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

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

On a less lofty level, Gates also pointed out that the number of people in military bands now exceeds the number of foreign service officers serving in the State Department in Washington and throughout the world. The Marines alone have thirteen bands, with some 730 musicians. The Army, according to the Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, is spending $4 million to construct a new home in Alabama for the forty members of the Army Material Command band. This seems a bit excessive, since that command has a grand total of only 5,000 officers and enlisted men spread throughout the world. There are, Pincus adds, thirty-six other Army bands, plus eighteen Army Reserve bands, and fifty-three Army National Guard bands. And remember, we haven’t even gotten to all the Air Force and Navy bands serving in the United States and abroad.

Fewer trombonists, more inspectors

On the other hand, at one regulatory agency after another, we see the need for more, not less enforcement personnel. The SEC, the FDA, and the Consumer Products Safety Commission are examples. More recently, the pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California, exposed a need throughout the country either for more inspection or for more rigorous requirements that defective pipes discovered by inspection are repaired or replaced.

Regulation by milquetoasts

Of course, sometimes when there is an adequate number of inspectors, they are conditioned not to make trouble for the inspected. When the Department of Agriculture inspected Wright County Egg in Iowa, later found to be a major source of salmonella, they discovered, according to the Wall Street Journal, “[d]rain clogged, full of shells,” “bugs everywhere,” “cooler floor was dirty, lots of trash,” and “the dry storage area had lots of trash, cartons on the floor everywhere.” These reports came from inspections that occurred from April 1 through August 17 of this year. But the DOA failed to tell the FDA, which is responsible for egg safety, about these problems. The salmonella outbreak occurred a few weeks later. Why didn’t the DOA say anything? “The conditions at the egg plant packing facility were routine.” In other words, the plant has always been a mess, so why speak up now?

The Lipitor loophole

When the Obama administration was working on health care reform, the drug companies reached a deal with the White House to fend off legislation granting government the power to negotiate drug prices. The drug companies promised that when seniors reached the so-called “donut hole”—the point after which seniors must pay full price for drugs otherwise paid for by Medicare—the drug companies would offer a 50 percent discount on name-brand drugs.

But there is a loophole to which seniors should be alert: 50 percent of what? The drug companies are already increasing retail prices. They could continue to do so to the point that a discount of 50 percent off the new price would be equal to 100 percent of the old price. Remember the lesson of history is that private enterprise can do great things, but you have to watch it like a hawk. If you’re not looking, far too many businesses, including drug companies, have proved willing to screw us on the assumption that they can get away with it.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

If our purpose in aiding small business is to create jobs, then we should concentrate on the startups. They are the ones that produce the new jobs, according to recent research reported by Steve Loher in the New York Times. Loans do them little good. What they need, according to Josh Lerner, a professor at Harvard Business School, is equity investment. As I found out when I started this magazine, if you don’t have enough friends willing to bet on you, the sources for that money are the people that Wall Street calls “venture capitalists.” If Wall Streeters truly believed in the pieties they recite about helping the economy, far more of them would be venture capitalists instead of parasitic traders.

War without end, Amen

To me, the most frightening of many frightening quotes from Obama’s Wars by Bob Woodward is this from General Petreaus about the war in Afghanistan:

“You have to recognize also that I don’t think you win this war. I think you keep fighting. It’s a little like Iraq, actually … Yes, there’s been enormous progress in Iraq. But there are still horrific attacks in Iraq, and you have to stay vigilant. You have to stay after it. This is the kind of fight we’re in for the rest of our lives.”

This explains why presidents need to bring plenty of skepticism to the table whenever they seek the military’s advice. Generals think primarily in terms of military solutions to problems. They would have kept us in Vietnam indefinitely, even though it also was a war we could not win. They boxed in Lyndon Johnson just like they boxed in Obama, giving him no option other than escalation.

In 1964 General Maxwell Taylor, alone among the military, briefly stood up against the Pentagon’s desire to escalate. But by 1965 he too was converted. In the case of Afghanistan, only Lt. General Douglas E. Lute is a skeptic, and he is outside the Pentagon, serving as Obama’s deputy national security advisor. 

Ignoring the yellow lights

Before Obama finally went along with the limited escalation, Lute warned him, as Woodward explains, of the following risks:

“First, there was Pakistan, the heart of many of the problems because of Taliban and al-Qaeda havens there. Second, governance and corruption in Afghanistan—huge problems with no practical fix readily available. Third, the Afghan National Security Forces—army and police—probably could not be fixed even with a decade-long effort costing tens of billions of dollars. Fourth, international support from the 41 U.S. allies in Afghanistan was in peril. 

“‘When you look at these [risks] discretely,’ Lute continued, ‘you might be left with the impression we can manage this risk. But I would offer you another model. Look at them as a set, and then you begin to move, in my mind, from a calculated risk to a gamble.’”

During a crucial White House meeting that led to the major escalation in Vietnam in 1965, Johnson’s national security advisor McGeorge Bundy made a similarly impressive case against getting more deeply involved, only to conclude that we had to do so. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said there were answers to most of the doubts Bundy had expressed, but no one  asked him what the answers were—or what he couldn’t answer.

Opposition research

In early August, four days before the Colorado primary, the New York Times published a front-page story that accused Michael Bennet, the former superintendent of Denver public schools and the incumbent candidate for U.S. Senate, of having made exotic investments that threatened the school system’s finances. On the following Monday, the Times’ correction box noted that Jeannie Kaplan, the author’s original source, who was twice directly quoted in the story, was in fact a backer of Bennet’s opponent. Of course the correction ran not on page 1 but on page 3, and without the multi-column headline that had run over the original. The most disturbing fact here is that Gretchen Morgenson, the story’s author, and its editor had both been told about Kaplan’s opposition to Bennet before the article was published. Indeed, the Denver Post seven months earlier revealed that Kaplan, who as a school board member had twice voted to approve the deal, had only come out against it after she joined the campaign of Bennet’s opponent.

The two other school board members who were sources for Morgenson also supported Bennet’s opponent. Indeed one of them was a paid consultant for the opponent, a fact that had been revealed in the Denver Post before Morgenson published her story.

Meanwhile, while nobody was paying attention …

I am amazed at how little reporting I’ve seen about the danger I mentioned in the last issue that the Republicans could win state legislatures this fall and thus control redistricting next year. This would mean more safe districts for Republican candidates, which in turn means more of the far-right wingers who now usually win Republican primaries. As of the beginning of October, only the New York Times has run a front-page story reminding its readers that redistricting will happen next year and will be determined by this fall’s election. 

Pulp this item

Anthony Schaffer, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve and a former Defence Intelligence Agency officer, has written a book, Operation Dark Heart, about his experiences doing intelligence work in Afghanistan. The book was submitted for review by the Army, which, after requiring several changes, approved it for publication. Ten thousand copies had been printed and a hundred or so distributed to potential reviewers and others when suddenly the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies decided that 200 passages contained classified information. Now the Pentagon, reports Scott Shane of the New York Times, “is arranging to buy and pulp” all of the 10,000 copies that have not been distributed.

Among the facts deemed dangerous to national security are that the CIA has a training facility at Camp Peary, Virginia; that “SIGINT” means signals intelligence; and that the NSA, which is based in Fort Meade, Maryland, is nicknamed “the Fort.” Each of these facts has been widely known for years. Doesn’t this raise serious doubts about the intelligence of our intelligence agencies?

And as Colonel Schaffer points out with respect to the redacted pages, the intelligence agencies that cut them are in effect putting them in flashing neon lights for foreign agents who compare the new version with one of the already distributed copies.

Don’t ignore the majority

Liberals’ reaction to reproaches from Obama about not “being serious” and from Joe Biden about “whining” have largely consisted of further criticism of the president and his administration. Consider Peter Birkenhead’s quote, “I’ll quit whining when you start fighting,” in Salon.

Birkenhead cites a recent poll finding that 55 percent of likely voters believe Obama is a socialist—and proceeds to blame Obama for their mistake. I blame Wall Streeters, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and his pals at Fox News—and the failure of liberals to care about persuading the majority of Americans that the lies about Obama are indeed lies.

The liberal media tends to dismiss as fools those who believe the lies. Even my favorite comedians, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, are guilty of this kind of condescension.

What Obama needs, and what Franklin Roosevelt was blessed in having, is someone like Will Rogers, a great comedian who spoke down-to-earth common sense and who was loved by the great majority of Americans. His gentle humor about the plutocrats who hated Roosevelt and about our need to help our neighbors who were down and out was much more influential than historians credit with persuading the average man to embrace the New Deal.

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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