Tilting at Windmills


The new proletariat... a classier con...

By Charles Peters

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The best plan (your) money can buy (your Congressman)
All those new congressmen are making a delightful discovery: Their new office entitles them to what Mike Causey of The Washington Times calls “the best health plan in the nation.” It covers all federal employees and, writes Causey, “can’t drop you or turn you down because of your age, retirement status, health, bad habits, or pre-existing medical conditions. And the government pays a little more than 70 cents of each premium dollar.”

You might consider writing your congressman and asking him to please explain just why his plan can’t cover you.

Unspeakable
On Dec. 4th, “NBC Nightly News” featured a report by Lisa Myers on the FBI that many Americans would find shocking. I expected to see it on the front pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post the next day. But not a word appeared. I wonder if you agree with me or the Post and Times. Here’s what NBC reported: Five years after 9/11, the FBI has only six agents fluent in Arabic. Furthermore, when two of its  top post-9/11 counterterrorism officials were asked if they knew the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, one replied, “Not really, no.” The other, “Not very well.”

The new proletariat
In the recent articles “The Revolt of the Fairly Rich” in Fortune, and “A New Class War: The Haves Versus the Have Mores,” we learn that people in the $100,000-500,000 income range now see themselves as underprivileged. This group includes congressmen, upper-level government officials, journalists at major news organizations, and professors at elite universities. This new proletariat is not exactly voiceless.

Subscribe Online & Save 33%La Causa
The new proletariat’s big cause at the moment is something called the alternative minimum tax (AMT), and they’re using their political and journalistic muscle to reform it to their taste. The tax was originally designed to keep the rich from using various loopholes to escape the income tax entirely. However, because of inflation, $100,000 no longer means you’re as well-off as it used to, but now may make you eligible for the AMT. The new proletariat feels threatened. But just how serious is the threat? A story on the front page of The Washington Post sought to raise alarm about the tax. An example used in the accompanying chart illustrating the harm was of a single parent with six children making $75,000 a year who would have to pay $1,112 more because of the AMT. But you don’t have to get rid of the AMT entirely to provide mercy for that fellow and others similarly situated. Besides, how many parents have six children these days? Two children are far more typical. And a couple with two children can make $80,000 without paying any AMT.

In fact, only 20 percent of taxpayers make $80,000 or more. For these people to wallow in self-pity is ridiculous. They should concern themselves with the 80 percent of taxpayers who make less than $80,000. And the major burden for that 80 percent is not the income tax or the AMT, it is the FICA, or Social Security tax. If we want to help them, we reduce that tax first. Congress has hesitated to touch it because they fear being accused of tampering with Social Security. But if they really want to help the working people of this country instead of themselves, it’s FICA, not the AMT, that should be their target.

Karl, Grover, and Sharyl
Karl Rove and Grover Norquist must have clapped their hands with glee when Sharyl Attkisson reported on CBS News a few days after the election that the newly victorious congressional Democrats might reinstate the “death tax,” using the Republican propaganda term for the estate tax, and seeming blissfully unaware that she was carrying water for Karl and Grover.

A classier con
Flim-flam and the practice of law are, as we all know, not strangers. And the fancier the law firm, the more refined are the hustles and cons it employs. Consider, for example, the art of billing the client. The object, of course, is to extract from the client the largest remotely feasible fee for services rendered.

One technique is called “block billing.” A large number of tasks are lumped together without any breakdowns of how much time was devoted to each, and without any specific description of the task. Another is to use less-than-revealing descriptions of the work done. “Review documents” leaves to the imagination the exact nature of the documents. How many are one paragraph or one sentence, and how many are formidably opaque requiring weeks of close study?

Amtrak was recently found to be the victim of such billing in an audit reported by The Wall Street Journal’s Nathan Koppel and Ashby Jones. Koppel and Jones discuss two possible reasons for Amtrak’s failure to monitor its legal bills with appropriate zeal: A lawyer for one of the firms previously worked at Amtrak, so old pals at Amtrak may have been reluctant to question his firm’s billing. And the Amtrak lawyer supervising another firm had previously worked at that firm, and may have hesitated to be churlish to his old friends.

My own experience suggests a third possibility. Imagine the senior partner of the outside law firm playing golf with Al, the in-house corporate lawyer overseeing the firm’s work. As they stroll from the putting green for one hole to the tee for the next, the senior partner says something like this: “Al, I just want you to know that if you ever tire of the corporate rat race, there’ll be a place for you at the firm.”

Sometimes the partner doesn’t have to be that explicit. Just hinting at such a conversation is enough to keep Al from too closely scrutinizing the firm’s bill.

Monitoring the Ikea threat
One obstacle to reform of the CIA is its culture, which long ago became infected by the values of the Foreign Service, with which it shares quarters at American embassies throughout the world. Like their Foreign Service counterparts, CIA officers came to yearn for cushy assignments in the world’s more attractive cities, especially those in Europe, in contrast to the places where their services were most needed. That this remains true of the agency’s culture is illustrated by a recent column from The Washington Post’s David Ignatius: “Agency gossip has it that a long line of officers recently bid for a plush station chief’s job in Scandinavia, while there were only several applicants each to run the big stations in Baghdad, Kabul and Islamabad.”

Get me out of here
It appears that even the Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, wants to go to Scandinavia. I speak metaphorically, but the gossip around town is that Negroponte wants to be the deputy secretary of state, an infinitely more pleasant job than trying to organize the nation’s morass of intelligence agencies and make them efficient.

On the plus side, the intelligence inside the Green Zone is superb
By the way, Ignatius reports that Gen. Michael Hayden, the CIA’s new head, is trying to get more officers out of the embassies and into deep-cover roles in the field. Apparently, however, he has had little success in Baghdad, where, as Ignatius reports: “The CIA station is said to have more than 600 people, yet most of them rarely travel outside the Green Zone, and some senior Iraqis say it has been months since they met with a CIA officer.”

A turn for the worst
More on that crash of Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle’s plane into a New York apartment building. It turns out that the plane was attempting to make a U-turn over the East River. The East River is just 2,100 feet wide at that point. How could the FAA allow such a tricky maneuver to be made with those large buildings right next to the river? There was no room for anything to go wrong. As so often happens, something did go wrong. There was a crosswind that made it impossible for the small plane to complete the turn and blew it into the apartment building.

Food for thought
The Centers for Disease Control  and Prevention has estimated that 76 million Americans get sick each year from eating contaminated food. 325,000 are sick enough to be hospitalized. In a period between Jan. 1, 2000, and Dec. 31, 2004, there were 6,374 food-related disease outbreaks affecting multiple individuals.

These outbreaks were studied by investigators from the Scripps Howard News Service, and reported by Thomas Hargrove. The findings are alarming. In only 36 percent of cases were the causes of the outbreaks diagnosed by state health departments. In Alabama, only 5 percent of the cases were diagnosed. In New Jersey, just 21 percent. The dismaying list goes on: In Maryland 27 percent; New York 40 percent; and Pennsylvania 48 percent. Well, you say, perhaps the job is just too difficult. But Wisconsin diagnosed 90 percent.

Although the CDC knew these figures, it did not make them public. That job was left to Scripps Howard. Why was the CDC so reticent? This reminds me of what an important agency the CDC is, and how its performance needs a major evaluation. As the head of a small foundation devoted to better reporting about government agencies, I’ve tried to persuade a number of reporters to take on the job of evaluating the CDC, but the time and technical expertise required have made the task seem too big. I hope someone reading this is inspired to say, “Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead,” and try anyway.

Lost in translation
More disquieting news about the CIA, this from David E. Kaplan and Kevin Whitelaw of U.S. News & World Report: “In the midst of a massive drive to shore up the ranks of spies, it is still difficult for the intelligence community to recruit—and get security clearances for—first-generation Americans who speak foreign languages and can better blend into the cultures of important target countries. Because it’s tough to do background checks on people who have family in Damascus or Tehran, security officers have found it easier to just screen them out.”

Since 9/11, there has been a tremendous pressure on the CIA’s recruiters to produce numbers—almost 40 percent of the CIA’s current workforce has come aboard since 9/11. But getting these numbers means concentrating on the easy-to-pick, low-hanging fruit, most of whom tend to speak with an unmistakably American accent, and look more like they’re from the Midwest than the Mideast.
 
Shameful
November marked the 42nd month since American forces conquered Baghdad and the Iraqi security forces were disbanded by order of Paul Bremer. Widespread looting immediately made it clear that we needed to form new local security forces. This need became even more apparent as the insurgency got underway a few months later. Yet in November, we read the lead story in The Washington Post by Tom Ricks: “Flaws Cited in Effort To Train Iraqi Forces. U.S. Officers Roundly Criticize Program.” In another November article, Michael Gordon reported in The New York Times from Fort Riley, Kansas: “This wind-swept stretch of Kansas has become the hub of a major new push by the United States Army to overhaul its effort to advise Iraq’s fledgling security forces.” In still another November story about an American military police captain who is trying to train Iraqi police, Kirk Semple of the Times reports, “The local police force remains undertrained, poorly equipped and unable to stand up to the rigors of this conflict.”

Semple notes that in joint patrols involving Americans and Iraqis, “the Americans, swaddled in Kevlar from head to hips, travel in Humvees and other armored vehicles. The Iraqis, wearing only bullet-proof vests, ride in soft-skinned pickup trucks and S.U.V.’s, the only vehicles they have.”
In recent “Tilting” items, I have cited similar reports by The Wall Street Journal’s Greg Jaffe, comparing the miserable equipment of the Iraqi army with the much better-off Americans.

How can these conditions have been permitted to continue for three and a half years? How can Bush sleep at night?

Bargains in New York
A two-page ad in a recent issue of The New York Times Magazine features a lovely panorama of Central Park. The ad explains that this is the “view from the living room of apartment 12A” at 15 Central Park West. 12A, the ad continues, is yours for just $20 million. If, however, things haven’t been going your way on Wall Street recently, other apartments are available in the building for as little as $8 million.

Untaught teachers
When I worked for the Peace Corps in the 1960s, one of our most shocking discoveries was how bad the teachers’ colleges were. Roughly half of our volunteers had to be trained to teach overseas. But we found that most teacher training in this country paid only the most modest attention to the trainee’s mastery of the subject he was to teach, and did not place nearly enough emphasis on practicing under the supervision of able and experienced teachers.

It was therefore depressing in the extreme for me to read in an article this fall by Jay Mathews of The Washington Post that both shortcomings are still true of teacher education today. Why have 40 years gone by with so little improvement? I suspect it has to do with the power the education lobby has in state legislatures and with the fact that teacher education on the cheap is a  moneymaker for universities.

Good teacher education is much more urgent now than it was in the old days, when we could count on a supply of brilliant women who had few job opportunities and were bright enough to overcome the miserable education they received at teachers’ college.

Welcome back
One of the few bright spots in the Iraq story has been the work of Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq Reconstruction. He has been relentless in exposing contractor abuse. Unsurprisingly, the main culprit has been KBR, the Halliburton subsidiary, which Bowen has found charging at least 55 percent in overhead and refusing to disclose to the government such basic information as how many meals it serves or how many gallons of fuel it delivers. Even though Bowen himself is a Republican, Republicans in Congress have rewarded his diligence by scheduling his office for abolition. Happily, the Democrats plan to reverse that action, and Bowen will be able to continue protecting the interests of the American taxpayer.

Not really a stickler
I recently reported that West Virginia’s governor has named a coal industry insider to head the state’s mine safety agency. Now George W. Bush has done the same thing. He has given a recess appointment, avoiding confirmation, to Richard Stickler, to head the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration.

Why are Democrats like Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller upset about the Stickler appointment? As a manager for Bethlehem Steel, Stickler presided over a mine that had injury rates double the national average. When asked if any new mine laws were needed, he replied that none  were necessary. Has he heard about Sago?

Milton and me
The recent death of Milton Friedman reminded me of a telephone conversation we had a decade ago. I expressed admiration for a couple of his ideas but could not understand why he was so rigidly anti-government. We argued back and forth, until I said, what about the Post Office of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s? Remember how they delivered the mail twice a day to residences, and three times to businesses? Packages arrived swiftly and intact. A 13-cent special-delivery stamp would guarantee delivery immediately by courier upon arrival at the destination post office.

Friedman chuckled and said he had to concede, fondly recalling how he had relied heavily on the post office when courting his wife, Rose. I was delighted to have scored a point with the great man. But then he asked me to ponder why I had to reach back so far to find a convincing example of government working. He had me. I knew there were other government agencies that performed well, but all the recent examples that came to mind were small agencies. I know government can work. But it is true that most of the large institutions could stand a lot of improvement. The point is that many of them, like the CDC, do essential work. Instead of wasting time arguing pro or anti government, as do too many Democrats and Republicans, we should concentrate on ways to make these essential agencies do a better job.

Taking us for a ride
A few issues back, I wrote about those government contractors living well in  Loudon County off their earnings from Katrina and Iraq. The people of Louisiana and Mississippi wondering what happened to the billions of dollars Congress appropriated for their benefit might be interested in a headline in the back pages of The Washington Post: “In Race for Hottest Ride, Loudon Teens Cruise Laps Ahead.” The accompanying article, by Michael Alison Chandler, describes the cars that county teenagers—or their parents—are buying. The BMW 328i seems to be the favorite, although the school parking lot is “occasionally graced by a Porsche or Ferrari.” One 18-year-old girl has both a two-seater Mercedes and a 2006 Supercharged Range Rover.

The real proletariat
FICA is just one example of the new proletariat’s blindness to the problems of the real average man. Many of those making between $100,000 and $500,000, especially those who live in large cities, worry far more about getting their children into the right private schools or into an elite university than  they do about fixing the public schools. And almost all of them, like the congressmen, have generous health insurance of their own that means health care for others doesn’t tend to be one of their imperatives. Finally, because their sons and daughters, with rare exceptions, are not in the armed forces, they could support sending other people’s children into the war in Iraq.

   

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