- About C.P - Send a letter to Charles Peters

Every Issue of The Monthly with Tilting at Windmills delivered to your door: Subscribe Online Today

with Charles Peters
Remember all those stories about how military action would be impossible after October because of the snow that would blanket Afghanistan? Well, the fall of Kandahar didn't occur until December, and did you see any snow, even then? Of course, there is snow in the high mountains, but there are palm trees in Jalalabad. Another example comes from CNN's David Ensor, who referred to the airport at Kandahar as "just an airstrip." In fact, it was built to serve as an international airport in a multimillion-dollar project that was considered one of the Agency for International Development's major boondoggles of the 1960s. The problem here is the tendency of reporters and commentators to feel that they have to appear knowledgeable about subjects of which they're totally ignorant. This, alas, is not a tendency confined to Afghanistan.


So far there hasn't been much support for my campaign to fight the recession with more public spending instead of with more tax cuts. But I remain convinced that it is the way to go. A recent story by Jacques Steinberg in The New York Times explains why. The article's headline is "Economy Puts Schools in Tough Position, Budget Cuts Conflict With Pressure to Improve Student Performance." Steinberg reports that school budgets are being trimmed "from New York to California." Does that make any sense at all?


The airport in Fresno, California, has installed advanced face-recognition technology to spot terrorists before they can board planes. It matches features of passengers to pictures of known terrorists at 26 points on the face, according to John Johnson of the Los Angeles Times, and when a match is found, an alarm goes, "Whoop, whoop, whoop!" The only problem is that so far all the matches have been false. Even an executive of the company that manufactures the system was identified as a terrorist.


Norman Mineta has less than 11 months left to hire and train 28,000 screeners for the nation's airports. This is obviously a daunting task, and Mineta needs all the help he can get. So here are a few suggestion based on my experience as one of those who started a new agency, the Peace Corps, from scratch in 1961.

First, put major emphasis on active recruitment; we did not sit and wait for applications, we flooded the nation's campuses with recruiting teams. Our leader, Sargent Shriver, put great store in recruiting---everyone on the staff knew he had to do his part or face the boss's displeasure. After we had cast a wide net to persuade recruits to apply, we instituted a rigorous selection program that eliminated those who didn't have the right stuff. Then we provided adequate training before they went on the job. In the beginning, some of that training wasn't very good, but we had a system of feedback that made sure we fixed what was wrong.

Both the recruiting and selection procedures for the screeners should draw on studies of the people who have actually turned out to be the best of the current screeners. A former FAA security chief says, "The best screeners were elderly widows. They had great powers of concentration and weren't worried about having a date or going out for a beer."

One problem with the screening job is that it is cruelly monotonous, looking at a screen or searching bags all day, every day. To meet this problem, The Washington Post's Stephen Barr reports that transportation department officials are planning to have screeners "rotate jobs, such as pulling passengers out of line for Śwanding,' searching airplanes each morning, and walking through airports as Śrovers' checking for potential security problems." One model Barr suggests is the Coast Guard, which "trains its staff to work in a variety of jobs, such as search and rescue, law enforcement, engineering, and navigation" and "is known for instilling pride and camaraderie in its personnel."


Speaking of the Peace Corps, how could Bush have dared nominate as its new director a man so totally unqualified as Gaddi Vasquez? He has no background in either international or humanitarian efforts, and his experience as a public official consisted of supervising the loss of $1.64 billion in bad investment of the funds of Orange County, California. He did, however, contribute $100,000 to the Republican National Committee for the 2000 election.


In early December, it was revealed that, just before Enron filed for bankruptcy and laid off 4,000 employees, it gave $55 million in bonuses to its executives. Even worse, Ken Lay, Enron's president who had refused to let his employees sell the Enron stock in their 401(k) plans, had made a $25 million profit selling Enron stock last year and $125 million selling it the year before.

The prohibition against sales of stock by employees was not confined to Enron. Far from it. The Wall Street Journal's Ellen E. Schultz and Theo Francis report that "millions of rank-and-file workers at hundreds of companies have found themselves shackled to big chunks of company stock while executives are able to exercise wide latitude in what to do with theirs."

Enron may turn out to be the best example yet to support this magazine's contention that the problem is not too much regulation but too little regulation that is both tough and smart. Its contracts for the buying and selling of energy were exempted from regulation during Bush-the-elder's administration by the Commodity Futures Trading Corporation, then headed by Wendy Gramm, wife of the Republican Senator from Texas, who later wound up on Enron's board. Ken Lay has made sure his influence continued with the younger Bush by arranging contributions of more than $2 million to the Republicans. Lay also became a close friend of Bush's. Can you imagine what the media would have done with these facts if Bill Clinton were in Bush's shoes?


Anthropologists used to be accused of devoting too much attention to ancient cultures and not enough to the modern world. Not anymore, according to a report by The Washington Post's Ken Ringle of the 2001 annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Among the papers delivered were "Bike Lust---Harleys, Women, and American Society," "Picture Novels and Canned Peas in Urban Cameroon," "Queer Zionism: Nationalism and Sexuality in Popular Israeli Television," and "Contrasting Cultural Styles in U.S. Garage Sale Bargaining."


One aspect of recent Christ-mas seasons that I don't like is the displacement of Christmas carols by secular music in the form of pop songs that celebrate the Christmas season but are devoid of religious content. It's not that I don't like some of the popular music, but I love the carols to which television and radio have been devoting less and less time. I suspect this is done by broadcasters to avoid offending people of other religions. But I really doubt that the broadcasters are right. One of the indisputable glories of Christianity is its music---music that everyone can enjoy. Harry Golden, the best-selling Jewish writer of the 1950s, was the father of one of my closest friends. One of his greatest pleasures was singing Christian hymns. Woody Allen is not a Baptist, but a film about his jazz group's European tour features three Baptist hymns.


Among the thorniest problems that college and university administrators have to deal with are those presented by student-faculty romance. After an article by one of William & Mary's instructors, Sam Kashner, appeared in GQ describing the school as a "sexual nosh pit" full of sexually adventurous young women he was unable to resist, the school banned "amorous" relationships between pupils and teachers.

The New York Times' article about William & Mary mentions that in the 1940s and 1950s Bennington College in Vermont was also "legendary for free-wheeling sex." In 1949, Bennington's President Frederick Burkhardt called me to discuss the possibility of my joining the Bennington faculty. His enthusiasm vanished when I explained that I was still a senior at Columbia College and not the Ph.D. candidate that he thought I was. But I have to admit that my excitement at the prospect was unbounded precisely because of Bennington's reputation as a sexual paradise.

Jane Gallup, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has written, again according to the Times, "about her affairs first with a professor at Cornell and later with her students, saying that they led her to a new level of intellectual and creative energy." Gallup, continues the Times, "once joked at a conference on gay and lesbian studies that Śmy sexual preference is graduate students' then French kissed in public the student she was advising."

Since there's always a possibility that a Sam Kashner or a Jane Gallup or a young Charlie Peters could turn up on a faculty, it's probably a good idea for colleges to prohibit amorous relationships between faculty and undergraduates. Graduate students should be mature enough to make their own decisions, except when the professor, like Gallup, evaluates their work. Like the commandment against adultery, this ban is certain not to enjoy total compliance, but at least it will make people think twice.


On the back of the green cards issued by the Immigration and Naturalization Service is a digital fingerprint written with a laser and impossible to copy. The card, according to the Los Angeles Times, is capable of encoding information about a person's hair, eyes, face, and voice, and has been issued to more than 5 million non-citizens living in the United States. There is just one catch: The INS has never installed machines that can read the cards.


Back to Enron. There were actually three kinds of deregulation that led to the scandal. One was the exemption from commodities futures regulation granted by Wendy Gramm. We learned about commodities futures in the movie Trading Places when Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd thwarted the attempt by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche to manipulate the price of orange-juice futures. Hillary Clinton's windfall from pork belly futures---remember Red Bone?---was another example of the public's need to keep an eye on what's going on with these futures contracts.

Enron also benefited from the deregulation of energy itself. Deregulation works when there are enough suppliers who actually compete to keep prices at reasonable levels. It does not work when there are not enough suppliers or they don't really compete, or when suppliers and buyers are manipulated by a predatory middle man---think Enron. "Enron was the seller to every buyer, and the buyer to every seller," said one energy economist.

According to The Washington Post, Enron made contracts with the seller and with the buyer and neither found out what the other paid or was paid. Nor did the public.

The third kind of regulatory failure revealed by Enron's collapse involves the accounting industry. As this magazine has pointed out many times, and as was beautifully detailed in a December series by the Post's David Hilzenrath, the basic problem is that the accounting firms are tempted to make their audits pleasing to the management of the company that hires them. "Though auditors should regard the investing public as their clients," observes Warren Buffet, "they tend to kowtow to the manager who chose them. ŚWhose bread I eat his song shall I sing.'"

The Monthly has a solution. Let auditors be chosen by a third party, perhaps the SEC. They could be paid by the company they audit and still not be tempted to shade the facts in the company's favor if they know the company can neither hire or fire them.

Accountants should also be forbidden to have other business dealings with the companies they audit. As things stand now, writes Hilzenrath, "the major accounting firms make more money from selling clients advice than they do from auditing their books." Last year, for example, Ernst & Young billed Sprint $2.5 million for auditing and $63.8 million for other services, meaning Ernst & Young had that much more reason to provide Sprint with a pleasing audit.

The self-regulating efforts of the accounting industry are as laughable as those of the medical and legal professions. Arthur Levitt, the Clinton administration's SEC chairman, says the industry's self-regulator, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, "seems unable to discipline its own members for violations of its own standards of professional conduct." It even cleared Nixon-buddy Maurice Stans after he pled guilty to criminal charges for his handling of campaign contributions during Watergate. Incredibly, Stans had been a president of AICPA.


National anxiety about terrorism has had at least one good effect: People have at last realized the importance of the Centers for Disease Control. Maybe the CDC will finally receive adequate funding. It has, in the words of Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times, "long been asked to do too much with too little. Its buildings date back to World War II and are crumbling. Expensive equipment is stored in hallways and draped with plastic sheeting to protect it from rain dropping from the ceiling." This agency has life and death importance for us all. How can we be so incredibly stupid as to shortchange it?


I have no doubt that George W. Bush told the truth when he said that the Secret Service urged him not to return directly to Washington,D.C., after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and I have no doubt that he is telling the truth when he says the Secret Service advised him not to let the public in the White House to see the Christmas decorations. But in both cases, he was wrong to follow their advice. Our president belonged in Washington on that day of peril, and, as many others have observed, Bush was inconsistent in urging tourists to travel while telling them not to visit his house. True, these were relatively minor matters. But they do suggest that Bush is a man who follows his advisers instead of being a leader.


You may wonder why that anthrax letter addressed to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) found its way to a State Department mailroom. The answer appears to be that the post office's optical scanner read a "1" as a "2." That wasn't easy, for as you may have noticed, the anthrax terrorist, although he may be a criminal or a lunatic or both, has excellent penmanship. His printing couldn't be clearer.

Some of you may recall that letter I received at my Washington home, although it was plainly addressed to someone in Wyoming. A retired postal employee wrote us explaining that it happened because the screening machine saw that several key numbers were identical and therefore misdirected the letter, even though the address was clearly wrong. Wouldn't it be better to go back to having human beings read the addresses?


Liberals assume government is good, just as conservatives assume virtue in private business---or as they like to say, the market. Both tend to think of nonprofit institutions like the Red Cross as benign. But the lesson this magazine has tried to teach is that the media must continually keep an eye on our major institutions, whether they're government, corporate, or nonprofit. The Red Cross is the latest example. Now we know it collected hundreds of thousands of pints of blood it had no way to store. Now we know the donations it collects for one purpose are used for others. And the World Trade Center victims are not the only example. The same thing happened with money collected for the Oklahoma City victims, who got only one-fourth of the amount raised on their behalf. When nearly $16 million was donated for victims of the Red River flood in 1997, report Mary Pat Flaherty and Gilbert M. Gaul of The Washington Post, the attorney general of Minnesota had to resort to public hearings to collect. In San Diego, the Red Cross spent funds raised for wildfire victims to buy vehicles and upgrade its telephone system.

The Red Cross has also been guilty of so many safety violations in its handling of blood that the Food and Drug Administration took it to court, resulting in a 1993 consent decree under which the Red Cross promised to make improvements. Unfortunately, eight years later the improvements have not been enough to get the decree lifted. Among the problems, according to Gaul and Flaherty, "was the release of blood products that tested positive for a virus that could cause retardation and liver damage in infants."

Red Cross lawyers inadvertently revealed the seriousness of the problem when they argued that an FDA proposal to fine the organization $15,000 per day for each violation would cost the Red Cross $15 million a year.


I hope that the recent boomlet for national service will get one group of Americans thinking about the service they never performed. It is composed of all those who either avoided the Vietnam draft or, after that draft ended, never seemed to consider what they might do for their country. We're not talking about a tiny cohort here. There must be at least a hundred million boomers and Xers who are healthy enough to serve. If they would just start doing what they should have done before, they could be a mighty force for good. But I fear they will be content to express their patriotism by answering George W. Bush's ennobling call to "do their business."


The rich do have a way of smoothing out those annoying bumps along the road of life. For example, you and I have to worry about returning to the parking meter to put another coin in before time expires. That's not the way it works in affluent Greenwich, Connecticut. There, reports The New York Times, as the Bentleys and Jaguars pull into the parking lot of Greenwich Avenue, their drivers are greeted by attendants wearing black bow ties who for a fee will save them the trouble of returning every two hours to put more quarters in the meter.


Ariel Sharon does not appear to be the wisest leader Israel could have at this crucial moment. He tells Arafat to restore law and order on the West Bank, and then proceeds to blow up one Palestinian police station after another. As David Ignatius, a Monthly alumnus who later reported on the Middle East for several years, points out in The Washington Post, Sharon is the architect of past disasters in which his tough-guy policies have only inflamed the Arabs.

His order to Arafat to crack down on Hamas ignores the fact that Hamas, thanks at least in part to Sharon's policies, has more popular support than Arafat's Fatah. In a recent poll, reported by James Bennet in The New York Times, Hamas has the support of 31 percent of Palestinians, compared to 20 percent for Fatah. The numbers were the reverse just a few months before Sharon took power. Even more disturbing is the news that the situation is much worse among Palestinian youth. At a recent university election, Hamas supporters defeated Fatah by 60 percent to 34 percent.

Bennet also worked here before he joined the Times and I know him to be a perceptive and fair-minded reporter. His words are worth attention:

"Palestinians argue that the Israeli military kills civilians. Israelis argue that unlike suicide bombers they do not kill civilians on purpose. Most Palestinians do not value that distinction. It is hard to understand for those who have not experienced it the rage felt even by elite Palestinians over their treatment by Israeli soldiers." Still, Bennet finds hope in two facts. First, most Palestinians favor a two-state solution, meaning the coexistence of Palestine and Israel. Second, support for Hamas falls as prospects for peace increase.

What that means to me is that we should press Sharon to drop his relentless eye-for-an-eye policy and start talking peace. At the same time, we and our allies should press the Arab states that support Hamas to make it stop its terrorist attacks and abandon its opposition to Israel's continued existence.

"What both sides have to give up most of all," writes Ignatius, "is the belief that they can intimidate or terrorize the other into submission."

Home Links About Staff Email Submissions Search Subscribe

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2002
The Washington Monthly 733 15th St. Nw Washington DC. 20005. 202-393-5155
Comments or Questions or whatever ... please email Christina Larson by clicking here