Tilting at Windmills

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

By Charles Peters

Though its result was understandable, the recent District of Columbia election was bad news in that it represented a successful revolt of the tenured class. By firing bad teachers, the Fenty administration and its school chancellor, Michelle Rhee, posed a threat to every mediocre teacher and civil servant. Unfortunately the tenured also have political power in many other parts of the country, where they constitute a similar obstacle to school and bureaucratic reform. Fortunately the public at large seems to be waking up to the problems of tenure, stimulated in part by Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, Waiting for Superman. It’s not that tenure is always bad. Indeed, when wise decisions have been made in selecting those that are given tenure, it is certainly defensible. But too often, both in education and government, tenure has been awarded almost automatically—without regard to merit—to those who have been employed for two or three years. 

No easy fixes

The former Monthly editor Nicholas Lemann recently observed in the New Yorker that “the clear implication of most school reform writing these days—that abolishing tenure would increase student learning—is an unproven assumption.” I wanted to be sure I understood, so I called Nick and asked him for clarification. He said he did not mean that he favors tenure—indeed, he is not at all sure that he does—but he wanted to caution against thinking that abolishing tenure would be the “silver bullet” that magically turns bad schools into good ones. 

Government spending on you is excessive. Government spending on me is perfect.

The self-protective concerns of the tenured are part of a much larger problem in the nation as a whole. It is a concern for “holding on to mine” without regard to the public interest. Consider Wall Streeters’ determination to preserve their wildly excessive incomes, even if it means opposing reforms that could benefit the whole economy. And the major problem for Obama right now is the anger of seniors at his health care reform, which they perceive as a threat to Medicare. The Tea Partiers now attribute their anger to a wide variety of grievances, including the deficit and big government, but it all began last summer at those town meetings, where we saw one senior after another screaming that he didn’t want the government messing with his Medicare. 

If you’re looking to cut the size of government …

One mistake Tea Partiers make when they rant about big government is that they fail to discriminate. Sometimes government is too big. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has recently pointed out, the Pentagon’s military bureaucracy needs trimming. He proposes a 5 percent reduction in the number of generals and admirals. In fact, even more cuts could be made. A veteran Pentagon critic, Winslow Wheeler, notes that during World War II, we had one general for every 6,382 enlisted men. Now we have one for every 1,519 soldiers. Even more dramatic is the contrast between today’s American forces and the most effective armies of history—the Israeli force that won the spectacular victory in the 1967 war, which had a ratio of one general to 6,916 enlisted men, and the Roman army of 52 AD, which had a ratio of one to 8,711.

Marching madness

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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