I heard a revealing conversation on NPR Weekend Edition Saturday, featuring Scott Simon, the usually soothing and empathetic Cubs-fan voice of my Saturday mornings, and Nebraska Congressman Adrian Smith.
SIMON: This budget would also... mean deep cuts to the food stamp program....After some waffling about farm subsidies,
SIMON: Well, let me ask you this bluntly - is every American entitled to eat?
SMITH: Well, they - nutrition, obviously, we know is very important. And I would hope that we can look to...
SIMON: Well, not just important, it's essential for life. Is every American entitled to eat?
SMITH: It is essential. It is essential.
SIMON: So is every American entitled to eat, and is food stamps something that ought to be that ultimate guarantor?
SMITH: I think that we know that, given the necessity of nutrition, there could be a number of ways that we could address that.
SIMON: So you would vote .. for a budget that cuts food stamps?
SMITH: I want to look at an entire budget, look at all of the details. I'm still sifting through the details of the newly released budget. But we know that Congress ultimately has the say. I look for there to be a lot of changes made in the House and the Senate to the president's budget.
SIMON: Congressman Adrian Smith from Nebraska, thanks so much for being with us, sir.
SMITH: Thank you. Have a good day.[My emphasis.]
It really speaks for itself and I should just stop here. But as this is a blog, let me expand on the obvious.
Notice the progressive-passive voice. "Is every American entitled to eat?" Just who does what to whom?
The direct answer to the question, as posed, is, "Yes. Every American is entitled to eat. And on just what planet do you live that you think there are laws prohibiting Americans from eating?"
Since the question as posed is nonsense, we know it must have a hidden meaning. The hidden subject of the sentence, is given the food-stamp context, the federal government. What Scott means is, "Is every American entitled to have the Federal government tax other citizens to pay for his or her food?"
Stop and savor the power of the subject-free sentence, the difference between the stated question and its real meaning.
Even to that one the answer has to be no. There is no such law, right, or entitlement. That is a simple matter of fact. Scott knows that too. So, what Scott really means is, "Don't you think the Federal government should establish an entitlement that every American can have the Federal government pay for his or her food, from funds raised by taxation?"
On the third time, he almost actually said what he meant, with "is food stamps something that ought to be that ultimate guarantor?" Though "food stamps" is a pretty wimpy subject of a sentence. "Should the federal taxpayer be the ultimate guarantor through the food stamp program" is more accurate.
Obviously, Simon knows this -- that we're talking about a taxpayer funded federal program, not an abstract right to eat. (That in response to some comments.) But that just makes it worse, because it is then deliberate. Or perhaps so deliberately repeated that the obfuscation of subject is unconscious.
Then there is the "to eat." Death by involuntary starvation is essentially unknown in the US today.
There is a nutrition problem -- obesity and type 2 diabetes. There is a real money issue behind that nutrition problem -- if takes money and time to avoid sugar and high fructose corn syrup. And food stamps (SNAP really) are poorly structured, as they pay equally for bad food as for good food. They are as much if not more agricultural subsidies than actually making it possible for people "to eat." Scott said so:
SIMON: ... Doesn't it also, the food stamp program, also help farmers who produce the food that's bought?"Farmers" means large agribusiness. Scott did not ask a second time here, when the Congressman dissembled, and it would have been fun had he done so. "Oh you Republicans pretend to be free-market, and here you are defending farm subsidies." But he didn't ask a second time here. And lest you think me unfeeling, I actually support targeted nutrition programs, focusing on better food. Feeding subsidized sugar to schoolchildren is unproductive in a hundred ways.
But "to eat" is another Orwellian substitution. Scott not only hides the agency behind his question, he substitutes the specter of hunger, of starvation -- are Americans entitled to eat -- for a serious issue.
We're talking here only about undoing some of the recent expansion of food stamps. 40 million Americans receive food stamps. Really, in 2007, were there millions of starving people walking the streets of America, begging for handouts to hold off the grim reaper, before the Obama administration expanded SNAP?
Scott is substituting a moral argument -- yes, we do not let people starve -- for an unrelated political one -- should the Federal Government subsidize 40 million people's food purchases and a bunch of agribusinesses' sales.
A colleague sent me this a while ago, from Dave Burge, "the funniest man on Twitter," which pretty much sums up Scott's argument:
"To help poor children, I am going to launch flaming accordions into the Grand Canyon."
"WHY DO YOU HATE POOR CHILDREN?"Scott reveals deeply the deliberate confusion among "progressives," between your right to do something, to purchase a good or service from another, and an "entitlement" to have the Federal government pay for it by taxing others. No, you do not lose "access" to something just because you have to earn the money to pay for it. But by deliberately confusing the issue, and repeating the mantra over and over, they can ride the moral authority of the former to the illogical conclusion of the latter.
It is rare for a news interviewer to persist with a question, and three times rarer still. Usually the routine is, ask question, politician ducks, move on. As Scott did earlier on agricultural subsides, where he really could have caught the Congressman. By asking three times, Scott reveals he thinks this really is a zinger, the "aha, so just when did you stop passing secrets to the Russians?" sort of question every reporter dreams of.
I felt for the poor Congressman -- this is just the sort of interview where I kick myself on the way home for reacting too much to the polite voice and not quickly enough jumping to battle with the blinding idiocy in front of me.
NPR wonders why people view it as an intensely partisan politicized organization, the government-subsized (through the charitable donation tax exclusion as well as directly) Fox News of the left. When it's this deeply ingrained, you probably can't see it. Single-payer food is apparently so taken for granted around the NPR studios, that this seems like a scoop. At least Scott interviewed a Republican, something NPR seems to do less and less of lately. But perhaps it's hard to get people to submit to this sort of thing.
Launch those flaming accordions.
Update: In case it wasn't clear, this post is about language not policy. SNAP may be great. SNAP may be a colossal waste of money and a subsidy to big agriculture. The point is about the argument for SNAP that "every American is entitled to eat." Even good policies can be supported by terrible arguments.
Update 2: I would be a lot more for SNAP if it didn't pay for ridiculously unhealthy food. OK, I'm a libertarian, gorge yourself on high fructose corn syrup if you want -- but not on my dime. Ok, actually, I'm paying for your diabetes, so maybe not even that.
Update 3: Dana Milbank at the Washington Post, approves of Simon's great gotcha scoop, and does him one better, writing,
That exchange should put in perspective the real and present danger Trump poses...But taking away Americans’ food is very tangible, and a real possibility.So now reducing or reforming SNAP is Trump taking away American's food. He swoopeth down from above and graphs the hamburger out of starving children's hands.
Update 4: Readers coming here from Noah Smith's health care rant, see here for a response.