David R. Henderson  

Who is Jan Helfeld?

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In a comment on one of my recent posts, commenter Patrick Sullivan referenced an interview with Harry Reid in which the interviewer tried to get Senator Reid to admit that taxes are involuntary. Reid simply wouldn't. I found the style of the interviewer, Jan Helfeld, so compelling that I started watching other interviews he'd done. One of the two best, in my opinion, is his interview of Nancy Pelosi on the minimum wage. He gets Representative Pelosi to admit that there's nothing wrong with young people working for less than minimum wage if they work for her or if they work for a charity. She seems to understand all the tradeoffs involved and to understand that even young people can look out for themselves. Watch what happens (at about the 3:50 point) when Mr. Helfeld tries to get her to extend her thinking about less-than-minimum-wage work to McDonald's. At about the 6:00 point, she tells him he made a mistake by not moving on to another question and, instead, sticking on one point.

My other favorite is his interview of Representative Pete Stark in which Congressman Stark actually states that more government debt means more wealth. Watch this video for his extreme rejection of Ricardian equivalence. Also note how nasty and abusive he gets when he fails to convince Mr. Helfeld and when Helfeld doesn't back down.

Helfeld reminds me of John Stossel. He's willing to confront people directly and won't give up. Also, his face even looks a little like Stossel's.

Two questions. Who is this guy? And how did he get in to interview them?


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COMMENTS (26 to date)
MattYoung writes:

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ed writes:

Weirdest part is when Reid insists that the tax system is voluntary because it is full of loopholes.

Ross writes:

What's truly impressive is Helfeld's ability to not vomit while interviewing this parasites.

dearieme writes:

He's Margaret Thatcher's secret American love-child.

I hadn't heard of Helfeld either. The guy who surprised me was Joe Biden, he actually admitted to being wrong.

The March 21, 2008 Chronicle of Higher Education had an article by Ben Yagoda, a U of Delaware English professor, explaining the intricacies of unpaid internships in private business. In short, the interns have to get college credit for their work--and they have to pay the college for tuition:

Thanks to a skewed reading of a well-meaning but misguided federal statute, a dozen students of mine will have to needlessly cough up $2,300 each this summer for the privilege of working without pay.

....an outfit called University of Dreams, which will place you in a summer internship in a glamorous industry of your choice in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, or one of a half-dozen other cities; put you up in a local college dorm; give you breakfast and dinner; and, if you attend four 90-minute seminars with your fellow interns and write a three-page, double-spaced paper on your experience, arrange for you to get one unit of credit from California's Menlo College. The price for these services ranges from $5,000 to $9,000, and thus the divide becomes a gorge.

On its Web site, University of Dreams explains why the Menlo College credit is important: "The Minimum Wage Law requires all college students to receive academic credit if they are going to work in a nonpaid internship."

As I found when I did some additional checking, the real origin of employers' credit requirement is an opinion letter that the Department of Labor sends to employers who inquire about the issue. Interestingly, the letter mentions no requirement of any official academic connection with the internship. (The State of California, by contrast, does require that internships "be an essential part of an established course of an accredited school.") The labor department's letter casts internships as "training" and says that to be excused from the normal labor laws, including paying workers for their work, a program must satisfy six conditions, notably: "The training is similar to what would be given in a vocational school or academic educational instruction"; "The training is for the benefit of the trainees or students"; and "The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees or students."

Pretty much every unpaid internship I'm aware of has violated one, two, or all three of those conditions....


David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks, Patrick. Like you, I was impressed by Biden's honesty, not a term I usually associate with him.
The moral of the interesting story you told above: don't ask for an opinion letter.

RickC writes:

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RL writes:

It's a telling point that Congress has put the kibosh on their members being interviewed by Stephen Colbert (his "Better Know a District" series) while continuing to grant interviews to Helfeld.

Helfeld only makes them look substantively ill-informed, unintelligent, heatedly ideological.

Colbert makes them look foolish, and he has a much bigger audience.

I hope Helfeld puts this stuff out as a movie documentary: Our Rulers, In Their Own Words...


Kevin writes:

Nice post, except for the fact that Harry Reid is correct and this guy appears to not understand that words can have multiple meanings, especially in law as compared to everyday usage. The distinction Reid makes between European tax systems (or sales taxes or any other number of taxes) and voluntary taxes is completely correct. So Reid is correct even without getting to the social contract theory argument for taxes being voluntary.

Blackadder writes:

The amazing thing, to me, is how freaked out the various people get when he stays on a given point for more than 30 seconds. If it's that easy to rattle a politician, why doesn't it happen more often?

Phil writes:

I saw Helfeld at a Freedom Fest convention years ago. Someone told me Helfeld had lots of video of politicians sitting down to be interviewed and then getting up to leave once they saw where the interview was going. Helfeld was kind of funny. He asked several speakers questions, including John Stossel. I can't remember exactly what advice Stossel gave him, but it was to the effect of keep trying.

greenish writes:

Oh, I see. If you're fancy enough you get to completely redefine common words, and use the new meanings without qualification and without explanation, even when you see someone obviously interpreting them in the usual way.

(Not that I haven't seen it before. See the sociological definition of "racism".)

scott clark writes:

Did Torres, the rep who stole the tape, really pay $45K to settle? i'll bet it came out of his his congressional budget.

Adam writes:

@Kevin

Jan defines exactly what he meant by voluntary in the interview and Reid kept answering as though he could pick whatever definition he wanted.

Dan writes:

This dude is awesome. He needs his own TV show. Pelosi and Reid are, stunningly, even stupider than I thought. I'm not some hard-core libertarian, but I can tell when someone's cornered and shown for being stupid. Jan wins.

Kurbla writes:

Reid could answer to Helfeld if he had read this blog and he noted my counterquestion "do you think that paying hotel bill is voluntary?" and then not leaving that ground. Reid didn't know good answer. Of course, he didn't admitted he doesn't know, but he made some bad impression nevertheless. Clear win for Helfeld.

Pelosi's answer should be the call on externalities - insisting that minimal wage cannot be understood on the base of individual case, but on the base of the influence on the whole society. Helfeld would attempt to ignore that, but she should send him back to externalities each time. But she didn't knew that answer either.

However, Helfeld was bit too agressive and allowed Pelosi escape that HER SUPPORTERS didn't recognized as defeat. I wouldn't talk the Helfeld's way if my intention is to promote libertarianism. I would talk that way if my intention is to sell my product to libertarians.

Mike Moore writes:

The imperative is upon Pelosi and her ilk to provide evidence of externalities that the minimum wage cures. When the government steps in between a mutually beneficial transaction it must show that it has just cause for doing so. This same argument applies to marijuana, gay marriage selling of internal organs as well.

Kurbla writes:

True, Mike, the burden of proof would be on Pelosi if discussion led in that direction.

Alex J. writes:

These interviews are like econ talk, an example that makes whole forms of "news" useless in comparison. The fact that these politicians don't know what to do when they can't evade a simple question demonstrates what a waste press conferences are.

Biomed Tim writes:

"do you think that paying hotel bill is voluntary?"

Depends on if I chose to stay at the hotel.

Dan Weber writes:

I'm getting the sense that he only picks on one party. I could probably goad people with inane questions, too.

Although stealing that tape was beyond the pale.

Dan Weber writes:

Sorry to double-comment, but that George Stephanopolous video is just annoying. I'm not sure if Jan is dumb or deceitful, but he's playing some kind of game to trap George.

George says "you can take someone's race into account without having racism." Jan asks for an example of someone being racist without taking someone's race into account. Hopefully I don't need to draw a Venn diagram to explain the problem that Jan has.

John Pertz writes:

The interview with the California congressman and Pelosi are very disturbing. The vibes steaming from their reactions to Jan are not good. They show a clear infatuation with themselves. The very idea that anyone could have the nerve to challenge them on matters of principle in defining legislation simply enrages them even further.

In fact Pelosi and the California congressman display a very alarming love for themselves and the manner in which they come to hold their beliefs. You can clearly see how disturbed they become when Jan presses them on the preposed contradictions embedded in their beliefs. Its not the same as pressing a truly intelligent person on their beliefs. You can literally see that "oh shit I dont know how to argue out of this" look on their faces. In fact the California congressman's reaction is very sad. I started to feel bad for him towards the end. His fear, dread, and self doubt about his intellectual abilities drove him to cussing and a total loss of composure. Its as though his sense of self and all the glory that he thought he was composed of was deconstructing before his very eyes.

Some of those interviews have a strong Kubrikian or Lynchian film quality to them. Id love to string them as a series of interviews depicting people implode right before our very eyes.
The theatrics in those videos were very powerful. I think Jan indirectly hit upon a cinematic gold mine.

Marc writes:

I think this is a pretty good demonstration of what Sowell argues in "A Conflict of Visions". Reid has a certain vision, or world-view, that carries with it definitions, interpretation and instincts while Helfeld (and probably much of the audience here) see the world through a very different vision. To Reid, and people who share his vision, his argument is perfectly rational and rings clear. At the same time it is absolutely unintelligible to those with a different vision.

Both Reid and Helfeld try to explain what they mean by "voluntary" and "force" but neither party is moved or even seems to acknowledge the attempt.

While this kind of thing might make fun theater, in the end it's unlikely that anyone on either side is swayed. Neither side can really understand the arguments of the other and they end up simply talking past each other.

Carl The EconGuy writes:

Of course it's all in the vision and the definition of words. On the IRS building on Constitution Ave in Washington DC it says: "Taxes are the price we pay for a free society." On that definition, freedom requires submission to state controls, i.e., to majority rule in our version of democracy. If you prefer unanimity, then there is no coercion (libertarians); if you think unanimity is too hard and leaves good decisions unmade, you've become a liberal, and you've accepted a measure of coercion of minorities as the price for liberty. It's all in the cost-benefit analysis. Liberals believe your cost can be their benefit, and therefore yours by redirection so it can/should be imposed; libertarians refuse any cost that is not voluntarily accepted. So, all we learned from the interviews is that Reid/Pelosi are not libertarians, they're standard liberals who absolutely know what's best for all of us, and that's freedom, so you should just submit. Submission is liberty -- which is the essence of the liberal creed to which both Democrats and Republicans subscribe, equally willingly.

Frank writes:

RE Reid and Pelosi interviews: Excellent examples of the irrationality (insanity? disingenuousness?) of some our most powerful current politicians.

Kevin's comment : "words can have multiple meanings, especially in law" is an example of the double speak (dishonesty) in politics these days. Sadly, truth and common sense have been supplanted!

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