Friday, April 29, 2005

Give me a break!

I've just finished reading John Stossel's book, "Give Me a Break". Stossel is the correspondent on ABC's 20/20 who does the "Give me a break" segments in which he often ridicules political correctness, government excess and American cultural stupidities. In this book he first describes how he moved from being a consumer advocate reporter, criticizing business and bad or dangerous products, to a critic of government incompetence and excess, and a defender of free market capitalism. This shift has knocked him from his once-held perch as a celebrated media elite, the winner of 18 Emmys, to being a pariah of television news culture, loathed and vilified by his colleagues and the orthodox liberal rank and file.

Stossel's easy conversational style makes this book a joy to read and yet he manages to pack it full of astonishing statistics that illustrate the benefits of free markets and limited government, and the damaging unintended consequences of government intervention. One of the most amusing of these statistics is the "death list" he and his assistant made up from research data about the causes of death in the United States. The event that spurred this was when one of his producers burst into his office and urged him to do a story about how BIC lighters were exploding in people's pockets and killing them. His research concluded that at the top of the "death list" was heart disease, responsible for 710,760 deaths that year. Then cancer--553,091. 320 people drowned in their bathtubs, and 4 in their toilets. At the bottom of the list with (maybe) 1 person a year was BIC lighters exploding.

He also illustrates how these distortions of risk affect government spending. President Reagan, for instance, was excoriated for not spending enough on AIDS research. Clinton certainly didn't make that mistake. In 1997 he bragged at a campaign dinner that his administration was spending 10 times as much per fatality on people with AIDS as those with breast cancer or prostate cancer (and 25 times as much, it turns out, as those with Parkinson's disease). The question of course is since heart disease, cancer, and even Parkinson's disease kill many more people than AIDS, why are we spending more on AIDS?

There are many more examples such as this. His comparison of the good done to mankind by Mother Theresa and the junk bond king Michael Milkin, and his examination of the incredible damage to the economy by lawyers sueing over asbestos are 2 standouts to me.

I'll just finish by saying that this book is a fun and amusing way of gaining ammunition in the conservative war of ideas with the left.

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