That the politics of special interest has come to be accepted as the American way is suggested by this statement by a Hispanic candidate for mayor of East Chicago who, along with a black candidate, lost to a white even though the local population is 45 percent Hispanic and 30 percent black: “I’d call it a story for Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.”
The New York Times account of the election went on to call it “perplexing that the Hispanic voters do not vote for Hispanic candidates.” Nowhere in the entire story was it suggested that the Hispanics might have chosen to vote for the best candidate, regardless of race, or that indeed this is precisely what they should have done….
History has recorded Ronald Reagan’s high moral outrage at the shooting down of the Korean airline by the Russians in September. But what happened when an Angolan jetliner crashed in November with a loss of 126 lives and the pro-Western Angolan insurgents proudly claimed credit for shooting it down? From the White House came no long statements of outrage, not even a word of protest. . . .
Thanks to the Reagan tax changes, corporate tax cheating is no longer a major problem. How’s that, you ask? “Corporations don’t have much of a tax gap anymore,” explains Dennis Cox of the IRS, “because they don’t pay very much tax.”. . .
You may recall that the reason the Air Canada copilot couldn’t put out the fire in the toilet was that the plane had the wrong kind of extinguisher. The FAA has reacted to this problem with its usual bold decisiveness. It has under study a “draft proposal” to require two universal fire extinguishers aboard each plane. This is not one of those cases where the cost of safety is astronomical or even large. The extinguishers are cheap, and practically anyone but the FAA would require their immediate installation on all commercial aircraft.
One of the favorite strategies of the FAA is to blame the pilot for anything that goes wrong. Thus they take on only one man, not an entire company or industry—and often that man is dead anyway, having been killed in the crash. So it was not surprising that when the National Transportation Safety Board told the FAA that there was an “unacceptably high” risk that a plane coming into Washington’s National Airport might strike one of the Rosslyn high-rises that border the flight path, the FAA replied that “pilot error” was responsible in the cases where jets had come too close to the buildings. Elizabeth Dole, the secretary of Transportation, couldn’t stomach that one and overruled the FAA at least to the extent of considering the possibility that the Safety Board might be right.
And in one recent case in which the FAA at last seemed to be trying to do the right thing, it now appears to be backing off. For years, planes coming into and leaving National Airport have followed just two flight paths. This was bad news for the people who lived underneath as planes often thundered overhead every minute or two. So this fall the FAA got its act together and decided to try out a “scatter plan,” under which the flight paths would be spread out over the entire area and the noise burden would be shared, instead of falling disproportionately on one group. The predictable result happened. A lot of people who were having jets fly over their houses for the first time complained, and complained loudly. J. Lynn Helms, the FAA’s administrator, has responded by indicating that the agency will abandon the scatter plan when the experimental period ends this month. The reasoning is the same as with “blame the pilot.” Don’t do what’s right, do what angers the smallest number of people or the weakest lobby.
I wish we had some leaders brave enough to campaign for the scatter plan and to let all the people of the area vote on it. That would be a good test of whether we can put an end to the politics of selfishness, of whether the people are willing to do their part to share common burdens….
The Washington Post‘s Hobart Rowen has joined the small group of us who are calling on American car manufacturers to reclaim the customers they have lost by cutting prices. Instead Detroit is taking advantage of the economic recovery and the import quota on Japanese cars to raise prices. The quota has in effect created a cartel in which both Detroit and the Japanese are charging higher prices. Rowen says that Japanese cars are now being sold here for triple their normal profit. . . .
The American steel industry is following in Detroit’s footsteps. National Steel, about which there is more on page 34, recently raised its prices by 6 percent on the heels of 7 percent raises by Bethlehem Steel and U.S. Steel. They, too, should be cutting their prices and seeking to regain lost markets….
Now for our monthly item on lawyers. Melvin Belli, the famous personal injury attorney from San Francisco, is going to have a busy winter. “Deduct Your Trips to Hawaii,” says an ad in the December 5 issue of National Law Journal, offering weekly seminars on medical malpractice. “Ski! and Study,” says an ad in the December 7 issue of Legal Times, offering weekly tax deductible seminars on the same subject in Colorado. Belli is the featured speaker in both ads. . . .
Finally, USA Today reports:
“About 100 lawyers shelled out $160 for a seminar in Boston Monday on ‘Winning Strategies in Drunk Driving Cases’. Continuing Education Seminars of Annandale, Virginia, will stage 15 such seminars in major cities this fall and winter. One lawyer won five cases with tips picked up at a seminar. His fee per case jumped from $300 to $1,500.” And think what a warm feeling it gave him inside to realize he had helped all those drunken drivers escape punishment. . . .
The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union is celebrating. It has succeeded in persuading a federal judge to outlaw a cottage industry that enabled hundreds of Vermonters to make a living in their homes. It began 25 years ago when Annbel Moriarty knitted a hat for her’ son, Marvin, who was a member of the national ski team.
“He,” as Dudley Clendinen of The New York Times tells the story, “liked it, as did his teammates, as did the shop owners to whom Marvin showed it. One winter, he took orders for 20,000 hats. Mrs. Moriarty began giving out knitting to other women,” and other companies sprang up to make similar hats.
“Knitters all over the state bought machines to aid the work,” Clendinen continues. “When winter brought isolation to their village, they sat inside making hats, scarves, and sweaters. ‘Handcrafted in Vermont,’ their labels said.”
The people who do the knitting range from “young mothers with kids at home to farmers with cows at home to women who don’t want to stand at a check-out counter all day,” to couples in their sixties like Roland and Virginia Gray who live in a house on a valley road powdered and banked with snow just out of Greensboro Bend and downstream from East Calais. “The Grays get less than $400 a month from Social Security. ‘Our knitting is our work,’ says Mrs. Gray.”
Why then does the ILGWU want to take that work away from them? Because it contends that allowing work in the home would make it impossible to enforce minimum wage, overtime, and child labor laws.
Of course such abuses are possible, but don’t you know a lot of people who would still rather work at home than in some factory? In other words, does the risk of possible abuse outweigh the immense human value ofletting people who want to work at home do so? Maybe the unions ought to ponder the fact that the same Bob Dylan who gave us “Blowing in the Wind” and “Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” is now singing “Union Sundown,” with these words, “I can foresee the day when even your home garden is gonna be against the law.”…
If you can possibly avoid buying any drug made by Eli Lilly and Company, I urge you to do so to reward it for putting Oraflex on the market in the United States even though it knew the drug had been connected to 32 deaths overseas, where it was already on sale.
Lilly’s defense was that an FDA regulation requiring immediate reporting of any alarming findings about a medicine under investigation did not apply to a medicine that was obtained commercially by those who died. Fortunately a jury in Columbus, Georgia, saw this argument for the sick joke it was and in November returned a $6 million verdict against Lilly in the case of an Oraflex death.
Of course, as The Washington Post’s fine investigative reporter, Morton Mintz, points out, that’s a minor sum for Lilly. They made $30 million marketing Oraflex before the law caught up with them. . . .
I was delighted to see that The Nation had won the most recent round of the Gerald Ford case, in which Ford was contending The Nation did not have a right to print part of his book about his presidency. It seems to me that former or present public officials who attempt to exploit their public experience for private profit should be told that experience belongs to the public, not to them. So I congratulate The Nation for this victory. But I can’t congratulate it for its reporting, at least where it concerns us.
To illustrate the curious sense of fairness that Christopher Hitchens brought to his report in the November 5 Nation of The Washington Monthly’s Conference on Neoliberalism, compare what he says motivates our concern about the public schools—”when Peters calls for educational reform, he does so because he believes it will make the United States able ‘to compete economically with other technologically advanced countries'”—with the statement of mine from which he took the quote:
“Our concern about the public school system illustrates a central element of neoliberalism: it is at once pragmatic and idealistic. Our practical concern is that public schools have to be made better, much better, if we are to compete economically with other technologically advanced countries, if we are to have more Route 128s and Silicon Valleys.
“Our idealistic concern is that we have to make these schools better if the American dream is to be realized. Right now there is not a fair chance for all because too many children are receiving a bad education. The urban public schools have in fact become the principal instrument of class oppression in America, keeping the lower orders in their place while the upper class sends its children to private schools.”
By telling only one side of the neoliberal story—the pragmatic one—and concealing from his readers the idealistic side, Hitchens seriously misrepresented us. That he did so deliberately is clear from the fact that one part of the quote immediately adjoins the other. This is not something for The Nation to be proud of. . . .
When you hear federal employees complain about how underpaid they are, just remember that the average salary of a white-collar federal worker in the Washington area is now $30,363. There’s no misprint. The word is “average” and the salary is $30,363. . . .
Michael J. Montgomery was the head of the social science department at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. He was, according to a recent article in the Winston-Salem Journal, generally regarded as “intelligent, personable, and a good administrator” who “did a first-rate job.” One assistant professor said, “In 22 years of teaching, of all the principals and chairpersons I’ve had, he was certainly one of the finest.”
But Montgomery is no longer at Winston-Salem. He was forced to resign. It was discovered that he didn’t have a doctorate—how, after all can you have a chairperson who doesn’t have a doctorate—he didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree. But he was the same man—”first-rate,” “one of the finest.” Why should the presence or absence of paper credentials make one bit of difference? . . .
When I was traveling through the Third World for the Peace Corps in the sixties, I would often hear that the local paper had run a story saying our volunteers were agents of the CIA, of which Sargent Shriver was the secret head. The story was false of course, but I suspect a lot of people in a lot of countries believed it.
I was reminded of this experience by Glenn Frankel’s recent story in The Washington Post about an article that had appeared in a Zimbabwe newspaper alleging that the United States was planning to test and deploy cruise missiles in South Africa. Frankel learned that the allegation had originally appeared in the Mozambique press; from there it had spread to Ethiopia, Mali, Zambia, the Seychelles, and Angola.
Frankel says American officials believe the story’s widespread appearances have been “orchestrated by the KGB.” Certainly we entertained similar suspicions in the Peace Corps. It is not hard to plant stories in the Third World. Corruption among journalists there is
not uncommon and selling news space is often an accepted practice. But I doubt if such stories would find an audience ready and willing to believe them were it not for the various insanities, like the attempts to assassinate Castro and Lumumba, that our intelligence agencies have proved themselves capable of.
Domestically, this insanity was at its height with the FBI’s Cointelpro. Veteran Monthly readers will recall that some of the more ludicrous activities were revealed in our J. Edgar Hoover Memorial Series of the Memo of the Month. Last month I was sent two more of these messages that had been found in FBI files. One told of the preparation of a caricature depicting Huey Newton as a homosexual. Another addressed to “Director, FBI,” from the Detroit office reads:
“Detroit’s proposal regarding stealing of BPP [Black Panther Party] funds by DAVID HILLIARD could be accomplished as follows:
“By directing a letter addressed to NEWTON which should be mailed from Sweden. San Francisco would be in a better position to determine how a letter should be addressed to get to NEWTON. Mailing could be handled by Legat or by SA’s assigned to guarding planes.
“The letter itself would be from a deserter from the California area who got drafted and deserted. Deserter is a black power advocate and was associated with BPP movement in California. San Francisco could possibly supply data of known hangouts of BPP members where deserters and homosexuals might also frequent. He is now residing in Switzerland, and awaiting the day of the revolution so he can return to the United States and help ‘kill the pigs.” In the letter the fictitious deserter would indicate he has become acquainted with and has an affair going with a homosexual who works in a Swiss bank handling numbered accounts. The letter could further indicate the homosexual’s great admiration for HUEY NEWTON and NEWTON’S alliance with the Gay Liberation Movement. The homosexual was attracted to the deserter when he noticed deserter with a copy of the Black Panther newspaper. Through relationship deserter has ascertained that HILLIARD has a numbered account and has a considerable amount of money ‘stashed’ away. Homosexual has not mentioned amount, however, deserter concerned whether HILLIARD is stealing from BPP thereby forestalling the revolution or whether this is the way ‘NEWTON’ has set up to ‘stash’ funds.
“Deserter could indicate that he suspects homosexual may be in contact with HILLIARD on a periodic basis as homosexual seems to have access to obtaining BPP newspapers.
“Letter could end with deserter stating he would not identify himself in case letter did not reach NEWTON’s hands. Letter should be couched in obscenities and BPP phraseology.”
When we’re capable of things like that, we can hardly be surprised that the world leaps to believe the worst about us. . . .
There are two questions to be asked about our intelligence agencies.. First, does what they are doing represent wise policy? Second, are they doing it well? Cointelpro clearly failed both. As for the second question, among the disturbing bits and pieces of information that have emerged since our invasion of Grenada was this fact about the mental hospital we blew up: it wasn’t on our maps because we didn’t have good maps until we captured them from the Grenadans.
Another fact, upon which both the BBC and The Manchester Guardian agree, is that we lost between 12 and 20 helicopters. The BBC’s Brian Barron says that the Cubans used SAM missiles and wire-guided antitank weapons “with devastating effect” against the helicopters, which sadly confirms Gregg Easterbrook’s predictions (see “All Aboard, Air Oblivion,” September 1981) of the fate our helicopters would meet in combat. . . .
I can’t resist one more item about our friends of the bar. “Microcomputers Ease Trust and Estate Practice,” reads the headline in Legal Times. The story beneath said that “with the help of sophisticated computer systems, the labor-intensive area of trust and estates will become more cost-effective.” This is a delicate way of dealing with a fact about which most lawyers hope their clients remain innocent. It is that most wills and trust documents are composed largely of boilerplate—clauses, paragraphs, whole sections that are used over and over again. Much of the art of document drafting lies in selecting and combining various boilerplate items. But now, instead of having to look through his form books and files each time, and having his secretary laboriously type up the new combination, he can simply push a few buttons and out comes the finished product. The fee, of course, will remain the same. . . .
In 1958, we conducted our last test of nuclear weapons on Bikini Island in the Pacific. Twenty-six years have gone by without further nuclear contamination. But the Bikini Atoll Rehabilitation Committee, according to The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus, says that the island will “remain uninhabitable for a century if no measures are undertaken to remove the radioactive contaminents from the soil.” To do that, to make the island habitable again, would cost $100 million. Perhaps those hard-line right-wingers who don’t mind incinerating a few million people in a nuclear war will at least be deterred by the taxes they’ll have to pay for the clean-up. Bikini is two square miles. That means the postwar cleanup will cost $50 million per square mile. . . .
Television stations, if not gold mines, will certainly do until the real thing comes along. The latest figures available show that their profits rose 25 percent in 1982 to an average per station, including those in the smallest towns, of $1.25 million. All of which reminds me to remind you once more of The Washington Monthly‘s answer to the problem of television licenses. These licenses, which in effect entitle the holder to print money, are given away by the government. We should either charge for them—how about 50 percent of the profits each year—or, better still, let the owners run for reelection every few years. That way voters can throw out the owner who is giving them lousy programs with too many commercials and try someone else who promises to do better. And if that owner doesn’t keep his promises, they can vote him out in the next election. This really isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Previous licensees could be protected from capital loss by requiring the new licensee to buy or rent their physical plant at a fair price. . . .
The civilian employee of the Air Force who is least likely to be promoted this year is named Thomas Amlie. He is an auditor who in September wrote a memorandum to the Air Force’s budget office charging that the armed forces pay “outrageous” prices for weapons because the officers who do the buying don’t want to offend defense contractors who might give them lucrative jobs upon retirement. Instead they try to please. “The big spenders are,” writes Amlie, “rewarded with cushy jobs after leaving the government.”
Since we are often severe in our criticism of bureaucrats, we would like to praise those who do truly outstanding work or who perform with unusual courage, like Amlie. So if you know one, please write me, describing what the employee does that deserves special praise. . . .
We’ve found some surprising allies rallying to the support of some of our causes. The American Medical Association has come out against the insanity defense, and Business Week is taking on the public accounting firms that give clean bills of health to companies that go belly up a few months later. Business Week’s solution to the problem is “some acknowledgement by accounting firms that audit partners must be insulated from the pressures to keep the clients happy. Their careers and their incomes should not depend on hanging onto a fat auditing contract at the expense of the integrity of the auditing function. If it means forgoing some profits, so be it.”
I’m delighted that Business Week is willing to go this far but I fear it is not far enough. However he is insulated from pressure, the auditing partner is still going to be reluctant to take bread out of the mouths of his partners. A better solution to the problem is to completely eliminate the pressure to please the client by having the auditing firm selected not by him but by a third party such as the SEC. . . .
Canadian justice seems to have that same sweet solicitude for the wealthy criminal that has long been such a pillar of our own legal system. The Amway Corporation was guilty of criminal fraud against the Canadian government amounting to $28 million. The four top officials of the corporation could have gotten up to ten years in prison. What happened? Charges against them were dropped; the company paid a fine. . . .
As for the state of American justice, consider that this month Dan White will be released from a California prison just five years and two months after he murdered George Moscone, the mayor of San Francisco, and Harvey Milk, a city supervisor, by firing bullets point-blank into their brains. White’s defense, you will recall, was that he ate too many Twinkies and got depressed.
A final item to add to our list is the case of a woman in West Virginia who was forced to engage in oral sex with three deputy sheriffs. One was granted immunity in exchange for his agreement to testify against the others. Each of the men got off with a fine and probation. They were officers of the law who had committed a violent crime. It was, as the state president of the National Organization for Women said, “like a grade-B southern sheriff movie.”. . .
I am worried—really worried—about the possibility that the Syrians or some terrorist group will score a lucky hit and sink the New Jersey or one of our carriers off the coast of Lebanon and that Reagan will then feel he has to retaliate with an equally harsh blow and suddenly we’ll find ourselves at war.
The Falkland Islands demonstrated the vulnerability of surface ships to guided missiles. This magazine has long maintained that the Navy should rely far less on surface vessels, and far more on submarines. Instead we are steadily reducing the number of submarines, while building more and more sitting ducks. . . .
I’m beginning to suspect that Ben Bradlee has me wired. Just as we go to press saying that The Washington Post doesn’t do enough substantive local stories, a flurry of them appears, forcing us to moderate our tone and concede that the paper is not totally devoid of virtue. In the week we were going to press with the story that begins on page 14, for example, the Post carried major stories on the educational impact of increased expenditures by the area school systems—the money went to “new programs and increased personnel benefits for employees rather than upgrading the traditional academic core”—and on the District of Columbia’s “haphazard and inefficient” tax collection system. . . .
The Book of the Month Club is pretty much of a rip-off—you can usually buy the books and the dividends elsewhere for a lot less—but occasionally they come up with recordings that atone for their sins. A couple of years ago it was a marvelous album of songs recorded by Fred Astaire in the early fifties, accompanied by a remarkably skillful jazz group that included my favorite tenor saxophonist, Flip Phillips. Now it is a recording of the Theatre Guild’s 1944 production of Othello, which was the finest Shakespeare production by an American company that I ever witnessed. Paul Robeson played Othello and Jose Ferrer was lago. They were good enough that thereafter I could never imagine anyone else in the parts. What a tragedy that Robeson’s career was ruined by the Red-baiters and that Ferrer has frittered away his later years on a series of unworthy parts. . . .
Speaking of Red-baiting, the death of the Latin American scholar, Angel Rama, in the recent crash of the Colombian airliner near Madrid, was a reminder of how the Reagan administration has reinstated this miserable legacy of the forties and fifties. In 1981 he had been appointed a professor at the University of Maryland, but, Anthony Lewis tells us, “last year the Immigration and Naturalization Service denied his application for permanent residence in the United States.” Why? The I.N.S. cited the ideological exclusion provisions of the McCarran-Walter Act, which bar anyone with communist beliefs or associations. With that, Mr. Rama entered a legal nightmare.
“The I.N.S. would not tell him what the specific charges were. Its decisions simply recited the language of the McCarran-Walter Act, for pages, with no reference to anything that he had done or said. His lawyer, Michael Maggio, could get no particulars.”. . .
“I was very angry,” Mike Donovan of New York wrote me last month, “when I read the enclosed Mobil editorial in the December 1 New York Times. Particularly distressing was the statement attributed to the neoliberals which says, ‘that powerful unions and bureaucratic regulators are impeding industrial productivity.'”
Well, Mike, we were angry, too. When a woman from Mobil called me before the ad ran to check the copy, I insisted that quote would be fair only if “greedy management” was included as a major factor impeding industrial productivity. I repeated that position at least twice during the conversation.
I also protested the ad’s characterization of our position on welfare: “The federal welfare system keeps generation after generation on the dole.” I explained to the woman that we favor welfare for all unemployed men as well as for unemployed mothers and children and that we support a work requirement for the men and for the mothers once their children reach school age. None of that appeared in the ad, either.
This is especially ironic in light of all the pious pronouncements about the importance of accuracy in the media that were featured in Mobil ads while its chairman’s libel suit was pending against The Washington Post. It also, along with The Nation‘s article I quoted earlier, demonstrates the terrible problem neoliberalism has with those on the right and left who distort its positions and cause people like Mike Donovan to think we’re something we’re not. . . .