How Many Branches of Government Do You See?

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Executive, legislative, and judicial — the three branches of government, right? That’s what we learned in school. And it’s true, those are the legally established branches. But they aren’t the only ones.

Defined in a realistic, not a schoolbook way, a branch of government is a political power that is so continuously and firmly influential as both to instigate its own coercive programs and to veto the programs of others, including other branches of government. By this definition, the American government currently consists not of three but of at least six branches.

Generation after generation, the heritage media have advised and staffed the executive branch and have planned and directed public policy.

You can try numbering the branches for yourself, but I would add, to the usual three, the three following: the heritage media, the professional bureaucracy, and the taxpayer-financed social orgs and lobbies.

Start with the heritage media. For countless other organs of pseudo-public opinion, the New York Times and the other historically significant media still identify what is news and how to slant it, what the government is for and what the government should do. Generation after generation, the heritage media have advised and staffed the executive branch and have planned and directed public policy as much as any Secretary of State or Treasury or Health and Human Services could possibly do. So much for the fourth branch of government.

The existence of a fifth branch has been established beyond any possibility of doubt by the past ten years’ revelations of the power, tenacity, and guileful self-confidence of the IRS, FBI, CIA, and other secret agencies. For many years, no president has really been in control of them, and the war between them and the current president has demonstrated that they have the power of veto.

Now for the lobbies and institutional pressure groups, the sixth branch of government. For more than 150 years they have been denounced as a “hidden government,” but now you can drop the “hidden.” Many of them, such as Planned Parenthood, the anti-drug organizations, the anti-smoking organizations, the police and firefighter lobbies, the mental health consortiums, the legal services providers, the farmers’ organizations, the education associations, the “nongovernmental” welfare services groups — you are welcome to expand the list — are supported by taxpayer money, in the form of grants for “research” and “services” and the “training” of the subject population. Others are supported and empowered by their provision of “experienced’ and “professional” staff for government functions, including the writing of laws. They stock the regulatory boards and the credentialing boards; they provide the public service announcements on TV and radio; they provide the press releases recited without skepticism by the comfort animals of the press; they provide the bullet points for the resumes by which politicians try to establish their bona fides. You know the template: “I worked closely with the National Association for X in developing new programs to deal with the grave national problem of Y.” The one thing you can count on is that none of these well-funded, well-placed, and doubtless well-intentioned organizations advocates a smaller role for government.

Regardless of whatever is currently on the list, it seems inevitable that the self-appointed job of any branch of government will be to increase its power at the expense of individual liberty.

If I were writing this 50 years ago, I might have added to the list of branches the labor unions and the churches. But with union membership hovering around 11% and the churches unable to keep either their flocks or their alliances together, both of these would-be branches can be labeled former — and they’re pretty bitter about it, too.

But regardless of whatever is currently on the list, it seems inevitable that the self-appointed job of any branch of government will be to increase its power at the expense of individual liberty. The framers of the Constitution knew that. They therefore designed branches of government that could put the brakes on one another. And, although I’m not aware that the framers said so, it’s the tendency of every large organization to develop its own internal brakes, its own internal dissent and competition. This can also be an aid to the liberty of men and women who want to live their lives without being told what to do.

But how does the situation stand right now? We have an executive branch, personified in Donald Trump, that is better at generating internal dissent and competition than anyone could have dreamed. We have a judicial branch whose members are utterly incapable of reading the same page in the same way. We have a legislature locked in the death struggle between the two great parties, each of which is locked in a death struggle with its own suicidal impulses.

By contrast, the heritage media, the grand array of lobby groups, and the federal bureaucracy are bent on maintaining their power and cohesion until the end, the bitter, bitter end. Bitter for you and me.




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Making It Work

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Libertarian policy proposals are often ridiculed for being too impractical and naively idealistic. This article will put forward practical solutions for implementing libertarian policies in ways that can, and will, work in the real world. Privatization and healthcare, two areas in which libertarian policy is hotly contested, are the focus.

I’ll start with a summary of two objections to freedom and follow with a solution for overcoming that objection. I will then add details.

First Objection: infrastructure — such as roads and train lines — and utilities cannot be privatized because they are natural monopolies: two operators cannot compete along the same line at the same time.

Most people are aware that public monopolies are often mismanaged by operators who have no accountability to the public.

First Solution: if the right to operate the space, be it the road, or train line, or power line, were auctioned off for very short periods, at open competitive bidding, it stands to reason that the efficient privatization company would make enough money to place the highest bid at the next round, and would have operated in the best way possible to maximize profits and consumers (if consumers cared to listen to reason). In other words, private operators would compete along the vector of time, not space, with the most efficient one winning the highest profit and likely making the highest bid for the next slot of time.

Second Objection: under the present system, which evolved under capitalism, health insurers pay for the healthcare of the people who pay healthcare premiums, the premiums bearing no direct relation to the healthcare actually received. The system would have to work this way, because the whole idea of insurance is that you pay for the risk that you may one day need insurance, not for the actual healthcare you receive thereafter. This system causes a disconnect between the healthcare buyers and the healthcare sellers, enabling the sellers to jack up their prices. Only big government and a bunch of crusty, arrogant, elitist bureaucrats have the power to step in and force prices down to affordable levels by setting or capping prices by law.

Second Solution: to the extent that health insurance as such poses a structural tendency to sever payment from delivery of service, the problem can be solved not by leaning toward big government but by moving toward greater freedom in free-market competition. Require doctors to publish schedules of what services they offer and at what costs, as would be reasonable in any capitalist system in which sellers must be honest about what they are selling. Then drastically deregulate health insurers so that any entrepreneur can start a health insurance company and compete in any state, across state lines. In this ideal world, health insurers would compete in a marketplace — not a fake Obamacare exchange but a real capitalist free market.

What this natural monopoly thought process ignores is that there are many ways for companies to compete, if you think outside the box.

What will naturally evolve from this is a situation in which, to pass along as much cost saving to customers as possible, in order to get as much business as possible, some health insurers will develop a system for the insureds to prepay for the price services they want, from specific doctors at specific prices. Then, if they get sick and need those services, they will get what they shopped and paid for. The actual payment mechanism would still be the insurer pooling all payments and then paying after the fact for the people who got sick, but price competition would force doctors to lower their prices to competitive levels to get buyers, and this same pricing pressure would force health insurers to pass along the best deal to the buyer. Premiums would be applied after the fact, pro rata, to the healthcare that people chose to buy before the fact. A buyer will compare prices and choose a seller, and buyers and sellers will naturally converge at the equilibrium price point between supply and demand — which as (smart, sane, rational, libertarian) economists know, is the right antidote for monopolistic price gouging.

Details:

Examples of so-called natural monopolies include transit routes, bandwidth, electric utilities and power lines, cable service, garbage collection, and air space for planes or drones.

“Natural monopoly” public infrastructure can be privatized. And they should be privatized. Most people are aware that public monopolies are often mismanaged by operators who have no accountability to the public.

But it is assumed that there can be no competing alternatives, since the land or space simply isn’t there. So let there be a monopoly, but have the government regulate it so it will be forced it to sell at price points below the monopoly price. What this natural monopoly thought process ignores is that there are many ways for companies to compete, if you think outside the box.

Competition in running natural monopoly infrastructure can take place along the dimension of time, not of space, such that, when the natural monopolies are privatized, what is sold is a lease, essentially, to last two or three years, but no longer. The buyer would have every right to do whatever he likes with the land or infrastructure and monetize and run it as he pleases, but only for the term of the lease, at which point the right to buy the next period of time would be up for open bidding and awarded to the highest bidder. Economic efficiency and capitalist theory dictate that the company that can make the most money from such an enterprise will tend to be both the highest bidder and the company that can continue to run it the best. If a transit route is run badly, sales will flag, profits will drop, and the opportunity will arise for someone better to place a higher bid in the next round. Thus, even with only one owner, there will be competition in the economic sense.

If you believe instead, as smart people do, that money is made in a free society by creating high quality at an affordable price where supply meets demand, then the objection collapses.

Additions to the scheme may need to be made, such as requiring a pro rata portion of an operator’s profits to be paid back to previous owners who invested in long-term durable equipment or improvements from which the current owner benefits. But such additions are not difficult to design. As a bonus, if any contractor commits massive fraud against the consumer, this will be easy to see, because if a competing operator wins the next lease bid, when he looks at the infrastructure he will see what the previous operator did to it, and consumers will be protected better than we would be under heavy regulator scrutiny.

Today’s economy already proves that this will work. There are hundreds of huge corporations that buy some downstream service from only one seller, for the term of a lease; and there is ample price competition, even though only one seller can get the deal to be a supplier at one time. The companies that sell “back end” human resources services (outsourced services such as paychecks and benefits management) to Fortune 500 corporations are an example: a buyer can sensibly go with only one seller at a time, but there is a ton of competition. Another example: places exist where various owners own the rights to different heights above the ground of a single plot of land, so that two companies can compete by owning different floors of the same building, competing along the dimension of height, not of length.

The person who made the original objection to privatization will object again, saying that the rich will bid big to get ownership of the monopoly, charge high prices while offering crappy service, and run away after their lease ends — taking profits derived from forcing people to pay a lot for a service with no alternatives. The operators’ costs would have been low, since they didn’t give a damn about infrastructure investments. But this objection reduces merely to the general argument against free market capitalism. The Marxists and socialists think that rich people get rich by fleecing their victims. If you believe instead, as smart people do, that money is made in a free society by creating high quality at an affordable price where supply meets demand, then the objection collapses. Specifically it is wrong because an operator who does a good job will always make more, net, long term, than a con artist, hence the good operator will have more money and more motivation to outbid the crooks.

New York City as subway operator does not, and cannot, spend the money it should to maintain the subway service as it deserves and needs.

This is not to say that the system can never be abused. No system is perfect. Privatization is certainly not less perfect that a regulated natural monopoly, and it would ultimately be far better. Just ask anyone who rides the subway in New York City: in addition to being a vital means of transportation for millions of New Yorkers, it is also the location that the wonderfully brainless liberal politicians of New York have chosen as the de facto living space for the mentally ill homeless people, just to get them off the streets. The bigger picture is that the economic demand for the subway would justify a rise in fares that is politically unpopular and therefore impossible. So New York City as subway operator does not, and cannot, spend the money it should to maintain the subway service as it deserves and needs. The New York Times even ran a crusade to get more spending for the subways, noting how horrible they are and how many people use them, which crusade did not succeed, and could not succeed. The free market would do better.

I have suggested two or three years as the basic contract period for the operation of natural monopolies. It needs to be short enough to enable consumers to hold bad operators accountable so that better ones can step in. Employees may not want two- or three-year contracts, and somewhat more may need to be paid them on this account. Nevertheless, we need to get away from the labor union mentality, according to which the labor pool only works if employees are chained to their jobs and employers are chained to long-term labor contracts. The United States is becoming "the gig economy," as they say, led by the Uber and Lyft drivers. A lot of industries are moving toward hiring employees for a temporary, shorter duration and away from hiring them for permanent, full-time jobs. Employees with strong professional skills are so valuable that no one who purchased a short-term lease on a natural monopoly would want to get rid of them.

As far as planning goes, there are examples in today's economy of businesses drawing up plans for long-term operations, because that is how they can best succeed, but if their basic contracts are not renewed, they just tear up the plans. In business you need long-term plans, but you also need to face the risk that these plans may fail dramatically, at any time. If you don't get investors in your second year of operation, you just eat the third, fourth and fifth years of your business plan, no matter how great those years might have been.

Thousands of small businesses will pop up to become micro-health insurers and facilitate the trade, between doctor and patient, of treatment for money.

Now to some details about healthcare. Free market economics doesn’t work if there is a disconnect between the person who pays the money for a benefit and the person who receives the benefit. The disconnect causes prices and costs to skyrocket, because the buyer cannot force the seller down. Many libertarians already know this: one of our objections to government spending is that the government will overspend because there is a disconnect between the taxpayer and the beneficiary. Healthcare, where the health insurer pays but the patient receives the treatment, and does not directly pay the doctor, and the doctors don’t compete for each individual patient on price, is a great example of a buy-sell disconnect.

The problem with health insurance is that, originally, it was in fact insurance that a person bought to mitigate the risk of getting sick, but it has become a behemoth that pays for all medical expenses and then collects exorbitant and arbitrary amounts from the public, with no connection between payments and collections in an individual patient’s case. The problem arises because, by the time people become sick, their medical costs are typically too great for them to pay, so they must have already had insurance to get treatment, and the insurance will then end up paying all costs.

To reform healthcare, first, require doctors, as a condition of receiving their license to practice medicine, or merely by means of laws mandating truth in advertising, to create a schedule of fees and prices for each of their services, and publish it, and let individual patients receive that care if they pay that fee from the schedule of rates. Second, break up the regulations of health insurance companies so that anyone can start one and can compete in every state with a minimum of red tape. Third, require that each health insurer publish the actuarial tables that each insurer is using, showing what portion of your payment will pay for what medical treatment in the future from what doctor’s schedule of fees. Fourth, allow the consumer to “buy” his future medical treatment by choosing what portion of his premium he chooses to allocate to the doctors’ services that he could potentially get, from the competing doctors’ fee schedules, “through” his health insurance company.

The doctors who succeeded would be those who proved they could deliver successful, effective treatments, but at cheaper prices.

The health insurer would pool the buyers’ payment to make the actual payment to the doctors for the insureds who become sick, but each buyer could take the income that he has allotted for health insurance and “spend” it by choosing the slate of healthcare services he would pay for at that price, selecting his doctor from among the competitors. Doctors would compete on the price to be chosen by each buyer when he decides how to allot his healthcare premium spend.

This would combine two novel approaches: “shopping” for treatment from the doctor, not the insurer, and expanding competition among health insurers by allowing small startup health insurers, akin to what was done for poor businesses in Asia by the “micro-credit” revolution that enabled any poor woman or man to open a business on a small loan. Thousands of small businesses will pop up to become micro-health insurers and facilitate the trade, between doctor and patient, of treatment for money. This would connect the buyer to the seller and enable massive price competition among doctors, so costs would plummet, because many doctors would seek patients by offering cheaper prices at affordable levels of quality. Obviously this would not lower the quality of healthcare, because the doctors who succeeded would be those who proved they could deliver successful, effective treatments, but at cheaper prices. In today’s world, where everyone finds ratings and reviews online, the doctors with the best value propositions, defined as higher quality at cheaper price, would be readily apparent.

The micro-health insurer could also prepay, locking the buyer and seller in at that price while taking profit up front and not when the healthcare is delivered. This would keep healthcare costs locked down at the competitive price the buyer chose to pay, and complete the sale for the buyer at the time of purchase, not after the fact when the patient-buyer becomes sick and his very life depends on paying for healthcare. Right now there are maybe a handful of insurers and 20 health insurance plans that compete in any given state Obamacare Exchange, but the initiative I have outlined would open the door to thousands of health insurers, and potentially hundreds of thousands of healthcare “menus” and “menu items” available to buyers pre-paying doctors a pro rata share of the healthcare premium cost of treatments received.

A free-market system could work for the benefit of all Americans by introducing price competition into the healthcare industry.

The analogy of healthcare options to a menu at a restaurant is apropos. People need food. If you don’t have it, you die, just as a sick person who needs medical treatment gets it or dies. This does not enable the farms to jack up the price of food until it is out of sight, as doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical makers are doing. Instead, thousands of restaurants and grocery stores compete, buying food from farms and selling it as a selection of options on a menu. People buy what they want, within the limits of their budget. Consumers win, and have tasty meals and full bellies. Yes, poor people may have to eat at cheap fast food stores, but they don’t starve to death (and the food at Dunkin Donuts is not that bad!). If you are willing to make do with less, such as by purchasing vegetables and cooking your food at home, you can eat quite nicely. So, too, could a free-market system work for the benefit of all Americans by introducing price competition into the healthcare industry, which would create affordable options across a range of price points.

The conclusion to infer from this article is that, while the statists object that libertarian policy cannot be implemented in a practical manner, this is simply not true. Thinking outside the box, and being creative and innovative about policy solutions, will meet the challenge of making liberty work for America.




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A Few Things We Can Do Without

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A new year is always hopeful — until you notice that it’s only the calendar that has changed; none of the problems has gone away. Word problems can be especially sticky visitors.

As 2017 changed to 2018, I was thinking about that old expression back in the day. I heard it once or twice when I was a kid. I thought it was charming, in a daft way. (Not that I knew the word “daft.”) It gestured vaguely toward some unspecified moment in the past on which something of vague, unspecified significance had occurred. It was quaint and silly. Then, about 1998, I heard the expression again — this time from college students, who had heard it from other college students, who had picked it up from somewhere. These students were saying it about anything that had happened before, well, 1998. “When I was in high school, back in the day . . .”

I’d thought that discretion was only a few pages of his personality; now I found that there was nothing else in the book.

Soon the expression was everywhere. It was a fad. I thought that fads went away; they’re supposed to go away. But this one hasn’t. I hope that it will, eventually — although many other hoary old youth expressions — cool, hot, weed, hittin’ on, even hip, as in hipster — won’t give up their lease. Perhaps (who knows?) you can hasten the exit of back in the day by saying, the next time you hear it, “Pardon me . . . which day do you have in mind?”

And here are some other things, few of them as innocent as back in the day, that have overstayed their welcome. I’ve arranged them alphabetically, starting with:

All about, as in, “Libertarianism is all about freedom.” OK, I understand that statement, and there’s nothing especially wrong with it; it’s just a way of heightening an effect: instead of saying that “libertarianism is about freedom” you say “all about freedom.” Maybe it’s a little childish: you wouldn’t say, “War and Peace is all about the Napoleonic wars.” But it gets, and has gotten, worse. Usually, nowadays, it involves the pretense that human beings have themes, just as books and movements do. I recently told a colleague that something should be kept confidential. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m all about discretion.” I’d thought that discretion was only a few pages of his personality; now I found that there was nothing else in the book.

Bible fakery. This is a perennial medium of political disinformation. Somewhere in history, there must have been a politician who used biblical references with some respect for their source, but I can’t think of one. Christmas is a dependable venue for Bible fakes. At Christmas 2017 the most popular type was the equation of illegal immigrants with the Holy Family. A few blocks from my home there’s a church that’s still flying a banner depicting Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem and proclaiming, “Immigrants & Refugees Welcome Here.” If any immigrants or refugees turn up at the church door, they’ll find out how much this kind of “welcome” is worth. But never mind; here’s something sillier. Martin O’Malley, decayed Governor of Maryland, whose campaign for the presidency was a ludicrous flop, has not ceased his quest for the limelight. On December 22, he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s TV show to say, “Merry Christmas. And remember that Jesus himself was a refugee child. What would you do if he came to the borders of your country?”

Debaucherous? Epitomize an archetype? Powerful restaurateurs? What did they do — invade France?

Carlson’s comment was: “That’s so stupid, it’s hard to respond.” So I will respond. Jesus and his family were not immigrants, and they were not part of some “refugee” movement. They never crossed the borders of their “country,” which was the Roman Empire. According to one of the gospels, they came to Bethlehem by government order, to fulfill a tax regulation; according to another, they fled, a couple of years later, to another part of the empire, but soon returned. Notice, however, what Bible fakery depends upon: an audience that is impressed by “Bible” ideas but is unwilling to ask “What is this guy talking about?” — and then open the book and find out what it says. It’s easy. A child could do it. Millions of children have done it. It is not a good sign that churchgoers and media gatekeepers (there’s another term we can do without) can’t be bothered to do it. Tucker evidently did, but in the program that aired on Fox News just before his, it was assumed without contest that Jesus’ parents took him illegally across a border.

Culture of, toxic culture of. An online journal devoted to the topic of eating has become alarmed about reports “of a male-dominated ‘boys’ club’ environment that, in some ways, has become synonymous with restaurant culture as a whole. The restaurant world is known for late-night, loose, sometimes wild culture, but staffers told Eater,” the online journal, that so and so “epitomized the archetype of rich, powerful restaurateurs who party hard with beautiful women and celebrities, and indulge in what several former employees called the most debaucherous behavior they had ever witnessed.”

Debaucherous? Epitomize an archetype? Powerful restaurateurs? What did they do — invade France? This stuff is pretty hard to take. But culture, used in an anthropological and yet judgmental way — that’s even harder. When it’s used about realms of lifethat I’ve had anything to do with, I feel like a native of New Guinea who is suddenly being “studied” by a bunch of ignorant people from America. I feel that these people are full of crap. I know that they’re full of crap. Since I don’t cook, and I have some money, I have visited many provinces of the restaurant world; I am fairly well acquainted with restaurant culture. I’ve had good friends who ran expensive restaurants. The most debaucherous behavior I ever saw was a waiter flirtatiously kissing his (male) manager. That’s restaurant culture for you! Was it toxic? I don’t know, but no hospitalizations were reported.

Grab. This word has traditionally, and rightly, been reserved for instances of haste, rudeness, or criminality: “Dude! He grabbed my wallet!” During the past year, however, I have seldom heard a waiter or barista or person in a store respond to a request by saying, “I’ll get that for you.” What I hear is, “I’ll grab that for you.” Right; first grab me a steak; then you can grab me my check; after that, I can grab my car and leave.

Restaurants and coffee houses are primary breeding grounds for inane locutions: people who work in them need to communicate essentially the same information, hour after hour, day after day; they look for new ways of communicating it; they find them. Then they say these new thingsover and over, until even they get sick of them. In the meantime, multitudes of other people have heard the cute new things and have passed them along. This is what happened, for example, with the vile “You still workin’ on that?” The result is similar to the one we see when explorers introduce some quickly multiplying rodent to an island populated by a diversity of interesting but unprotected species. Now every person who intends to get something, find something, provide something, reach for something, or pick up something is saying, “I’ll grab that for you.” Our only recourse is to take the word seriously and reply with the appropriate warnings: “Watch out! You don’t want to spill that check!” “Don’t grab it too hard! Those Big Macs are delicate!” “If you grab your data like that, you’re just lookin’ for trouble!” “Be careful how you grab it; those salads can get violent!”

Historical fakery. On January 20, Eric Trump talked to Fox News’ renowned legal expert, Judge Jeanine, and confided inside information about the president: “My father’s workin’ like nobody ever worked before. . . . He’s gotten more done in one year than arguably any president in history.” “Arguably” is the weasel word, but it isn’t enough, unless nobody in his audience ever heard of Washington, Jackson, Polk, Roosevelt (both of them), Truman, Johnson (Lyndon), Nixon, Reagan . . . I’m not saying whether these people got more good things done than bad things, but even if you limit them to the good things, Trump’s statement is preposterously ignorant, so ignorant that it amounts to fakery. A guy who writes you a check for a thousand dollars without bothering to find out whether he’s got a thousand dollars in his account — if he’s not faking you, he’s faking himself.

Restaurants and coffee houses are primary breeding grounds for inane locutions.

In history is something the country should have tired of four decades ago, when Democrats in Congress endlessly reiterated the notion that Watergate was “the worst crisis in our history,” at least “since the Civil War.” But that was a true and moderate statement, compared with such recent claims as that of Trump fils, or that of a would-be Trump nemesis, Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois), who is reported to have said that Trump is the first “racist” president in US history. By Gutierrez’ standards, if he has any, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and many others were all racists; and other presidents were racists by any standard. Depend on it: any public figure who uses the phrase in history knows nothing about the subject.

Knowledge is power. This phrase is submitted for your consideration by Mehmet Karayel, who says that he’s tired of hearing it — as well he might be. Knowledge is power is one of the Western world’s oldest clichés (it goes back to the Renaissance, anyway, though it smells like the Romans), and one of its most harmful. Every expert in ichthyology or Sumerian mythology treasures this silly aphorism, regarding it as his license to loot the world’s moral bank account: “I have knowledge; you are now required to give me power.” You see the fallacy, but the possessor of knowledge never does. So knowledgeable is he that he swallows the statement whole and spends the rest of his life in vengeful disappointment with the ignoramuseswho will not give him power. It never occurs to such wisepeople that their absolute trust in their own knowledge (of something or other) is itself a decisive refutation of their eligibility for power.

Legendary. We see examples of this one every day. The following happens to come from Mediaite (December 21), but it could be from anyplace: “Legendary anchorman Tom Brokaw took a hard swing against Fox News this morning . . .” Tom Brokaw should not be confused with Paul Bunyan. There are no legends about Tom Brokaw. And, if memory serves, Paul Bunyan could occasionally talk so as to make himself understood.

I’m not saying whether these people got more good things done than bad things, but even if you limit them to the good things, Eric Trump’s statement is preposterously ignorant.

How does legendary get attached to people who are not even memorable? The reason is that it’s too hard to find another adjective for them; they just aren’t worth the effort, so to be nice, somebody makes them legendary. Notice that no one ever refers to “the legendary Abraham Lincoln.” It’s always “the legendary Meryl Streep” or someone like that.

Litigating, relitigating.This is a low-grade form of political flimflam. It’s the substitution of a high-class term that many people do not understand for simple terms that everyone uses all the time, in order to make simple events appear too complicated to be understood. Thus CNN, last November, on the goofy ways in which goofy Senator Alan Stuart (“Al”) Franken dealt with allegations of goofy sexual misdemeanors:“What Franken is doing here is obvious. He is letting the statement he released last week in the wake of the first allegations stand. He's not adding to it, re-opening it or relitigating it.” You’re an intelligent person; you’re a good reader; you know what litigate means. So tell me: how can someone litigate, let alone relitigate, a statement, let alone relitigate his own statement? The simple word, the word that relitigating has been used to replace, is “changing.”

Much worse than the passage just quoted is Senator Elizabeth Warren’s statement to the Boston Globe about her bizarre claim to be an American Indian:

These issues were extensively litigated in 2012 [when she ran for the Senate] and I think the people of Massachusetts made their decision. I think what the people of Massachusetts and what voters are concerned about is the direction that Donald Trump is pulling this country.

No, an election is not a litigation. And if it were, its purpose would not be to decide the issues of whether Elizabeth Warren and her employer, Harvard University, falsely claimed that she was an American Indian. Neither, unfortunately, would it be held to pronounce judgment on the illiterate syntax of Dr. Elizabeth Warren, darling of liberal “intellectuals,” a woman who says such things as “the direction that Donald Trump is pulling this country.” Diagram that, if you can. Her underlying idea is simple: she got elected, so she must be right, either about being an American Indian or about the morality of falsely claiming to be an American Indian. This idea is ridiculous, and that’s why she’s trying to make you feel that the situation is too complicated for you to understand.

Nation of immigrants. Everyone — Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, whoever — constantly recites this article of the American Creed. That’s sufficient reason, in itself, to send nation of immigrants to the retirement home. But there’s another reason. It isn’t true that we are a nation of immigrants, and it hasn’t been true since the 17th century. The vast majority of Americans were born right here in America; they are native Americans in the true sense of those words. But even if we were a nation of immigrants, so what? What inference could possibly be drawn from that? It wouldn’t mean that more or less immigration should occur. The only thing it might suggest is that the original native Americans, the Indians, should have done more to prevent the growth of a nation of immigrants, in which they would become a small and persecuted minority.

Tom Brokaw should not be confused with Paul Bunyan. There are no legends about Tom Brokaw.

Perch. I mentioned Al Franken (boo!, hiss!). I mentioned Tucker Carlson (hurrah!). Here they are again, but not in a good way for either. During his December 6 TV program, the latter referred to the former as “a powerful person knocked from his high perch” by a sex scandal. That would have been all right, if Tucker hadn’t been echoing one of the media’s insta-clichés. During the past six months, every prominent social position has become a perch, and while it pleases me to picture former Senator Franken as a fat yellow parakeet being knocked from its little plastic swing, this cliché is like all the rest of them: it usurps the position of other expressions, many of them more exact or vivid or imaginative, that might be useful for the occasion. The plague of perch will get worse before it gets better, because it only started recently.

Tone deaf. Discussing the execrable behavior of federal prosecutors in the Bundy case, “Ian Bartrum, a constitutional law professor at University of Nevada Las Vegas, said he's struggled to understand what led to the prosecutors' ‘tone deafness’ to their obligations.” Contrary to current popular opinion, you can’t be tone deaf to something that’s not a tone. Obligations, for instance, are not a tone.

Under investigation. Here’s another phrase marked for condemnation by Mehmet Karayel. He notes its constant use as a charm to keep the peasants from storming the palace — in plain terms, to keep the public from learning anything about the government it pays for. Whenever some particularly atrocious official deed is perpetrated, the first response of every government agency is to begin an investigation. Of course, if something is under investigation, no information can be divulged. If, however, the investigation has been concluded, well, the investigation has been concluded — case closed; go away. The next thing you’ll hear is that the matter has been fully litigated, and this is no time to relitigate it; i.e., bring it up again.

These are sayings, by the way, that you will never hear from Word Watch. This column never refuses to give out information, and the public can stay just as long as it wants.




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State of the Moral Union

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On January 6, the state of Hawaii was panicked by a message mistakenly sent to cellphones by an employee of the state’s Emergency Management Agency:

Missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.

As a consequence of this enormous error, the government worker — name concealed, of course, because revealing it would be so wrong and hurtful — has been “temporarily reassigned.” Not fired. Reassigned. To what job, we are not told.

“He feels terrible,” management says.

So would I. But why, after such an event, should I go on being paid by the people whose lives I jeopardized?

We live in a country in which you can make one of the worst errors that a human being can possibly make and still retain your job, your benefits, and the sympathy of a grateful government.

This is not some fine point of morality. It is morality — the morality of a society in which government is the servant, not the master.

As usual, the government’s spokesman intoned, “We’re not going to take action till we have all the facts.” And as usual when such statements are made, the facts are already known and obvious to all. This was confirmed by the same government spokesman: “The reality is, he made a fairly simple mistake.”

We live in a country in which you can make one of the worst errors that a human being can possibly make and still retain your job, your benefits, and the sympathy of a grateful government. But if you talk dirty to a coworker, serve booze to someone 20 years and 364 days old, take a toy pistol into a school, lie to the FBI about things that aren’t crimes, spank your child, or name your car the General Lee, you will suffer all the shame and ostracism that can be inflicted by an outraged state and society.

That’s where we are right now.

Years ago, prostitutes in San Francisco founded an organization to protest government persecution. The org was called C.O.Y.O.T.E. — “Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics.” Not a bad slogan.




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Healthcare: More Is Less

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There was a time when insurance companies focused on actuarial tables while physicians focused on diagnosis and treatment. But not any more! Now insurance companies are raking in the premiums — double what they were five years ago for many customers — while doing everything in their power to reject claims. Patients are more afraid of the insurance agent than they are of the disease.

In the past month alone, my daughters have had four hefty medical claims rejected, including a medication prescribed to control chronic seizures and a gallbladder removal that was deemed “elective” by the insurance company! What is the point of buying insurance if you can’t use it? And how can the market respond to customer dissatisfaction when government regulation gives insurance companies so much power?

Insurance companies are raking in the premiums — double what they were five years ago for many customers — while doing everything in their power to reject claims.

I raised five active, rambunctious, rough-and-tumble children across three decades, and while I worried occasionally about their health and safety, I never worried about how I would pay for their healthcare. My relationship with insurance companies was straightforward and consistent. Our copay was consistent. Our deductible was consistent. If one of the kids was injured, I could call my favorite orthopedic practice without worrying that the claim would be rejected on the grounds of some esoteric technicality. When my daughter developed epilepsy, I was proactive in finding the right doctor, the right diagnosis, and the right treatment that has kept her virtually seizure-free for 15 years — until her current insurance company decided that the medication her doctor has prescribed for those 15 years will not be covered.

In the past five years, everything has changed. Suddenly it’s the insurance agent, not the physician, who decides what the patient needs by deciding whether it will be covered. Insurance premiums are so high that few families can save enough to cover out-of-pocket expenses, yet everything is becoming an out-of-pocket expense. My daughters find themselves owing nearly $15,000 in uncovered medical expenses in a single month — and they have insurance!

In the past month alone, my daughters have had four hefty medical claims rejected, including a medication prescribed to control chronic seizures and a gallbladder removal that was deemed “elective."

American healthcare, once the best in the world, is collapsing under the weight of over-regulation and crony capitalism that favors the insurer over the healer. Rand Paul, the only actual physician in the US Senate, has been locked out of discussions about healthcare reform. Let’s hope it all collapses soon, so the free market can rebuild from the ashes.




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Responsive Government

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Libertarians are of two minds about government.

To some, the state is a system of entrenched powers and interests unwilling to yield a particle of authority. Evidence: even the president can’t make any significant change in the power structure.

To others, the state is a vast assemblage of freeloaders and influence peddlers, perfectly willing to assimilate anyone or anything — even you or me — because it is confident in its ability to survive and grow, no matter what. Evidence: the 535 members of Congress, living proof that anyone can become part of the state.

The mayor tearfully apologized, claiming that he knew nothing of the important honor granted by his office.

The first theory pictures government as an endless web of armed DMVs, the second as an endless series of doors that can be accessed, eventually, by anybody. If even a Maxine Waters or a Mitch McConnell knocks on enough of those doors, eventually one of them will open. There are policemen in the state of California who get paid $550,000 a year. They found a door that opened.

The city of Cincinnati has provided fresh evidence for the second theory. It appears that if you ask the people in the mayor’s office, they will give you a day, a special day, just for you, or for anyone you know, no matter who you or either of you may be.

In 2015, a police officer named Sonny Kim was ambushed and killed on the streets of Cincinnati by a man named Trepierre Hummons, who was then killed. This year, Hummons’ father contacted the city asking that a day be set aside to honor his son. His intention, it is reported, was “to raise awareness of child abuse and mental illness” — two things that something called the Trepierre Foundation — a GoFundMe venue — exists to fight. In any event, the father’s intention was soon honored, and the city declared June 1 “Tre Day” in honor of the cop killer, whose “sacrifice,” the proclamation said, would “save the lives of children for generations to come.”

If you ask the people in the Cincinnati mayor’s office, they will give you a day, a special day, just for you, or for anyone you know.

This action finally leaked into the knowledge of someone outside the mayor’s office, and protests were lodged. “Tre Day” was ousted from the calendar, and the mayor tearfully apologized, claiming that he knew nothing of the important honor granted by his office, which allegedly did not recognize the distinctive name of the person it was honoring. So much for Tre Day. But the awful extent of government is indicated by the fact that it does millions of things like this without its actions even being noticed.

And let me tell you, Tiw, Woden, Thor, Freya, and Saturn are really pissed off.




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Manna from Heaven

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When we talk of economics, we often do it by means of labels and mantras. Discussing economic subjects in this way means that we do not fully discuss them; we just use words and phrases that suggest preconceived notions. I think this is because economics is predominantly political, and “political” is another way of saying “snake oil sales.”

One mantra that I often hear is people’s invocation of a Robin Hood morality, the morality of robbing Peter to pay Paul: Robin Hood cared for the poor downtrodden (Paul) with the wealth he stole from the fat cats (Peter). What is ignored about this fairy tale is that Peter is the lord of the land who uses his governmental authority to confiscate the property of Paul, the peasants. Robin is a hero because he fights the totalitarian government of Peter to return confiscated wealth to oppressed taxpayers.

What got me thinking about the labels that political commentators use in discussing economics was Hillary Clinton’s assertion that Donald Trump’s plan to cut taxes in order to revive the economy was just “Trumped up trickle-down.” “Trickle-down” is the label often used by the political enemies of leaving wealth in the hands of CEOs and others of corporate administrative rank. The “trickle-down” label comes from the idea that these people spend the wealth hiring workers to construct whatever their companies’ products may be. Thus, wealth “trickles down” from the wealthy administrators to the needy workers.

Robin Hood is a hero because he fights the totalitarian government to return confiscated wealth to oppressed taxpayers.

But what is the government’s economic system of high taxes and “wealth redistribution”? In its intention, the wealth redistribution system is also trickle-down. In this system, government takes the place of corporate administration. It accumulates wealth — by taxation. This wealth is then supposed to trickle down to the subjects of the government, by means of redistribution programs. So, why is trickle-down bad when wealth trickles down from company administration, but good when it trickles down from government?

The feudal system that I mentioned when talking about Robin Hood was actually a wealth redistribution system. But in such systems, does wealth really trickle down? “Trickle-down” is appropriate to the sales pitch used by politicians when they claim that they intend to do such things as pay for infrastructure, education, and retirement. However, the wealth redistribution system is, in fact, trickle-out. “Trickle-out” means that the government takes wealth from its subjects and distributes it to its preferred lobbyists. Think military contractors, Elon Musk, and Planned Parenthood. Those are a few examples. Does the wealth ever get back to the subjects? Well, some does, but the amount that the subjects get is inversely proportional to the number of lobbyists who get some of the wealth before it makes its way back.

Politicians claim the place of God: they sell themselves as all-powerful beings that you need to take care of you.

The lobbyists and their clients reward the government by giving back some of the loot they received, prompting politicians to increase their take by selling more and more “economic stimuli” to the public, as if they were actually providing some kind of free food.

In the book of Exodus, God gives the children of Israel a miraculous food called manna, which is meant to sustain them on their journey out of servitude to the king of Egypt. In the modern form of this story, politicians claim the place of God: they sell themselves as all-powerful beings that you need to take care of you. They prefer this story about themselves to the reality of “trickle-down,” which is how we truly get our bread from heaven. In every light rain, water trickles down from above; this water is the food for plants, and thus the origin of our daily bread. And I think this is why politicians hate trickle-down economics: our food comes from sources beyond their control. This kind of economics dethrones them from their delusion of almighty power; and it exempts us — if we reflect on it — from our dependency on them.




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Give Up Your Guns

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A few years ago, there appeared online a satire of an American religious group, written by a disaffected member. This group — the name doesn’t matter — believes that because the present world is wicked, God will soon destroy virtually all its people in an apocalyptic war against his own creation. The satire, which unfortunately I can no longer find, went something like this:

Problem: Crime is rampant in our society.
Solution: Kill 7 billion people.

Problem: Violence plagues many countries of the world.
Solution: Kill 7 billion people.

Problem: Sexual immorality continues to increase.
Solution: Kill 7 billion people.

Etc.

I was thinking about this on December 2, as the chorus of modern liberal shrieks went up about the events in San Bernardino. The president and Mrs. Clinton started shrieking even before the crimes had ended, and they have continued in the same way, as if the addition of facts and information meant, and could mean, absolutely nothing. And indeed, they can’t mean anything to the shriekers, because their solution to every problem is the same: end the right to bear arms.

To them, it makes no difference who was using the guns, or whether the guns were legally acquired, in a state that has some of the toughest gun laws in America. It makes no difference that the terrorists were obviously dedicated enough to acquire guns, no matter what laws existed to prevent them. It makes no difference that . . . But why expand the list? Nothing makes a difference to the gun controllers’ apocalyptic worldview. It’s their religion, and it cannot change. It can only be preached at a higher volume.

Certainly it makes no difference to them that normal Americans have pretty much stopped caring what these particular prophets of doom are saying. We’ll see how much difference it makes to normal Americans that a sizable number of their leaders are religious lunatics.




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So, What Did You Do All Day?

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In the company I run, my partner and I have over 70 employees. Crazy. Business is good but stressful.

I just finished the latest meaningless HR task that small business owners must do: creating a “safety binder” for every single chemical in the office, with printouts of the numerous-page Safety Data Sheets from each product’s manufacturer, and with first aid information. “Every chemical” includes printer toner, dish soap, dry erase markers, WD-40, glue sticks, antibacterial wipes . . . the list is long, and the SDS sheets can be up to 11 pages. The Safety Data Sheets list such things as toxicity to fish and what to wear if you are in a plant that manufactures the dangerous item.

And this means he won’t sue us? Of course he will sue us. But maybe we will be spared the guillotine.

So, if an employee squirts hand sanitizer in his eye, he can get the safety binder and flip to the page that tells what to do if you have hand sanitizer in your eye. Or if he eats Windex, he can likewise turn to the safety binder. And this means he won’t sue us? Of course he will sue us. But maybe we will be spared the guillotine because we have shown such caring by having a bright red safety binder.

On a more practical note, I’ve bought three fire extinguishers, a huge first aid kit, and those continuous charge flashlights that plug into walls. Next on my list is choosing safety officers, devising a fire drill, and conducting it. My partner wants to get some of those bright orange vests. I’m thinking about it.

By the way, I have not done anything even remotely related to our product in a very long time.




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Rendering Caesar

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At first glance, it will appear to the reader that my title omits the word “unto.” The omission was intentional. There’s no “unto,” because my view of the familiar gospel story (Matthew 22:15–22) is unconventional. For most of my life, I read it in the way everybody else does. But although my religious convictions have changed little since early adulthood, I now see that story in an entirely different light, because of the change my politics have undergone.

The meaning I see: was it there all along? Purists may claim that I made it up, but I wonder. The feeling usually derived from the story is that Jesus was a crafty guy, because he really punked those Pharisees. I have a hunch that Jesus was even craftier than we realize.

For the scripturally uninitiated, some self-righteous types came to Jesus asking whether it was indeed lawful to pay taxes to Rome. They were always trying to trap him, and this time they really thought they had him in the bag. As the people of Palestine were subjects of the empire, they were forced to pay taxes to it. But the Jewish people regarded their overlords as tyrants, and cherished the dream of one day overthrowing them. As a rabbi, if Jesus were to say that these taxes were the empire’s due, he would stir up a hornet’s nest of resentment.

Government produces absolutely nothing. It creates nothing. One can pretty persuasively argue that it contributes nothing that could not be better supplied by another source.

“Show me a coin,” Jesus tells his inquisitors. When they produce one, he asks them whose picture is on it. Of course they say it is Caesar’s. To which he responds, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” They went away disappointed, and perhaps a bit awed. Jesus had really gotten out of that one!

My purpose in retelling this story is not to force religion on anybody. My point isn’t particularly religious, but in my retelling of this story, it does have a moral, just not the one usually supplied.

From the time the gospels began to be circulated to the present day, the moral that has been understood is that there are some things that belong to us, and others that belong to the government. But it is precisely this moral that I wish to challenge. As a matter of fact, I challenge the very notion that government rightfully owns anything.

In truth, government produces absolutely nothing. It creates nothing. One can pretty persuasively argue that it contributes nothing that could not be better supplied by another source. Everything it gets its hands on, it has taken from us. Or from whatever other nation it has plundered, or from which it has demanded tribute.

How, then, can government legitimately be said to “own” anything? It doesn’t earn; it simply takes. From others. Whether they want to give it or not. And for all that it takes, it gives astonishingly little in return.

Because I’m both a Christian and a libertarian, I’m sometimes accused of hypocrisy. How can I believe that taxation is theft, when — for crying out loud — Jesus himself told us to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”? Whenever people remind me of this, they give me a smug smile, certain that they’ve punked me.

I used to get frustrated by this. But not so fast. Having now deeply considered the matter, I see the other side of the coin.

Jesus didn’t specify exactly what belonged to Caesar and what belonged to God. Technically, he never really answered the Pharisees’ question. That aspect of the story almost always goes unnoticed. Actually he left us considerable leeway in deciding that for ourselves.

Yes, he minted the money and put his picture on it. But he took the metal from lands he’d taken from the people, extracted from the earth not by the sweat of his own brow but by theirs.

Do we owe that coin to Caesar? Or do we “owe” Caesar anything at all? Those who call themselves “progressives” love to tell us that “we are the government.” If that is true — and I think that when they say it, understanding government as they do, it is the hollowest of lies — then where did “Caesar” get it in the first place? He neither made it, created it, nor earned it; he simply pulled out a sword and took it.

Yes, he minted the money and put his picture on it. But he took the metal from lands he’d taken from the people, extracted from the earth not by the sweat of his own brow but by theirs. They didn’t want his picture on their money; he told them they would use that money or die for treason. Then he forced them to give up a crushingly sizable portion of the money they had earned — by the sweat of their brows — and give it to him. No part of how Caesar came about that coin was sanctioned by the law of the God they worshiped.

“I came not to destroy the Law,” said Jesus elsewhere in Scripture, “but to fulfill it.” Again, not to force religion on anybody, but even those who have no religion have a conscience that says what belongs to one may not be forcibly taken by another. Caesar owns nothing at all, beyond, perhaps, the image on “his” coin.

Were many, many more of us to recognize that fact, we could render Caesar powerless to demand anything from us at the point of a sword. We’d tell him what we wanted, and he would do it — because he’d serve us instead of the other way around. Every shekel and widow’s mite in this country belongs to us — the people who created it, worked for it, and rightfully earned it. It’s time for a reassessment of who owns what. And of who owes what unto whom.




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