How Van Halen Explains the U.S. Government
Right there on Page 40, in the “Munchies” section, nestled between “pretzels” and “twelve (12) Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups,” is a parenthetical alert so adamant you can’t miss it: “M&M’s,” the text reads, “(WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES).”
This is the famed rider to Van Halen’s 1982 concert contract. In a sentence fragment that would define rock-star excess forevermore, the band demanded a bowl of M&M’s with the brown ones laboriously excluded. It was such a ridiculous, over-the-top demand, such an extreme example of superstar narcissism, that the rider passed almost instantly into rock lore.
It also wasn’t true.
I don’t mean that the M&M language didn’t appear in the contract, which really did call for a bowl of M&M’s -- “NO BROWN ONES.” But the color of the candy was entirely beside the point.
“Van Halen was the first to take 850 par lamp lights -- huge lights -- around the country,” explained singer David Lee Roth. “At the time, it was the biggest production ever.” Many venues weren’t ready for this. Worse, they didn’t read the contract explaining how to manage it. The band’s trucks would roll up to the concert site, and the delays, mistakes and costs would begin piling up.
So Van Halen established the M&M test. “If I came backstage and I saw brown M&M’s on the catering table, it guaranteed the promoter had not read the contract rider, and we had to do a serious line check,” Roth explained.
Call it the Van Halen principle: Tales of someone doing something unbelievably stupid or selfish or irrational are often just stories you don’t yet understand. It’s a principle that often applies to Washington.
One of President Barack Obama’s favorite examples of bureaucratic muddle is the government’s management of salmon. “The Interior Department is in charge of salmon while they’re in fresh water, but the Commerce Department handles them when they’re in salt water,” Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union address. “I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”
As the kids say, LOL. Only there’s a real issue here. The Department of the Interior supervises rivers and lakes. The Department of Commerce handles oceans. Salmon, inconveniently, appear in both. Should there be a new department just to handle salmon? A new department that oversees all water, regardless of salinity? Should the Department of Commerce be given all responsibility for salmon regulation even though they don’t have the infrastructure to manage rivers?
“The salmon issue isn’t some kind of blunder,” Slate’s Matthew Yglesias wrote. “It just reflects the fact that large bureaucracies -- whether private sector or public sector in nature -- need to make some choices about dividing up responsibilities. Any set of choices entails dealing with some edge cases. It’s tough. But absent a constructive suggestion, just pointing and laughing is silly.”
Last week, Politico reported that members of Congress were meeting in secret to “exempt” themselves from Obamacare. The story went instantly viral, receiving almost 100,000 “likes” on Facebook. For good reason: It would be shocking if Congress were quietly freeing itself from the Affordable Care Act even as members demand that the rest of us meekly follow its rules.
The truth is much less shocking and far more boring. Back when the Affordable Care Act was being drafted, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa proposed an amendment requiring members of Congress and staff to get their health care from an insurance exchange. Grassley expected the amendment to be defeated, exposing Democrats as hypocrites who wouldn’t live under their own health-care regime. Instead, in a moment of apparent political inspiration, Democrats voted for the amendment. They would love to be part of Obamacare!
The problem is that the insurance exchanges aren’t open to large employers, and the federal government is the very largest. The result is utter confusion about whether the federal government is allowed to buy health insurance from the exchanges or whether members of Congress and their staffs are on their own. If Congress were given an “exemption” from the Grassley amendment, the law would then apply to members and staff in precisely the same way it applies to every other American citizen, instead of in the unique manner arising from Grassley’s mischief.
The administration recently released a draft of its application to join the Obamacare exchanges. It was 21 pages long and “as daunting as doing your taxes,” reported the Associated Press.
This week, the administration released the finished product -- at five pages. Reviews have been great. But the difference between the two applications is not so cheery. Most of the pages in the original were there because the application accommodated families of six. A single adult would simply leave them blank.
The new application is designed for single adults -- that’s why it’s short. If, for example, you have a family of six, you need to obtain the form for families, then “make a copy of Step 2: Person 2 (pages 4 and 5) and complete” for each additional family member. The Obama administration cut the page count by making the application much more annoying for big families.
In a similar vein, members of Congress love picking through federal grants to find dubious-sounding research funded by the National Institutes of Health or other agencies. In a report titled “The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscope,” Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma promised to identify “over $3 billion in mismanagement at NSF.” Mostly, the report just mocks research that, superficially, sounds amusing.
Coburn takes gleeful aim at scientists who’ve been running shrimp on treadmills. According to the scientists, the treadmills cost about $1,000 out of a half-million-dollar grant. The point is to determine whether ocean bacteria are weakening shrimp populations, a development that would tip the entire food chain into chaos. Coburn’s attack is particularly dangerous, because it encourages government researchers to conduct science that sounds good rather than science that does good.
It would be nice if the government’s mistakes were typically a product of stupidity, venality or bureaucracy. Then we would need only to remove the idiots, fire the villains and cut the red tape. More often, the outrageous stories we hear are cases of decent people trying to solve tough problems under difficult constraints that we simply haven’t taken the time to understand. That isn’t to suggest that people in government don’t get it wrong. They do, repeatedly. But if we want to get it right, we need to work harder to understand why they decided to remove the brown M&M’s in the first place.
(Ezra Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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