Astonishing Life, Astonishing Performance

 | 

Stephen Hawking is the most celebrated and renowned physicist of our time, not only because of his astounding theory about time, but also because of his personal struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He has spent his career searching for that “once simple, elegant equation that would prove everything.”

If you, too, are looking for clues to Hawking’s elusive equation, The Theory of Everything isn’t the place to look. Although it does contain a few brief and basic conversations about Hawking’s research along the lines of “quantum theory governs subatomic particles; relativity governs the planets,” the film decidedly is not about physics.

Instead, it is an intensely personal film about how a family copes with the day-to-day emotional and physical trauma caused by a debilitating disease. And yet, it’s not about that either. Stephen Hawking has managed to survive for half a century with a disease that kills most people in less than two years. It is a horrifying disease that gradually destroys the body from the outside in. Known variously as “motor neuron disease,” “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” and more recently “ALS,” it prevents the brain from communicating with the muscles, first in the extremities (hands and feet) and finally in the torso, face, and organs. The brain continues to think, but it can’t direct the muscles to move. It is simply devastating, and most people succumb soon after diagnosis.

But not Stephen Hawking. And I want to know why. Fifty years! I want to know something about the medical treatment and the personal regimen that have made the difference for him. Is it because he has such a strong sense of purpose and satisfaction derived from his research? Is it because he doesn’t believe in the “better place” that makes it easier for believers to “shuffle off this mortal coil”? Or is it because he can afford the reported millions it costs each year for round-the-clock healthcare and personal assistance? The film completely ignores these issues, so if you’re looking for a theory, either of astrophysics or of medical physics, you won’t find it.

Stephen Hawking has managed to survive for half a century with a disease that kills most people in less than two years.

The Theory of Everything is a love story. It includes the giddiness of first love, the devastation of being rejected, the warm settling in of married life, the trauma of dealing with chronic illness, the addition of children, and even the conflicts of infidelity. Stephen’s wry boyish smile belies the crippling devastation of his body and lights his face with charm and desirability. The emotional connection between Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) is so raw and so tender that it sometimes feels like an intrusion to watch. The stunning musical score by Johann Johannsson contributes to the emotion of the film and will keep you in your seat through the final credits.

In short, The Theory of Everything is more Jane’s story than Stephen’s. According to the tag line of the film, “His mind changed our world. Her love changed his.” This should not be surprising, since the screenplay is based on Jane Hawking’s memoirs, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen (2007) and Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen (1999). But it also very well may be true that her influence helped him continue his research and live, not as an invalid but as a scholar. Hawking himself has said that the film is “broadly true” and said of Eddie Tremayne’s performance, “At times, I thought he was me.”

Indeed, Eddie Redmayne is the reason this film works so well. He studied with therapists and dance instructors to learn how to isolate his muscles and contort them in just the right way so that he never becomes a caricature of Hawking but remains an embodiment of him. He expresses devastating frustration, unending optimism, witty charm, emotional pain, and tender love, all within the confines of a deteriorating body. Despite the pain, his eyes, his mind, and his smile remain bright. Both Hawking and Redmayne are remarkable.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Theory of Everything," directed by James Marsh. Working Title Films, 2014, 123 minutes.



Share This


Bugs in the System

 | 




Share This


Flu Hooey

 | 

"Scientists sound warning after first death from new H10N8 bird flu reported," blurted the latest flu alarm. A 73-year old Jiangxi Province woman died last December from a new strain of bird flu called H10N8. Following last year's H7N9 scare, ChineseCenter for Disease Control (CDC) researchers admonished that “the pandemic potential of this virus (H10N8) should not be underestimated." Rest assured, US CDC officials will not miscalculate the pandemic potential of any strain of flu. The possibility of an outbreak — even seasonal flu — is an opportunity to shine as our influenza experts and saviors.

But, in terms of what is of interest to the average citizen and what should be of paramount interest to all health officials, surprisingly little — nothing with any accuracy — is known about the flu. Who are its victims? How many of them are there? What is the toll (deaths, hospitalizations, days of lost work, etc.)? What is the ability of the CDC to predict next season's flu strains, let alone epidemics and pandemics? Who should be vaccinated, and against what? How effective (and safe) are the vaccines? And so on.

The CDC answers all these questions, to its own satisfaction, but leaves the layman confused and more than a little suspicious that almost anything it says about the flu is designed to scare, very much more than inform. For example, we have been told for many years that the flu kills 36,000 Americans annually. That number has recently been reduced to about 24,000, and expressed as a range (3,349 to 48,614) to provide "a better way to represent the variability and unpredictability" of seasonal flu-related deaths. Thanks for the clarity, but now we have to worry about the possibility of 49,000 deaths.

In terms of what is of interest to the average citizen and what should be of paramount interest to all health officials, surprisingly little — nothing with any accuracy — is known about the flu.

And what is meant by flu-related? The CDC report Estimates of Deaths Associated with Seasonal Influenza provides the answer in Table 2: Estimated number of annual influenza-associated deaths with underlying respiratory and circulatory causes. But there is a footnote; the numbers include deaths from influenza and pneumonia. Pneumonia! How is my flu shot going to protect me from pneumonia?

And what are underlying respiratory and circulatory causes? These are not defined, but Table 1, which excludes them, provides an estimate of the influenza and pneumonia only death toll. It has a mean of only 14,715 (down from 24,000) and a range of only 684 to 16,347. While this precipitous drop, from 36,000 deaths to less than 15,000, alleviates many flu season worries, where is the estimate for the flu-only scourge? It's not in any CDC influenza reports.

For such a breakdown, the tenacious investigator must consult the latest National Vital Statistics Report (the May 2013 edition). There, hidden in the bowels of Table 10, the decomposition is found for the year 2010 — apparently taking three full years to count up all the carnage: a measly 500 deaths from influenza; 50,097 from pneumonia. That's ripe: 500 flu deaths, 50,097 pneumonia deaths (100 times more), and the CDC sticks 50,597 into its flu report. Is the flu vaccine lobby that powerful? And where's the pneumonia lobby? I want a pneumonia shot.

To some of us, grossly exaggerating influenza threats to expand public vaccination is a despicable approach to conducting a national influenza control and prevention program. But what's a little disease-mongering when you’re saving lives? And there is nothing like an occasional threat of an epidemic, better yet a pandemic, to win over anyone left undaunted by the flagrantly massaged mortality and morbidity statistics of mundane seasonal flu.

An incipient pandemic (or epidemic) unfolds with the discovery of one or more individuals infected by a new flu strain. Next is the one-two punch of scientific mumbo-jumbo uttered over suspicious genetic material, followed by perfunctorily ominous warnings. Scientists studying the H10N8 virus determined that it had acquired genetic characteristics that may allow it to replicate efficiently in humans. In the throes of that Eureka moment, one researcher speculated that "the H10 and H8 gene segments might have derived from different wild bird influenza viruses reassorted to give rise to a hypothetical H10N8 virus in wild birds, which infected poultry and then reassorted with H9N2 viruses in poultry to give rise to the novel reassortant JX346 (H10N8) virus." Yikes (to whatever that means)!

It sounds like we are just a few random mutations away from a more lethal variant with human-to-human transmissibility — aka, a pandemic. But plausibility does not a pandemic make. Last October, a leading Netherlands virologist, who had been tracking the H7N9 virus, hastily announced, "We're bracing for what's going to happen next." What happened next? After claiming 69 Chinese lives to date (from a population of 1.35 billion), H7N9 has shown no evidence of human-to-human transmission, and concerns of an H7N9 pandemic have fizzled. With only one death to its credit, it's a little early, therefore, for panic over an H10N8 pandemic.

The vast majority of the time, the "flu" is an influenza-like illness, not influenza.

On the other hand, it's a little early for disappointment, on the part of CDC officials, healthcare journalists, drug company executives, and others, who may have been rooting for an H7N9 or H10N8 pandemic. Recall that after years of warnings of a bird flu pandemic (following the Avian Flu scare of 2005), the Swine Flu (H1N1) pandemic struck; by August of 2009, the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology exclaimed a winter death toll of up to 90,000. Hope springs eternal.

For the time being, we are left with the less shrill, but more dependable, cries of seasonal flu: those of our health officials, hustling every American over six months old to the vaccination lines. Flu shots, we are told, could save over 22,000 lives annually; modern vaccines are safe, and 62% effective. Moreover, according to a computer model, the CDC estimates that its vaccination program has reduced flu-related hospitalizations by 79,000 and has "prevented approximately 6.6 million influenza illnesses and 3.2 million medically attended illnesses."

A computer model to estimate lives saved and infections prevented? Why not simply count them? CBS News found the answer in 2009, when it asked the CDC for a state-by-state count of laboratory-confirmed instances of flu. After waiting more than two months for its Freedom of Information request (the CDC balked at the initial request) to finally be honored, CBS discovered that "the vast majority of cases were negative for H1N1 as well as seasonal flu, despite the fact that many states were specifically testing patients deemed to be most likely to have H1N1 flu." In California, for example, 86% of the 13,704 specimens tested negative for the flu; only 2% tested positive for H1N1 flu.

CBS should not have been surprised. The vast majority of the time, the "flu" is an influenza-like illness (ILI), not influenza. According to CDC data, of the hundreds of thousands of respiratory specimens lab tested in the US annually, only 15% are found to be true influenza. The remaining 85% includes the 200 or so non-flu viruses (rhinoviruses, coronaviruses, adenoviruses, etc.) that, while producing flu-like symptoms, or ILI, are impervious to flu vaccines. These specimens are obtained from patients already inflicted by an ILI. Virological testing of specimens from the general population tells a much different, and very small, flu season story: the incidence of ILI is only 7%, with true influenza playing a bit part of 1%.

The larger story is the disparity between influenza policy and influenza evidence. That and the inexplicable failure of the CDC to accurately characterize the epidemiology of seasonal flu. What else are we not being told? The final tally for the Swine Flu pandemic was 11,000 deaths. Even this much lower number (down from the 90,000, initially predicted) may be smaller still — perhaps 1,650 (15% of 11,000) or 110 (1% of 11,000) pandemic embarrassments, when the average seasonal flu allegedly kills 24,000.

What are we to make of the CDC's urgent pleas for vaccination and its wild claims of success? To the average person, 62% effectiveness means that only 38 of every 100 people vaccinated would become infected. What if only 1 out every 100 people would become infected by the flu, even if they were not vaccinated? Further, assume a perfect vaccine (one that matches the strains of wild flu in circulation during flu season, and wins every encounter with these strains). Such a vaccine would prevent 1% of the vaccinated population from getting influenza. Period. That's it, 1% effectiveness. It would have no effect on those who acquire non-flu viruses and those who escaped infection by true influenza and ILI — i.e., the other 99%. While my naive, aggregated estimate is in stark disagreement with the 62% effectiveness calculated by a CDC computer model, it is, oddly enough, about 62 times closer to actual vaccine effectiveness.

Statistically speaking, seasonal flu is a rare, relatively benign disease. Vaccination provides little or no protection for the very young and very old — those who may need it most.

A 2012 Scientific American article addressed the paucity of evidence behind pretentious CDC vaccination claims. According to Cochrane Collaboration research referenced in the exposé, vaccines approved for children under the age of 2 “are not significantly more efficacious than placebo.” For older children, "the shot reduces the absolute risk that a child will catch the flu by about 3.6 percent, whereas the live (inhaled) vaccine reduces the absolute risk by about 17 percent." Adults under 65 "have about a four percent chance of catching the flu if they don’t get the vaccine and about a one percent chance if they do." For adults over 65, there is only one vaccine that has been shown to protect against infection or death, "an inhalable vaccine that contains a live, modified version of the virus [wait for it . . .] which is not approved in the U.S. for adults over age 50." Regarding claims that vaccination slows the spread of flu virus, "there are no data showing that this is true."

None of this is vaccination denial. God bless the Jonas Salks of the world. They are saints; their vaccines are miracles. But in the world of seasonal flu, the state of the art for vaccines is pathetic, CDC hubris to the contrary. Statistically speaking, seasonal flu is a rare, relatively benign disease. Vaccination provides little or no protection for the very young and very old — those who may need it most. At best, it provides marginal protection for older children and adults under 65 — those who need it least.

As for the world of pandemic flu, the verdict is still out, waiting anxiously along with hypochondriacs, the obsessively risk averse, and an immense global flu ecosystem (the WHO, the CDCs, influenza researchers, public health officials, the media, and, of course, pharmaceutical companies), for more H10N8 victims. But the poor old woman from China, the only death to date, "also had several chronic conditions, including coronary heart disease." Alas, she might not even have been the first victim.




Share This


Crisis Communism

 | 

No law has drawn more ire from libertarians and conservatives than Obamacare. The idea of the government using its power to punish people for making a free and informed decision not to purchase health insurance, justified by the noblest-sounding idealism of "lowering costs" and "increasing access," is obvious pavement for the road to socialism. If the government has the right to impose economic decisions on us, then capitalism is finished.

My own view is that, contrary to conventional libertarian wisdom, Obamacare gets some things right. I have a history of health problems and the end of exclusions for preexisting conditions benefits me greatly; without it I probably would not have health insurance. I also like the Obamacare health insurance exchanges, because they enable plans to compete for buyers, and competition is the engine that lowers cost and improves quality. In terms of preexisting conditions, and the lack of competition among plans, I think the old system was broken and the new system is better.

But my point is that these good things would have happened from deregulation. The flaws in the old system were caused by government control, not by the free market or the greed of insurance companies. In fact, greed is a main motive of Obamacare's insurance-company backers, who love a law that forces people to buy their products and pay them more money.

Here I posit a theory that I call Crisis Communism: when the government interferes in the free market it causes a crisis, which the socialists then use as an excuse for greater government interference, justified by the need to end the crisis. Thus regulation achieves a downward spiral towards Marxism. One good example is the Great Depression. The Federal Reserve caused it; then the New Deal was offered as a solution — which made it worse.

In the field of health insurance, two regulations precipitated the crisis "solved" by Obamacare. First, the complex of laws and codes known as ERISA (associated with the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974) tended to force health insurance to come from a worker's employer, so that the employer chose the plan, which killed competition for plans among individual consumers. Second, the state insurance commissioners issued detailed regulations about what a health insurance plan was allowed to cover and what benefits it could have. The advocates of Obamacare might blame the free market for a bad system, when really it was state socialism that was to blame.

I want Obamacare repealed. But if we are to repeal Obamacare, then we must also repeal ERISA and all state health insurance regulations, so that free market competition can force health insurers to make plans available at prices that people want to pay for the benefits they want and freely choose to purchase.




Share This


Progress and Poverty

 | 

I remember R.W. Bradford, founder of this journal, testing a new keyboard by typing out, “Good news — the depression is over, and the banks are filling with money.” Anyone else would have written, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” But Bill liked news, and when he could find it, good news.

So I want to begin with some good news. The year now ending witnessed significant reductions in the rates of certain linguistic crimes. And since “law enforcement agencies” (a.k.a. cops) always take credit for any accidental lowering of a crime rate, this column gladly takes credit for these reductions. Congratulations, Word Watch.

After years of pointing out that “begging the question” doesn’t mean what you might too hastily assume it means (the prompting of an inquiry) — that it means, instead, a species of logical fallacy (arguing in a circle, using a proposition to prove itself) — I am happy to find that many public speakers now realize where the trap door is hidden, and do their best to avoid it. The people on Fox News practically break their necks getting to the other side. They used to put “that begs the question” in every other sentence, and always in the wrong way. No more. Now, just when you see that they’re dying to say it, there’s a pause, a deep breath, and a slow rephrasing: “That . . . uh . . . poses the question”; “That . . . leads to the question”; “That . . . makes me want to ask you . . .” Somebody obviously told them to read Liberty.

After years of hammering away at the ridiculous idea that President Obama is a great, or even a good, writer and speaker (a hammering that could be heard as recently as last month’s Word Watch), I am gratified by some faint signs that conservatives don’t always feel obliged to begin their denunciations of an Obama utterance by saying, “Despite his soaring rhetoric,” or “The president’s actions are not as inspiring as his words.” They should be saying, “Despite his bathetic attempts at rhetoric” and “not as insipid as his words,” but that may come later, when pundits learn the existence of “bathetic” and “insipid” — in short, when they read Word Watch more often.

The great producers, the great fecund sows, of deformed prose are politics and bureaucracy, and that queen of all sows, political bureaucracy.

And after years of insisting that celebrity is not the same as significance, or even fame, I find curious indications that Word Watch may be exerting some influence on the crude but candid (i.e., free) media. I refer, for instance, to the reader comments that appeared on TMZ, following the death of Paul Walker. Walker was an action film star. He liked fast cars. On November 30, he was killed in a speeding car that went out of control and hit a light pole. It was a horrible accident, and the reader comments on TMZ were appropriately sympathetic. But they were more. They were self-dramatizing in a way that has become predictable after every death of anyone who might conceivably be regarded as a public figure. Hundreds of readers proclaimed themselves devastated with grief on behalf of Walker, his family, and his friends — people with whom these readers had no acquaintance whatever. Finally, someone had had enough. “Sorry,” he wrote, “RIP, our prayers are with the family, etc.....who is he?”

It’s a good thing that TMZ, like Word Watch, exists in cyberspace, or there would have been mob violence. But somebody had to point out that heartfelt feelings are often nothing but words.

Celebrity is fleeting, and even authentic feelings pass away, but some things never leave us. Word Watch can’t do anything about them. For God’s sake, even the second George Bush is back. He is daily proclaimed “more popular than President Obama.” When you think of it, this isn’t saying much. But now he is being cited as a film authority — and in the most gruesomely authoritative way. In late November, ads appeared for a movie called The Book Thief, and these ads said, “The critics are raving . . . . And President George Bush raves, ‘It’s a truly wonderful movie.’” He certainly put a lot of energy into that one. Not only wonderful but truly wonderful. But what truly conveys the feeling of the perpetual, the eternal, the Egyptian pyramidal, is that word “raves.” Raves. The expression has screamed at me from every film ad I have ever had to sit through. The critics are raving. Even a former president is raving. And as always, the New York Times raves. They’ve all gone crazy together.

Well, let them. We’re used to it. But must we get used to the steady seep of ignorance into the foundations and concrete basements of our language? I know you have your own examples; here are three of mine:

1. The effort to make “which” a universal connective: “I bought a new place in Vista Hills, which I didn’t realize the taxes were so high.”

2. The loss or mangling of strong verbs, and the creation of dumb replacements for them. It’s bad enough to hear that “the suspect spit,” not spat, “at the arresting officer”; but must we hear “spitted at him”? And why can’t people realize that the past tense of “fit” is “fitted,” but the past tense of “shit” is “shat”?

3. The growing movement to ignore the rules about comparatives and superlatives, whenever their use requires a split second of thought. Example: a journalist on Greta van Susteren’s show, commenting (December 10) on the latest Quinnipiac poll about Obama: “It’s on healthcare that people are ranking him the most low.” Most low? The superlative of “low” is ”lowest.” Is that too hard? Yes, if you can’t figure out what to do when an adjective gets two words away from its noun.

“Most low” exemplifies a general problem — people’s increasingly evident inability to keep track of their sentences. Leland Yeager, a friend and expert advisor of this column, has collected many instances of the problem, including offerings by such respectable journals as The Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Try these exhibits from the Yeager museum of unnatural history:

“A key benefit to [sic] offshore wind power is the lower rate of wind turbulence at sea vs. on land” (WSJ, June 19, 2008). As Yeager suggests, why not just write, “A key advantage of offshore wind power is less wind turbulence at sea than on land”? But here is early documentation of an illiteracy that continues to spread: the use of “versus” (“vs.”) to mean “than.” What next — “My kid is smarter vs. your kid”?

Commentators “take great pride in emphasising how much more sophisticated civilization was in Japan in the 11th century compared with Europe at that time” (Economist, Dec. 20, 2008). It doesn’t take much to compete with the medieval West. But what exactly is being “compared” — “the 11th century” and “Europe”? No, it’s supposed to be . . . let’s see . . . it must be levels of sophistication in Japanese and European civilizations in the 11th century. Commentators apparently like to emphasize the idea that in the 11th century Japan was more sophisticated than Europe.

That’s one way of reforming the sentence, and you can easily think of many others — none of which occurred to the writer. But there are sentences that just make you want to give up and head for the bar. If you have any interest in economics, you’ve seen too many sentences like this one, which Yeager recovered from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review (Sept.-Oct. 2008):

But the embedded leverage in these products meant that end-investors were often buying assets with much greater risk characteristics compared with the underlying pool of mortgages, credit card debts, or loans than they might suppose.

Do scholarly journals still have editors?

Still, the great producers, the great fecund sows, of deformed prose are politics and bureaucracy, and that queen of all sows, political bureaucracy: always ignorant, always talking, always striving to influence, always striving, simultaneously, to obscure the truth. The Obamacare fiasco has born teeming litter after teeming litter of repulsive words. Any example will do, but let’s look at a little missive by the irrepressible Julie Bataille, director of communications, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (November 22, 2013). Remember, as you read, that she is a director of communications.

“Today,” she begins, “Jeff Zients [the wizard that Obama appointed to clean up the mess he had made of the merry old land of Oz] offered an update on our efforts to improve HealthCare.gov; data on key metrics on site performance, the progress made this week and the view looking forward.”

Already you know you’re in trouble. You know that Bataille has no intention of rushing forward with any facts. If she did, she would say up front what’s wrong with the site, instead of tucking “site performance” into a box called “metrics,” tucking that box into one called “data,” and tucking that one into an “update” that was “offered” by somebody else. How about just giving us the data? We know that an update on “progress” assumes that progress has been made — but that’s the topic of debate, isn’t it? Could Bataille be begging the question? Clearly, she is a very bad writer. She’s going to give us nothing but happy talk, and the happy talk will consist of slick-sounding clichés, such as the progressive “view looking forward.” Turning worse into worst, she will mangle those clichés. To her, a “view” looks.

As for “real-time management decision making,” does that mean that some management decision making is performed in unreal time?

“In late October,” she continues, “we appointed QSSI as the general contractor to deploy their expertise in technology and program management to lead this project forward.”

So. Since late October, when the nation, as distinguished from Ms. Bataille, realized that Obamacare was a hideous disaster, something called QSSI has been leading the project forward. (There’s that word again.) But how is that leading accomplished? What’s been happening? Oh, it’s all very technical. Let’s just say that the company (singular), here regarded as they (plural), deploy their expertise. Expertise, one gathers, is like an army. Division 1: Attack that defective code! Division 2: You’re in reserve; wait behind the hill. Division 3: Lift the siege of Fort Obama!

“The team from QSSI continues to work with people from CMS [can’t have enough acronyms] and other contractors around the clock [can’t have enough clichés, either] to troubleshoot the system, prioritize fixes, and provide real-time management decision making.”

So you can “troubleshoot” a “system,” can you? I suppose, then, you can “troubleshoot” almost anything. “Hey, honey, I just wanta troubleshoot ya.” OK. But I draw the line at prioritizing fixes. It just sounds so gruesome. As for “real-time management decision making,” does that mean that some management decision making is performed in unreal time? Maybe that’s what went wrong with Obama . . .

We haven’t reached the end of Bataille’s memo — that’s a very long way off — but we have reached the climax, which she has cleverly deployed in the middle. And this is it:

“Thanks to this team effort, we have made measurable progress.”

Measurable progress.Let’s consider how such phrases might work in real time.

Automobile passenger: “Hey, what’s the speed limit, anyway? Seems like we’re going awful slow.”
Automobile driver: “No, we are making measurable progress.

Airline seat holder: “How long before we get to Cleveland?”
Airline attendant: “We are making measurable progress, sir.”

Employer: “When do you expect to get that project done?”
Employee: “I am making measurable progress.”
Employer: “You’re fired.”

Bataille’s communication, horrible as it seems, is a fair sample of the words oozing out of Washington. If you’re like me, you’ve often wondered: do people who write this kind of prose actually think the way they write? Are they just prowling across their keyboard, trying to find enough words to bamboozle everybody else, or does it all come spontaneously and sincerely to them? When their car breaks down, do they look for expertise that can be deployed? When the guy from Triple A arrives, do they reflect that measurable progress is now being made? Which alternative is more terrible to contemplate — that kind of cunning or that kind of sincerity?




Share This


Presidential Punctuation

 | 




Share This


O Tempora! O Bama!

 | 

For anyone who enjoys linguistic spectacle, who savors both the triumphs and the flops of the American language, there is just too much to savor in the political carnival now going on. You’re reduced to picking a few favorites — but there are so many to pick from.

For a while my favorite performance was the testimony, if you want to call it that, of Kathleen Sebelius, God’s gift to satirists, who on October 30 told a congressional committee investigating the zany antics of the Obamacare website, “Today, more individuals are successfully creating accounts, logging in, and moving on to apply for coverage and shop for plans. We are pleased with these quick improvements, but we know there is still significant, additional work to be done. We continue to conduct regular maintenance nearly every night to improve the consumer experience.”

That was her way of describing the worst disaster in the history of computation. Unluckily for her, the website crashed (for the thousandth time) during the hour of her testimony, a testimony in which she said, “The website has never crashed. It is functional but at a very slow speed and very low reliability.”

 I thought that was hard to beat, but then I discovered Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of something called the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. (Everything is a “center” these days, and every center has as many “services” as confidence men have “angles.” Pretty much the same angles, too.) On November 5, Tavenner let Congress know what her center is doing about people whose insurance plans have been swept away by Obamacare: “This is actually a conversation we're having today. . . . Is there a way we can actively engage to reach out to people who have been canceled?" 

From these heights of metaphor one lands with a thump on the pancake-like flatness of a quickly succeeding passage.

 Rome burned while Nero conversed. “Conversations,” thoughts of “engagement,” and questions about whether there are ways to “reach out” (“actively,” not passively) are good means of wasting time if you’re chairman of the country club greens committee, or if you’re a highly paid bureaucrat who finds that she has nothing to say for herself when the public finally discovers her existence. I’m not sure they do much for “people who have been canceled.” As the Beatles might have sung, “Oh, look at all the canceled people.” 

 Tavenner looked like a winner — until I encountered US Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC). On November 12, Hagan panicked and called a press conference to rescue herself from the Obamacare wreckage (she’s up for reelection next year). Someone asked her to comment on the miserably small number of people signing up for Obamacare. According to Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, this is what ensued: 

“You know,” she replied. “I know the — I believe this coming Friday, those numbers are going to be published and uh, you know, as soon as I see them, you know, obviously it’s, it’s m-much fewer than the administration expected.”

A reporter from the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record asked why Hagan, like President Obama, had told people that if they liked their health plans they’d be able to keep their health plans.

There was a long pause before Hagan responded, then a deep intake of breath. “You know, Doug,” she responded, “the, um” — here she exhaled and paused again — “the way these, the — the regulations and the law, uh” — pause — “came forward recently, I think people were surprised that the, uh, the — the actual original plans would be, um, would be canceled.”

You may say that all politicians would sound like that, if the statements they made were accurately reproduced; and if so, you’d be close to right. Deprived of his teleprompters, President Obama says “uh” about 20 times a minute, up to 40 when he’s agitated (these subverbal attempts to communicate are tactfully omitted from the reported versions). And of course President Obama, and Rep. Boehner, and former Gov. Palin (shall I go on?) often have no more meaning in their utterances than poor Sen. Hagan.

But we mustn’t judge rhetorical effectiveness simply by the content of a politician’s remarks, or noise. It’s charm that counts, and our politicians have little or none of that quality. The “uhs” contribute to the effect, but even a total absence of “uhs” couldn’t make Harry Reid look like something other than the troll who wanted to eat the billy goats gruff. Nor would it turn President Obama into a charming character.

Whatever Obama touches, he disfigures. His speech has as much relation to literature as an advertising brochure.

For some, certainly, Obama has “charisma,” but of charm he is completely destitute. He comes across as a phony and a blowhard, and it’s hard not to see a wide vein of meanness and chronic anger beneath the high-school-principal intonations. When he’s not looking at his teleprompter — when he’s supposed to be conversing with an actual human being — he’s usually gazing fixedly at a point about 12 inches in front of his chest, as if he were studying an invisible set of instructions for dealing with the underclass. This is the antithesis of charm. It’s the kind of thing one expects from bank examiners, experts on epistemology, and actors emerging from a heavy course of anger therapy. Sen. Hagan, by contrast, manifests herself as a hapless innocent, as someone so childish that she calls a press conference to display her knowledge — of a subject she knows nothing about. She’s like a little girl who begs to show everyone how well she can play the piano, without ever realizing that you can’t play a tune without learning the notes. But isn’t it cute, the way she’s trying? Less cute is President Obama.

There are four types of rhetoric in which he habitually indulges, and none of them is even mildly amusing, let alone endearing:

1. The “soaring” mode that even his supporters now derisively call “the hopey-changey thing.”

2. The false-plebeian style that he uses in exact proportion to his slippage in the polls. This style, or pretense at style, consists largely of dropping final g’s, saying “a whole buncha” instead of a number, and referring constantly to “folks.” In that speech he gave at Boston, the one in which he tried to save his lie about Obamacare by claiming he had always told people “you can keep your insurance . . . if,” he said of his failed healthcare scheme, “We’re just gonna keep workin’ at it. We’re gonna grind it out.” That might be charming if the accent weren’t so obviously faked, if “grind it out” meant anything under the circumstances, and if he (“we”) were actually doing any work, as opposed to golf.

3. The paranoid style, in which he unmasks the monstrous forces scheming against his official program, the “some people” who “don’t want it to succeed” and therefore, magically, keep it from succeeding. Evidence? Most of them voted against it!

4. The cold, haughty, you’re-so-dumb-you’ll-just-have-to-believe-this, lie-flinging mode. “I was not informed directly that the website would not be working, as [sic] the way it was supposed to,” he said on November 14. Wait. What do you mean? Do you mean that you didn’t know? That nobody ever told you? No, they didn’t. They didn’t tell me directly. Now go away.

Of course, when people insert “directly” into a sentence like that, you know they’re trying to deceive someone. You also know that the someone is not going to be you; almost anybody (most certainly including you) can catch on to the fact that “directly” means “I hope to fool you.” Indeed, the trick is so obvious that only a fool would use it. Obama himself has recognized that people might possibly think he’s a fool — and by recognizing the possibility, he has tried to eliminate it. “You know,” he said on November 14, “I’m accused of a lot of things [there’s that paranoid style again] but I don’t think I’m stupid enough to go around saying this is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity a week before the website opens if I thought that it wasn’t going to work.” But either he is stupid enough to keep telling obvious lies or he is stupid enough not to insist on being informed directly about the stuff he seems to be lying about. Take your pick; either way, he’s stupid enough.

The mystery to me is why people ever thought there was any force or meaning in Obama’s verbiage. At its best, it was just the same awful guff that politicians are always dishing out. In his second inaugural address, where he might have been expected to be on his best behavior, he made such sparkling utterances as:

We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. [A fresh thought, that.]

This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. [What happened to changing when the times change?]

My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together. [Damn! And here I was just about to seize it myself. I guess I’ll have to wait for a consensus to emerge.]

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. [Note: not just to some posterity.]

My selection of these idiotic sentiments is as close to random as selection can get; the speech is all like that, although sometimes Obama decides to give you something extra special in the way of metaphor. This attempt always fails. One example may suffice. After quoting the Declaration of Independence, Obama says, “Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” What in the world can those words signify? Picture words, words that have meaning. Now picture bridging that meaning. Huh? Already it makes no sense. But then we’re supposed to picture the bridge as the realities of our time. And this journey to do something with the realities of our time is never-ending? It’s going to last forever? No, it’s all too much for me.

From these heights of metaphor one lands with a thump on the pancake-like flatness of a quickly succeeding passage. This one is about the great discoveries that “we” have made during “our” history: “Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.” Gosh, really? Schools and highways? Glad we determined that requirement.

I have little sympathy with the worldview evoked by President Kennedy’s inaugural address, but it is a work of literature — not great literature, but certainly very respectable. Anyone who, having read that speech, turns to Obama’s reinaugural remarks will be struck by the attempted resemblance. But whatever Obama touches, he disfigures. His speech has as much relation to literature as an advertising brochure. Indeed, it was written for the same purpose. The only literary excellence that Obama ever showed was his curious refusal to speak at Gettysburg on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s speech. There’s just one way to explain it. Obama thought he could top John F. Kennedy, but he feared he couldn’t top Abraham Lincoln, and for once a kind of humility came over him. It’s too bad, because that speech would have offered a lot of entertainment.

Even a total absence of “uhs” couldn’t make Harry Reid look like something other than the troll who wanted to eat the billy goats gruff.

Given the glaring weaknesses of Obama’s prose, it is shocking, almost horrifying, that both his friends and his adversaries keep paying tribute to it. His critics, astonishingly, condemn him for his inability to live up to his rhetoric. Here’s Obama foe Rich Lowry, writing in National Review Online: “The launch of HealthCare.gov should cast a shadow over the stirring passage in the president’s second inaugural address where he spoke of how ‘we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government.’” Pardon me — harnessideas? Technology to remake our government? This stuff is “stirring”? It’s barely intelligible. Before we harness those ideas, do we have to brush them and feed them and make sure they’re well shod? Is that something Obama neglected to do with his healthcare “ideas”?

The biggest contribution that Obama has made to stirring the linguistic pot has been the license he has given to other people who think it’s cool and smart to enact the role of political used-car salesmen. They don’t understand how funny they are. And the comedy leaks from the op-ed page into the news reports. Consider the following from Reuters (Nov. 19):

The rollout of Obama's signature domestic policy has hurt the popularity of the initiative, but the decline has been fairly modest, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Monday.

Forty-one percent of Americans expressed support for Obamacare in a survey conducted from Thursday to Monday. That was down 3 percentage points from a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken from September 27 to October 1.

Opposition to the healthcare law stood at 59 percent in the latest poll, versus 56 percent in the earlier survey.

In other words, once you’ve fallen down the first 56 steps, the next three are only a modest reduction in altitude. After you’ve passed the landing on the 50th step, it’s hard for anything to do much more damage to your unpopularity. But wouldn’t it be funny if you thought you could talk your way upstairs?




Share This


Obamacare by the Numbers

 | 

Let's say you were put in charge of Obamacare. It sounds like a daunting business — to provide affordable healthcare insurance for 30 million uninsured Americans. But what if you didn't have to make a profit and were handed $940 billion for giving your product away free to some customers and selling it at steep discounts to others? Throw in $5 billion more for web site development and a $700 million marketing budget to lure reluctant customers.

Too timid to give it a try? OK, let's double the size of the slush fund to $1.8 trillion, pass a law forcing everyone to buy health insurance, and write a regulation that makes the existing policies of perhaps 100 million Americans illegal. I know what you are thinking: even an idiot could sell healthcare insurance, at a discount, to people required by law to buy it. There must be a catch.

And you would be right. But the catch is not the intransigent website problems or greedy, uncooperative insurance companies or bitter Republicans with their feeble attempts to defund the program. The catch is Obamacare itself — an immense, overreaching, already tottering Rube Goldberg contraption that cannot possibly succeed, no matter how much money is thrown at it.

True, most of us would do a better job at salesmanship than President Obama, at least those of us with a couple of years of high school under our belts. We certainly wouldn't have lied to our customers, at least not as often. None of us would have botched the website. We would have had it working like a charm, on time, and for a small fraction of the cost of the three-year, $600 million hack job that still crashes regularly at every whim of its spaghetti code. The frugal among us would have had the insurance industry do it for free. Why not? Look at the profits insurance companies will receive from inflated Obamacare premiums — not to mention the revenues from more than 30 million new customers to be sent goosestepping their way.

Millions of people who thought they would get subsidies earn too little to qualify — another awkward messaging problem for Obamacare navigators.

Nevertheless, we too would fail. A secure, fully operational website will not help. Indeed, it will simply expose and magnify the defects of Obamacare more quickly. Delays to fix the rollout or extend the individual mandate will only postpone the inevitable. When Obamacare is finally deemed open for business, with its shiny, new "tech-surged" website at the floodgates, the deluge of customers qualifying for subsidies and free health insurance will no doubt be flawlessly processed. So too will be the trickle of paying customers. The numbers — provided by the government (the White House, Health and Human Services, the Congressional Budget Office [CBO]) and the insurance industry — are bad. They have always been bad; intentionally hidden or obscured, only to be dismissed as insignificant when becoming visible or clear. And, as emerging enrollment data and insurance cancellation notices reveal, they are getting worse. Much worse.

The paltry enrollment to date provides a mere glimpse of the actuarial havoc to come, as predominantly high-cost customers — the old, the sick, the poor, the unemployed, the desperate — flock to enroll, while the low-cost, young, and healthy customers stay away, as they should, in droves. For a plan purporting to rescue the uninsured by giving 51% of them free medical care and 39% of them subsidies, this should not be unexpected; nor should the shock that $1.8 trillion (already twice the estimate of the $940 billion celebrated only three years ago) is woefully inadequate. Always surprised, always last to know, Mr. Obama will soon be asking for more.

According to the CBO, Obamacare will reduce the number of uninsured by 14 million in 2014. This will be accomplished, courtesy of the individual mandate, by moving nine million uninsured into Medicaid and five million uninsured into the Obamacare exchanges. In addition, two million with "substandard" individual health insurance policies will be switched to the exchanges, creating a total of seven million Obamacare customers. With incomes between 100% and 400% of the federal poverty level (FPL), they will receive subsidies (averaging $5,290 in 2014) to make their new, government-mandated, "quality" health insurance "affordable." These seven million "partial-payers" will become America's next entitlement class. It will grow rapidly to 24 million by 2023. The average subsidy will also grow (to $7,900), costing taxpayers well over $1 trillion.

Of this initial seven million, 2.7 million must be healthy, in the 18-34 age range, and undaunted by the exorbitant premiums they will be charged to defray the cost of insuring the older and sicker. Snaring them will be no small feat. Apart from rate shock, there is the Obamacare provision that allows them to stay on a parent’s plan until age 26, shrinking the young Obamacare customer pool roughly by half.

People in the other half of the desired customer pool are told that they should be happy paying high rates today; they too will pay lower rates later, when they are old and need the benefits. Medicare is cited as a successful program exemplifying the beneficence of such inter-generational subsidization. It's an excellent example, ironically. Medicare is a program that pays benefits to the old, using taxes paid by the young, which is on track to become insolvent by 2026. This statement clearly applies to Obamacare, except that Obamacare premiums are extraordinarily higher than Medicare taxes and Obamacare will go broke long before 2026. Unfortunately, this poses a difficult messaging problem for Obamacare navigators, who will persuade few with the "Hey kid, sign right here. Sure you'll get screwed by Obamacare, but you're already getting screwed by Medicare" angle.

The nine million uninsured who are ushered into Medicaid are mostly childless adults living in poverty. They reside in the 26 states employing the Medicaid Expansion. When applying for Obamacare, they will be given Medicaid, right after being informed that they won't get a nickel in subsidy money. Alas, millions of people who thought they would get subsidies earn too little to qualify — another awkward messaging problem for Obamacare navigators, who, for example, must explain to an individual making $11,500 per year why he won't get a subsidy, while an individual down the block, making $24,000 a year, will get $1,500.

In apologizing for lying about the ability of people to keep their healthcare providers and plans, Mr. Obama lied again.

For residents of the 24 states that have not expanded Medicaid, HealthCare.gov blithely points out, "you may not have as many options for health coverage." If you are poor, your total number of options is one. And it's not good. For example, an Alabama resident with an annual income of $11,400 (99% FPL) must buy an Obamacare policy costing $3,030 per year, offset by a subsidy of $0.00. Where did the Obamacare wizards think that people with an annual income of $11,400 could come up with $3,030 for Obamacare, when even the $95 fine for declining it is beyond their reach?

The Obamacare Medicaid Expansion, projected to cost federal taxpayers $709 billion, will add 13 million Americans to Medicaid by 2023 — all nonpaying customers. Furthermore, it is likely that this group will consume its "free" healthcare at a much higher rate than normal. That is, the cost will be much greater than $709 billion.

Many of the two million previously insured are people who thought they would be able to keep their existing plans and doctors, if they liked them, period. They may find solace in not being the only ones to be fooled — as they are joined by millions of other individuals who have recently had their "substandard" health insurance plans cancelled. And let's not forget President Obama, the Democrats in both houses of Congress who passed Obamacare in March of 2010, and the tens of millions of other Americans who thought that Obamacare would also reduce the deficit, "bend the health care cost curve down," and shrink health insurance premiums by $2,500.

Amid the furor that he repeatedly and knowingly misled Americans with his incessant if-you-like-it-you-can-keep-it-period incantations, Mr. Obama submitted a most spurious apology (exquisitely characterized by Stephen Cox, in “What? When? Why?”). He expressed sorrow for those "finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me," right after dismissing the people receiving cancellations as "a small percentage of folks who may be disadvantaged."

But in June of 2010, the Obama administration knew that "66% of small employer plans and 45% of large employer plans will relinquish their grandfather status by the end of 2013” and that 40 to 66% with individually-purchased plans would suffer the same fate. For three and a half years, therefore, the White House has anticipated that as many as 100 million could lose their policies — hardly a "small percentage of folks." That is, in apologizing for lying about the ability of people to keep their healthcare providers and plans, Mr. Obama lied again.

To date, over five million individuals have already received cancellation notices. Together with millions more who will receive them by the time the Obamacare website is fixed, they will rush to the Obamacare exchanges, which have subsidy money for only two million. Where will Mr. Obama get the money for this "train wreck"? Then there is the second, much bigger, wreck arriving next year, when the employer mandate kicks in. And how much money will be needed to bail out health insurance companies, whose profits will shrink or vanish if Obama's youthful fan base doesn't show up in numbers large enough to prevent the so-called adverse selection "death spiral"?

The fallout from this follow-on wreck will peak just before the 2014 elections. What then will Mr. Obama and Democrat candidates have to say about the disruption and premium increases caused by Obamacare? With the Obamacare rollout last October, outrage was expressed by Republican and independent voters, while Democrat voters were silent. But their support was only apparent; they were in a sullen Obamacare transition from infatuation to familiarity. Next October they will be among many of the 100 million new and angry Obamacare customers clamoring for subsidy money. Many will be employed by insurance companies clamoring for bailout money.

How surprised will President Obama be when he is finally notified of the anger and unrest of more than "a small percentage of folks"? Whom will he blame for the mess this time? Doctors and hospitals, for charging too much? The old and the sick, for being too old and sick? What will be his solutions? What will he say they will cost? Will anyone believe him, or care about anything he has to say?




Share This


The Wave Breaks

 | 

Kathleen Sebelius’ tardy and reluctant, oh so reluctant, release of the numbers of consumers who have affiliated themselves with Obamacare offered few surprises. For several days, the administration had been leaking estimates (which it then disavowed in public), in an attempt to remove the element of surprise — nay, shock — from the announcement of how few customers have shown up.

The administration now claims that 106,000 of these people have appeared, 27,000 on its own website and the rest through mechanisms set up by the states. The total is said to be one-fifth of those anticipated by the administration, which in early October had celebrated the alleged materialization of “millions” of eager Obamaites.

California, which has its own signup procedure, managed to get 35,000 people enrolled. Meanwhile, one million insurance policies were canceled in the state. Nationwide, over five million policies have been canceled — 50 times more than the 100,000+ customers reported by Secretary Sebelius.

And of course, the administration’s figures are far from wholly truthful. They include in the category of “signups” everyone who has merely “selected a plan,” whether the plan has been purchased or not. Even “Greg Sargent’s take from a liberal perspective” in the Washington Post warned the White House against obscuring the real numbers in this way, but the White House never resists a temptation.

Nevertheless, Sebelius actually had the nerve to say about the ridiculously small success of the program she administers, “The promise of quality, affordable coverage is increasingly becoming reality in this first wave of applicants. We expect enrollment will grow substantially throughout the next five months.”

King Canute amused the world by stationing himself on the seashore and demanding that the waves retreat. Kathleen Sebelius, the servant of King Obama, now stations herself on the shores of the Potomac and commands a “wave” of helpless people to struggle toward her waiting arms. It is a peculiarly repulsive spectacle.




Share This


What? When? Why?

 | 

Exactly what did the president just “apologize” for?

For lying, when he promised, over 30 times, that if you like your insurance you can keep it, “period”?

No.

For saying, as late as Sept. 25, “If you already have healthcare, you don’t have to do anything”?

No.

For misleading people when he said those things?

No.

For causing millions of people to lose their insurance, and other millions to lose their full-time jobs over the insurance issue, caused by him?

No.

For permitting a healthcare delivery system to be initiated despite the fact that the people administering it knew it wouldn’t work?

No.

“You know — I regret very much that — what we intended to do, which is to make sure that everybody is moving into better plans because they want ’em, as opposed to because they're forced into it. That, you know, we weren't as clear as we needed to be — in terms of the changes that were takin' place. . . .

“Keep in mind that most of the folks who are gonna — who got these c — cancellation letters, they'll be able to get better care at the same cost or cheaper in these new marketplaces. Because they'll have more choice. They'll have more competition. They're part of a bigger pool. Insurance companies are gonna be hungry for their business.

“So — the majority of folks will end up being better off, of course, because the website's not workin' right. They don’t necessarily know it right. But it — even though it's a small percentage of folks who may be disadvantaged . . . I am sorry that they — you know, are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me.”

Huh? If that’s an apology, what is he apologizing for?

And when did he realize that he was, uh, well, uh, uh . . . that he might be somewhat, uh . . . at fault . . . ? Or no, that he needed to . . . maybe . . . uh . . . apologize? . . . Or no, that he needed to say those magic words “I am sorry”? I mean, stick them somewhere in a sentence.

Was it on Oct. 30, when he belligerently claimed that he had never said that if you liked your insurance, you could keep it, period, because what he had actually said was that you could keep it if it didn’t change (because he made laws to force it to change)?

Was it last week and all this week, when his propaganda machine blamed the insurance companies for causing all the problems?

Was it last week and all this week, when his propaganda machine blamed the Republicans for causing all the problems?

Was it when he and his party claimed that millions of people had gone online to sign up for insurance? Or when they kept claiming that the insurance website was entirely cool? Or when, last week, they claimed that it was fully functional, just somewhat “slow”? Or when — even now, five weeks after the disaster began — they decline to tell anyone how many people have managed to sign up? Or when — constantly — they have claimed that Obamacare has already reduced the cost of insurance “for everyone”?

What? When? . . . And why? Does anyone believe that Obama “apologized” because he was sincerely aggrieved to discover that he had done something wrong? In short, does anyone still believe that he has a conscience?

Tell me.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.