Megan McArdle goes off on suspicious Census Bureau/Obamacare methodology switch

Allahpundit wrote on this topic earlier in the week, but I think it’s significant enough to amplify — especially when a respected centrist wonk like Megan McArdle is cracking open her thesaurus to describe her alarm and disgust over what’s going down:

For several months now, whenever the topic of enrollment in the Affordable Care Act came up, I’ve been saying that it was too soon to tell its ultimate effects. We don’t know how many people have paid for their new insurance policies, or how many of those who bought policies were previously uninsured. For that, I said, we will have to wait for Census Bureau data, which offer the best assessment of the insurance status of the whole population. Other surveys are available, but the samples are smaller, so they’re not as good; the census is the gold standard. Unfortunately, as I invariably noted, these data won’t be available until 2015. I stand corrected: These data won’t be available at all. Ever.

Why?  Because as the New York Times reported, the Census Bureau has decided to throw out its 30-year formula (and therefore its baseline) on measuring America’s uninsured population, and replace it with a new methodology.  The revised math, according to Census officials, will result in much sunnier-looking results.  Independent of the statistical merits of this change, the timing, quite literally, could not be worse.  McArdle is aghast:

I’m speechless. Shocked. Stunned. Horrified. Befuddled. Aghast, appalled, thunderstruck, perplexed, baffled, bewildered and dumbfounded. It’s not that I am opposed to the changes: Everyone understands that the census reports probably overstate the true number of the uninsured, because the number they report is supposed to be “people who lacked insurance for the entire previous year,” but people tend to answer with their insurance status right now. But why, dear God, oh, why, would you change it in the one year in the entire history of the republic that it is most important for policy makers, researchers and voters to be able to compare the number of uninsured to those in prior years? The answers would seem to range from “total incompetence on the part of every level of this administration” to something worse.

She affirms that she does mean every level of the administration, citing this passage in the Times piece:

The White House is always looking for evidence to show the benefits of the health law, which is an issue in many of this year’s midterm elections. The Department of Health and Human Services and the White House Council of Economic Advisers requested several of the new questions, and the White House Office of Management and Budget approved the new questionnaire. 

This tectonic shift was requested and approved by the White House.  OMB’s role in the process is especially interesting, given who Obama has nominated to succeed Kathleen Sebelius at HHS.  It’s time to add a few new questions for Ms. Burwell to this list.  Certified Voxsplainer Sarah Kliff — who initially reacted to these ill-timed and radical changes with “nerd rage” — was quickly brought to heel after stern talking-to from an administration official.  Minutes after airing her anger on Twitter, she cranked out a post admonishing people not to “freak out” about what’s happening.  These tweets were less than an hour apart.  Magic:

Part of her evolved rationale was that the first batch of results under the new statistical regime would be from 2013, not 2014, so there would be one year of “pre-Obamacare” data to use as a fresh baseline.  One whole year!  As opposed to, you know, three decades of consistently measured trends.  Beyond that, 2013 wasn’t just any ordinary year; it was fraught with Obamacare-related upheaval, including millions of cancellation letters landing in people’s mailboxes. Not to mention that various components of Obamacare were implemented as early as 2011.  So last year hardly offers a clean, pre-Obamacare data point off of which judge its policy effects.  Cut the spin.  Abandoning a trend line developed over three decades at the precise moment that analysts are trying to quantify the impact of the biggest healthcare overhaul in decades can fairly be described as anti-data.  It’s anti-science.  It might well cross the line into fraudulence.  Even the Times’ headline grasped the cause-and-effect nature of implementing this major alteration right now: “Census Survey Revisions Mask Health Law Effects.”  McArdle concludes her vent session by predicting Democrats’ inevitable political chicanery come September:

If the administration is really serious about transparency and data-driven policy, as I’ve been told for a year now, then it will immediately rectify this appalling mistake and put the old questions back into circulation double-quick. But we’re more likely going to hear the most transparent and data-driven administration in history citing these data — without an asterisk — to tout the amazing impact of its policies.

Yup.  I wrote about this eventuality earlier today at Townhall, noting that the Obama administration has displayed a willingness — if not an eagerness — to manipulate healthcare data for the purposes of pro-Obamacare PR:

Which brings us back to the administration’s propensity toward shameless credit claiming. They’ve congratulated themselves over “good news” for which Obamacare was not responsible in the very recent past. They crafted a PR strategy of celebrating inflated “enrollment” numbers for their own aggrandizement. One can easily argue that this sort of behavior is politics as usual, but one can’t credibly contend that the White House and its allies won’t try to exploit the forthcoming apples-to-oranges switcheroo for political gain.

If you don’t believe Team Blue will happily and loudly repeat a rank distortion in a cynical effort to drive home a political message, you haven’t been paying attention.  Before you go, be sure to read (a) Ace’s rundown of several other instances in which the White House has subordinated empiricism to politics, and (b) Noah Rothman’s passive aggressive heads-up to the media that yet another kooky wingnut conspiracy theory has been vindicated by events.