About a week ago, Arthur Laffer said the following on CNN:
I mean, i- i- i- if you like the Post Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles, and you think they're run well, just wait till you see Medicare, Medicaid, and health care, done by the government.
Dylan Matthews at The Treatment ("Now Don't You Let The Government Get A Hold Of My Medicare", 8/4/2009) compared this to an earlier example of conservative pandering to public ignorance:
[Senator John Breaux] was walking through the New Orleans airport, returning home, when an elderly female constituent approached him. "Senator, Senator," she said, plucking emotionally at his sleeve. "Now don't you let the government get a hold of my Medicare." Breaux, ever the charmer, smiled and said reassuringly of this greatest of government entitlement programs, "Oh, no, we won't let the government touch your Medicare."
And Matthews commented, "I don't believe I have to explain what this says about the Republican economic policy elite" — which is a bit confusing, because John Breaux was a Democratic senator.
Ramesh Ponnuru at NRO ("Re: Hands Off Medicare", 8/5/2009) compounded the confusion by making an implausible linguistic argument in Laffer's defense:
I think this is a simple misunderstanding. Laffer seems to me to be saying that Medicare and Medicaid are not run well, and neither will health care in general when the government expands its role in it. "Done by the government," that is, modifies only "health care," not "Medicare, Medicaid, and health care."
This makes no syntactic, semantic, rhetorical, or phonetic sense.
Laffer is using a common rhetorical pattern of the form
If you like X, just wait till you see Y.
This can be used straight ("If you like the single, just wait til you see the video") or ironically ("Government: If you like the problems we cause, just wait 'til you see our solutions!") But in either case, the author suggests that X is viewed by many as good (or bad, in the ironic case), and predicts that if you're one of those that share that view, then Y will turn out to be even better (or even worse, in the ironic case). This implies that you're not already familiar with Y, or that Y will change in some way that will affect your evalution.
Laffer's statement is clearly an instance of this rhetorical template being used ironically. When he says "If you like X", for X = "the Post Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles", he's suggesting that many people view the Post Office and the Department of Motor Vehicles as bad — and indeed these are standard objects of right-wing scorn, disdained as bloated, inefficient and unhelpful bureaucracies. And thus in his next clause, "just wait till you see Y", for Y = "Medicare, Medicaid, and health care, done by the government", he's predicting that Y will turn out to be even worse than those icons of awfulness.
But Medicare, Medicaid, and health care already exist, as Laffer's hearers know well. So why is he making a prediction about our future perceptions of their quality? The only sensible construal is that these programs will change their nature when the government takes them over. Which in turn implies the absurd (but apparently widely-held) view that Medicare and Medicaid are not now government programs.
Ponnuru's proposed parse doesn't work phonetically either. If we eliminate punctuation from our transcript of the crucial clause, and annotate pause durations, we get:
just wait till you see [0.194]
Medicare Medicaid and health care [0.285]
done by the government.
In fluent speech, we expect the duration of pauses between words to correlate with the syntactic and semantic importance of the juncture. On that basis, if we place two pauses within a structure like
[just wait till you see
…[ Medicare Medicaid
……[and health care done by the government]]]
we'd expect them to fall after see and Medicaid — which is not what happened.
In contrast, if the structure were
[just wait till you see
…[[ Medicare Medicaid and health care]
…. [done by the government]]]
we'd expect the two pauses to occur after see and health care — which is exactly what happened.
But wait, there's more! The pitch contour is also exactly what we'd expect if [Medicare Medicaid and health care] were a constituent, with [done by the government] as a following modifier — but it makes no sense under Mr. Ponnuru's prefered construal. Listen again, and look (click on the image for a larger version):
In conclusion, I can see three ways to explain this:
(1) Dr. Laffer believes that Medicare and Medicaid are not now government programs, and would be changed for the worse if the government took them over. If this is true, he should educate himself, modify his views, and apologize to those that he may have misled. And CNN should be ashamed of itself for giving air time to an "expert" who is so badly informed about the topic he's asked to comment on.
(2) Many older Americans have a high opinion of Medicare and Medicaid, believe (counterfactually) that these programs are not now run by the government, and worry about the government "taking them over" and ruining them. Dr. Laffer knows that this belief is preposterously at variance with the truth, but chose to pander to it anyhow. If so, no self-respecting news organization should ever give him a platform again, except perhaps to give him the opportunity to apologize for being a lying weasel.
(3) Dr. Laffer because confused, got his clauses tangled up, and by mistake seemed to say something that he didn't believe. If this is true, then he should take the next opportunity to go on national television to clarify his views and apologize to those he may have misled.
Timothy Noah at Slate takes (2) for granted, which leads him to observe that "If there is a hell for libertarian poseurs, Laffer has secured himself a berth in it."
Paul Krugman comes down at about 2.2:
… if he was garbling his words, there was method in his garble. Right now, right-wingers do not, repeat, do not want people to understand that Medicare is the prime example of that dreaded condition, “government-run health care”; because if people understood that, they might think that government-run care is actually pretty good. So we don’t need to worry about what Laffer really meant; what he said was the party line, which is, “don’t let the government get its hands on Medicare.”
My own impression is that the error bars run from about 1.8 to 2.2. There's some more evidence from Dr. Laffer's own mouth: his next statement is "… I mean, the single provider, I think, is a real problem, Judy, …", which suggests that he is either deeply ignorant or shamelessly deceitful, since no single-provider plan is even remotely under consideration.
But mostly I'm shocked (shocked!) that the CNN anchordroid didn't pick up on Laffer's idiocy/dishonesty/gaffe during the broadcast:
[Note, by the way, that Paul Krugman and Nate Silver are not convinced that the DMV and the Post Office should be "unquestioned bywords for 'something bad'", and apparently most Americans agree with them, at least as far as the postal service is concerned.]
[Update -- a national poll reported on Aug. 19, 2009, that 62% of Republicans (and 39% of Americans overall) respond "yes" to the question "Do you think the government should stay out of Medicare?"]