Tilting At Windmills

I’m fascinated, however, by the ways upward mobility is still possible. Physical beauty combined with an engaging personality still works for a lot of women and some men, especially if they encounter a Henry Higgins along the way. Skill in sports or the performing arts also smoothes the upward path.

Increasingly, however, people seem to look to luck in the form of winning the lottery or getting injured just enough to win a big lawsuit without suffering serious, permanent disability. I think this explains a lot about the growth of public support for and participation in legalized gambling–and for the public’s lack of interest in tort reform that might cap damage awards. These are two ways the fantasy of upward mobility has begun to influence public policy. Another is that the people who think they will someday be rich themselves are less willing to support taxing the rich. David Brooks recently cited a survey showing that 40 percent of Americans think of themselves as either being among the top 1 percent of the nation’s wealthy, or on their way to getting there. This means that the wealthy are able to protect their bounty by offering just enough crumbs of opportunity to the poor to keep the fantasy alive and to keep them from insisting on the right to a good education that more than anything else might make upward mobility a reality.

Most alarming to me, is how many people see becoming rich as a major goal of their lives. This has become embarrassingly obvious in the case of the women on the television show “Joe Millionaire,” and the millions of other women who identify with them. But it has been increasingly true of Americans generally since I was a young man. I was fortunate enough to grow up thinking that the most important things in life were finding a woman you loved and work that you enjoyed, that made a contribution to society, and that you were proud of. I never made a lot of money, but I have been a happy man during most of my life. So have a good many of my friends who felt the same way. Some money is nice. But if you have a lot, as my father used to say, all that happens is that people want to marry you for the wrong reasons.

You don’t have to own a Jaguar or Mercedes to have a good car. You don’t have to own a mansion to have a nice home. You can see the same sights the rich do when traveling, you just can’t go from Ritz to Ritz. As for food, you can pay $41 for the most expensive hamburger in New York at the Old Homestead, or you can choose the two that are rated best, one at DB Bistro Moderne for $29, still a bit pricey, but the other at the Union Square is $12.50, which is affordable at least now and then for most of us. And if your taste in hamburgers is as unsubtle as mine, you’re perfectly happy with the two- or three-dollar variety most of the time. In other words, you don’t have to be rich to enjoy.

Besides, why do you want to join the rich guys’ club anyway? Some, to be sure, are splendid fellows. But mostly they’re greedy people with little regard for their duty to pay taxes or serve their country.

Consider the latter for a moment. This magazine has long campaigned for a military draft that would remedy the situation recently described by Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) in The New York Times: “A disproportionate number of the poor and members of minority groups make up the enlisted ranks of the military, while the most privileged Americans are underrepresented or absent.” Even a recent Pentagon study reported that the wealthy are “not well-represented” in the military. It’s not their lives at risk when their friend George W. Bush decides to go to war. I’ve been working on a book about 1940, the year the first peacetime draft was enacted. Its philosophy was stated in the preamble: “In a free society the obligations and privileges of military training and service should be shared generally.”

Donald Rumsfeld’s arrogant dismissal of Rangel’s argument has been properly ridiculed elsewhere. But one of his objections did not receive attention: “If you think back when we had the draft, people were brought in and paid some fraction of what they could make in the civilian market.” This is absurdly typical of the current administration and their fellow conservatives–they apply market rules to everything. In this case, using them as an excuse for not doing their duty.

For a fellow who is supposed to be so smart, Rumsfeld also betrayed a shocking ignorance of history when he said, “Big categories were exempted–people that were in college, people that were teaching, people that were married.” All of these people served in World War II, and lots of them. I know because I was there and I knew them. Perhaps Rumsfeld was deliberately using the defects of the Vietnam draft to discredit conscription generally. In that case, instead of being ignorant, he was cynical. And the shot he took was dismayingly cheap. Until Vietnam, we had had a fair draft for more than two decades. By the end of Vietnam, even that draft was fair.

The suspicion that John Ashcroft is a right-wing nut appears to have been confirmed by his decision to overrule a plea bargain negotiated by his subordinates. They had offered a drug offender assurance of a life sentence instead of execution in return for his testimony against higher-ups. But Ashcroft has demanded that the defendant, Jairo Zapata, go to trial, which could result in the death penalty, reports William Glaberson of The New York Times. What this means is that every criminal facing federal prosecution in a possible death penalty case will know that there is no incentive for him to talk as part of a deal with the prosecution because Ashcroft could always overrule the deal.

On Jan. 20, the front page of The Washington Post’s “Style” section was dominated by an article about the previous weekend’s peace demonstration. Called “The Art of Peace” and subtitled “Displaying posters and body paint, the antiwarriors take a scattershot approach,” the article began:

“This includes the 8- and 11-year-olds hanging out of the tree while one of their Bethesbian mothers hands them the family camera, imploring them to get a good shot of the crowd, which includes (which will always include) the kooky, ratty-looking Uncle Sam on stilts, and the patchouli girls fleetly flying around (patchouli girls now span, what, three generations?), and the drum circles, and the dudes carrying a poster that proclaims them as ?ainstream White Guys for Peace.'”

The overall impression left by the article was that this was a march of kooks on behalf of a kooky cause. People who were there tell me that on the contrary, most of the marchers were serious and sober citizens, desperate for some way to show their opposition to W’s rush to war.

Why was this snotty misreporting published by the Post? One explanation is that the Post’s first-team editors are not conspicuous by their presence on weekends. Another is that none of the editors bothered to attend the demonstration so they would not have known that the article was embarrassingly misleading. It did, however, have one redeeming element–a description of a sign carried by one marcher that read “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer, Ein News Channel–Fox News.”

This country has been conned by Karl Rove and the super-hawks. They have succeeded in changing the subject from Bush’s failures and embarrassments, putting Iraq first on the national agenda for nearly six months at the expense of more important matters–like finding Osama bin Laden, securing peace between Israel and Palestine, drastically improving the FBI’s and CIA’s ability to deal with terrorism, keeping nuclear weapons from being used by the nations that already have them, including North Korea, and engineering economic recovery here at home. If we end up paying practically all the bill for the war with Iraq and subsequent military occupation, that money won’t be there for badly needed health and education programs. Thinking about Iraq alone–which is what the administration has tried to get us to do–it’s easy to get fired up about teaching Saddam a lesson. But once you consider these other higher priorities the danger from Iraq isn’t nearly imminent enough to justify war. Indeed, the administration’s obsession with that danger is, as The Washington Post’s David Ignatius suggests, becoming as irrational as Captain Ahab’s with Moby Dick.

As one whose highest military rank was “private,” I am comforted when I find my opinion on military matters supported by someone whose expertise is less suspect. Thus, I was happy to note from an interview Gen. Wesley Clark gave Ignatius that the former NATO commander agrees with me that “the chief threat to U.S. security right now is al Qaeda. Disarming Iraq is important, too, but it’s not the most urgent task.” He also agrees that “overwhelming U.S. power could quickly crush Saddam Hussein’s relatively weak forces” but worries about “the unpredictability of consequences.”

For me, those consequences involve the possibility that another humiliating defeat of an Arab nation will inspire thousands of additional recruits to join al Qaeda. There is also the dismaying possibility that a liberated Iraq, or one of the parts that it breaks into–remember what happened to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia after the iron grip of a dictatorship was lifted–would opt for Islamic fundamentalism and actually become allies of Osama bin Laden or that the new states–again, remember Yugoslavia–will war with one another.

My guess is that Saddam will flee if provided a secure refuge in another country. I pray that this will happen because the people of Iraq would be spared the death and destruction that war would almost surely entail. And although some of those unpredictable consequences may still happen, they will not include the humiliation of defeat.

Ivan Preston, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, has looked into the laws governing false advertising and discovered a truth I had not been aware of: the bigger the lie, the more likely the advertiser will get away with it. Preston recently explained to The Wall Street Journal’s Barry Newman, “If Papa John’s says it has the better dough, you can attack it. But if Papa John’s says it’s better overall, okay. The bigger the lie, the better the protection.” Thus it’s okay for Bayer to claim it’s “the world’s best aspirin” and Hush Puppies to be “the earth’s most comfortable shoes” and for George W. Bush to say he’s “the education president” and in his State of the Union address to proclaim himself an advocate of clean air.

Malpractice is in the news again, so I have an excuse to revive the Monthly’s solution. Although much of the increase in malpractice insurance rates is the fault of the insurance companies, it must be conceded that excessive verdicts and frivolous suits are a not insignificant factor. Nevertheless, trial lawyers argue that their suits are the only way to discipline bad doctors. As of now, they are right. Medical licensing boards are far too tender in their treatment of offenders. If the boards got tough and yanked the licenses of careless doctors and negligent hospitals, the lawsuits would no longer be needed for disciplinary purposes. Their sole utility would be to compensate the patients who are the victims of malpractice.

There is, however, a more efficient way than lawsuits of meeting this need. A no-fault system in which doctors and hospitals would, instead of paying for insurance, make regular contributions to a fund to compensate anyone who got hurt by a doctor or a hospital. The cost of the victim’s lost wages and medical care would be paid automatically without the necessity of proving fault. Awards for pain and suffering could be scheduled–so much for loss of a leg, etc.–so that juries would not be needed to determine them. In the case of truly outrageous conduct by doctors or hospitals, lawsuits for punitive damages could still be permitted. So the role of lawyers, if not eliminated, would be drastically reduced, along with the size of their fees. But none of this will happen if doctors and hospitals are unwilling to accept rigorous review by independent licensing boards.

Most civilians are unaware of a military racket called “training days.” These are not really times devoted to training, but are, as one source explained to Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times, “euphemisms for giving time off.” Recently, for example, when Air Force Lt. Gen. Harry D. Raduege, director of the Defense Information Systems Agency, told his 8,200 employees that Jan. 17 would be a training day, they knew they would have a four-day weekend, including the Martin Luther King holiday on Jan. 20.

The Founding Fathers did not want an activist government. Excepting only the area of national security, they established a system of checks and balances designed to make it hard for the executive to do anything. Whatever the executive branch proposed, Congress had to approve, and that approval usually required lengthy hearings and debate to secure. If that daunting test was passed, and often it was not, the next hurdle was judicial review, which itself could involve several steps: first, the district court; then the court of appeals, sometimes divided into separate hearings before three-judge and en banc panels; and finally the U.S. Supreme Court.

Most educated people have a general idea, if not a grip on the precise detail, of the foregoing, but few understand what a proposal has to go through within the executive branch before it ever gets to Congress. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson recently described for National Journal what happens when he has a bright idea:

“I have to vet it through all the various divisions and agencies in this department alone. Then, if I can get any degree of unanimity of support for my idea, then it goes over to the supergod called the Office of Management and Budget. And they vote you down nine times out of 10, just to show you who the boss is. Then if you do get it through OMB, then it goes over to the White House and the intelligentsia over there. They want to show you that they’re in charge, so you usually have a very difficult time getting through them. If the president likes the idea, it goes on to Congress, and if Congress ever does approve it, then it’s time to retire.”

Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge is an exception to the usual deference to big business on the part of the Bush administration. Runge, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, displayed unusual courage recently when he spoke to Detroit auto executives and attacked SUVs that scored low in the government’s safety ratings: “I wouldn’t let my kid buy a two-star rollover vehicle if it was the last one on earth.” A former emergency room physician who has treated victims of SUV accidents, Runge cited statistics showing, reports Cindy Skrzycki of The Washington Post, “that the fatality rate in rollover accidents is three times as high in sport-utility vehicles as in passenger cars.”

Incredibly enough, despite what its NHTSA director says, the administration is supporting a tax break for small businesses that buy SUVs. The break would, for example, permit a tax deduction of $87,135 on a Hummer H1 priced at $102,581.

Air cargo is the most conspicuous hole in the air-transportation security net. As the GAO recently noted, far too little is inspected, and far too few companies that handle the cargo have sound security programs that include employee background checks. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) and Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) have introduced a bill designed to toughen the system. “There is no point asking travelers to wait in long security lines,” Hutchinson tells Tom Ramstack of The Washington Times, “if we let cargo onto the very same flight with no precautions whatsoever.”

Practically David Frum’s only criticism of George W. Bush in his recent The Right Man–the title testifies to the book’s general tenor–is that Bush “is impatient, quick to anger, sometimes glib, even dogmatic; often uncurious and as a result, ill informed; more conventional in his thinking than a leader should be.” All of these are worrisome, but the one that concerns me most is the lack of curiosity. It seems to me that a president should hunger for information and for arguments that might show him how he needs to refine his thinking. He should devour the newspapers and magazines, searching for facts and ideas that might not come to him through official channels. Compare John F. Kennedy’s press conferences with W’s. Kennedy consistently displayed a mastery of fact, an ability to make and understand distinctions, and an appreciation of the subtext of questions. Can the same be said of W?

Back to the draft for a minute. Drafting the rich may be the best solution. It was an idea that the late Richard Harwood, a Marine veteran of World War II and an editor of The Washington Post, came up with in the course of a discussion involving him, William Greider and myself that appeared in our April 1980 issue. In other words, everyone else is serving voluntarily, the problem is with the elite–sons and daughters of the wealthy, Ivy Leaguers, and the corporate whiz kids–who are not doing their duty. Let’s help them make the right choice.

Maury Maverick Jr., who died last month, was called a “champion of the unpopular” in his New York Times obituary. Indeed, the word “maverick” was inspired by one of his ancestors. One of his unpopular causes was the failure of the elite to serve, and he came up with a uniquely revealing way of demonstrating that failure. He looked at the religious denominations of the service people who died in the Gulf War. Practically none were from the denominations of the elite: Episcopalian, Unitarian, Jewish, and my own Presbyterian. On the other hand, the ranks were full of Baptists and Catholics.

In that same April 1980 issue appeared an article by one of our editors, Gregg Easterbrook (“Beam Me Out of This Death Trap, Scotty!“). In it, Easterbrook warned of the specific dangers that cost us the Challenger and appear to have cost us Columbia. Of the first, he wrote, “Here’s the plan. Suppose one of the booster rockets fails? The plan is, you die.” About the heat resistant tiles, he noted, “They are so fragile you can hardly touch them without shattering ?there is no backup for them. If they fail, the shuttle burns on re-entry.” Easterbrook argued back then, and again last month in Time, that the shuttle program needlessly risks lives on tasks that could be performed by machines. On the same day his Time article appeared, The Wall Street Journal raised similar questions in a front-page article by J. Lynn Lunsford and Nicholas Kulish, a former Monthly intern. But even though the doubts are persuasive, I fear they will not prevail against the power of the industry lobbies behind manned space programs and the tendency of public officials to automatically proclaim, “We must carry on the program” after a disaster suggests the exact opposite course.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.