Tilting at Windmills

May/ June 2013 In praise of better government … Welfare for the Rockefellers … Whatever happened to truth in labeling?

By Charles Peters

Large and in charge

Attorney General Eric Holder recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee that some banks have become “so large” that it’s “difficult for us to prosecute them.” Wait a minute—I thought the Obama administration said that the big banks are not a problem. It certainly made no effort to break them up. But if their size means they can get away with committing any financial crime they want, doesn’t that indicate that there’s at least a slight problem?

How much does candor cost again?

“[O]ne quality in perennially short supply” in applications to business schools, reports Melissa Korn of the Wall Street Journal, is “candor, as would-be MBAs deliver ‘right’ answers instead of the real ones.” In an attempt to solve this problem, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business has begun inviting its applicants to participate in a six-person roundtable discussion, during which it urges them to “relax, be genuine.”

Almost immediately, applicants began seeking out other applicants with whom they could rehearse for these discussions. And of course the consultants were sure to come along. Already, two firms are offering practice group discussions.

Who needs enemies, when you’ve got friends on Facebook?

The axiom that has long governed local TV news that “if it bleeds it leads” does not apply to social networks. On Facebook, it’s the good news that leads. Indeed, the news is often a little too good to be true.

According to a study by Dr. Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, the news that people share about themselves on Facebook is strongly slanted toward making their own image. “In most oral conversations,” we tend to say the first thing that comes to mind, according to Dr. Berger, “but when you write something, you have the time to construct and refine what you say, so it involves more self-presentation.” The result, writes John Tierney of the New York Times, whose report I’m relying on for this item, “helps explain the relentlessly perfect vacations that keep showing up on Facebook.”

Another study found that “the longer people spend on Facebook, the more they think that life is unfair and that they’re less happy than their ‘friends.’ ” And yet another study found “a ‘rampant nature of envy’ and other ‘invidious emotions’ among heavy users of Facebook.”

In praise of better government

The unfortunate thing about the recent sequester debate is that by pitting antigovernment Republicans against pro-government Democrats, it left no room for those who believe both in the importance of government and in the need to trim the fat from government agencies and to make them more effective in performing their missions.

As to the fat, here’s just one example. In 1940, there were more than five million farmers in the United States. In 2012, that number had fallen to fewer than a million. Yet the Department of Agriculture has 5,000 more employees than it did in 1940, when there were more than five times as many farmers.

As to agency effectiveness, in the past few months, we have had one story after another about foul-ups at the Department of Veterans Affairs—of disability applications taking more than a year to process and other similar outrages. In 1946, I was among the ten million or so World War II veterans discharged from the military, most of us seeking one or more benefits including college tuition, disability pensions, housing loans, or unemployment compensation. My tuition was paid promptly and my pension came through in a matter of months. I do not remember any of my friends complaining about longer delays. Today, the number of people being discharged from the services each year does not approach one, much less ten, million. Yet it takes 236,000 VA employees now to screw up what 169,000 handled with reasonable efficiency back then.

During a speech at the National Defense University in April, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel pointed out another way bureaucracy grows as its mission shrinks. “Today the operational forces of the military—measured in battalions, ships and aircraft wings—have shrunk dramatically since the Cold War, yet the three- and four-star command and support structures sitting atop these smaller fighting forces have stayed intact.” And “in some cases,” he added, as with the Department of Agriculture and Veterans Affairs, “they are actually increasing.”

Old Funny Bags

Bill Maher is usually funny and fairly far left politically, so I was struck to hear him declare in March on his show on HBO that the rich “actually do pay the freight in this country.” Especially in California, he said, “it’s outrageous what we’re paying—over 50 percent. I’m willing to pay my share, but yeah, it’s ridiculous.” This fortifies the impression that I’ve had for some time that the higher a media figure’s income, the less liberal they become on the subject of income taxation. Remember during the 2008 campaign, when ABC’s Charles Gibson successfully pushed Obama to raise the level of income that would be subjected to higher taxes, from $100,000 to $250,000? And how many protests did you hear when Obama raised that $250,000 to $400,000 as part of the December 2012 budget deal?

Whatever happened to truth in labeling?

Eric Holder’s faintness of heart with regard to the big banks seems to extend to the tobacco companies. Two years ago, you will recall that the Food and Drug Administration announced that tobacco companies would have to display on cigarette packages pictures of the harm done by tobacco, including images of diseased lungs and of a man inhaling smoke through a tracheotomy tube. At the time, I thought, Boy, that’s great, that will really make smokers think about the damage they’re doing to themselves. But, of course, the tobacco companies took the FDA to court. They obtained a ruling from the right-wing intellectual pygmies of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals that the requirement violated tobacco companies’ First Amendment rights. If you can see even a shred of merit in that argument, you’re an even worse lawyer than I thought you were. But you have the comfort of knowing that the attorney general of the United States agrees with you: Holder has decided not to take the case to the Supreme Court.

Yet we learned from Brady Dennis of the Washington Post that “dozens of countries already require graphic warning labels similar to those proposed by the FDA, and a survey by the World Health Organization found that they were more effective than text-only labels in deterring smoking.”

So a lawyer walks into a bar. Is he billing his hours?

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.