that the plan would be ready by late December, but only after an all-out effort.

It’s a fascinating read if you’re a policy wonk. But it doesn’t provide provide any new evidence for legitimate attacks on Gruber or single-payer.

Which is not to say there’s no room for illegitimate, partisan attacks:

Many emails that included details of the administration’s plan were redacted, with the administration citing executive privilege.

“Aha!”, I can almost hear Darcie Johnston crying. “Redacted! Cover-up!”

Partisans will certainly look at it that way. Especially since, according to Goswami, the Shumlin administration had an interesting rationale for adding a provision to Gruber’s contract stating that he “may advise the Governor on policy matters.”

That provision was added, not because Gruber would actually provide any policy advice, but simply to lay the foundation for a claim of executive privilege.

Lunge… said the clause in the contract was included to protect her policy advice to the governor. Gruber has not contributed policy advice to the governor, according to Lunge.

Got that? Lunge generated policy ideas… Gruber ran them through his model… and Lunge used his information to shape her policy ideas. But since she had to give her policy ideas to Gruber, his work must be privileged.

It makes sense, but it also provides fertile ground for conspiracy theories.

And it creates some concerns about government transparency: Lunge told Goswami that “the same provision is also included with other contractors.”

If that’s true, then we ought to be less worried about Jonathan Gruber and single-payer, and more worried about broadening claims of executive privilege.

Gruber contract officially downsized

One argument the Republicans have made in their desperate effort to fan the flickering flames of Grubermania is that, although Gov. Shumlin cut off Jonathan Gruber’s pay, his contract remained intact and would require a formal rewrite.

Well, mission accomplished, per the Mitchell Family Organ:

State officials released an amended contract with MIT economist Jonathan Gruber Tuesday evening, lowering the maximum amount payable to $280,000.

… Some Republicans had maintained that the original contract required official changes, and said Gruber’s “handshake agreement” with Lawrence Miller, Shumlin’s chief of health care reform, was not sufficient.

The amended contract reflects the change in pay for Gruber.

The full contract can be viewed at the link above.

I’m sure the Republicans will come up with fresh rationales for their obsession. But the contract can no longer be cited as an issue. And if they possess a shred of intellectual honesty, they’ll stop referring to the Gruber contract as a $450,000 deal and adopt the true figure, $280,000.

Ball’s in your court, guys.

Vermont Republicans adopt the Fox News playbook

I don’t know what the hell has happened to Vermont Republicans. With a couple of exceptions (Phil Scott, Kevin Mullin), they seem to have gone batshit crazy.

And crazy in a very particular way. They have taken up the chief weaponry of national Republicans and the Fox News crowd by distilling a complicated issue to a single word.

The issue is health care and the word, of course, is GRUBER!!!!!!

Republicans have not been deterred in the last by Gov. Shumlin’s renegotiation of Gruber’s contract, cutting off further payments to Gruber and thus saving the state $120,000 — some of which will go to independent checking of Gruber’s work.

But it doesn’t matter, at least not to Republicans. They’ve decided “Gruber” is an all-purpose cudgel to attack Shumlin, the Democrats, and the cause of health care reform. Their entire health care focus is on Gruber.

It was only a couple weeks ago that the VTGOP had a big post-election news conference to call for repeal of Vermont Health Connect. We don’t hear that anymore; it’s all Gruber, all the time.

It’s the first time I can remember that virtually every notable Republican and conservative activist seems to be singing from the same hymnal. Kurt Wright sounds just like Rob Roper, and Heidi Scheuermann’s doing her best Darcie Johnston.

This fact hit home for me while reading Rep. Wright’s opinion piece in the Sunday Freeploid. Wright asserts that Gruber’s work on single-payer “will undermine the entire process and debate going forward.” When there’s no evidence that Gruber has done anything more than provide top-flight economic modeling. No matter; as ACORN allegedly poisoned the electoral process and Lois Lerner allegedly proved an Obama conspiracy against the right, the mere presence of Gruber fundamentally undercuts everything about single-payer.

So I guess, by Wright’s logic, we have to throw out all the work that’s been done on single-payer over the last three years and start over? Or is he arguing that by axing Gruber now, when the work is virtually complete, the entire process will be purified as if by cleansing flame?

Wright’s words are identical in meaning to Rob Roper’s. Over at his Koch-funded nonprofit, the Ethan Allen Institute, he claims that Gruber’s entire body of work is useless and cannot be used at all. And Darcie “Hack” Johnston, Tweeting out her policy stances, pronounes Gruber’s work is “tainted” and…

Just watch him, Darcie.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Benning is clearly intoxicated by his sudden Fox News fame, referring on his Facebook page to Gruber as “the gift that keeps on giving.” Which sounds disconcertingly like naked political opportunism. He goes on to brag that “FOX wants me back!”

Of course they want you back, Joe: you fit right in with their agenda. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.

On another front, House Republicans have filed a public-records request for Gruber’s work for the state and for communications between Gruber and the Shumlin Administration, I’d applaud them for trying to learn the truth, but given all their public remarks, it seems more like a Darrell Issa-type fishing expedition. What they’re really hoping for is more Gruberisms.

And then there’s the proto-Republicans at Campaign for Vermont, still flogging their online petition calling for Gruber’s firing. Too bad that since Shumlin’s termination of payment, CFV’s petition has pretty much stalled out. As of this writing, it’s at 233 signatures, and it’s been in the low 200s for several days now.

This isn’t about the truth. It’s about using a handful of remarks by Jonathan Gruber to try to undermine the push for single-payer health care.

The weird thing about this is, we just went through an election that provided two object lessons (Phil Scott and Scott Milne) in how Republicans can win in Vermont: by presenting a moderate, inclusive image. Now they’re all foaming at the mouth as though the election never happened and “Angry Jack” Lindley is still running the joint.

They would be well advised to rein in their inflammatory rhetoric lest they alienate the very voters they just managed to attract.

How to dismantle an atomic bomb, Shummy style

Tweet O’ The Day, Vermont Division:

ICYMI, Grubermania hit flood stage today, with the Pitchfork Brigade growing ever louder and — so we hear — Fox News prowling the halls of the Statehouse. (BTW, congrats to Sen. Joe Benning for scoring a primetime Fox appearance out of all this. When life gives you lemons, squirt ’em in your enemy’s eye.)

But the rising waters, laden with political opportunity, almost immediately washed away after Gov. Shumlin dynamited the logjam. Health care reform chief Lawrence Miller:

“…we need solid economic modeling in order to move forward with health care reform. I have told Mr. Gruber that I expect his team to complete the work that we need to provide the legislature and Vermonters with a public health care financing plan. I’ve informed Mr. Gruber that we will not be paying him any further for his part in completing that work.”

A cleverly-worded statement that took a little decoding: Gruber won’t get paid any more for grubering the gruber, but his minions will. And considering that (1) the contract with Vermont expires in three months, (2) the renowned Gruber model is well-entrenched by now, (3) Gruber’s got so many contracts (and so many bigger fish to fry), that Vermont is a drop in his bucket, and (4) I bet the staff’s been doing most of the work anyway… well, I don’t imagine this is much skin off Gruber’s nose.

For Shumlin, it allows the continued use of the Gruber model to finish work on his single-payer plan while also lancing a troublesome political boil. He’s always been at his best in crisis.

We probably should have seen this coming, what with the complete silence from legislative Democrats. Really, did a single Democrat call for Gruber’s firing? I don’t recall any. They must have known that a bacon-saving solution was around the corner.

And what’s that I hear in the distance? Methinks it’s the sound of Fox News’ mobile unit getting outta Montpelier as fast as it can. Nothing to see here, folks.

I’m sure the Republicans will find ways to tend the flame of Grubermania… but from now on, it’ll be more like a votive candle than a bonfire. A votive candile lit in memory of an all-too-brief political opportunity.

Ah, Grubermania, we hardly knew ye.

Phil Scott #2016 rumbles out of Pit Road

In my previous post, I noted a report of some uncharacteristically aggressive remarks by Lt. Gov. Phil Scott. As it happens, Mr. Nice Guy did a brief radio interview this morning on WCVR, “Real Country 1320 AM” in Randolph,”playing all your favorites from yesterday and today!”

Well, maybe not my favorites. I doubt their playlist includes King Crimson or Talking Heads (yesterday) or Arcade Fire or Cold Specks or Godspeed! You Black Emperor (today), but I know what they mean.

Morning deejay Ray Kimball took a few minutes from spinnin’ the tunes to talk with Our Lieutenant Governor. And thanks to Real Country’s livestream, I could listen from my snowed-in central Vermont hilltop redoubt.

Hey Vermont, need a lift?

Hey Vermont, need a lift?

I must say, Phil Scott was on his game, combining his customary aw-shucks charm with some well-crafted jabs at the (unnamed) Democrats.

It wasn’t much of an interview, maybe five minutes. And as an interviewer, Ray Kimball is a darn fine deejay. But it gave me a sense that Mr. Nice Guy will be a very dangerous candidate in 2016 if he wants to be. And, for the first time in his career, he’s showing signs that he does indeed want to be. I guess we shouldn’t have doubted the competitive fire of a man whose third profession is auto racing.

Ol’ Ray started by mentioning the expected presence of Fox News, which is apparently nosing around the Statehouse looking for fuel for its festive Jonathan Gruber stake-burning. Initially, Scott didn’t take the bait, instead pivoting to Governor Shumlin’s overdue rollout of a single-payer health care plan. And, in his customarily genial tones, he delivered a fist-in-a-velvet glove shot at Gov. Shumlin.

I’m looking forward to the Governor presenting his plan as he was supposed to do quite some time ago, as was named in the law itself. He’s missed a couple of deadlines. I don’t want there to be any excuses, I want to hear what this financing plan is, what this single-payer looks like, so we can make a decision as to whether it works for Vermont or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, I want to move on. The uncertainty it’s created in Vermont just having this discussion, I think has had a negative effect on our economy. So I want to get this over and done, and then move on from there.

Nicely done, sir. Slam the Governor for missing deadlines, assert that the “uncertainty” has hurt Vermont’s economy*, but leave the door open, barely, for consideration of single-payer.

*Please stop with the uncertainty bullshit. Truth is, life itself is uncertain. Businesspeople face far bigger and more pressing uncertainties every damn day. Single-payer, if it happens, is three years away. How much other uncertainty will be packed into those years? 

Ray-Ray then asked a garbled follow-up, and that’s when Scott pivoted back to Jonathan Gruber’s videotaped comments, delivering a skillful punch in his unthreatening way.

His comments were made about Obamacare, but it does bring to light some, ah, you know, you might question some of the tactics and some of the things he’s said, in terms of trying to manipulate the public and perception, so I think some of his, ah, some of his data might be questionable.

Aha. Laying the groundwork for disbelieving the Governor’s plan while maintaining the facade of open-mindedness. He didn’t even call for Gruber’s head on a plate; he just undermined Gruber’s work.

Then Kimball asked about the budget. Scott took that ball and ran with it.

I know we can’t continue to look back, but I look back a few years as, uh, as to when Governor Douglas vetoed the budget…

Let’s stop for a moment and note the contradiction there: we can’t look back, but I’m looking back. Okay, Phil, continue.

… when Governor Douglas vetoed the budget, said it was unsustainable in the future, and it turns out he was right. We, uh, the Legislature overrode his veto and put that into place, and I think that’s where it started. And I think we’re living, ah, beyond our means. We’re spending, we, ah, we’re spending more money than we’re receiving. Revenues are down. So we’ve had to make corrections, and we’re going to have to tighten our belts, and it’s going to take all of us to determine how we’re going to do that, because we can’t spend more than we’re taking in.

Well played! Referring to the halcyon days of Jim Douglas, blaming the Democrats and Gov. Shumlin without naming them, couching harsh criticism in kitchen-table terms, and even calling for bipartisanship while, at the same time, trumpeting Republican orthodoxy. Ingenious.

There have been persistent doubts that Phil Scott has the fire in the belly, that he’d most likely stay within his comfort zone as Mr. Nice Guy, Lieutenant Governor For Life. It’s very early, but I suspect we can lay those doubts to rest.

Phil Scott exits 2014 with over $100,000 in campaign cash, and he’s proven he can be a big-time fundraiser within the humble boundaries of Vermont. If he can mount a credible campaign, and I think it’s clear he can, he’ll start drawing some outside money as well. He is developing a solid message, combining Jim Douglas-style plausible moderation with skillfully coded shout-outs to the True Believers.

If he wants the 2016 gubernatorial nomination, he’ll have it. And he will be the most formidable Republican candidate since Jim Douglas left the scene.

Hell, at this rate, he might turn out to be better than Jim Douglas.

Postscript. This was a brief interview, but a couple of items were notable by their absence. The name “Scott Milne” was not mentioned. And there was no talk of repealing Vermont Health Connect which, if I recall correctly, was the Republicans’ clarion call less than two weeks ago.