Respond to this Article June 2005

Tilting at Windmills

What John Bolton got right ... Starting over ...
Tax the rich ... Justice belied ...

By Charles Peters

And a posthumous economic Nobel for Herbert Hoover

A Defense Department press release informed us that Donald Rumsfeld would attend the honors review and ceremony for Paul Wolfowitz upon the latter's departure from the Pentagon. This reminded me of Rumsfeld's failure to attend a similar ceremony, the one for Gen. Eric Shinseki. Then, Rumsfeld refused to honor the man who correctly warned of the need for more troops in post-war Iraq. Now, he honors the man who ridiculed that warning.

What John Bolton got right

I do not admire John Bolton's bullying of his subordinates at the State Department. I do, however, applaud one demand he makes of them. He requires that they--and he--stand during meetings. For me, the most maddening aspect of my service in the government was long meetings, meetings that, I must say, seemed to last even longer if anyone from the State Department was involved. I am certain that the act of sitting down in a comfortable chair set their mental timers not to go off for at least one hour. When the meeting involved an actual or even a perceived threat to bureaucratic turf, the timers automatically reset for at least two hours. You could count on hearing an endless stream of "as it weres" and "if I mays."

When is a railroad like a punching bag?

I like Bob Schieffer and think he's doing a fine job as anchor of the "CBS Evening News." But one recent "Evening News" report on Amtrak troubled me. It used a quote from Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) to attack Amtrak that actually had been intended to defend it. The quote was, "What a terrible way to run a railroad." He wasn't talking about Amtrak's management, as CBS clearly implied, but about the way Congress and successive administrations have mishandled the agency. Amtrak's management has made mistakes--lots of them with Acela--but the agency's main problem has been the product of congressional and presidential decisions. Amtrak is a victim of underfunding, rarely having enough money even for basic upgrades like track improvement, and of the insane expectation that it make a profit even though no other national rail system does.

But I saw Marg Helgenberger do that

The fellows at U.S. News and World Report should read the Monthly more carefully. Their cover story for the April 25 issue was "The CSI Effect," and how it is leading juries to expect scientific evidence that is not available to most prosecutors. The same point was made here, quoting a Baltimore prosecutor, more than a year ago.

Justice belied

A book you must read is Courtroom 302 by Steve Bogira. It captures the reality of criminal justice better than anything I've read, making clear that the system is run for the convenience of those who manage it--judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, and court clerks. One example is that judges are reluctant to let defendants out on bond because it's easier for court personnel to return them to jail than to do the paperwork required by bonds. Another is that defendants plead guilty not because they are guilty, but because overworked public defenders pressure them to plead, and judges, anxious to keep things moving--and in some cases, to meet "cases disposed of" quotas--do not expend excessive effort questioning the legitimacy of the pleas.

They did indict a ham sandwich

I had known about the tendency of grand juries to follow the dictates of prosecutors instead of concerning themselves, as they are supposed to do, with protecting the unjustly accused. Still, I was stunned by a statistic presented by Bogira: From 2000 through 2003, Cook County grand juries "approved 1,706 indictments for every indictment they rejected."

Tax the rich

More than 30 years ago, this magazine began to advocate means-testing for Social Security. It has always seemed foolish to us to waste money on people who don't need it. So I think it's important for liberals to reach out to George Bush in response to his means-testing proposal. It may be cynical, but let's act on the assumption that it's sincere.

Bush wants to set the income level at which Social Security payments will be reduced, to around $20,000. I would make it in the neighborhood of $70,000, because many middle-class families now count on Social Security as part of their retirement plan. To make up the difference, I continue to recommend making the Social Security tax applicable to incomes above the present limit of $90,000. I notice that Bush left this option open. He only ruled out raising the rates, the percentage of income that can be taxed. I not only agree with him on that, but, if anything, I would also support lowering the rates for lower-income people.

Starting over

On a recent Jim Lehrer show, Lindsay Moran, a former CIA agent, seconded a point made here last month, saying that "the most mediocre people would rise to the top... the best would end up leaving." She and another agency alum, Melissa Boyle Mahle, who also appeared on the show, recommended starting over or at least creating a new agency within the CIA that would start afresh, and doing things right, with real spies rather than a bunch of bureaucrats sitting in U.S. embassies, and with rewards for "risk taking... really getting down deep into a society and learning how it works."

The case for new agencies

Franklin Roosevelt was a great believer in starting new agencies to get a job done. They don't have to defend old mistakes. They can hire the best people instead of having to retain the old employees, too many of whom are short on talent or set in the wrong ways. Consider the incredible accomplishments of the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration in putting millions of the unemployed to work during the Depression. During the war, many new agencies functioned well. What has always amazed me most is the Office of Price Administration, which managed to hold prices down in the face of incredible inflationary pressures generated by shortages not just of gasoline but of almost everything.

I was a part of a new agency, the Peace Corps, in 1961, and know how exciting it can be to be involved with a whole bunch of people, almost all of whom have the right stuff. This doesn't mean that you ignore the value of experience. But it does mean you're free to pick off the best of the experienced people from other agencies and mix them in with bright young people capable of learning fast and motivated to give the job their best.

I could give you my number, but then I'd have to kill you

Incidentally, Lindsay Moran's book, Blowing My Cover: My Life as a CIA Spy, reveals one human problem for spies. She makes clear that her love life suffered severely during her tenure in the CIA. It is because of human problems like this that CIA employees prefer working in embassies where they can enjoy a rewarding social life but acquire little useful intelligence.

The meritocratic myth

Richard Kahlenberg, whose work has often appeared in these pages, most recently in the last issue, has completed research that shows, according to U.S. News, that "low income students with the highest scores are no more likely to go to college than affluent students with the lowest scores." This is another reason why both Kahlenberg and this magazine have long contended that we should have affirmative action not for racial minorities but for people of low income.

When Buffett speaks

When Warren Buffett recently predicted to the annual meeting of his stockholders that the dollar would continue to fall, my first thought was cynical: Buffett has a very large sum--$21 billion--invested in foreign currencies. He will make money if his prediction influences what happens.

But then I remembered a public comment that Buffett had made during the 1980s about the future of newspapers. He said that future was not promising. Yet at the time he owned sizable chunks of The Washington Post and other papers. His prediction was accurate and definitely not self-serving. So maybe we should heed his new warning that this country's budget and trade deficits could cause foreign investors to sell their dollars, including those now in the form of U.S. stocks and bonds.

CEOs for socialized medicine

"The Ford motor company lowered its earnings forecast for the year on Friday, citing higher gas prices and rising health care costs," reported The New York Times on April 9. In May, Standard & Poor's lowered its credit rating for Ford (and General Motors), and news reports cited the rising cost of health care for the company's present and former employees as a factor. I remember attending a press breakfast in 1992 and listening to Ford's then-CEO "Red" Poling complain that health costs were killing the company. It was already clear that the ability of American companies to compete in world markets was being hurt by the burden of health-care costs. It seemed that some form of national health insurance, financed by some means other than by employers, was inevitable. Optimism was heightened by Harris Wofford's 1990 victory in the Pennsylvania Senate race in which he advocated a national health-care plan.

But, of course, it all came to naught. Hillary Clinton's plan failed. Employers that do not have strong unions like Ford does have been jettisoning health insurance or reducing coverage and benefits. Medicare and Medicaid are in deep trouble. Yet we are stuck with a bunch of doctrinaire Republicans and cowardly Democrats who refuse to consider broad reform. Is it not possible that a fire could be lit under these fellows if the big corporations, instead of moaning about health care costs, used their not-inconsiderable muscle to push for the reform that is needed?

Even Barney has his own cabin

When I have devoted any thought, and I have not devoted very much, to imagining what Camp David is like, I have pictured maybe four or five cabins: maybe one for the president, one or two for guests, another for the Secret Service, and perhaps one for some kind of dining facility. Well, I just didn't consider the consequences of the imperialization of the presidency. According to U.S. News, there are 30 buildings at Camp David.

A few more terrorist scares and we'll get the hang of it

Have we learned anything from the anthrax scare that followed 9/11? We had a mini-scare here in Washington recently that led to antibiotics being given to 900 defense workers. That, it turns out, was a mistake. And it wasn't the only problem. According to the findings of the House Government Reform Subcommittee, reported by Spencer S. Hsu of The Washington Post, "the federal and local responses" were "marred by an inability to determine the facts, swiftly communicate the risks to the public, and decide who was in charge." Doesn't that sound precisely like what happened in 2001?

The good evangelist

My son, who lives in heavily evangelical territory, recently wrote me about the importance of distinguishing between the two most important leaders of the movement, Rick Warren and James Dobson. Both are conservative, but Warren at least has common ground with liberal Christians. He avoids vitriolic partisan attacks. He believes in placing, to quote my son, "less emphasis on talking about the gospel and more on demonstrating it by combating world hunger, pollution and disease." Dobson on the other hand is "aggressively conservative and partisan, and vocal in his opposition to the teaching of evolution, 'secular humanism,' and judicial activism."

The problem is that the Dobson faction is well-heeled, able to flood evangelical churches with materials reflecting his views. Wouldn't it be wise for affluent liberals to help Warren rather than contribute to organizations that make snotty attacks on evangelicals?

Charles Peters is the founding editor of The Washington Monthly and president of Understanding Government.


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