Tilting at Windmills

May/June 2011 Supreme Amnesia…A slam Dunc…Your thoughts, please…

By Charles Peters

Take a load off, Army

One of the problems with our educated elite’s failure to serve in the military is their ignorance of the problems of the average soldier, and their resulting inability to pressure the Pentagon to take remedial action. A study by a Navy research committee in 2007 found that Marines carried loads of ninety-seven pounds. In the Army, according to Hal Bernten of the Seattle Times, upon whose reporting I rely for this item, the load is seventy to eighty pounds. Yet the Army Science Board recommends that soldiers carry no more than fifty pounds.

The consequences are not surprising. Thirty-one percent of combat evacuations in Iraq and Afghanistan have been for musculoskeletal, connective tissue, or spinal injuries. Of these, about 80 percent do not return to combat duty. An example is Spc. Joseph Chroniger, who returned from Iraq “with bone spurs in the vertebrae in his neck caused by a degenerative arthritic condition.”

Chroniger is only twenty-five years old. “What’s it going to be like,” he asks, “when I’m fifty or sixty?”

Obviously the services need to find a way to lighten the load. Unfortunately, without outside pressure to do otherwise, the Pentagon tends to concentrate on big-ticket items that make for big budgets, aided and abetted by congressmen who want to land big defense contracts for their districts.

The buck stops with…that little guy over there

In April 2010, Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine exploded, killing twenty-nine coal miners. Now a grand jury has indicted the mine’s foreman for obstructing investigation into the disaster by the FBI and U.S. mine safety inspectors. According to the Charleston Gazette, the indictment alleges that the foreman lied about the company’s policy of “warning mine personnel when federal safety inspectors arrived on site.”

What I am looking forward to is the indictment not of more underlings like the foreman, but of Massey executives, including its head, the former CEO Don Blankenship, who I strongly suspect were responsible for the policies that led to the disaster.

Supreme Amnesia

Did you see the New Yorker cartoon showing a lawyer pleading before the Supreme Court, “If you prick a corporation, does it not bleed?” It captures the absurdity of the court’s decision in the Citizens United case, which held that, for purposes of making a political contribution, a corporation is a person. That the Court itself may be at least a bit embarrassed by that ruling is suggested by its recent ruling in Federal Communications Commission v. AT&T. The telephone giant was pleading that it had a right of personal privacy. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the Court’s opinion, but, incredibly, managed to do so without mentioning Citizens United, or how it makes sense for a corporation to be a person in one case and not in the other.

With a name like Curve Ball …

60 Minutes recently tracked down Curve Ball. You will recall that he was the source of the “intelligence” about mobile biological weapons laboratories, which the show’s anchor Bob Simon accurately described as the “crown jewel” of Colin Powell’s statement before the United Nations that was crucial in persuading so many Americans to support the Iraq War.

On the show itself, Curve Ball admitted that he lied. But when he suggested that someone else was involved in concocting his fiction, and Simon pressed him about the identity of that person, Curve Ball rose from his chair, ripped off his microphone, and terminated the interview. In general he was so shifty and evasive that it is incredible that anyone ever believed him. It seems clear that the CIA was so desperate to please George W. Bush and Dick Cheney that it took the word of an obvious fraud.

Clever like a Fox

If you have from time to time found reason to doubt the fidelity to truth at Fox News, your misgivings will not be allayed by a recent revelation in the New York Times: Roger Ailes, the head of Fox, urged a woman to give false testimony in a legal proceeding. The conversation was caught on tape, so there seems to be no question as to its authenticity.

I have to say that I have long suspected Ailes of being fully aware of the lying that occurs so frequently on his network. Everything I’ve ever heard about him suggests that he is way too smart not to know better.

One way the past decade wasn’t utterly depressing

Ten years ago, I knew the time for me to retire from running the Monthly was drawing near. I also knew that Paul Glastris was leaving his job as a speechwriter for Bill Clinton’s White House.

I had first met Paul when, as a very young man, he came to a conference we held on neoliberalism in 1983. His interest in our obscure ideology of course caused me to think of him as a potential soul mate, an impression that became a firm conviction after he served as a summer intern a year later and then as editor from 1986 to 1988.

When I retired from the Monthly, I wanted to be sure to turn it over to someone who shared what we called the “gospel.” So I immediately began talking to Paul about becoming my successor. The result was that he became editor in chief on May 15, 2001. Ten years later, I could not be happier with my choice.

Paul has displayed in full measure the skills of a great editor. Most important of all, he has a nose for talent that has resulted in his unearthing one gifted young journalist after another to help him put out a magazine of which I am very proud.

Something tells me these guys aren’t serious

If congressional Republicans are so anxious to cut federal spending, why did they reject Representative George Miller’s bill to eliminate generous subsidies to the big oil companies that are racking up huge profits?

Subprime U.

Speaking of good television, in case you missed the recent Frontline episode about for-profit higher education, it revealed that though these institutions enroll only 12 percent of the nation’s students, they account for 44 percent of the students who default on their loans.

Why so many defaults? The schools rely on these loans to finance themselves. The largest of the for-profits, the University of Phoenix, gets 86 percent of its revenue from the federal government, according to Frontline. To maintain that financing, at least until it was stopped by a lawsuit last year, Phoenix paid its enrollment counselors solely on the basis of the number of students they recruited. This of course meant that the counselors were tempted to enroll, as one critic put it, “pretty much anybody.”

How do such schools get accredited? One technique is to buy an existing accredited college that has fallen on hard times. That way they acquire a veneer of respectability that makes it easier for the high-pressure recruiters to enroll the gullible.

The Fourth Estate clears its throat

Another problem with today’s media is their ignorance about how the government really works. Consider a recent front-page article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Billions of Bloat Uncovered in Beltway.” It describes the large number of overlapping programs in the federal bureaucracy. On the “continued” page, the article acknowledges that this is not exactly news: “There have been multiple attempts to cull the number of federal programs in recent years.” But it says the attempts have failed because they “often run into opposition from lawmakers who rush to defend individual spending provisions,” or are “ignored or postponed by agencies or lawmakers when they require difficult votes.”

This is so vague that it fails to inform the reader. The real reason that attempts to reform overlap fail is the alliance between congressional committees determined to preserve their jurisdiction over the agencies involved, bureaucrats who don’t want to lose any part of their empire, and lobbyists who see their influence as dependent on the preservation of the status quo.

A slam Dunc

I was delighted to see Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speak out against the disgraceful practice of allowing college athletes to continue to play when they are not on track to graduate. Ten of the sixty-four schools participating in the NCAA’s big basketball tournament this year have fewer than half of their players progressing toward graduation. Duncan challenged the NCAA to remove these institutions from the tournament. Unsurprisingly, they declined.

Sometimes, even those who graduate have taken one scandalously easy course after another, so their credits are really empty. Dexter Manley, a Washington Redskins star of the 1980s, managed to get through four years at his Oklahoma university without knowing how to read.

Defensive foul

By the way, Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, was recently questioned about the organization’s policies by Frontline’s Lowell Bergman. Emmert’s answers
were more candid than Curve Ball’s—but just barely.

Your thoughts, please

Since I finished my book on Lyndon Baines Johnson last year, I’ve been thinking about my next book. Two ideas have emerged. One would be a new edition of How Washington Really Works. The most recent appeared in 1993, so considerable revision is needed. The other book would describe how values have changed between the era during which I grew up—the 1930s and ’40s—and today.

Recently, I have been surprised to find that the two subjects are merging in my mind. Bear with me while I try to explain.

In the 1930s and ’40s there were a lot of bad guys, just as there are today. Lynching still took place. Father Coughlin could preach hatred of the Jews. But getting rich was not the dominating motivation that it is now. And on the whole, there was a generous willingness to share that existed in considerably greater measure than it does today.

Almost everyone I have known who lived through the era remembers their mothers unfailingly feeding the often ragged and almost always hungry men who would come to the back door. The same generosity led them to support New Deal programs like the CCC and the WPA that helped give the needy a leg up. The government that provided these programs was respected by most of us, and the willingness to share extended to sharing society’s burdens. In 1940 both the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, FDR and Wendell Willkie, and, according to public opinion polls, a majority of the American people, supported the first peacetime draft in our history. As did a majority in both houses of Congress.

For the next twenty-five years, the willingness to serve would be shared by all classes. And a willingness to share the cost of government was best illustrated when the Republican Willkie criticized FDR in 1943 for not raising taxes enough as Roosevelt was on his way to setting the top rate at 90 percent. Roosevelt even proposed to limit wartime incomes to $25,000.

Of course, there were still Republicans who railed against taxes of any kind. The great humorist of the age, Will Rogers, observed, “I really believe if it came to a vote whether to go to war with England, France, and Germany combined, or raise the rate on incomes of over $100,00, [the Republicans] would vote [for] war.”

But the fact is that back then, there were moderate Republicans like Willkie. Reasonable men in the middle of both the House and Senate could compromise. The filibuster was rarely used for anything other than the protection of racial segregation. Movies of the era made heroes out of the fellows next door, like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or It’s a Wonderful Life. Being down and out like William Powell in My Man Godfrey or Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath could happen to people just like you, not just to people you didn’t know. Snobbery was widely ridiculed. Indeed, this was an era of great comedy—most of it, as with the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields, aimed squarely at pretentiousness.

It all began to change in the 1950s. The average family was still celebrated on television series like Leave It To Beaver, but as Americans prospered and began to travel abroad, people learned about European art, cuisine, and wine. Gradually they began to look down on those who didn’t know about such things, and Adlai Stevenson became the first presidential candidate people seemed to support because doing so proved they were intelligent. A people whose Norman Rockwellian self-image had been indifferent to social class began to change its tune. An excellent revival of Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion in 1946 lasted less than six months on Broadway. In 1956, when it appeared again as My Fair Lady, this story of how Liza Doolittle learned how to rise in social class enjoyed what was then the longest run in Broadway history. We were on our way to becoming a society where parents felt their children had to get into Ivy League colleges.

But some very good things were also happening. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the rights revolution did much to make this country a better place. First African Americans, then women, and then gays began to assert their rights. In the mid-’60s, these movements were joined by the one against the war in Vietnam.

Unfortunately, all these great causes carried the seeds of trouble to come. In the 1970s, the assertion of group rights turned into the assertion of individual rights that produced the Me decade. The noble causes asserted during the ’60s turned into an explosion of special interest lobbies in the ’70s. Avoiding military service, justified by Vietnam, became a casually assumed right.

In the 1980s, the Me decade turned into the greed decade, as getting rich became the primary motive of a growing number of Americans. Wall Street Week became a staple of Friday-night television, and Ronald Reagan became president, denouncing government and advocating lower taxes.

The reign of greed did not end in 1990. Instead, its hold on the country continued
to grow, until under George W. Bush it exploded into an orgy of irresponsible tax cuts and Wall Street recklessness.

There appears to be not a shred of guilt on Wall Street. Money controls Congress in ways that are painfully obvious but also more subtle, like the need of members to spend their evenings and weekends fund-raising so they no longer have the social interaction of Republican and Democratic families getting together for dinner in the evenings, and picnics on weekend afternoons, learning to know that there are human beings on the other side of the aisle. And more recently they have been kept apart not only by the need to raise money, but by the Republicans’ fear of angering the Tea Partiers.

What had been an assertion of group rights became a self-righteous assertion of group privileges without regard to the interest of others. Nothing illustrates that better than the senior citizens who screamed obscenities at those who supported health care for everyone even as they indignantly demanded the government not mess with their Medicare. The sickness is everywhere.

Behind the pursuit of money is a selfish indifference or—as it often appears to be in the case of Wall Street—contempt for the interests of others. Even those who are not motivated by greed are guilty of selfishness, as is the case with those teachers who are more concerned with protecting tenure than with educating children. “Let those hillbillies go get shot” was the title of a Monthly article about the prevailing attitude toward military service. And of course, just last December, Democrats and Republicans joined in the not-so-noble cause of tax cuts even for our wealthiest citizens. Remember the phrase “share any burden” from Kennedy’s inaugural? What deaf ears it would fall on today!

Can we change? I know we can, because I’ve seen it, lived it. The values that came to the fore in the ’30s and ’40s were a reaction to the selfish obsession with wealth that peaked in the late ’20s in a mad rush to get rich fast.

I hope my book will help inspire a similar reaction today. And I would be grateful to readers who might have ideas they could share.

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.

Comments

  • clarence swinney on May 11, 2011 9:45 AM:

    JUST HAD TO SAY HELLO CHARLIE TO ONE OF MY MOST FAVORITE OF WRITERS. GREAT MAN. GREAT HISOTRY. THANKS CHARLIE
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  • acura cake on May 25, 2011 10:18 AM:

    Greetings from your ex neighbor, the one who wore a flight suit to work. Just wanted to let you know I read the site everyday, and even though I don't agree with everthing on it, the writing is better than anything else about poitics on the internet. The piece about New Orleans a few months back is the best account of present local politics in my new hometown I've seen anywhere.
    Take care up there. I'll continue to peruse this site. Make me miss DC just the slightest bit.
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  • Gerald on May 27, 2011 4:16 PM:

    I agree we should help those who are less fortunate, and my family and I try to help in several ways. I also agree with many of your points in this commentary. But I don't agree that caring for others and for our society extends to willingness for myself or my children to serve in the U.S. armed forces. Serving in the past decade, and for that matter during any other wartime period, demands far more than I am willing to sacrifice, particularly when I do not support our military's conflicts, spending, policies, etc.

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