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The huge problem with the latest Obamacare conspiracy theory

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When you read the conspiracy theories about the Census Bureau's new method of measuring insurance coverage, it's worth thinking about the counterfactual.

Imagine that the civil servants at the Census Bureau had notified the White House that they were proceeding with a long-discussed, much-overdue change to the way estimate the uninsured population. The change, they said, would lead to a more accurate count of the uninsured — and it would show fewer people were uninsured than we originally thought.

In real life, we know what happened next: the Census Bureau made the change, the New York Times reported it, and a conspiracy theory was born.

But imagine if it went the opposite way. Imagine that the White House freaked out upon hearing of the change. Imagine that Chief of Staff Denis McDonough called the Census Bureau and screamed at them. Imagine that the career employees at the Bureau heard that their work was about to get scrapped or delayed because the White House thought a more accurate count of the uninsured might make Obamacare look bad. Now imagine someone leaked that to the New York Times.

As Yuval Levin wrote at the National Review:

This looks like one of those many instances in which White House officials confront a no-win situation. If the story in Tuesday's New York Times had been that the Census Bureau asked the White House for permission to change those health-care questions to make them more accurate and had been denied permission, rather than, as did happen, that the permission was granted, the White House would have been coming under basically the same sort of criticism it is now receiving...my suspicion is that they actually made the decision they did to avoid seeming to interfere in the work of the Census Bureau, rather than to use that work to their advantage.

The argument a lot of Obamacare critics appear to be making right now is that in order to prevent conspiracy theorists from believing the White House intimidated the Census Bureau in order to make Obamacare look better the White House should've intimidated the Census Bureau in order to make Obamacare look better.

Call me simple, but something seems off about that theory.

Politics aside, there's a technocratic logic to this timing. The Census Bureau's change begins with data for 2013 — meaning it starts before Obamacare does. By making the switch in 2013, there'll be a baseline to compare obamacare to, and that baseline won't fall apart in year two or three or four.

Something people miss about Obamacare is that the projections don't say the law will cover the uninsured in 2014 and then stabilize. CBO says Obamacare will cover 13 million uninsured in 2014, and then 20 million uninsured in 2015, and then 25 million uninsured in 2016.

Those projections will certainly prove wrong in one direction or another. But we want to be able to see which direction the error is in. If the change didn't get made now there wasn't going to be a good time to make it in the next couple of years.