How Van Halen Explains Obamacare, Salmon Regulation and Scientific Grants
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 contract 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.
The Van Halen Principle
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.
The truth is much less shocking and far more boring. Back when the Affordable Care Act was being drafted, Republican Sen. 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. So there’s 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 prompted by Grassley’s mischief.
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.