Lincoln: A President Lies, and People Cheer

 | 

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.



Share This


The Loss and the Future

 | 

Obama won reelection, and the Left is utterly jubilant. Obama — jubilant himself — obviously views this as a mandate for four more years of bigger government, higher taxes, more Fed money-printing, more regulation, more war on fossil fuels, more socialization of industry, and more welfare programs.

He made this clear in his characteristically arrogant “my way or the highway” talk regarding the looming fiscal cliff, where he said that the voters have made it clear they want to soak the rich with more taxes. In his hubris, he reminds me strongly of Nixon after his reelection. And I suspect he is headed for the same fall.

Leftist “pundits” are full of advice for Republicans about how to grow beyond their “prejudices” — and embrace leftist ones! This would be convenient for the Democrats, one would think.

I want to sketch, briefly but more accurately, the reasons for the Republican loss, what it portends for the future, and some suggestions (from one on the inside) on how to fix it.

First, I am not as impressed with Obama’s victory as most of the leftist pundits are. The Electoral College totals typically overstate matters, of course. Obama won, but with fewer votes than he received last time, and there were 2 million fewer votes cast in this election than in 2008. As Michael Barone points out, every president reelected since Andrew Jackson won reelection with a greater popular vote percentage than he received in his first run, except Obama. Last time he won 53% to 46%, as opposed to 50% to 48% now. As Jim Geraghty notes, had Romney received about 407,000 more votes in as few as four of the battleground states, he could have won the Electoral College vote. Gallup and other accurate polls showed that just before the handy hurricane Sandy, Romney had a slight edge, but it was eroded by the photo ops of Obama conspicuously “caring” about the victims. It was an ill wind that blew Obama a lot of good. Considering the huge advantage any incumbent president has, the wealth of financial resources available to Obama, and the lock he had on his key voting blocks — in 59 black precincts of Philadelphia, Romney got zero votes! — Obama hardly waltzed to victory.

The markets were similarly unimpressed. They dropped 2% to 3% on the following few days. And now with the certainty that Obamacare will be fully inflicted upon the country, businesses are doing exactly what it was predicted they would: cutting their full-time workforces to avoid the costs of giving full-time workers government-mandated insurance or pay the fines, as well as the taxes that Obamacare will bring. Companies large and small are accelerating the shedding of full-time jobs in favor of part-time workers and contractors. These include: Abbot Labs; Applebee’s; Boston Scientific; Covidien; Dana Holding; Darden Restaurants; Kinetic Concepts; Kroger; Lockheed-Martin; Medtronic; New Energy; Papa John’s Pizza; Smith & Nephew; Stryker; TANCOA Janitorial Services; and Welch Allyn. As person put it, “We own a small business and we have 100 employees, we will lay off many and put many on part time status due to [Obamacare]. Ironically, many of our employees voted for the man who will put them out of a job.”

That will only accelerate in the new year, as the mandates loom.

Obama won and Romney lost for a variety of reasons, some of which the Republicans can overcome, and some of which they will have to figure out how to circumvent — if they have the will and skill. These include:

1. Obama’s massive negative campaign — really, classic negative associative propaganda. The strategist behind it was formulated by Jim Messina. He bet six months before the election that Romney would win the primary, and followed the strategy enunciated by Dick Morris: if the public doesn’t know a candidate, run massively negative ads to create an initial impression which later positive ads will not overcome. While Romney was still forced to battle primary opponents during an unreasonably long primary period, getting attacked in a seemingly endless series of debates (typically moderated by leftist Democratic “journalists”), Obama was free to start running hundreds of millions in attack ads against Romney. The ad that alleged that Romney was responsible for some guy’s wife dying of cancer, for example, was a Goebbels-like pearl of vicious mendacity. The ads bashed Romney for exporting jobs, wanting to enslave women, put blacks in chains, and so on. This wasn’t so much a Chicago-style attack campaign as a Berlin-style one. Only a man of Obama’s metastasized narcissism could gloat over such a low victory.

Every president reelected since Andrew Jackson won reelection with a greater popular vote percentage than he received in his first run — except Obama.

2. There was a concomitant campaign by the Obama-worshipping mainstream media of deliberately arousing the anti-Mormon hatred long endemic in American culture, a campaign involving dozens of articles in major publications, including Newsweek just before the election. (Romney chose not to allow his surrogates to explore Obama’s own controversial church, something I suspect Obama counted on.) Obama could have ended the deliberate enflaming of anti-Mormon prejudice with just one utterance, but he cheerfully let it proceed.

3. Romney failed to hammer home more powerfully the massive corruption of this regime. I would have run hard-hitting ads naming names and showing pictures of each of the legion of wealthy Obama campaign bundlers whose useless green energy companies received tax dollars.

4. Romney didn’t do a good job of rebutting the bogus narrative put forward ceaselessly by Obama and his media courtesans about how bad the economy was when he took office. The recession ended in 2009, and the recovery was the weakest in recent memory, not because the recession was so severe, but precisely because of Obama’s policies. The Romney campaign just took it for granted that everybody remembered the Reagan recovery, not realizing that most young people don’t. He needed to connect those dots to counter the media’s clear mission to push their false narrative.

5. True to his Chicago roots, Obama used OPM (Other People’s Money) liberally to buy votes to an unprecedented degree. Despite the recovery, Obama added 15 million new people to the food stamp program alone (hitting 47 million, or 14% of the total population). You can bet the vast majority of those became his loving supporters. And by 2011, 70.4 million people were on Medicaid — a record 22%, or one out of every five Americans. Hell, even the government-subsidized cellphone program for the poor (the “Lifeline” program) was turned into an effective vote-buying scheme. The number of people getting “free” phones rose from 7.1 million in 2008 to 12.5 million in 2012 — a 76% jump!

This is public choice lumpen theory in action. Give a cellphone — and maybe a bottle of Gallo wine! — to the voters, and then truck them to the polls. The Chicago way, indeed!

In fact, it was a thoroughly public choice theory election: give the voters enough “free” health care, “free” food, “free“ cell phones, “free” storm assistance, “free” contraceptives, “free” student loans, and they will vote for you, even if it costs them long-term in lost jobs, prosperity and freedom itself.

It would appear that we are all Greeks now.

6. Obama’s campaign of changing the subject was a classic of successful misdirection. He was able to convince many voters that Romney hated women. Here Obama was helped by the primary win of one Todd Akin, a wingnut with some loopy theories on rape. Really, this was a wonderful example of a dirty trick: Akin’s opponent, Claire McCaskill, had run ads attacking Akin's primary opponents and building him up as a strong conservative, cleverly ensuring that the sane (and stronger) candidates would lose out to the nutjob. Romney and the Republican establishment tried in vain to get this bastard to drop out, and distanced themselves from him when he wouldn’t, but they were all bashed for being closet Akinites. McCaskill coasted to victory, never having to defend her awful record in Congress.

The Romney campaign just took it for granted that everybody remembered the Reagan recovery, not realizing that most young people don’t.

It was hard to decide who was more reprehensible: Mr. Akin, because after making his ignorant remarks, he refused to do the honorable thing and resign, or “Senator” McCaskill, for her filthy trick in pushing the wingnut to become her opponent out of fear of explaining to the voters why she deserved their votes.

7. There is no way in hell that Romney or any other candidate could have won any appreciable number of black voters in this election, obviously. But he really hurt himself with Hispanics by positioning himself to the right of Gingrich and Perry on immigration (and not choosing Rubio for VP candidate). He should have thought through the issue more carefully, and articulated a more pro-immigration policy that does justice to the real, genuine concerns of immigration opponents, but one more in keeping with our national history. (I have a rather lengthy and detailed piece on this subject coming in these pages soon.)

8. Romney failed to pound home the failed policy of Obama in Libya. Bush had settled with Gaddafi, obtaining his mustard gas and nuclear weapons technology, in exchange for his not invading Libya (this was in the first week or so of the Iraq war). Obama helped overthrow the admittedly evil Gaddafi, and recently denied extra protection for our ambassador in Benghazi, while boasting of his own killing of bin Laden. The result was a successful al Qaeda attack, which Obama had the audacity to blame on some obscure video.

Can future Republicans prevail? Certainly. The Democrats recovered very rapidly after massive defeats by Nixon in 1972 and Reagan in 1984, landslides next to which this election was as nothing. But it would help things if Republicans did some reasonable things.

1. Get clear on the purpose of your party, as opposed to the purpose of your faction. In contemporary politics, the Democratic Party is the big-government party; the Republicans should be the smaller government party. Be transcendentally clear on what that means. Democrats are not (usually) communists, they just want an ever-larger government — they are neosocialists, rather than socialists. This is because the party is primarily a coalition of groups that get money from government or progressive government policies. The key constituents of the party are public employees, especially teachers; people on welfare or other forms of public assistance; attorneys who sue businesses for a living; unionized workers in private industry; and young people who get government benefits but pay little for them (in taxes).

Republicans aren’t (as Obama so often insinuates) anarchists; they just want government restrained to its most effective and indispensable core functions: defense; internal security; a fair judicial system; only such regulation as stops significant negative externalities and other market failures. And Republicans are also aware of the everpresent risk of government failures.

2. The Republicans, again, need to understand with transcendent clarity that people don’t vote their interests, but their perceived interests. People can be mistaken about these interests, and often are. In public choice parlance, this gives rise to democracy failure, or as I term it, voter failure. Indeed, in my view, this election involved a huge amount of voter failure.

So it is that many poor people vote for weakened welfare requirements, unable to see that it is their communities that will suffer the most from the expanded cycle of poverty. Many elderly people support the federal government’s taking control of healthcare, unable to see that in countries with national healthcare systems, the elderly are put at the bottom of the list for scarce procedures.

For that reason, Republicans need to hammer home cases of government failure, not just here, but elsewhere as well. That means that in the coming two years, Republicans at all levels need to keep pressing this administration about its failures, both in the past and as they mount rapidly over the next two years. Remember, the costs of Obamacare were carefully structured to occur after the 2012 election. Every Republican politician should point out every case where a business lays off workers, cuts back hours, or charges customers more, to pay for Obamacare — as an owner of a large chain of Denny’s just announced he is doing (raising prices and cutting hours to 28 per week per worker). Keep pointing out the costs of each and every new tax imposed by that law. Since the Republicans still control the House, they should run hearings on these costs, as well as (for that matter) on each crony capitalist deal from the past and going forward.

The Republicans need to understand with transcendent clarity that people don’t vote their interests, but their perceived interests.

In particular, Republicans in Congress need to resist the temptation to say of Obamacare, “Oh, well — it’s now the law of the land. Let’s try to make it better.” No — make Obama, Pelosi, and Reid own it. And do so with loud publicity.

3. The Republicans need a much shorter primary season. Romney ran short of money early in the race — right after winning the primaries — because he had to spend so much on campaigning so long. While he spent his campaign cash against Gingrich and Santorum, Obama spent his attacking Romney. When Romney finally clinched the nomination, he was virtually out of cash, and could not answer the vicious onslaught of attacks.

4. Republicans should not allow mainstream media commentators to moderate during the Republican primary debates. Pick only conservative and libertarian journalists to do that job. In the primary debate “moderated” by ex-Clinton aide and partisan Democratic hack George Stephanopoulos, he introduced the phony “war on women” meme (as he was no doubt instructed to do by the Obama team) by out of the blue bringing up birth control — the legitimacy of which none of the candidates had ever denied.

And in the general debates, eliminate the single media moderator format. In the debate that Candy Crowley moderated, she shamelessly took the side of Obama, interrupting Romney dozens of times (and Obama fewer than ten times), and at one point actually told the audience that Romney was “wrong” on the facts about whether Obama had called the Benghazi attack an act of terrorism. In fact, while Obama used that phrase in his earlier news conference, it did not clearly apply to the attack, and for the following two weeks he and his spokespeople advanced the false narrative that the assault was a spontaneous demonstration aroused by a video.

Going forward, insist on having true balance by having panels of moderators, panels that are themselves well balanced between left and right.

One final observation is worth making here. It will be hard for half of this country to watch the insufferable arrogance of the president as he continues his quest to push the country to the left. But as John Steele Gordon recently noted, most presidential second terms have been cursed by scandal, war, and battles with Congress. Obama, who has already seen all of those during his first term, will likely find things even worse in his second term.

Why? First, even his own estimates show him running the national debt up to $20 trillion — an estimate based on rosy projections. The final tab may well hit $22 trillion. Sooner or later, this will trigger inflation or increases in the interest the country must pay to service the debt. This will hurt his popularity.

Second, he will not be able to sweep the problem of Iran’s nuclear weapons program under the carpet much longer. He has claimed that his rather weak sanctions program will prevent Iran from developing nuclear capability, and that his Republican critics are warmongers. This is rich, considering that he used our military to overthrow Gaddafi, bragged openly about killing bin Laden (a boast that likely motivated the killing of the four Americans in Benghazi by the resurgent al Qaeda), and has himself said he will not permit Iran to go nuclear.

Most presidential second terms have been cursed by scandal, war, and battles with Congress. Obama, who has already seen all of those during his first term, will likely find things even worse in his second.

We’ll see. I suspect that the sanctions won’t work — without the support of Russia and China, how could they? And have they worked at all so far? Either Iran will go nuclear — in which case Obama will be revealed as having made a truly Carteresque blunder, and in the same country, allowing our bitterest enemy to achieve game-changing power which will surely lead it to expand its terrorist operations against us — or else he will use force, which will make the anti-American Left and isolationist Right bitterly angry.

Third, the effects of Obamacare will hit. If the death panels start ruling out heart valve surgery for Grandpa, there will be heat. If millions of people lose their preferred health insurance (because their employers find it cheaper to pay the fine instead of furnishing the more expensive federally mandated insurance), there will be heat. And if millions of Americans lose their jobs (or get knocked down to part-time status), there will be profound disappointment.

Finally, Obama is now pushing for $1.6 trillion in tax increases. If he shoves them through Congress, and this further chokes off economic growth, swelling the numbers of the unemployed and perhaps pushing us back into outright recession, there will be fury.

Obama, in running one of the dirtiest campaigns in history, made a deal with the Devil to cling to power. We will see what price the Devil will exact in return.

/p




Share This


In the Cloakroom

 | 




Share This


Fungible Semantics: The Roberts Decision

 | 

Tax: A contribution for the support of a government required of persons, groups, or businesses within the domain of that government.

Penalty: A punitive measure, regulatory in nature, established by law or authority, to deter certain conduct.

A Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the healthcare mandate based on the government’s taxing authority?

Well, why not? The tax code has been dragooned into service to influence and shape social behavior for over a hundred years, from a dollar-a-pack cigarette tax, to mortgage relief to encourage home ownership. In addition to the collection of revenue to bankroll government it evolved into an instrument for social engineering and stealth workarounds to advance social policy. Which of the following statements is true?

A tax raises revenue, a penalty raises revenue, therefore a penalty is a tax?

A tax influences behavior, a penalty influences behavior, therefore a tax is a penalty?

That’s right — neither is true. These syllogisms illustrate a well-known logical fallacy that can be found in any college textbook on logic. How, then, could a superior jurist like John Roberts persuade himself that a penalty is a tax? Well, the Chief Justice opined that the penalty for noncompliance with the mandate ($695) was too weak to constitute a deterrent, and must therefore be a tax! This left many to wonder if he had intentionally confounded these two concepts, and thus rewritten the mandate so the Affordable Care Act would pass constitutional muster.

The logic was so bizarre and flawed that some, like Charles Krauthammer, suggested that Roberts resorted to this semantic legerdemain to avoid politicizing the Court and weakening its prestige. But this is to forget that the Constitution was born in crisis and the Court has weathered more violent partisan storms than those of the current climate: just read some of the broadsides in newspapers written one hundred to two hundred years ago. To my knowledge, no Congressmen have been caned to within an inch of their lives in the well of the Senate (though, no doubt, some have deserved it), and no cabinet secretaries killed in duels in the past 100 years. A good rule of thumb: follow the law and let the chips fall where they may.

Misconstruing what is obviously a penalty as a tax may seem a harmless bit of hocus pocus, but playing hard and fast with meaning and general disregard for semantic precision has resulted in a Supreme Court decision that could have unfortunate consequences for the American economy. Or as one editorialist (James Delong) put it:

The ACA is a complex and incoherent law drafted in haste and secrecy, written largely by the healthcare industry to promote its own profits by bringing more people into a government-administered system open to capture and looting. It is defended by an administration trapped by the imperative of defending its handiwork. The product is a Rube Goldberg regulatory system that cannot be made rational, workable, or intelligible, and is a delicious (to Republicans) promise of an endless stream of outrages.

It is all very well for the Chief Justice to defer the issue of constitutionality back to elected officials, but as Ronald Reagan once remarked, “The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program,” and it will be difficult to impossible to repeal the healthcare law even if Mitt Romney is elected president, unless there are significant Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. The stakes were high, very high. This could be the worst Supreme Court decision since Kelo v. City of New London, and it is fair to ask if, during his stormy sessions with the brethren, Justice Roberts experienced some sort of mental lapse.

In the last century or so, no Congressmen have been caned to within an inch of their lives in the well of the Senate — though, no doubt, some have deserved it.

The original sin was, of course, using the tax system as a quick-and-dirty tool to improvise policy, to encourage (say) petroleum exploration or to discourage the use of tobacco, thereby exempting government from the strenuous work of writing carefully crafted long-term programs to advance a coherent policy. The Constitution says that

The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States . . .

The framers did not say that the collection of taxes could or should be used to influence economic behavior or placate special interests, and in this they showed some foresight: broadening the concept of taxation to, for example, provide incentives for certain economic entities, has resulted in a Byzantine tax code so complicated and unwieldy, so corrupted by influence-peddlers and lobbyists, it has become a national embarrassment, and a general disincentive to business and entrepreneurship. Using the sacrosanct tax code as an ad hoc tool to implement policy (rather than enact problem-specific programs) has produced some very bad tax law.

Another institutional casualty, perhaps more fatal than the debasement of the tax system, has been the English language. A general contempt for the elegance and precision of English, e.g. twisting of meaning out of all recognition, demonstrates the dangers that George Orwell warned us about over 60 years ago in his essay, Politics and the English Language. The decline of English, he observed, had entered a deadly spiral:

it becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

It was Orwell’s belief that words and semantic distinctions matter, that mangling language to suit one's purposes eventually leads to a world where black is white and up is down. How prophetic! We need language to map the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, and a breach of semantics can be even more lethal than a breach of law. Using imprecise language to conceal real meaning is a sure path to chaos. Orwell was talking about communist pamphleteers and flannel-mouthed journalists at the time, but it applies equally to any abuse of language, and that includes the recent decision by Chief Justice Roberts to call a penalty a tax.




Share This


Vast New Possibilities for Government Control of Our Lives

 | 

Now that we know that the key for politicians to make unconstitutional demands on us is simply to levy a tax on those of us who are recalcitrant, vast new possibilities open up for people who are certain they know better than we do how to run our lives.

For instance, Michelle Obama can begin promoting a Healthy Eating Act, whereby we will all be forced to buy a requisite amount of veggies each week, including my unfavorite, broccoli. I suppose if the fine, er, tax, is not too onerous, I will find that paying the tax is still preferable to filling my garbage bin with things I can't tolerate.

And while the liberals among us are wetting their pants in anticipation of getting to impose those and similar rules, I will be proposing the Affordable Police Protection Act to my representative and senators. It will require every head of household to buy a personal defense handgun and maintain it in an easily accessible place in the home, thus warding off various criminals and reducing the costs of police forces and criminal courts. Or maybe it could be made even stronger and require every adult citizen to carry a handgun at all times, thus reducing crime even more.

Either way, people who absolutely refuse to do their part in the anti-crime and cost-of-policing-reduction effort will be required to pay a tax to offset the costs of dealing with criminal types who continue to operate, hoping to take their own chances with such scofflaws. Of course, the police can spend some time checking random citizens to verify that they are carrying their weapons and weapons permits at all times. Oh, I suppose that proof of purchase might be filed with our 1040s each year, but still there would have to be some way to verify continued ownership. Which should take precedence, though, the Fourth Amendment or the power of Congress to tax?




Share This


Taxes on Buying and Not-Buying

 | 

In his decision on the healthcare law, Chief Justice Roberts interprets the "penalty" on not buying health insurance as a tax. He recognizes that it is meant "to affect individual conduct." But such taxes, for example import duties, are nothing new. As Roberts says (pp. 36–37 of the decision), "Today, federal and state taxes can compose more than half the retail price of cigarettes, not just to raise money, but to encourage people to quit smoking. And we have upheld such obviously regulatory measures as taxes on selling marijuana and sawed-off shotguns."

But the import, cigarette, marijuana, and shotgun examples are taxes on selling and buying something. The penalty regarding health insurance is a tax on not buying something. Does Roberts really mean to constitutionalize a tax on not buying whatever Congress may specify? What has become of constitutional limits to federal power?




Share This


Check Your Premises!

 | 

Ah, NPR — how we love to hate you . . . and guardedly to love you. Love you for such gems as “Car Talk," “A Prairie Home Companion,” and “Freakonomics.” Hate you for the smug sanctimoniousness that passes for “objective” reporting, riddled with questionable premises axiomatically postulated.

It’s not that interviews with the likes of David Axelrod or public sector union bosses are slanted — after all, we expect left-wing boilerplate from them. It’s the public affairs programs, such as “Talk of the Nation” and the “Diane Rehm Show,” which, while pretending to be objective, are blinded by their own unquestioned assumptions. This is particularly evident when the host — be it Rehm or Neal Conan — in an effort to be balanced during roundtable discussions with a potpourri of commentators, plays devil’s advocate. The questions of these devil’s advocates often lack conviction or show a gross misunderstanding of the opposing viewpoint. And they are seldom followed up — after what are invariably short, pro-forma answers.

On Fridays, Rehm hosts a roundup discussion of the week’s news. Recently, the subject was the presidential campaign. At one point she asked the panel whether Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital was “fair game” — for an attack by the opposition, I suppose. Instantly, my BS radar quivered, since it’s a given that a candidate’s record should be analyzed and critiqued. The question turned out to be the opening salvo for a nitpicking attack on Romney’s Bain record, private equity in general, obscene profits, and “excessive” wealth. There was no parallel inquiry into whether Barack Obama’s record as a community organizer was “fair game.”

Examine the hidden premises.

In the first instance, the assumption is that work in venture capital and leveraged debt — making a profit by dismembering noncompetitive industries, extracting their residual value, and eliminating the jobs they provide — is problematic, perhaps nefarious. Never mind that failing companies might be better off dissolved, and their assets better employed in a different sector of the economy. Never mind that the benefits to the economy would likely increase employment by making business in a given sector more competitive, despite the short-term loss of jobs. To see this in another way: why should productive capital be wasted subsidizing a dying enterprise producing unwanted goods by overpaid workers at uncompetitive prices?

Although the companies that Bain Capital nurtured back to health and profitability — because, in the judgment of the investors, they showed promise — were dutifully mentioned, the focus of the discussion remained on the euthanatized companies and their lost jobs. Eager to administer the coup de grace, the commentators piled on “excessive” profits and wealth, ignoring whether or not these were acquired honestly through hard work and brains.

Why should productive capital be wasted subsidizing a dying enterprise producing unwanted goods by overpaid workers at uncompetitive prices?

In the second instance — the unasked question (and probably why it wasn’t asked) — the assumption is that work as a community organizer is always noble and beyond criticism. Perhaps it is, but does it qualify a candidate for the presidency, where judgment, leadership and knowledge are paramount?

Mitt Romney’s record — whatever you might think of his policies — at Bain & Company, Bain Capital, and the Salt Lake Winter Olympic games, as well as in the governorship of Massachusetts, demonstrates the sort of judgment, leadership, and knowledge that one expects from a first-class commander-in-chief. In contrast, Barack Obama showed a striking lack of judgment and a foolish naiveté when he promised to close the Guantanamo prison, to have the most open and accessible administration to date, and to do a lot of other things that he has not done, three and a half years into his presidency. The May 26 issue of The Economist displayed its inimitable sense of humor and irony when it reported that

“Barack Obama accepted an award honouring his administration’s commitment to transparency on March 28th 2011. It was given by a coalition of open-government advocates. But the meeting was closed to reporters and photographers, and was not announced on the president’s public schedule. Occasionally life provides perfect metaphors.”

The article then very seriously ups the ante:

“Yet perhaps none of Mr Obama’s transparency promises has rung hollower than his vow to protect whistleblowers. Thomas Drake, who worked at the National Security Agency, was threatened with life imprisonment for leaking to the Baltimore Sun unclassified details of a wasteful programme that also impinged on privacy. The case against him failed — ultimately he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanour charge of ‘exceeding authorised use of a computer’ — but not before he was hounded out of his job. Mr Obama’s administration tried to prosecute him under the Espionage Act, a law passed in 1917 that prohibits people from giving information ‘with intent or reason to believe that it is to be used to the injury of the United States or to the advantage of a foreign nation’. Mr Obama has indicted six whistleblowers, including Mr Drake, under the Espionage Act, twice as many as all prior administrations combined, for leaking information not to a ‘foreign nation’ but to the press.”

Finally, to tie the ribbon properly, The Economist contrasts the Obama administration’s secrecy with the new sunshine policy of Georgia’s Republican administration, which opens vast public access to government files. All this from a newspaper that endorsed Obama over McCain in 2008.

As to leadership, President Obama abdicated any vestige of it when he ignored the balanced-budget recommendations of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles commission and subsequent Super Committee — both of which he had commissioned. And he left the design of health reform in the capable hands of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi.

Obama’s knowledge of community organization might be beyond question, but if his role as a teacher of constitutional law at the University of Chicago meant anything, warning bells ought to have chimed in his head as he signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare — as became evident to constitutionalists on June 28 when the Supreme Court’s minority issued vigorously dissenting opinions to the majority’s ruling on its constitutionality.

His lack of economic knowledge is even more abysmal. The Diane Rehm Show referenced above was aired as a follow-up to the Democrats’ critique of Romney’s stint at Bain. TV spots, print advertisements, and an Obama address have caricatured private equity, financiers and of course the Republican candidate as “vampires” and “vultures.” A conflict between profits and unemployment was insinuated. Referring to these attacks, The Economist agreed with Romney’s oft-stated comment that Obama has no idea how the economy works or how jobs are created, and in its June 2 issue opined, “Mr Obama is guilty not of rhetorical excess but of economic muddle. That is far more worrying.”

But back to NPR.

The then soon-to-be-expected Supreme Court ruling on the legality of Obamacare supplied the theme for another recent Diane Rehm roundtable discussion. To the NPR powers-that-be, the constitutionality of the law must have seemed indefensible. So once again, they changed the premise and reframed the debate to stack the deck in their favor. Instead of focusing on the substance of the upcoming decision, discussion focused on the haplessness of five to four decisions and the desirability of broader consensus among the justices. This was chewing on the sizzle instead of the steak. Ironically, even though Obamacare was upheld, it was still a five to four decision.

Conan asked his audience whether NPR offered good value to its listeners, thereby subtly shifting the premise of the argument and justifying the subsidy. He received nothing but paeans of praise for NPR — from its own listeners, of course!

On June 15 President Obama displayed a presidential quality that is anathema to lovers of liberty: a lust for power. Bypassing Congress, he ordered the Department of Justice not to enforce certain measures of immigration law, in effect passing the so-called DREAM act by executive order. On the day it happened, Diane Rehm’s Friday roundtable discussion focused on the decree’s compassion, on Congress’s ineffectiveness, on the Republicans' immigration policy muddle, and on the consequences of the president’s move on the political campaign — in particular, how it stole the thunder of Florida Republican Congressman Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American vice-presidential hopeful whose modified DREAM act had a good chance of being enacted, in a conventional manner. In short, she focused on everything except the executive order’s legality.

A Fox News discussion, on the other hand — and virtually at the same time — questioned the constitutionality of the president’s decree, almost to the exclusion of every other aspect.

On another show, NPR itself was the subject du jour. Whenever the nation’s budget is up for discussion, NPR’s subsidy — relatively small as it is — becomes a point of contention for some Republicans. But the animosity conservatives harbor towards public radio for their leftward slant is almost beside the point. Their more basic concerns are twofold: is the subsidy a proper function of government; and can we afford it?

Those questions are about fundamental premises. Yet they were completely ignored when Neal Conan tackled the subject on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” Conan’s show is sometimes a Gatling gun of vox populi sound bites on whatever the current concern happens to be. During these broadcasts he poses a provocative question and solicits callers for their opinions, granting each of them only a few seconds, and seldom engaging them or directly commenting on what they say. On that day Conan asked his audience whether NPR offered good value to its listeners, thereby subtly shifting the premise of the argument and justifying the subsidy. He received nothing but paeans of praise for NPR — from its own listeners, of course!

Premises are not confined to words. Tone can convey its own hidden premises, and Conan is a master of the craft. Merely by the length of his silence and the inflection on the few words he uses to break it following a caller’s comment he can indicate his approval, disapproval or neutrality. The last is the quality he always strives to project, but the careful listener can often almost hear him muffling a censorious tut-tut-tut.

He doesn’t hold a candle, however, to the archly supercilious Nina Totenberg, NPR’s legal affairs correspondent. It’s never difficult to determine Totenberg’s likes and dislikes, which — you can be certain — are always evident, especially when combined with her East Coast Brahmin accent, which lends a certain emphasis to her tone. She can infuse with utter contempt the utterance of a name or story she disapproves; and she can manage to give weight and portent to anything she considers noteworthy, no matter how trivial or anodyne, by the intonation of her voice.

* * *

Writing is seldom objective; reportage never is. Putting an idea into prose requires choosing words to convey the thought, while even selecting what constitutes a news story, deciding how to report it, or how much context to include, invariably slants it.

This seems such a simple observation. Yet most news organizations are loath to recognize or admit it, and don a mask of faux objectivity that few people see through. With one exception: the aforementionedEconomist.

The Economist is an English weekly news magazine in continuous publication since 1843, with a circulation of 1.5 million. Itcalls itself a “liberal newspaper”, but it is not “liberal” in the American sense. Rather, it is “classical liberal”, sometimes advocating radical libertarian positions. Its June 11 issue carried a critique of charitable tax breaks as a cover story. It advocates the legalization of drugs and open immigration, has criticized the “corporate social responsibility” movement from an ethical perspective, and has strongly defended securities short selling and naked speculation as beneficial practices.

Ironically, the journal’s editorial stance results in much more objective reporting than that of an “objective” source such as NPR — for one thing, because a reader knows up front where The Economist is coming from. Contrast with The New York Times (the “newspaper of record”), with a print circulation of 1 million. The NYT has always considered itself the epitome of objectivity, yet a large majority or readers view it as “liberal” (in the American sense). This view was confirmed in a mid-2004 editorial by the then-public editor, Daniel Okrent, in which he admitted that the newspaper did have a liberal bias. But this bias is not the paper’s stated policy position. Both the NYT and NPR would benefit hugely from such a disclosure, as they would no longer draw accusations of hypocrisy. But don’t hold your breath.

One unexpected bonus from The Economist’s openly classical liberal bias is that they can use humor to drive the point of a story home. Reporting on Zimbabwe’s upcoming elections under President Robert Mugabe’s tyrannically corrupt administration, The Economist offered a photograph of an elderly, loincloth-clad shepherd leaning on his crook, next to a coffin under a tree; nearby, a cow grazed. The caption read: “Four votes for Mr Mugabe.”




Share This


The Fast and Furious Investigation: Quick or Dead?

 | 

On June 28 the US House of Representatives voted 255-67 to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to provide documents subpoenaed by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Although the vote was largely along party lines, it still represented the first time in American history that a cabinet member has been found in contempt of Congress.

Partisan or not, the contempt vote was more than justified by the facts. The attorney general has stonewalled Congress’ investigation of Operation Fast and Furious, a crazy policy which amounted, in substance, to running guns into Mexico with the expectation that this would lead to prosecutions and the interdiction of weapons trafficked to Mexican drug cartels. One US border patrol agent has already died as a result of Fast and Furious, as have an untold number of Mexicans. Hundreds of the guns remain in the hands of criminals who will not hesitate to use them to kill people. While it should be noted that tactics resembling Fast and Furious were first employed by the Bush Justice Department, the stupidity was ratcheted up in a big way under Holder. In any case, the attorney general has provided Congress with about one tenth of the documents under subpoena, and contradictions have cropped up in his congressional testimony. The whole business stinks, and yet the scandal remains (except on the Fox News channel) for the most part under the radar screen.

On the day of the contempt vote I heard some talking head on a cable news program declare that the timing of the vote showed that the Republicans were not veryserious about pursuing their investigation. On the contrary, the vote was scheduled to coincide with what the Republicans thought would be an overturn of Obamacare by the Supreme Court — the second blow of a double whammy that would jumpstart the Republican effort to take the White House. This plan backfired when Chief Justice John Roberts found a way to declare Obamacare constitutional. The unexpected reversal of fortune for Obamacare washed the contempt vote right out the public consciousness.

It is a fact that the New York Times and the Washington Post have done little to get to the bottom of Fast and Furious. Nothing illustrates the mainstream media’s bias in favor of Obama more than its (non)response to this scandal. Even less surprising is the absence of a Democrat version of Howard Baker asking publicly “What did the attorney general (and possibly the president) know, and when did he know it?” Obama is no Nixon, but Holder might be another John Mitchell. We’ll never know for sure, because Holder, unlike Mitchell, will never wind up in the dock (the Justice Deptartment is not about to file criminal contempt charges against its own AG). So much in life depends on who you are, and even more on who your friends are.




Share This


Insurance: For Me or Thee?

 | 

Once upon a time, before we got married, my wife Tina got a ticket for driving without insurance and decided to contest it pro se. Her argument to the judge was simple: insurance was designed to protect the insured from potential losses to herself — not to protect a third party. Anyone she might harm had recourse to indemnification by demanding recompense either voluntarily or through civil action — the traditional recourse for most torts. She added, for good measure, that compulsory insurance laws were a racket — nothing more than rentseeking, insurance industry full-employment legislation.

At the time, Tina was very poor and couldn’t afford insurance. Burdened by a heavy student-loan debt and no job prospect, she was treading water running a one-woman cleaning business. Her $300 Chevy Nova was basic transportation. She had no other assets and was living in a $150-per-month apartment on the wrong side of town.

The judge — in a totally unnecessary flourish of engagement — cited these very reasons to show that mandatory insurance was necessary. Tina retorted that you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip; that, traditionally, once the perpetrator’s assets, however large or small these might have been, had been exhausted in compensation, that was all she wrote; that, in essence, mandatory insurance schemes forced the poor to cover wealthier people who could afford to insure themselves against damages perpetrated by those who could barely afford food and a roof.

Of course, she lost, but the judge admired her spunk and charged her only half the usual fine. While trying to settle up at the cashier's window, she argued her case to the cashier too. He asked her if she was black or Mexican or Indian and pregnant. She wasn’t, so she didn’t get off.

With the prospect of mandatory health insurance coming in 2014, will we get off? Where will the unfunded mandates stop?

Mandatory car insurance is premised on the assumption that driving is a privilege, not a right. Therefore, greater state control is justified. The counter-argument is that people have a right to travel; that driving a vehicle is the modern equivalent of using a horse, and that horse travel was never considered a privilege. It was a necessity.

Alongside the privilege argument (which actually came later) was the “assurance” argument, the argument that there is “no way of assuring that even though fault was assessed the victim of an automobile accident would be able to collect from the tortfeasor” (as Bill Long recounts in Automobile Insurance: A Brief History).

This argument prompts the question: since there is no assurance that a victim may be able to collect damages from a pedestrian, bicycle, equestrian, horse and buggy; or any other type of accident — including accidents on property normally covered by homeowner’s, renter’s, or liability insurance — will we one day be forced to buy these also? I can just imagine governments requiring panhandlers and the homeless to carry liability insurance to make it easier for citizens to collect damages from unfortunate encounters with them.

The “assurance” argument is better described as a “convenience” argument: an argument about providing a convenience for insurance companies and the better-off, at the expense of the poor. (The uninsured better-off face serious loss, if not destitution, when at fault.)

With the invention of the automobile in the late 19th century came the inevitable side effect of automobile accidents.These were perceived — rightly or wrongly (and probably as a natural response to a new and untested technology) — as more frequent and more harmful than previous, more familiar torts. Therefore, it was thought, new laws were required to govern automobiles.

Connecticut led the way in 1925 with a modest “financial responsibility” law. This required any vehicle owner involved in an accident with damages over $100 to prove "financial responsibility to satisfy any claim for damages, by reason of personal injury, to, or death of, any person, of at least $10,000."This early financial responsibility requirement applied to vehicle owners only after their first accident. In the same year, Massachusetts passed the first compulsory insurance law as a prerequisite to vehicle registration.

Mandatory insurance schemes force the poor to cover wealthier people who could afford to insure themselves against damages perpetrated by those who could barely afford food and a roof.

By and large, traditional tort practices remained effective, since — for over 30 more years — no other state saw a need to enact special automobile accident legislation. Then, in 1956, New York passed its compulsory insurance law, with North Carolina following suit the next year. Today, every state bar New Hampshire has some sort of compulsory insurance scheme, and even it has a “personal responsibility” requirement.

Minimum insurance coverage requirements vary wildly from state to state, since estimating the cost of an accident before it occurs is very difficult.The requirements are often expressed in tripartite form — as, for example, in Alaska’s and Maine’s laws, with the highest requirement at 50/100/25, or in the District of Columbia’s, at 10/25/5. These numbers are shorthand for thousands of dollars and refer, in sequence, to: "bodily injury per person/bodily injury per accident/property damage."

After an accident, and once these limits have been reached — again, that’s all she wrote. Limits on insurance coverage have no relationship to liability limits, which are determined only by a judgment and restricted only by one’s net worth.

How effective is the mandatory auto insurance system? An Insurance Research Council study estimated that about 15% of the US population is uninsured — in Colorado, almost 23%.

Many of the logical shortcomings in the mandatory car insurance laws must be evident to people generally, because there is no political will to enforce them effectively. In most states, it's pretty easy to avert the mandates. Most people who fail to comply with the laws do so because they cannot afford the additional cost. It doesn't seem that the will exists to remove these people's means of transportation, and often their means of earning a living. (California and New Jersey, however, have taken a perverse approach toward incentivizing compliance: if uninsured drivers are victims in an accident, they are — by law — prevented from recovering non-compensatory damages, such as damages for “pain and suffering” from the perpetrator.)

Instead of being fined or having their vehicles taken away, motorists are ordinarily given a ticket, and the fee is waived when they show up in court with proof of insurance. Naturally, they can then cancel the coverage or cease making payments once the court date has passed. All this does is create a hassle for the uninsured who happen to get caught, and increases the paperwork for the insurance companies — a small price to pay, I assume — that minister to the captive market.

Do states that have more uninsured drivers actually have lower fatality rates or lower accident rates, because uninsured drivers will presumably drive more cautiously? This is a milder form of economist Walter Williams’ thought experiment, in which he mused that traffic accident rates would decline dramatically if every car’s steering wheel were equipped with a razor-sharp rapier extending from the center of the wheel to within a few inches of the driver’s sternum.

Many of the logical shortcomings in the mandatory car insurance laws must be evident to people generally, because there is no political will to enforce them effectively.

Would the costs to the auto liability system be lowered if we had no mandatory coverage? Perhaps. The narrowing of the base might work against the lowering, but the reduction in regulation would certainly promote it. On the other hand, rates might increase with a broader use of uninsured and underinsured coverage — a pittance to pay for greater freedom of choice and much more convenience.

Soon after the enactment of the first mandatory car insurance laws, the imposition of compulsory social insurance (or retirement insurance) in the form of Social Security became a reality. Lately, after some of the floods, hurricanes, and tornados that have devastated various regions of the country, precipitating massive federal and state relief programs, mandatory flood insurance has been proposed.

Today we are faced with the prospect of compulsory health insurance, beginning in 2014 — if the Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of Obamacare, a program being challenged by several states because of its compulsory nature.

One major provision of the new Health Care Act requires employers above a certain size to buy health insurance for their employees — definitely a third party mandate. The irony of this requirement is that the practice of employer-provided health insurance began during World War II as a way for businesses to get around government imposed wage and price controls. Since employers couldn’t offer salary hikes, they began to offer perks which, by some loophole in the wage and price control legislation, were not considered pay raises. Yesterday’s dodge becomes today’s mandate.

Advocates of compulsory health insurance argue that it is in the best interest of every individual. It broadens the base of insured people, thereby lowering premiums. But this argument hides the underlying logic of compulsory health insurance: whether or not it actually benefits individuals, it benefits third parties — insurance companies, paying patients (mostly insured), hospitals, and taxpayers, all of whom, to one degree or another, now pick up the tab for deadbeat patients (mostly uninsured).

Only a small minority of uninsured patients are destitute. For the rest, being uninsured is a lifestyle choice made possible by the widespread requirement that hospitals treat the seriously ill regardless of their ability to pay. The repeal of such laws would provide the strongest incentive for everyone to choose to buy insurance, while the truly destitute would rely either on charity or on Medicaid.

Insurance was invented to protect people from unforeseen losses to themselves, not to protect third parties. Transferring the definition of insurance into the realm of bonding muddles the distinction. Some states, such as Arizona, recognize this and offer a bonding option — based on the premise that driving a car is a privilege, and on the state constitution’s prohibition against forcing an individual into any sort of a private contract. But it’s a messy compromise, with folks overwhelmingly choosing insurance instead of bonding.

And when it comes right down to it, isn’t it reprehensible for a majority that is mostly well-to-do to force a less well-off minority to buy insurance merely for the majority’s convenience?




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



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

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