Glenn Beck's Non-Solutions

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Review of Glenn Beck, Broke: The Plan to Restore Our Trust, Truth, and Treasure (Threshold Editions, 2010), x + 406 pgs., hardcover, $29.99.

I don’t watch Glenn Beck on television or listen to him on the radio. But neither do I watch or listen to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and other conservative personalities that were silent on the crimes of the Bush administration. I agree with much of what they say on topics like liberalism, Obama, the Democratic Party, welfare, healthcare, environmentalism, abortion, etc., but I vehemently disagree with their support of the Republican Party, the warfare state, and the national security state.

This does not mean that I have my head in the sand. I did listen to Limbaugh a great deal in the early days of his show when Bush I and then Clinton were the presidents. I can remember when Hannity filled in sometimes as a guest host for Limbaugh. I couldn’t stand him even then and my opinion has never wavered. Since then I have seen and heard numerous clips of the Limbaugh, Hannity, O’Reilly, and Beck shows, visited their websites, and read some of their books. I previously reviewed one of Hannity’s books here. Limbaugh is about the only one I can stand to listen to now if I come across his show on my car radio while traveling.

The only political show really worth watching – because it gives you the unvarnished truth about the crimes of both Democrats and Republicans – is Judge Andrew Napolitano’s Freedom Watch on the Fox Business channel. However, since I don’t get that channel, I am limited to only hearing reports about it or seeing short clips of it every now and then.

Glenn Beck is a relative newcomer compared to the big three of Limbaugh, Hannity, and O’Reilly. But he has overcome some major obstacles on his rise to fame and fortune and come a long way in a short period of time. He went from being an alcoholic and drug addict to joining the Mormon church. After bouncing around various radio stations, his Glenn Beck radio program first aired in 2000 and went nationwide in 2002. His television program began on CNN in 2006 and moved to Fox in 2008. He has had an incredible six books on the New York Times best-sellers list.

Although Broke: The Plan to Restore Our Trust, Truth, and Treasure (hereafter just Broke) is physically divided into three sections of nine, three, and eight chapters, it should really be considered as just two parts. Part 1, which covers the first sixteen chapters totaling 274 pages, is about how and why Beck thinks the country is broken. Part 2, which only covers the last four chapters (pgs. 275-349), consists of Beck’s specific proposals to fix the country’s problems. In part 1 Beck tells us what most readers of his book already know; in part 2 Beck gives us mainly non-solutions to the problems presented in part 1.

The book itself is an unusual one. Although only Beck’s name occurs on the dust jacket, inside we see that the book was “Written & Edited by Glenn Beck and Kevin Balfe.” There are also four “contributors” listed: Peter Schweizer, Tyler Grimm, Colin Balfe, and Gary Brozek. There is no indication anywhere in the text of the book concerning who wrote or contributed to which chapter or section. Beck does, however, go out of his way to emphasize that he is the author. Unlike most books in which the title of the book is printed in the header on the left-hand pages and the title of the chapter is printed in the header on the right-hand pages, Beck’s name appears in all the left-hand headers while the name of just the book appears in the right-hand ones.

Another peculiar thing about the book is its busyness. Just about every page has something on it with or besides the text. Out of the 349 pages that make up the twenty chapters of the book, 305 have some of the book’s text (the rest have full-page color charts or special quotations like those which occupy the page before each new chapter). Yet, of these 305 pages, only 58 of them contain just text. The main interruption to the text is a colored text box or chart that provides some additional information to supplement the regular text. Sometimes it is a quotation in large print or a symbol that takes up a good deal of space. I’m all for supplemental information in a footnote or an occasional chart, but these four things I mentioned appear a whopping 170 times. And that’s not all. In addition to all the different boxes, charts, quotes, and symbols, there are regularly-titled boxes that appear throughout the book: The American Empire: By the Numbers (5), Teachable Moment (38), A.D.D. Moment (13), Truth Serum (12), Hate Speech? (14), Sorry State of the Union (27), History Repeating (6), Bipartisan Debt Threats (3), Ripped from the Headlines (33), Deficit of Trust (11), Enron 101 (6), Flyover Solutions (2). Many pages have two or three extra things on them besides the text.

Broke contains fifty-five pages of notes (“The Citations”). However, these are not traditional endnotes. There are no numbers in the text to indicate that something appears in an endnote. When you turn to the notes and look up a page number, you are presented with partial quotes from the text in bold print followed by a source. But in addition to this being very time consuming, all quotations in the text are not documented even as things in the text are documented that you wouldn’t expect. For an example of how frustrating this is, I will refer to pages 7 and 19, two pages that I randomly turned to. On page 7, there are three direct quotes and two other brief statements in quotation marks. One of the quotes, from Lactantius, is not documented in the notes. The two other quotes and the two brief statements are documented. But then another statement in the text without quotation marks does appear in the notes. On page 19, there are two quotations, only one of which is documented, and two other statements in the text without quotation marks that are documented. Confused? You are not alone.

The other odd thing about the book is that the section “Educate Yourself” only appears at the end of the chapters in Part III (chapters 13-20). There is also no index.

So, what about the content of the book? As mentioned, the first sixteen chapters of the book are about how and why Beck thinks the country is broken. The first two chapters are introductory and can be skipped as they contribute little to the book. Chapters three through nine are a selective survey of American economic history. Chapters ten through twelve are about how bad the country is broken financially. Chapters thirteen through sixteen, although they are part of Beck’s Part III, “The Plan,” offer no specific plans at all. They talk about individual rights, the role of government, the Constitution, freedom, equality, American exceptionalism, religion, socialism, decentralization, and federalism.

There are two themes found throughout what I have labeled the first part of the book: the debt crisis and the Progressives responsible for it. Although there is no question that the United States has a debt crisis, there is every reason to question labeling all those responsible as Progressives. Since Professor Paul Gottfried has recently taken Beck to task on this very subject, I defer to him:

Certainly there are features of Progressivism that anyone concerned about centralized power has every right to criticize. But there are problems with how Beck frames his critique. There were different types of Progressives who stressed diverse themes, not all of which can be subsumed under the rubric of “big government.” The connection between Progressivism and modern liberalism is weak. And in truth, Fox News personalities like Beck support many federal programs vastly more intrusive than any the Progressives dared contemplate.

Beck and other Fox critics of the Progressives may be far more addicted to big government than those they demonize. Tears glaze their eyes when they talk about 1960s civil rights laws, which placed entire regions of the country that once discriminated against black voters under what is now perpetual federal surveillance.

The talk radio and television pundits who now inveigh against Progressivism have fully accepted the increased government that those they revile helped to create. And these faux conservatives celebrate the additions to it that came long after the Progressive era, amid the civil rights and sexual upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.

I would only add that Beck foolishly makes the blanket statement that Progressives “openly mock God and religion in general” when one of the Progressives he criticizes the most – Woodrow Wilson – was a devout Presbyterian and the son of a Presbyterian minister.

Beck’s survey of American history is a mixed bag.

Beck rightly criticizes the adoption of the first income tax during the Civil War, but seems to justify the debt the war incurred because the cause was worth it. Beck is definitely an admirer of Abraham Lincoln: “What made Lincoln the iconic leader he was, however, was his ability to recognize that these painful – indeed, excruciating – human and financial costs were still worth it.” On Beck as a Lincoln idolater, see Professor Tom DiLorenzo here and here.

Beck rightly charges Woodrow Wilson with doing “more damage to the fabric of America than anyone who’s come before or after,” yet fails to criticize him for getting the United States into World War I.

Beck rightly condemns socialist ministers, but fails to mention Francis Bellamy, the author of the Pledge of Allegiance. Perhaps this is because Beck shares Bellamy’s view that the Republic mentioned in the Pledge “is the concise political word for the Nation – the One Nation which the Civil War was fought to prove. To make that One Nation idea clear, we must specify that it is indivisible, as Webster and Lincoln used to repeat in their great speeches.”

Beck rightly denounces FDR for his socialistic New Deal, but applauds him for making a “sensible decision” when he ended “the requirement that U.S. dollars be converted into gold upon request.” And like he failed to criticize Wilson, Beck never faults FDR for leading the country into war. A few pages later, Beck justifies the government rationing things during World War II because “big business and government collaborated to run the economy for the sake of winning the war.”

Beck rightly condemns Lyndon Johnson for his socialistic Great Society, but instead of attacking the Vietnam War itself, he faults Johnson for how he handled it. Johnson didn’t bomb the enemy enough, pulverize the enemy enough, demonize the enemy enough, and wipe out the enemy enough.

Beck rightly disparages Nixon for the growth of government and regulations during his administration, but fails to mention his continuation of the Vietnam War.

Ronald Reagan is a president that Beck thoroughly admires. According to Beck, Reagan single-handedly changed Americans’ thinking:

Up until Reagan came along, Americans had mostly been willing to allow the government to take more and more of their power.

By the end of his first term in office, Reagan had successfully changed the American mind-set and spirit.

Americans were ready to believe that it really was morning again in America.

Although Beck admits that Reagan “ran deficits in every single one of his eight years in office,” and “incurred $2 trillion of debt in the 1980s” he excuses these things because they financed the Cold War military buildup and tax-rate reductions. Beck praises Reagan as a tax cutter (true), but not a tax raiser (also true). He was tricked into it by those evil Democrats. Beck misrepresents the opposition to Reagan. On page 101, he says: “After four years of seeing his proposed budgets changed and his vetoes overridden, Reagan again stood before America and sounded no less optimistic.” Then follows an extended quote from Reagan’s second inaugural address (wrongly labeled in the notes as Reagan’s first inaugural address). During the first four years of Reagan’s presidency, Congress only overrode four of his vetoes (H.R. 6198, July 1982; H.R. 6863, Sept. 1982; H.R. 1062, Oct. 1983; S.684, Mar. 1984), only one of which was an appropriations bill. But at least Reagan tried to restore limited government and reduce spending opines Beck. For a brief summary of the real Reagan record, see Lew Rockwell here. For an exhaustive analysis, see Murray Rothbard here.

Beck rightly denounces George H. W. Bush for breaking his promise to not raise taxes, increasing the national debt, and expanding government, but not for spending billions warring against Iraq the first time.

Beck rightly exposes Clinton’s phony budget surplus, but dismisses Clinton’s military interventions in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans as “brushfires.”

Beck rightly heaps scorn on George W. Bush for being the “biggest spender since LBJ,” but not for spending money on the “War on Terror” and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And in Beck’s list of Bush’s non-economic failings, these wars are not even mentioned.

Beck rightly assails everything about Barack Obama, but not for the billions he has continued to spend on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Beck’s history lesson is indeed selective, for there is no mention of Eisenhower’s doubling the defense budget during his tenure in office – the largest peacetime military buildup in American history.

I have focused on Beck’s lack of criticism of war and war spending for two reasons. One, war is the health of the state that Beck claims he wants to roll back. And two, Beck himself says: “Each time we fight, we rack up a massive amount of new debt. Even when we subsequently cut spending, it’s rare that we ever do enough to pay off the cost of the war.” Although Beck calls for a reduction in defense spending in the non-solution section of his book, I see only one negative thing in Broke about spending billions to fight wars.

Beck acknowledges that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme, that the Social Security Trust Fund has no money in it because Congress has already spent it, and that more will be paid out in benefits than is collected in payroll taxes. He calls Medicare a “bigger budget bomb” than Social Security and ObamaCare. He recognizes that “the long-term costs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are unfathomable.” Beck throughout the book assails dependence on government, the dangers of debt, and entitlement spending and the taxes that pay for them. Yet, on page 230 we read this incredible statement: “I am not calling for the immediate elimination of welfare, Medicare, Social Security, or a host of other programs.” So what is the point of the book? If the country is as broken as Beck claims, and if, as Beck says, Obama’s budget proposals will end up adding more to the national debt than every president before him combined, then when should something be done?

Beck has some unusual things to say about God and the United States. He maintains that “the Founders’ work in creating this nation was divinely inspired.” He further claims that “America’s founding was a miracle and her survival through dark days of depression, civil war, and enemy aggression proves that the guiding spirit of God’s hand is still with us.”

But does Beck really believe the role of government should be limited to the things he mentions? Of course he doesn’t. Does Beck really believe in the philosophy of “live and let live”? Absolutely not. In spite of all his libertarian rhetoric, Beck supports the war on personal freedom known as the war on drugs. Oh, he has (only recently) come out for the legalization of marijuana (after initially ridiculing the idea) because of the hypocrisy of U.S. marijuana laws and the drug-related violence in Mexico, but what about other drugs, and what about the freedom to use drugs for freedom’s sake, not because of government hypocrisy or drug-war consequences?

What Beck believes or doesn’t believe is not the real issue. Although I may disagree with him, that is not what my main problem with Beck is. It’s all really quite simple. If you don’t really believe in personal freedom, if you don’t really believe in “live and let live,” if you don’t really believe that the government should be limited to what is specifically stated in the Constitution, then don’t call yourself a libertarian and say that you believe these things when you don’t.

I agree with Beck on the main idea of his book: the country is broke, financially and otherwise. We may have some disagreements on how and why it got broken, but on the fact that it is broke we are in perfect agreement.

So, what about Beck’s solutions? As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, Beck’s specific proposals to fix the country’s problems are found in the last four chapters of the book. But they are generally not solutions at all. They are mainly band-aids and worse.

Beck’s first specific proposal is a balanced-budget amendment. This ignores the real problem: unconstitutional spending by Congress. Having a balanced $3 trillion budget would do nothing but legitimize a bloated budget and allow congressman to talk about how fiscally responsible they are. The budget needs to be cut, and cut drastically, not balanced. And as Beck acknowledges, “an exception can be included for a war declared by Congress, or a national calamity.”

Beck’s second specific proposal is an amendment for term limits for members of Congress. He wants House members limited to three terms and Senators limited to two terms. But we already have term limits – it’s called an election. The idea that freshmen members of Congress would do a better job is simply not true. For example, just recently, thirty-one out of forty Tea Party-supported candidates voted in the House of Representatives in favor of extending the Patriot Act.

Beck’s third specific proposal is a line-item veto amendment. He says it would “hand presidents a cost-cutting u2018scalpel’ that would allow them to go into a bill and carve out just the fat.” Right. Not only would a line-item veto further strengthen the executive branch, Dr. Bush and Dr. Obama would do a great job carving out “just the fat.” Only someone like Dr. Paul could be trusted with this much power.

Beck’s fourth specific proposal, in addition to his “dream list of reforms” just mentioned, is what he calls his “backup plan.” He supports the SAFE Act to limit increases in federal spending to increases in the Consumer Price Index and population. He proposes that the president be given “freezing authority” to “temporarily freeze a spending item and request that Congress rescind it.” The third part of Beck’s backup plan is to return impoundment authority to the president. The fourth is to expand the “pay as you go” spending law “to encompass all federal spending.” In other words, more band-aids.

Beck’s fifth specific proposal is to pass a commonsense lobbying bill. His sixth is for Congress to declare war before the United States wages war. His seventh is a binding commission to recommend ways that Congress could cut spending. His eighth is to end the gerrymandering of congressional districts. His ninth is to have more U.S. holders of American debt instead of foreigners. His tenth is to check the power of public-sector unions. His eleventh is to have part-time politicians by prohibiting fund-raising when Congress is in session, utilize technology, and limit the length of congressional sessions.

All of the above proposals are from chapter 17. In chapter 18, Beck begins with a proposal for Congress to just stop spending. Isn’t that the only proposal we really need? Isn’t that why the country is broke? Yet, Beck insists that “before we can cut anything, we have to find a way to close the deficit of trust that so many of us (me included) have with our leaders.” He wants the American people to sacrifice by not being recipients of government spending (at least I think that’s what he is saying) and “have whatever money is raised from our sacrifices go directly into a special fund that is administered by an independent board.” Then this board is supposed to “protect the money from Congress and use it in a predetermined way to pay down the debt and get the budget onto a sustainable track.” Right.

His next proposal in chapter 18 is to “freeze pay for all existing [federal] personnel until market wages catch up, then cap future annual increases at the amount that private pay rises.” Sounds good, but I have an even better idea: eliminate the jobs of the federal bureaucrats and we don’t have to worry about the public/private pay gap. The other proposals in chapter 18 are actually fairly good. They include abolishing Amtrak and the Departments of Energy and Education, privatizing or moving responsibility to the states for housing programs, highways and mass transit, agriculture subsidies, ports, and airports, cutting waste, pork, improper payments, and ineffective programs. I’m not too keen on his idea to turn army ammunition plants and arsenals into federal corporations.

Alas, all of these things are but a small percentage of the federal budget. To really cut spending, the three biggest parts of the federal budget must be addressed: Social Security, Medicare, and defense. Beck focuses on Social Security and Medicare at the end of chapter 18 and defense spending in chapter 19.

Does Beck recommend that Social Security and Medicare be abolished? I previously mentioned that on page 230 Beck says: “I am not calling for the immediate elimination of welfare, Medicare, Social Security, or a host of other programs.” But surely he advocates a gradual end to these entitlement programs? I’m sorry to say that he doesn’t. Instead he talks about affordable health care still being a priority, empowering consumers, decentralization, budgeting Medicare in two- to three-year increments, and convincing people they don’t need government entitlements.

I must admit that I was a little surprised (but just a little once I read the entire chapter) about Beck’s call for cutting defense spending in chapter 19. Especially since he argued as recently as last year that the United States should have fought the Iraq war “full on” from the beginning and had a “salute to the troops” rally in Washington D.C. And especially since in Broke, Beck speaks favorably of the “surge” in Iraq, only once says something negative about spending billions to fight wars, claims that “the 2.4 million men and women in our armed forces can and will defeat any foreign enemy we face,” and maintains that “our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are the best damn people on the planet. Period.”

Beck correctly labels defense spending as a “sacred cow to most on the right.” He says that no spending “can be off-limits – and that includes national defense.” In the end he claims that “we can have a far more capable military for 30-50 percent less than what we are paying now – without cutting a dime of soldiers’ pay.” The problem with Beck’s cuts to the defense budget, besides the fact that he admits he relied on the founder of the notorious Blackwater (now Xe) for help with this chapter, is that they don’t include ending foreign wars and bringing home the troops. Beck even says that we should not “pull our troops from everywhere we have them stationed.” Doing so would “put allies in harm’s way” and “be a slap in the face to all the troops who’ve given up so much to serve and protect.” Beck’s plan to reduce the defense budget includes things like ending nation building (but not fighting foreign wars), cutting waste, overhead, corruption, and inefficiencies, switching from jet aircraft in Afghanistan to turboprops (I’m not making that up), cutting the number of admirals, and forming a fifty-person special commission to study the defense budget and question costs, institute proper controls, and “make our Pentagon more streamlined, more efficient, and more able to react to the emergencies they are there to address.”

In this chapter on defense spending, Beck once again misuses Reagan. On page 321, he says this about Reagan: “When President Reagan was facing tough budget decisions back in the early 1980s, he said he got literally hundreds of letters from soldiers telling him, u2018If giving us a pay cut will help our country, cut our pay.’” What Reagan actually said was this: “And I tell you, when I get a letter from a hundred marines stationed over in Europe, and those marines write me, as they did about a year ago in the budget talk, and say, u2018If giving us a pay cut will help our country, cut our pay.’”

The last chapter of the book is about Beck’s preferred tax plan: a flat tax. He opens the chapter with a call to reform the tax system, not eliminate it. But Beck doesn’t simply want to reform the disastrous system (and I agree that it is a disastrous system), he wants to “transform it into something that, by its very nature, will attract the best and brightest back to America.” How this fits with his views on immigration I don’t know. Instead of abolishing income taxes, Beck wants the tax code to become “one of America’s greatest assets.” We can see on the second page of this chapter why Beck opts for a flat tax and doesn’t even mention that Americans pay too much to the government in taxes. Echoing Henry George, Beck says that “how we collect taxes is almost as important as how much we collect.” If Beck were starting a country from scratch (another one of his crazy examples) he says “we’d start by agreeing that the tax code should be about one thing: raising revenue efficiently and fairly.” How about agreeing that we would not have a tax code in the first place – just like we didn’t have a permanent one for more than the first hundred years in this country. The problem Beck has with our income-tax system is not that it is an income-tax system, but that it is “no longer about maximizing revenue for the government: it’s about redistributing wealth to create a more just society.” Beck “would like to see everyone pay at least some tax.” The main problem with Beck’s beloved flat tax, as I pointed out in my review of Steve Forbes’s book on the flat tax, is that “it would basically raise the same amount of revenue as the current system.” So, rather than lowering the overall tax burden of the American people, the total amount of taxes the federal government extracts would be the same as it is now. All federal programs, all federal agencies, all federal projects, all earmarks, all pork-barrel spending – they could all continue just as now. The flat tax, like its cousin the FairTax, merely allows the government to confiscate the wealth of its citizens more efficiently. But what really needs to be flattened is skyrocketing congressional spending, not the procedure used by the government to confiscate wealth.

Yes, the country is broke. But the answer is not more legislation or constitutional amendments to fix previous legislation. The answer is to cut, repeal, abolish, eliminate, and eradicate all entitlements, whole departments, entire agencies, and complete programs.

Glenn Beck gives us nothing but non-solutions. For real solutions I recommend the new book by Thomas Woods titled Rollback: Repealing Big Government before the Coming Fiscal Collapse (Regnery, 2011).

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