Top NBC news anchor Brian Williams lied in public, and now he has to spend the next six months in solitary news confinement. If his lies were an exercise in self-aggrandizement, as seems to be the buzz, then it’s hard to feel sorry for his plight.

Despite his troubles, Mr. Williams’ actions don’t really have much of an impact on how I experience the nightly news. His alleged lies were about his own actions on the sides of news stories. His false claim that Iraqi baddies shot at his helicopter didn’t alter the reality that War Is Hell, or change the fact that good soldiers are shot down with depressing frequency. An inaccurate quip on his arrival at the felling of the Berlin Wall puts him in a bad light, but it has no impact on the victory over tyranny that the Wall’s destruction meant to those behind the Iron Curtain.

Williams’ fibs are bad news for news, but there is a worse trend in modern reporting, one where a reporter’s lies stem not from self-interest, but from a clear break with reality. Consider one report from the 2014 election a few months back. In the online article, “GOP takeover: Republicans surge to Senate control,” AP reporters David Espo and Robert Furlow tried to explain the surprising electoral outcome that saw strong Republican victories across the nation. In a bit of predictable spin, the reporters opined that “a majority of those [voters responding to exit polls] supported several positions associated with Democrats or Obama rather than Republicans—saying immigrants in the country illegally should be able to work, backing U.S. military involvement against Islamic State fighters, and agreeing that climate change is a serious problem.” (Emphasis added.)

I get the parts about climate change and illegal aliens. Democratic officials frequently offer up these two issues as key planks in their legislative agenda. But “backing U.S. military involvement against Islamic State fighters”? That can’t be right. The current Democratic president ran for office in part on his promise to rid Iraq of its pesky American military presence. He has changed his tune a bit with the rise of ISIS. But even in his recent request to Congress concerning his plan for battling ISIS, President Obama went out of his way to state that his formal military request did not represent a return to troops on the ground. Military might in Iraq is not typically associated with the Democratic Party; it’s viewed as a Republican thing, and has been at least since Bush’s infamous “Mission Accomplished” message back in 2003.

The AP entrusted these two reporters with communicating one of the most important news stories of election week, and they blew it. The authors of the article were either woefully ignorant of party views on foreign affairs in this country over the past decade, or willfully deceptive in communicating the state of those same views. In either case, it does much more damage to news reporting than any of Brian Williams’ verbal escapades. Even if the AP story was an innocent mistake, it went unchallenged and uncorrected by that news organization, and their web site still includes the errant content.

The problem is not just with these reporters. It’s with readers who will pass by the statement with nary a thought as to its veracity. The polarization of this age has produced a generation of weak-willed news consumers who demand reporting that confirms their prejudices. Republicans (or Democrats, depending on one’s political bent) are evil, and news stories must confirm that. Obama (or Bush) is a hack and a sell-out, and any story that deviates from that narrative is verboten. There is a modern insistence that all the trouble in the world be personally trouble-free, that reporting not ruffle the feathers of news consumers lest they should have to react and turn the channel or click away from the web site.

And so military action in Iraq becomes a Democratic hallmark, because it jives with the sensibilities of a reporter or an audience who know in their hearts that this president, and only this president, has always had the right response to Islamic aggression. The facts are irrelevant; this is news! This isn’t a case of political disagreement. It’s a situation where disagreement doesn’t exist because a political viewpoint is deemed the only that that can ever be classified as real. Not just true or right, but real.

Poor Brian Williams. Despite his flaws, he seemed genuinely interested in being the best talking head in the industry. This charge might mean the end of his career, but probably not. In a world that values perceived reality above facts, Williams might be the new poster child for news reporting.

[Image Credits: NBC News]

This article was posted on February 16, 2015. Related articles: Commentary, , .

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Graduation Cap

Purchasing and maintaining a home has always been a major cost for American families. The “Great American Dream” is a dream precisely because the effort and funds needed to buy a home go beyond the mundane. But in recent years, two new expenses—healthcare costs and college tuition—have risen to Great American Dream levels thanks to politicians who think that wishes and hopes are more dependable than basic economics.

We’re only a month or so into 2015, and President Obama has already taken the prize for the biggest lack of understanding about how prices work. In his State of the Union speech on January 20, the President called for a new federal strategy that would “lower the cost of community college to zero.” His goal is admirable: increase job prospects for America’s high school graduates by providing more education without the burden of tuition. He even had an example young couple there in the audience, Rebekah and Ben, who were suffering under the heavy weight of student loans. The program, if enacted, would certainly benefit some anecdotal youths like Rebekah and Ben. But it would not “lower the cost of community college.” In fact, it would do the very opposite.

As you might recall from your free enterprise classes back in high school, prices are driven by supply and demand. When the supply of some item increases or demand decreases, the price goes down. Conversely, when an item is scarce or demand increases beyond current supply levels, prices go up. My college political science professor described price increases as “too many dollars chasing too few goods.” Monopolistic practices or a weekend sale can override a default price temporarily, but the overall ebb and flow of prices are still driven by the quantity of a product or service, and the number of buyers who want it.

The President’s plan to make community college free will increase costs because it will increase demand without adjusting supply. His goal, naturally, is to enhance the number of community college students. In economic terms, the goal is to increase the demand for community college courses. If the number of courses and professors rises to meet the demand, the price will remain stable. But without that increase in course supply, the price has nowhere to go but up. It’s true that individual students might not have to pay the fees to cover these price increases, but the price will increase nonetheless, because demand increased. As with any government program, the taxpayers will bear the costs. And not just current costs, but the new increased costs, plus the cost of the bureaucracy to manage the program. Supply-and-demand doubters might wish and hope that the cost of education will go down (to zero) under this program, but it won’t.

This isn’t the first time the President has depended on wishes and hopes. He did the same in pushing Obamacare, the “Affordable” Care Act. In a June 2009 address, President Obama famously stated, “If you like the plan you have, you can keep it. If you like the doctor you have, you can keep your doctor, too. The only changes you’ll see are falling costs as our reforms take hold.” Pundits glommed on to the first half of the quote, but it’s the last sentence that smacks of economic blindness. By expanding the total number of patients who can pay for expensive services using easy insurance dollars, and thereby increasing the demand for such services without at the same time increasing the supply of doctors, hospitals, or other providers, medical costs will go up, no matter how many bureaucrats crunch the numbers. That doesn’t automatically mean that Obamacare is a bad thing, and some Americans might agree with the President that it is a net benefit. But such a vote of confidence does not alter the false statement that the core aspects of Obamacare will reduce costs. (To be fair, some impacts of the ACA legislation might work to reduce demand and therefore costs, such as the move by more Americans to high-deductible HSA-based insurance plans. But these were not the primary intentions of the law, and it’s unlikely they can counteract the overall drive toward higher prices.)

Obama and the Democrats are not alone in wishing and hoping for lower prices in major industries. In 1971, Richard Nixon instituted temporary wage and price controls in an attempt to curb inflation. Freezing the price of, say, chocolate bars might sound like a boon for consumers, since they will not pay any more than current prices for tasty chocolate. But the real impact of such controls is a reduction in the supply of chocolate bars at current prices, resulting in shortages when businesses are unwilling to sell their goods unprofitably at the government-mandated price. These controls, when combined with other protectionist (supply-constricting) policies and the Middle East crisis-of-the-week, resulted in a decade of financial turmoil that, though blamed on President Carter (who certainly didn’t help), was nonetheless caused by an environment of wishing and hoping by presidents and legislators alike. (Nixon reprised his error in 1973 when, in a tortured address to the nation, the former Communist-hunter both extolled the virtues of price controls and condemned them as the “straightjacket” of controlled economies.)

Unfortunately, we didn’t learn our lesson from the Nixon era. President Obama’s tuition announcement proves that politicians at the highest levels are still turning a blind eye to the economic truths of supply and demand. The President hopes that free education will save money and solve America’s employment difficulties, but it won’t. Perhaps even worse, he wishes that the American public would be just as dumbfounded about supply and demand as he is. In this regard, his wish might be coming true.

[Image Credits: freeimages.com, image #348402]

This article was posted on February 9, 2015. Related articles: Commentary, , .

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About thirty years ago, a teenager in my church developed cancer around his knee. The doctors had no choice but to remove the diseased section, but they were able to leave him with a functioning limb by rotating the foot and turning his ankle into a knee, which is awesome. But that was the only awesome part. Eventually, the cancer spread, and young Jon died before reaching his twenties. His family suffered not only through his illness and death, but also through tremendous hospital bills from his extensive treatments.

Our pastor offered spiritual encouragement, but that didn’t pay the bills. Instead, the members of the congregation helped cover the costs through public fundraisers, and by writing personal checks directly to the family. By the time I left the church for college, I heard that all of the medical bills had been paid in full. It was a monetary fulfillment of what the church preaches through Galatians 6:2, “carry each other’s burdens.”

At some point, a few Christians with business savvy decided to institutionalize this carrying of burdens, which should throw up big red flags. And yet here I am, decades later, becoming a part of one such group. Starting in 2015, I am forgoing traditional medical insurance, and instead signing up for Medi-Share, a national organization designed to let people pay for each other’s medical bills somewhat directly, but in a way that has the look and feel of medical insurance.

A big reason for the change was cost. This weekend, I was tossing out some old bills and paperwork, and I saw that my monthly premiums had doubled in just four years. Obamacare (and the state-level regulations that preceded it) has not been kind to my family. But I’ve also never been comfortable with company-paid, low-deductible, cost-hiding insurance plans that we’ve taken for granted for decades. Medi-Share, with its focus on caring for “burdens” instead of on basic medical needs, is more in line with my expectations for medical insurance.

But it’s not insurance. Medi-Share’s web site states clearly that it “is not insurance…and is not guaranteed in any way.” It offers no coverage for routine preventative care, including annual checkups, mammograms for the womenfolk, and regular colonoscopy screenings for the older set, something I’ll need to think about in the approaching years. Also, because of the organization’s religious underpinnings, they only allow Christians in good standing with a church to join, and any medical costs that stem directly from intentional sin—injuries sustained from a car accident after an evening of heavy drinking, for example—are rejected from coverage. My biggest concern has to do with the group’s prescription program, as it only covers a given medicine for up to six months, even for chronic conditions like high blood pressure.

On the positive side, the monthly costs are lower due to the plan’s limitations on coverage. Medi-Share’s PPO network is much larger than the one I had before, and is accessible nationwide (except in Montana!). Plus, once you’ve fulfilled the fairly reasonable annual deductible, approved medical costs are covered 100 percent. I will need to shell out $200 to talk to my doctor each year about routine stuff, but a $60,000 hospital charge for a heart attack isn’t going to lead to a second stress-triggered infarction.

I must admit that I’m a little uneasy about giving up familiar insurance for a no-guarantee program. And the plan itself might anger some, with its religious tests and its indifference to daily medical concerns. I’d love to see other groups spring up that target different audiences or that offer expanded coverage, but that can’t happen for now. The same Obamacare legislation that includes an exception for Health Care Sharing Ministries (section 1501 of the ACA, pages 147-148, “Religious Conscience Exemption”) also restricts the practice to religious groups, and only those that have offered pseudo-insurance services since December 31, 1999.

Despite my qualms about this change, I’m optimistic about what Medi-Share has to offer. Replacing traditional coverage with “sharing” is certainly a risk, but not necessarily more than I had before. It’s a confusing time for medical care in America, but the idea of freely donating money to others in need has never been confusing.

This article was posted on January 5, 2015. Related articles: Off Topic, , , .

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When my son signed up to take the SAT test, one of my first thoughts was, “I glad I don’t have to go through that nightmare again.” And yet here I am on December 7, taking the N3 level of the 日本語能力試験 (nihongo noryoku shiken, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test). N3 is the middle of five levels, inconveniently arranged from 5 to 1 based on the difficulty level of the test. This handy list shows you the expectations for each level.

  • N5 — You enjoy the taste of sushi.
  • N4 — You took one semester of college-level Japanese, or nailed that Japanese for Wandering Americans book on the flight east.
  • N3 — You took two or three years of college Japanese.
  • N2 — You spent two or three years running a college in Japan.
  • N1 — You play go with Emperor Akihito.

Clearly, I’m going to stop with N3. I started Japanese studies 25 years ago, but found myself stuck at the same second-college-year level. Taking the JLPT, I hoped, would spur me to study with more rigor. It worked in part. I finally made it through my kanji book with its 2,200 glyphs, and I probably added 1,000 to 2,000 new words to my vocabulary. But I skimped on new grammar points, which is of course the only thing covered by the test.

This year, the test takes place on the campus of California State University Los Angeles (“Motto: No, you want UCLA. Let me get you a map.”) I’ve scheduled this post to appear at the apex of my stress level, just as I sit down to begin the test. If you’re reading this right when it comes out, then you missed your chance to take the once-per-year exam. But if you enjoy Japanese food or are looking for a challenge beyond your weekly go games with the emperor, then this might be the test for you.

This article was posted on December 7, 2014. Related articles: Off Topic, .

Footnotes for “Japanese Language Proficiency Test”

  1. I’m impressed. You didn’t credit any of your success to your okusan. She must have been of some help, no?

  2. She did help a lot, mostly by providing tasty Japanese food each day when I was focused on study!

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In a free society, there is no such thing as a “fair share.” The freedom that individuals have to create or squander their wealth and resources ensures that no two people will have a completely equal and fair proportion of a nation’s riches. Even for those in Communist regimes, fairness quickly gives way to power and graft. Fairness, though desirable, is elusive.

During a recent campaign and fundraising tour, Vice President Joe Biden attempted to force a false sense of fairness on the American public. “I think we should make them start to pay their fair share,” Biden said of America’s richest citizens, expressing a desire by many to “take the burden off the middle class.” Since he didn’t come right out and state an amount that the rich should pay, we will have to make an educated guess as to what he meant.

Ever since the Sixteenth Amendment made possible a national income tax, the rich have always paid more than their fair share. Just months after ratification of the amendment, Woodrow Wilson signed the Revenue Act of 1913, imposing a 1% tax on households earning $4,000 or more per year (equivalent to $96,000 in 2014 dollars), rising to a top rate of 7% for those making more than $500,000 (about $12 million today). Democrats controlled both houses of Congress in those days, so it seems likely that even a Progressive like Wilson found the tax rate he signed into law “fair.”

Today, the top rate for upper-income Americans sits close to 40%, although after deductions, the richest 10% of taxpayers pay about 19% of their incomes to the IRS. That’s still nearly triple the top rate from a century ago, and significantly more than the typical 3% rate currently paid by the bottom half of all income earners. (All data is from 2011 IRS statistics, and conveniently summarized here.)

The top 10% of taxpayers earn about 45% of all incomes in America, and yet they pay more than 68% of all income taxes. If life were truly fair, they would only pay 45% of all income taxes, in line with their incomes. But things aren’t fair, and in general, everyone is OK with that. Even the rich understand that a progressive tax system that charges them about six times the rate paid by the poor, while not actually fair, is acceptable.

When Mr. Biden called for the rich to pay their fair share, he certainly wasn’t demanding that their tax rates be lowered to match their incomes. He may have instead wanted marginal tax rates raised, but it’s hard to explain how an extra 5%—or even 20%—in addition to the current 39.6% top rate is inherently more fair. Would 100% be the ultimate in fairness?

The Vice President, as an elected official with a top-secret security clearance, has access to the same Internal Revenue Service statistics that I do. He has no excuse for tossing out the “fair share” misstatement, unless he meant something else by it. If his intent was to drive tax policy, he could have stated a number instead. But it seems more likely that his goal was to stir up emotional animosity in a way that will motivate voters this coming November. “Fair share,” it seems, really means, “Vote for Democrats.” It’s a propagandizing form of politics that is, at its heart, extremely unfair.

[Image Credits: Microsoft Office clip art]

This article was posted on October 23, 2014. Related articles: Commentary, , .

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