The Good Side of Jonathan Gruber

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News! News as you’ve heard it, 300 times a day, on your favorite radio or TV station: “My Pillow [a kind of, guess what? pillow] is the official pillow of the National Sleep Foundation!” http://www.mypillow.com/

Alas, I am not certain that this announcement achieves its desired effect. Nor am I certain — for similar reasons — that the information one finds in the Wikipedia entry for Jonathan Gruber achieves the effect he wanted.

Gruber, as you already knew, is the man who this month became famous for bragging about the methods by which he and other sponsors of Obamacare fooled the “stupid” American people. We’ve now heard a lot about Jonathan Gruber. In fact, there’s too much Gruber to keep up with — especially in the form of videos that keep surfacing every day, each with its own grinning image of Gruber explaining how he schemed to mislead us all.

What can you say that’s good about a man who considers “rip off” a favorable term?

(By the way, who are the people who hoarded videos of this ugly man and then decided to release them now? Who would want to record a lecture by Jonathan Gruber, a man whose personality most closely resembles a load of wet gravel smacking into your windshield? Maybe he grated so much on the people he thought were laughing along with him that a few of them decided to bide their time and pay him back.)

I could choose many examples of Gruber’s style, but I’ll limit myself to one. It’s from a CBS report (Nov. 21):

“And the only way we could take it on [by “it” he means Obamacare] was first by mislabeling it, calling it a tax on insurance plans rather than a tax on people, when we all know it’s a tax on people who hold those insurance plans,” he explained.

In 2012, Gruber described how former Sen. Ted Kennedy ripped off the federal government for hundreds of millions of dollars to craft a universal health bill for Massachusetts.

“The dirty secret in Massachusetts is the feds paid for our bill, okay, in Massachusetts,” Gruber said in the recording obtained by CBS News. “Ted Kennedy and the smart people in Massachusetts basically figured out a way to rip off the feds for about $400 million a year.”

Now, what can you say that’s good about a man who considers rip off a favorable term? Well, if you’re Gruber, you can think of plenty of good things to say about yourself, and some of them have landed on Wikipedia. I assume that Gruber’s Wiki page was written mainly by him, except for the “Controversies” part at the end. That’s the usual way with hacks like Gruber. I picture him hunkering down with a list of his supposed accomplishments and checking each of them off as he feeds it into the Net. This is the result:

In 2006, Gruber received the American Society of Health Economists Inaugural Medal for the best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under. He was elected a member of the Institute of Medicine in 2005. In 2009 he was elected to the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association.

In 2011 he was named “One of the Top 25 Most Innovative and Practical Thinkers of Our Time” by Slate Magazine. In both 2006 and 2012 he was rated as one of the top 100 most powerful people in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare Magazine.

It tickles me to imagine a roomful of “professionals” sitting around thinking about whom to name as the “best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under.” Were birth certificates required? Was Gruber’s “medal” supposed to stimulate the other kids in the class to work as hard as he did?

Even funnier is the idea of grown people (or was it interns?) scouring the internet to generate a list of the “most innovative and practical thinkers of our time” (“yes, she’s innovative — but is she practical?”), then devoting all their powers of analysis to knocking the list down to 25. Or did they start with five (of which one was their boss), and work like hell to bring it up to 25? Probably the latter — that’s how Gruber would have gotten in. It’s hard for me to believe that powerful is an appropriate adjective for people in health care, but maybe that’s because I think of healthcare as a field in which you help others, not push them around. An old-fashioned idea, no doubt. But coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence. And feeling proud to be on that list? It’s all rather hard to understand.

But the funniest part of Gruber’s canned biography is a sentence recording the fact that in 2006, “he was named the 19th most powerful person in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare magazine.” It’s one thing to spend your time getting 25practical thinkers or 100 powerful people into the corral; but to rank the cows in the exact order of their potency — that would truly be an absorbing occupation; that would truly be something for the hired hands to puzzle over. “Nope, Chuck — reckon yer wrong. Bossy, thar, she ain’t quite so powuhfull as ol’ Thundercud, though mebbe she’s jest a leetle more powuhfull than Fatty Pie genrully is.”

Coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence.

Must have been hard to decide. But the existence of these bizarre competitions does throw some light on the video performances that made Mr. Gruber famous. When he bragged about fooling the voters, he was behaving as the 19th most powerful person in healthcare, and evidently enjoying the role; but when he explained how to rip the voters off, he was competing strongly to be named the 18th most obnoxious person in healthcare.

Ambition is a good thing. Yet Gruber’s powers as a rhetorician will, I am afraid, never get him even to 500th place in a contest for the most eloquent person in healthcare — over, under, or around the age of 40. When the performances by which he appears to have pleased some, if not all, his fellow experts were witnessed by a more numerous but less impressionable audience, and his act was discovered to be (if I may paraphrase Irving Berlin) a turkey that you’d know would fold, he found no better way to placate outraged viewers than to murmur: “The comments in the video were made at an academic conference. I was speaking off the cuff and I basically spoke inappropriately and I regret having made those comments.”

One secret of public speaking is not to shoot yourself in the head. If you intend to avoid doing that, you should know — especially if you are a brainy college professor — that a good way of aiming for your head is to say things that will lead almost any audience to think of devastating questions, such as:

Aren’t academics paid to engage in the objective, disinterested search for truth? So if you’re willing to go before an academic audience and brag about misleading the people, what would you say in front of a political audience? If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious? When you say you were speaking inappropriately, do you mean that what you said was wrong? If so, was it wrong in the sense of not being true, or wrong in the sense of turning out to be embarrassing? What do you mean by inappropriately — inappropriate to what?

Obvious questions, easily anticipated. And to answer most of them would probably get you in even deeper trouble than you were in before. Gruber hasn’t answered them. But he doesn’t need to, because the national audience he must have longed for all his life has already found the answers, without his help.

Such is the ignorance and illiteracy of our leaders that until now, Gruber’s sub-500th-rate rhetorical skills have not limited his political influence. According to Wikipedia,

In 2009–10 Gruber served as a technical consultant to the Obama Administration and worked with both the administration and Congress to help craft the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often referred to as the ACA or “Obamacare.” The act was signed into law in March 2010, and Gruber has been described as an “architect”, “writer”, and “consultant” of the legislation. He was widely interviewed and quoted during the roll-out of the legislation.

Both Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi expressed their respect for Gruber’s talents. Today, however, Obama is dismissing Gruber as someone who never worked for him, and Pelosi is commenting in an even more dismissive way:

Mr. Gruber's comments were a year old, and he has backtracked from most of them. You didn't have it in your narrative. That's really important. He is not even advocating the position that he was at some conference and some said. So I don't know who he is. He didn't help write our bill. With all due respect to your question, you have a person who wasn't writing our bill, commenting on what was happening when we were writing our bill, who has withdrawn some of the statements.

If you want to check that quotation, it’s from an article by David Weigel at BloombergPolitics, Nov. 14. No matter how hard it is to understand, those are the words Pelosi used. Her employment of “so” is really a puzzler. Does the House minority leader mean to say that because Gruber allegedly “backtracked,” and because “Gruber’s comments were a year old” (were also presents a difficulty: how old are they now?), and because “some said” (what did they say?), she doesn’t “know who he is”? In 1984, unsuccessful politicians became unpersons. In Pelosi’s universe of discourse, they become “Mr. Gruber,” who is “a person,” which sounds even worse than an unperson, somehow.

If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious?

Fox News sent one of its guys, David Webb, to lie in wait for Gruber and ask him if he had really backtracked on the idea that “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. . . . Call it the stupidity of the American people or whatever.” This was their exchange:

David Webb: “Professor, do you think the American people are stupid?”
MIT Professor Gruber: “No comment.”

Gruber has realized that there are certain occasions on which even a genius like him should shut his mouth. If he continues this clever strategy, he has a chance of becoming the 499th most powerful rhetorician among healthcare hacks. And the rest of us will hear less of the word inappropriate.

So much for Professor Gruber. Inspired by the political season of 2014, which has been coextensive with calendar year 2014, I’ve put together a list of terms that, like inappropriate, should take a long vacation from the American vocabulary:

  • Americans are tired of gridlock in Washington: I’m not tired of gridlock, and I bet you aren’t either. If Americans were offered a choice between having Congress and the president agree on new laws, or having them caught in a literal gridlock from which their chauffeured vehicles could not escape, my prediction is that 90 percent would choose the latter.
  • Bucket (“bucket of proposals,” “bucket of states that Hillary might carry in 2016,” to say nothing of “bucket list” — things you want to do before you kick the bucket): How vulgar can you get?
  • Double down: Once is enough.
  • Fighting for the middle class(“We’re going to continue fighting for the middle class” — Harry Reid): Starting with George Soros.
  • Income disparity: A term used by people who want everyone to be paid $15 an hour, and no more.
  • Pivot(“The president pivoted to foreign policy”): What do you think of people who are always changing the subject?
  • Shellacking (“The president took a real shellacking in the November election”): That is to say, the president was varnished with a purified lac dissolved in denatured alcohol. Slang should be more descriptive.
  • The people want us to work together, the people just want us to get things done, etc.: Propaganda slogans used by Democrats to get Republicans to concede to them.
  • Vote suppression: Keeping the other party’s voters from voting twice.
  • We are a nation of immigrants: Is that supposed to be an argument?
  • What this election is really about: Whatever your talking points are.

I am considering additions to this list, and I would appreciate readers’ contributions. One of my own candidates is unacceptable, a useful word but perhaps, like red states and blue states, a little too useful for its own good. This month, the people who run Obamacare discovered — actually, their critics discovered — that they had misestimated, by a mere 400,000, the number of people who signed up for the program. And guess which way they misestimated? Right! They overestimated. According to Reuters, the administration’s flack-catcher on this issue, a haggard person named Sylvia Burwell, responded as follows (on Twitter, naturally): "The mistake we made is unacceptable. I will be communicating that clearly throughout the [department]."

Well! That’s telling ‘em. They’ll never do thatagain. It’s unacceptable.




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Updated Aphorism #6

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chambers succeed




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The Quest for Perpetual Motion

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In an apparent attempt to establish its identity as a boatload of busybodies, ExxonMobil has been running ads in which a series of adolescents tries to convince other adolescents to become engineers. The young’uns, most of whom come across as pushy and unpleasant, if not positively unbalanced by somebody’s good intentions, ask the mighty questions of our time:

Who’s gonna do it? . . .
Design cars that capture emissions?
Build bridges that fix themselves?
Get more clean water to everyone?

The answer, according to the scripted kids, is: “Engineers! That’s who! Be an engineer!

I wouldn’t mind if more kids became engineers, but I hope that someone will let them know that engineers don’t just think up a trendy “problem” and then fix it.

Consider the idea of “bridges that fix themselves.” Even I can imagine a bridge with some contraption attached to it that could make some kind of repairs on the rest of the bridge. But how much would that contraption cost? How much would it cost to construct? Who would pay for it? With what? Earned in what way? Who would maintain it? Who would supervise its operations? Who would fix it when it needed to be fixed? Who would pay all these people? Again, with what? What would the engineer who designed the “self-fixing” bridge — or the people who constructed it, or the people who are supposed to run it — have been doing if some do-gooder hadn’t commissioned him to work on such a structure? Would he have been designing something more useful, perhaps?

I have some other questions, too — larger, and almost as obvious. What kind of society makes possible the existence of engineers and the situations in which they are able to devise whatever they devise? On what assumptions, institutions, and practices is that society based? If, for example, everyone doesn’t have clean water, why is that? Is it because enough ambitious young people somehow failed to become engineers? Or is it because of some broader problem, some problem that may involve authoritarian government, superstitious resentment of “Western” science, a static, anticapitalist economy, “the tragedy of the commons” (i.e., communal ownership), a lack of respect for “women’s work” (washing, cooking, getting water) . . . Is it possible that these are problems, and that they won’t be solved by clean little TV kids who want to “fix” all the “issues” their teachers mention?

How do you find the answers to these questions? Who’s gonna do it — who’s going to study the economic history and political philosophy and social practices and moral concepts that may shed light on them? If society provides a good environment for our young engineers, how can that environment be maintained? If society goes bad, who will fix it? How? And at what price, financial and intellectual? Or will social conditions fix themselves, because some social engineer devised a political contraption to make that happen? And will it work &‐ or will it be the kind of thing that engineers used to call, derisively, a perpetual motion machine?

Because that is what the Exxon ad promotes: the idea, already far too prominent in our society, that there are self-fixing, frictionless, cost-free solutions for every problem — the idea that there is, in fact, such a thing as a perpetual motion machine.




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Three Good Books

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I have an apology to make. I have been far behind in letting you know about books I’ve enjoyed, books that I think you will enjoy as well.

To me, one of the most interesting categories of literature is a work by a friend of liberty that is not the normal work by a friend of liberty. The typical libertarian book (A) concerns itself exclusively with public policy, (B) assumes that its readers know nothing about public policy, (C) assumes that its readers are either modern liberals or modern conservatives, who need to be argued out of their ignorance, or modern libertarians, who need to be congratulated on their wisdom. I find these books very dull. I suspect that when you’ve read one of them, you’ve read them all. But I have no intention of reading them all.

What I want is a book that has a libertarian perspective and actually tells me something new. One such book is Philosophic Thoughts, by Gary Jason. You know Gary; besides being a professor of philosophy, he is also one of Liberty’s senior editors. The book presents 42 essays, some on logic, some on ethical theory, some on metaphysics, some on applications of philosophy to contemporary issues. Libertarian perspectives are especially important in the discussions of ethical theory, where we have essays on such matters as tort reform, free trade, boycotts of industry, and unionization (issues that Jason follows intently). The attentive reader will, however, notice the spirit of individualism everywhere in the book.

What you see in the book is someone learning, as he moves from France to America and from mid-century to the present, that “American” is the best name for his own best qualities.

The essays are always provocative, and Jason knows how to keep them short and incisive, so that the reader isn’t just invited to think but is also given time to do so. Of course, you can skip around. I went for the section about logic first, because, as readers of Liberty know, I understand that topic least. I wasn’t disappointed. There is nothing dry about Jason’s approach to problems that are unfairly regarded as “abstract” or “merely theoretical.” He is always smart and challenging, but he makes sure to be accessible to non-philosophers. In these days of fanatical academic specialization, it’s satisfying to see real intellectual curiosity (42 essays!). And Jason doesn’t just display his curiosity — he is no dilettante. He contributes substantially to the understanding of every topic he considers.

Another book that I’ve enjoyed, and I don’t want other people to miss, is a work by Jacques Delacroix, who has contributed frequently to these pages. In this case, you can tell a book by its cover, because the cover of Delacroix’s book bears the title I Used to Be French. Here is the cultural biography — cultural in the broadest sense — of a man who became an American, and an American of the classic kind: ingenuous, daring, engaging, funny, and again, curious about everything in the world. Whether the author began with these characteristics, I don’t know, but he has them now; and what you see in the book is someone learning, as he moves from France to America and from mid-century to the present, that “American” is the best name for his own best qualities.

Arthurdale was the result of Mrs. Roosevelt’s commendable concern for the poor and of her utter inability to understand what to do about poverty.

It takes literary skill to project a many-sided personality; and the strange thing is that it takes even more skill to project the differences we all feel between American culture (bad or good) and French — or any other European — culture (bad or good). We feel those differences, but when we try to describe them we usually get ourselves lost in generalizations. Delacroix doesn’t. He has a taste for the pungent episode, the memorable anecdote. He also displays two of the best qualities of which a good author, American or French, can ever be possessed: an exact knowledge of formal language and an intimate and loving acquaintance with the colloquial tongue.

Sampling Delacroix’s topics, one finds authoritarianism, Catholicism, Catholic iconography, the Cold War, communism, diving, driving, the end of the Middle Ages, existentialism, food, French borrowings from English, the French navy (being in it), getting arrested, grunion, jazz, Levis, lovemaking, Muslims, the People’s Republic of Santa Cruz, political correctness, the Third World in its many forms. . . . Most (even grunion) are topics that a lesser author would inevitably get himself stuck to, but Delacroix romps through them all. If you want a loftier metaphor, you can say that they (even the grunion) are jewels strung on the book’s central story, as sketched in the summary on the back cover: “A boy grows up in the distant, half-imaginary continent of post-World War II France. Bad behavior and good luck will eventually carry him to California where he will find redemption.” And a lot of fun, for both the reader and himself.

Fun, also, in another way, is a book I’ve been perversely withholding from you for three years. It’s Back to the Land: Arthurdale, FDR’s New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning, by C.J. Maloney (also, be it noted, a contributor to Liberty). What does that title mean? Well, Arthurdale, West Virginia, was a settlement begun in 1933 by the United States government under the inspiration of Eleanor Roosevelt. It was the result of Mrs. Roosevelt’s commendable concern for the poor and of her utter inability to understand what to do about poverty. Her idea — which was shared by a multitude of college professors, pundits, quack economists, and the usual products of “good” Eastern schools — was that there was an “imbalance” between rural and urban America; that the latter was too big and the former too small; and that the government should “resettle” hordes of Americans “back on the land” (where, incidentally, most of them had never lived). Mrs. Roosevelt was especially concerned with converting out-of-work miners into “subsistence” farmers. She and her New Deal accomplices designed a turnkey community for 800 or so lucky recipients of government largesse — land, houses, furnishings, equipment, expert advice. What could go wrong?

The answer, as Maloney shows, is “virtually everything.” The planned community had no plans except bad ones. The farms didn’t support themselves, and the farmers didn’t really want to farm them. Everything cost more — lots more — than it should have. Attempts to supplement small farming by small industry repeatedly failed. When the “colonists” managed to produce a surplus of something, the government wouldn’t let them sell it. The democratic and communitarian ideals hailed by government bureaucrats — who included some of the nastiest specimens of the New Deal, such as Rexford Guy Tugwell, one of the smuggest and stupidest creatures who ever attracted national attention — were continuously negated by the power of the Planners themselves.

It’s a good story, amusing though sad; and I wish I could say it was amazing. Unfortunately, it was just one of the predictable results of those dominating impulses of big government: arrogance and wishful thinking. Maloney’s well-researched book places Arthurdale firmly in the context of 20th-century interventionism, with plenty of information about the broader movements it represented and the people involved in them. The book is lively and pointed. Like the other books mentioned here, it is both an education and an entertainment. Like those other books, it is one of a kind, and not to be missed.


Editor's Note: Review of "Philosophic Thoughts: Essays on Logic and Philosophy," by Gary Jason. New York: Peter Lang, 2014. 416 pages; "I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography," by Jacques Delacroix. Santa Cruz CA: By the Author (but you can get it on Amazon), 2014. 420 pages; and "Back to the Land: Arthurdale, FDR’s New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning," by C. J. Maloney. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. 292 pages.



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Legal Predation

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Alabama has not escaped an abuse suffered elsewhere in the country, one reminiscent of lawyers’ trolling for plaintiffs in their nightly TV ads. The Opelika-Auburn News has carried stories about a form letter (copied online by the newspaper) that local businesses have received from a law firm in Montgomery. (I have also had a brief conversation with an attorney for some of the victims.)

The letter threatens a federal lawsuit on behalf of not-yet-specified plaintiffs for not-yet-specified violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act unless the targeted firm agrees to an out-of-court settlement. The letter expressly says that a suitable settlement would cover legal fees. The amount later suggested, typically a few thousand dollars, apparently turns out to be small enough to persuade some victims to settle to avoid risking further and possibly great expense and trouble.

Such predation is one more example of using or threatening government power to redistribute wealth away from its real producers. It is also an example both of quasi-deception and of regarding business firms as fair game that just exists, almost automatically, to be exploited in various ways as might occur to somebody.




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What Obamacare Did for Me

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In January I was kicked off my health insurance and forced to buy an Obamacare plan through my state’s health insurance exchange. Let me tell you about it.

My monthly premium is now $315. I am poor and struggle to pay this bill. In fact, the $1,500 I have paid so far this year would torture the poor working class people Obama promised to help. My premium on my old health insurance was roughly the same. I thought the whole idea of Obamacare was that if everyone bought health insurance then premiums would go down. Why, then, is an Obamacare plan still so expensive?

Here it is worth noting that what I pay is $315 a month, but my premium is officially $385 per month, lessened by a $70 per month “tax credit” that the government pays because I bought an Obamacare plan. I would not complain if Obama gave me poor coverage but at least paid my premiums for me (although when I say this I choose not to engage my readers in the lengthy debate about whether fully socialized medicine would be even more horrible than Obamacare). But $70 is little enough, compared to what I pay each month. So I am still getting price-gouged and I don’t get free health coverage, either — when free healthcare is what the liberals and socialists thought Obamacare would lead to.

If I catch a cold, my health insurance is useful. If I get seriously sick, I am totally screwed.

Obamacare is actually the worst of both worlds, because meanwhile, I’m not getting the quality of service that would have come from a true free-market product. For my $315 monthly premium, I get a plan that has a deductible of $3,000 for in-network hospitals and $6,000 for out-of-network doctors and out-of-network hospitals. (The deductible for in-network doctors is also $3,000, but it’s waived for in-network doctor’s office visits, which require only a $30 copay. But see below.)

Which poor people have $3,000 or $6,000 to spare? I certainly don't. If I catch a cold, my health insurance is useful. If I get seriously sick, I am totally screwed.

In the interests of fair and balanced journalism, I will tell you that I had a respiratory infection in March for which I saw a doctor and took an antibiotic, and I guess my doctor's bills and medicine costs would have been much higher if not for Obamacare. This does not alter the fact that I now live in chronic fear of getting very sick. Nor does it alter the fact that if I had saved up my $1,500 of premium payments instead of paying it I might have been able to bear the cost myself.

My plan is with Anthem Blue Cross, the biggest Obamacare provider nationwide. When I call them I am kept on hold for over an hour. This has happened a dozen times.

When I bought this plan the policy disclosures said the deductible was waived for visits to certain types of specialists, so in those cases I would be liable only for a $30 copay. I saw such a specialist in February and promptly sent in a claim. I heard nothing for a month, called to follow up, and was told they had lost it. I resubmitted the claim. They lost it again. I followed up yet again, and was told that because my specialist is out-of-network, the deductible was not waived. This is not what the plan had said. But it turned out not to matter, because they rejected the claim anyway, because of my doctor's bad handwriting on an Anthem form.

Anthem has told me that I may resubmit my claim for the February office visit, but the hassle of dealing with them has scared me away. And I hesitate to bother, anyway, because if the claim is allowed the only result may be $150 going toward a $6,000 deductible. At some point I may try to submit the claim a fourth time, but I don’t expect anything good to come of it.

This is a true story.

I tell this to my liberal mother and she says all insurers are greedy.

The plan was designed by Obama. But for political partisans, blame is always better to give than receive.




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Sugar Daddies, Sky Fairies, and Flying Spaghetti Monsters

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America’s self-appointed sophisticates like to ridicule religious believers as devotees of the “Sky Fairy,” or of an entity of cartoon-superheroic magnificence they call “the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” Those too enlightened for such foolishness assure us that they are the grownups in the country, and therefore above silly superstitions. Yet curiously, many of them retain absolute, childlike faith in big government as the solver of every problem and the savior from all evil.

Statists on both sides of the spectrum tend to a blind trust of information they get from their official propagandists. To borrow a wonderful phrase from our editor, Stephen Cox, they gobble it up like fish food. Many of the same people look down their noses at those silly Christians, whose core beliefs come from the Bible. But Fox, MSNBC, and NPR have only been around for a few decades. The Bible has endured for thousands of years.

Like a good many Americans, I don’t question whether the president cares about the right things. I question whether he knows what the hell he’s doing.

This is not to say that, in my opinion, people don’t get some odd ideas from Holy Writ. We see these notions floating around in the cultural atmosphere, like leftover bubbles from The Lawrence Welk Show. I get as much pleasure in pointing, laughing, and popping bubbles as anybody else. But to suggest that the basic ideas are less credible than this week’s talking points by the rah-rah media strikes me as nothing short of absurd.

The big story last month was the donnybrook between Hobby Lobby and the Obamacare cops. The Green family, who own majority interest in the Hobby Lobby corporation, caused widespread sophisticate outrage. In their fidelity to the dictates of their “Imaginary Friend,” the Greens sought an exemption from providing certain forms of birth control in employees’ health plans. Our president meanwhile seeks to bestow healthcare on the huddled masses, but certain people’s benighted religious views keep getting in the way!

The concept of a Supreme Being who created the cosmos and has abided since the beginning of time strikes the enlightened ones as laughable. But the competence of an elected official not born until 1961, and only elected in 2008, cannot — dare not — be questioned. The Obama Administration and its minions Know Best. How can we be sure of this? Because they care about the right things.

Like a good many Americans, I don’t question whether the president cares about the right things. I question whether he knows what the hell he’s doing. But surely I am deluded. The Sky Fairy has blinded me with sparkle-dust.

My general impression of those who seek political power, particularly high office, is that they aren’t very nice people. They appear, to me, to be concerned with little more than self-promotion and blind ambition. They have an amazing propensity to say exactly what they think their “base” wants to hear. But no matter what they say, they always end up doing what serves themselves and their own glorious careers. I don’t know why that makes me gullible, or any sillier than those who “ooh” and “aah” over the Great Enlighteneds’ every utterance as if it thundered down from Mount Olympus.

The god of the so-called sophisticates is something even loftier than our exalted leaders. It is Sugar Daddy, the all-knowing, all-seeing, infinitely powerful bringer of all that is right, good, and utterly unquestionable. “We’re not worrrrthy! Pray forgive us if we ever — for a millisecond — questioned your wisdom. In your divine awesomeness, call down no drones to smite us!”

Now, that sounds pretty out-there to me. But then again, I’m no sophisticate. Clearly I’m incapable of understanding.

Trusting the government to fix its own messes seems, to me, a prospect considerably more dubious than relying on Gomer Pyle to fix the family car. Goofy as he was, Gomer usually knew how to get that vehicle humming again. Too bad he isn’t running for president. With his cousin Goober as a running-mate, he’d be at least as credible as the geniuses we’ll undoubtedly have to choose from in 2016.

Yet all will be presumed, by their legions of fans, to know what they’re doing. In fact, to know better than everybody else. The Rube Goldberg contraption of the state grows to ever more monstrous proportions, but the gruesome sitcom of power piled upon power continues to entrance many Americans. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is dismissed as hoary, tired, and in need of retirement; but Sugar Daddy is ever young and virile. In his present incarnation, he even wears cool sunglasses and shoots hoops with NBA stars.

Our politicians are taken deadly seriously by many, but if they’re going to act like adolescents, that’s exactly how they deserve to be seen.

I believe I’ll sit out this enthusiasm. I can’t get worked up about the controversy over whether the First Lady has buff arms or a big butt. Nor do I get teary-eyed thinking about the First Daughter’s high school prom, or outraged because she and her sister attend private school. They are just human beings like the rest of us. When the Presidential Family became our version of the Windsors, they were not elevated to the Heavens, but merely added to the cast of the sitcom.

When I was in high school, the Student Council candidates divided themselves into two parties: Kiss and P-Nut. At the time I found it absurd. Us kids, pretending to be real politicians! Now I see the Democrats and the Republicans morphing, more and more, into Kiss and P-Nut. They are taken deadly seriously by many, but if they’re going to act like adolescents, I think that’s exactly how they deserve to be seen.

Too bad, however, that they’re not wrangling over whether ice cream should be served in the cafeteria, instead of waging wars, jeopardizing our future, and taking our money to pay for their grand schemes. At least on the Student Council, they wouldn’t be out of their league. Nor would we be expected to pay them endless tribute and trust them with our lives.

The Sky Fairy and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are looking better all the time.




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Moral Minority

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That Instructive Tone

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Many years ago, when I was a kid libertarian emerging from the swamps of the New Left, one of my friends, a student of sociology, told me something he had learned in class: among its other functions, government is a means of supplying information.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “like when they put up a traffic light. It tells you when to stop and go.”

I was too young to be paying any perceptible amount of money in taxes, so I didn’t think, “So this is why we need a government that spends as much every year as Europe did between AD 100 and AD 1960 — so it can throw that little switch on the traffic light?” But I did think, “Gosh, that’s banal.”

They are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide.

Since that time, unfortunately, government has become ever more intent on fulfilling the vital function of supplying information. Its attempts to do so are not limited to “merge,” “no left turn,” “pay your taxes by April 15 (or we are sending you to prison).” In my state, you can hardly eat a meal without being informed, someplace on the menu, that eggs and chickens need to be cooked at such and such a temperature. You can hardly pick up a package of anything without seeing a sign that says:

WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

You can hardly enter an apartment house without seeing an even more disturbing sign:

WARNING: This Area Contains a Chemical Known to the State of California to Cause Birth Defects or Other Reproductive Harm.

A second or two after grabbing their genitals, most Californians recall that this information is without any merit or interest. Every property in the world includes some substance, some chemical, that might conceivably prevent you from reproducing. Eat enough dirt, and you will never reproduce again.

But lately the “information” conveyed by government has assumed a somewhat more lethal form — lethal to mental health, at any rate. President Obama’s comments are almost all of this nature; and the problem has gotten worse as Obama has moved from Partisan Manipulation and Just Plain Lies to the still deadlier genre of Words for the Ages. Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.

As for the people who thought those speeches had information to supply, they are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide. I’m sure we can agree, however, on the idea that with such encouragement from the top, Obama’s subordinates are very likely to optimize their own potential for banality.

Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.

Governmental banality manifested itself in virtually Platonic form in remarks delivered on June 11 by Charles Timothy (Chuck) Hagel, former senator, former banker, former head of a cellphone company, former organizer for the Reagan campaign, former official of the Veterans Administration, former lobbyist for a tire company, and current Secretary of Defense. The occasion of his remarks was an investigation conducted by the House Armed Services Committee into the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who walked away from his post in a combat zone in Afghanistan, was captured by the enemy, and was ransomed at considerable expense by the Obama administration.

Hagel said:

Wars are messy, and they’re full of imperfect choices. . . .You know there’s always suffering through war. There’s no glory in war. War is always about human beings. It’s not about machines. War is a dirty business. And we don’t like to deal with those realities. But realities, they are. And we must deal with them. . . . . . War, every part of war, like prisoner exchanges, is not some abstraction or theoretical exercise. The hard choices and options don’t fit neatly into clearly defined instructions in how-to manuals. All of these decisions are part of the brutal, imperfect realities we all deal with in war.

Now, would anybody ever guess that this man had come to Congress to talk about Bowe Bergdahl?

Of course, it’s hard to talk about something you know absolutely nothing about. Hagel’s comments, on this and other occasions, indicated that he had no idea whether Bergdahl was a deserter or if other soldiers had lost their lives looking for him or if the five Taliban honchos who were released in exchange for him were really important or not. But as Secretary of Defense, he had to talk about something, so he talked about the eternal truths. If someone produces The Wit and Wisdom of Chuck Hagel, these wise observations will need to be included:

Wars are messy.

There’s always suffering through [sic] war.

War is not some abstraction.

War is always about human beings.

War is a dirty business.

And just to keep the troops happy:

There’s no glory in war.

What is the listener supposed to deduce from this string of truisms? Don’t go to war? If you go to war, make sure to obliterate your enemies? All’s fair in a dirty game? What goes around comes around? War is an existential tragedy, best understood by curling up with a Camus novel? War isn’t half so pleasant as a successful career in Washington? Pass me the gin bottle?

Here we have a traffic light that’s blinking red, green, and yellow, all at once. But Hagel’s demeanor insisted that you had to respect any information he supplied. When anyone expressed a hint of skepticism, the Secretary of Defense was miffed.

Watching Hagel’s testimony, I was reminded that Leland Yeager had alerted me to the existence of another exponent of government as information, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. And Yeager was right, although McCarthy turns out to have a very different style from Hagel’s. Hagel (age 67) plays the part of the wise but grumpy old grandfather; he reacts to criticism by twisting around with an expression on his face that suggests his hearing aid is missing and he knows that the questioner has stolen it. By contrast, McCarthy (age 60) is young and hip. At least she thinks she is.

In a long, long speech delivered on June 2, McCarthy puffed something called the Clean Power Plan. In case you hadn’t guessed, this monstrosity has to do with governmental “shaping” and “crafting” of large but impenetrably vague “solutions” to such nonproblems as global warming.

Remember global warming? The idea that people are heating up the globe, or planet? Yes, that’s what we used to hear. But since the expected warming doesn’t seem to be going on, people concerned with the purported emergency have changed their name for it. What government is now supposed to prevent is climate change, climate inaction, or, if you’re really hip, just climate. Those are the words that McCarthy uses in her speech; never once does anything so frank as warming appear. But she is hip, or cunning, enough to realize that some people in her audience know, or have heard somewhere, that there’s been a lot of actual cooling going on. How can she handle that? She handles it by indicating she’s so far ahead of the game that she’s plumb tired of watching it. After all, her sole purpose is to win. So whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we? I mean, sometimes the electricity goes off!

If anything, what threatens reliability and causes blackouts is devastating extreme weather fueled by climate change. I’m tired of people pointing to the Polar Vortex as a reason not to act on climate. It’s exactly the opposite. Climate change heightens risks from extreme cold that freezes power grids, superstorms that drown power plants, and heat waves that stress power supplies. And it turns out, efficiency upgrades that slow climate change actually help cities insulate against blackouts.

The solution, of course, is a set of nationwide government interventions, entailing many billions in losses for companies and consumers.

But what strikes me is the tone. It’s the tone of a tenured sage who is tired of people with their petty questions and objections. If that’s the way they are, they’re not worth talking to — even though they’re paying her salary.

Remember, this woman hasn’t even been elected to her exalted position. And she isn’t a person who has won repute by offering the public some goods that it wants to buy. She’s just a government employee. But here she is, talking to people who have either been elected by the public or whose business has been favored in some kind of marketplace, and acting as if it’s her role to give awards at the kindergarten graduation:

I want to give a shout out to all the local officials, rural co-ops, public power operators, and investor owned utilities leading on climate change: It’s clear that you act not just because it’s reasonable, but because it's the right thing to do for the people you serve. Governors and mayors of all stripes are leaning into climate action. They see it not as a partisan obstacle, but as a powerful opportunity. And we know that success breeds success. Those of us who’ve worked in state and local government have seen healthy competition push states to share ideas and expertise. That’s when everybody wins.

If McCarthy actually were a teacher, I would advise her, first, to drop the attempt at pretending to be hip and cool. If you’re not young, you ought to know enough not to do that. But this is a teacher so unwise as to think that somebody’s going to like her to death because she uses expressions like shout out, lean into, and, elsewhere in her rambling, boring, repetitive speech, all about (“This plan is all about flexibility”), a win (“efficiency is a win”), think about it like this, calling our number (“Now, climate change is calling our number”), etc. It must be admitted that there are some signs of authenticity in McCarthy’s youthful patter: she resembles many young people in never having mastered English grammar and syntax. In company with her boss, President Obama, she has not yet learned the “like-as” distinction — and that’s just one example of a grammatical notion she’s never leaned into.

Whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we?

Second, I would advise her that one establishes one’s credentials to instruct others by recognizing and avoiding clichés, and not by running after them as if they were one’s heart’s desire. How else could she give us the right thing to do, of all stripes, success breeds success, and everybody wins within the space of five lines? In other passages we get in the driver’s seat, shifts the conversation, proven path,skeptics who will cry the sky is falling (actually, a skeptic would doubt that the sky is falling, but if you’ve collected a lot of clichés, you may as well butcher some), competitive edge, think of our children, cried wolf, bottom line, doomsday predictions that never came true (another odd choice for a person who spends her time warning about apocalyptic climate stuff),and my favorite pair of bromides, “Corporate climate action is not bells and whistles — it’s all hands on deck.”

That, like the earlier list, is selective. In the space available to me, I can’t do justice to McCarthy’s clichés. But go ahead — read the speech. I dare you. I gave you the link.

In the meantime, I ask you: Is she truly exercising the function of government to supply information? What she supplies is attitude, and a very bad attitude indeed. Bad ’tude, dude. No adult should talk to other adults in this way. In fact, no one should talk to anyone in this way. Although both the tone and the total absence of thought will be familiar to all who remember their high school assemblies, that precedent doesn’t make any of this a good, or even a decent, model for discourse of any kind, including high school assemblies.

But here, as bad speakers like to say, I’m reminded of a joke. Once there were two people who were very religious. They went to church all the time; they gave money; they never missed a vigil or a potluck dinner; with them it was all hands on deck. I’ll call this couple Adam and Steve. One Sunday Adam was sick, but he wanted to find out what the new priest had to say that morning, so he sent Steve along to church with instructions to report back to him. So Steve went and returned, and on his return he said, “Do you want the bad news first, or the good news?”

Adam gulped. “I guess,” he replied, “I’d better hear the bad news first.”

So Steve said, “Well, the priest got into the pulpit, and he preached nothing but heresy!”

“Oh my God!” Adam exclaimed. “After that, what could the good news be?”

“The good news,” Steve said, “is that nobody was listening.”

I would place bets on how many people, if any, read that speech by Ms. McCarthy, or, if present, listened to it. I fear that Leland Yeager and I may be her only attentive audience. And Obama’s sermons are just as eagerly followed.




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They Didn’t Want a War

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Margaret MacMillan’s The War that Ended Peace gives a fascinating description of the background, stretching back to around 1900, of what she, like people at the time, calls the “Great War.” She relates how the Bosnian crisis of 1908, the Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911, the crises arising from wars among the Balkan countries in 1912 and 1913, and various minor incidents were successfully muddled through without war among the great powers. The most general source of tension seems to have been fear of being attacked first and concern to make and maintain alliances.

Leading statesmen optimistically expected that tension between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, exacerbated by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on 28 June 1914, would somehow be resolved like the earlier crises. Even after Austria-Hungary rejected Serbia’s compliant but not total acceptance of its ultimatum and declared war, hope lingered of keeping the war contained.

Few policymakers had wanted war (the main exception perhaps being Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, Austro-Hungarian Chief of Staff). The German Kaiser was no exception, although he was addicted to impulsive speeches and interviews, liked to strut in military uniform, and even enjoyed fiddling with the detailed design of uniforms (as did his fellow emperors Franz Joseph and Nicholas II).

World War I was a momentous and enduring tragedy. Germany, for one, had everything to gain from continuing peace.

As those examples suggest, MacMillan goes into revealing detail not only about demographic, economic, political, diplomatic, and military situations and events but also about people — royalty, politicians, foreign ministers, diplomats, generals and admirals, journalists, and influential or well connected socialites — together with their backgrounds, illnesses, deaths, and strengths or quirks of personality.

Much of this is relevant to the role of sheer and even trivial accident in momentous history. MacMillan herself notes several examples. The Russian monk Rasputin, whatever his faults, strongly advocated peace and had great influence with the Imperial family; but he had been stabbed by a madwoman on the very day of the Austrian Archduke’s assassination and was recovering slowly, far from St. Petersburg. The Archduke himself had long realized that Austria-Hungary was too weak to risk an aggressive foreign policy. Alfred von Kiderlen-Wächter, German Foreign Minister and in MacMillan’s opinion a force for peace, had died in December 1912. Joseph Caillaux, France’s peace-minded Prime Minister, had had to resign in January 1912, partly in connection with his second wife’s shooting of an editor who had threatened to publish some indiscreet love letters that Caillaux had sent to her while she was still married to someone else. Although MacMillan does not explicitly raise the question, I was set to wondering how events would have evolved if Otto von Bismarck, a realist who was satisfied with Germany’s international position achieved by 1871, had been alive and in office in 1914. Or what if Gavrilo Princip’s bullet had missed the Archduke?

MacMillan ends her book, apart from a 13-page epilogue, with the outbreak of war in July-August 1914. That is fine with a reader more interested in the consequences of particular wars and with how the wars might have been avoided (as many potential wars no doubt were barely avoided) than with the details of the actual fighting. World War I was a momentous and enduring tragedy. Germany, for one, had everything to gain from continuing peace, including its growing leadership in science and industry. MacMillan writes a gripping story. She conveys a feel of the suspense that must have prevailed during the final crisis. My opinion of her book is overwhelmingly favorable.

Or it would be except for one minor but pervasive and annoying defect. The book is erratically punctuated, mainly but not everywhere underpunctuated. Even independent clauses, often even ones with their own internal punctuation, go unseparated by a comma or semicolon. Restrictive and nonrestrictive phrases and clauses are not distinguished, as clarity requires, by absence or presence of punctuation. Such erratic and erroneous punctuation delays understanding, if usually only for a second. Even so, it distracted me from the book’s fascinating story.

Above all, it distracted me with sustained wonder about how so untypically mispunctuated a book could emerge from a major publishing house. Could the copyeditor have given up in the face of a daunting and tedious task? Could an incompetent editor have imposed the damage, which the author then passively left standing? Could the author have committed the errors herself and then, perhaps out of bad experience with previous copyeditors, have insisted on none of their tampering this time? None of these hypotheses seems plausible, but I can’t think of a better one. The author’s including her copyeditor in her long list of Acknowledgments adds to the mystery.

I’d be grateful if someone could relieve my curiosity with the true story.


Editor's Note: Review of "The War that Ended Peace," by Margaret MacMillan. Random House, 2013, 784 pages.



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