AMY FRIED

Safety net protocol: Deny, don’t explain

Posted Aug. 30, 2011, at 5:39 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 30, 2011, at 5:57 p.m.

By now, James O’Keefe’s foray into the Pine Tree State has moved into the recesses of Maine political history. After the first tape was treated with much skepticism, O’Keefe tweeted that there would be “egg on the faces of journalists up there.” Instead, with the second tape, there was even less there there.

Despite the failures of the sham sting, these incidents are worth pondering for a little while longer, if only to consider the tapes’ use as data for policy research. After all, one of the organizations promoting the tapes, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, or MHPC, describes itself as “a research and educational organization … undertaking accurate and timely research.” (In contrast, its partner in this endeavor, Americans for Prosperity — Maine identifies itself as an “activist” group and is an affiliate of the national group founded by the Koch brothers.)

Moreover, the Maine Heritage Policy Center has become a very influential group in Maine. With media savvy and strengths in new media, their reports have regularly hit the front pages and led broadcasts of Maine media outlets.

In promoting open government, MHPC discovered real problems in the use of funds at the Maine Turnpike Authority. Last year, its report on welfare was integrated into the rhetoric of the gubernatorial campaign, with criticisms of its research flaws receiving far less time and attention.

After the election, Gov. LePage picked MHPC staff members to advise him and serve in government and the MHPC hosted a private “Legislative Briefing and Dinner” about Maine’s welfare system.

Taking the tapes seriously in terms of policy research means assessing them as evidence and evaluating the conceptual logic regarding fraud.

Systematic research examines many cases which were picked randomly. Given human propensities, it is not surprising that there is misconduct in every business, every profession and every walk of life. Careful studies of fraud in the welfare system have found rates in the 2 percent to 3 percent range.

But the tapes purported to show much more than that, in part because they relied on a common mistake in how people use information, a cognitive error termed the vividness effect. Very vivid information — a good story with a fascinating character and suggestive details — is easily recalled.

Even when wildly unrepresentative, vivid information can drive how people view the world. The tape relied just on this sort of psychology, with an absurd protagonist, a strange name and a bizarre story. It was tailor-made to be remembered and to influence.

While the data was strained, the meaning of fraud was stretched. It is no small irony that a group that promotes governmental transparency and administrative capability criticized the intake worker in the second tape as being “articulate,” with “a strong command of bureaucratic parameters,” who gave a “thorough explanation of eligibility requirements and the intake process.” In fact, these qualities were why the MHPC gave the worker a “D” for “fraud vulnerability.”

Under this logic, workers at the VA are fraud-enablers if they tell veterans how to qualify for disability benefits, as are administrators at the Social Security Administration if they explain survivor benefits to a widow with young children. After all, fraud vulnerability seems to mean sharing information about when one can legally access the programs established by elected officials who were selected by the people in open elections. Surely these rules should not be secret.

Maine people should discuss how our social welfare systems are structured, who needs help and who can be more self-sufficient. When the Maine Heritage Policy Center held that one in three Mainers were “trapped in the welfare system,” Christopher St. John of the the p rogressive Maine Center for Economic Policy noted that 82 percent of MaineCare payments go to “elders, disabled people, and children, mostly elders in nursing homes, elders getting drug discounts, people with disabilities in assisted living.” Said St. John, “I don’t think anybody else in Maine thinks those people are trapped in welfare.”

Both welfare, and corporate, fraud are worth our attention. But, as our political system can be vulnerable to faulty policy decisions, we must strive for clear concepts and evidence over vivid examples.

Amy Fried is a professor of political science at the University of Maine. You can follow her on Twitter at ASFried and at her blog, www.pollways.com.

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