Snake oil?

中国日报网 2018-07-03 11:28



Reader question:

Please explain “Trump’s tax cut snake oil”. Snake oil?

My comments:

Yeah, snake oil, oil made from the fat of snakes. Snake oil is one of many forms of voodoo medicine, which is believed to be effective but people seldom fully understand how it works. In traditional Chinese medicine, for example, snake oil is believed to be able to relieve pain and work many other incredible wonders.

Incredible is the right word here (in the sense of impossible to believe) because the medicinal effectiveness of snake oil has always been dubious, doubtful and questionable, especially in the West. In the West, where any medicinal cure has to go through vigorous scientific proofs and checks, privately concocted remedies such as the snake oil are necessarily controversial.

And, thing is, whenever someone sells you a bottle of snake oil, he is never modest about its efficacy. He does not say it relieves pain and generally makes you feel better and leaves it at that. He almost always touts his snake oil as a miraculous cure-all, curing anything and everything, from pain in the neck to liver cancer.

Another thing about snake oil is, of course, that it may not even be made from snake oil at all. It could be anything but snake oil. It’s kind of like many medicines purportedly made from tiger bones. Even though tigers have largely been driven to extinction in most parts of the world, we still hear tiger bone this, tiger bone that – as often as before, if not more often.

“Other people use dog bones or ox bones”, we can hear a vendor say. “But mine are tiger bones only.”

For sure.

Anyways, snake oil as a metaphor is synonymous with quack medicine or any unproven remedy, any hyped-up cure-all or panacea, anything that’s purportedly wonderful but may in fact be worthless.

Hence and therefore, in our example, when Donald Trump’s tax cut plan is likened to a snake oil remedy, we understand that it probably won’t work. Trump may say cutting taxes cures all American economic ills and ailments. He may say that all American workers will benefit from it. He may say all kinds of wonderful things about his plan, but it may prove to be just another big lie.

In other words, his tax cut plans are a hyped-up quack concoction of snake oil. Trump is, as they say, a snake oil salesman, a quack doctor, a big mouth and a phony, a fraud.

All right, here are media examples of snake oil and snake oil salesman:

1. “Snake Oil Salesman.” The phrase conjures up images of seedy profiteers trying to exploit an unsuspecting public by selling it fake cures. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary defines snake oil as “a quack remedy or panacea.” What the OED does not note, however, is that the history of snake oil is linked to an often forgotten chapter of Asian-American history.

Because the words “snake oil” are so evocative, it has been a favorite go-to phrase for politicians and lobbying groups on both sides of the aisle. Earlier this month, Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell called his opponent in the Republican primary, Tea Party candidate Matt Bevin, a snake oil salesman in a campaign mailer. While campaigning for a second term last year, President Obama referred to the Romney-Ryan tax plan as “trickle-down snake oil” at a rally. In 2008, the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund took out full-page ads in The Washington Post to denounce then-President George W. Bush’s plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, calling it “100 percent snake oil.”

But what, exactly, is snake oil? And why is peddling it such a terrible thing?

The 1800s saw thousands of Chinese workers arriving in the United States as indentured laborers to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. According to historian Richard White’s book Railroaded, about 180,000 Chinese immigrated to the United States between 1849 and 1882. The vast majority of the workers came from peasant families in southeastern China and were signed to contracts that ran up to five years for relatively low wages (compared with their white counterparts), wrote David Haward Bain in his book Empire Express.

Among the items the Chinese railroad workers brought with them to the States were various medicines — including snake oil. Made from the oil of the Chinese water snake, which is rich in the omega-3 acids that help reduce inflammation, snake oil in its original form really was effective, especially when used to treat arthritis and bursitis. The workers would rub the oil, used for centuries in China, on their joints after a long hard day at work. The story goes that the Chinese workers began sharing the oil with some American counterparts, who marveled at the effects.

So how did a legitimate medicine become a symbol of fraud? The origins of snake oil as a derogatory phrase trace back to the latter half of the 19th century, which saw a dramatic rise in the popularity of “patent medicines.” Often sold on the back pages of newspapers, these tonics promised to cure a wide variety of ailments including chronic pain, headaches, “female complaints” and kidney trouble. In time, all of these false “cures” began to be referred to as snake oil.

As word of the healing powers of Chinese snake oil grew, many Americans wondered how they could make their own snake oil here in the United States. Because there were no Chinese water snakes handy in the American West, many healers began using rattlesnakes to make their own versions of snake oil.

This set the stage for entrepreneur Clark Stanley, aka The Rattlesnake King. In an 1897 pamphlet about Stanley's life and exploits, the former cowboy claimed he had learned about the healing power of rattlesnake oil from Hopi medicine men. He never publicly mentioned Chinese snake oil at all. Stanley created a huge stir at the 1893 World's Exposition in Chicago when he took a live snake and sliced it open before a crowd of onlookers.

Joe Schwarcz, the director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, described the scene in this 2008 article:

“[Stanley] reached into a sack, plucked out a snake, slit it open and plunged it into boiling water. When the fat rose to the top, he skimmed it off and used it on the spot to create ‘Stanley’s Snake Oil,’ a liniment that was immediately snapped up by the throng that had gathered to watch the spectacle.”

There were two major problems with Stanley’s claim about his oil:

First, rattlesnake oil was far less effective than the original Chinese snake oil it was trying to emulate. A 1989 letter to The Western Journal of Medicine from psychiatrist and researcher Richard Kunin revealed that the Chinese oil contained almost triple the amount of a vital acid as did rattlesnake oil.

Secondly, Stanley’s Snake Oil didn’t contain any snake oil at all. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 sought to clamp down on the sale of patent medicines and it was that legislation that led to Stanley’s undoing. After seizing a shipment of Stanley’s Snake Oil in 1917, federal investigators found that it primarily contained mineral oil, a fatty oil believed to be beef fat, red pepper and turpentine. That’s right — Stanley's signature product did not contain a drop of actual snake oil, and hundreds of consumers discovered they had been had.

It was probably around then that snake oil became symbolic of fraud. Snake oil salesmen and traveling doctors became stock characters in American Westerns. The first written usage of the phrase appeared in Stephen Vincent Benet's epic 1927 poem John Brown’s Body, when the poet refers to “Crooked creatures of a thousand dubious trades ... sellers of snake-oil balm and lucky rings.” About 30 years later, playwright Eugene O’Neill referred to snake oil in his 1956 play The Iceman Cometh, when a character suggested that a rival was “standing on a street corner in hell right now, making suckers of the damned, telling them there’s nothing like snake oil for a bad burn.”

As for what happened to Clark Stanley after it was found that his whole empire was based on a lie? He was fined $20 (that's about $429 in today’s dollars) for violating the food and drug act and for “misbranding” his product by “falsely and fraudulently represent[ing] it as a remedy for all pain.”

Stanley did not dispute the charges.

- A History Of ‘Snake Oil Salesmen’,, August 26, 2013.

2. In the 1850s, America was full of self-proclaimed doctors peddling patent medicines that, if they didn’t kill you, rarely cured you. It took doctors and regulators decades to extinguish fraud and ban toxic products. Now, claims Dr. James Madara, head of the American Medical Association (AMA), we are entering a similar era, a “digital dystopia” of direct-to-consumer digital health products, apps, and ineffective electronic health records.

This is the digital snake oil of the early 21st century,” Madara SAID at the annual meeting of the country’s largest physicians group on June 11. “Just as in the mid-19th century when we separated the useful anti-toxins and compounds like aspirin from Stanley’s snake oil remedy, today we’re tasked with separating the digital snake oil from the useful —and potentially magnificent—digital tools.” Despite the potential for progress, he said, “appearing in disguise among these positive products are other digital so-called advancements that don’t have an appropriate evidence base, or that just don’t work that well—or that actually impede care, confuse patients, and waste our time.”

That’s a shot across the bow for entrepreneurs in digital health, which is being touted as a way for medicine to enhance patient care, rein in costs and improve peoples’ lives. There are some success stories to be sure. Robotic surgery, telemedicine, and better records have all made headway in hospitals. Apps show some promise as well. A 2015 study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found that three out of nine app-only interventions led to a statistically significant improvement for people to manage symptoms of chronic diseases.

But the lightly-regulated industry of medical apps is still a mess. In 2015, so-called melanoma detection apps MelApp and Mole Detective were fined thousands of dollar by the Federal Trade Commission and barred from claiming they could detect skin cancer. Two recent studies also called the effectiveness of most apps into question. A Commonwealth Fund study examining 1,000 health-care apps for chronic diseases found only 43% of iOS apps and 27% of Android apps were likely to be useful. A second study by the Institute for Healthcare Informatics analyzed 40,000+ health-care apps in the US Apple iTunes app store (mostly in the diet and exercise category) and found a majority do little more than provide information from a mix of sources. Madara said the future was not technology to bypass physicians. “A more promising digital future can be envisioned that enhances the physician-patient relationship, produces better and more efficient care, and allows more time for physician-patient interactions—the type of outcome that has been so falsely promised by much of the current digital snake oil,” he said. Madara lamented that technology was turning doctors into the world’s most expensive data-entry workforce: an AMA study found 50% of physicians’ time was at the keyboard, compared to a third spent interacting with patients.

- The head of the American Medical Association calls many health apps pure “snake oil”,, June 18, 2016.

3. As the Trump team struggles mightily to portray a tax plan that would disproportionately reward the wealthy—and Trump himself—as pro-working class, the Treasury Department has reportedly suppressed a government analysis that exposes as false President Donald Trump’s central claim that workers, not rich corporate shareholders, would be the primary beneficiaries of a massive reduction in the corporate tax rate.

The Wall Street Journal's Richard Rubin first reported that the analysis—published in 2012 by the Office of Tax Analysis (OTA)—was deleted from the Treasury Department's website on Thursday.

The suppressed study (pdf) demonstrated that “workers pay 18 percent of the corporate tax while owners of capital pay 82 percent,” Rubin noted, a breakdown that the Trump administration and the Republican Party has effectively reversed in selling their proposals to the American public.

OTA’s conclusions were “in line with many economists’ views and close to estimates from the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) and Congressional Budget Office,” Rubin adds. “The JCT, which will evaluate tax bills in Congress, estimates that capital bears 75 percent of the long-run corporate-tax burden, with labor paying the rest.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has argued, against mountains of contrary evidence, that it is in fact workers who end up bearing the brunt of taxes on corporate profits, thus allowing him to paint a massive rate reduction—which Trump has proposed—as a boon for the working class.

As The Week’s Jeff Spross observes, this is a common right-wing argument. But while conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation claim that corporate tax cuts lead to higher wages for workers, the last several decades of evidence indicate the opposite, Spross concludes.

“[W]henever a company gets a windfall,” Spross writes, “the money goes to wealthy shareholders, CEOs, and the lucky members of the upper class.”

Many argued that the Treasury Department’s removal of the OTA paper amounts to blatant suppression of contradictory evidence in the service of selling “snake oil” to the American public.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called Trump’s tax plan a “scam” and denounced Treasury’s efforts to hide opposing evidence in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.

“History has shown most of the pockets lined by corporate tax cuts are found in wealthy shareholder suits,” Wyden concluded. “It is disturbing the Treasury Department is burying research proving that trickle-down economics harms American workers.”

- Trump Accused of Burying Research Showing Trickle-Down Tax Cuts Just ‘Snake Oil’ Scam,, September 29, 2017.


About the author:

Snake oil?

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.

(作者:张欣 编辑:丹妮)

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