They May Just Be That Dumb

There is a part of me that really wants to believe that politicians advocate dumb ideas not because they are dumb but because they are cynically trying Obama, Pelosi, Hoyer & Miller to garner support from other people who they think are dumb. Imagining cynicism in others is more cynical than imagining simple cluelessness.

But then I read something like this from The New York Times.

In an effort to rein in the spread of the H1N1 flu, Representative George Miller, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, introduced legislation on Tuesday that would guarantee five paid sick days for workers sent home by their employers with a contagious illness.

I’m sure that most of you are smirking already, but for those who don’t immediately see what is humorously stupid here, let me lay it out. This bill would force employers to pay for sick days when they send employees home with the flu. This means it will be more expensive to send sick people home, so employers will be less likely to do it. This, in turn, will have the effect of increasing the spread of H1N1, not reining it in.

It is possible that Rep. Miller understands that this will have an effect opposite of what is notionally intended. Perhaps he figures that forcing employers to give something free to employees is a vote getter. But I don’t think so. "Vote Miller! He got those of us who work for companies larger than 15 employees, and didn’t already have paid sick days, up to five paid sick days if we are sent home with a contagious illness!" won’t fit on a bumper sticker. I think the poor guy really thinks this is a good idea that will help fight H1N1.

The problem is that Rep. Miller, the people he works with, and the reporters who write about them, live in a self-contained bubble. They have no idea how the world that the rest of us inhabit operates. To most of us, the idea that money given to one person has to come from another, and that that other person might not like it and may possibly act accordingly, is pretty darn obvious.

But to people like Miller, who have spent their entire adult lives in the never-never land of government (he was first elected to the House in 1974 at the age of 29) the ordinary checks and balances of capitalism are alien territory.

The most glaring example of this lately is the outrage, and I think it is genuine outrage, felt by members of Congress over credit cards. It turns out that, in the months running up to the much heralded package of credit card reforms coming into effect, those dastardly credit card companies are changing the fees and other terms of cards while they still can. Well, duh.

How could this possibly surprise anybody? Seriously, you thought the banks would forget about the law and be surprised the when new rules take effect in February?

Next you’ll be telling me that it didn’t occur to you that prohibiting health insurers from charging people in poor health higher premiums means that healthy people will pay more for insurance. And that that will make it even harder to get healthy young Americans to buy it, possibly increasing the ranks of the uninsured. I mean that’s so obvious I don’t need to say it. Right?

Why is it that we tolerate this sort of cloddish naiveté in our elected representatives? I’m not really sure, but I don’t think it is because we are ourselves quite that naive.  I think it is because we really want to believe what Rep. Miller believes, that our problems are simple and can be fixed easily by a wave of the government magic wand.

I also wish that were true. I wish that we could increase the savings rate  by sending text messages and that losses in the stock market are only due to criminal activity, rather than the natural tendency for the market to go down a lot once in a while. Sadly, that is not the hand we have been dealt.  Parts of our world, especially the challenging bits we have trouble with, are very complex and not subject to side-effect-free simple solutions.

[That's Obama, Pelosi, Hoyer, and Miller in the photo. As far as I can tell, none of them has ever held a job at a for-profit enterprise.]


  • By Ron, November 13, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    People learn faster on their own dime than they do on someone else’s. When it comes to politicians though, that old saying should be worded:

    “People learn on their own dime. They DON’T learn when spending someone else’s.”

    Wanna have some twisted fun and frustrate yourself to no end? Read a book written back about 20 years ago called The Government Racket: Washington Waste from A to Z (the original was better than the newer edition btw).

  • By Parker Bohn, November 13, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    On health insurance:
    I agree that stopping insurance companies from charging higher more money for higher risk would be a horrible idea, if you stopped there. Only unhealthy people would have a reason to buy insurance.

    However, the proposed legislation comes with mandates, which fix that problem by requiring everyone to have insurance (whether or not they are currently healthy). The idea is to move towards universal health care.

    I think its a great idea. One of the main purposes of any government is to protect its citizens. Our government already does a great job of protecting us from criminals, fires, natural disasters, terrorism, and military attacks. It does a lousy job at protecting us from ill-health and medical bankruptcy. Most other wealthy nations do far better at this than the US.

  • By Steve, November 13, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    The media (including the rest of the blogosphere) seems to share this outrage over credit card issuers’ inevitable response to CARD. I am too lazy to read the bill of rights, but I’m fairly sure “freedom to have low interest rates no matter how risky a debtor you are” isn’t in there.

  • By Joe P., November 13, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

    @Parker: You can’t force people to buy health insurance and call that a solution to the problem of people not wanting to buy health insurance.

    The government should not also get credit for protecting us from ill-health by simply ordering us to protect ourselves.

  • By Jon, November 13, 2009 @ 3:25 pm

    Reminds of Quinn’s first law:
    “Liberalism produces the exact opposite of it’s stated intent.”

  • By Jim, November 13, 2009 @ 3:42 pm

    “As far as I can tell, none of them has ever held a job at a for-profit enterprise.”

    Obama worked for a few private law firms. But otherwise I think you’re right. Those other people have dedicated their entire careers (so far) to public service. I think that McCain guy has also never done anything but serve his country.

  • By Lara, November 13, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

    McCain has been employed by the government pretty much his whole life. He might understand, though, that his family fortune is very much dependent upon his wife’s capitalist endeavors. Maybe.

  • By Rick Francis, November 13, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

    I see your point- and agree employers would be less likely to send an employee home.

    However, I think the intent of the bill was to prevent sick employees from trying to hide their illness because they can’t afford to go home without pay.

    Say a cook at McDonalds has H1N1 but stays at work- how many people might they infect? I don’t have any data to judge the net effect of the policy but there is a chance that it isn’t stupid.

    -Rick Francis

  • By CalLadyQED, November 13, 2009 @ 11:36 pm

    Another great post. Thanks, Frank!

  • By TFB, November 14, 2009 @ 1:53 am

    I love this quote:

    “To most of us, the idea that money given to one person has to come from another, and that that other person might not like it and may possibly act accordingly, is pretty darn obvious.”

    Anyone putting out a new policy should be required to explain where the money is going to come from and what they expect the other people to do.

  • By Phil, November 14, 2009 @ 7:00 am

    From Obama’s resume:
    Associate Attorney 1993 to 2002
    Davis, Miner & Barnhill, Chicago, IL
    • Litigated employment discrimination, housing discrimination and voting rights cases.
    The firm is currently “Miner, Barnhill & Gallard” and is not a non profit.

    Data beats supposition every time!

  • By Rob Bennett, November 14, 2009 @ 9:26 am

    The point you are making here is a good one, Frank. But I think you undercut the power of many of your observations by excluding yourself from their reach. The suggestion here is that everyone else thinks all this dumb stuff but good old Frank Curmudgeon is beyond all that. Um — right.

    What people do (the best I can tell) is filter out information bits that they cannot bear to deal with. Yes, politicians intellectually should be able to see the downside of many of their proposals. If seven-year-olds can see them, why can’t these well-educated and well-informed and well-experienced people? The difference is that the politicians are bound to put something forward. They exclude from consideration all the stuff that doesn’t work for some political reason and they are left with — painfully dumb stuff. So they go with that. And they filter out knowledge of why the ideas are dumb so that they can live with themselves.

    What would you have them do instead? They could ignore the politics. Some do indeed do that. You don’t write about them here because the ones who take that course don’t last long enough for you to learn their names.

    The politicians are for the most part doing the best they can, in my assessment. And they are messing things up terribly. They need a hand from us, you know? We all need to work together to solve problems rather than direct so much energy to blaming others for not solving them for us. The politicians are not perfect. Neither are the rest of us. There’s good and bad just about everywhere you look, in my experience.


  • By racy, November 14, 2009 @ 10:02 am

    Our Fortune 500 company instituted a H1N1 policy: get up to 10 days pay for the flu AND up to 10 days pay for caring for a family member with the flu. The policy only goes into effect IF absenteeism reaches 10%. (most of us haven’t figured out this thinking)

  • By Kate, November 14, 2009 @ 2:02 pm

    @ Phil, Lara, Jim

    Frank’s excellent post doesn’t attack Obama’s administration per se. Note that his main point is that our elected officials don’t consider the ramifications of their proposals, leaving hardworking Americans to continue supporting a bloated system full of freeloading bums (okay, maybe I entered a little bit of my own opinion there, but still). And okay, so the guy worked for a for-profit law firm. I can’t say that the mental gymnastics required to file a class action lawsuit in tort-happy Cook County, Illinois provide said litigator with divine powers that most supporters seem to think Barry has.

    Look, this administration is hopefully a one-term debacle. McCain’s wouldn’t have been better. It’s not about who won. It’s about using logic, reasoning, and critical thinking to make decisions that will affect everyone–from the elected officials to those of us who go to the polls the first Tuesday in November. Dig?

  • By Kosmo @ The Casual Observer, November 14, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

    My employer (a huge company) really gets it. Our sick policy is insanely generous. You can’t cash out unused days, but you accumulate the days and it’s virtually impossible to use them all up, unless you get something VERY serious (cancer, for example).

    The general company policy: if you’re sick, stay home. We’d rather lose a fews days of your work than have you at 50% for a couple of weeks, infecting others as you work.

    I’m a team coordinator, and I make sure team members are well aware of this policy.

  • By Neil, November 14, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

    I don’t know the rest so well, but Obama has worked for actual, profitable law firms. Also, while not strictly speaking employment, he has generated substantial wealth for himself and some for profit publishers through his writing.

  • By Naomi, November 15, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    I love having this debate with my friends – government is stupid, wasteful, inefficient, etc. I would argue that these traits are equally rampant in the private sector. Examples:

    Lehman Brothers

    Plenty of really smart people making really dumb decisions.

  • By Kate, November 15, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    @ Naomi-

    Agreed. There is enough stupidity, inefficiency, and wastefulness in the private sector to go around. However, the beauty of the private sector is that, generally speaking, said companies go out of business. Only when we multiply private sector stupidity with government inefficiency do we get the…stimulus package for which we are all paying.

    Le sigh. When did it become the taxpayer’s job to bail out these companies?

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, November 16, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

    That comment at the very end in the brackets was an afterthought. It was the best picture of Miller I could find, and it inspired an offhanded comment on my part. But since we’re talking about it:

    According to the ever-authoritative Wikipedia, President Obama was in some sense a part of “Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, a law firm of 12 attorneys that specialized in civil rights litigation and neighborhood economic development” for twelve years, 1992-2004. The last nine of those years he spent as “of counsel” and his license to practice law actually lapsed for two years at the end. He was simultaneously a law professor at the University of Chicago and was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996. So, no, I don’t think that counts.

    And this isn’t a blue-red thing. McCain has also never had a real job, nor has Bush Junior. Bush Senior actually was a very successful businessman. Reagan’s experience was in Hollywood, which hardly counts, Nixon was briefly a flop as a lawyer, and Eisenhower was amiably on the government payroll his whole life.

  • By Frank Curmudgeon, November 16, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

    Then again, maybe I am giving the public too much credit. From the AP:

    A ban on denial of coverage because of pre-existing medical problems has long been one of the most popular consumer protections in the health care debate. Some 82 percent said they favored the ban, according to a Pew Research Center poll in October.

    In the AP poll, when told that such a ban would probably cause most people to pay more for their health insurance, 43 percent said they would still support doing away with pre-existing condition denials but 31 percent said they would oppose it.

  • By Jim, November 16, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

    If I read it right, the point of the post *seems* to be that our political leaders are doing stupid things showing lack of knowledge of the business world and that the reason they do so is that they don’t have experience in private companies. I don’t agree with this point at all.

    First is the assumption that what looks like stupidity must be stupidity. I don’t think its realistic to assume our politicians really lack simple common sense to not see that credit card companies would have jacked up rates given the opportunity they were given. Maybe you’re not cynical enough to see that the law was written as it was intentionally so that the banks had a window to jack up rates & fees and this was a concession made by the politicians to appease the banks. Then after the banks jack up the rates the politicians act all outraged to pander to the voters.

    Our politicans aren’t morons.

    Even if our politicians truely are morons the reason behind being morons has nothing to do with having or lacking experience for an employer who has legal status as a for profit enterprise.

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