One of the persistent problems with political debate, especially nowadays, is that emotions tend to overwhelm reason. In some cases, unsound ideas with a memorable hashtag beat out more reasonable alternatives. In other cases, a scary claim — however misleading — can derail productive discourse before it even starts.
The result is that complicated issues are addressed in a reactive, slipshod fashion; thus we pay the price in the form of unintended consequences.
Take genetic testing, popularized by sites like 23andMe.com and Ancestry.com.
Many in the U.S. have flocked to these sites for a relatively inexpensive way to discover insights into their identity, from a breakdown of ethnic makeup to genetically influenced food preferences (i.e. a hatred for cilantro).
But amid troubling reports about the way these companies handle consumer data, some consumers fear that detailed genetic information might be exploited. Their concerns, it turns out, are probably warranted. One major DNA testing company was caught red-handed sharing genetic data with the FBI.
The problem is that genetic testing, a powerful clinical tool before it went retail is getting a bad name. Cue the fearmongering and misinformation — and reactive political scrambling.
In Florida, for example, incoming Speaker of the House Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-65th Dist., recently introduced House Bill 1189, which would forbid life insurance companies from considering people’s genetic information during the application process.
Should Rep. Sprowls prove successful, Florida would become the first state to institute such a ban.
Seizing on the fact that alarming anecdotes about genetic discrimination lend themselves to easy slogans and dystopian predictions, Sprowls has positioned himself as a hero on the front lines. And he has seen some early success: his bill passed through the Florida Health and Human Services Committee.
Now it sits in the Senate, where debate is expected to heat up.
Sprowls casts the issue as a no-brainer. But facts and statistical realities say otherwise.
There is already a federal law on the books prohibiting health insurance providers in the United States to use genetic information in decisions about a person's health insurance eligibility or coverage: the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), passed after 14 years of deliberation. While GINA does not apply to life, long-term care, and disability insurance, there is no evidence that genetic discrimination is actually taking place even in those cases.
The very accusation that we live in this kind of genetic dystopia is big.
As much of a struggle as it is for some people to hear, the simple reality of market dynamics is that when insurers have less information, they have to raise premium rates because of the risk that comes with uncertainty.
Alas no one has explained this to Rep. Sprowls, even though he’s enjoyed a dynamite political career: he’s Speaker-designate of the Florida House at age 35. He doesn’t need to go fishing for press to advance his career, but he’s nonetheless adopted this DNA issue, which lends itself so readily to the "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable!" mantra of irrational, fact-free debates.
In announcing the bill, Sprowls fatuously said of himself, "It’s a badge of honor to take the lead" — demonstrative of the sort of self-congratulation typical of politicians seeking to elevate their profile, and standing.
Sprowls could be eyeing the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee, given the consensus that enormously popular Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis is already the Republican nominee for 2024.
But one wonders if there could be more at play. Sprowls’s Political Action Committee (PAC) raked in $300,000 in December alone, raising its total cash-in-hand to almost $2 million. If Sprowls is really pushing his fundraising efforts right now, some easy publicity is a good way to pry a few more dollars away from a few more donors.
Florida's PACs are notorious for "big-dollar contributions, lavish spending and curious exchanges of funds between lawmakers."
"It is the political equivalent of money laundering, albeit a legal one," public-integrity expert Tom Anderson wrote in a piece on Florida PACs.
All of this is doubtless scaring a lot of Florida Republicans who understand that the reason the Sunshine State attracts so much capital, business, tourists, and retirees is because of its conservative governance. Florida’s former GOP House Speaker Tom Feeney called his successor’s legislation "a very bad anti-consumer bill," noting that "not even California has enacted such an overreaching and burdensome government regulation."
This bill is a step backward for Florida. Large companies knowing your genetic data might evoke a knee-jerk fear response from many, but as James Madison himself wrote "a number of citizens . . . united and actuated by some common impulse of passion” must not act against “the permanent and aggregate interests of the community."
Reason needs to win out over emotions on this one.
Jared Whitley is a long-time politico who has worked in the U.S. Congress, White House, and defense industry. He is an award-winning writer, having won best blogger in the state from the Utah Society of Professional Journalists (2018) and best columnist from Best of the West (2016). He earned his MBA from Hult International Business School in Dubai. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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