Tilting at Windmills

By Charles Peters

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Affordable health care… why would we want that?

Proposals for health reform now being considered by Congress include a "public" option that would give consumers a choice between private health insurance and insurance provided by government. The usual argument against the public plan is that the government’s ability to control costs—I am now quoting the Wall Street Journal’s Gerald Seib—"doubtless would make its plan the cheapest one, sucking consumers away from private insurers and opening the way to universal government health care."

Well, just what’s wrong with that? If the government can do the job more efficiently, good for the government and good for us!

From Gettysburg to Kabul

If you’ve ever visited the battlefield at Gettysburg, stood at the point where Pickett’s Charge began, and looked up the steadily rising ground leading to the Union position, you realize how little chance the Confederates had. Not only did the Union have a dominating position, it also had more troops. Furthermore, about two-thirds of the way up the incline there is a fence. It was there the day of the charge, meaning Confederate soldiers provided even clearer targets for the Union guns as they awkwardly climbed over it.

It is painfully obvious that Robert E. Lee should not have ordered the charge, but saved his troops for another battle where victory would have been more likely. This is the argument made by Col. Douglas Macgregor in the April Armed Forces Journal. The author is not just talking about Gettysburg and the Civil War, but about the broader subject of battles and wars like Vietnam and Iraq that we should not have fought or be fighting today.

Even when a war is justified in the beginning, as with Korea and Afghanistan, it may settle into a stalemate that consumes "America’s military, economic and political reserves of strength." In such cases, Macgregor argues, it is wise to end the war as Eisenhower ended the futile mutual slaughter that the Korean War had become.

The same argument may well apply to Afghanistan today. As Macgregor points out, "If the foreign military presence provokes local hostility—and it usually does—the result will be more fighting, not stability."

George Washington was the great master of avoiding battles that could not be won in favor of conserving his forces for those that had to be fought or could be won. My wife recently came across the words Washington used to describe his approach: "a strategy of enlightened procrastination."

Responders without a clue

The Project on Government Oversight (POGO) recently asked what happens when a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official overcomes his fear of his bosses and nervously dials the hotline of DHS’s inspector general. Here’s what happens: the call is answered not by a sensitive investigator skilled at getting the frightened to talk, but by a college student to whose employer DHS has contracted out the job of answering whistle blowers’ calls.

The un-blown whistle

POGO’s director, Danielle Brian, declared in a speech a few weeks ago, "Whistle blowers have practically disappeared from the Pentagon in recent years." As the head of an organization that encourages government employees to speak out about what’s going wrong in their agencies, she knows what she’s talking about. Having heard the speech, I asked her to lunch to find out if she had any explanation for this disturbing trend. Her answer was that there has been a growing tendency among Pentagon employees, both civilian and military, to look forward to lucrative jobs with defense contractors after they retire. Both the income from their retirement pay and their salary with the contractor become firmly embedded in their plans for the future.

As this trend has grown, so has another—a steadily narrowing definition of conflict of interest that would disqualify a Pentagon retiree from working for a defense contractor. In fact, the only prohibition is against working on the same contract he had overseen at the Pentagon. Obviously, a wide range of jobs remain available to reward the employee who has been kind to the contractor. This means that employees have every reason to be generous to military contractors and no reason to blow the whistle on contracts that cheat the taxpayer—none other than those quaint old notions of duty and honor.

Will Obama fight?

I was delighted by Defense Secretary Gates’s proposal to overhaul the Pentagon budget. The urgent need for reform is suggested by this statement in a recent article in Politico by Winslow T. Wheeler: "The defense budget is now larger than at any point since 1946, but the Army has fewer combat divisions than at any point in that period, our Navy has fewer war-fighting ships and the Air Force has fewer fighter and attack aircraft."

The defense budget has, for more than sixty years, been based primarily on preparing for a war against Russia that has never been fought, leaving us tragically ill-equipped for the wars we have actually fought in places like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Of course, the military-industrial complex now has a major stake in preserving the expensive weapons systems required for a war with Russia or China. Thus the Wall Street Journal’s follow-up story on the Gates proposal was headlined "Defense Overhaul Draws Wide Rebuke: Plan Denounced by Contractors, Lawmakers and Unions."

Is Obama willing to take on the tough fight needed for the Gates proposal to prevail? I’m troubled by the fact that a decision was made to let the proposal come from Gates instead of from the White House. Let’s hope that Obama chose this course because having the proposal originate with Gates stamps it as bipartisan.

When he has not

I’m more troubled that Obama has apparently chosen not to fight for his proposal to prohibit subsidies to farmers earning more than $500,000 a year and putting a ceiling of $250,000 on the subsidies any one farmer can get. After the plan drew immediate and strong opposition from the farm lobby, it was omitted from current budget proposals by both houses of Congress.

One step the administration could have taken toward sensible compromise was to make clear that the $500,000 was net, not gross, income, but that route has not been taken, and the administration seems to be abandoning reform of farm subsidies.

What is most disturbing about this is that when Obama introduced Peter Orszag as his new budget director the one budgetary outrage he singled out to deplore was farm subsidies for the rich.

Bad but vital

What are the worst-performing government agencies? The answer is not comforting. Eight of the bottom eleven—ranking between twenty-seven and thirty-six in a survey of 210,000 government employees—are agencies with crucial functions, including the Security and Exchange Commission and the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Interior, Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Transportation, and Homeland Security. All of which should remind Obama that one of his least mentioned but most important challenges is reforming the bureaucracy.

What would George Washington do?

I know some of you are saying Obama can’t hope to win all these battles. Shouldn’t he follow George Washington’s advice and be careful to fight only those he can win? But there is a distinction between lost military battles and wars that cost lives and political battles that do not. In fact, the failure to fight some political battles—for example, for universal health care or for protecting worker and consumer health and safety—would itself cost lives.

Bailout? What bailout?

On another troubling oversight front, the Washington Post reports that Elizabeth Warren, the chair of the congressional oversight panel on the banks’ use of bailout funds, is complaining that "the Treasury Department has brushed aside her team’s efforts to get information." And, dismayingly, the New York Times reports that Neil M. Barofsky, the Treasury Department’s internal watchdog of how the bailout money is being spent, is "particularly critical of the Treasury Department’s refusal to demand detailed information from banks and other financial institutions about what they are doing with the money they receive."

Ready, willing… and unemployed

Able and energetic young people who worked to elect Obama are still not being hired to work in his administration. Their plight has even attracted the attention of the Washington Post ("Young People Who Want to Work for Obama Wait for a Call") and the Washington Times ("Ready, Willing, Able—And Waiting for Obama"). I had written in our last issue about the need to get these people into the government and am puzzled that Obama is not seizing this chance to transform the civil service with an infusion of talent and commitment.

The truth is that too many of the civil servants he has inherited are either modestly talented or more interested in their job security and benefits than they are committed to their agency’s mission. What Obama should do is make sure that those smart enough to join his campaign, and dedicated enough to make it a smashing success, get a fair shot at the government jobs they seek. If another applicant is more skilled, he or she should get the job. But if the Obama worker is of greater ability, the job should go to him. Then the administration will have a workforce that is not only able, but is committed to making its policies work.

Wanted: Tax inspector named Steve with red hair,
mean whiskey collection

That the government’s present hiring system badly needs shaking up is made clear by a recent study of government interns by the Partnership for Public Service. Aptly entitled Leaving Talent on the Table: The Need to Capitalize on High Performing Student Interns, it reveals that the federal government hires only 6.6 percent of its interns. In the private sector, the comparable rate is 50.5 percent. The reason for this discrepancy is, I suspect, an old civil service institution that the report is too kind to mention: the Buddy System, under which job descriptions are written with pals of current civil servants in mind, and the pals are given inside tips on how to navigate the hiring process. The result is an incestuous civil service that too often seems dedicated to keeping outsiders out, no matter how talented the outsiders may be.

Frank and Larry

I tried to hire Frank Rich more than thirty years ago when he first embarked on his career in journalism. Jim Fallows, who was working here at the time, and I thought so highly of Rich’s potential that we actually took him out to lunch. (In those days, as during most of the Monthly’s life, when barely surviving was the rule, our constant hope was that the other fellow would pick up the check.) But even our one day of extravagance couldn’t succeed in wooing Frank from his yen for New York. This is all a prelude to saying Frank has more than achieved the potential we saw back then. His thoughtful opinions, unlike those of many of his peers, are supported by reporting of facts new to most readers. For example, a recent column revealed that Larry Summers had worked as a consultant for a hedge fund while serving as president of Harvard, and then reminded us that, also while president of Harvard, Summers had criticized Harvard faculty members for moonlighting. This perfectly captured what makes Summers so scary—an arrogance that precludes self-criticism or really listening to criticism from others.

There’s contracts, and then there’s contracts

Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner spoke eloquently about the sanctity of contracts in discussing the AIG bonuses. But they seem to view union contracts with the auto industry as always renegotiable. "We run roughshod over some contracts and not over others," David Skeel, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania, tells the New York Times. Will someone in the administration please explain how it distinguishes between the contracts that are sacred and those that can be run roughshod over?

Cozy and cozier

To understand Larry Summers’s empathy for Wall Streeters, you have to look no further than the $2.7 million he received for speeches from Wall Street in 2008 alone. Among the firms that paid Summers for speaking were Goldman Sachs, Citicorp, J. P. Morgan, and Lehman Brothers. Unfortunately for Lehman, Summers arrived at the White House too late to save it. Whether he would have done so or not is open to question, since there is evidence that both Summers and Geithner have had a softer spot in their hearts for Goldman than for Lehman, its longtime rival.

Politics looks better

The New York Times Sunday Style section is proclaiming, "Community Organizing Never Looked So Good." After all, Obama was a community organizer, and look what happened to him. This seems to be the reasoning behind the movement. But I have a word of caution: Obama tried community organizing and quickly decided that politics was a more effective way to change things.

Back in the 1960s, I observed the efforts of Peace Corp volunteers to perform what we called "community development" in Latin America and of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty workers to engage in "community action" in this country. Both efforts involved community organizing, and both proved enormously difficult. Successes were inspiring, but rare. My own conclusion at the time was the same as Obama’s in the 1990s.

Good to (not so) great

I congratulate the New York Times on its series revealing the breakdown of New York’s workers’ compensation system. Every state has such a program, and they were once considered models of how to compensate victims without costly lawsuits. But one of the painful lessons of experience is that even the best government programs can go bad. For example, the rural electrification agency performed an immense public service in the 1930s by bringing power and light to farms all over America. But when we looked at the agency in the early 1990s, it was helping finance country clubs as it tried to find some way to survive even though its original mission had been accomplished.

The invisible hand is busy at the moment

The workers’ compensation and rural electrification examples demonstrate the need for periodic thorough examinations of every government program, even those thought to be great. But who’s going to do the investigating? Every day seems to bring the story of another American newspaper in trouble. Six thousand newspeople lost their jobs in just the last year. So it seems likely we will get less depth reporting at the very time we need more of it.

This is why I think it is essential for us to try to think of ways to help the newspapers and magazines that do depth reporting not only survive but prosper. This almost certainly will involve finding a way to get Internet users of this kind of content to pay for it.

I was disturbed to see my old friend Michael Kinsley—with whom I usually find myself in admiring agreement—come out against the user-pay solution. The faith he expresses in "the market" to find some way other than newspapers to produce the kind of journalism we need contrasts sharply with his usual skepticism. What we need—like quality health care for all—is often not supplied by the market. It’s up to smart people like Mike to figure out how society can get what it needs in spite of the sometimes perverse incentives of the market.

Unfashionable

It should be noted, however, that the survival of our great newspapers would be helped by better judgment on their part about how to spend their limited resources. For instance, why does the Washington Post, while cutting back its newsroom, send Robin Givhan to Paris and Milan to cover fashion shows? Do we really need to know, as one indignant Letter to the Editor writer noted, about "clunky orange boots with 5-inch soles"?

Michelle, don’t go too Jackie O!

This reminds me of another worry. I pray that Michelle Obama does not take seriously the role of fashion leader that the media wants to give her. I wish I had seen her wear the same dress twice on the recent trip to Europe, but I did not. And I wish I had not seen a photograph of her elegantly clad social secretary, Desiree Rogers, sitting with Vogue’s editor, Anna Wintour, at a recent New York fashion show. And I most definitely wish I had not read in an accompanying article in the Washington Times how "the Obama administration invited top editors of three of Washington’s local luxury lifestyle magazines—Capitol File, DC magazine and Washington Life—to a meeting where they discussed, among other things, how President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama can embrace Washington’s glittery social scene."

Two states—or no dice

Reports from Israel indicate that the Netanyahu government opposes a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem. It is time for the United States to play its trump card: tell Netanyahu that we will cut off economic and military aid to Israel unless his government immediately begins good-faith negotiations of the two-state solution.

The right wing of the American Jewish community will be outraged by such a threat, but most American Jews want to do all that is reasonable to achieve peace in the Middle East. They don’t like the intransigence of the right wingers. Unfortunately, because the right is better organized—think AIPAC—it too often succeeds in intimidating our political leaders.

Credit where credit is due

Several years ago, I wondered in a Tilting item why the Bush administration, then badly in need of repairing our relations with Islam, didn’t make sure that Muslims around the world knew about how we had come to the rescue of their co-religionists in Bosnia and Kosovo. So I was delighted to hear Richard Holbrook finally trumpet the point recently on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show.

Hope comes to Jakarta

Here’s something I think Obama deserves a bit of credit for: the recent triumph of moderates and the decline in support for Islamic extremists in the elections in Indonesia. The New York Times report of the election results did not mention Obama, but I can’t help thinking his childhood years in Indonesia and his outreach to Islam must have had at least some impact on the election result.

When cool is too costly

Beginning in the 1950s, Americans—through foreign travel and increasing incomes—learned to appreciate differences in foods, wines, cars, and other products that made them more sophisticated. The problem is that it also made many of them want to show that they had better taste than the other fellow. Thankfully, I see signs that this kind of snobbery may have finally begun to decline, a victim of the recession. You see people buying things less because they’re hip and more because they’re affordable. This is the way it was when I was growing up in the 1930s. I hope we see this trend accompanied by a related but more important one from that period, which was for people to place a greater value on finding things in common with their fellows than on feeling superior to them.


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Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.  
 
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