Tilting at Windmills

November/December 2010 Mad money… Regulation by milquetoasts… Pulp this item…

By Charles Peters

Jobs versus schools: It’s complicated

In January of 1979, Marion Berry was about to take office for his first term as mayor of Washington. A mutual friend mistakenly thought we might hit it off and brought us together for lunch. He asked me what I thought was Washington’s number one problem. I said, “The public schools,” which were already deteriorating rapidly. He looked at me incredulously. Jobs, he said, were the city’s pressing need. It wasn’t that one of us was right and the other wrong. The city did need better schools if its children, the majority of whom were black, were to have a better chance in life. But their parents had to have the ability to make a stable home for them so that they could learn. So at least one parent, and often both, needed a job.

What happened in the recent D.C. election was a collision of these two interests. The black middle class that consisted mainly of the teachers and civil servants threatened by Michele Rhee’s dismissal of bad teachers were also the people who provided most of the stable homes in the black community. I think the teachers and civil servants were wrong to oppose Rhee, but I understand why they did. And it’s important to remember that their fear of Rhee had another motivation rooted in history. For many years, attaining tenure was the only way blacks in Washington could be sure of fair treatment at the workplace, of not being unfairly dismissed because of their color. So tenure has a value to them even greater than it does to whites.

The state of our media: Truthless or toothless

I began my most recent column with what seemed to me the most obvious of truths, that despite their faults, Obama and the congressional Democrats are clearly better than the Republican alternatives. Yet two months later I find that this obvious truth, instead of being embraced by the liberal and whatever remains of the responsible moderate media, is largely ignored. 

Lies are loudly repeated on Fox News but corrected mostly sotto voce by the rest of the media. Consider the Republicans’ claim that small business will be devastated by Obama’s plan to eliminate the Bush tax cuts on incomes above $250,000, a claim that is now a staple on Fox and often repeated on CNBC. In its business section, but not on its front page, the New York Times corrected this claim, showing that only 3 percent of small businesses would be affected. And of those 3 percent, many are not really small but very large subchapter-S corporations or limited partnerships, which the Republicans count as small businesses even though they aren’t.

David Cay Johnson, who for years was a great reporter of tax issues for the New York Times, recently told Keith Olbermann that almost 20,000 of these “small” businesses each had incomes of $50 million or more. They include McIlhenny, the maker of Tabasco Sauce, and Bechtel, which at last report had an annual revenue of $31 billion.

Sometimes a guy just can’t win

One of the most common criticisms of Obama is that he lacks passion. But when he made a speech in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 8—one that anyone who heard it would have to call passionate—the New York Times chose to place its report of the event on page A20. And even that story declined to explain that Obama displayed the precise spirit his critics said he lacked, and that the audience had responded enthusiastically. Instead, the story by Helene Cooper and Jackie Calmes began, “Speaking to rally his struggling party for the final weeks of the midterm election, President Obama delivered his most partisan speech of the campaign.” 

Fitting the narrative, not the news

A similar example of media coverage came after the Obama town meeting hosted by John Harwood on CNBC. Almost all reports of the event led with a black woman who said she had supported Obama but was disappointed. If another comment was quoted from the event, it was usually a critical one by a Wall Streeter. The fact that almost all the other participants in the town meeting spoke warmly to and about Obama was ignored. 

Glass half empty

Even NBC, in a report on the Obama tax proposal that led the Nightly News on September 19, failed to state that under Bill Clinton, the economy, including small businesses, flourished without the Bush tax cuts. And that segment of the news ended with the only “independent” expert quoted, Mark Zandi, speaking against the Obama proposal.

Mad money

Slate has published a fascinating series of articles by our former editor Tim Noah on the history of income inequality in the last century (see “The Great Divergence,” Slate.com). It peaked in the 1920s under Coolidge and Hoover and underwent explosive growth under Ronald Reagan and Bush I, declined a bit under Bill Clinton, and escalated again under George W. Bush.

What fascinated me the most about the history is how each period of growth in inequality coincided with times when making money became a really, really important goal for many of us. During these periods, the assumption seemed to have been that money would buy happiness. Yet a recent study based on data from polling of 450,000 people at all income levels shows that once household income has risen above $75,000, factors other than income determine how you feel getting up in the morning.

On the other hand, the study did find that money influences one’s self-evaluation. The more money people make above $75,000, the more they think of themselves as successful. In other words, even though our daily lives can be filled with stress and gloom, we think we’re doing well simply because we’re making lots of money. Frankly this strikes me as a kind of mass insanity, perhaps because I know it doesn’t have to be that way. I’ve lived through three decades—the ’40s through the ’60s—in which making money was not the primary motivation, yet during which we enjoyed full employment and widely shared prosperity unlike what we have known in the last thirty years.

In case you need a cure for your hiccups

If you need another reason to vote Democratic, consider this: if the Republicans win the House, and if Obama and Biden should be killed, the president of the United States would be John Boehner.

Mediocrity to the barricades

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.


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