February 20, 2023
As President Biden fiddles with abolishing small-bore, annoying “junk fees” charged consumers, enemies foreign and domestic wage war with impunity on Americans.
Many years ago, “this column”—when “it” was chairman of the Federal Trade Commission—scheduled a meet-and-greet visit with Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D–SC), who served on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which had oversight over the FTC. The idea was to have a friendly, low-key meeting when there were no controversial issues to excite politicians.
But the gods had other plans. The afternoon before the meeting, some of the airlines (it may have been just one) decided to increase the number of miles required to get a free flight. The next morning, smoke was billowing out the door to Senator Hollings’ office. He was already not a fan of airline deregulation because his regular way of commuting to Washington—a money-losing flight between Charleston, S.C., and D.C.—had been canceled in the early days of deregulation.
“WHAT,” Hollings demanded stentoriously of the FTC chairman, was “the FTC going to do about the change in frequent flyer miles policy?” So much for low-key meeting-and-greeting.
The chairman respectfully told the senator that the market would take care of the problem.
To which the senator replied: “THE MAHKET. THE MAHKET. DON’T TALK TO ME ABOUT THE MAHKET.”
The meeting was not exactly…a success, at least not in the way it had been conceived. But the whole experience may have been instructive for Hollings. Within a few days, because of the public outcry at the airlines’ change in policy, the change was canceled. The market had solved the problem. A learning moment—for those capable of learning.
One of whom apparently was not Joe Biden. In his State of the Union speech last week, Biden said he was taking on “junk fees”—the “hidden surcharges too many businesses use to make you pay more.” E.g., bank overdraft fees, credit card late fees, resort fees that hotels tack onto bills, airline baggage fees, and even service fees on tickets to concerts and sporting events—but not, yet, the surcharge for, er, softer bathroom tissue.
Clare Boothe Luce once told President Kennedy that great men can be remembered by a single sentence: “He crossed the Alps” (Hannibal). “He freed the slaves” (Lincoln). But, she told Kennedy, that would not include, “He passed the farm bill.”
Neither would it include, “He eliminated airline baggage fees.”
While Biden was drafting his speech on canceling service fees on tickets to concerts and sporting events, the Chinese sent a high-tech balloon over the U.S. to spy on…exactly what, we don’t yet know for sure, but it probably wasn’t service fees on ticket sales to the Taylor Swift concert or the Super Bowl.
But it gets worse. It turns out that the Chinese have sent balloons over the U.S. before, during the Trump administration, but no one in his administration knew about them, and neither did, perhaps (we don’t know yet), the remarkably inept so-called “intelligence” agencies.
In 1957, following an assassination attempt on Indonesia’s President Sukhano, James Burnham wrote a quip for National Review that went: “Last week’s attempted assassination of Indonesia President Sukhano had all the hallmarks of a CIA operation: everyone in the room was killed except Sukhano.”
If ever there was a gang that couldn’t shoot straight—or spy usefully—it’s America’s intelligence agencies. They vastly overestimated the strength of the Soviet Union; they missed the 9/11 plotting; the intelligence community thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; it failed to predict North Korea’s progress on intercontinental ballistic missiles; it thought Russia would quickly subdue Ukraine—and on and on and on.
The agencies may be grossly incompetent, but apparently that doesn’t stop them from domestic spying. What kind of data are the CIA collecting and using to spy on Americans? “We don’t know,” writes the left-wing Brennan Center for Justice, “because the Biden administration is refusing to declassify a single word about the nature of the program.” Americans desiring to stay free have to hope the agencies’ incompetence extends to their domestic spying.
But hope is not a strategy, not a strategy for keeping the people of this nation free from enemies foreign and domestic—even if they don’t have to pay credit card late fees.
The presidential race of 2024 has already begun. A major task for the Republican hopefuls should be to alert the public to the twin dangers presented by the intelligence agencies: their incompetence in their proper field of activity and the illegality of their rogue spying on Americans. At least several hundred people should be fired. Probably more.
Better yet: A courageous Republican president could, as a first step, take the action, recommended by former President Harry Truman, that would result in that president’s being forever remembered by the Clare Boothe Luce line: “He abolished the CIA.”