Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Which ObamaCare shoe will drop next?

by Jeff Jacoby

FIRST IT was the debacle of Healthcare.gov, the botched ObamaCare website, that dominated coverage of the Affordable Care Act's rollout.

The new insurance exchanges were a disaster — technical malfunctions, frozen screens, interminable wait times, error messages, lost data. President Obama had promised that the new system would make getting health insurance as easy as shopping online — "the same way you'd shop for a plane ticket on Kayak or a TV on Amazon," he'd said. What he delivered instead, as Democratic Senator Max Baucus predicted months ago, was a "huge train wreck."

Last week that train wreck grew huger.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are being notified that their health insurance policies will be cancelled, notwithstanding Obama's endlessly repeated assurance that "if you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan." But that claim, voters now realize, was also untrue.

As NBC News reported on Monday, "the administration knew that more than 40 to 67 percent of those in the individual market would not be able to keep their plans, even if they liked them." ObamaCare regulations promulgated in 2010 were designed to force millions of consumers into getting more comprehensive, more expensive, insurance coverage than they want or need. Yet over and over the president insisted that wouldn't happen — a falsehood so egregious it earned "four Pinocchios" from the Washington Post's fact-checker. And that was before Obama's trip to Faneuil Hall last week to scapegoat "bad-apple insurers" for selling Americans health-care plans they liked.

Remember Joe Wilson, the South Carolina congressman who yelled "You lie!" during Obama's health-care speech to Congress in 2009? His outburst was inexcusably rude. But in retrospect, it looks increasingly prescient.

Which shoe will be the next to drop? What other ObamaCare promise will voters discover was bogus? Perhaps it will be the claim that the president's health law won't add "one dime to our deficits — either now or in the future." Or the rosy pledge that it will lower premiums for the typical family by $2,500 per year. Or the vaunted assurance that it will "bend the cost curve downward." Or all of them.

But will it make any difference?

Complaints that politicians tell lies are as old as politics — and so, most of the time, is the public's willingness to live with those lies. Nearly all of us say we don't like being deceived by elected officials, but even brazen liars are routinely reelected. Polls consistently find that members of Congress have a rock-bottom reputation when it comes to ethical standards — in a recent Gallup survey, only 1 in 10 Americans gave Congress a high rating for honesty— yet the vast majority of congressmen seeking reelection are successful. Candidates preceded by a reputation for mendacity and insincerity get elected to the White House: Think of "Tricky Dick" Nixon or "Slick Willie" Clinton.

On the whole, society tends to be more tolerant of politicians who break their word or fail to keep a promise than of businesses that do so. Consider the CEO of Southwest Airlines, Gary Kelly, who has been adamant in recent years about not charging passengers for baggage. "Bags Fly Free" has been a mainstay of Southwest's advertising. "I don't want to be waffling on this," Kelly told an interviewer last year. "We're not going to charge bag fees, no way." In a conference call in April, he underscored the point: "Our brand includes 'bags fly free.' Period."

Representative Joe Wilson blurts "You lie!" during President Obama's health-care speech in 2009. His outburst was certainly rude. It was also prescient.

So it made news when Kelly hinted this month that Southwest's policy may change, if the company concludes that passengers will accept "an à la carte approach." Business leaders, like politicians, would rather paint a 180-degree reversal as an evolution, not a broken promise. But Kelly knows his margin for error is precarious. Unlike politicians, he and Southwest are answerable to the marketplace, where the penalty for deceiving customers or betraying shareholders can be swift and ruthless. No corporate executive would dare to be as cavalier about consumers' expectations as the White House has been with regard to the promises the president made about ObamaCare.

If Obama were the CEO of a private company, writes George Mason University economist Don Boudreaux, "he would be sued, publicly lambasted by all the major media, perhaps hauled before an admittedly grandstanding Congressional committee, and possibly prosecuted, convicted, fined, or even imprisoned for fraudulent misrepresentation." But politics isn't the marketplace, and politicians are held to a different standard. We entrust elected officials with far too much power, then routinely fail to hold them accountable when they abuse their power and betray that trust.

Ultimately the only solution to the problem of faithless politicians is to put less faith in politicians. For as government gets bigger, citizens get smaller — and public servants become impossible to control.



Is The Tea Party Really All About Alger Hiss?

Unde malum et quare? Where does evil come from and why does it exist? That has always been one of the big questions; over at Bloomberg News, former White House macher and Samantha Power super-spouse Cass Sunstein says he’s solved at least one part of the riddle: he’s figured out the from whence and why of the Tea Party.

The Tea Party is a huge intellectual problem for blue model liberals. It sprang up out of nowhere, it lacks a formal leadership structure, and despite many obituaries in the MSM, it remains a significant force in the Republican Party and in American politics as a whole. It is everything Occupy Wall Street hoped to become, and the MSM did everything possible to make OWS flourish. It was hailed as a movement of historic impact, the start of a global trend, one of those epochal developments after which nothing will ever be the same—and it guttered out ignominiously.

The Tea Party, on the other hand, has flourished despite non-stop efforts to smother it in the media. While its record is mixed and, from a Democratic point of view not all bad (arguably, without unqualified Tea Party-backed candidates, the GOP would now have control of the Senate), its persistence annoys. It is almost as if the MSM’s power to shape American politics is on the wane.

Professor Sunstein (he teaches at Harvard Law) has a theory, though, about where the Tea Party comes from. It all goes back to Alger Hiss, a State Department official under Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. After playing an important role in US policy in the Middle East and East Asia, he chaired the international committee that established the United Nations. On leaving the government in 1946 he went on to head the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, then as now one of the most respected institutions of the foreign policy establishment.

Sunstein tells what happened next:

    "In his 1948 testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Whittaker Chambers, a writer and editor for Time magazine and a former Communist, identified Hiss as a Communist. Hiss adamantly denied the charge. He said he didn’t know anyone named Whittaker Chambers. Encountering his accuser in person, Hiss spoke directly to him: “May I say for the record at this point that I would like to invite Mr. Whittaker Chambers to make those same statements out of the presence of this committee without their being privileged for suit for libel?”

    Chambers took Hiss’s bait. In an interview on national television, Chambers repeated his charges. In response to the libel suit, he produced stolen State Department documents and notes that seemed to establish not merely that Hiss was a Communist, but that he had spied for the Soviet Union. Hiss was convicted of perjury.

    The conviction was stunning, for Hiss had been a member of the nation’s liberal elite. A graduate of Harvard Law School and a law clerk for the revered Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, he held positions of authority in the Agriculture, Justice and State departments. He was tall, handsome, elegant, gracious, even dashing."

So how do we get from a perjurious traitor and his apologists to the Tea Party?

Well, for one thing, the liberal establishment stood by its man. Again, Professor Sunstein:

    "At his 1949 perjury trial, an extraordinary number of liberal icons served as character witnesses for Hiss, including two Supreme Court justices (Stanley Reed and Felix Frankfurter); John W. Davis, who was the Democratic presidential nominee in 1924; and Adlai Stevenson, who was to become the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 1952 and 1956."

But the real problem, says Sunstein, wasn’t that the liberal establishment was too clueless and too self-protected to recognize a dangerous traitor in its midst. It was that Hiss’s accuser, Whittaker Chambers, was “polarizing.” Here’s how Sunstein closes:

    "Chambers’ broader charge — that liberalism was a species of socialism, “inching its ice cap over the nation” — polarized the nation. His attack on the patriotism of the Ivy League elite reflected an important strand in American culture, and it helped to initiate suspicions that persist to this day.

    Liberals are no longer much interested in Hiss’s conviction, yet they are puzzled, and rightly object, when they are accused of holding positions that they abhor. We can’t easily understand those accusations, contemporary conservative thought or the influence of the Tea Party without appreciating the enduring impact of the Hiss case."

This is a surprisingly lame ending to the piece. After all, if Chambers’ attack on the Ivy League “reflected an important strand in American culture,” then the Tea Party must have deeper roots than one half-forgotten cause célèbre. It’s also not clear what he means by the reference to false accusations against liberals for holding positions that they abhor. Is that what Sunstein thinks the Tea Party is about? That if those unfortunate and paranoid folks understood liberals better, they would oppose them less?

There are some tinfoil hat types out there who think that President Obama and his cohorts are hiding Qu’rans in the White House and looking to introduce both socialism and Sharia as soon as they can. Nut jobs on both the left and the right and all kinds of cranky positions in between are an enduring part of American politics. But if Sunstein thinks that this is the energy that powers the Tea Party, he is very far from understanding either this phenomenon or American politics as a whole.

The Tea Party is mostly something much more conventional: a libertarian, small government protest against the centralization of federal power, and a populist resentment of snooty Ivy League professors who think the common people aren’t very smart. We’ve had these movements in America ever since colonial times; when Andrew Jackson defeated John Quincy Adams’ re-election bid in 1828, the 19th century forerunners of the Tea Party were in full cry.

We aren’t seeing a right-leaning populist surge today because of Alger Hiss; we are seeing it because many Americans believe that President Obama’s liberal and technocratic agenda represents a threat to a way of life they value. We are seeing it because many Americans blame the establishment of both parties both for the financial crisis and for the vast transfer of resources to the wealthy that came after the crash. We are seeing it because whether you look at foreign or domestic policy, the technocratic suggestions of the Great and the Good have not been helping ordinary Americans much for the last 20 years.

We don’t think Tea Partiers are wrong to see President Obama’s political goals as fundamentally opposed to their own vision of what America should be. They aren’t angry because they are stupid, and deep disagreement with technocratic liberalism is not a mental disease.

Some zealous Tea Partiers put two and two together and get eight, giving the Obama administration and its liberal backers credit for more foresight and cunning than they possess. There were those in 1800 who thought that John Adams was planning to introduce a monarchy into the United States. There were those on the right who thought that Franklin Roosevelt was a socialist; there were those on the left who thought Ronald Reagan was a fascist and that Margaret Thatcher hated poor people. But to confound a major current of American politics with the lunatic fringe is not a recipe for healing the nation or even for helping your side put some points on the board. There are birthers in the Tea Party, but the Tea Party is not the voice of birtherism.

But Professor Sunstein does have a point. The Hiss case was not a cause of the Tea Party, or even of the anti-intellectual tradition in American politics that Richard Hofstader analyzed in the early 1960s. It was, however, a prominent manifestation of the class snobbery and intolerance that so often shapes elite liberal responses to political events and that so frequently fills so many Americans with loathing and disgust.

For a generation after Alger Hiss was convicted on two counts of perjury, American liberals went on to defend him as a plumed knight and a martyr. They slimed his accusers as knuckle dragging know-nothings and McCarthyite enemies of freedom. They never forgave Richard Nixon for helping Whittaker Chambers. As the evidence against Hiss mounted, they fought a long rear-guard defense. Even today, Cass Sunstein doesn’t quite come out with the ugly truth. Instead he gives us a mealy-mouthed formulation:

    "Most of those who have carefully studied the case, and who have explored evidence emerging long after the trial itself, have concluded that Chambers was telling the truth and that Hiss did indeed perjure himself."

No, as Sunstein says,

    "Liberals are no longer much interested in Hiss’s conviction, yet they are puzzled, and rightly object, when they are accused of holding positions that they abhor."

Yes, liberals are the victims here. After decades of vicious invective and bile-spewing, liberals find the whole Hiss subject dull and don’t want to think about the case anymore—but they just hate it when other people don’t appreciate their selfless dedication to the public good.



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