Tilting at Windmills

September/October 2011 The Monkey Wrench Gang… All the take that’s fit to print… Corporate jetting to the Hamptons

By Charles Peters

And when those executives went home, it was in style. A review of FAA records by the Journal found that “between 2007 and 2010, dozens of jets operated by public companies made 30% or more of their trips to or from resort locations. Many were places where the executives own homes.”

For example, the jets of one company, Leucadia, racked up 181 arrivals in the Hamptons and 366 in Jackson Hole.

Damage reports needed

When the budget cuts have been made, I hope reporters will take a look at whether the agencies that protect us from things like dangerous financial practices and unsafe food and pharmaceuticals have been left with enough money for effective fact finding and enforcement. Will agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and the National Transportation Safety Board be adequately funded? What about the programs most likely to produce jobs? Answering all of these questions should rank high in journalists’ priorities.

The importance of shop class

One danger that I had not been aware of was reported by Motoko Rich of the New York Times, who has discovered that the Obama administration wants “to shrink the small amount of federal spending for vocational training in public high schools and community colleges.”

My son, who teaches in a public high school, has been telling me for years that one of his big concerns is the shortage of vocational education opportunities for students whose interests and ambitions do not include higher education in the liberal arts. Rich describes one such student, Matthew Kelly of Greensborough, North Carolina. “Kelly regularly skipped homework and was barely passing some of his classes,” Rich writes, yet “tests showed he had a high intellect.”

Rich continues, “Then his guidance counselor suggested he take some courses at a nearby vocational academy for his junior year. For the first time, the sloe-eyed teenager excelled, earning A’s and B’s in subjects like auto repair, electronics and metals technology. ‘When it comes to practicality, I can do stuff really well,’ said Mr. Kelly.”

Rewards of legal education

How do law schools get away with it? That’s the question you have to ask after reading Monthly alumnus David Segal’s recent article in the New York Times revealing that they have raised tuition and fees “four times faster than the soaring cost of college.”

Law schools have become profit centers for universities, generating the cash to subsidize other departments, and many are adding students, “even during the worst recession in the legal profession’s history.” New York Law School increased the size of its 2009 class by 30 percent, even though its students pony up more than they would have to pay at Harvard for a legal education “that ranks in the bottom third of all law schools.”

The answer to why students do this is, for a few, grounded in a genuine passion for the law. For the rest, it is a combination of at least two of the following factors: they can foot the bill through loans or thanks to a family willing and able to pay; they can’t get a job, at least not one they want; or—and this was true of many of my law school classmates—they are simply marking time as they try to figure out what they really want to do with their lives.

It is this larger group that I want to address. You should know that any decent law school is hard work, and, for those without the passion, it is often quite boring. The combination of difficult and dull means you will be in a constant struggle to focus on the material as you desperately search for new ways to keep yourself awake. It would be much better to spend that time in the Peace Corps or find some other kind of useful work—or just read books and have fun—until you’ve made up your mind about your future.

Give or take a year

One aspect of law school I hope Segal will explore is whether its third year makes sense, other than for providing more revenue for the institution and more delay in facing real life for the student. The basic principles of the law and learning how to think—something that liberal arts colleges often fail to teach and that a good law school does provide —are largely imparted in the first year and completely by the end of the second. And by that time, it will be clear whether the student has the combination of aptitude and passion necessary to enjoy actual practice.

A couple of inconvenient facts

Two common Republican accusations against President Obama are that he wasted vast sums on the stimulus and on the bailout of the financial system. Yet, according to the CBO, as reported by Alan Blinder in the Wall Street Journal, the stimulus produced “at least 1.3 million net new jobs and possibly as many as 3.3 million,” and, according to Fortune’s Allan Sloan and Doris Burke, taxpayers are “coming out ahead” on the bailout by “at least $40 billion and possibly as much as $100 billion eventually.”

Hiding in the hedges

Hedge funds manage $1.5 trillion. They promise the investor Madoff-like returns. Yet they have been unregulated until June of this year, when the SEC finally required them to make at least a few disclosures, like their size, ownership, auditors, and potential conflicts of interest. Even those modest requirements do not apply to family funds (including huge ones like George Soros’s) and only got approved by a 3-2 margin, which both Republican commissioners opposed. Despite these disclosures, we still will not know how these funds go about making money, even when they are doing things that drive prices up or down, distorting true values, or threatening the whole financial system by making huge bets that subprime mortgages are just dandy.

Take two

Back to my objection to what I regarded as the author’s excessive “take” in the story by Jackie Calmes. Newspapers began to get into the “take” business back in the 1970s because they felt their readers were getting their facts the night before on television. Now, of course, television (especially cable) and the Web are dominated by opinion. So the importance of the role of newspapers like the Times in supplying the facts has gained renewed importance.

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.


  • POed Lib on September 22, 2011 9:28 PM:

    OK, they would have impeached him. And, so? In many ways, that would be the very best thing that could happen. There is nothing more clarifying than when the Repukeliscum pull the velvet glove off and just do the naked power play. They would have lost HUGE for 2012.

    Don't throw Obama into that briar patch, you repukeliscum!!

  • Steve on September 26, 2011 4:10 PM:

    I'm with @POed Lib here.

    What we have is nothing more than a slow-motion impeachment circus anyhow. I find it hard to believe that thing could get any more stupid.

  • Craigie on October 05, 2011 11:41 PM:

    Since the federal Grad PLUS loan was introduced in July 2006, law schools have had no incentive to restrain annual increases in their gross sticker price. Unlike with Stafford loans, the Grad PLUS loan has no annual maximum borrowing limit, except cost of attendance minus any other financial aid (generally zero at law schools).

  • Reference Librarian on October 10, 2011 9:16 AM:

    Impeachment? On what grounds? The Constitution is quite clear: "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." Obama should have said "Look if the House thinks protecting the full faith and credit of the United States and insuring that laws requiring spending are duly executed is a "high crime" they're welcome to bring their case to the country."