In America, public officials usually get off scot-free after making poor predictions. Remember when President George W. Bush said that we’d find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and that the war would cost only $50 billion to $60 billion? These wildly inaccurate forecasts led many people to support a disastrous war, but Bush suffered no consequences for making them.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry also paid no price after making false predictions about tort reform. He persuaded many voters to support him by saying that if we curtailed medical malpractice lawsuits, doctors would move to Texas in droves. Then, after Texas adopted tort reform in 2003, growth in the state’s supply of direct patient-care physicians actually slowed. But Perry suffered no consequences for having given away Texans’ legal rights without getting anything from doctors in return.
Never fear. Democrats who make false predictions get off scot-free too. President Barack Obama sold his Medicaid expansion plan by saying that if poor people just had insurance, costs would fall because they would get routine treatments at doctors’ offices instead of hospital emergency rooms. Then studies showed poor people with Medicaid did see doctors more often but kept on using ERs too. Insurance caused them to use more of everything. Obama was wrong, but he too suffered no consequences.
This is a serious defect in our democracy. We rely on people in high positions to speak truthfully because they have access to the best information and advice. But far too often, they deceive us, and we’re powerless to do anything when the truth is finally known.
Fortunately, this problem can be fixed. Americans need only start demanding en masse that our leaders put their money where their mouths are. Large numbers of us must insist that they make verifiable predictions and specify the consequences they will suffer if they turn out to be wrong. Their unwillingness to do so would then tell us immediately that they were trying to fool us. And their willingness to specify only trivial consequences would do the same.
The call for federally imposed tort reform recently voiced by Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, President Trump’s choice for secretary of health and human services, provides an excellent opportunity to try out this approach. Price contends that limits on medical malpractice lawsuits will save enormous amounts of money — more than $700 billion, according to one statement. He is wrong, as many academic researchers have said, and if he is wrong, Americans will again have lost our legal rights for no reason.
So, we should all ask Price to put his money where his mouth is. We should demand that he write down the amount he expects nationwide tort reform to save, specify the penalty he’s willing to incur for being mistaken, sign the document and post the pledge on the Internet. Then, if health care spending does drop by $700 billion after tort reform takes effect, Americans will applaud him. But if he turns out to be wrong, he will suffer some consequences. The same goes for Trump and lawmakers who support Price. Let them sign pledges too. Wouldn’t it be great if after making a terrible blunder, every officeholder involved had to confess the error and suffer some repercussions?
A practice of specifying penalties in advance would add a much-needed dose of honesty to American politics. Right now, we can’t trust anything that any politician says, ignorance, duplicity and corruption being so widespread. But if politicians knew they’d face real consequences for being wrong, they might think twice before spouting nonsense, and their public pronouncements would be more credible.
If Price knew that his job and political future were on the line, I bet his estimate of the savings from tort reform would be much lower. He’d probably pick a number below $50 billion, the academic consensus; he might even refuse to guarantee any savings at all. Then, we’d know what his call for tort reform is really about. Price, who is a physician, hates malpractice suits and plaintiffs’ attorneys, and aims to get rid of both.
Charles Silver is a professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin. In recent years, as co-director of the Center on Lawyers, Civil Justice and the Media at the University of Texas, he has worked with a group of empirical researchers on a series of studies of medical malpractice litigation in Texas. He has co-written several books.