"It is discouraging how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit." Noel Coward
"I have known a vast quantity of nonsense talked about bad men not looking you in the face. Don't trust that conventional idea. Dishonesty will stare honesty out of countenance any day in the week, if there is anything to be got by it." Charles Dickens
I have mused frequently over the years about the importance of honesty. In the military - where the Academies have strict honor codes - it is critical that the soldier be able to trust his platoon mates or his wingman. In business, acts of known dishonesty drive away partners and valued repeat customers. In politics the standard of conduct is often lower with a general recognition that politicians usually emphasize what people want to hear and avoid the unpleasant. The last few years have brought a new low with some politicians deliberately emphasizing things that they know to be untrue.
Exhibit One (Nancy Pelosi): After her defeat as Speaker of the House in 2010, Nancy Pelosi would frequently tell groups how important financial prudence in government is - her speakership was characterized by "Pay-Go", the premise that any new spending proposal has to be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. The reality - which she knew, the audience knew, and she knew that the audience knew - was that in her four years as speaker the accumulated federal deficit increased by $5,000,000,000, or 58%. What was striking is that she didn't avoid the unpleasant topic or characterize it as necessary in the times; she deliberately, directly brought it up and took pride in denying it.
Exhibits Two to Four (Barack Obama):
- In 2008 Candidate Obama pledged: "Under my plan, no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Not your income tax, not your payroll tax, not your capital gains taxes, not any of your taxes." Just within Obamacare, millions will pay the "individual mandate surtax"; Flexible Spending Accounts will be taxed $13 billion; the threshold for deducting medical expenses has been increased, impacting millions of middle class taxpayers; there is a 40% surtax on "cadillac" healthcare plans common in union agreements; non-prescription drugs have been removed from Health Savings Accounts; the 2.3% tax on medical devices will flow through to payers. It is not as if Obama wanted these taxes, it is just that he wanted the Congressional Budget Office's evaluation of the ACA to come in below a set amount and he needed to violate his pledge to get there.
- In 2008 candidate Obama also pledged: “In an Obama administration, we'll lower premiums by up to $2500 for a typical family per year... We'll do it by the end of my first term as President of the United States." Forbes predicts that the reality will be an increase of about $7500 - data currently is all over the lot with millios of big losers and some low income gainers. There will be better estimates once the exchanges get operating, but his high profile commitment was obviously quantum wrong.
- In 2009, in selling Obamacare, Obama pledged "First of all, if you've got health insurance, you like your doctor, you like your plan -- you can keep your doctor, you can keep your plan. Nobody is talking about taking that away from you." As it turns out there are a few exceptions: the millions who are losing employer coverage because they are losing their jobs or being cut to part time employment; the millions who work for companies like UPS, Walgreens, or IBM who are dropping or modifying coverage and shifting to employee-paid concepts; the millions whose doctors are dropping Medicare patients; the millions whose insurance companies are choosing not to participate in exchanges.
Back to musing: Americans want and need a president that they can trust. Maybe the sophisticates can say "it was just hyperbole; nobody should have taken it seriously". Maybe we shouldn't have taken his dire predictions about the calamity of the 2012 budget sequester seriously. Maybe a lack of credibility didn't influence his fumbling on Syria's chemical weapons and won't affect negotiations with Iran. Maybe.
The problem with developing a reputation for making exagerated claims and empty threats is that your adversaries will miscalculate when you really do mean what you say. In foreign policy or domestic politics that is not good for the country. In an irony worthy of Sartre or Camus, the president may benefit politically, but that is a musing for another day.
This week's video is offered in anticipation of the upcoming American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland A's - with apologies to readers in Tampa Bay and Detroit.
bill bowen - 10/4/2013