Sunday, July 19, 2009

George Will

Arguably one of the most intellectual of today's conservative media commentators, George Will produces a newspaper column that promulgates views on any and all political topics. In recent months, he has weighed in on health care, Spain's alternative energy program, the government bailout of General Motors, the significance of the death of Robert McNamara, regulation of tobacco, and the Supreme Court's ruling in the Ricci (New Haven firefighters) case.

Like many entertainers masquerading as sources of news and analysis, Will rarely passes up an opportunity to criticize liberals and successful government programs, usually out of the side of his mouth. On 6/11/09, for example, he refers to "the preposterous entitlement to collect Social Security at age 62." He fails to mention that people opting for such payments forego a significant portion of the monthly benefits they would receive if they retired at a later age. Will apparently feels no empathy (oh, that's a "bad word" these days) for workers who have paid into the system for at least 10 years (and probably much longer) and who now wish to enjoy some leisure time. (Perhaps opting out of the capitalistic rat race is something Will simply can't comprehend; what higher calling could there be than making more money?)

Continuing his first amendment right to engage in linguistic legerdemain, Will says (6/19/09) that "In a 1998 settlement, 46 states conspired to seize $206 billion from companies selling legal tobacco products..." An impartial observer might have said that "46 states cooperated in using the judicial system to hold tobacco companies liable for alleged infractions of laws and regulations duly adopted by democratic legislative bodies." Using neutral language, however, would be have been so, well, like Walter Cronkite.

Not content to lambaste President Obama by utilizing oblique literary references ("But the capitol, gripped once again by the audacious hope of mastering everything..." 7/10/09), Will apparently cannot stand the fact that we now have a President who accepts responsibility for his actions and speaks the English language. When our leader dares to use the word "I," Will denigrates him for being "inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun" (6/7/09). Where was his vehement protest when George W. Bush proclaimed "I am the decider"?

Will loves pointing out apparent inconsistencies using mildly clever language. "Washington mandates that Detroit must build cars for which there is much less demand than Washington demands that there be" (6/7/09). When you finish chuckling, remember that small, fuel-efficient cars are best-sellers. Until the recent recession, Toyota and Honda could barefly keep up with the demand. I don't mind "mildly clever" as long as the facts are correct, but Will has not mastered the art of presenting a comprehensive picture of a complex situation.

I absolutely love this one: "Government is incapable of behaving like market-disciplined private insurers" (6/21/09). What?? Could Will possibly be referring to the oligarchy of health care insurance companies that is raising premiums much faster than general inflation and using every trick in the book (legal and otherwise?) to avoid paying expensive legitimate claims by denying coverage ex post facto? Has he forgotten that MediCare, while far from perfect, is successfully providing health care to millions of Americans?

On 7/10/09, Will berates "behavioralists" (I think he means "behaviorists") for believing in "nation-building" (hmm, how quickly we forget the rationale Bush used to justify the war in Iraq once it became clear there were no WMDs). "Liberals," he says, "tend to treat hopes as probabilities," suggesting that it "would be wise to entertain a shadow of a doubt...that history is linear and progressive."

I would like to see George Will occasionally entertain a shadow of a doubt about what he apparently views as his own omniscience.


  1. George Will is a hack who happens to know how to turn a good phrase.

    If you're looking for some intellectual heavyweights in media, look at Will Wilkinson who has a new paper I think you might want to read about inequality.

  2. Ron,
    Thanks for taking Mr. Will to task about social security. My father took early retirement at the age of 62 believing that it was in his best interest to forgo the full payment due him at age 65 in exchange for actually living to age 65. My dad saw too many of his co-workers receive devastating injuries or actually lose their lives in their last few years of work. (he was a construction worker.) Perhaps if Mr. Will had ever gotten his hands dirty, doing dangerous work, he might have some "empathy" for the working class who depend on social security benefits to see them through their retirement years.
    I enjoy your blog.
    Cindy Segal

  3. As to the specific question of social security benefits, the issue is one of priorities. We have essentially four choices as the proportion of retirees to workers becomes higher and higher:

    1. Have social security be collected at later ages than it currently is, which of course negatively impacts a wide swath of people, particularly those in labour intensive jobs.

    2. Reduce social security benefits so that it becomes significantly more difficult to live off of for many people, and for those in particularly expensive parts of the country making it but a small supplement to other retirement plans such as public pensions and 401ks.

    3. Increase the payroll tax rate to continue current benefits. This is a problem because the payroll tax is already pretty high (12.4%) and it is the most regressive tax we have, affecting disproportionately those with incomes below $106,800.

    4. Increase some other tax to pay for social security benefits, but this has the problem of structurally changing social security into something which is no longer an entitlement, but rather a budget item subject (necessarily, due to the nature of the constitutional restrictions on budgets) to the will of congress at least once per two years. This means adding a bill that will be loaded with massive legislative crap because to vote against it will be to vote against the most popular program the US government has.

    I am not trying to say one of these is better than the others, I am just saying there is no free lunch here.

  4. Wow, that is both a hilarious and disturbing assertion: "Government is incapable of behaving like market-disciplined private insurers" (6/21/09). Unbelievable that Will makes that case given all of the facts and horror stories otherwise. Thanks for taking him to task on his many inaccuracies. Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that this so-called intellectual could ever comprehend being wrong about something, especially on the philosophical issue of someone having a higher calling other than making money.