Free Markets, Free People

Michael Wade

Latest Health Care Myth: 80% of Americans Want Public Option! (Updated)

Coming soon from a lefty near you:

A new survey commissioned by the AARP asks respondents to what degree they support or oppose “[s]tarting a new federal health insurance plan that individuals could purchase if they can’t afford private plans offered to them” — a public option, in other words. The results are interesting, though not necessarily surprising to those who have been closely following the debate.

All: 79 percent favor/18 percent oppose
Democrats: 89 percent favor/8 percent oppose
Republicans: 61 percent favor/33 percent oppose
Independents: 80 percent favor/16 percent oppose

Let that sink in for a moment — 61% of Republicans and 80% of Independents support some sort of “federal health insurance plan” according to MyDD’s Jonathan Singer, who adds:

Indeed, a supermajority of even Republicans supports a federal program to provide individuals with a choice for their health insurance coverage, with just a third of the party membership opposing such a plan.

So why, again, are supporters of a public option finding such difficulty in Congress?

Regardless of the veracity of these numbers, you will hear them spouted over and over again by every leftwing outlet available (yes, that includes the MSM). It will become gospel amongst ObamaCare supporters that 80% of Americans support a public option, just as it’s become gospel that there are 47 Million uninsured individuals in this country, or that Tea Party advocates are in the paid employ of the health insurance lobby. Yet, problems abound with this survey.

Where to begin. Firstly, when I say “according to Jonathan Singer” above, I mean that the poll question he quotes is nowhere to be found publicly, so there is no way to verify its accuracy. The AARP has no link to it (and in fact does not even mention the poll), nor does the company, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates (“PSB”), that conducted the survey.

If in fact the question was worded as described by Singer, then the inclusion of the phrase “if they can’t afford private plans offered to them” alters the results dramatically. Although some have suggested that this is the reason we need health care insurance reform so desperately, it completely ignores the fact that those who can’t afford health insurance are generally covered by Medicaid, SCHIP and other federal and state programs. So when respondents are asked whether such people should be covered, how do we know they aren’t thinking about those federal and state programs already in existence and not the public option as proposed by Obama and Congress? In short, we don’t. To be fair, the question allegedly refers to “starting a new” program, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that people understood the question to be asking about ObamaCare’s public option.

Indeed, according to PSB, “only 37 percent define ‘public option’ correctly” and “about one-fourth of those polled believe the ‘public option’ is a national health care system, similar to the one in Great Britain.” Of course, how to “correctly” define the public option is not revealed, but suffice it to say that the survey’s respondents did not reveal they had a concise grasp upon what a public option actually means.

Then there is the transparency problem. Although PSB claims (pdf) its survey has a margin of error of “+/- 3.10% at the 95% confidence level and larger for subgroups” it also states that it was done over the internet “on August 12-13, 2009 among 1,000 Americans”. Because the data are not released (at least, not to the public, although Singer apparently has access to a copy), it’s impossible to tell, and difficult to understand, how an internet survey could determine that only Americans responded, that the respondents were actually associated with any political party (e.g. registered voters), or that respondents were even separate people. In addition, how is that an “internet survey” completed over two days received only (and exactly!) 1,000 responses? Again, we don’t know because the actual poll data are hidden from public view. But it looks awfully suspect when such a survey has 61% of Republicans, and 79% overall, responding favorably to a public option, when numerous other polls out there show much lower support.

Finally, there is a potential bias problem. PSB, the company who conducted the survey, is not exactly a bystander in this debate. The “P” in “PSB” is Penn. As in Mark Penn. Remember him?

Mark Penn, the strategist who dashed Hillary Clinton’s presidential hopes, is the Wall Street Journal’s “Microtrend”-spotting columnist. He’s also CEO of PR giant Burson-Marsteller. Only a scumbag would abuse the former to drum up business for the latter.

Scumbag spotted!

Mark Penn’s latest (old, and none too insightful) ‘Microtrend’ column is about “glamping”—glamorous camping. It ran last weekend. By Monday, according to an internal email obtained by Gawker, Burson was already trying to recruit companies from the industry featured in the column as clients. Burson Executive Vice President (and former Bill Clinton speechwriter) Josh Gottheimer urged Burson’s senior staff—including Founding Chairman Harold Burson, US President & CEO Patrick Ford, and others, to use Penn’s column as a tool to approach clients in the camping industry about business. Not only that—he recommends that Mark Penn “send a note” to the CEO of these potential clients requesting a meeting.

The WSJ is currently investigating whether the allegation that Penn used his column to generate business created any conflict of interest problems [Ed. – gee, you think?]. Meanwhile, a survey conducted by another one of his companies (PSB) is claiming that support is monstrously high for a public option. And what does PSB do?

Penn, Schoen & Berland (PSB), a member of the WPP Group, is a global research-based consultancy that specializes in messaging and communications strategy for blue-chip political, corporate and entertainment clients.

Any guesses as to which clients PSB might be after, and why they only released their survey results to friendly (i.e. partisan lefty) outlets?

It’s my guess that the 80% number is going to tossed around quite a bit in the next coming weeks as Congress gets back to work screwing us passing legislation in September. Just remember that, as of right now, there are many, many reasons to be quite skeptical about that number.

UPDATE: As bains points out in the comments, Jonathan Singer has amended his post, without explanation and (still) without any link to the data, so that “commissioned by the AARP” has been struck out. There’s really nothing wrong with that (it’s not as if the words disappeared altogether), but the omissions are more than a bit strange.

Also, with respect to polling data, Rasmussen released this today:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey show that 43% of voters nationwide favor the plan working its way through Congress while 53% are opposed. Those figures are virtually identical to results from two weeks ago.

As has been true since the debate began, those opposed to the congressional overhaul feel more strongly about the legislation than supporters. Forty-three percent (43%) now Strongly Oppose the legislation while 23% Strongly Favor it. Those figures, too, are similar to results from earlier in August.

While supporters of the reform effort say it is needed to help reduce the cost of health care, 52% of voters believe it will have the opposite effect and lead to higher costs. Just 17% believe the plans now in Congress will reduce costs.

There’s lots more, so go RTWT.

And one last thing. Some of you may notice a certain comment that I let through the filters. It’s not technically spam, but it is one of those pernicious attempts to make some favorite meme go viral that it might as well be spam. You may also notice that I will have gone into the comment and ripped it to shreds. I reserve the right to do so at my leisure, because I have the power and spammenters (as I shall now call these vermin) do not. Neither do they have the common courtesy to even read the post, but instead they simply post their drivel whenever the come across the right keywords. In return, I shall treat these spamments (see what I did there!) as my own personal canvas upon which to express my personal disdain for such ignorant, disrespectful malcontents.

That is all.

MORE: OK, someone went ahead and deleted the comment after I approved it, thus depriving me of my fun. So … carry on.

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Health Care Reform Now A Moral Obligation

Once again the reasoning in support of a federal overhaul (and takeover) of national health care has shifted. It started out as a fiscal imperative with Pres. Obama claiming that our money woes were caused by the rising costs of health care. We were told that only government can contain administrative costs and deliver efficient, effective care. Later is was the need to control greedy insurance companies who treat their clients shoddily by denying coverage. Government run care would make sure that nobody was denied insurance, and that we would all pay basically the same rates. Of course, the infamous public option was touted as the primary tool for accomplishing this goal, carefully eliding past the “fiscal sanity” reasons for reform, which option has apparently been set out to pasture after facing fierce public resistance.

Yet, despite a full-court press on the issue, including unapologetic assistance from the media, the government’s plan(s) to change health care have grown steadily less popular.

So now the reasoning shifts again. As it turns out, you all are just bad, immoral people if you don’t approve of the government taking your money and running your health care.

President Obama sought Wednesday to reframe the health care debate as “a core ethical and moral obligation,” imploring a coalition of religious leaders to help promote the plan to lower costs and expand insurance coverage for all Americans.

“I know there’s been a lot of misinformation in this debate, and there are some folks out there who are frankly bearing false witness,” Mr. Obama told a multidenominational group of pastors, rabbis and other religious leaders who support his goal to remake the nation’s health care system.

Well, the President would know about bearing false witness, now wouldn’t he.

In any event, Obama’s attempt to turn this into a moral debate is not only a naked act of desperation to save his pet cause, it is also the closest to the true reason why health reform is so important to him, and the left in general, in the first place. Supporters of government-run health care are convinced that the presence of a profit motive in the delivery of health services is a bad thing and that wringing every last ounce of market incentive from the process will lead to wonderful new outcomes. And the way they are prepared to sell it is by pushing the idea that health care is a civil right.

Interestingly enough, Jonathan Alter started the ball rolling on this score just a few days before the President (it’s almost as if they are reading from the same playbook or something!):

The main reason that the bill isn’t sold as civil rights is that most Americans don’t believe there’s a “right” to health care. They see their rights as inalienable, and thus free, which health care isn’t. Serious illness is an abstraction (thankfully) for younger Americans. It’s something that happens to someone else, and if that someone else is older than 65, we know that Medicare will take care of it. Polls show that the 87 percent of Americans who have health insurance aren’t much interested in giving any new rights and entitlements to “them”—the uninsured.

But how about if you or someone you know loses a job and the them becomes “us”? The recession, which is thought to be harming the cause of reform, could be aiding it if the story were told with the proper sense of drama and fright. Since all versions of the pending bill ban discrimination by insurance companies against people with preexisting conditions, that provision isn’t controversial. Which means it gets little attention. Which means that the deep moral wrong that passage of this bill would remedy is somehow missing from the debate.


The only thing that should be unbreakable in a piece of legislation is the principle behind it. In the case of Social Security, it was the security and peace of mind that came with the knowledge of a guaranteed old-age benefit. (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush got slam-dunked when they tried to mess with that.) In the civil-rights bills, the principle was no discrimination on the basis of an unavoidable, preexisting “condition” like race.

The core principle behind health-care reform is—or should be—a combination of Social Security insurance and civil rights. Passage would end the shameful era in our nation’s history when we discriminated against people for no other reason than that they were sick. A decade from now, we will look back in wonder that we once lived in a country where half of all personal bankruptcies were caused by illness, where Americans lacked the basic security of knowing that if they lost their jobs they wouldn’t have to sell the house to pay for the medical treatments to keep them alive. We’ll look back in wonder—that is, if we pass the bill.

Just to focus the argument, Alter is suggesting that it is a violation of individual civil rights, akin to discriminating against someone on the basis of race (wow, didn’t see that coming), to deny one insurance because one is sick. This is ludicrous on a number of levels, but that it fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of insurance is one of its worst features. Insurance is meant to protect against the expense of unknown outcomes by paying a small premium based on the statistical probability that one will suffer such an outcome. However, if one of the outcomes already exists then the insurance premium would simply be equal to the cost of treatment since the probability of payment is 1:1. In Alter’s world,and that of too many government health care supporters, insurance isn’t a risk management tool, it’s a medical discount and income redistribution tool. Which leads to the primary failure of his argument.

In briefest terms, health care cannot be a “right” because it is entirely dependent on someone else providing it to you. “Rights” do not ever involve taking from someone and giving to someone else. In order to believe otherwise, one would have to believe that doctors are actually slaves who can legally be commanded to fulfill one’s “right” to health care or suffer the consequences. The very idea is preposterous, which is why, as Alter notes, Americans have not kenned to the idea of there being a “right” to health care.

And yet, this is apparently the ground, this moral Waterloo, upon which Obama will choose to support his cause. The offensive will depend on the idea that a government health care plan is a moral obligation, and a protection of civil rights. Naturally, some imbecilic politician will assert that opposition to the plan is an immoral position, seeking to demonize (yet again) those naysayers who aren’t too keen on more government interference in their lives. After all, why not? They’ve already accused us of being, alternately, well-dressed plants for the insurance lobby and ignorant, racist hicks who just can’t stand having a black man in the White House, and look what those lines of argument achieved. I predict that this latest attack will be equally as effective.

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Public Option Questions

The reasoning behind the much ballyhooed, on-again, off-again “Public Option” has never made much sense to me, but lately I’ve noticed a few things that make it even less understandable.

For example, as Bruce highlighted below, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said the following about it on Sunday:

“The only way we can be sure that very low-income people and persons who work for companies that don’t offer insurance have access to it, is through an option that would give the private insurance companies a little competition,” she said.

Johnson added that House liberals have already told Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that she should insist on White House support for a public option.

How does a public plan offer competition to insurance companies by covering people who don’t have access to insurance? Apparently, these are people who insurance companies aren’t interested in catering to, so there is no competition to gain them as clients. Giving them “free” health insurance from the government isn’t going to change that. Instead, it’s just going to cost more taxpayer money.

Here’s another head-scratcher from Susie Madrak:

Oh, the Republicans have been having a field day with this mantra – that employers would shunt their employees into the public plan. But they’re really upset for the same reason Sebelius mentioned as a positive: Job lock. Above all else, the Republican party stands for cheap, disposable labor with no rights or protections. God forbid you should have a public option – you could up and leave your job anytime you wanted!

While I agree that we would all be better off if health insurance was decoupled from our jobs, I’m not sure that the public option prevents “job lock”. Presumably, what keeps most of us from “up and leaving” our employment on a whim is the paycheck we receive and not the health care insurance. And even if we do, COBRA is already in place to help maintain coverage, and HIPAA prevents insurance companies from refusing to cover any pre-existing conditions. Moreover, if having a public option encourages people to cease being productive members of society (i.e. working at a job), that would be a net negative for society, and would surely cause a loss of tax revenues (which we would need a lot more of in order to pay for all that “free” health care). I just don’t see how a public option can prevent “job lock” any more than we already have now, and even if it did, I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

And then there is this little ditty from Publius that requires the suspension of an enormous amount of disbelief to even begin pondering:

In terms of broader perspective, Jacob Hacker has one of the best defenses of the public option that I’ve seen. One important point he raises is that it’s actually a way to prevent overreliance on excessive regulations and bureaucracy.

The argument is fairly simple. Any type of reform is going to require a lot of regulatory oversight. That means detailed regulations, lots of regulators, etc. If, however, the country had a public option, the insurers would suddenly have a market incentive to comply with these requirements without so much regulatory coercion and administrative costs.

In this respect, the public option actually reduces the need for government — and reduces the threat of agency capture and other public choice-ish problems (especially at the state level).

First of all, has there ever been any government program that didn’t have a slew of regulators accompanying it, much less one so massive as to cover the entire nation?

Secondly, if you go and read Jacob Hacker’s post, you will see that the whole point of the public plan (in his view) is to make all the private plans that may be left (i.e. those accepted to be offered within the insurance exchange run by the government) act just like the public plan. Yet the private plans will never be able to function the same way that the Public Option does, and so the chances are that such plans will go bankrupt trying.

In essence, there would be three types of plans: Public Option, Inside the Exchange, and Outside the Exchange. The Outside plans would be prohibited from signing up new insureds, so they will eventually die off. The Inside plans will be forced to compete against the Public Option for new customers as well as for keeping the ones it already has. Because the Public Option will be unchallengeable — that is, immune from lawsuit by competitors — and financed by the deepest pockets in the world, the Inside plans will be at a grave disadvantage. Not only will the Public Option be able to offer lower cost plans at the expense of taxpayers, it will also have the ability to hide administrative costs thus making itself appear much more efficient than the Inside plans. The Inside plans, therefore, will have to compete against a much better capitalized, immune from lawsuit, more efficient on paper Public Option without any of the Public Option’s benefits or access. There is simply no way for them to act like a better government plan than the real thing, and they will eventually collapse.

How does that make anything better, much less cheaper, if the Public Option drives all the competition out of the market, leaving taxpayers holding the bag for everyone’s health care?

It is this competition that Hacker thinks will force the Inside plans to behave pursuant to the laws and regulation granting them access to the exchange, and which Publius thinks will save money on regulatory costs, etc. Yet those laws are going to have to be policed, and the regulations will still have to be promulgated to carry out the Act. While the Inside plans may have a little extra incentive to behave in the way that the government wants (Hacker’s example is using across-the-board community rating so that everyone pays the same premium for insurance) by having to compete against the Public Option, they would still have to comply with Act if there were no Public Option. Moreover, what would make the regulators jobs even easier is that each of Inside plans would be more than happy to rat out a plan that doesn’t behave, thus possibly reducing competition and grabbing a larger slice of the exchange market for itself.

In short, there is simply no way that having a Public Option is going shrink the government or save any money in regulatory costs. To believe so, one has to ignore all history of government and disregard how market competition under a regulatory regime actually works.

Those are just of few of the questions I’ve had about why a Public Option is so gosh darn important. The fact of the matter is that, other than the hardcore progressives, no one will say the real reason that they want the Public Option: so that all profit incentive is wrung out of the delivery of health care. It’s a stupid reason to want government run health care, but I think it’s pretty clear that’s the real reason. All these other excuses are lame attempts to hide the ball. Which is probably why they don’t make any sense.

Podcast For 16 Aug 09

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In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, Lance, and Dale discuss the furor over the Health Care bill, and the sate of the economy.

There is no direct link to this week’s podcast, since my computer went TU right in the middle of it.  You’ll have to listen at BlogTalk radio.


The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download here.

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2007, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

Racism: It’s All The Rage

We warned people back during the election that anyone who disagreed with Pres. Obama would be labeled a racist. To say that prediction that has come to fruition is like calling Katrina a summer shower.

Since the August recess began, and vociferous protesters crowded local townhall meetings, the chorus of “racism!” has steadily grown amongst the left. Those opposed to ObamaCare and “health insurance reform” are derisively dismissed as having no other issue than “a black man in the White House.” These accusations are somehow borne out by the fact that swastikas and comparisons of Obama to Hitler have allegedly been spotted at the townhall protests. Nevermind that similar healthcare insurance reform was vigorously opposed when presented by a popular white president in the 90’s, or that comparisons of our last president to Hitler were (and still are) quite common, yet no racism was ever alleged there. Further ignore that accusing someone of being a Nazi would seem to indicate that one is opposed to racism, and that the people actually carrying such signs were Democrat-supporting, LaRouche adherents who oppose ObamaCare because it doesn’t go far enough. Indeed you must ignore these facts because otherwise the charges of racism make absolutely no sense.

Now, we can prattle on all day about how the left’s eagerness to drive the racist route simply exposes the vapidity of their arguments, but while that is true it does not even begin to address the real problem — i.e. just how vacuously stupid the left has become.

When I say “stupid” I don’t mean “incapable of intellectual rigor” but instead “uneducated, ill-informed and either unwilling or unable to change that state of being.”

Just by way of example, Rep. David Scott, whose arrogance and indifference towards his constituents was highlighted by Bruce, declared that racism is at the source of the anti-ObamaCare demonstrations and questioning:

“There is bubbling up under this debate, unfortunately, the overtones that this presents of hate, of racism, of all of these things,” Scott added.

Scott laid blame for the harsh tone of the August debate at the feet of talk radio show Rush Limbaugh and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who he accused of mobilizing the angry base now manifesting itself at town hall meetings.

Scott was responding to questions after a swastika was painted on his office door, which in the confused leftist mind means that the vandal was a racist. Again, cognitive dissonance must be ignored since the protesters were also accused of being racist for comparing Obama to Hitler. To the lefty supporters of ObamaCare, any and all dissent is racist. Period.

One can go to almost any comment section of any article discussing the townhalls and find assured accusations of racism emanating from lefty posters as if we were all maddeningly blind not to be aware of this fact. For example:

Either Sen. McCaskill is naive or pandering to the CRAZIES in her state. She might as well join the crazies or be an independent. 1st she defends people who are bringing Nazi paraphernalia to town halls and now she’s blatantly dismissing what the whole country knows and believes to be the reason behind this whole movement: BLACK MAN IN THE WHITEHOUSE. These people will oppose everything Obama brings up or stands for even if he was saving their children from a burning house; this didn’t start because of the healthcare debate, it started during the campaign and now it has really picked up pace because the president is doing what he promised he would do. Sen. McCaskill can keep her mouth shut if she doesn’t have the guts to tell it like it is.

That comment was in response to article about Sen. McCaskill (D-MO) taking Scott to task for crying racism. Notice how incredibly assured the commenter is that people “bringing Nazi paraphernalia to town halls” is undeniable evidence of “what the whole country knows and believes to be the reason behind this whole movement: BLACK MAN IN THE WHITEHOUSE.” This, in a word, is stupid.

However, explaining why this is so stupid to ObamaCare’s supporters is rather like trying to explain the physics of a hairball to a cat. You will just get annoyed and the cat will still ignore you while emitting guttural hacking and wheezing noises that may or may not sound vaguely like words — “hhhcccccKKKK! ackkk! hehhhhehhk … RACIST!”. And this is the problem.

How do you have a civilized debate with someone who is entirely incapable of hearing and/or understanding anything you have to say? For whatever reason (I’ve honestly ceased to care), the leftist side of any debate consists of equal parts righteous moralizing, demonization of their opponents, progressive conventional wisdom dressed up as facts, and cries of racism. Of course, this is all held together by a healthy dose “magical thinking” (R: “Centrally planned economies have never worked anywhere, anytime.” L:”But it will this time!”), which makes for quite a noxious brew good for little more than poisoning rational thought.

It is in this context that legitimate anger at legislators trying to rush through a massive health care bill, that few if any have read, while spending money faster than it can be printed, can be laid at the feet of racism without suffering a massive aneurysm. Not that the opponents of Obamacare should back down or stop strongly and pointedly questioning their representatives. Despite these exhibitions of sheer stupidity from the left, politicians do understand threats to their retention of power.

Instead, I suggest that the next time someone accuses you of being a racist for not supporting whatever agenda Obama and his acolytes want to achieve, you stop what you’re doing, look them square in the eyes, and say “Your mind-numbing stupidity is the source of all the racism here” and then move on.

Perhaps the fog of inane and muddled thinking will be lifted from your denigrator’s progressive mind by your mental slap (Lord knows reasonable arguments have not done so), and she will see that racism is not a charge to be thrown around lightly or haphazardly. If so, then a real discussion might be had about why spending gobs and gobs of money we don’t have to save money makes no sense. Or that piling more government control onto a system that’s already broken because of government control is an exercise in insanity. Just maybe, in some small way, you will have steered an otherwise viable intellect back towards the land of reason.

In all likelihood, however, she will just ignore you and walk away in a huff while emitting guttural hacking and wheezing noises that may or may not sound vaguely like words — “hhhcccccKKKK! ackkk! hehhhhehhk … RACIST!”.

Assuming Predictability

There is a reason that economists are so rarely featured in jokes. They tend to be rather dry people, who can and will estimate anything under magical “assumptions” designed to prove their point. In fact, the only jokes with economists I know involve them making assumptions. Which is really a shame because they make hilarious statements like the following all the time:

Economists are nearly unanimous that Ben Bernanke should be reappointed to another term as Federal Reserve chairman, and they said there is a 71% chance that President Barack Obama will ask him to stay on, according to a survey.

Wow. Seventy-one percent, eh? That’s an awfully exact number for a prediction isn’t it? It suggests there was some real numbers computed and weighted in order to arrive at a probability slightly less than 5 out of 7 that Bernanke would be reappointed.

But where did those numbers come from? And what exactly would they be? Moreover, who were the “economists” that are so “nearly unanimous” who arrived at this prediction? Inquiring minds want to know.

Of course, per the article, these same economists are all enthusiastic about the economy having bottomed out, and that Bernanke is largely responsible for that, er … “success”. Perhaps they only interviewed family members of the Fed Chairman who also happen to be economists? “Five out of 7 Bernankes agree!

By the way, there is a 26.3% chance that only economists and statisticians will comment on this post, but I’m keeping my top-secret formula for arriving at that conclusion all to my self. I’ll give you a hint, though: assume I know what you’re thinking.

Podcast for 09 Aug 09

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss the furor over the Health Care bill.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.


The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download here.

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2007, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

Racism and Crying Wolf

As we discussed on the last podcast, as well as in various posts here at QandO, the biggest missed opportunity in the whole Gates kerfuffle was to draw attention to the civil liberties issues. By immediately crying racial profiling, Prof. Gates clouded an otherwise sympathetic view of his standing as a homeowner. Of course, if he hadn’t behaved the way that he did (calling Sgt. Crowley a racist cop), then he likely would never had been arrested in the first place. Nevertheless, what we should have taken from the l’affair Gates was that scenes such as the following are all too familiar:

Pepin Tuma, 33, was walking with two friends along Washington’s hip U Street corridor around midnight Saturday, complaining about how Gates had been rousted from his home for not showing a proper amount of deference to a cop. “We’d been talking about it all day,” said Tuma. “It seems like police have a tendency to act overly aggressively when they’re being pushed around,” Tuma recalled saying.

Then the group noticed five or six police cruisers surrounding two cars in an apparent traffic stop on the other side of the street. It seemed to Tuma that was more cops than necessary.

“That’s why I hate the police,” Tuma said. He told the Huffington Post that in a loud sing-song voice, he then chanted, “I hate the police, I hate the police.”

One officer reacted strongly to Tuma’s song. “Hey! Hey! Who do you think you’re talking to?” Tuma recalled the officer shouting as he strode across an intersection to where Tuma was standing. “Who do you think you are to think you can talk to a police officer like that?” the police officer said, according to Luke Platzer, 30, one of Tuma’s companions.

Tuma said he responded, “It is not illegal to say I hate the police. It’s not illegal to express my opinion walking down the street.”

According to Tuma and Platzer, the officer pushed Tuma against an electric utility box, continuing to ask who he thought he was and to say he couldn’t talk to police like that.

“I didn’t curse,” Tuma said. “I asked, am I being arrested? Why am I being arrested?”

It should come as no surprise that, in fact, Tuma was arrested on a charge of ‘disorderly conduct”:

D.C.’s disorderly conduct statute bars citizens from breaching the peace by doing anything “in such a manner as to annoy, disturb, interfere with, obstruct, or be offensive to others” or by shouting or making noise “either outside or inside a building during the nighttime to the annoyance or disturbance of any considerable number of persons.”


Tuma spent a few hours in a holding cell and was released early Sunday morning after forfeiting $35 in collateral to the police, he said. A “post and forfeit” is not an admission of guilt, and Tuma doesn’t have a court date — but the arrest will pop up if an employer does a background check.

So, adding insult to injury, Tuma gets arrested for expressing his opinion on a public street, spends the night in jail, and then is “legally” pickpocketed by the police. This is a problem, just as it was with the Gates mess, and is the real issue that should be discussed.

Forget racial profiling and other obscurants for a moment and contemplate just how much power has been granted to the police here. Is that a wise decision? Surely we want the police to be able to use their judgment in a given situation, but when a law is drafted so broadly as to provide cover when a cop feels insulted then such law flies in the face of constitutional protections.

Furthermore, situations like this really undermine the concept of police being “professionals”. Having the power to arrest someone because they get a little mouthy is not a power any real professional should want or need. Being a professional means being able to negotiate the situation through one’s abilities, not through one’s grant of extraordinary power. I mean, could you imagine if lawyers had the ability to throw people in clink for insulting them? Who would be safe?

The fact of the matter is that there are just too many laws to begin with. Cut down on number if infractions cops are expected to enforce, and you will cut down on the number of incidences where the police overstep their authority. When the only thing in danger is a cop’s feelings, then I think it’s safe to say that incarcerating anyone is a monumental waste of time and resources that could be better spent going after real criminals.

Podcast for 26 Jul 09

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael, and Dale discuss the controversy over the Obama presser on Monday, and the state of health care reform’s passage in the Congress.

The direct link to the podcast is unavailable this week due to technical problems, so you’ll need to listen to it at BTR.


The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download here.

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2007, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

Chips, Skips and Apologies

Justified anger is a wonderful thing. It allows one to act like a complete ass with little, if any, impunity. For example, I recall once while backpacking my way through Egypt when a taxi driver I made a deal with for a ride ditched me for some other riders. We were in a sleepy, seaside town on the Sinai peninsula, separated by several miles of harsh desert terrain from the local bus stop. The driver wanted to maximize the trip, understandably, and sought out a few more riders (there was only two of us) before leaving. Of course, when he returned the taxi was full and we were left without a ride, stranded in Dahab. Needless to say, I was a bit miffed.

Luckily, I had consulted my trusty, Harvard-drafted “Let’s Go: Egypt” prior to entering the country, which suggested throwing a loud and boisterous fit if put in a situation where you are likely being cheated. So, I did. And it worked like a charm. I threw luggage, cursed at the top of my lungs, and glared menacingly at the taxi driver causing him to quickly exit the situation as a crowd of onlookers gathered. But suddenly, something wonderful happened; the crowd sympathized with my plight, took me under their care, and within a few minutes I was being treated to warm food, cold drink and a new taxi (driven by someone’s cousin as I recall) was summoned to take us on our journey. By acting like a spoiled child, just because I was screwed out of a ride, I was treated as a victim in need of comfort, and not a damned fool in need of discipline.

My tantrum was quite effective and confirmed to me that “justifiable anger” is a powerful, and intoxicating, thing. It is the “castle doctrine” of emotional responses which places blame for any incident squarely on the shoulders of the instigator, leaving you with unquestioned moral authority. However, like any intoxicant, it also tempts overuse and abuse.

Gates being arrested at his home

Gates being arrested at his home

By now you are probably aware of Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr.’s arrest in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What should have been a non-story became a huge imbroglio because of Dr. Gates’ stature, and the media’s endless pursuit of “Racism in America” stories. Even so, it was likely on its way to dying on the back pages of Boston newspapers until Pres. Obama resurrected it with his rather careless and admittedly ill-informed denunciation of the police officer involved.

After spending most of an hour patiently reiterating his arguments for changing the health insurance system, President Barack Obama turned his press conference sharply toward an iconic moment in American race relations: The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. earlier this week by the Cambridge Police.


“I don’t know – not having been there and not seeing all the facts – what role race played in that, but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two that he Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home,” Obama said in response to a question from the Chicago Sun-Times’s Lynn Sweet.

Gates, Obama allowed, “is a friend, so I may be a little biased here. I don’t know all the facts.”

In other words, despite not knowing all the facts, the President decided to weigh in anyway on the side of his friend and to assume the worst about the police. Unfortunately, Obama is not alone in his ignorance or willingness to castigate someone without questioning the actions of Dr. Gates.


If anything is clear about the situation, it is that escalation was not necessary and could easily have been avoided. Dr. Gates apparently has a huge chip on his shoulder with respect to white cops, in the very least, and reacted poorly to Sgt. Crowley following up on a breaking and entering call. Indeed, Pres. Obama, among many others, opined that Gates was perfectly justified in being angry (“but I think it’s fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry”) because he was being accused of robbing his own house.

Yet such reaction completely ignores the reason for Crowley being there in the first place: to protect Dr. Gates’ house. Why would a policeman acting in defense of Dr. Gates’s own home upset him? Because Dr. Gates has a huge chip on his shoulder and succumbed to that sweet temptation of justifiable anger to grab the moral high ground. In doing so, he elided right past the justifications for Crowley’s visit, as well as his questions, and instead went right into victimization mode.

Crowley, for his own part, also seems to be carrying a chip or two. One, that is not uncommon to policemen, appears to be a distinct aversion to challenges to his authority. After all, yelling at a cop in your own front yard hardly seems like a criminal offense. In addition, and more understandably, Crowley carries a big chip on his shoulder regarding being called a racist. Here’s why:

The Cambridge cop prominent Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. claims is a racist gave a dying Reggie Lewis mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in a desperate bid to save the Celtics [team stats] superstar’s life 16 years ago Monday.

“I wasn’t working on Reggie Lewis the basketball star. I wasn’t working on a black man. I was working on another human being,” Sgt. James Crowley, in an exclusive interview with the Herald, said of the forward’s fatal heart attack July 27, 1993, at age 27 during an off-season practice at Brandeis University, where Crowley was a campus police officer.

It’s a date Crowley still can recite by rote – and he still recalls the pain he suffered when people back then questioned whether he had done enough to save the black athlete.

“Some people were saying ‘There’s the guy who killed Reggie Lewis’ afterward. I was broken-hearted. I cried for many nights,” he said.

Surely someone who faced such criticism, despite administering his best efforts, is going to be a little sensitive to being called a racist. I wouldn’t be surprised if “oh no, here we go again” was the primary thought running through Crowley’s mind while Gates was delivering his tirade.

Unfortunately, Crowley’s chips may have caused him to ignore the obvious (if unwarranted) source of Gates’ ire, and instead to grab for that justifiable anger high ground himself. The end result is that a normally routine procedure becomes a huge production that serves the interests of no one.


Of course, to be fair, Gates’ reaction was quite confusing to the officer.

Consider for a moment, how you would assess the situation had you been in Crowley’s place. You receive a call about a B&E in progress and immediately respond, asking the caller who reported the incident to meet you at the front door to the residence. In all likelihood you’ve responded to similar calls before only to find that the either it’s someone breaking into their own home, or that an estranged girlfriend/wife is calling for backup in a domestic situation, or something other than an actual robbery. Therefore, you request the caller to be there just to be sure.

Upon arrival, you have to assess the situation without having any knowledge. You meet the caller who tells you that two black men with backpacks were observed trying to “wedge” the front door open with their shoulders, thus raising suspicion and precipitating the call. OK, now you can be reasonably certain that it’s not a domestic situation, but there still may be an innocent explanation. You notice someone inside the house, looking out at you as you approach the front door. Who could it be? The owner? A friend? Or perhaps a potential burglar? You don’t know but the only way to find out is to question the person.

Now, stop and think for a moment. If the person you are about to question is the home’s owner, wouldn’t you expect a rather cooperative attitude? You are defending their home after all. In contrast, if the person inside is someone who shouldn’t be there, then you would expect a more evasive, or possibly hostile reaction. But how do you deal with the rightful owner calling you a racist (pdf)?

As I turned and faced the door, I could see an older black male standing in the foyer of [redacted] Ware Street. I made this observation through the glass paned front door. As I stood in plain view of this man, later identified as gates, I asked if he would step out onto the porch and speak with me. He replied “no I will not.” He then demanded to know who I was. I told him that I was “Sgt. Crowley from the Cambridge Police” and that I was “investigating a report of a break (sic) in progress” at the residence. While I was making this statement, Gates opened the front door and exclaimed “why, because I’m a black man in America?”. I then asked Gates if there was anyone else in the residence. While yelling, he told me that it was non of my business and accused me of being a racist police officer. I assured gates that I was responding to a citizen’s call to the Cambridge Police and that the caller was outside as we spoke. Gates seemed to ignore me and picked up a cordless telephone and dialed an unknown telephone number. As he did so, I radioed on channel 1 that I was off in the residence with someone who appeared to be a resident but very uncooperative. I then overheard Gates asking the person on the other end of his telephone call to “get the chief” and “what’s the chief’s name?”. gates was telling the person on the other end of the call that he was dealing with a racist police officer in his home. Gates then turned to and told me that I had no idea who I was “messing” with and that I had not heard the last of it. While I was led to believe that Gates was lawfully in the residence, I was quite surprised and confused with the behavior he exhibited toward me. I asked Gates to provide me with photo identification so that I could verify that he resided at [redacted] Ware Street and so I could radio my finding to ECC. Gates initially refused, demanding that I show him identification but then did supply me with a Harvard university identification card. Upon learning that Gates was affiliated with Harvard, I radioed and requested the presence of the Harvard University Police.

The statement above if from Sgt. Crowley and, most likely, is self-serving. Then there is Gates’ version of events:

When Professor Gates opened the door, the officer immediately asked him to step outside. Professor Gates remained inside his home and asked the officer why he was there. The officer indicated that he was responding to a 911 call about a breaking and entering in progress at this address. Professor Gates informed the officer that he lived there and was a faculty member at Harvard University. The officer then asked Professor Gates whether he could prove that he lived there and taught at Harvard. Professor Gates said that he could, and turned to walk into his kitchen, where he had left his wallet. The officer followed him. Professor Gates handed both his Harvard University identification and his valid Massachusetts driver’s license to the officer. Both include Professor Gates’ photograph, and the license includes his address.

Professor Gates then asked the police officer if he would give him his name and his badge number. He made this request several times. The officer did not produce any identification nor did he respond to Professor Gates’ request for this information. After an additional request by Professor Gates for the officer’s name and badge number, the officer then turned and left the kitchen of Professor Gates’ home without ever acknowledging who he was or if there were charges against Professor Gates.

In comparing the two statements, they contain a lot of agreement on how the events unfolded. Both accounts state that Crowley asked Gates to step outside and that he explained the reason for his visit. They also both agree that Crowley asked for verification that Gates belonged in the residence, as well as that Gates provided at least his Harvard ID. They further agree that Gates asked for Crowley’s identification, although they differ as to why.

In fact, Gates never suggests why he wanted the officer’s ID, nor what could have possibly prompted the request. If Gates’ statement is to be accepted as true, we would have to believe that he was a perfect gentleman throughout the process until his request for Crowley’s ID was ignored. Indeed, Gates’ entire story depends on the idea that he only became outwardly upset when Crowley refused to give him identification. And even if that were true, it does not explain how the charges of racism and racial profiling came to be leveled. It’s not as if refusing to show official ID has some racially disparate component to it.

Gates has further problems with his story as well. According to Crowley’s statement, he radioed into ECC with pertinent information as he got it and requested the presence of Harvard Police. In addition, he observed Gates making a phone call to someone and asking for the “chief” while declaring that a racist police officer was in his home. All of these statements are verifiable by looking at the radio transmissions from Crowley and the phone records from Gates. Oddly, Gates makes no mention of the phone call, nor offers any explanation as to how the Harvard Police came to be at the scene. That tends to lend credibility to Crowley’s version of events.

On the other side of the ledger, however, it sure does look like Crowley lured Gates outside in order to arrest him and show him who was boss. His claim that he went outside to speak with Gates because the acoustics were inhibiting his ability to communicate with ECC sounds just a little too perfect. Crowley further neglects to explain why he could not have offered to write the information down for Gates, or even better, simply handed him a business card (which every cop I’ve ever dealt with has had plenty of). That would have presumably satisfied Gates for the time being and allowed Crowley to exit the situation without any further ruckus. Instead, both parties claim that Crowley asked the professor to step outside, in full view of the poor crowd who’s tender mercies were then violated by Gates’ tirade, and voilà Crowley then had a reason to arrest him.

Despite all the foregoing, and regardless of whose version of events you believe, there is simply no indication of why this has been turned into a racial incident. Some suggest that the original caller was racist for immediately assuming that two black men trying to force a door open were criminals. But that’s just absurd, and I would hope that if a passerby sees anyone of any color breaking into my home they call the police. Others hypothesize that a white professor would not have experienced the same treatment at the hands of the police, but that ignores (a) the agreed upon facts, and (b) the fact that police would be derelict if they did not verify who was in the home, and whether or not they belong there. I’m sure there are plenty of people who have run into similar circumstances regardless of race (I know I have). To date, no one has offered a reasonable explanation as to how the incident justifies charges of racism and racial profiling, although plenty of people are perfectly willing to assume such is the case.


I may as well get the ball rolling for turning what could have been a succinct piece into a meandering tome. So, sorry about that.

Next up is Officer Crowley who is adamant that no apology will be forthcoming.

Crowley himself, speaking to the Globe yesterday and again last night in Natick, said he will not apologize and asserted, “I am not a racist.’’

Crowley’s police union issued a statement saying it had reviewed the arrest of Gates and expressed “full and unqualified support’’ for his actions.

“Sergeant Crowley is a highly respected veteran supervisor with a distinguished record in the Cambridge Police Department,’’ said the Cambridge Police Superior Officers Association. “His actions at the scene of this matter were consistent with his training, with the informed policies and practices of the Department, and with applicable legal standards.’’

I guess you can forget about the Police Department delivering one either.

As for Gates, well he hasn’t been asked for one, and it does not appear that one will be forthcoming, especially now that the President of the United States has backed him.

Obama acknowledged that Gates is a friend and that since he was not there, he cannot know exactly what role race may have played in the incident.

Gates’ daughter and attorney said they were pleased by the president’s comments.

Charles Ogletree, Gates’ attorney and a fellow Harvard professor, told “Good Morning America’s” Dan Harris today that Gates “was simply pleased that Barack acknowledged he was a friend and what he had read and heard and understood to have been reported that Professor Gates did not violate the law.”

Perhaps the media will apologize for turning this into a major story, and perceptibly backing Gates’ version by playing up the racism angle, not to mention raising the issue at a prime time news conference on health care. Hmmm … no, I guess that’s just silly.

Once the tempting fruit of justifiable anger is consumed, it almost impossible to give up. Should Crowley apologize for arresting Gates? Yes, he probably should, but I’m sure he feels too justified in his anger to do so: Gates shouldn’t have berated him for protecting Gates’ own home, and certainly shouldn’t have called him a racist.

Should Gates apologize for his tumultuous behavior and unwarranted accusations? Most definitely, but that isn’t likely to happen either because Gates feels justified in his anger as well: Crowley shouldn’t have arrested him, causing him embarrassment and extreme discomfort, simply because he was yelling and screaming while on his own property.

So, nobody will apologize, nothing will be fixed, and no wounds will be healed. Welcome to post-racial America.