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How Confused Are Americans About Health Care?

The New York Times' lede story today, which summarizes the paper's poll on health care and other issues, has taken flak from Mickey Kaus (second item). Here is the Times:

Over all, the poll portrays a nation torn by conflicting impulses and confusion.

In one finding, 75 percent of respondents said they were concerned that the cost of their own health care would eventually go up if the government did not create a system of providing health care for all Americans. But in another finding, 77 percent said they were concerned that the cost of health care would go up if the government did create such a system.

To which Kaus adds:

Why does this show confusion? It shows realism. Their health care costs are going up--either way!  At least they're "concerned" about that happening in each case. Is that an illogical pair of answers? I'm troubled by at the 23-25% of people who weren't concerned. ... The Times apparently expected voters to respond like partisan pundits and skew their answers to benefit one side or the other in the reform debate--as if they have to believe that one side or the other has a solution that will keep health care costs steady. They don't have to believe this, and they are almost certainly right not to.

If you go to the actual questionnaire that the Times' pollsters used, you will see that Kaus is only looking at one type of possible answer that respondents might give. Try this thought experiment: Suppose I ask you whether you are concerned about wearing out your car if you drive it across the country. And then I ask you whether you are concerned about wearing out your car if you only drive it to the store and back. According to Kaus' logic, the proper answer to each question is yes. After all, eventually your car is going to get worn out wherever you drive it. In the long run, we are all dead.

Of course, people do not necessarily answer questions this way. When a pollster asks you if your health care is going to become more expensive IF the government creates a new insurance program, you might not be considering the long-term costs of health care. Rather, you might choose to answer the question based solely on the conditional mentioned by the pollster--in this case, whether or not a new insurance program will have a positive or negative impact on the cost of your health care.

Now, maybe Kaus is right. Maybe people are not answering the question in relative terms. But it seems just as likely to me that they are confused--understandably confused, but confused--about the entire issue of health care, and are thus, as the Times' story says, contradicting themselves. 

--Isaac Chotiner