Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Confidence Men

"A proposed victim is known as a "sucker," to the confidence men."
-- H. L. Mencken

I came across that quote a couple weeks ago and I think about it every time I watch the current Administration try to slick that Health Care plan of theirs past us; that grandiose, ill-defined, 1,000+ pages of wonderfulness that just cries out to be called “too good to be true”. Only I don’t hear any one calling it “too good to be true”. Do you?

Take just a moment to stand back and watch them; the President, Congressional leaders, the majority of our elected representatives, news commentators, whomever… Do you get the idea that any of them are on the level as they try to push this thing through? Not quite as on the level as one of those nimble carnival sharpsters moving a pea around under the shells. The hand is always quicker than the eye.

Both the carnival operator and the big time con-man are generally charming, jovial fast-talkers. The suckers can sense they are dealing with a rogue, but he seems so likeable. They know he’s playing fast and loose, too. But, whether he is enticing suckers to put up dollar bills in hopes of finding the pea, or invest millions in the hope of getting rich, he makes them all feel that he’s their pal; that he’s only stealing from the other guy.

The bunch in Washington hasn’t quite pulled that off. The President and his staff are on television all the time. We see them; we size them up. There is something about them. Their charm is a little too surface, a little too phony. With all those tax-cheats in the Administration we know one thing for certain; they’re not just stealing from the other guy. By definition they’re stealing from the rest of us. Why would we think otherwise?

In fact, the Administration is starting to look grim and just a little bit angry at us for not buying the line they are selling. We keep asking too many questions. Before long, they are going to resort to low-end used car salesman tricks.

It is not that their Plan, so-called, just needs a little work here and there, but rather there are so many holes in it that need to be filled, so many internal contradictions that can’t be explained in plain English that the whole thing looks like a disaster ready to happen. Even the pie-in-the-sky promise of “look at all the money you’ll save” was swept away when the Congressional Budget Office published a report showing that instead of savings, we’ll end up with another Trillion dollars tacked onto the deficit in the next few years, maybe more. What the Administration is trying to sell is the is the medical version of the “free lunch”.

Worse, the plan fails to address the real problems. There’s no simplification, no tax relief for the self-insured, no market-oriented thinking at all: just the promise of cost cutting and Government efficiency, which means – let’s face it – “rationing”. In these economic times, if you work for a company that scrimps on pencils and booklets of Post-It notes, that defers fixing a toilet or changing light bulbs, you know what I mean.

As politicians and media acolytes yammer on about the plan’s promised benefits, more people see a health care-future of long lines in government-green waiting rooms with Federal Employees offering a choice between “the red pill and the blue pill”.

Doctors are already trying to get ahead of this thing by advising patients not to get sick.

About the only thing in the plan carved in stone is Government control. That part is for sure. Whatever shape your health care takes in the future, whatever the wording of the final bill the President signs – Washington will control it. Every thing else is up for grabs.

Well, not quite everything. Meaningful medical malpractice lawsuit reform is not on the table. Lawyers have an important lobby. But, the Public option? One day it’s in, the next it’s out, and then it’s back in again. Euthanasia, the so-called “Death Panels”? Absolutely not, except in special cases. Funding for abortion? Abortion was guaranteed by our Founding Fathers, sort of, so Federal Courts will no doubt insist. The same reasoning will require paying for the insurance of the 12-20 million Illegals already in the country. Once this plan is law these details will be out of our hands.

To fix the problems with health care, Congress needs to approach the problem like a Doctor. Faced with a problem here’s what a real Doctor would do, before even getting out his stethoscope: First, listen to the patient, then, Second, project confidence. The Administration has done neither. They have handled the health care debate like a third-rate confidence man trying to sell mining stock to a widow.

How badly have they handled things? For about a month, now, You Tube has been filled with clips from Town Hall meetings showing politicians being questioned about the Health Care bill by voters. At first some pols openly stated they hadn’t read the bill, had no idea what was in it but were prepared to vote in favor of it. The fewer questions the politicians could answer the angrier the voters got. Before long, things understandably turned confrontational. The video clips, while fine as entertainment, are actually pretty redundant. How many clueless politicians do we have to see? The public has already got the picture: Our elected officials are a bunch of quacks. And what is a quack? He is a confidence man who practices medicine without a license.

The politicians eventually realized they were not coming off well, so what did they do? First, they engaged in name-calling. They called citizens – their own voters – obstructionists, un-American, Nazis, stooges of Big Pharma. Next they tried bullying. They brought in members of public employee unions to “counter” the citizens, to shove them around a little.

When that didn’t work politicians went into hiding. They moved meetings to secret locations, inviting only favored constituents by special invitation. They held “electronic Town Halls” via video or by conference call. Or, they cancelled them altogether; anything to avoid contact with voters.

Recently they’ve begun “astro turfing”, bussing in crowds of the party faithful in order to show support for the plan. Hey, we don't want Republicans or independents to "win" on this issue, do we?

So, now that public support has fallen below 50% should we chalk up the score as American Citizens – 1, Government Bureaucrats – 0? Not on your life. Don’t open any champagne.

Government controlled health care has been a goal of Big Government types since the 1920s. There is a lot of money and a lot of power at stake and right now they believe it is all in the wrong hands. They will not give up just because of a few rowdy protests or bad polling results. They started this fight and they can’t just walk away. So, what will they do next?

Well, there’s another quote that we might want to keep in mind.

“Never give a sucker an even chance.” -- W. C. Fields

If those words are any indication, we can expect them to sharpen their game and come at us again. To them, we’re still “suckers,” and we still have money in our pockets.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Review of a Book I Haven't Read

Did you happen to notice last year, while plane loads of reporters were roaming over the tundra in Alaska trying to dig up a scandal they could connect to Sarah Palin, there didn’t seem to be any interest in sniffing around Barack Obama’s home town? Unless you're interested in moose hunting, seems like Chicago is where the action is.

Well, it looks like somebody has finally done some sniffing.

Michelle Malkin’s book, Culture of Corruption maps the murky waters of Chicago politics in which President Barack Obama swam during his formative years as local organizer and politician. Evidently, there exists a lot of curiosity among many in the reading public, because within days of its release Culture of Corruption became #1 on the non-fiction best seller lists.

I’d like to read the book myself. I work in a book store but have been so busy lately that I haven’t even had time to pick the thing up and flip through it to see if my favorite Chicago Stories made it into print. My wife and I have lived in the area for 21 years and from the day of our arrival we have been amazed at the political messes that the natives step around – and pay for – without even seeming to noticing.

"An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”. From that standpoint alone it is easy to understand the book’s appeal to those who live in other parts of the country. We have a new president and a lot of people are curious about his Political Family Tree. A lot of people are watching the new administration's conduct in the current Health Care debate. Without reading the book, I can divulge the secret: his method of operating is Pure Chicago: avoid substance, pit constituencies against each other and take names.

On a lighter level, Chicago politics has a novel cachet in the rest of the country. People out there in Kansas or Texas or Georgia or where-ever voters feel is a safe distance from which to watch, wonder: “How do those people in Illinois put up with all of that?” It's like watching a three-ring circus complete with freak show, only in this circus it’s the monkeys who are throwing the peanuts at the people, and the people don’t seem to mind all that much.

Like I said, we’ve lived here for over twenty years and we still can’t figure it out. Every few weeks another miscellaneous official, from building code Safety Inspector all the way up to Governor – you name it – gets caught in some low intrigue or other. Not long ago we heard on the radio that "Fast Eddie" admitted to taking over a Million Dollars of public money. Admitted. He got off with a wrist-slap. No mention of whether he had to return the money.

Some of these shenanigans are laughable in their audacity. I hope Michelle Malkin included a couple of the goofier scams, just for laughs. A few weeks ago Alderman Issac “Ike” Carothers got popped for accepting $40, 000 worth of home remodeling in exchange for greasing through a $3 Million Dollar land deal. I know. I wondered the same thing: the developer gets 3 Mil and Ike gets a measly 40K? Never the less, that’s the case.

Other goings-on are less funny: In ’03 there was an early morning panic stampede in an illegal after hours joint, the E2 Nightclub, in which 21 people were trampled to death and another 50 were injured. The fact that the story disappeared from the news so fast – you’d have thought it was a fender-bender involving a yellow cab and a garbage truck – lends credence to the rumor that a big political family had a financial interest in the club. Twenty people dead and the story just went away? What about lawsuits? Was everything really cleared up quietly out of court?

A couple months later there was another disaster in which six County employees were killed in an arson fire that started in the Cook County Office Building evidence room. Another Keystone Cops investigation went nowhere. In 2006, US Senator Barack Obama endorsed the man in charge of the investigation, John Stroger for re-election as County Board President.

So here is what I suspect the net effect of Culture of Corruption will be: people will read the book from cover to cover. They will put the book on the coffee table, or pass it along to a friend, and they will sit back and reflect on The Chicago Way of doing things.

As it sinks in, they’ll begin to reflect on what the country can expect now that this same bunch has “gone national”. People from this soup, trained in these ethics are now filling Federal posts, tweaking the budget, fiddling with healthcare, and otherwise not looking out for the common good – just like they were back home in Chicago.

And, I have a point here…

Take for instance this story from last Friday’s Chicago Tribune(8/7/09), headlined “Daley Insider Corners Olympic Spots”. This may be illustrative of where we are headed.

The Tribune report is markedly "passive" in it's tone. So, allow me to put it into a nutshell for you:

Michael Scott is a member of Mayor Daley’s Chicago Olympic Committee, and he's a real operator. At the same time he's been working to bring the Olympics here he has been busy buying up land where the Games would be held should Chicago be named Host City. If that happens, Scott will be in a position to resell the land to the IOC.


Before you say “that’s just smart business”, consider that the City of Chicago controls many of the lots and is selling them at distressed prices of $1.00 apiece. I know, that doesn't sound right to me either. Chicago, like most other cities, is in sad financial condition. Why does not the City of Chicago sell the lots to the IOC themselves and let the profits give taxpayers a break? Why take what could be valuable land and treat it as the real estate equivalent of the Cash For Clunkers program, letting someone with political connections pocket the money?

And there’s more. Michael Scott is also President of the Chicago Public School Board. The previous CPS President is now Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration, in case you were wondering.

Pop Quiz -- What do you think of when you think of Chicago Public Schools? Yeah. You bet you do: Bullets, drugs, gangs, and chaos, along with low achievement and high drop-out rate.

But, in Chicago there are, effectively, two school systems; the so-called Magnet School Program for the City's best-and-brightest and the regular public system for everyone else.

If you are hip to the way government tends to operate, the minute you learn that there are two systems set up for anything you know that one system is for “us" and the other for “them”. "Them" being people with political clout, people who need to be attended to. Got it? Now hold that thought.

Students are required to test into the better schools. However, true to Chicago form, a phone call and a little curried favor will improve admission chances. There seems to be plenty of opportunity to sneak politically connected kids into elite public schools. Yet, for every under achieving student who gets in on Dad's clout, there is another, truly deserving student, who is denied.

This kind of thing goes on all the time. In fact, right now, there is a similar scandal going on at the Illinois State University level.

The easy question would be to ask, Is this fair? Of course it is not fair.

But there is a more important question we need to consider: What will happen when these people, these oily politicians and malleable bureaucrats, control our health care? I suspect, although I haven't read it, that that is the question left by Culture of Corruption.

What’s going to happen when you have to apply to a governmental body to get a knee replacement or a valve job or an MRI? While everyone knows there are problems with our current delivery system, I have never heard of anyone offering to “tip” the nurse in order to get the sheets changed, or donate to Congressman X’s campaign in order to get moved to the front of the line for a hernia repair. But that is how things are done in Chicago. And we should be considering the likelihood that this is how things will be done once the health care system is taken over by politicians and bureaucrats.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Budd Schulberg dies

On my way home from work last night I heard on the news that writer Budd Schulberg had died at age 95.

Budd Schulberg was the son of silent movie-era chief of Paramount Pictures, B.P. Schulberg. He was raised on studio back lots around the rich and famous of the day. It is said that his Dad, in order to show him what life is really like, made him sell newspapers on a corner. On the other hand, young Schulberg received an Ivy League educated.

For a while he was a member of the Communist Party but became peeved when the Party tried to tell him how to write his book, What Makes Sammy Run? He left the movement and banged heads with party activists the rest of his life.

I read What Makes Sammy Run? a few years ago with that little tid-bit of information in mind. I enjoyed it. As a Hollywood expose it works similarly to Billy Wilder’s movie, Sunset Boulevard, only it’s not nearly as operatic; there’s no dead monkey, no writer floating face down in the swimming pool, but, yes, there is a girl who wants to be a writer. Schulberg’s book is a darkly humorous story of the rise of an ambitious no-talent, Sammy Glick, and the people he tramples over on his way to the top. It serves as a Heads-Up to the rest of us: no matter where we live there are Sammy Glicks out there, in Hollywood, in Washington, or where you work and they will run right over you if you happen to be standing between them and what they want. It’s worth a read.

Budd Schulberg is most famous, of course, for writing On the Waterfront, which won him the Oscar in 1954. TCM ran the movie a few weeks ago when Karl Malden died. I stood right there in the kitchen and watched most of it on our little 11”. It is a beautiful work. Most film fans view the picture as an explanation of Schulberg’s decision (and director Elia Kazan’s as well) to testify about Communist influence in the film industry. Okay. But, beyond that, Waterfront is the story one brother who sells out another to the mob; a depiction of the betrayal by someone in a position of trust. He talks him into taking the short-end money and throwing a prize fight.

That scene in the back of the taxi between Rod Steiger and Marlon Brando is one of the single greatest scenes in movies. You can watch it on You Tube. You don’t even have to see it in context with the rest of the film to get the punch: “You’re my brother, Charlie. You should have looked out for me a little bit.”

But we all know what to really expect when we make a bargain like that: “A one-way ticket to Palookaville".