Presidential Punctuation

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Words on Trial

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For me, the biggest entertainment event of this month has been the Jodi Arias murder trial.

I confess: I am not one of those happy, productive citizens who are too immersed in real life to follow the latest trashy court case. I am one of those trivial people who have nothing better to do than rush home and watch the evening replays of endlessly repetitive testimony delivered by amateur actors in an Arizona courtroom. I don’t really mind admitting this, but I feel impelled to note that silly people like me outnumber the sober, industrious folk by about 100 to 1. People who tell you that they never heard of Jodi Arias are almost undoubtedly trying to fool you.

But why do we like this stuff? The answer would be more obvious if there were some great mystery in the case. But there isn’t, unless it’s the mystery of how it could possibly have dragged on so long. On June 4, 2008, in Mesa, Arizona, Jodi Arias killed her boyfriend, Travis Alexander. Of course, she started out denying it. Her first claim was that she was nowhere near the site. Her second claim was that the crime was committed by a gang of home invaders who surprised her and her boyfriend, injuring her and killing him. Nevertheless, her current claim is that, yes, she killed him, but she did it in self-defense.

To put this in another way, Jodi Arias drove several hundred miles to have sex with Travis Alexander, did so, then took pictures of him naked in the shower, then stabbed him 29 times, cut his throat from ear to ear, shot him in the head, and went off to visit another boyfriend, leaving Travis Alexander’s body to be found, days later, by friends who were wondering what had happened to him. Jodi Arias claims that she acted in self-defense against Travis Alexander’s domestic violence; that much, she’s sure of. But most of what happened after she started acting in self-defense . . . she cannot remember. At that point, she claims, she had entered a mental “fog.”

The words of a vicious murderer, without evident sympathy or empathy for other people, turn out to be almost indistinguishable from the buzzwords and clichés of the Great Society.

But this brings us to the reason why the Arias case is so interesting. It offers the fascination of watching someone tell lies, thousands of lies, one lie after another, for days and weeks on end, without convincing, perhaps, even a single person that these lies are truths, but just going on and on telling lies.

You may say, “I can watch politicians do that, any old time; why should I turn to Headline News and watch Jodi Arias do it?” You’re right, there’s not much difference between Jodi Arias’ approach and that of our national leaders, except that our leaders’ performance is impossible to appreciate on a purely verbal level. You keep thinking, “Wait! You’re ruining the country!”, and “Wait! I can’t believe that people voted for you,” and “Good Lord! Half the people in the country actually think you’re motivated by high moral ends!”

With Jodi Arias, there are no such distractions. You can sit back and enjoy the performance — and be instructed by it, too. Jodi — it’s impossible not to be on a first-name basis with someone who is always in your home — provides an index and review of the kind of lies considered (and not without reason) most likely to succeed with 12 jurors culled at random from the ranks of American voters and possessors of a license to drive. Ridiculous, but true: the words of a vicious murderer, without evident sympathy or empathy for other people, turn out to be almost indistinguishable from the buzzwords and clichés of the Great Society.

Home invaders! Those words sell “security devices” and “security protection” contracts by the tens of millions. Remember, home invasioncan happen to anyone, at any hour of the day or night. We are all in danger. Not being a drug dealer or a gang kingpin, nor having outstanding debts to gamblers or usurers, I naively assume that gangs of armed men are unlikely to burst into my home. Apparently, however, I am one of the few people who feel this way. Jodi must have felt that she had a hell of a compelling story when she thought of home invasion.

"Impact" means nothing. That’s why people use it. It’s the end of the story: he, she, or it was impacted, all right? You can stop asking questions.

Her only problem was that the murder scene presented no actual evidence of home invasion, but it did present evidence of murder — by her. So obviously, her best bet was a claim that she was forced to defend herself from her sex partner, her abusive sex partner. Was your boyfriend ever abusive to you before? Arias was asked. Oh yes, she answered, he had been abusive, but not as abusive as he was when he suddenly flew into a rage and charged at me, lunging out of the shower like a linebacker, just before I killed him.

Travis Alexander wasn’t built like a linebacker. Travis Alexander was one of those smiley, sort of pudgy, momentarily good-looking guys who are about to become fat. But if you could get people to picture him as a linebacker, and remember how men like that have wild mood swings and are given to roid rage, then they might be able to see why the victim of his domestic abuse would have to shoot, stab, and virtually decapitate him. Just to stop him, you know.

This disinformation might have been conveyed in a hysterical tone — and at certain times Jodi has, as the media say, broken down in tears. That’s expected, even required, of people in court cases. But our society has become an intensely bureaucratic one, and Jodi often prefers the kind of language that people who sit in cubicles spend their days typing into computers. What do you mean, she was asked, by “lunging at you like a linebacker”? Well, she said, “He got down low and he impacted my torso.”

Impacted. The universal word, the word for anything. It means “smashed, slashed, hit, touched, influenced, had some kind of unspecifiable influence upon, made a difference in some way to.” “The president’s speech,” we are told, “impacted the public debate.” So what exactly was that impact? You will never know. “Her action,” someone says, “impacted my life.” Was that a good thing, or should we take you to a hospital? Either way; whatever. “John Smith is one of our firm’s most impactful executives.” Gosh, I hope the insurance company will reimburse us for the damage. Meanwhile, we’ll give him a promotion.

Impact means nothing. That’s why people use it. It’s the end of the story: he, she, or it was impacted, all right? You can stop asking questions. If you demand to know more, if you want to know what kind and degree of impact somebody thinks has occurred, you are likely to get the answer that Jodi Arias kept giving to the prosecutor’s demands for more specific information: “You’re scrambling my brain.”

Her brain was not too scrambled, however, to remember that abuse can include sexual abuse, and that accusations of sexual abuse can have a very major impact, sometimes to the extent of scrambling the brains of everyone who hears them. It was inevitable that Jodi’s testimony would eventually go there, and it did.

A brief interjection. Somewhere it needs to be said that Jodi Arias’ circus of lies could not have been staged without the assistance of a judge who was obviously prepared to admit anything and everything in evidence, and to license the prosecutor, the defense attorneys, Jodi Arias, and members of the jury — who in Arizona are allowed to put their own questions to a witness, and did put questions, hundreds of them — to use as many millions of words as they felt like using. So they have used millions of words.

Several days of the trial was consumed in the consideration of a recorded conversation, 45 minutes long, in which Jodi and Travis explored with gusto all the things that adult heterosexuals might want to do with each other’s bodies. More days, or was it years?, were consumed in discussions of their actual sex practices. Despite all this adult, triple-X fare, Jodi guessed that accusations of pedophilia — that kind of abuse, or potential abuse — might have an impact. So she claimed that one day she had surprised Travis enjoying pictures of young boys. She thus tried the same trick that the Menendez brothers tried when they suggested (1993) that they had killed their father (and, by the way, their mother too, but who’s counting?) because the father had abused one of them when he was young. No objective evidence was presented, in either case; in our society, nevertheless, it’s worth a try.

But speaking of remembering things, that was the other big prong of Jodi’s defense. She killed Travis; yes, she conceded that; she recalled that happening, sort of; but simultaneously she remembered that she suffered a crucial loss of memory, right after killing him. Of course, an expert in psychology came forward — and stayed there, for over a week — to testify that what Jodi suffered was actually (guess what?) “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” and there were “tests” to prove it.

The trial hasn’t merely exposed the thought patterns of Jodi Arias; it has exposed the correspondingly hideous flatness of the social environment in which she lived.

Question: are those the kind of teststhat doctors use to find out whether you have cancer, or are those the kind of tests that psychiatric professionals use to find a name for what you claim you suffer from? The prosecution asked that question in approximately 100,000 ways, and the answers were not impressive. Other topics of discussion, at this point, were “dissociative amnesia,” “temporally circumscribed amnesia,” and “transient global amnesia,” which, we were told, between three and eight out of 100,000 people have been shown to suffer from, at some time in their lives. You can add that to all the other things you may suffer from, at some time in your life. If one of those things doesn’t get you, some other one undoubtedly will.

The Arias trial has been a festival of lies, but unlike most such festivals, it has been a benefit to society. It has provided a satire — unintentional, of course — of the multitude of ways in which discourse is twisted and debased by the clichés that modern Americans resort to when they try to think. The trial hasn’t merely exposed the thought patterns of Jodi Arias; it has exposed the correspondingly hideous flatness of the social environment in which she lived.

It was nothing out of the ordinary; it was an environment of vaguely aspiring, vaguely enterprising 20- and 30-somethings, the environment of guys who party, and take girls to Cancún, and like doin’ things in the outdoors — “outdoors” being a place where they go to get their pictures taken, smiling broadly or mugging raffishly or flashing fake gang signs at the camera. This is a pretty laid back world, a world in which Travis Alexander (and even, briefly, Jodi Arias) could be mistaken for a devout Mormon. It’s a world in which Jodi — who is obviously one hell of a nutty woman, the kind of woman who can be locked in a police interrogation room and start doing handstands, or sit on the floor in handcuffs and burst into “O Holy Night,” or grin when her mugshots are taken, because she thinks to herself, “What would Travis do if he was in this situation?”, and concludes that “he would smile . . . he would flash that grin” — could be regarded by Travis’s friends as a bit strange. Just a little bit strange. Maybe not exactly right for Travis.

What tipped them off? Maybe it was her starey eyes. Maybe it was her way of pushing her face into any available camera (but Travis did that too). Maybe it was the rumor that she once slashed Travis’s tires. But surely it wasn’t her words. There is nothing unusual about Jodi’s mode of discourse. Even her most solemn utterances are clichés in use by millions of people, every day:

“If I’m convicted, that’s because of my own bad choices.

“I believed that it was not OK to take someone’s life.”

“I trusted him . . . I just wondered about his agenda, I guess.”

“When [after killing Travis] I finally came out of the fog, I realized, ‘Oh crap, something bad has happened.’”

Apparently none of Travis’s friends got much farther in analyzing Jodi than she got in analyzing Travis, when (as she claims) she wrote in her diary, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something is just off with that boy.” When asked for specifics — “What do you mean by that?” — she replied, “My kind of indirect way of referring to his issues that in my mind I couldn’t look past and accept.”

She couldn’t put her finger on it. There wereissues.

But Travis was also part of that weird, flat landscape. So who was Travis Alexander?

This is a cruel thing to say, but Travis was a motivational speaker. In today’s America, this is a respected occupation. But what does it mean?

Travis Alexander (T-Dogg to his friends), worked for something called Pre-Paid Legal Services, an outfit selling legal “insurance” by “multi-level marketing.” In other words, it has a marketing scheme in which higher-level salesmen sell the idea of selling to lower-level salesmen, who then try to sell something to you and me. Usually, the new guys don’t sell anything (in 2005, the company admitted that less than 25% of its salesmen sold more than one insurance contract during the year). Given the unattractiveness of their occupation, these people need something to keep their enthusiasm up, at least until a new crew can be cycled in. That’s how Travis Alexander made money — enough money to buy the home in which he was murdered. He appeared at the séances held for Pre-Paid Legal salesmen, told lame jokes, and puffed the company. Judging from surviving videos, the audience response was second in enthusiasm only to the characters in The Bacchae. The participants laughed continuously; they shrieked like banshees; they greeted poor Travis Alexander as the best thing since Joan Rivers, if they’d ever heard of her. In the world of American discourse, there are many Travis Alexanders, practicing their trade. Well, it was a living. But Travis’s old friends all testify to his sterling qualities: “he was a great man,” “he always wanted to help people.” It doesn’t take much to be a standout in that world.

What kind of life can you lead when you classify evil acts as bad choices, like mistakes in tennis?

All right. I apologize for being insensitive. I find nothing likable about Travis Alexander — and nothing particularly unlikable, either. But I’m sorry that he is dead. He didn’t deserve to die. And nobody deserves to die the way he did. I’m happy to think that his murderer’s lies will be rejected by the jury, as they have been rejected by everyone else who has observed the trial. The whole affair has been an encyclopedic exposition of popular thought and language, and I actually think it will do some good, if only by showing the emptiness of the words now popularly used to conceptualize moral problems.

But did I say moral problems? I should have said life problems. What kind of life can you lead when you regard all challenges and conflicts, all moral difficulties and psychological disabilities, as issues, like revisions of the copyright law or the regulation of sugary soft drinks? What kind of life can you lead when you regard your desires and plans, your passions and obsessions, as items on an agenda? What kind of life can you lead when you classify evil acts as bad choices, like mistakes in tennis?

It isn’t a wonderful life. It’s barely a human life. But you can’t detect what you’re missing until you have some real words to use when you go to look for it.




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David vs. Goliath

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After two months of misleading and conflicting White House statements explaining the Benghazi fiasco, more questions have been raised than have been answered. No one should be astonished, therefore, that the recent resignation of CIA Director, David Petraeus, a central figure in the controversy, would be any different in its effects. Only days after the presidential election and only days before he was scheduled to testify at Senate and House Intelligence Committees hearings, the revelation of an extramarital affair abruptly forced Petraeus to step down.

The affair was discovered during an FBI investigation that began in June 2012. Mr. Petraeus first learned of the investigation on September 14. Since the affair had ended in July, Petraeus knew there was no blackmail threat. And he would have known there was no security threat — that no classified information had been leaked to his paramour. Thus, on October 29, Petraeus was not surprised when he was told by the FBI that he would not be charged. Indeed, according to the Washington Post, he planned to stay at his job, believing that his affair, now known to the FBI and Attorney General Eric Holder, would never become known to the public.

Petraeus' adulterous episode had nothing to do with Benghazi — except for the date, September 14. That was the day when, in briefings to both the House and the Senate oversight committees, Mr. Petraeus described the Benghazi attack in a manner consistent with the administration's video-incited mob story. Why would the director of the CIA mislead Congress? As Charles Krauthammer observed, “Here’s a man who knows the administration holds his fate in its hands and he gives testimony completely at variance with what the Secretary of Defense had said the day before, at variance with what you’d heard from the station chief in Tripoli, and with everything that we had heard. Was he influenced by the fact that he knew his fate was held by people in the administration at that time?”

Why would the FBI wait until election day to inform the director of national intelligence about an investigation the Justice Department had decided not to pursue weeks earlier?

Evidently satisfied that the Obama administration would protect him, Petraeus traveled to Libya, where he conducted his own review of the attack. He told friends that he was looking forward to testifying before Congress. But on the day President Obama was reelected, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told him to resign.

Why would the FBI wait until election day to inform Clapper about an investigation the Justice Department had decided not to pursue weeks earlier? We are expected to believe that, with the election approaching and almost daily reports pointing fingers of blame at the CIA, it was a trivial matter, not worthy of notifying Congress or the president himself. But as soon as the polls closed, it somehow became critically important for Petraeus to resign. The post-election usefulness of Petraeus is now a White House secret, tightly held by Eric Holder and Barack Obama.

President Obama secured his second term by cynically pushing campaign-damaging problems such as the Benghazi investigations past the election (to name a few others: Fast and Furious, the WARN Act lay-off announcements, the Iranian attack on a US drone, the additional flexibility for Vladimir Putin, the Fiscal Cliff, and the debt ceiling). The Benghazi debacle alone could have ruined his chances.

Prior to the Benghazi attack, the White House promoted President Obama as a bin Laden-slaying leader who had captivated the Arab Spring while deftly engineering widespread al Qaeda attrition. With Libyans ingratiated by Obama's conciliatory Middle East policies, Ambassador Stevens could attend diplomatic meetings and openings of cultural centers in Benghazi, unshackled by boorish security details. Everything was running smoothly. As we were told, often, “al Qaeda was on the run."

The attack revealed that nothing was running smoothly in Benghazi. The sanguine, fictional portrayal was abruptly contradicted by the ugly reality of the murders of Stevens and three other Americans — by terrorists. But President Obama and administration officials (Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, James Clapper, David Petraeus, and such surrogates as Jay Carney and Susan Rice) blamed unruly demonstrators, spontaneously provoked by a "disgusting and reprehensible" video. This was their story. They stuck with it for eight or more days.

Evidently, the president needs investigations to determine whether or not he gave an order on September 11, 2012.

Recall that during the attack and its immediate aftermath, intelligence information flooded the White House. There were reports from the Benghazi mission and the CIA station; real-time audio from the mission to Charlene Lamb at the State Department; real-time video from a Predator drone. All of it indicated organized terrorism. Navy SEAL Ty Woods certainly recognized a terrorist attack when he saw one. And there was a State Department email alert sent at 6:07 pm, less than two and a half hours after the attack began, stating, "Ansar al-Sharia Claims Responsibilty for Benghazi Attack." The FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center stated that the attack was executed by al Qaeda or al Qaeda-affiliated militias. Even Libyan President Mohammed Magarief called it a “pre-planned act of terrorism.”

Accordingly, the White House waspresented with the following possibilities for explaining the attack to the public: (A) planned attack by al Qaeda terrorists, (B) planned attack by al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, (C) planned attack by terrorists of unknown affiliation, or (D) we don't know. Rejecting these explanations, the Obama national security team fabricated its own scenario — one of a spontaneous attack by neighborhood protestors. To account for the spontaneity aspect, it was embellished with the anti-Muslim video. No evidence of either the flash mob or the video was contained in any of the reports from Benghazi. Yet the White House went with the video-incensed flash mob story.

The Obama administration's duplicity in garnering credibility for this farce was such that the White House flagrantly altered information reported by Mr. Petraeus. In his testimony to Senate and House Intelligence Committee hearings last Friday (November, 16, 2012), Petraeus stated that on September 11, he immediately knew it was a terrorist attack and described it as such in his intelligence assessment. He further said that after providing the assessment to the White House as talking points, his reference to "al Qaeda-affiliated individuals' was replaced with the term ‘extremist organizations.’"

Why did the White House deliberately advance a synthesized story it knew to be false? Some have suggested fear that news of an al Qaeda attack would be viewed as foreign policy failure. But Mr. Obama believes that his "Light Footprint" strategy will prove the best approach to protecting US interests in the chaotic Middle East, dismissing incidents such as the Benghazi attack as "bumps in the road." It is more likely that the frantic clumsiness was driven by the fear that Obama's indecisiveness would be viewed as leadership failure. For example, an attack thought to be executed by protestors could be expected to end before military support would arrive. An attack thought to be executed by organized terrorists would be expected to last throughout the night (as it did, continuing to the CIA safe house — a facility that would be unknown to mere demonstrators), offering no excuse for refusing to send military forces immediately.

Indeed, it may be the cover-up of indecision that lies at the heart of the Washington DC side of Benghazi. The failure of a president motivated more by politics than concern for American lives had to be covered up at all costs. When their video-as-catalyst excuse began to crumble, the White House moved to a "fog of war" excuse that produced "conflicting accounts" from intelligence sources. With the White House shifting blame to the CIA, and the FBI investigating his romantic affair, David Petraeus may have sensed that he was becoming the scapegoat when, on October 26, he stated, through a CIA spokesperson, "No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.” If not Petraeus, who did decide against sending military assets to rescue the besieged Americans? Only the commander-in-chief has the authority to order military forces into another country.

Ironically, Petraeus appears to have been the most honest witness in the scandal— if only by Washington standards.

President Obama has said that he ordered his national security team to do whatever was needed to save American lives. However, what he actually did is another White House secret. In a recent press conference, in which he chastised Republican senators who criticized UN Ambassador Susan Rice for her role in disseminating the White House's anti-Islam video story, Obama said that "they should go after me" instead. But when asked (in the same press conference) what he had done to protect American lives in Benghazi, Obama had no answer, referencing investigations and muttering, "We will provide all the information that is available about what happened on that day." Evidently, the president needs investigations to determine whether or not he gave an order on September 11, 2012.

During the Intelligence Committee hearings, lawmakers sought to identify the individuals who replaced Petraeus' al Qaeda references, the apparent basis of Susan Rice's vigorous promotion of the video-incensed flash mob story. None in attendance (representatives of the State Department, Defense Department, intelligence community, and FBI) could say. The Obama administration, not represented at the hearings, knows. But it's not talking — still another White House secret.

Atthe second presidential debate with Mitt Romney on October 17, Obama — incredibly — said he knew on September 11 that it was a terrorist attack, but this was not a secret he had kept for over a month. It was something we all should have known since September 12, after parsing his Rose Garden comments that mentioned, generically, an act of terror.

David Petraeus, with career and marriage regrettably in shambles, is gone. Ironically, he appears to have been the most honest witness in the scandal, but only by Washington standards. He will likely be back for future hearings. But, given the deluge of Obama administration blame, excuses, and rebuffs to obscure the truth, use of his tarnished reputation to impugn his testimony would not be beneath White House tactics.

There is no urgency to uncover the truth, beyond that expressed by a handful of Republican Senators and Representatives. Democrats, none of whom have left the wagons encircling the president, excoriate them for “politicizing” the tragedy. And the media, for the most part, has disgracefully shown greater interest in distractions such as the sexual escapades of generals and the so-called Susan Rice attack than in the Benghazi attack and the four murdered Americans.

Future hearings, therefore, are likely to proceed at the same exasperatingly slow pace, but now burdened by White House secrets, under the shadow of plausible deniability. Constant, blatant deceit has been the essence of the White House Benghazi story.

Goliath is winning.




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Lincoln: A President Lies, and People Cheer

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Abraham Lincoln is one of the most complex presidents in American history. For over a century he was revered as our most important president, after George Washington. Recently his star has been tarnished by questions about his motives and tactics. Most Americans are surprised to learn that Lincoln was a Republican, because Democrats today love to accuse Republicans of racism. Nevertheless, it was the Republicans in Congress who supported the 13th Amendment, enfranchised the slaves, and squelched states' rights, while Democrats remained firmly on the other side of the aisle. Was Lincoln a forward-thinking civil rights advocate who restored a nation to wholeness, or was he merely a politician playing the race card to win the war and create a whole new constituency of former slaves?

Steven Spielberg's ambitious Lincoln tries to answer some of these questions. It is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005), a book that focuses on Lincoln's conciliatory spirit and determination to work with cabinet members he selected from among those who had opposed him in the 1860 election. This forgiving nature is what I admire most about Lincoln. His beatific "When I make them my friends, am I not destroying my enemies?", said in response to those who wanted to continue punishing the South after the war had ended, is a quotation that guides my life.

Lincoln is so determined to see the 13th Amendment pass before the war ends that he resorts to corruption and deception.

The film, however, focuses less on conciliation than on politics as-would-become-usual. Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) works relentlessly to shepherd (some would say "push") the 13th Amendment through Congress in the waning days of the Civil War. Support for the amendment, which would outlaw slavery, was divided along party lines; Republicans favored it, but did not have enough votes to pass it, and Democrats were against it.

Although many Americans were ready to end the buying and selling of slaves, few were ready for further developments that might proceed from abolition. "What would happen if four million colored men are granted the vote?" one cabinet member asks rhetorically. "What would be next? Votes for women?" But Lincoln knew that his war-weary citizenry would do anything for a truce, even grant equal rights to former slaves, so he convinces them that ratifying the amendment would force the South into surrendering.

Lincoln makes a compelling argument for why the Emancipation Proclamation was only a stopgap wartime measure. Ironically, slaves were freed under a law identifying them as "property seized during war." The Emancipation Proclamation did not actually end slavery; in fact, it had to acknowledge the property status of slaves. Since rebels residing inside the southern states were at war, not the states themselves, after the war ended state laws would still be in force, including laws permitting slavery, or so he complains. A constitutional amendment would be necessary to end slavery for good. Lincoln claims that southern voters would be unlikely to ratify such an amendment, passing it and ratifying it before the war ended was essential.

The movie’s position on this seems strange, given that, as losers in the war, all state officials under the Confederacy would be turned out of office, with no legislative authority. Once the South surrendered, the Union lost no time in selecting new officials who would make and enforce new laws. In fact, Lincoln’s program for reconstruction was to install governments in the Southern states that would ratify the amendment, and this policy was followed by President Johnson.

Nevertheless, Lincoln is so determined to see the amendment pass before the war ends that he resorts to corruption and deception. He enlists a group of unscrupulous patronage peddlers to promise political jobs and appointments to lame-duck Democrats if they will promise to vote for the amendment. They add piles of cash to sweeten the deals, and the votes start piling up too. The group is headed by a bilko artist with the unlikely name of "Bilbo" (James Spader). All of their scenes are accompanied by comical music to make us laugh at their outrageously funny and effective techniques. Aren't they clever as they connive to buy votes?

In addition to buying votes for his amendment, Lincoln also resorts to outright lying. When Jefferson Davis sends emissaries to discuss a negotiated peace while the amendment is coming to a vote, Lincoln knows that some of his "negotiated support" is likely to change, and the amendment is likely to fail. Consequently, he sends a letter denying any knowledge of the peace delegation from Richmond, even though this is clearly a lie. He sends this note with a flourish and a chuckle — and the audience in my theater cheered. I was disheartened that they didn't feel the same shame I felt when I saw a president of the United States deliberately lie to get his way. But I wasn't surprised. It's what we expect today.

In case you haven't noticed this yourself, I will spell it out: the tactics for pushing the 13th Amendment as shown in Spielberg's Lincoln are almost identical to the tactics used by Obama to pass his healthcare bill. Each was sponsoring a highly controversial bill with far-reaching consequences; each had a Congress divided along party lines; each used high pressure arm-twisting, political patronage, and outright lies to accomplish his goals; and each met vociferous opposition after the bill was passed. Why? Because they both chose expediency over integrity. Persuasion and education were needed, not force and deception. When expediency rules, tyranny reigns.

What I have written here makes the film seem much more interesting than it actually is. My thoughts about writing this review kept me engaged; you probably won't have that advantage. Daniel Day-Lewis creates a masterfully crafted Lincoln and deserves all the accolades he is gathering for the title role. But it is not a very engaging movie. Playwright Tony Kushner, who wrote the script, is more comfortable writing for the stage, and it shows. The pacing is ponderously slow, and the script, though elegant, is dialogue-heavy. In short, the film is all talk and no action. That's OK for a 90-minute stage play, but not for a three-hour film on a gigantic screen. I'm also skeptical about his accuracy, based on the biases that appear in other works.

When expediency rules, tyranny reigns.

There is also surprisingly little dramatic conflict for a film that takes place during the height of the costliest war in our history. We see the effects of war in the form of dead and mutilated soldiers, but we never see examples or effects of slavery; in fact, all the black characters in this film are well-dressed and well-spoken, and except for the soldiers, they sit and socialize with the whites. If a viewer didn't already know the history of slavery in America, he would have to wonder, what's the complaint? On either side? Moreover, the "bad guys" are being invaded by a superpower, while the "good guys" are lying and buying votes. So how does that fit our usual expectation of heroes and villains?

I'm also offended by the deliberate racebaiting in this film, and indeed in several films and Broadway shows I have seen in the past couple of years. Why is it OK to add "for a white person" (followed by self-deprecating chuckles and head-nodding from the audience) when describing someone's physical appearance or personal attributes? I thought we gave up saying "for a [colored] person" long ago. Haven't we finally come to a place where we can just stop noticing race and gender? Why do pollsters and educators continue to divide people by ethnicity? It's time to just burn that race card and bury it. Economics and education are at the root of inequity today, not race.

Lincoln tries to be an important film, and in one respect it is — as a cautionary tale for today. But it falls short — even though it's way too long.


Editor's Note: Review of "Lincoln," directed by Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks Pictures, 2012, 149 minutes.



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Lies, Damn Lies and the Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Wise men going back at least as far as the great George Orwell have pointed out that statists have little but contempt for objective facts, truth, or reality. In the present day, this contempt is proved most clearly by the parade of false reports and statistical manipulations issued by the Department of Labor. Headed by former congresswoman and current troglodyte Hilda L. Solis, the Labor Department has become — primarily through its Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and Employment and Training Administration (ETA) — the real-world version of the Ministry of Truth. Every report is revised; every revision changes numbers to favor the state.

And reality goes down the memory hole.

Since the first of March alone, the Labor Department has revised three major reports on U.S. labor productivity, job creation and unemployment. There are several official explanations for these revisions; the main one is Solis’ intellectually dishonest commitment to making employment data “seasonally adjusted.”

In theory, seasonal adjustment is supposed to smooth statistical bumps like temporary retail hiring around the Christmas or summer holidays and make it easier chart trends. Fair enough. But, in practice, Solis’ staff of statistical manipulators uses perpetual revision to create the illusion that newer numbers are always an improvement over older ones.

When Labor released these cooked numbers, the mainstream financial press parroted the line that the number was the “lowest in four years."

I’ve done enough statistical analysis to know that even (or especially) the most honest analyst will occasionally revise results. And, to be sure, Labor isn’t the only federal bureaucracy that does so. But few other agencies do so, so systematically . . . or with such partisan willfulness.

Here’s an example of the revision game from the ETA’s most recent (April 19) report on new unemployment insurance claims:

In the week ending April 14, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 386,000, a decrease of 2,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 388,000. The 4-week moving average was 374,750, an increase of 5,500 from the previous week's revised average of 369,250.

See what Solis’ hacks did there? They claimed that the number of initial claims for unemployment benefits was a “decrease” from the previous week’s “revised” number. What they don’t say is that the revision to the previous week’s number was to increase it from the 380,000 they reported at the time to the new number of 388,000. So, they raised the previous week’s number in order to claim the new number was a decrease.

Keeping the four-week moving average for unemployment claims below 375,000 is important because that’s a common inflection point between a rising and falling overall unemployment number. Given the accounting trickery in which Labor engages, a number so close to the inflection point has to be taken with a large grain of salt. The real number may be higher — and overall unemployment may be rising.

Solis’ subordinates play the same sorts of games with the so-called “jobs created” numbers. According to the BLS, “total nonfarm payroll employment” rose by 120,000 jobs in March. This was perceived as a bad number — significantly lower than the jobs created in the previous few months. If then-current numbers held, the trend for the first few months of 2012 was bad, indeed: January, 284,000; February, 227,000; March 122,000.

Focusing only on people who’ve recently been laid off, are actively looking for work, or are applying for unemployment benefits hides the backlog of unemployed people who’ve stopped looking for jobs.

But the Labor staff had a plan for making the downward line on a graph of those numbers less steep. They revised the January and February numbers, moving some of the January jobs into February. The “revised” decline: January, 275,000; February, 240,000; March 122,000.

The net effect isn’t much different; but the optic is better. The graph looks more like a plane gliding to a landing than crashing into flames.

Here’s an even more extreme example, from the April 19 ETA report I quoted above:

The advance number for seasonally adjusted insured unemployment during the week ending April 7 was 3,297,000, an increase of 26,000 from the preceding week’s revised level of 3,271,000. The 4-week moving average was 3,317,750, a decrease of 21,500 from the preceding week’s revised average of 3,339,250.

So, the current number of Americans receiving unemployment benefits was up. But the revised four-week trend was down. How could that be? Solis and crew used revisions to inflate the numbers at the back of the four-week chart.

They had used revisions to similar effect a few weeks earlier, on March 29, when it trumpeted a “decline” in initial unemployment insurance claims. It announced:

Initial jobless claims fell 5,000 in the week ended March 24 to 359,000, the lowest since April 2008 . . .

Later, in the fine print, the agency admitted that it had revised the previous week’s figure to 364,000 from an initially-reported 348,000. So, if not for the revision, the newer number would have increased by more than 10,000 new Americans on the dole.

Also in small type: the Department announced that it had revised weekly data on unemployment claims (and other key indicators) going back to 2007 — in part, to reflect seasonal adjustments. This caused all numbers in 2012 to rise about 4%. And cast the “since April 2008” part of the big announcement into doubt, too.

The guys from Enron went to jail or committed hara kiri because of tricks like this. Instead, when Labor released these cooked numbers, the mainstream financial press — including Bloomberg, Reuters, and the Associated Press — parroted the line that the number was the “lowest in four years.”

The numbers I’ve been considering so far aren’t the government’s formal unemployment numbers. Economists rightly consider the weekly unemployment insurance reports “additional data” and of less reliability than the BLS’ more formal unemployment surveys.

As you might already know, the BLS tracks six different measures of unemployment. These six unemployment statistics are:

  • U1: the percentage of the U.S. labor force unemployed 15 weeks or longer;
  • U2: the percentage of labor force comprised of people who lost jobs or completed temporary work;
  • U3: the “official unemployment rate” — people without jobs who have actively looked for work within the past four weeks;
  • U4: U3 plus “discouraged workers,” or those who have stopped looking for work because economic conditions make them believe that no work is available for them;
  • U5: U4 plus other “marginally attached workers,” or “loosely attached workers,” or those who “would like” and are able to work, but have not looked for work recently; and
  • U6: U5 plus part-time workers who want to work full time, but cannot due to economic reasons (underemployment).

These numbers give economists several different perspectives on the issue. Since all of the numbers are estimates, the combined perspectives are meant to offer a “three-dimensional” view of unemployment, more accurate than any single number. But even these more formal surveys are subject to manipulation and revision. During the Clinton administration, the BLS revised the formal stats — changing the “official” rate to U3 from a predecessor version of U5, which is always a higher number.

There were several problems with this cynical move.

The U3 statistic, with a methodology closest to the “additional data” numbers that Solis’ hacks manipulate these days, is the least reliable of the formal measures.

But there’s a more philosophical problem with the Clinton-era revision: focusing only on people who’ve recently been laid off, are actively looking for work, or are applying for unemployment benefits tends to downplay the number of able-bodied adults who are out of work. It hides the backlog of unemployed people who’ve stopped looking for jobs. A nearly-permanent underclass that includes the nation’s most incorrigibly unproductive people simply doesn’t appear in the U3 number.

Older unemployment numbers are revised upward; new jobs numbers are revised downward. Everything’s always getting better in this workers’ paradise!

So, Solis’ BLS can boast (as it recently did) that “the unemployment rate” fell to 8.2% in March 2012 from 9.1% in August 2011. But that headline ignores the fact that U5 unemployment was about 2 percentage points higher during that period — and U6 hovered above 15%.

This may be what statists want, though: to hide the economic effects . . . and very presence . . . of the hardcore unemployed. Who are, of course, the most enthusiastic supporters of big-government social welfare programs.

Throughout, the operatives continue to use seasonal adjustment to justify their manipulation of employment numbers. Here’s one example of a weasel-worded footnote explaining the spin:

Data in this release reflect the annual benchmark revision of BLS Current Employment Statistics program data on nonfarm employee hours, and revised seasonal adjustment of those data. . . . Quarterly and annual measures . . . for all sectors were revised back to 2007 to incorporate the annual benchmark adjustment and updated information on seasonal trends.

So much jargon, so little truth.

Solis’ hacks cling to seasonal adjustment because it serves as a blank check, an open-ended excuse for revising every employment report to show an illustrious victory for our valiant leaders. Under this administration, essentially every Labor Department employment survey or report that’s been revised has been so in a way that makes newer numbers look like improvements. Older unemployment numbers are revised upward; new jobs numbers are revised downward. So everything’s always getting better in this workers’ paradise!

Or, as one internet commenter noted: “We’ve got the Christmas season, summer season, and — most of all — we’ve got election season.”

Many politicians talk about abolishing the Department of Education; that’s become a kind of short-hand for commitment to limited government. But it might do more good to abolish the Department of Labor, whose truth-twisting under Hilda Solis has become so blatant.




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The Bureaucrat and the Cellphone Ban

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About a month ago, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman, Deborah A.P. Hersman, called for a “first-ever nationwide ban” on “the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices,” including hands-free cellphones, while driving. In a prepared statement introducing the proposed ban, Hersman told the story of a fatal multi-vehicle accident that had recently occurred in rural Missouri, set in motion by a pickup truck driver who’d been using a cellphone while driving:

“And it was over just like that. It happened so quickly. And, that’s what happened at Gray Summit. Two lives lost in the blink of an eye. And, it’s what happened to more than 3,000 people last year. Lives lost. In the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.”

Quickly, critics of the Obama administration raised questions about that “3,000 lives lost” statistic. While some of these criticisms had a peevish tone, their basic point was valid. The 3,000 number was an exaggeration, based on an imprecise use of more defensible fatality numbers.

A few days later, the Washington Post published an opinion column under Hersman’s name that justified the NTSB’s proposal. (The Post’s opinion pages serve as a sort of free press-release service for columns supposedly written by high-level bureaucrats.) The column used most of the same language from Hersman’s earlier statement — but avoided specific figures:

“Washington residents remember well the 2009 Metro crash on the Red Line in which nine people were killed. The number of fatalities from distractions on U.S. roadways is the equivalent of one Metro crash every day of the year. . . . At the NTSB, our charge is to investigate accidents, learn from them and recommend changes. In Gray Summit and on highways across the United States, thousands of people were killed last year in the blink of an eye. In the typing of a text. In the push of a send button.”

There was still plenty of mendacious rhetoric at work in the column. It went on to imply that fatal accidents caused by cellphone use are a growing risk. It stated that cellphones and personal digital assistants have become “ubiquitous”; and it cited a study suggesting that 21% of drivers in the Washington, D.C., area have admitted to texting while driving.

Taken together, these emotionally fraught passages clearly implied that some 3,000 people a year are killed in motor-vehicle accidents caused by sending or receiving cellphone text messages. But that’s not true. The “3,000 lives lost” number comes from an NTSB study of “distracted driving” in general. Based on data from that study, the NTSB estimated that fewer than a third of those deaths could be connected to cellphone use. To repeat for emphasis, even that number is an estimate. (Of course, bureaucratic fiefdoms like the NTSB often issue regulatory decrees based on slight justification and without regard to practicality, effectiveness or cost.)

So, Hersman exaggerated the risk of cellphone use while driving by a factor of at least three — and repeated the exaggeration with carefully calibrated verbiage. And, most important, she used the exaggerations and imprecise rhetoric to support an invasive regulatory action.

She may have figured the mendacity was needed because the general trend has been toward greater safety on American highways. In 1990, about 44,600 people died in car crashes in the U.S.; in 2010, that number had dropped to less than 32,900. This drop is even more striking when you consider that the total number of licensed drivers in the U.S. rose significantly over the same period. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 1.71 deaths per 100 million vehicle-miles driven in 1994 but only 1.09 in 2010. That’s a major improvement — though you’d never know it from Nanny Hersman.

Hersman exaggerated the risk of cellphone use while driving by a factor of at least three, and used the exaggerations to support an invasive regulatory action.

In significant ways, Hersman resembles other current and former Obama administration apparatchiks. Like Julius Genachowski, she is a career Beltway insider whose slavish devotion to big government overwhelms any notion of private-sector economy; like Elizabeth Warren, her background speaks more to bureaucratic credentialing than education in the classical liberal sense.

Hersman’s December decree urged state governments to prohibit text-messaging and other electronic device use while driving. (It calls, specifically, for the 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban “the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices.”) But her urgency was unnecessary: 35 states already have such rules in place.

If “distracted driving” is a problem, why are cellphones a more urgent issue than other sources of distraction — watching kids in the back seat, eating fast food, studying a GPS map, applying makeup, etc.? A cynic might say that a cellphone ban gives state agencies a broad excuse to harass citizens…and a new source of cash flow for government coffers. But statist hacks like Hersman are too earnest for that.

A more likely answer is that a ban on cellphone use in the privacy of one’s own car is a preemptive regulation. And preemptive regulations have two distinctive traits: they are often misused — and, particularly, overused — by state agencies; and they are often based on shaky logical foundations that sound good on first impression but don’t stand up well to rigorous inspection.

That second trait explains why bureaucrats like Hersman use emotional manipulations to promote pre-emptive regulations.

An important point: The feds’ own research underscored the futility of Hersman’s gesture. An NHTSA report on accidents “involving” cellphones as the cause of fatalities stated that:

“Sixteen percent of fatal crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving and ... of those people killed in distracted-driving-related crashes, 995 involved reports of a cellphone as a distraction (18% of fatalities in distraction-related crashes).”

So, Nanny Hersman proposed banning cellphones in cars to reduce a risk that causes — at most — 2.9% of traffic-related deaths.

There may have been other factors affecting her thinking. A few months before Hersman’s proposal, the U.S. Senate considered a Department of Transportation spending bill that set up a $10 million grant program aimed at helping states combat “distracted driving” — and especially texting behind the wheel. According to the bill (S. 1596):

“While there is no definitive data as to how many distracted driving deaths and injuries are caused by cellphone use and texting, 20% of the drivers involved in fatal accidents in 2009 were either using or in the presence of a cellphone at the time of the crash, and there is reason to be concerned about whether the recent rise in distracted driving fatalities is linked to the increasing use of electronic devices.”

Admitting they had “no definitive data” to support their actions, the Solons would bribe states to prohibit citizens from operating a vehicle while in the “presence of a cellphone.” Maybe Hersman wanted the NTSB to administer the grants to the states.

If “distracted driving” is a problem, why are cellphones a more urgent issue than other sources of distraction — watching kids in the back seat, eating fast food, studying a GPS map, applying makeup?

The Senate bill also required $5 million to be set aside “for the development, production, and use of broadcast and print media advertising to support enforcement of State laws to prevent distracted driving.” Maybe Hersman wanted the NTSB to produce those ads . . . and its chairman to star in them.

The Obama administration has never been shy about manipulating numbers and emotions to support its various statist schemes and bureaucratic boondoggles. Specifically:

  1. According to the Census Bureau, more than 30 million Americans — one in every seven — live in poverty. And that number is growing, in part, because the Obama administration has expanded the definition of the word “poverty.” The administration has worked to delink the concepts of poverty and deprivation…and redefined poverty instead as being “about inequality.” Traditional metrics of poverty have focused on absolute purchasing power — how much food or durable goods a person can buy; the Obama administration’s metrics focus instead on comparative purchasing power — how much food or durable goods a person can buy relative to other people. This is a statistical trick designed to assure that a fixed portion of the population will always be poor.
  2. In the spring of 2011, Obama administration officials publicized the possibility that “82% of U.S. schools” could be rated as failing, according to metrics established by the No Child Left Behind program. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan repeated this statistic in numerous speeches — even though education experts called the number “unverified,” “likely exaggerated” and “meaningless to the schools that are being rated.” Even after several education policy groups challenged Duncan’s emotional rhetoric, he and other administration officials showed no inclination to make more precise statements. Some observers suggested the administration’s goal was, rather than issuing reliable numbers, to scare Congress into approving its spending goals.
  3. In the fall of 2011, a heated exchange between Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL) and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis made clear that tension between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans over the president’s efforts to bolster the clean energy economy was getting worse. Mack scoffed at administration projections that counted drivers of hybrid buses as “green jobs.” (This dispute occurred during the height of public outrage over Department of Energy loan guarantees — funded through Obama’s $825 billion stimulus plan — to bankrupt solar energy company Solyndra.) Some lawmakers argued that the Obama administration exaggerated the impact that its “green energy” policies had on improving the economy and creating jobs.
  4. In late 2011, immigration policy groups noted that the Obama Administration had inflated statistics to suggest that it had deported a “record-high number of illegal immigrants with criminal records.” In fact, the real deportation figure was closer to an historic low. In October 2011, Obama’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director had announced that nearly 55% of the record 396,906 illegal immigrants deported in FY2011 were convicted of felonies or crimes. But the real figure was less than 15%, according to federal records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). Specifically, the average rate across the four quarters for FY 2011 was 14.9%.
  5. In October 2011, the web site FactCheck.org caught the Obama administration exaggerating the impact of a proposed additional round of “stimulus” spending. (The administration had predicted that its previous stimulus plan would “save or create” millions of jobs. Those predictions turned out to be wrong — some 1.2 million American jobs had been lost during the two years following passage of the 2009 stimulus. In 2011, Obama claimed that “independent economists” agreed that a new stimulus package would “create nearly 2 million jobs next year.” But FactCheck.org countered that the “median estimate in a survey of 34 economists showed 288,000 jobs could be saved or created over two years under the president’s plan.”

Focusing on this or that political prevarication is easy and, on a reptilian level, fun (on this topic, I commend to you Vaclav Havel’s great New Year’s Day 1990 speech on statist lies). But there’s also a bigger point raised by the meddling of bureaucratic schemers like Deborah Hersman and Barack Obama. Specifically: what burden of proof should be borne by a party who proposes a law or regulation?

The feds’ own research underscored the futility of Hersman’s gesture.

The statists who support Obama argue that the answer to that question is “none.” They argue that bureaucrats are by definition well-meaning and laws or regulations they propose should be presumed virtuous and effective. According to this peculiar logic, the burden of proof falls on those who question the proposed laws or regulations. Here’s one commenter’s defense of Nanny Hersman’s decree:

“Ms. Hersman was appointed to the NTSB in 2004. I can’t for the life of me figure out what possible political (or other nefarious) agenda she could possibly have in recommending that states ban cellphone usage while driving. I don’t see why we can’t assume that she is a conscientious officer who has looked at the question and sincerely believes that the evidence supports her recommendation. . . . I challenge you to find any study that shows that texting or mobile phone use does not impair driving ability. You won’t find any.”

So, unless citizens can prove something isn’t bad, conscientious officers can ban that thing. This is sophistry. And, in the case of Hersman’s proposed cellphone ban, it’s threadbare sophistry.

A more coherent — and liberty-friendly — approach to government regulation would be that, if a state agency proposes restricting or banning some object or action, it must first prove that:

  1. the object or action accounts directly for some demonstrable economic loss, and
  2. restricting or banning the object or action will alleviate the loss.

If the agency can’t establish both points, then its proposal would be ignored.

And even if the agency can establish both points, citizens would demand a cost-benefit analysis of the proposed regulation that establishes with some confidence that it will save more in economic losses than it will cost to enforce.

This approach would reduce the amount of statist noise generated by the present administration. And future ones, too.

Back to the point: statists claim that bureaucratic drivel like Hersman’s proposed cellphone ban should be presumed valid. And that those who question it must prove the validity of their questions.

The fruitless search for zero risk fits well into this warped thinking. Whether the particulars involve texting on cellphones, smoking cigarettes, wearing seatbelts, eating Big Macs, or anything else, statist busybodies justify their requirements, prohibitions and other petty tyrannies with good intent. And they imply that their opponents are in favor of the bad outcomes of risky behavior — or are “against safety.”

But a quick text message sent home or to work while driving on an empty country road or stopped in traffic might be as effective a safety measure as wearing a seat belt. Because text messages are time-stamped, people who care about you can know where you were at a given time; this is important, if you don’t show up as expected.

Whether the particulars involve texting on cellphones, smoking cigarettes, wearing seatbelts, eating Big Macs, or anything else, statist busybodies justify their requirements, prohibitions and other petty tyrannies with good intent.

This sort of effective communication may have something to do with the overall trend toward safer U.S. highways. (And most of the existing state laws that restrict or prohibit cellphone use while driving specifically exempt emergency use — such as calls to the highway patrol to report dangerous conditions, etc.)

As I’ve noted, Hersman’s decree was unnecessary. Most states already have laws in place restricting cellphone use by people driving cars; and all states have reckless driving laws that apply to situations in which cellphone use causes dangerous results. But, as one online commenter noted:

“Enforcing laws is so boring. Not only is it work, you get little political benefit from mundane enforcement stuff as it rarely makes the papers. And enforcement of laws may even upset people, causing political problems. But passing laws, now that’s sexy.”

Well, there’s no accounting for taste.

The most damning indictment of the proposed cellphone ban comes from a statistical study conducted by researchers at the Colorado School of Mines. They note:

“On July 1, 2008, California enacted a ban on hand-held cellphone use while driving. Using California Highway Patrol panel accident data for California freeways from January 1, 2008, to December 3, 2008, we examine whether this policy reduced the number of accidents on California highways. To control for unobserved time-varying effects that could be correlated with the ban, we use high-frequency data and a regression discontinuity design. We find no evidence that the ban on hand-held cellphone use led to a reduction in traffic accidents.”

This study is preliminary and based on limited data — but it doesn’t bode well for the cost-effectiveness of Hersman’s futile gesture.

Bureaucrats promulgate regulations. It’s their lifeblood, the air they breathe. A bureaucrat isn’t fulfilling her statist destiny unless she banning or prohibiting something.

But free citizens need to keep in mind that the United States is a country built on the philosophical premise that everything not banned is permitted instead of the tyrannical axiom that everything not permitted is banned.

It’s right there, in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. Nanny Hersman and her current boss should take a look.




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How to Build a Marionette

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On January 18, 2011, on the floor of the House of Representatives, Congressman Steve Cohen of Tennessee said that those who characterize the new healthcare law as a “government takeover of healthcare” are purveyors of the “big lie. Just like Goebbels.”

A quick browse round the web reveals wide agreement that Mr. Cohen’s insertion of the Reich Minister’s name into the healthcare debate did little to encourage reasoned discourse. The next day, Mr. Cohen himself felt the need to clarify, saying, "Not in any way whatsoever was I comparing Republicans to Nazis."

A consensus seems to have emerged that, while the congressman is given to using inappropriate language, he means well, and that the matter should be gently set aside. I agree, and will do so right after addressing two small questions.

The first is straightforward: Is it a “big lie” to say that the implementation of the new healthcare law would result in a “government takeover of healthcare?” The second question is more speculative: what would Dr. Goebbels have thought of the new healthcare law?

Regarding the first question, anyone who considers the increased government regulation contained in the new law to be inadequate would almost certainly find the “takeover” accusation questionable. Those who favor the single-payer system of government-run universal healthcare insurance, for example, would probably find the characterization of the new law as a “government takeover” simply laughable. Their fondest hope is that the government will become the sole insurer of health, eliminating the need for private health insurance entirely. Because that hope is not fulfilled by the new law, from their vantage point the “big lie” charge may seem true. After all, they want a government takeover. It seems likely that Politifact, the Pulitzer-winning website that first called the “government takeover” charge the “biggest lie of 2010,” shared that hope.

But there is more than one way to take over a healthcare system.

Guess how many Americans already have their health insurance provided by the government? Come on, have a go.

According to the National Council of State Legislatures, more that 90 million Americans were covered by Medicare and Medicaid in 2009. The website Health Policy Gateway gives us additional government-insured group totals, also for 2009: 11 million covered by the military system, 7.8 million covered as federal employees, and 30.3 million covered as state and local employees. The Indian Health Service tells us that it serves some 1.9 million Native Americans. The Bureau of Justice Statistics counts 2.4 million who get their government healthcare behind bars.

So, even before the new law was passed, the government, in one form or another, was already insuring about 143 million Americans, or about 46% of the 2010 US Census total of 308 million. Not quite half.

How about the other half?

Under the new law, the government becomes a puppeteer and private health insurance companies its marionettes. Let’s look at a few of the strings.

The first string is called “guaranteed issue,” which means that the insurance companies will no longer be allowed to deny coverage to anyone, regardless of pre-existing conditions. They’ll have to take all comers.

The second is “community rating,” which means that insurance companies will be required to charge the same amount to all people of the same age, sex, and geographical location — again, no matter how serious the pre-existing conditions, and no matter what other risk factors may be present. One size fits all.

The third string is “minimum coverage standards,” which means that the minimum scope of coverage will be decided by the government. Have it our way.

The fourth string is “rate review regulation,” which means that Health and Human Services will judge whether proposed premium rate increases are unreasonable or excessive. (At this point the regulations indicate that while HHS will issue its judgment, “whether or not an insurer can implement an increase determined to be unreasonable by a state will, of course, depend on state law.”)

Now imagine that you are a healthcare insurer. Under this law, you have to sell insurance to everyone who wants it, you have to charge them all the same amount (except for age, etc.), your product (scope of coverage) will not be determined by you, and the amount that you can charge is subject to the approval of the government, whether state or federal.

If you are running an insurance company and you are told what you must sell, what you must charge for it, and to whom you must sell it, you are not running an insurance company.

The health insurance industry will be like a giant Howdy Doody, with Secretary Kathleen Sebelius holding the strings.

Note that this list is not comprehensive and does not include, among other things, the bizarre part of the law that compels citizens who are otherwise uninsured to buy health insurance from Mr. Doody.

So, regarding the first question, while it may be an exaggeration to say that the new healthcare law in itself constitutes a “government takeover of healthcare,” calling it a “big lie” stretches the truth. After all, whoever controls health insurance controls the health providers by deciding who will be paid how much for which procedures. There must be a way to put it more fairly. How about this: if implemented as written, the new healthcare law would constitute, in what has been a decades-long journey down the road of ever-greater government control and regulation of the country’s healthcare system, a great leap forward.

Now, what would Dr. Goebbels have thought of all this?

While the National Socialist Party never implemented a single-payer system, it did build on the government-sponsored healthcare system created by Kaiser Wilhelm II. In 1934, a national director was appointed for all sickness funds. Another director was created to be responsible for all other insurance funds. Both these directors reported directly to the central government. Then, all funds, community health services, and non-governmental healthcare organizations were put under direct central government leadership. By 1945, health insurance had been expanded to all pensioners, and accident coverage had been expanded to cover all workers, regardless of occupation. A 12-week, job-protected maternity leave had been introduced, and limitations on sick leave had been eliminated. In short, during the Third Reich, in keeping with Hitler’s leadership principle, or Führerprinzip, the central government increased its control of all aspects of the healthcare system. (See James A. Johnson and Carleen Harriet Stoskopf, Comparative Health Systems: Global Perspectives for the 21st Century, Jones & Bartlett, 2009.)

One can’t be sure, of course, but it seems reasonable to say that Goebbels approved of these developments in the healthcare system of Germany. He was, after all, a committed National Socialist and a close friend of the Führer. It also seems reasonable to infer that, were he alive, he would approve of America’s new healthcare law, which has the same sort of centralization of control that was evident in Germany during the decade from the mid-’30s to the mid-’40s.

In pointing this out, it needs to be said that I am not in any way whatsoever comparing supporters of the new healthcare law to Nazis.




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