Cry Havoc!

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I’ve always been puzzled about the idea of mass hysteria. Is it true that normally sane people suddenly start shouting and screaming and seeing Martians, just because their neighbor, or somebody on the radio, has been talking about the subject? Or is mass hysteria just one of those pop-psychology labels that tells you nothing more than the unmysterious things you’d already noticed yourself? I mean, you hear Mr. Smith saying goofy things; you hear Mrs. Jones and Mr. Green saying similarly goofy things; then somebody calls it mass hysteria, and you’re supposed to believe you’ve learned something. But you haven’t, because you still don’t know why anybody would want to say those things.

Those are my ordinary thoughts. But maybe now I’m suffering from mass hysteria myself, because I think the opponents of Donald Trump have contracted it. There are lots of them, and they’ve all simultaneously lost their minds, or whatever part of their minds is connected with their ability to speak and use a keyboard.

One symptom of hysteria is screaming in public places. Another is saying things that obviously aren’t true, and believing them yourself. Yet another is saying things that make you look like a fool for saying them, but you don’t care. This is how a significant number of Trump’s opponents have been acting, enough of them to turn an unusual activity into one that is usual, expected, and routine. They are hysterical, and they behave in mass.

What’s been happening is the kind of discourse that makes the shouts of the normal witch hunt or lynch mob seem sane and decorous.

Here’s the caveat lector: even hysterics may be right, in a way. The existence of Senator Joseph McCarthy as an hysterical anti-communist didn’t negate the pre-existence of Stalinist agents in the United States. Hysterics and other annoying people may be concerned about something that other people can analyze calmly and agree is cause for concern. In the present case, anyone can construct a cogent argument for the idea that Trump is a good president or a bad one. Such arguments can be calmly debated and assessed by minds that independently assent or dissent from them.

But that isn’t what’s been happening lately. What’s been happening is the kind of discourse that makes the shouts of the normal witch hunt or lynch mob seem sane and decorous. Offhand, I can’t think of a lynch mob in which people shrieked, all together, “He burned down the school! He robbed the bank! He spied for the North! He kicked my dog!” In this case, however, we have, “He’s alt-right! He’s a fascist! He’s a racist! He’s homophobic! He’s anti-Semitic! He stole the election! He’s a Russian agent! He paid two prostitutes to piss on the bed of President Obama!” Wait till they discover the existence of the Bavarian Illuminati.

Surveying headlines on the morning of July 21, I saw a long list of Trump-attack items, including “Can Trump Pardon Himself?” Then I saw, sitting quietly and all alone, “Hawaii Is Preparing for a North Korea Military Attack.” Let’s see . . . which type of story are journalists more excited about?

Hollywood movies inform us that lynch mobs are managed by people who are not themselves hysterics but are hoping to profit from destroying their victims. They want somebody’s ranch or wife or gold mine, or they want to be elected governor. I’m not sure whether this picture of the cold, calculating demagogue matches the current situation. Leaders of the anti-Trump hysteria clearly want to enhance their political power and influence, but some of them do appear to have gone over the edge. They’re like the guy who’s told by his friends, “Calm down! You don’t want the neighbors to hear you!” and who responds by busting the TV, throwing chairs through the window, and screaming, “Who cares if they do! They’re all a buncha God-damned @#@#%^&#’s!”

Leaders of the anti-Trump hysteria clearly want to enhance their political power and influence, but some of them do appear to have gone over the edge.

You can think of many examples. One that appeals to me is Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s badly chosen running mate. Kaine is a hack politician. He happens to be a Democrat, but he’s not much different from hundreds of other hacks, Democrat or Republican. He has a bug in his head about religion, but that hardly distinguishes him. His most visible characteristic is a desire to be loved, hence to be elected to public office. It’s not in his political interest to talk like a lunatic. But on July 11 he responded to the Enormous Revelation that Donald Trump, Jr. (that chump) had once met with a Russian “lawyer” to see whether he could get some dirt on Hillary Clinton. Why didn’t Junior just read the newspaper? Anyway, Kaine made the following hysterical remarks:

Nothing is proven yet. But we're beyond obstruction of justice in terms of what's being investigated. This is moving into perjury, false statements [one sign of hysteria is an obsession with repeating the same idea], and even into potentially treason [another sign is a loss of normal syntax]. . . . To meet with an adversary to try to get information to hijack democracy. The investigation is now more than just obstruction of justice in investigation. It's more than just a perjury investigation. It's a treason investigation.

The Constitution defines treason in this way: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” (Seconds elapsed while finding this passage online: 51.)

Only nine people have ever been convicted of treason under that definition, which notably lacks any reference to such offenses as hijacking democracy, the meaning of which is apparently “electing someone other than Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.” Junior is unlikely to become the tenth — if only because the United States is not currently at war with either Russia or Russian lawyers.

Questioned later about his weird remark, Kaine seemed to backtrack on its thrust, but then, like a true obsessive, returned to it anyway:

When they ran a clip they cut off the first part of my sentence which I said “nothing has been proven yet,” they cut that off. If the issue that is being investigated following this last revelation is did someone coordinate with a foreign adversary to attack the basics of American democracy, it doesn’t get more serious than that.

Among problems that I consider more serious, or at least more urgent, are (A) Kaine’s tendency to babble like a street person, and (B) the fact that his hysterical cry of treason was immediately taken up by innumerable politicians and media commentators. (Seconds elapsed while thinking: 0.)

But there’s something yet more serious, if you’re interested in the ways in which words are used. Obsessive and hysterical verbiage is just one of many bad things that happen with words when they’re disconnected from thoughts. These days, we’re experiencing the full range of bad things. Public speech and public writing appear to have become completely unstuck from reflective consideration.

Only nine people have ever been convicted of treason under that definition, which notably lacks any reference to such offenses as hijacking democracy.

Nancy Pelosi is always available to substantiate such points. In her July 18 press conference (she still has them!), the former speaker of the House discussed an article that had bowled her over and left her flat. It was about the sacrifices made by the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and it had given her an idea that she was impelled to communicate:

Now, our founders, they sacrificed their lives, their liberty, their sacred honor to establish this democracy.

The closer you look at that sentence, the stranger it gets. Start with the fact that the founders specifically did not intend to establish a democracy. And how many of the signers sacrificed their lives? Go ahead — name one. As it turned out, the essay that Pelosi found so inspiring was filled with errors that anyone with a real interest in American history would have smelled immediately. If Pelosi ever had a sense of smell, she’s lost it. She’s also lost any interest in noticing what words mean. When she said that the signers “sacrificed . . . their sacred honor” she was literally saying that they gave their honor up, got rid of it, didn’t have it anymore. So either she doesn’t know what honor means, or she doesn’t know what honor means. I leave you to choose.

Just say they conspired, Ambassador, and don’t tell me that everybody says it this way.

The article about this in the Daily Caller, a conservative journal, is harshly critical. It points out that Pelosi’s source didn’t even spell the names of the signers right. But it also says, “While nine of the signers did die during the Revolutionary War, none of them died from injuries sustained by the British.” Of course, no one would expect Americans to die because the British were wounded. And that’s what the sentence literally says — “injuries sustained by the British.” The author believes that to sustain a wound is to inflict it.

Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When fancied meanings we conceive.

Let’s look at another page from the Daily Caller. It’s an interview (July 9) with Francis Coombs, managing editor of the Rasmussen polling outfit, in which Coombs is reported as saying:

What is clear is that voters do not dislike Trump as much as the media does. Look at Russia. The media is just obsessed with Russia. Democrats who are out on the hustings say “nobody asks me about Russia.” The polls don’t seem to jive with what we’re seeing with the traditional media.

So what’s wrong with that? Jive, that’s what. The word is jibe, and somebody, either Mr. Coombs or whoever transcribed his remarks, ought to know it, ought to have marked the distinction at some point in his or her life — just as any reflective person should have marked the distinction between lie and lay, disinterested and uninterested, famous and infamous, distinctions also commonly unobserved in today’s discourse.

On one matter Democrats and Republicans are in full agreement: we don’t need no stinkin’ dictionaries — or grammar books, either.

From the left: on January 30, the Washington Post ran this provocative headline:

Who Will Trump Add to the Supreme Court?

If you don’t see the problem, or if you never noticed that the Post was a leftwing paper, I’m not going to explain it to you.

From the right: on April 20, Ambassador Nikki Haley told the United Nations that Iran and Hezbollah “have conspired together” — something that she obviously thought was a great deal worse than conspiring individually. Just say they conspired, Ambassador, and don’t tell me that everybody says it this way. If you do, you’re just making my point.

From the left: the online Guardian, June 14, in an early report on the fire in the Grenfell Tower:

The Metropolitan Police have confirmed that “a number of people are being treated for a range of injuries” on Twitter.

I didn’t know that Twitter had the power to treat the injured. Or is it that Twitter has the power to inflict a range of injuries? But that would make more sense to me.

Certainly there is an elite that mates and networks with itself and is partly composed of the witless spawn of rich people.

From the right: Tucker Carlson, during his April 4 TV show: “You see the Orwellian path we are trodding.” I like Carlson, and I thought he read a book from time to time. But I don’t recall George Orwell saying anything like, “Let us trod a better path” or “If we trod like this for very long, we’ll be in some real trouble.” The word is tread, and Carlson’s goofy error came at a particularly bad time — a discussion with Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA), about the misuse of language. Carlson used the word monitoring for Susan Rice’s surveillance of Trump’s associates, and Sherman sanctimoniously objected. So Sherman and Carlson both managed to lose that inning.

On July 14, Bruce Thornton published an interesting essay in Frontpage, called “The Nevertrump Outrage of a Disappointed Elite.”

In it he says, among other things, of course:

From the beginning of Trump’s campaign, the disproportion of his critics’ anger with [i.e., to] their response to Obama’s and Clinton’s assault on law and the Constitution has shown that something else is going on: an elite class is angry that the highest power in the land, with all the attention and perks that go with it, is in the hands of a vulgarian who sneers at their class-defining proprieties and protocols.

Sounds plausible. But what struck me was Thornton’s idea about what identifies the elite:

In antiquity it was land and lineage that defined privilege. In our day, prep schools, top-ten university degrees, formal speech, correct diction, proper manners, and high-cult allusions all mark off the elite, and hide the fact that their position comes from money and connections as much as merit. Someone like Trump, who violates every one of these canons and enjoys the support of the “bitter clingers” and “deplorable” masses, infuriates the elite by challenging their right to rule by virtue of their presumed intellectual and cultural superiority.

Certainly there is an elite that mates and networks with itself and is partly composed of the witless spawn of rich people. But you would have to go to the Arabian Nights to find something more fanciful than Thornton’s description of what marks off this class. There never was a time in American history when the scions of wealth were distinguished by “formal speech, correct diction, proper manners, and high-cult allusions.” (Question: What is a high-cult allusion? Examples, please. And do the people who are able to make such allusions call them high-cult?) Wealthy Americans were always just as oafish and ignorant as other people, despite their diplomas from dear old Yaleton. Evidently our author has never heard of the famous gentleman’s C.

And to suppose that “in our day” we can tell whether people inherited money and attended Harvard or worked their way through Northern Michigan — how preposterous can you get? Has the author ever listened to the conversations that go on in the first-class section of the airplane? Does the author fully understand that the father of Donald Trump, the vulgarian, was very wealthy? Yet there’s no need to go that far afield. Nancy Pelosi was the daughter of a mayor of Baltimore and was educated at the Institute of Notre Dame and Trinity College (Washington). Brad Sherman and Tim Kaine went to Harvard Law School. Tucker Carlson went to St. George’s School and Trinity College. And look what happened to them. It’s enufta make ya panic.

Wealthy Americans were always just as oafish and ignorant as other people, despite their diplomas from dear old Yaleton.

Oh . . . speaking of hysteria: there are hysterically favorable reactions as well as hysterically unfavorable ones. When, on July 21, the police chief of Minneapolis, Janee Harteau, was forced to resign her position, I looked up some biographical information about her, and found a breathless article from the local paper (March 24) reporting that she had been selected as — can you guess what? She had been named Number 22 on Fortune’s list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.

The idea of such a list makes me wonder what kind of world we live in. And you can think about the further implications of this incident as you read about cops employed by Ms. 22nd Greatest gunning down a woman who requested their assistance, and even gunning down (“dispatching”) the inoffensive pets of the people they are paid to serve — in each case, allegedly, reacting in panic.




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On Dogs, Cats, and Carnal Knowledge

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Reading the Drudge Report just after the House of Representatives defeated a bill that would have given President Obama fast track authority (or “TPA,” for “trade-promotion authority”) to conclude free trade agreements, I remembered a line from the first Ghostbusters movie. The busters (Ray, Egon, Winston, and Peter) are explaining to the mayor that his city is headed for “a disaster of biblical proportions.” When the rather obtuse man asks what they mean by “biblical,” Ray says, “Real wrath of God type stuff.” Egon adds, “Forty years of darkness!” Winston chimes in with “the dead rising from the grave!” Whereupon the ever-arch Peter adds loudly, “Human sacrifice . . . dogs and cats living together . . . mass hysteria!”

What happened on June 12 was that a bill to grant Obama the same power (fast track authority) that almost every other president since World War II has been given went down to defeat in a procedural vote, primarily because Democratic members followed their leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in opposing it. The maneuver was to join Republicans who oppose spending more money on work retraining programs — which are usually just boondoggles that don’t retrain anybody — in voting down a package deal that included the TPA and also increased retraining funds that had earlier passed the Senate.

Talk about a dog and a cat being intimate: arch-conservative Drudge lavishing affection upon arch-leftist Pelosi, the neosocialist harpy from Hell.

Fast track authority is the power Congress can (and almost always does) give any president to negotiate free trade agreements (FTAs) in confidence and without congressional meddling. If any FTA is concluded, it of course becomes law only if the Senate votes in favor of it. Naturally, the Senate can only vote the submitted FTA up or down — it cannot amend it, since amending it is renegotiating it, which the other side of the agreement would not accept. Without such power, you have 435 members of Congress playing president, making it impossible to get any treaty — free trade or otherwise — negotiated.

Despite Obama’s last-minute personal intervention, in which he tried to convince his own party members in the House to support his plan, or perhaps because of his intervention, the bill went down by a vote of 302–126. As one unnamed Democratic congressman put it, “She screwed this president.”

But a number of Republicans opposed the measure, too. Here we get to the dogs and cats getting it on together.

After the vote, Matt Drudge ran a large banner on his website. It screamed, “Brave Pelosi Says No!” Talk about a dog and a cat being intimate: arch-conservative Drudge lavishing affection upon arch-leftist Pelosi, the neosocialist harpy from Hell.

I won’t rehearse all the arguments about why free trade is economically beneficial. I have done so at length in these pages (“The Case for Free Trade,” Liberty, December 2010, pp. 33–41). And the case was made again, succinctly and well, in a recent piece by Larry Kudlow, Art Laffer, and Steve Moore. To economists, 90% of whom favor free trade, it is obvious that free trade is on balance economically good for countries engaging in it. Why is it that when 85% of climate scientists agree on anthropogenic global warming, it becomes “settled science,” but when 90% of economists agree that free trade increases wealth (the theory of comparative advantage), the matter is never considered settled?

The reason for Obama’s defeat is threefold.

First to be mentioned is the decline in free trade sentiment among Democrats. Coming out of the Great Depression and the devastating war it helped to spawn, Democrats agreed with Republicans that the protectionism associated with the Smoot-Hawley tariffs was and is economically counterproductive and geopolitically dangerous — for, as Frédéric Bastiat observed a century and a half ago, when goods cannot cross borders, soldiers will. That is why fast track authority has been given to all but one president since the end of the second world war.

While Obama is a piss-poor negotiator, any free trade agreement he negotiates will likely err on the side of suffocating regulations for both sides.

But the Democrat party has moved ever more toward the extreme left — progressive liberalism, as Solzhenitsyn observed, ever evolving into socialism — and fewer and fewer Democrats are willing to support free trade. Really, Bill Clinton was the last president to push for it, when he signed NAFTA into law. One of the most important of the core Democrat constituencies, Big Labor, loathes free trade. In this most recent vote, for example, when Pelosi and her myrmidons went against fast track for the president of their own party, Big Labor Daddy Richard Trumka (King of the AFL-CIO) praised her mightily, proclaiming that “she stood up against corporate interests.”

Second, despite the best efforts of House Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s to give Obama fast track authority, a portion of the Republican Party opposed the measure. The biggest reason is their distrust of Obama. That’s why websites such as Breitbart.com and the Drudge Report were bashing the bill mightily.

Now, as any more-than-casual reader of these pages knows, I have been unwavering in my opposition to and contempt for the Obama Regime. To put this simply, I regard Obama as the worst president in modern history. (When I said this not long back, one reader chastised me for not characterizing Obama as the worst president in all history, but I confess that my weakness on the history of 19th-century presidents restrains me from agreeing.) President Obama will have done more to harm this country in both domestic and foreign policy than any other modern president, and if we are lucky enough to elect a decent Republican president in 2016, he or she will have to spend most of a first administration reversing the damage.

But as the old saw has it, even a broken clock is right twice a day. More to the point, while Obama is a piss-poor negotiator, in fact really pathetic at it, any FTA he negotiates will likely err on the side of trying to saddle the other side with what he favors for our side too: suffocating regulations. While that is economically deleterious, I doubt that it will result in a net disadvantage to us. Moreover, any final agreement he negotiates must still be approved by Congress, so any grossly unequal deal — say, one that increases Japan’s access to our markets but protects its agricultural industry — can quite easily be voted down, forcing him back to the table.

A good leader has to be a good teacher, too, and explain the ways in which certain ideas are true and certain other ideas are false.

The third, and in my view the most important, reason for Obama’s loss is Obama himself. Let’s put aside the personality issue, which is that Obama is a patently arrogant, distant, snarky, intellectually mediocre narcissist who doesn’t work or play well with anyone except complete stooges. This doesn’t help him, but it isn’t the biggest problem about his free trade initiative. That problem is his history.

Obama has never gone on a tour, selling the need for a trade agreement with Asia and answering the obvious populist arguments against free trade. In this, ironically, he is like George Bush — who, while he negotiated and signed into law more FTAs than any other president, didn’t explain them, argue their importance, or refute the economically ignorant but passionately tribal populist objections to them. Obama doesn’t explain, you see; he merely shows contempt for differing opinions and expects everyone just to see his colossal greatness.

Worse, his history is one of buying the same populist claptrap arguments against free trade that he is being met with now. He bashed Hillary because her hubby signed NAFTA, which, he claimed (parroting the Trumka types), cost jobs; though this was obviously false, as must have been manifest even to an intellectual lightweight such as himself. When in office, he quickly started trade wars against both Mexico and Canada, wars that ceased only when those neighbors fought back and kicked his ass. He stalled the three FTAs left over from the Bush era, only signing them late into his second term, in the face of the worst economic recovery in American history. Now this guy — out of the blue — advocates free trade?

The average American, like the average person anywhere else on this planet, basically has his scientific and moral views set by history. The physics that the average person believes, for example, holds that objects are completely solid, and that they fall at different speeds; that space is completely empty and infinite in all directions, and that it has but three dimensions. Tradition doesn’t make such ideas true. The economics that the average person believes maintains that while labor deserves to be compensated, the lending of money doesn’t; that it is better if all people do all things for themselves, rather than dividing up the tasks among many people, possibly people in different countries; that saving rather than spending hurts jobs, but protecting home industries promotes jobs; and many other things. Tradition doesn’t make these notions true, either.

In short, a good leader has to be a good teacher, too, and explain the ways in which certain ideas are true and certain other ideas are false. But Obama can’t teach anyone about fallacious ideas. Indeed, he often simply accepts them himself — unless he was just lying (something he does with amazing frequency and ease) when he campaigned against Hillary. Either way, he’s not able to teach the public why hunter-gatherer myths are wrong.

Maybe the Republicans can save him from the anti-free-trade crowd, but it is unclear that they can. If not, the biggest loser will be the American public. But I believe in the precept that people get the government they deserve.

em




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The Good Side of Jonathan Gruber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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October Angst

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Obamacare is upon us. Uninsured Americans will begin enrollment at health insurance exchanges this October. The floodgates will be open to 57 million uninsured American citizens and legal residents, who will finally have the opportunity to purchase affordable, high quality healthcare coverage. It comes with Obamacare discounts, in the form of subsidies and tax credits, that are quite generous and widely available, even for foreign students and guest workers. They can be obtained by families and individuals with incomes up to four times the federal poverty level; the average amount of the subsidy, just to get things started in 2014, is $5,290 a year.

At last there is manna for our forgotten poor, our reckless youth, our promiscuous women, and our income-challenged aliens. America will no longer deny them healthcare. Their benefits, too numerous to count, are listed in the 2,000-plus pages of the Obamacare law, which, according to ObamacareFacts.com, is chock full of "really impressive and long-overdue reforms." When Obamacare enrollment opens for business, many people, such as Nobel Prize winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, expect "unexpected success." To such advocates, come October the biggest Obamacare worry will be crowd control.

But the 2,000 pages of bold promises has become a 20,000-page (and rapidly growing) monstrosity of officious bewilderment, provoking fear, disappointment, and confusion in the hearts of the uninsured, not to mention distrust, despair, and anxiety among taxpayers and business people. An astonishing two-thirds of the uninsured do not know whether they will purchase healthcare insurance by the January 1, 2014 deadline. Many fear that they will have to pay more than they can afford, even after getting their subsidy checks and tax credits. Some, including those who have enthusiastically waited for their chance to get Obamacare, worry that they may not qualify, and be shuttled instead into Medicaid.

Still others are troubled by the prospect of losing their jobs or having their hours reduced. A poll of 603 small businesses found that 19% have laid off workers specifically because of Obamacare; 41% have suspended hiring; 55% believe Obamacare will lead to higher healthcare costs. Businesses, from small to large, are circumventing Obamacare with part-time jobs; in labor-intensive industries, the new work week is 29.5 hours. Even altruistic organizations such as school districts and state and local governments are employing this strategy.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the number of uninsured people will never fall below 30 million, even by 2023.

Then there is the troubling spate of recent news decrying the Obamacare implementation delays, missteps, unmet milestones, and special treatment (waivers, exemptions, and exceptions) of politically favored groups. Public support is eroding, with 63% of voters believing the Obamacare law must change. Similar dissatisfaction has been expressed regarding the clumsy rollout, with 57% referring to it as "a joke."

Mr. Obama believes that these attitudes have been shaped by his adversaries and by people who do not understand Obamacare — as if the layoffs, work week reductions, benefit cuts, and cost increases (insurance rates and the 18 new Obamacare taxes and penalties) were merely rumors spread by Fox News and angry Republicans. According to Obama, the number one priority of the entire Republican Party is to ensure "that 30 million people don't have healthcare." But according to the Congressional Budget Office, the number of uninsured people will never fall below 30 million, even by 2023 — after ten years and $2.6 trillion of Obamacare. Looks like Obama wins the uninsured contest.

Republicans certainly revel in Obamacare's inherent flaws and design errors (what Obama calls "glitches and bumps"), but after all, they played no role in writing it, and not a single one of them voted for it. Republicans have not caused what one of Obamacare's senior authors, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT), called a "huge train wreck coming down." The cause of the inevitable wreck is the tricks, gimmicks, and false promises that were stuffed into the bill to get it passed — that, and the Byzantine regulations written by Obamacare lawyers, lobbyists, and bureaucrats who now, in frantic futility, struggle to implement the law.

It is Obamacare itself, at least the grand version sold to the public, that troubles Obama. As he observes its slow, painful, horribly costly implementation, he seems to have come to understand that the public will not see the real version for years (if ever), let alone by October. Consequently, his objective is not to make Obamacare succeed but simply to keep it alive long enough for it to take root (i.e., for the Obamacare insured to become dependent on its handouts). To achieve this, the administration must (a) convince enough people to turn out to enroll in October and (b) ensure that the Obamacare Data Hub will be ready to process them.

Obama has decided that the objective can be effectively accomplished with a $700 million marketing campaign.After all, campaigning is what he does best. And the people he must reach are the same people who voted for him (twice). Bamboozling some of them should be easy, but conscripting the so-called young invincibles, not all of whom voted for him, or anyone, is critical. The premiums paid by the young and healthy are needed to defray the cost of insuring older, higher risk individuals and pay the subsidies for the 30 million heretofore denied health care.

Obama’s marketing blitz will promote the idea that health insurance is necessary, affordable, and "cool" to have. "Don't be left out," reads one pitch. Expect a barrage of ads containing various "guiltless" lures of handouts (similar to the SNAP marketing of food stamps, and hoping for similar success). Although we can expect ads ranging from the most condescending (e.g., wealthy celebrities extolling Obamacare for the poor) to the most shameless (e.g., 21 year-olds fraught with fears of sudden, crippling accidents or early heart disease and cancer), the underlying theme — aimed at the poor, the young, the uneducated, the disengaged — is that health insurance will make you feel good, like a winner. These are exciting times to be temporarily uninsured.

Many states have launched similar campaigns. For example, Minnesota recently announced that Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox will be the faces of its Obamacare exchange. The equally banal creative director of Minnesota's $9 million Obamacare web-based marketing campaign enthusiastically said that the Paul and Babe angle is "great news for those that are uninsured." He was looking for something "easy to work with" and "unique to Minnesota." Presumably, the coolness will be provided by the campaign's motto, "The Land of 10,000 Reasons to get Health Insurance." (Minnesota may be, as it calls itself, “the land of 10,000 lakes,” as if someone were counting, but Michigan and Wisconsin would challenge the uniqueness claim about the pseudo-mythology of Paul Bunyan.)

We will continue to "find out what's in it,” as Nancy Pelosi said — through more discoveries of unforeseen problems, unintended consequences, and the "bumps and glitches" of moral hazard.

When October arrives, many tens of thousands of “navigators” will be available to guide applicants through the steps in the Obamacare enrollment system. They will be paid $20–$48 per hour; a high school diploma is not required, nor is a criminal background check. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) tells us that Navigators must take a 20–30 hour online course (to learn about a 1,200 page law with over 20,000 pages of regulations) and that Americans "can trust that information they are providing is protected." That should quash any quality or privacy concerns.

Integral to the enrollment system looms the Obamacare Data Hub — a colossal database system storing unprecedented reams of applicants' personal information. To determine eligibility and subsidy size, navigators and other government officials will use the hub to evaluate applicant records at various government agencies. These include, for starters, the IRS, the Department of Justice, the Social Security Administration, the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, the Peace Corps, the states' Medicaid systems, and, of course, the HHS.

The Obama administration is confident that it can persuade the young and healthy. But most who show up to enroll will likely do so under the duress of the Individual Mandate. The Obamacare Data Hub is another story. Although the administration insists that it will be open for business on October 1, it has been plagued by development problems. One difficulty, in particular, stemmed from the Employer Mandate (requiring that employers provide coverage to full-time workers). The complexity involved in verifying people’s income and employment status threatened the timely development of the Hub, which cannot tolerate delays. Thus, the Employer Mandate was delayed for one year. Administration officials gave large employers a one-year break, but they let the Individual Mandate stand, certainly annoying many from the critical target group (the young and healthy) whom they must somehow hornswoggle. Brilliant! And as if to demonstrate the essence of Obamacare, they wrote a new regulation for the delay in the Employer Mandate. Quietly released on a Friday (the Friday following the Fourth of July, no less), the regulation was 606 pages long. (Would a two-year delay be 1,212 pages?)

The massive public relations campaign will have some success. The same team and strategy (targeted messaging) that got Obama reelected should not be underestimated. Obamacare advocates will improve their messaging and they will never miss an opportunity to blame Republicans. They will convince many young invincibles to purchase insurance they don't want and many others to purchase insurance that they still cannot afford, even with their subsidies. So despite Obamacare's growing disfavor, campaign leaders remain optimistic, at least in public. But will the sizzle in their messaging entice enough enrollees to require October crowd control?

The vast majority of the uninsured may stay home. Along with most of the 157 million who already have health insurance, they may be and remain skeptical about the Obamacare PR campaign (a marketing blitz for a product so wonderful that it must be required by law), confused by the complexity of the program (mandates, rules, options, taxes, fees, penalties, waivers, exemptions, exceptions, etc.), and frightened before the vision of a $2.6 trillion house of cards in which we must now reside. Peering in from its rickety porch, we will continue to "find out what's in it,” as Nancy Pelosi said — through more discoveries of unforeseen problems, unintended consequences, and the "bumps and glitches" of moral hazard. What else could be found in a 20,000 page regulatory labyrinth of specious minutia, concocted by unscrupulous lawyers, venal lobbyists, and smug bureaucrats, all of whom possess at once the utmost lack of any practical medical or business experience and the utmost disdain for free-market capitalism?

As October approaches, anxiety over the turnout will shift to the Data Hub. But the Hub will not be ready, at least not to the extent Obama expected. He will worry that it will be unable to process enough applicants for the financial sustainability of his prize legislation. And worry he should. If the American public comprehends the capabilities of his Hub, not to mention what it could become, they will burn the entire operation to the ground, if only to keep the NSA from getting its hands on it.




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Populist Fizzle

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The Obama campaign and the DNC appear increasingly desperate in their attempts to find some attack on Romney that resonates with the American people. They’re desperate, of course, because the economy continues to drift in the doldrums, and the election looms.

The latest is a populist ploy. Key Democratic politicians started attacking Romney for having invested in foreign companies and having assets in Swiss and other offshore accounts. This was immediately trumpeted by the mainstream media. How dare Romney invest abroad! He’s the pioneer of offshoring!

Now, it is by no means illegal — yet — to put some of your portfolio into foreign assets, and it is in all the “Investing 101” books that you ought to do so. You need to diversify your assets to minimize risks, and this may include diversifying outside your home country. Putting money in a Swiss account, for example, is a good hedge against inflation, given the historic stability of the Swiss monetary system. But the Dems are banking on the fact that the average person doesn’t understand all this — and that is a very good bet.

Alas, however, the attack fizzled when it was discovered that Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), chair of the DNC, had herself invested abroad, repeatedly. She invested in the Davis Financial Fund, with holdings on the State Bank of India, as well as a Swiss private banking group. She also invested in the Fidelity Advisor Overseas Fund, which has holdings in HSBC (a British bank), Novo Nordisk (a Danish drug company),VW, Rakuten (a Japanese shipping firm) and so on.

It also turns out that another person who has invested abroad is the ever-offensive Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Venus), “head” (though not the brains) of the House Democrats. She earned millions from her investment in Matthews International Capital Management, which focuses primarily on Asian equities.

Obama, like his spiritual mentor Nixon, is much given to what psychologists call “projection” — calling others what you yourself are. Obama once accused McCain’s campaign of “throwing stuff up against the refrigerator to see what sticks.” Yes, President Obama, and you don't have an infamous "enemies list."

But it looks like this little piece of magnetized crap isn’t sticking. Try again, guys.




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Appreciation of Depreciation

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Everything depreciates; even the IRS realizes this truism. They realize that your rental property is falling apart as time assaults its clapboard shingles. Even our bodies lose value, though the taxpeople grant no deductions for our annual, inarguable loss of strength, stamina, beauty, or the mental assets whereby we make our living.

Wouldn’t it be a political masterstroke for the Obama healthcare crazies to add that earmark to their bill — bodily depreciation? Rental houses decline, and so do structures of bone and flesh. You don’t believe me? Take a good look at Nancy Pelosi.

Consider your shiny new car — drive it a year and it has lost 30% of its value. And how ’bout your new $40 sweater? At the garage sale you’ll be lucky to get five bucks. And let’s not even talk about underwear. One day’s use and it’s worthless. Oh, maybe five cents as a rag.

But of all the products of our civilization, nothing loses monetary value like books. I learned this lesson in economics at our Charlotte branch library. Books initially listed at 25 bucks could be purchased for a mere quarter of a dollar. What a remarkable decline! And think of it. Unlike the car, TV, sweater, or underwear, the books are functionally brand new — just as useful as the day they were printed. Sometimes they're even more so, with helpful notes that some previous reader scribbled in the margin. And better yet, if you're really lucky, sweet little notes and inscriptions: “Christmas 1945: Rob, Hope you return by June." "This book — see page 6 — expressed my feeling for you! All my love, Betty.” I often wonder why Betty didn’t save $19.95 and enhance her poetic reputation by simply copying page 6, changing a few names, and sending Rob a handwritten note.

You never know what you’ll find. I had an overnight guest who searched my library for bedtime reading and randomly picked the “bank” where we kept stray greenbacks for a household emergency. He didn’t get to finish the book, he said — could he borrow it? We switched him to a safer book.

Everything depreciates, including — it hurts me to say this — love, though nobody has calculated a percentage acceptable to the IRS. Too many variables. The only exceptions may be wine and super-aged antiques. I guarantee you that my iMac, 50 years hence, will gain additional value (the patina of age, you know), as compared with the items in my kitchen pantry: green cheese, curdled milk, and purple veal chops.

And then there are cars. First, a giant decline in value, beginning with the drive out of the showroom; then a continuing decline as you pile up miles. But somewhere in its automotive lifecycle, a car becomes a nonpareil gem, worth more than you paid for it. Buy and hold.




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