The Grubers in the Audience

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For a long time I’ve been thinking about Stephen Cox’s account (Liberty, November 22) of Jonathan Gruber’s now-famous remarks about how easy and necessary it is to fool the American people. Did you notice: Cox analyzed Gruber, but failed to analyze the audience that not only acquiesced in Gruber’s disgraceful performance but also, in some of the recordings, laughed along with him.

Cox isn’t the only one who failed to explore the subject. No one seems willing to do it, despite the fact that you can tell a lot about a culture by the willingness of an audience to tolerate what somebody says to it. On the one occasion on which I have heard this topic broached in the media — a discussion on a radio talk show — the two commentators agreed that because we don’t know who, individually, was listening while Gruber blabbed and smirked, we can’t say much about these people, except to label them elitists. The evidence of elitism was the fact that they were academics, or would-be academics, at academic, or para-academic, conferences; and academics, especially those at “elite institutions” such as Gruber’s headquarters, MIT, are elitists. End of discussion. But I’m not willing to end it there.

Yes, academics who work at elite institutions tend to be elitists. I know this by personal experience: I teach at an elite institution. But elitism can take many forms. A person who went to East Overshoe College, or no college at all, can be an elitist in the corporate boardroom, or the media deck of the football stadium, or the town council, or the self-appointed neighborhood watch. And a person who has taught at Harvard for 30 years can be an elitist in ways that are virtually harmless. He can be snotty about his colleagues’ grading standards, or their habit of pronouncing “err” as if it were “heir” (something tells me that Cox falls in that category of elitist), or their inability to decline Latin nouns.

None of the great intellectuals who exert political influence at Virginia appears to have had the slightest fear of reenacting this sorry story.

I don’t mind those forms of elitism. I hope that somebody at Harvard still has them. (Harvard is a ruthless inflater of its own reputation.) The kinds of academic elitism that I do mind are (A) the elitism of people who consider themselves entitled to push other people around, and (B) the elitism that maintains its self-confidence even after it has destroyed its legitimacy.

Gruber’s audiences appear to have been defined by those kinds of elitism. If the academics who sat and listened to Gruber objected to his boasts about pushing people into a healthcare system they didn’t want — a serious matter, much more serious than Latin case endings — some of them would have said so. But there is no record or hint of objection — only the appreciative laughter we hear on some of the recordings. If you show up for a dog fight, and you stay and don’t object, and instead you whistle and laugh and cheer, we can assume that you are morally indistinguishable from the men who trained the dogs to kill each other.

That reflection doesn’t speak well for Gruber’s audience. But here’s a worse reflection, one that has occupied me ever since the appearance of Cox’s article. Critics of elitism didn’t notice this, but Gruber’s elitist audience was forfeiting its very title to elitism. Academics’ legitimate title to respect and deference, to the exercise of any role of leadership in society, comes from their ability to identify facts and deal with them honestly. Yet this is the title Gruber and his audience forfeited, but were too elitist to care if they did.

Suppose that some academic is liberally paid and respectfully heard because he is an expert on civil engineering. This person wants to reform the laws about highway bridge safety. He wants this so badly that he misrepresents facts. If his misrepresentations are discovered, he will forfeit his title to respect and may forfeit his income too. Some colleges still fire people like that.

Or suppose some literary scholar believes that Jane Austen is a great writer and that everyone should read her. Inspired by this ideal, he goes to book clubs and academic conferences claiming that Austen is significant because she was the first woman novelist. But she wasn’t, and anyone qualified to pronounce on her merits would know that she wasn’t, because (for instance), one of her literary merits is her ability to satirize earlier woman novelists. In any audience, even a “lay” one, somebody will rise and ask a question about Aphra Behn or Fanny Burney or Madame Lafayette, and the Austen idealist will be discredited as an expert. If he put on a Gruberlike grin and said that what he meant by “novelist” is a great novelist, and what he meant by “woman” is a woman who never married, so he was right after all, the audience will make for the doors, and probably complain to his department chair. The offender won’t be fired, but his colleagues will give him funny looks in the hallway, and he won’t be invited to serve on many more academic panels.

But if he went further, and informed an academic audience that he didn’t believe any of those things, but merely went around saying them because he wanted to fool all the non-experts, who are stupid anyway, and he smiled and chortled and laughed aloud at the success he had, what would be his fate? The academics in his audience would be outraged, and they wouldn’t keep their outrage quiet. They would take his conduct as a slur on themselves — in general, as members of the human race, and in particular, as people falsely enlisted as his co-conspirators. The real elite would triumph with his ejection from the room, and likely from his career.

Academics do not qualify themselves for public respect because they are “honest” enough to vent their resentments, hysterias, and wish-fulfillment fantasies.

That, at least, is supposed to be the response to such things, and it would have been the response to Gruber if he had operated in the field of civil engineering or Jane Austen studies. But he is a public policy expert, and public policy experts have, apparently, become exempt from professional discipline. I haven’t heard any reports of Gruber’s rejection by the mass of academics in his field. Nor have I heard any vigorous censures from the professional organizations that are usually so quick to make pronouncements about what academics think, want, or demand.

And there is evidence of even more startling abdications of academics’ most basic professional duty, the duty to be honest. Rolling Stone published an article detailing the allegations of an anonymous woman who claimed that she had been gang-raped at a University of Virginia frat house. The details were so implausible as to render the story unbelievable on its face. Subsequent inquiries by reputable news sources, such as the Washington Post, demonstrated that it was largely, if not wholly, untrue. Nevertheless, on Nov. 22 the academic hierarchs at the University of Virginia arbitrarily canceled all campus fraternity activities until Jan. 9 and have never, thereafter, admitted that their quickly formed and extreme reaction was wrong. Even now, faculty members are trying to ban all fraternity activities from campus, and the administration is trying to extend its power past normal boundaries — in response to a crime that was never objectively verified.

Is this a university that claims to operate with some kind of intellectual integrity, some willingness to exercise critical thought, some fairness in the search for truth — in short, with some kind of intellectual honesty?

No reader needs to be reminded that similar events have happened repeatedly in recent years, most notably in the famous Duke lacrosse scandal. Unfounded reports of sexual and racial abuses have been eagerly swallowed by esteemed academics, who did not hesitate to blame their own communities for crimes that were never committed; and their folly has been subjected to national ridicule. Yet none of the great intellectuals who exert political influence at Virginia appears to have had the slightest fear of reenacting this sorry story.

Another sorry tale is the intellectually dishonest reactions of several elite Eastern universities to the protests attending the failure of a grand jury to return an indictment against the cop who shot a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, and to the much more justified agitation over the killing of a black man by cops on Staten Island. Not only were students at prestigious law schools invited to delay their examinations if they were upset by these events, but special help was offered in dealing with the “trauma” they suffered because the criminal justice system failed to agree with their views. Officialdom at Columbia University even opined that “focusing on routine matters such as exam schedules . . . diverts attention away from the real issue that should be examined now: how to ensure a criminal justice system that protects fairness, due process, and equality."

Common sense has never been in oversupply about academics, but this takes the cake. It is a radical refusal to comprehend the simplest facts of academic life — the necessity of tests and the ability of students to take them. It is, in a word, dishonesty.

But suppose, you say, these people actually believe these preposterous things? Suppose they actually believe that law students are such delicate flowers as to be unable to tolerate an imperfect world? Suppose they actually believe that demonstrating one’s knowledge of the criminal justice system diverts attention from “examining” how to reform it? Or, to return to UVA, suppose they actually believe that fraternities are — in a modern version of original sin — so evil by nature that they are certain to do evil, and do it continually, simply because they are fraternities, thus obviating the need to locate evidence of the specific evils they do? If people actually believe these things, then aren’t they acting with honesty, no matter how stupid and illiberal their actions may be?

Isn’t it a good thing that such people are increasingly distrusted by the populace in general? Yes, but that’s not good enough.

Indeed they are. But that doesn’t mean they are acting with intellectual honesty. Academics do not qualify themselves for public respect because they are “honest” enough to vent their resentments, hysterias, and wish-fulfillment fantasies. Respected professions are not based on primitive feelings. They are based on their practitioners’ respect for objective, critically tested truth. A plumber who “honestly” believed that water can run uphill would no longer deserve, honestly speaking, to be called a plumber. A physicist who reacted to some unexpected astronomical phenomenon by consulting a horoscope would no longer deserve, honestly speaking, to be called a physicist. It would make no difference that he “honestly” believed in astrology; he still could not honestly collect his paycheck from the physics department.

You see the point, which the politically engaged academics “honestly” do not see. As a result, they are squandering their influence along with their respect.

Well, what of it? Isn’t it a good thing that such people are increasingly distrusted by the populace in general? Yes, but that’s not good enough — for several reasons. For one thing, the offenders don’t care. They care only for their self-esteem and the esteem of like-minded colleagues. For every person who, like Gruber, suffers some material loss from exposure as a dope or fool, hundreds more are advanced in their professions, and corresponding hundreds of intellectually honest young people who merited academic jobs languish in unemployment or underemployment.

Bad money drives out good; institutionalized dishonesty always attempts to drive honesty as far away as possible, and it generally succeeds. Until the American people decide that the result of a college education should not be a credential to middle-class respectability but an exposure to honest thought, the disgraceful trend will continue.




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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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Come On — Did They Really Say Those Things?

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Normally, I don’t find much entertainment in news reports of off-year congressional primaries in states where I don’t live. But look what fell into my lap while I was reading election reports on May 20. The author is Fox News reporter Chris Stirewalt; the subject is Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia:

When asked if she would have voted for President Obama’s signature health law, Nunn was gobsmacked in a MSNBC interview. “So, at the time that the Affordable Health Care Act [sic] was passed, I was working for Points of Light,” Nunn says. “I wish that we had had more people who had tried to architect a bipartisan legislation . . . I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?’” She’s going to have plenty of chances to reconsider over the course of the campaign.

Now that’s entertainment. Just picture Stirewalt scratching his head and wearing out his eraser, hunting for le mot juste, and coming up with “gobsmacked.” What does that mean? And where does it come from? And what’s it for?

A dictionary informs me that it means “astounded,” and that its origin is “smacked” (I know what that means) plus “gob” (oh yes, now I remember: that’s a Britishism for “mouth”). But that doesn’t help very much. As an immediate descendant of one of America’s famous political families (as they are called; I call them parasites), Nunn could not have been astounded by a question about Obamacare. I’m guessing, but I think that Stirewalt means she was badly hurt, hit in the gob, or mouth, by an interview that went badly, from her point of view. He’s using this strange expression to make fun of her.

I must say, I have no reason to like Michelle Nunn, but I don’t relish the image of people being smacked in the mouth. It doesn’t seem, well, exactly right for news reporting. Or even for satire. And the effort to sound folksy by importing British folksiness seems counterproductive.

So there are several ways in which Stirewalt goofed. Now let’s consider the target of his humor, Michelle Nunn. I’m not concerned with the error noted by Fox News’s “sic”: so what if the real name of the Obamacare legislation is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act? But passing beyond all that, the next thing out of her gob was something called Points of Light. She seemed to believe that everyone would know what that means, but I didn’t, until I looked it up. Here’s what Wikipedia says: “Points of Light is an international nonprofit, nonpartisan organization headquartered in the United States dedicated to engaging more people and resources in solving serious social problems through voluntary service.” I guess if you’re professionally employed in figuring that one out, you can’t pay much attention to anything else that’s going on, such as Obamacare.

The dog had been transitioned. Picture that.

So Michelle Nunn, leading light and great political thinker, knew nothing about it.But does she now know what it is, andwhether she would have voted for it? That’s an easy question, too easy for a politician to answer. Politicians want to take on the hard questions, the challenging questions, the questions inspired by their gargantuan hopes and dreams. So instead of saying whether she would have voted for (i.e., now favors) the bitterly unpopular program ruthlessly jammed through Congress by the leader of her party, she entertains a harder question: what kind of people do you wish to inhabit America?

You’ll agree that this is a very hard question. But she found an answer: “I wish that we had had more people who had tried to architect a bipartisan legislation.”

It is possible that, like many abstruse philosophers — Kant, say, or Heidegger — Nunn has thoughts too profound to be expressed in normal language. Therefore she must use “architect” as a verb and “legislation” as the kind of noun that admits the indefinite article, as in such uncommon phrases as “I will introduce a legislation” and “according to a legislation passed in 1958 . . .” Yet on closer inspection, these peculiar words appear not to differ in meaning from the words that any normally literate person would choose instead — words such as “tried to create, shape, invent, agree upon, etc., a bipartisan bill, act, law, scheme, plan, etc.” Can it be that Ms. Nunn, graduate of the University of Virginia and the Kennedy School of Government, is not a normally literate person, that her odd use of words merely signifies her membership in the ignorant tribe that hunts for food and shelter in political boardrooms and committee meetings, aborigines so innocent of books that they derive their patter entirely from the primitive verbiage of “agendas” and “executive summaries”?

The question to be decided is a fundamental one: is it possible to say what you would have done in the past? And the answer is: yes, it is, because you did it.

Every language, every system of discourse, even the most primitive, has its symbols, and it’s pretty clear what Ms. Nunn’s words were intended to symbolize. She wanted to say, without saying it, that she had nothing to do with Obamacare and wishes that it had turned out differently, but the blame lies with the Republicans, rather than her own party (which just happened to have passed the bill), because the Republicans refused to cooperate and make the thing bipartisan. Tribal priests sometime speak in this way, so that only their fellow priests will understand their message and know what to do to any rival priests. Priestly concerns have undoubtedly influenced Nunn’s sentence.

Yet there’s yet another sentence, and in it the impression of illiteracy is overwhelming. “I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively,” she begins, “and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?”

But as you know, it’s possible to use big words and still not be literate. Children do it all the time. Unfortunately, they are often rewarded for the trick, and many turn out like Nunn, who can’t resist throwing a big word in, despite not knowing what it means. If she knew what “retrospectively” means, why would she pair it with “back,” thus creating the kind of gross redundancy that embarrasses literate men and women?

But let’s not take things out of context; let’s look at her whole sentence: “I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?’” Here we have passed beyond the world of words; we are treading the marble floors of metaphysics.The question to be decided is a fundamental one: is it possible to say what you would have done in the past? And the answer is: yes, it is, because you did it.

This is the logic, simple though conclusive, that eludes Ms. Dunn. She thinks it is not possible — the reason is evident. She supported Obamacare. She must have supported it. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be twisting herself into knots, denying that it’s possible for anyone to say what she “would” have done in some mysterious past that neither memory nor imagination can recover. But if she thinks she’s fooling anybody, she isn’t.

Her verbal methods, alas, are not original. Making pretentious verbs out of common nouns (i.e., “architect”) — that’s what bureaucrats and news people do all day. This month we were informed that a dog employed to do some dirty work by the Department of Homeland Security had been “transitioned” out of service. The dog had been transitioned. Picture that. As for pretentious redundancies, the news is always full of those. On May 3, Fox reported that “pro-government supporters” were active in Ukraine. There was no news of anti-government supporters.

Even more insensate language appeared this month. On May 9, there was an awful accident in Virginia; a balloon hit an electric wire, scattering flaming wreckage and human bodies across the landscape. Three people were eventually found and pronounced dead. While rescue workers still searched for them, a spokesman for the balloon-festival sponsors conveyed this sentiment: “The Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival regrets that there was a safety incident involving one of the balloons participating on the evening of May 9.”

Safety incident? A balloon hit an electric wire, and three people died. It was an incident all right, but a safety incident?

This is the kind of language that 21st-century Americans have grown to expect from public sources. Like Ms. Nunn’s remarks, it’s the product of the public relations school of English, which isn’t English at all. No writer of normal English would refer to a deadly accident as a “safety incident,” or even say that balloons — not people — “participated” in something. But for PR people, and those who learn their ABCs from them, this sort of thing is automatic.

Whenever you see “appropriate” in an official announcement, you know that someone is trying to manipulate you.

Of course, the PR disaster of the month has been the response, or non-response, of the Veterans Administration (aka Department of Veterans Affairs) and its head, Gen. Eric Shinseki, to allegations that many people have died at VA hospitals in Phoenix and elsewhere while waiting for a medical appointment. CNN has done a good job of following up on these allegations. For over six months the network has sought an interview with or statement from Shinseki, but its efforts have not succeeded. It did discover that he employs 54 (fifty-four!) press agents, none of whom responded to CNN’s attempts to get them to do their job. Finally, when the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee called for the boss’s resignation, the VA issued a statement:

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously. If the VA Office of Inspector General's investigation substantiates allegations of employee misconduct, swift and appropriate action will be taken. Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA care.

Under the leadership of Secretary Shinseki and his team, VA has made strong progress in recent years to better serve veterans both now and in the future. The secretary knows there is more work to do.

Tell me, how many people does it take to reach that level of banality? Answer: 54.

Note the sidelong plea for “faith,” even if, in some cases, this faith must be posthumously awarded. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney, the man America loves to hate, indicated that for some unknown reason Obama himself had succumbed to this plea: "The President remains confident in Secretary Shinseki's ability to lead the department and take appropriate action." Whenever you see “appropriate” in an official announcement, you know that someone is trying to manipulate you. But the trick of invoking faith and confidence was worn out generations ago. In 1933, Isabel Paterson wrote, “When any one asks us to have confidence we are glad to inform him that the request of itself would shatter any remaining confidence in our mind.”

But what said Shinseki himself? Here are his words, from the CNN report (Friday, May 23) that I’ve been quoting:

Shinseki said Tuesday that [he] is "very sensitive to the allegations" coming from the Phoenix probe.

“I need to let the independent IG (inspector general) complete his investigation," he told the [Wall Street] Journal.

Paterson died (without the help of the VA) some years before the popularity of two press agent ploys that are as bad as demanding “confidence”: (1) claiming that one is “sensitive,” with the accompanying, implicit demand for sensitivity from one’s hapless audience; (2) insisting on the supposed necessity of doing nothing until an investigation is completed.

If you were really sensitive, wouldn’t you be too sensitive to say you were — in an interview that you finally had to give, as a bare-minimum response to deadly accusations? And, regardless of anybody else’s inquiries, wouldn’t you take the first plane to Phoenix and stand by the door of the hospital, asking patients how long it took them to get an appointment? If you could find a plane that was large enough, you could take all your press agents with you and let them turn you into a national hero. And if you didn’t do it, maybe your super-sensitive president could do it himself. After all, it would take less work than flying to Afghanistan, or figuring out how to flim-flam the VA issue.

But maybe it isn’t “sensitivity” we need. Maybe it’s normal words and normal actions.




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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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Continuing Obamalaise

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A spate of reports just out shows the continuing economic malaise created by Obama’s benighted administration, a phenomenon we call Obamalaise. Obamalaise set in early in the administration, and it has continued, despite what the administration and lickspittles in the media hail as the “miraculous recovery.”

The first item, from the Wall Street Journal, notes that the most recent jobs report was very disappointing: only 162,000 jobs were added in July, far fewer than the 183,000 that had been predicted by various economists. Worse, prior months’ figures were revised downward. Worse yet, average hours worked and average hourly earnings both dropped.

While the unemployment rate did fall from 7.6% to 7.4%, the supposed improvement was due in great measure to more people giving up looking for work.

The only reason the stock market didn’t react dramatically is that the weak report made it obvious that the Fed will continue its aggressive bond buying, which “the Bernank” had earlier suggested might be reduced.

What we have now is a far cry from the 5% unemployment rate that the administration promised us, back in 2009, if we just passed its grotesquely bloated $800 billion “stimulus” bill, with all its payoffs for Obama cronies and supporters. Moreover — as James Pethokoukis notes — we have never come even close to hitting the administration’s projected unemployment rate. For example, Obama promised that the rate would never exceed 8%, but he was off by one-fourth: it hit 10% by the end of 2009.

The real rate of unemployment is upwards of 10%, when you count in the people who want a job but have ceased looking for one.

In that year, the administration also projected that the stimulus would result in over 4% GDP growth in 2011, 2012, and 2013. In reality, growth has been happening at only half that rate, and it has dropped even lower recently.

As I argued in these pages long ago, it is for this sort of governmental fraud that we should extend Sarbanes-Oxley to cover government, not just business. If a program is sold on certain projections by an administration, and the projections prove false, the president, vice president, relevant cabinet members, and the senators and congresspersons who voted for the scheme should do jail time after their terms.

Pethokoukis observes that the real rate of unemployment is upwards of 10%, when you count in the people who have dropped out of the labor force. More than six and a half million Americans want a job but have ceased looking for one. If you count the underemployed, the real rate is above 14%.

Speaking of that, another report points out that of the 953,000 jobs created this year, 731,000 (or 77%) are part-time jobs. The main cause is the impending imposition of Obamacare, which requires employers with 50 or more “full-time” employees — now defined down to mean people working 30 or more hours a week — to purchase costly insurance for all of them. Employers are doing the rational thing: turning full-timers into part-timers. As Tyler Durden puts it, we are being converted to a part-time worker society.

Another recent WSJ piece adds yet more somber news. Over half the new jobs recently created have been in the low-wage sectors of the economy, especially the restaurant and retail industries.

The jobs news is especially ironic in one way: Obamalaise is going hardest on one of the groups that were most enthusiastic about voting for Obama: young people. Unemployment among 18–29 year olds stands at 16.1%. Again, the figure doesn’t include people who have only part-time work but want to work full-time. Only 43.6% of young people now have full-time work. And black teen unemployment has now hit an astounding 41.6%. This is up from 36% a year ago.

One last report puts the present youth predicament with tragic clarity. It turns out that 21.6 million Americans aged 18 to 31 now live with their parents, the highest number recorded in 40 years. This is 36% of all so-called millennials.

Obama built this. He did it with Obamacare. He did it with overregulation, and the leftists that he inserted into regulatory bodies. He did it with tax increases. He did it with his Green jihad on fossil fuels, led by like-minded people at the Department of Energy, the Department of the Interior, and the EPA — the “Employment Pulverizing Agency.” He did it with massive taxpayer-backed loans and subsidies of Green energy companies that employed few people (before going broke) but funneled untold millions to political supporters.

Some are predicting that with continued Fed support, the economy’s growth will accelerate, and Obama will finish his administration with unemployment low again — meaning in the 5% range.

Perhaps. But, there is still a business cycle, and if in the next two or three years we have another recession, the workers of this country will be hit very hard, since the “recovery” has been so very anemic. To put it in another way, if this “miracle recovery” involves a record level of dependency on food stamps, a record number of young people forced to live at home, a record percentage of people having left the work force, more and more people forced into part-time work, and a national debt that will soon stand at $20 trillion — what will the next recession look like?




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Taxes on Buying and Not-Buying

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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?




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Check Your Premises!

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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.”




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The Fast and Furious Investigation: Quick or Dead?

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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.




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Outsourcing: The Inner View

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Many years ago a woman wrote a letter to Ann Landers, asking whether she should go back to school to get a college degree. She worried that it might be a waste of time so late in life, ending her letter with this: “If I go back to college, I’ll be 62 in four years.” I’ve never forgotten Ann’s cogent reply: “And how old will you be in four years if you don’t go back to college?”

We all have choices. We have no control over the amount of time we have in this life, but we do control what we will do during that time. Life is what we make of it. No matter how old we are.

This is the message of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where a dozen or so fellow travelers have stopped for a while to share their stories, and their lives, to varying degrees. It is a poignant and funny Canterbury tale, Indian style. The young innkeeper, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel), serves as host and philosophical guide. Bubbly and bumbling, he is an optimistic and likeable fatalist. When the travelers express horror at his falling-down hotel, he tells them, “In India we have a saying: everything will be all right in the end. So if it is not all right, it is not the end!”

The best exotic hotel is exotic, but it certainly isn’t best. The phones don't work. The roof has holes. Some rooms don't have doors. The courtyard is cracked. But Sonny doesn't see it as it is; he sees his hotel as it can be. As it will be. Because if it isn't all right now, it just means it isn't the end yet.

The travelers have come to the Marigold Hotel for different reasons, most of them having to do with money.

Douglas and Jean Ainslie (Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton) invested their retirement funds in their daughter’s startup company, and it didn’t start up. In their native England,they can’t afford more than a cramped bungalow for old folks, so they have come to the Marigold for cheap rent.

Recently widowed, Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) has discovered that her husband mismanaged their money and left her deeply in debt. She embraces the Indian experience, blogging about it for readers back home and finding a job training telephone operators in an outsourced information company (yes, those infernal IT people you reach when your computer is on the fritz. But here they are earnest and likeable — as, I suppose, they really are).

The film gives us an unintentional inside look at socialized medicine, and what we see isn't pretty.

Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) has traded on her good looks all her life. Now those looks aren't so good any more, and she must face the possibility that she has had her final love affair. She is looking for love, but she is also looking for a lasting sugar daddy. She likes nice things.

Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) is an old-school racist, and by that I mean she is confident and self-assured in her belief that everyone around her shares her bigotry, including the people whom she considers inferior. As the film opens she is on a stretcher in a hospital hallway, complaining that she wants a “proper English doctor,” not the black man who has just tried to touch her. Because we understand she is an unhappy product of her cultural upbringing, we cut her some slack and enjoy her crotchety rantings, knowing that she will have a change of heart before the film ends. (And if she doesn’t, it will only be because it isn’t the end yet!)

The film gives us an unintentional inside look at socialized medicine, and what we see isn't pretty: cots in the hallways because there aren't enough examining rooms, months-long waits for necessary surgeries because there aren’t enough surgeons. "Six months!" Muriel exclaims. "At my age I don't even buy green bananas!" (I know, it's an old joke — but it always reminds me of the dear friend who first said it to me — just weeks before he died, as it turned out.) When Muriel’s doctor tells her she can have the needed hip replacement surgery immediately in India, she goes there, then repairs to the Marigold Hotel to recuperate.

Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is the only character who has come to India for non-financial reasons. He is trying to find the love of his life, whom he met 40 years earlier while stationed in India, and from whom he was forced to part. He spends his days in the registry office, trying to track down the friend, and in the streets, playing cricket with young boys. Through him the characters learn the meaning of true love.

Despite the heat, the unfamiliar foods, the smells, and the “squalor,” as Jean describes it, India is still, in this film, a land of exotic wonder and happy faces. When asked what he likes about it, Graham responds, “The lights, the colors, the vibrancy. The way people see life as a privilege and not as a right.” Camels, elephants, and cows line the roads, along with rickety buses and colorful “tuk-tuks,” the ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis. These folks have “come to a new and different world,” as Evelyn writes in her blog, with voice-over narration. “The challenge is to cope with it. And not just to cope, but to thrive.”

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is filled with similar upbeat aphorisms and quotable quotes. “The person who risks nothing, does nothing. Has nothing,” Evelyn tells her readers.“The only real failure is the failure to try. And the measure of success is how well we cope.”

“Most things don’t work out as expected,” she concludes, “But what happens instead often turns out to be the good stuff.” With an outstanding cast of veteran actors portraying couples in various stages of love and marriage, an important message about taking charge of one’s choices, and a point of view that says old age doesn’t have to be outsourced (but it isn't so bad when it is), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is indeed the “good stuff.”


Editor's Note: Review of "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," directed by John Madden. Participant Media/20th Century Fox, 2011, 124 minutes.



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Obamacare and Judicial Activism

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Last week the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral argument on whether to overturn Obamacare. I had written previously in Liberty that I suspected Obamacare would stand, and estimated a mere 1% chance of the vile, disgusting step towards socialized medicine being struck down.

But amazingly, Obama’s Solicitor General, who argued the case, was, by most accounts, totally incompetent. He got so tongue-tied that he had to be verbally bailed out by Justice Ginsberg — several times. He could not articulate a limiting principle for where the powers of government would stop if Obamacare stands. This frightened some of the justices (although, in fairness, no such limit can be articulated, because Obamacare is a slippery slope towards socialism.)

Most importantly, Justice Kennedy said things suggesting that he would probably vote to strike Obamacare down. Kennedy is the moderate justice who holds the crucial swing vote between four liberals (all of whom are thought to support Obama’s health care bill) and four conservatives (who are believed to oppose it). So the legal community now suspects that Obamacare is doomed. The so-called “individual mandate” is most likely going to die, and the entire convoluted, ungodly abomination might get dragged down with it, thus ending America’s nightmarish experiment with socialized medicine.

This is great news for libertarians and bad news for President Obama.

How did Obama respond? This is how: by holding a press conference in which he bullied the justices, threatening them with the charge that overturning his law would be “judicial activism” and noting that the Supreme Court is not elected whereas Obama’s Congress, which narrowly passed his healthcare plan, was elected. His statement contains two glaring flaws.

1. Yes, Congress is elected and the Supreme Court isn’t. That is the beauty of the Founding Fathers’ scheme, that the rights of individuals are safeguarded by courts which do not answer to the whims and emotions of the hysterical and easily manipulated masses. Yet voters had sent a clear message that they did not want Obamacare passed, when they elected Senator Brown of Massachusetts. The Brown election was widely viewed as a referendum on Obamacare. It was an election in which a Tea Party candidate won in a strongly left-leaning state. The bill only passed because of procedural maneuvering by the then-Democratic House. The 2010 election of the Tea Party House was a resounding rejection of Obamacare by the American people. Once again, Obama has a mass of facts wrong.

2. The practice of “judicial review,” the name for courts overturning unconstitutional laws, dates back to the famous case of Marbury v. Madison (1803). Since that case was decided, it has been well established that the courts have the power to overturn laws that violate the Constitution.

It is true, of course, that conservatives often bemoan “judicial activism,” and now Obama is bemoaning it. So what is the difference between judicial activism and judicial review? Is it merely that if you like it you call it judicial review and if you dislike it you call it judicial activism?

I do not believe that’s the truth. I would offer a deeper libertarian analysis: the Constitution of the United States was designed to limit the powers of government and protect citizens from the state, as a reaction by the American Revolutionaries to the tyranny of the British empire, which they had recently defeated. Democrats love to say that the Constitution is a “living document,” which means that the Constitution changes to reflect the desires of the public (which, they believe, have become ever more leftist since the American Revolution). But the meaning of the Constitution is clear, and it does not change. The argument to overturn Obamacare comes from the fact that Congress has only the enumerated powers given it by the constitution. Obamacare sought to use the Commerce Clause, which gives Congress the power to regulate “interstate commerce,” in order to effect a partial nationalization of the healthcare industry. But as I argued before, and as Justice Kennedy implied at oral argument, this is far beyond what the Commerce Clause and the cases interpreting it explicitly permit.

So it will not be judicial activism but judicial review, which consists of faithfully conforming the law to what the Constitution allows, if the Supreme Court overturns Obama’s health care plan. It is judicial activism when leftist judges follow the philosophy embodied in the legal theories called “legal realism” and “critical theory.” These theories hold that there is no such thing as an objectively correct or incorrect interpretation of the law, and therefore a judge is free to rule as his or her subjective feelings on morality and justice dictate (and note that somehow these feelings are almost always Marxist or leftist feelings).

Critical theory, which explicitly attacks the legitimacy of “legal reasoning,” is hugely popular on many law school campuses. Many of the lawyers and judges of the future may buy into it. But when the Supreme Court rules on Obamacare in June of this year, I hope it will be clear to the Marxists that they don’t run America quite yet.




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