Questions and Observations

Free Markets, Free People

Podcast for 30 Aug 09

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael  and Dale discuss the top stories of the past week.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.  The link goes to BTR since my old computer is inexplicably dropping out of recording mode.

Observations

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.

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Questions And Observations #6

For new readers, Questions and Observations is, in full, what QandO means.

  • Still pining for that “public option” Bunky? Well you might want to take a gander at a public option our government has been operating for quite some time. That would be the Indian Health Service for Native Americans. It would be no pun to say the natives are restless about the service they get.
  • Irwin Stelzer lays out 7 lessons learned from Cash for Clunkers. My favorite is “government forecasters are really bad at their job”. Wow, there’s a surprise. Anyone – can you name a single major program that was touted by government at one cost that didn’t actually end up costing far, far more than their estimate?
  • It appears that President Obama’s pledge that “95% of Americans won’t see their taxes go up one dime” is being modified to add “but I didn’t say anything about a nickle – or a bunch of nickles”. Yes, given the rosy deficit projections that we’ve seen it appears higher taxes – much higher taxes – are now in the “when” not “if” category. As the Brookings Institute’s William Gale said:

    “If you rule out inflating our way out of the problem and defaulting on the debt, there are two ways: Cut spending or raise taxes”.

    Of course, I’m on the “cut spending” bandwagon personally.

  • Here’s an announcement that should warm the cockles of your heart – Wells Fargo Home Mortgage, Inc., the California Housing Loan Insurance Fund (CaHLIF) and Freddie Mac, have put together a program that allows teachers working within the state to purchase a home with a downpayment of just $500. Wait a minute – isn’t that exactly the sort program that supposedly got us into this mess in the first place?
  • Investors Business Daily finds that its rather roundly panned claim that Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have fared well under the NHS is, in fact, correct, but certainly not for the reason that he isn’t British. In fact, Hawking didn’t fare well at all with the NHS which didn’t even provide what anyone would call minimal care for his condition. His care ended up being provided for by private donations and private health care providers.
  • Apparently Democratic Colorado Representative Betsy Markey didn’t get the talking points memo in which President Obama claims there won’t be any cuts to Medicare benefits. Either that or she’s actually read the bill and in a fit of honesty said, to a constituent asking about that very point:

    “There’s going to be some people who are going to have to give up some things, honestly, for all of this to work. But we have to do this because we’re Americans.”

    Actually we don’t have to do this and for precisely the same reason.

  • The real astroturfing of townhalls has begun in earnest as Organizing For America – the successor to the campaign’s “Obama For America” – begins to finally stage a supposed “grassroots” push back against the rabble from the other side. Of course OFA claims they’re all about grassroots movements. BTW, if you’re wondering which side is which at a townhall, OFA is the “grassroots” organization with same color t-shirts and the preprinted signs.
  • Wandering through Europe, Roger Simon is hardly surprised that the predominant English language news channels carried there are the BBC and CNN International. What did surprise him was discovering English language Al Jazerra and finding it more balanced and better than the BBC or CNN International.
  • Anyone know who or what really saved the whales? Well it wasn’t Greenpeace – whales were saved well before Greenpeace ever became an organization. No it was actually capitalism and the petroleum industry which saved them. When petroleum became available in large quantities and at a low cost, the whale oil business went extinct almost over night. You’re not likely to read that in any environmental, animal liberation, “man is an eco-tumor” literature you might pick up. But think about it …

~McQ

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CIA Morale May Be Low, But The Political Distraction Is Perfect

The Washington Post reports:

Morale has sagged at the CIA following the release of additional portions of an inspector general’s review of the agency’s interrogation program and the announcement that the Justice Department would investigate possible abuses by interrogators, according to former intelligence officials, especially those associated with the program.

Wow, I can’t imagine why morale has sagged. Issues that were previously dealt with by Congress and the DOJ are now back under a microscope and somehow the agency is experiencing low morale? Who’d a thunk?

Look, I think it is pretty well known by those that read this blog what our feelings are about torture. We don’t condone it. Period.

However, as I understood it, that issue had pretty much been settled, new guidelines issued and, as a policy, apparently followed (there may be some individual incidences where that isn’t true, but policy was settled). Point made, lesson learned, new policy in place. Move ahead.

We also watched President Barack Obama assure the agency that he wasn’t interested in looking back, implying he too thought this was all settled business, but instead looking to the future – and he further assured them of his backing.

And now this. I frankly don’t understand necessity of this at all – especially when we’re engaged in two wars in which this agency’s best is necessary.

But I do understand the timing. This is a complete waste of taxpayers money, but it is a political distraction and diversion of the first level when such a distractions and diversions from the health care debacle are badly needed. The CIA is always a favorite target of the left. And it handily resurrects the liberal left’s favorite bete noir – Darth Cheney – just when a bad guy is needed. What better to take the heat off the Dems than a witch hunt involving the CIA and Dick Cheney?

Nothing is new in politics – especially new lows. This, as far as I’m concerned, ranks right there with the lowest.

The Department of Justice? New Black Panther voter intimidation case with video of the crime? Dropped. Pay-to-play corruption case against Democrat Bill Richardson? Dropped. 5 year old case involving the CIA previously settled by Congress and DoJ? Oh, let’s do that. Hard to fathom a more obviously cynically political move than that from a department supposedly dedicated to the enforcement of justice.

This too has the potential to backfire, big time.

~McQ

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What If Chappaquiddick Had Happened Today?

Eric Zorn does a little “what if” in the Chicago Trib, wondering if Ted Kennedy could have survived Chappaquiddick in today’s news environment.

If we’d had insatiable 24/7 cable news networks in July 1969, the accident on Chappaquiddick Island in which a passenger in a car driven by Sen. Edward Kennedy drowned would likely have dominated the national consciousness for months.

Zorn then proceeds from the premise that Kennedy’s life and work after that event make the point that it is a good thing we didn’t have the 24/7 news cycle because we’d have lost a giant among legislators.

Of course, you have to accept his premise that Kennedy’s life and work after Chappaquiddick were worthwhile to sign on to the premise. I, for one, don’t.

I mean this is a guy who, as he schemed to figure out a way to become president, tried to make a deal with the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, to undermine Ronald Reagan and gain politically.

So there are probably just as many out here who might have welcomed such coverage if it had had the desired effect of running Kennedy out of public life.

“Politically, Kennedy wouldn’t have survived that kind of media bombardment,” said Bruce DuMont, president of Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications and host of “Beyond the Beltway,” a national weekly talk-radio show. “It wouldn’t have just been a spotlight, it would have been a heat lamp. On him, on all the investigators, on everyone connected to the story.

The cable networks turned Scott and Laci Peterson into household names, DuMont said. “Just think what they would have done with Ted and Mary Jo. Remember all the coverage they gave to the [1999] plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr.? Multiply that by 10.”

Two things argue against this scenario. One – Scott and Laci Peterson didn’t have the upper hand with an adoring media. The Kennedys have always seemed larger than life because the media made them that way. One also has to remember the media of the time knowingly covered up brother Jack’s infidelity. 24/7 news coverage or not, that same sort of mentality was at work with any Kennedy. Expecting a critical look at this particular event is simply not something one can assume – especially given the fact that it never really got it at the time.

Two – Ted Kennedy was shameless. There was nothing that would run him out of public life, to include his cowardly act which led to the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. Had it been otherwise, the facts surrounding the incident at Chappaquiddick and the amount of coverage it did receive should have been sufficient to do what Zorn claims only 24/7 coverage would have accomplished now. But Kennedy waved it off, ignored it and plowed on.

So while I find Zorn’s point about today’s news cycle (and talk radio) to be interesting, I also find it to be a flawed rationalization for keeping certain bad actors in place supposing that some will become “Ted Kennedys” if we don’t run them off. In fact, he says as much:

Or, as I believe, is the nation — particularly our disabled and disadvantaged residents — better off for the 40 years of service he was able to render after that terrible night?

The momentary satisfaction of destroying Ted Kennedy for his failings would have had a significant price. Something to keep in mind when the next fallen figure, Democrat or Republican, stumbles into the heat lamp.

Zorn’s argument is that justice delayed or belayed might turn out for the better in some cases. That’s an incredibly silly notion. And again you have to agree with the premise that Kennedy’s “40 years of service” were worth Kopechne’s life. Zorn is arguing it is. And he’s not the only one.

Joyce Carol Oates attempts to push the very same premise under a different guise:

His tireless advocacy of civil rights, rights for disabled Americans, health care, voting reform, his courageous vote against the Iraq war (when numerous Democrats including Hillary Clinton voted for it) suggest that there are not only “second acts” in American lives, but that the Renaissance concept of the “fortunate fall” may be relevant here….Yet if one weighs the life of a single young woman against the accomplishments of the man President Obama has called the greatest Democratic senator in history, what is one to think?

One is to think that there isn’t equal justice for all, that some are more privileged and apparently valuable than others. And certainly any future accomplishments, if good, are simply pure luck, even if you agree they’re “good” . We have no way to look into the future and decide that someone will contribute to society in a grand way.

But we can look into the the interior of a ’67 Oldsmobile, see a woman left to drown through the sheer cowardice of the driver who was more concerned about his political career than her life, and draw certain conclusions then.

To some, such as Zorn and Oates, they see a redeemed person who did well with the second chance. Others, such as myself, see such thinking as rationalization for making an exception of Kennedy where they wouldn’t make one for anyone else (despite the lip service). “Second acts” or second chances, where I come from, occur after a price has been paid for the act in question. Kennedy never paid that price.

What Zorn and Oates are really saying here is since it turned out well in their opinion, the ends justify the means. As I see it that’s not justice, it’s elitism on steroids.

~McQ

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Proposed Legislation Would Give President Expanded Power Over Internet

For all the whining and complaining about the Bush executive branch expanding its power, it appears now the Senate, at least in the guise of one Senator Jay Rockefeller, can’t wait to expand this president’s power.

In this case, the expansion of power is in the name of “cyber security”. And FYI, “cyber” is defined as anything having to do with the Internet, telecommunications, computers, or computer networks. Proposed is the following which is actually a rewrite of a previous attempt:

The new version would allow the president to “declare a cybersecurity emergency” relating to “non-governmental” computer networks and do what’s necessary to respond to the threat. Other sections of the proposal include a federal certification program for “cybersecurity professionals,” and a requirement that certain computer systems and networks in the private sector be managed by people who have been awarded that license.

Vague language, expanded power, expanded control – all the things with which any civil liberties watchdog would be concerned. When Rockefeller and Republican Olympia Snowe introduced the original bill, this was their declared reason:

“We must protect our critical infrastructure at all costs–from our water to our electricity, to banking, traffic lights and electronic health records,” Rockefeller said.

Yes we must, but it isn’t clear why government could do that better than private firms who would have just as invested an interest in security as would the government or why such security must be extended to the entire “non-governmental computer networks”, i.e. the internet.

Proponents liken the power to literally shut down the internet in an emergency to the power President Bush exercised to ground all aircraft in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Really? Given the state of cyber security, we couldn’t be much more precise than that?

Probably the most controversial language begins in Section 201, which permits the president to “direct the national response to the cyber threat” if necessary for “the national defense and security.” The White House is supposed to engage in “periodic mapping” of private networks deemed to be critical, and those companies “shall share” requested information with the federal government.

“The language has changed but it doesn’t contain any real additional limits,” EFF’s Tien says. “It simply switches the more direct and obvious language they had originally to the more ambiguous (version)…The designation of what is a critical infrastructure system or network as far as I can tell has no specific process. There’s no provision for any administrative process or review. That’s where the problems seem to start. And then you have the amorphous powers that go along with it.”

“Shall share?” For all intents and purposes, that makes those “private networks” so identified as anything but private. And, arbitrarily, just about any or all networks could be designated “critical” couldn’t they?

Cnet gives us the translation of what that means:

If your company is deemed “critical,” a new set of regulations kick in involving who you can hire, what information you must disclose, and when the government would exercise control over your computers or network.

How could that possibly be abused?

Again, we see the expansion of government power in a way which intrudes, imposes regulation and, in the end, controls. While “cyber security” is certainly important, it can be managed in a much less controlling and intrusive way than this. Like the health care insurance reform bill, this is one which needs to be torn up and the entire process started over again.

~McQ

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Thoughts On The Left And Ted Kennedy’s Death

Ted Kennedy is being feted by the left as a liberal icon, the liberal lion of the Senate and the new reason for passing health care insurance reform. Within a few weeks we’ve seen Democrats and the left shift from cost containment (blown away by the CBO) to appeals to religion (blown away because religion doesn’t rely on the state) to the passing of Ted Kennedy. One supposes they believe the emotional argument Kennedy’s death makes will swing support to their side that reason and facts wouldn’t.

There’s one problem with that – although Kennedy may have been “much beloved” among the Senate, the people of Massachusetts and the liberal left, I see no indication that such feelings translate outside of those circles. Certainly not enough to have the public finally throw up its hands and say “oh, the heck with it, let’s pass this travesty for Teddy”.

Let’s make the point again – he was a liberal icon. He was the liberal lion of the Senate. Neither of those mean a whole bunch to folks outside of those relatively small groups.

So that means that Democrats risk “Wellstoneing” this attempt at using Kennedy’s death to push their legislative agenda. If you’re unfamiliar with the public reaction to a memorial to Democratic Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) upon his untimely death in an airplane accident, Democrats turned the memorial into an unseemly partisan pep-rally which backfired badly on them. They tried to use Wellstone’s death to rally support for a Democratic successor. It was a pretty sad spectacle and in the end, a Republican Senator emerged as the winner.

I say they “risk Wellstoneing” the Kennedy death because it isn’t clear yet that Democrats have learned and internalized that lesson. They may have. But as I’ve observed the Dems over the years, it seems they always overreach. And recently they’ve done a very, very poor job of reading public sentiment. Oh, and did I mention, they’re obviously desperate right now? Given that, I think they may very well do the same sort of thing again with Kennedy’s death.

An interesting, but unpersuasive argument emerging on the left is that reminding them of the Wellstone fiasco is bad form. Kennedy’s death, apparently, is different and, as I’ve heard any number of them say, he’d be the first to suggest that his name and memory be exploited for political gain.

I think that may be what they truly believe, but even with obvious media support to push the meme, I don’t believe Ted Kennedy has the political heft the left thinks he has. And that sets up precisely what the left needs to avoid – an effect similar to that of the Wellstone memorial, although it will most likely unfold in a different manner than did that event.

Meanwhile, we’re being treated to the beginnings of the exploitation of Kennedy’s death and the overreach for which the left is so famous. As an example, consider liberal talk radio show host Mike Malloy’s recent views on Kennedy:

Good evening, truthseekers, Mike Malloy here, thanks for tuning in…you know as well as I know that the death of Senator Ted Kennedy is the death of a man, absolutely, and everything he was to the people in his extended family, but we also understand it’s the death of an era, one of the remaining, if not THE remaining lynchpin of liberalism in this country is gone.

Aand you know what the term lynchpin means. So with the death of Ted Kennedy last night, liberalism in this country has lost its champion; the person who, in the modern era, personified liberalism to a greater degree than anyone in Congress; I think that his death heralds the beginning of a very, very very dark period in this country.

I remember feeling that way in 1963 and in 1968-when his two brothers were murdered by the right wing in this country.

Lee Harvey Oswald (a communist sympathizer) and Sirhan Sirhan (an Arab Nationalist) have never been considered to be part of the right-wing except, perhaps, in the most twisted of leftist conspiracy theories. But Malloy, who ironically welcomes “truth seekers” isn’t about the truth. It’s about using scare tactics and the left’s favorite boogey man. Of course to do that Malloy must engage in the rewriting of history. His “very, very, very dark period in this country”, presaged by Kennedy’s death, must have right-wing villains. The implication, of course, is that his feelings now, comparable to his feelings when Robert and Jack Kennedy died, can be laid at the feet of the right wing. Case closed.

And so it goes. Expect much more of this in the next few weeks as the desperate left pulls out all the stops, including those of decency and propriety, to push this monstrosity of a health care insurance bill through on the back of a dead Kennedy. As I said, Orwell would have a field day with this stuff.

~McQ

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14 Trillion Deficit?

With all the “new” figures out there concerning deficit and debt numbers, plus the old, it’s rather confusing as to which can be believed. Greg Mankiw cites the Concord Coalition who makes the case that perhaps neither the CBO or the White House have their finger on the real deficit numbers:

The Concord Baseline makes some key assumption changes to the CBO baseline. CBO is required to assume that congressional appropriations continue increasing only at the rate of inflation for the 10 year baseline. They also extend emergency supplemental at their “current” level plus inflation over the duration of the baseline. For tax legislation, they assume current law will govern–so if there are tax cuts that have sunsets (as the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts have), CBO is required to project revenues assuming the tax cuts expire as written in the legislation. They also project economic growth in a very conservative fashion–they do not try to anticipate major changes in the economy, either recessions or accelerations.

The Concord Coalition takes the CBO baseline and adjusts it to assume appropriations increase at the same rate as the economy (GDP growth). This increase is closer to the historical average rate of increase. We also assume that supplemental appropriations do not continue indefinitely. For recent appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we include realistic estimates from CBO about how much will be spent under a scenario where troop levels slowly decrease to about one-third of their level at the time of the estimate. For taxes, we assume that all of the major tax cuts will be extended beyond 2010. We also assume the one-year patches to the Alternative Minimum Tax will continue to be enacted, holding the level of taxpayers hit by the tax roughly constant throughout the baseline period. Finally, we include a calculation for the increased debt service (interest payments) that these policies would cause by their increasing the deficit. We do not make any changes to CBO’s economic assumptions.

With those seemingly more complete assumptions and numbers, the Coalition finds that we’re most likely looking at much higher deficits over the next 10 years than either CBO or OMB are projecting:

August_CBO_Plaus_Baseline

As you can see, the Concord Coalition believes their projections to come from a more “plausible” set of baseline assumptions than either CBO and OMB. If so, and reading the description above, I see nothing that is implausible in their assumptions, we’re seeing the deficits understated by almost half.

Another in a long line of reasons not to be enacting any new and huge entitlement or cap-and-trade. In fact, the business of Congress right now should be a long and detailed look at how it can cut entitlement spending and scale back government.

But they’re not. Instead they’re busily engaged in expanding multi-generational taxation without representation. Didn’t we once fight a revolution over that?

~McQ

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Privacy – With Health Care, Not A Priority

The left certainly likes to give the right of privacy at least lip service as they tell you what you should be concerned with concerning government. But when it concerns something they want, privacy isn’t such an important right.

HR 3200, the infamous house health care insurance bill apparently proves that point quite handily. Nestled within its 1,000 plus pages is a provision, on top of all the other provisions noted previously, that should give real privacy rights advocates pause:

Section 431(a) of the bill says that the IRS must divulge taxpayer identity information, including the filing status, the modified adjusted gross income, the number of dependents, and “other information as is prescribed by” regulation. That information will be provided to the new Health Choices Commissioner and state health programs and used to determine who qualifies for “affordability credits.”

Section 245(b)(2)(A) says the IRS must divulge tax return details — there’s no specified limit on what’s available or unavailable — to the Health Choices Commissioner. The purpose, again, is to verify “affordability credits.”

Section 1801(a) says that the Social Security Administration can obtain tax return data on anyone who may be eligible for a “low-income prescription drug subsidy” but has not applied for it.

Of course the Privacy Act, that inconvenient law that requires agencies to get information not from other agencies but from the individual, is being pointedly ignored here. In fact, reading above, you’d think our “lawmakers” were completely unaware of their own laws.

Given most of them haven’t even read the bill, you’d be exactly right. Additionally, we find out that not all health care insurance reform is contained in the pending versions of health care insurance legislation:

A better candidate for a future privacy crisis is the so-called stimulus bill enacted with limited debate early this year. It mandated the “utilization of an electronic health record for each person in the United States by 2014,” but included only limited privacy protections.

That’s right – already passed into law, in the “stimulus” bill, and without any debate, is a mandate for the use of electronic health records.

Sound like “representative government” at work for you? Or does it sound like an increasingly intrusive government discarding your privacy for the sake of its own hoped for efficiency? Not that such access will provide a more efficient bureaucracy, but it sure will provide that bureaucracy with almost unlimited access to tax information about you and your family.

And that’s without ever getting into what this “Health Choices Commissar Commissioner” is supposed to do. Wouldn’t Orwell have a field day with all of this?

~McQ

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PrObamaGanda

This is … disturbing:

“… I was invited by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to take part in a conference call that invited a group of rising artist and art community luminaries “to help lay a new foundation for growth, focusing on core areas of the recovery agenda – health care, energy and environment, safety and security, education, community renewal.”

Now admittedly, I’m a skeptic of BIG government. In my view, power tends to overreach whenever given the opportunity. It’s a law of human nature that has very few exceptions. That said, it felt to me that by providing issues as a cynosure for inspiration to a handpicked arts group – a group that played a key role in the President’s election as mentioned throughout the conference call – the National Endowment for the Arts was steering the art community toward creating art on the very issues that are currently under contentious national debate; those being health care reform and cap-and-trade legislation. Could the National Endowment for the Arts be looking to the art community to create an environment amenable to the administration’s positions?”

Hmmm. It may be a bit of a stretch, but I’ll go with “abso-freak’n-lutely” as my answer.

Oh, wait. Was that a rhetorical question?

I learned after the conference call that there were approximately 75 people participating, including many well respected street-artists, filmmakers, art galleries, music venues, musicians and music producers, writers, poets, actors, independent media outlets, marketers, and various other professionals from the creative community … Backed by the full weight of President Barack Obama’s call to service and the institutional weight of the NEA, the conference call was billed as an opportunity for those in the art community to inspire service in four key categories, and at the top of the list were “health care” and “energy and environment.” The service was to be attached to the President’s United We Serve campaign, a nationwide federal initiative to make service a way of life for all Americans.

[…]

We were encouraged to bring the same sense of enthusiasm to these “focus areas” as we had brought to Obama’s presidential campaign, and we were encouraged to create art and art initiatives that brought awareness to these issues. Throughout the conversation, we were reminded of our ability as artists and art professionals to “shape the lives” of those around us. The now famous Obama “Hope” poster, created by artist Shepard Fairey and promoted by many of those on the phone call, and will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” song and music video were presented as shining examples of our group’s clear role in the election.

Obama has a strong arts agenda, we were told, and has been very supportive of both using and supporting the arts in creative ways to talk about the issues facing the country. We were “selected for a reason,” they told us. We had played a key role in the election and now Obama was putting out the call of service to help create change. We knew “how to make a stink,” and were encouraged to do so.

Erm, yes, I guess that was a rhetorical question.

The NEA is the nation’s largest annual funder of the arts. That is right, the largest funder of the arts in the nation – a fact that I’m sure was not lost on those that were on the call, including myself. One of the NEA’s major functions is providing grants to artists and arts organizations. The NEA has also historically shown the ability to attract “matching funds” for the art projects and foundations that they select. So we have the nation’s largest arts funder, which is a federal agency staffed by the administration, with those that they potentially fund together on a conference call discussing taking action on issues under vigorous national debate. Does there appear to be any potential for conflict here?

Assuming that I can answer that one, I’d say the potential for conflict is rather high. If an entire industry is almost entirely supported by the government then, when that benefactor starts making “suggestions” about how that industry should behave, you can bet that the industry will respond. In this case, propaganda posters, statues, billboards and movies would be the expected outcome. In the American car business, increased hybrid car production is the most likely result of government intervention (that is why Fiat was brought in after all).

So what do you think will happen when the federal government is in charge of paying for health care? If the government were to “suggest” that certain medical procedures should be favored, or that certain patients should receive care before others, do you suppose that the medical industry will have much leverage to resist? And suppose that new reforms are proposed after passage of whatever bill is frankensteined together this Fall. If the government is going to be paying most of the bills, who do you think the insurance companies, doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, et al. will be paying more attention to when the Obama administration and its minions come calling? Patients or the government?

That is a rhetorical question, because I already know the answer.

[HT: Greyhawk]

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