Copyright 2012 by John T. Reed

If an unprotected person or animal touches the third rail of a subway or other commuter train while they are also touching the ground, they will be electrocuted.

Scary metaphor

Political observers have long used that as a metaphor for discussing reform of Social Security and more recently, reform of any federal entitlement program. Here is the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s article on that subject:

The third rail of a nation's politics is a metaphor for any issue so controversial that it is "charged" and "untouchable"; any politician or public official who dares to broach the subject will invariably suffer politically. The term is most commonly used in North America. The "third rail of American politics" is often said to be the reform of social security; the "third rail" of Canadian politics is said to be health care.

But let’s step back out of the metaphor to its original meaning for a minute. Why do commuter trains have such a dangerous rail? Because it provides the electric power to run the train. Far from being something not to touch, the third rail must be touched by the train’s “shoes”—metal objects that remain in constant contact with the third rail in order to get the power to run the train’s electric motors.

Why does the third rail kill a person but drive the train? Because the train is designed to make safe use of the electricity in the third rail. To a layman, the third rail is a terrifying danger. To an electrical engineer, it is a key component of a commuter train’s functioning.

Democrat demagoguery

Back to the metaphor. The Democrats learned in 1933 and ever since that they could scare Republicans away from criticizing Democrat entitlement programs, and scare voters into voting against Republicans, by demagoguing the issue. That probably peaked with the Paul Ryan-lookalike TV commercial where he pushes an old woman in a wheelchair off a cliff. Indeed, the tone-deaf demagogues who made that commercial have just reissued it adding the printed introduction “Mitt Romney has made his VP choice.”

The Democrat business model is to enlarge their many free lunch programs in terms of amounts paid and definitions of who is eligible until they get a majority of the electorate addicted to those government checks and thereby forced to vote Democrat to keep the checks coming.

Bankrupting the country

That has worked, and may work this year. But ultimately—most estimates say about three to five years from now—it will bankrupt the country. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money [to spend].” That day has arrived.

I and many others who do not get invited to be on commissions have been raising the alarm on that for years (in my case, in my book How to Protect Your Life Savings from Hyperinflation & Depression). And in recent years, even the house-broken people with filters who serve on commissions have been raising the alarm, e.g., Bowles-Simpson or Rivlin-Domenici.

On August 19, 2009, CNBC editor Rick Santelli, who is house-broken enough to be a CNBC editor, lost it on TV and launched into a now-famous, spontaneous rant that triggered The Tea Party. (Santelli and I were both speakers at the 2010 Freedom Fest in Las Vegas.)

Liberals were amused by all this. “Silly Republicans, think they can touch the third rail without us killing them for it.”


Then the 2010 elections took place. Instead of “dead” Republican politicians, the political landscape was littered with “dead” Democrats. Speaker Pelosi became former Speaker Pelosi. I pause to wait for the cheering to die down.

The House Democrat majority became the minority. Ted Kennedy’s seat went to a Republican, Scott Brown, who ran as the 41st vote against cloture in the ObamaCare debate. Obama referred to it as a “shellacking.”

You would think they might have learned something from it. Nope. It will take more than that to convince them their 80-year-old business model no longer works.

Paul Ryan draws power from the ‘Third Rail of Omerican Politics’

Ignorant laymen are scared by the third rail; but not electrical engineers. What if Paul Ryan is to entitlements what electrical engineers are to third rails? A person who knows how to use the third rail to his advantage rather than being terrified of it. What if he could educate the public to recognize the “third rail” and entitlement reform for what it really is: crucial to progress and avoiding disaster.

A real-life Frank Capra hero

I recently posted on Facebook that Jimmy Stewart would not have gotten the lead in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington if Paul Ryan had been around then.

Frank Capra produced and directed that film. He, oddly, was a Cal Tech chemical engineer. He was so popular that his name was listed above the title of his movies in publicity for them. Very few directors have ever had such box office power. Here is a Wikipedia comment about him.

However, the public nonetheless loved his films, especially during the Great Depression years, when audiences needed uplifting themes of inspiration. His pictures let viewers witness "a triumph of the individual over corrupt leaders", and experience "inherent qualities of kindness and caring for others." Most of his best works have been revived, and are today considered timeless fables filled with love and respect for the struggles of the common man.

He also produced and directed the film Jimmy Stewart said was his favorite role: It’s a Wonderful Life. There is a scene in that movie where Stewart’s character “George Bailey” talks an angry mob out of a run on his tiny Bedford Falls Building & Loan. In the scene, Bailey is the local boy who understands finance and banking. The mob are his friends and neighbors and depositors who do not understand finance and banking. When he explains it to them, he sounds very similar to Paul Ryan explaining entitlements to his audiences. Here is a video of the bank-run scene in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Democrat demagogues’ tone-deaf casting

It is starting to dawn on some Democrats that they may have cast themselves as the evil “Mr. Potter” in a “Wonderful Life/Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” struggle with a real-life Frank Capra hero—a guy who has slept on a cot in his House of Representatives office for 14 years before going home every weekend to his kids’ soccer games and cub scout activities. “Mr. Smith” was a scout leader in that movie.

I never learned to swim as a kid. We lived in Wildwood, NJ, a popular seashore resort. My dad knew how to swim, but he never could teach me because he worked seven days a week managing a 5&10¢ store during the all-important summer season. I was on “rock squad” at West Point during my first year where we were required to learn to swim and I belatedly did.

In reaction to that, I got my three sons swimming lessons at the earliest ages. My oldest started when he was three months old which was a bit early in retrospect. But he won swimming championships and set pool and team records that stood for years in our area. Here in California, kids swimming leagues are as ubiquitous as Little League and youth soccer.

I had a very instructive exchange with him once. We were at the country club on whose competitive team he swam. I asked him to go get something for me, explaining it was down at the end of the pool “where the water is over your head.” He looked at me quizzically then said, “Oh, you mean where your feet don’t touch the bottom,” and went off to got the item.

That is the difference in perspective between an expert swimmer—even a nine-year old one—and a then 43-year old “rock squadder.” So it may be with Paul Ryan and his expertise with regard to the budget. Fatal third rail? End of the pool where the water is over your head?

Or the rail that powers the train and the end where your feet don’t touch the bottom?

Ryan sees it the latter way. And he can explain it to people and come across as honest in doing so. And that could make this a watershed election year.

John T. Reed