Tilting at Windmills

July/ August 2013 Launch pad follies … Roger and Rupert … How to refuel your private jet

By Charles Peters

Business schools are now trying to find out, through personality tests and standardized questions in personal interviews, if their applicants are sufficiently empathetic, reports Melissa Korn of the Journal. You may recall that in our last issue I cited another of Korn’s articles about business schools’ efforts to get their applicants to be “genuine.” She found that Kaplan-type consultants quickly offered applicants practice on how to appear genuine. This time, Korn does not mention the possibility of consultants, but she does note that “star students tend to provide the same responses.” Which leads me to confidently predict that the consultants will soon supply those answers—for the right fee, of course.

Lessons from the other side

The people we disagree with often have a good point worth acknowledging. For me this has been the case in recent books by William Bennett, the secretary of education under George H. W. Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense under George W. Bush.

Bennett’s Is College Worth It?, which he wrote with David Wilezol, finds the federal government to be the principal villain behind the problems of higher education. That point I did not find compelling. But you have to admit that he has a legitimate concern when he writes that of all the college courses across the country that give letter grades, 43 percent of the grades are As.

Too many of today’s college courses are simply too easy and enable students to glide through to graduation without having their minds disturbed by the intrusion of a single new thought. The first time I ran into this was in the course catalog for the Teachers College at Columbia University, where one of the offerings was “How to Teach Listening to the Radio.”

On taking your own advice

In Rumsfeld’s Rules: Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life, he proposes a sensible rule: “Encourage everyone to give their views, even if it will ruffle some feathers.” I only wish that in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, he and W. had followed that advice. To the contrary, Rumsfeld reportedly lost respect and patience for General Eric Shinseki, who is now the head of Veterans Affairs, after Shinseki disagreed with him about the troop strength required for the war.

Cutting off your nose to spite Obama

One of the worse aspects of the Republican plot to subvert Obamacare is the refusal of Republicans in state legislatures in Texas, Florida, Kansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia to expand Medicaid to help people below the poverty line get Obamacare. Sandy Praeger, the Kansas insurance commissioner, tells Robert Pear of the Times that the “‚ÄČ‘poorest of the poor’ will fall into a gap in which no assistance is available.” Pear adds, “More than half of all people without health insurance live in states that are not planning to expand Medicaid.”

And those states have more bad news for the poor. “Of the 40 states that offer state-subsidized preschool, 27 have reduced per-child funds in 2011-12,” according to Motoko Rich of the Times. Rich also notes that, according to a Department of Education report, “quality standards for preschool programs had slipped over the past year.” This is especially alarming because quality standards have been too low in the past.

Many Head Start programs began as offshoots of the War on Poverty’s community action programs in which teachers were hired as part of a jobs program for the needy. Applicants were required to be members of the “community” regardless of whether the community contained an unemployed person with the aptitude and knowledge to be a good teacher.

How do I love me? Let me count the ways

There is new evidence of how the trend toward self-absorption has grown over the last fifty years or so. “Between 1960 and 2008, individualistic words or phrases increasingly overshadow communal words or phrases,” writes David Brooks, reporting on a study by Jean M. Twenge, W. Keith Campbell, and Brittany Gentile. Words like “self” and phrases like “I come first” have become more common, while words like “share” and phrases like “common good” appear less often.

Political bones

If I haven’t convinced you about the carelessness of the reporting on these recent “scandals,” try these examples. The Post’s Chris Cillizza described Lois Lerner, the IRS official who first made public that agency’s scrutiny of Tea Party groups, as “living up to every negative stereotype of a federal worker.” Ms. Lerner may not be blameless, but when Elizabeth Williamson of the Journal took the trouble to ask people who had worked with Lerner about her, they described her as “smart, talented,” and “without a political bone in her body.”

As for the Rosen and AP investigations, Nicholas Kristof, as a guest on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria show, spoke of the chilling effect on whistle-blowers, echoing dozens of commentators on other programs. Yet, neither case involved a whistle-blower. They both involved disclosing secrets that had nothing to do with agency malfeasance. In fact, they’re about agency successes.

Kelly O’Donnell of NBC Nightly News sympathetically reported and commented on testimony by a Wetumpka (Alabama) Tea Party worker complaining about the questions the IRS asked her. So far so good—the woman deserves sympathy for answering those bizarre questions. But shouldn’t O’Donnell have at least mentioned that at the time the IRS application was pending, the Wetumpka Tea Party was, according to the Times, dedicated to “the defeat of President Obama”?

Guilt and reporting

I want to congratulate the Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran for a courageous, fact-filled report about how generously compensated, through a combination of pay and benefits, the members of the American military are. This is a story that has largely gone untold, I suspect because only a handful of reporters and editors have served in the military and either don’t know the facts or feel guilty about criticizing the people who are serving while they aren’t. They’re right to feel guilty—this country would be a lot better if more people like them performed military service—but that shouldn’t keep them from facing and reporting the facts as Chandrasekaran has done.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.


  • David Merkowitz on July 29, 2013 10:34 PM:

    Re: The July/August Tilting at Windmills
    Charles Peters praises Time's Michael Grunwald for questioning why nonprofit organizations need to be tax exempt. I haven't read Grunwald's piece (who does read Time anymore?), but maybe other reporters don't raise that question because the answers are so patently obvious.

    The main reason most nonprofits seek tax exemption is to achieve formal recognition as a charitable organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, which in turn makes donations deductible on contributors' income tax returns. In probably all states, it also exempts the organizations from paying sales taxes on their purchases and property taxes on land and buildings they might own. Whatever your view of the value of nonprofits--be they Harvard University, the Metropolitan Opera, the local Boys and Girls Club, or the Little Sisters of the Poor--many of them live or die on their ability to solicit tax-deductible charitable contributions.

    Another reason we should want charitable organizations to file for tax exemption: It's the only way we (via the IRS) can determine whether they are indeed operating as nonprofits, and fulfilling their charitable mission, rather than sheltering profit-making activities from federal, state, and local taxation. Under the IRS Code, charities' unrelated business income is subject to taxation.

    Certainly, a number of nonprofits, including the NFL and some universities, hospitals, and other charities, pay outrageous salaries to their top officials and spend a lot of money on activities not directly related to their main purpose. Curbing those kinds of abuses should be a worthy goal for members of Congress and federal and state regulators, but it's one that pays few political dividends and is not easily achieved.