Stossel Takes on All Comers: Government, Press, Lawyers

Published July 1, 2004

Give Me a Break: How I Exposed Hucksters, Cheats, and Scam Artists and Became the Scourge of the Liberal Media

by John Stossel
($24.95, 294 pages, HarperCollins, 2004, ISBN: 0060529148)

In the March 2004 issue of Environment & Climate News I praised the brilliance of Greg Easterbrook’s new book, The Progress Paradox, stating it was among the 10 best books I had read in the past 20 years. In a longer unpublished summary of the book, which can be found on Heartland’s Web site at, I wrote that if the book were to attain a large readership it could result in considerable improvement of the human condition throughout the world.

Perhaps there was something in the drinking water of prominent journalists writing books last year. John Stossel’s new book, Give Me a Break, is of equal weight and moment. If widely read, it could set the stage for dismantling the vast government bureaucracy that is increasingly holding U.S. citizens hostage.

Exposing Scams … and Government
Nearly 20 years ago, I was interviewed by Stossel for a “20/20” program on the subject of water witching. I begged him not to give the subject undeserved exposure, because he was intent on taking the approach that there might be some credence to it. In fact, there is none. Stossel ignored my request, because in those days he was focused primarily on subjects that would grab ratings for him and ABC rather than seriously informing the audience.

Stossel nevertheless did many useful stories in those years, exposing such scams as “earn a $1,000 a week addressing envelopes in your home,” dozens of miracle potions to improve your physique, crooked medical practices, funeral scams, and trade groups that stymied entrepreneurial efforts to start businesses such as motor van transport and hair braiding.

Eventually, he realized that while such stories were enlightening, the number of people harmed by the scams was small, the perpetrators rarely got rich, and competition usually drove such scammers out of the marketplace.

Stossel admits it took him 15 years to see that exposing consumer fraud and corporate scams was a lot less useful than exposing the actions of government officials, zealous advocacy groups, and trial lawyers who pose a far greater threat to our society.

While Stossel’s book is only 294 pages of sizable print, it is not a fast read–not because it is difficult, but because one cannot help but hear, and be distracted by, his familiar whiny nasal voice and wry wit.

Stossel tells more than 100 of the most shockingly disgraceful examples of government overkill with precision, brevity, and accuracy. Few stories worth telling from my 50-year career in environmental science, health, and technology are missing. Not only does he accurately recount each mis-representation of environmental overkill, government ineptitude, and nonprofit malfeasance, but in many cases he interviewed the actual participants and/or culprits.

Examples of Stossel’s breathtaking exposé include: airbags, ambulance service, asbestos, Aspen lead poisoning, Bic lighters, breast implants, milk price-fixing, crack babies, dioxin, domestic violence, Erin Brockovich, ergonomic evaluation of home offices, forest fires, global warming, organic food hoax, Love Canal, McDonald’s coffee, private toilets, rent control, capitalism as poverty fighter, sport stadiums, Times Beach, tobacco lawsuits, and vaccines.

One of his first major efforts was aimed at the Food and Drug Administration, which he once revered following the agency’s handling of Thalidomide, the drug that deformed many infants throughout Europe and Canada in the 1960s. Stossel came to realize that FDA’s growing bureaucracy so dramatically slowed new drug development in the U.S., while increasing by more than 10-fold the cost of approving new drugs, that it ultimately was costing many more lives than it saved.

We Need Very Few Rules
This epiphany led Stossel to recognize that capitalism, with its three supporting pillars of private property, an open marketplace, and the rule of law, could police society through free choice and competition far better than government coercion. Having had socialism ingrained in him by a far-left faculty at Princeton University (his alma mater and mine), Stossel became a true libertarian, recognizing in his own words that most of the rules we need are learned in kindergarten:

“Don’t hit other people, don’t take their stuff, and keep your promises. To enforce these rules, we have contracts, police, and courts. Government, however, attempts to accomplish this thing through force alone.”

Stossel recognized we don’t need a million rules, because free markets regulate themselves. While the corporate malfeasance at Enron, World Com, Adelphia, and Tyco represented terrible scandals, we should keep in mind those scandals were exposed by markets–not by government.

Stossel was significantly impacted by Michael Kelly, editor of the New Republic, who wrote the following harsh but accurate statement about what some call our “nanny state”:

“It has been called the nanny state, but that is far too kind a term. It is too cold, too cruel, too implacable, too illiberal to be a nanny. It is the Nurse Ratched [the dictatorial ward matron in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”] state. Government has created a brutal system of mandated behaviorism, in which the state uses its immense powers to force targeted citizens and entities to ‘voluntarily’ accept a violation of their rights … The efforts to sustain affirmative action rest on these coercive methods. So, too, do the efforts to enforce the decree that private workplaces be free of discriminatory, harassing, or even rude behavior.”

Scares in Perspective
Stossel does a wonderful job putting the “chemical scares of the month” in perspective. He writes, “Thousands of new chemicals have been introduced over the past forty years. If they were giving people cancer, then there should be an epidemic of cancer in this country, but there is not.”

He then proceeds to take apart the Erin Brockovich myth that vilified Pacific Gas & Electric Company with no evidence whatsoever that hexavalent chromium could have caused the illnesses she blamed on it.

Similarly, his recounting of the story of lead residues in Aspen, Colorado, left over from the days of its silver mining history, offers a rare example of victory against the lunacy of EPA’s unwarranted and unscientific effort to dig up a town where no environmental threat existed.

After succeeding at wreaking unnecessary havoc at Times Beach, Missouri and Love Canal, New York, it is no wonder EPA thinks it can rule the roost. But Stossel puts it all into perspective using Dr. Bernard Cohen’s work at the University of Pittsburgh. Cohen calculated lost life expectancy for society related to various risks. A worst-case estimate for all toxic chemicals in the environment has them costing the average citizen four days of life. Driving automobiles reduces life an average of 182 days, smoking 5.2 years … and poverty, 9 years.

Stossel does an excellent job explaining junk science with well-articulated yet brief examples such as cold fusion (it never worked), megadosing on vitamin C to fight cancer (it doesn’t work), and silicon breast implants (they caused no illness).

Stossel admits to being maligned by most members of the press, and it is no wonder. He clearly places much of the blame for the growing prevalence of junk science at their feet, because they are clueless about science and do not recognize that “association of data is not causation.” He uses the “Texas sharpshooter fallacy” to explain a great deal of junk science. The story goes that a drunken Texan shot 100 bullets into the side of a barn, walked up to it and drew a bull’s-eye around the biggest cluster of bullet holes, and then claimed that’s where he was aiming. Members of the press who find “cancer clusters” and other alleged groupings of disease are no different.

Stossel summarized his outrage with the press as follows:

“We like to think we’re superior to the people who, centuries ago, burned ‘witches’ for no better reason than a neighbor’s belief that his crop failure or impotence was caused by that woman’s action. But reporters are still prone to the same mental errors that caused these killings: seeing patterns where there are none, finding causes where there is only coincidence, ignoring our sources’ political agendas and turning scanty evidence into panic.”

Taking On Government, Lawyers
In his chapter on government, Stossel quotes Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain.”

He illustrates Jefferson’s wisdom time and again and then offers a tutorial on the tremendous benefits of capitalism to society. He compares the U.S. Postal Service to Federal Express and UPS, then puts government’s extraordinary growth in perspective with this statistic:

“Around 1900, America had 6 million farms, and the Agriculture Department employed 3000 people. Today there are 2 million farms, but the Department employs 100,000 people. At this rate soon there will be more bureaucrats than farmers.”

He summarizes this chapter most eloquently. “Today government runs trains, subways, schools, parks, public housing, welfare, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, a war on drugs. It subsidizes students, farmers, ranchers, Indians, researchers, volunteers, small businessmen, rich businessmen, and artists. It polices the world and, at home, polices our speech, jobs, schools, sports, and bedrooms. Maybe if it weren’t doing all those things–badly–it would do a better job doing what it should be doing: like protect us from terrorists.”

Welfare for the Rich
Stossel does not spare the whip on the rich. In his excellent chapter on “welfare for the rich,” he castigates a wide variety of rip-offs on their behalf. These include flood insurance in unsafe places, sports stadiums (the subject of pathbreaking studies by The Heartland Institute), eminent domain laws, and rent control among others.

After Stossel finishes his elegant description of how the law works today to enrich lawyers in scurrilous class-action lawsuits and shakedowns of countless corporations for big bucks with the threat of a lawsuit, you will be strongly in favor of reforming our system.

Stossel contends the U.S. ought to join the ranks of every other developed nation in the world, where the loser pays the costs of the lawsuit for the winner. The trial lawyers, of course, stand in the way of that reform, which could kill the geese that lay the golden eggs for them. Stossel takes trial lawyers to the woodshed with countless examples of how they make our lives so very much more expensive.

Lawsuits add $500 to the price of a car, Stossel notes, and $3,000 to every pacemaker. Even haircuts cost more because hairdressers now buy lawsuit insurance in case someone has a bad hair day.

An even greater cost of this lawsuit abuse is the loss of all the good things we don’t get to have in the first place. Genentech says fear of lawsuits led it to halt research into an AIDS vaccine. Other entrepreneurs give up on countless promising ideas because innovation risks opening the door to a lawsuit.

Stossel eviscerates the legal profession with precise factual support, but without malice in his explanation of asbestos suits, anti-smoking extortion, and a variety of class-action suits where only the lawyers win.

Not a Conservative
Although often accused of being a conservative, Stossel does not see himself that way. He believes consenting adults should be able to do just about anything they want, and that prostitution should be permitted. “If quarterbacks and boxers can make money on their bodies, why can’t a woman make money with hers?” he asks. He thinks homosexuality is perfectly natural, the drug war should be ended, flag burning and foul language should be tolerated, and most abortions should be legal. But these socially liberal attitudes score him no points among his liberal colleagues in the press.

In Give Me a Break, Stossel fully exposes left-wing efforts to limit our freedom on college campuses, by the media and hundreds of left-wing special interest groups. One of his greatest contributions may be coining the term “the totalitarian left.”

One of Stossel’s favorite quotes is by H.L. Mencken, “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-face for the urge to rule it.” That’s one of my favorites as well.

Solution Is to Downsize
While Stossel offers throughout his book much advice for how to fix things, his simple recommendation to downsize government is the best:

“GOVERNMENT. Let there be less of it. How much less? I don’t want to be greedy; how about we just limit it to 20 percent of the economy, instead of 40 percent? That’s hardly starving the state. It still gives more than $1 trillion to the federal government alone. Isn’t that enough?

“The trillion dollars freed up by cutting government in half would allow people to create all kinds of good new things, and enjoy life a lot more.

“Government should stick to what it needs to do: set basic safety and environmental rules and keep the peace. Otherwise government should leave people alone.”

It is unimaginable to me that any reader of Environment & Climate News would not love Stossel’s book for both its education and entertainment value. I am so sure of this that I will put my money where my pen is.

If you buy and read Give Me A Break and do not love it, I will buy it back from you: for what you paid plus the cost of postage to send it to me. And I’ll make the same offer retroactively on Greg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox, reviewed in our March 2004 issue. You will be able to stand up more effectively to “the totalitarian left” when you are armed with the information provided by these gifted writers.

Jay Lehr is science director for The Heartland Institute. His email address is [email protected].