Tangled phrases or straight-out lies?

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About a week ago, Arthur Laffer said the following on CNN:

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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:

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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):

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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?"]

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23 Comments »

  1. dr pepper said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 3:53 am

    Maybe the DMV was an example of bad government in the past, or maybe it's an example of bad government somewhere else, but here in Socal, it's pretty good. In the past 10 years, i've done 2 license renewals and about 25 vehicle registrations, all as walkins. I usually wait less than 15 minutes, and i've never experienced a foul up except when i was the one who forgot to bring somethiong in. The last time i went was one of the longest waits, probably on account of the reduced service hours from the budget crisis, but it was still under 30 minutes. If that's what expanded government intrusion will do to health care, then i'm willing to suffer.

    [(myl) The DMV is of course a function of state rather than national government, so it's run in 50 different ways in the 50 states, and no doubt some are better than others. But my experiences in PA have been positive.]

  2. Alex said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 5:08 am

    Isn't the DMV run by state governments?

    Doesn't the Republican party want state governments to deal with issues of health care (as opposed to "big gov" a.k.a. the national government)?

    When did the Republican party line change from "smaller government & power to the states" to… whatever the hell it is now…?

  3. Bob said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 7:36 am

    Would you consider "If you like X, just wait till you see Y" to be a snowclone?

  4. Faldone said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 7:51 am

    It's in the queue in the form "If you like X, you'll love Y" at the Snowclone Database.

  5. Nathan said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 8:32 am

    @Alex: No, the Republican party doesn't want state governments to deal with issues of health care. They want doctors, patients, and insurance companies to deal with issues of health care.

  6. Mark P said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 8:37 am

    Somewhere around 2 seems right to me. I have a hard time believing Laffer didn't know that Medicare is a government program. It's possible he got caught up in a talking point and accidentally tossed Medicare into the bin along with any other "bad" government program he could think of on the spur of the moment.

    Whatever you think about the US Postal Service, it is not as good now as it was when it was actually a government service (the Post Office) that was provided and funded as much as necessary by the taxpayers and not intended necessarily to be a self-supporting, semi-independent business (the Postal Service). This is not a point Laffer and others like him will dwell on. To be fair, the USPS is up against real problems not all of its own making, and insisting that it be a business rather than a service is one of those problems.

  7. Jay Lake: [links] Link salad returns to the Day Jobbe said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 9:01 am

    [...] Tangled phrases or straight-out lies? — Language Log goes deep on the bizarre (largely) conservative meme that Medicare is not a government program. [...]

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 10:15 am

    The Laffer thing is a bit baffling in terms of what he intended to convey and why. Theory #2 needs to account for why he would think the potential upside of pandering to the ignorant was worth the more certaian downside of impairing his credibility with the non-ignorant and subjecting himself to criticism like this — it's obviously possible to be both wicked and stupid, but I'm not sure if Occam's Razor suggests that's a good place to start.

    But the Breaux exchange seems a bit different (even without allowing for the fact that both Louisiana politicians and those who like to recount stories about them have been known to embellish the truth a bit for the sake of a more amusing anecdote). It doesn't seem that loose a paraphrase of the "lockbox" theme of Al Gore's 2000 campaign to construe it as a promise that "I won't let the government get ahold of your Social Security benefits." I wouldn't be surprised if some intelligently-phrased followup questions to the supposedly ignorant old lady revealed a more nuanced understanding of how Medicare operates and why she thinks its "hers." It might be a false understanding (parallel to the not uncommon notion that the social security system "saves" the "contributions" compulsorily extracted from working taxpayers in order to "pay them back" to the very same individuals upon their retirement), but perhaps an understanding that can plausibly be derived from the rhetoric of the last few generations of politicians promoting the particular program. Pointing out to senior citizens subsisting on federal transfer payments and federally-funded healthcare that they are economically indistinguishable from people "on welfare" is a hazardous thing for an American politician to do.

    Back to Laffer, it's coherent (not necessarily correct, but coherent) to believe that the current quality/results of Medicaid/Medicare (regardless of how good or bad you might think they are in an absolute sense) would be adversely affected by increased government intervention in the rest of the health-care system (just as it would be coherent to believe that the current level of success / efficiency of the food stamps program would be adversely affected by increasing government intervention in the rest of the grocery-store business), and that seems like a plausible thing for someone with Laffer's general policy outlook to believe. But it's hard to construe the sentence he uttered as a near-miss for a sentence that would have expressed that concept. So who knows.

  9. Otter said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    #2 is perfectly consistent with the anti-reform rhetoric I've been hearing over the past weeks. Like Sarah Palin's transparently false "death panel" statement, it's a direct attempt to pander to the uninformed.

    As to why he would risk "the more certain downside of impairing his credibility with the non-ignorant and subjecting himself to criticism like this," I suspect he is quite aware of the fact that conservative commentators are never held to account for similar statements. See Bill Kristol, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, et endless cetera.

  10. Robert Coren said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    why he would think the potential upside of pandering to the ignorant was worth the more certain downside of impairing his credibility with the non-ignorant

    Maybe he thinks the former outnumber the latter.

  11. Brent C said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

    The Ponnuru interpretation is nonsense, but I'm not sure anyone needs to jump to the conclusion that Laffer is trying to be misleading. I think Laffer probably is using "government" in a nuanced way, to refer to whatever changes this administration brings to the interaction between Medicare, Medicaid and health care generally. As if he were refering to the union of these things, rather than each individually.
    Something like, "just wait till you see Medicare, Medicaid, and health care [generally], [all] done by the government."

    [(myl) And no doubt in his next sentence, "the single provider, I think, is a real problem", he meant "single provider" to be interpreted as "public insurance as an option in addition to all the private insurance plans"....

    I have a very hard time finding any interpretation for his statement, taken as a whole, in which he's not either a fool or a cynical and manipulative liar. And I don't think he's a fool.]

  12. neddanison said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 12:29 pm

    It's getting more political around here than linguistic. Politically speaking, governments seem to run postal services and DMVs pretty well insofar as we receive the services we want. But if you look too closely at how cost-effectively these are run compared to how they could be run with better management, you might reasonably expect these services to be more than "pretty good". But it's nicer to eat sausage if you ignore the way its made.

    I may be as naive in my understanding of linguistics as in my political views, but it seems to me more cost-effective to ask/wait for Laffer to clarify his intended meaning before we expend anymore energy on words he may have let loose in error.

  13. Craig Russell said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

    I can't imagine that this is anything other than Scenario 2. However, I would add to this theory: Dr. Laffer is so convinced that his ultimate point is "right" that he's willing to sacrifice the strict accuracy of his individual statements in order to get people to agree with his viewpoint (aka: the ends justify the means). What does it matter if he tells a few little lies if his overall argument is true?

    And–sorry to concentrate entirely on the politics instead of language, but the subject matter practically demands it…

    Do we really want to see the postal service taken away from the government and run on the model of a private insurance company?

    That's where you pay up front to have your package shipped, and it's then taken before a committee which tries to determine if there's any way they can get out of having to actually ship it now that they've got your money. In a few weeks you get a notice in the mail informing you that you misrepresented yourself on the paperwork you filled out to ship the box, and now as a result the postal service is keeping your payment and the package.

    The free market finds a profitable solution!

  14. Janice Huth Byer said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

    A compelling retort circulating on the web suggests, "If you like your investment and cable companies and think they're run well, you'll love your medical insurers."

  15. Janice Huth Byer said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 2:13 pm

    Not to make too fine a point, but labeling what Laffer did as pandering suggests, to me, he's merely giving into people's desire to stay ignorant.

    I'm not sure, on this topic, his audience wants to remain ignorant. I'd characterize what he did as exploiting ignorance.

  16. Janice Huth Byer said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 2:26 pm

    Well-stated, Craig Russell. To paraphrase the late Tip O'Neill, in a sense, "All politics IS language".

  17. D.O. said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 3:40 pm

    Isn't there a special mode of speaking called "fear mongering"? In that mode, factual truth is not relevant, it is more impotant to dish out phrases that lead to a state of almost unconcious panic. On that level Laffer's comments are OK (I don't know who he is and whether he should know any better). Let's take "single payer" part. The policy is not on the table, but liberals might have wanted it if given the chance, plus public plan will kill off private insurers, which is the usual right-of-center meme, so that makes for a useful "sound bite of fear". On that note, it would be interesting to check how many people will consider the utterer of the following phrase a complete moron: "What is gonna happen for our defence if we let the government run the army!" I fear not 100%

  18. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

    @Janice Huth Byer: I agree completely. He is appearing on a news program and spreading disinformation. That is not "pandering".

    And it's certainly not "pandering to the ignorant"; even an informed person, who believes Medicare to be a government program, is at risk of believing what (s)he sees on CNN. So a better phrase would be, say, "disinforming the uninformed and the insufficiently cynical".

  19. Paul Wilkins said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

    I think the GOP plan is to make so much noise that the plan is never heard or evaluated. That's why there is so much of this nonsense. The GOP doesn't care about the healthcare issue, they're invested in sinking a political King Kong (if I may mix metaphors here). It's all gibberish and they know it. So now we're left analyzing nonsense as if it really meant something. If a doorknob is bigger than a watermelon how do planets sleep? Bedazzled, confided Mr. Malaprops.

  20. jk said,

    August 12, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

    I'm just wondering, how does one distinguish Medicare and Medicaid from "health care?" Isn't that like saying "peas, corn and vegetables?"

  21. Con ustedes… ¡El humor de Geoffrey Pullum! « Biolingüística said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 10:06 pm

    [...] salud van a depender de este tipo de cosas. Si se lo dejan al IBD y al tipo de gente que cree que Medicare va a ser controlada por el gobierno, todas las esperanzas de reforma están [...]

  22. neddanison said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    I wonder if Professor Liberman can bring his erudition to these confusing statements by President Obama:

    "…right now you've got private insurers who are out there competing effectively even though a lot of people get their care through Medicare or Medicaid or VA. So th' there's nothing inevitable about this somehow destroying the private marketplace as long as… it's not set up where the government is basically being subsidized by the taxpayers so that even if they're not providing a good deal, we keep having to pony out more and more money" (August 11th, 2009, Portsmouth, New Hampshire).

    Perhaps:
    1. He doesn't know that government is entirely "subsidized by the taxpayers".
    2. He's deliberately exploiting the ignorance of those who don't know that government is paid for with taxes.
    3. He is tangling phrases and could have calibrated his words better.

    More context below.

    Transcript:
    http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/2009/08/full-transcript-of-obamas-town-hall-in-portsmouth-nh.php

    [From Youtube video 0:45 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XTi-WdOu2s "If you think about it -- y'know, UPS and FedEx are doing just fine -- right? th' the uh, no, they are, I mean it's the post office that's always having problems. So, right now you've got private insurers who are out there competing effectively even though a lot of people get their care through Medicare or Medicaid or VA. So th' there's nothing inevitable about this somehow destroying the private marketplace [1:20] as long as — this is a legitimate point that you're raising — that it's not set up where the government is basically being subsidized by the taxpayers so that even if they're not providing a good deal, we keep having to pony out more and more money" [continuing from the transcript] "And I've already said that can't be the way the public option is set up. It has to be self-sustaining. "

  23. bemusedoutsider said,

    August 18, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

    What is objectionable about a comment that says:

    "Probably the old lady meant, 'Please don't let the bill/administration/Congress change my current Medicare benefits' "?

    Why does this comment keep disappearing?

    [(myl) It keeps disappearing because because it's pretty much irrelevant. What's under discussion is what Arthur Laffer said.

    Dylan Matthews told the Breaux story just to illustrate the idea that there are apparently a lot of people who believe that the government doesn't run Medicare. At least, their position in favor of Medicare and against any government involvement in health care is completely insane unless they hold such a belief.

    What that particular mythical woman meant, or even what she actually said, is not something we can ever know. What Arthur Laffer said, on the other hand, and how he said it, is available in audio and video form. ]

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