Remember the famous eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap in the Nixon tape-the one Rose Mary Woods desperately tried to explain by stretching backwards until she almost fell over? I suspect the new scandal is going to be the 11-hour gap between the time the Justice Department notified the White House counsel that it was investigating the Wilson-Plame leak and the time the counsel instructed other White House officials not to destroy relevant records. Actually, it could be called the 48-hour gap, since that was the time elapsed between the time the Post broke the story and the time the counsel acted. But the only difference I can see is that if it was 48, the line at the shredding machine would’ve been shorter.
The District of Columbia government has an Incentive Awards Committee that determines cash bonuses to city employees. Three percent of the employees get the bonus. Guess the percentage of committee members who get it? Fifty.
Among the first reactions to my proposal that we announce we’re pulling out of Iraq in a year was that we should stay longer to keep the religious groups in Iraq from going to war with one another. My answer is that the British stayed in India for more than 100 years after they took control in 1856, and that did not prevent the Hindus and Muslims from slaughtering one another the moment the British departed.
My point is that, although there are many laudable goals possibly attainable by our staying in Iraq for the long haul, their achievement is far from certain enough to justify the money that will be spent and the lives that will be lost. This is especially clear when one contemplates the many other, more compelling, demands on our resources.
Jonathan Landman was recently promoted to be assistant managing editor of The New York Times. This is worth noting because, as you may remember, Landman was the man who blew the whistle on Jayson Blair. And, as students of bureaucracy know, whistleblowers tend to suffer rather than profit from their good deed. This is an encouraging sign that Bill Keller, the Times’ new executive editor, knows what he’s doing.
On the other hand, The Washington Post reports that Wayne Hale, the new head of NASA’s management team for shuttle missions, “is talking about the importance of the shape of the table” at meetings. He thinks that a redesigned table would change the agency’s culture. One hopes he knows that a more impressive signal to everyone in the organization would be to fire the people who suppressed or failed to act on information about the hazards that destroyed Columbia, and to promote or otherwise reward those who saw the hazards and tried to do something about them. This is exactly what was not done at NASA after the Challenger disaster, and the failure to act perpetuated a culture that rewards those who refuse to hear bad news and threatens those who bring it.
I should note that “bad news” might not be the best term to describe what I’m talking about. Certainly in the case of the Niger uranium, it was good news that the uranium was not going to Iraq. But it was good news the Bush administration didn’t want, which is why Joseph Wilson and Valerie Plame had to be punished. So maybe instead of “bad news,” we should say “news the top guys don’t want to hear.”
Emily Basile, a high school student in my hometown, Charleston, W.Va., got in trouble last winter for protesting the Iraq War. When her principal, an African American named Clinton Giles, objected, she told him, “Without Rosa Parks, you wouldn’t be where you are right now.”
Giles reacted by calling her “racist and bigoted” and suspended her from school. I think he should have hugged her and held an assembly in her hon-or. How many American high school students have any idea who Rosa Parks was, much less that her protest of segregation was an apt precedent for Basile’s protest of the war?
It turns out that an engineer named Rodney Rocha was the leading white hat of the Columbia shuttle story. At a meeting of NASA and contract engineers five days after the Columbia launch, to assess potential damage from the broken-off foam, the participants agreed images of the impact area were needed from telescopes or spy satellites. They designated Rocha to convey their concern to shuttle managers. Rocha tried six times, report James Glanz and John Schwartz in The New York Times. Each time the managers turned him away. One told him that he refused to be a “Chicken Little.” Another emailed: “I consider it to be a dead issue.”
That reminds me of what a shuttle manager said to the engineers who wanted to postpone the Challenger launch because of the danger of frozen O-rings. “I’m appalled,” said George Hardy. He was appalled that the engineers would dare suggest postponing the launch. Hardy then reminded the engineers that the contract of their employer, Morton Thiokol, which built the shuttle boosters, “is coming up for renewal soon,” in an attempt to intimidate them into silence. Resistance to bad news increases as the bureaucratic ladder is climbed. This is partly because those at the top believe their own press releases. It is also because they’re desperate to conceal the bad news until they have left the agency and no longer can be blamed. Whatever the reason, these attitudes at the top encourage subordinates to not rush to bring bad tidings. Another factor: exciting programs and exciting leaders inspire a loyalty to “the team” that makes whistleblowers feel like traitors. Finally, even Rocha was overcome by these feelings: “I lost my steam, the power drive to have a fight, because I just wasn’t being supported. And I had faith in the abilities of our team.”
The Wall Street Journal’s Jared Sandberg. A common technique for frustrating the user is to put two rolls in the stainless steel dispenser. They tend to jam together so that no matter how hard you tug, repeated effort is going to be necessary to obtain even a minimally satisfactory result.
The lesson for bosses is that if you push employees for results, you better be sure to find out what they’re doing to achieve them. It may be as absurd as in this case, or it may be tragic, as was the pressure to launch at NASA.
Gretchen Morgenson had a line about the recently retired president of the New York Stock Exchange that reminds one of what that institution is really about, when she described the “$140 million paid to Richard Grasso for his work as a casino greeter.”
The recent discussions of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s feelings about Adolf Hitler-surprisingly, reporters failed to mention the Terminator’s devotion to his friend the former Nazi officer Kurt Waldheim, who won an Iron Cross for his service to the Fuhrer-reminded me of one of the great mysteries of the modern era: How and why did Arnold’s fellow Austrians escape their fair share of accountability for their Nazi past? Today’s Austrians may be splendid fellows, but the cheering mob that greeted Hitler in Vienna in ’38 was not a whit less fervent than the throngs of Germans who cheered him at Nuremberg or when he returned to Berlin from a conquered France in ’40.
When Austrian Jews either died in concentration camps or were forced to flee the country, their property was taken over by Aryan Austrians, the great majority of whom refused to give it back after the war. Austria was totally freed of Allied occupation in 1955, 34 years before the last Soviet troops left Germany. Nazi Austria was treated better than Nazi Germany. Indeed, the world seemed to forget that Austria had embraced Hitler. It was not until a few years ago that American negotiators led by Stuart Eisenstadt got the Austrian government to finally acknowledge the nation’s guilt by agreeing to pay $150 million in restitution for stolen Jewish property.
If you can stand one more example of bureaucratic resistance to bad news, consider this lead sentence from a story by Diana Jean Schemo of The New York Times. Top leaders of the United States Air Force disregarded persistent warnings over the last decade that frequent and unpunished sexual assaults were undermining its academy at Colorado Springs, a civilian commission investigating the matter reported today.
Employment picked up in September, but the increase in jobs, reports David Leonhardt of The New York Times, “was still not large enough to match the growth of the population.” This means “the percentage of adults with jobs fell to the lowest level in ten years.”
More than 9 million Americans are officially unemployed. Many more would seek jobs if they were available. How are we going to solve this problem? The best solution, I believe, is to get rid of the payroll tax. It discourages employment. I know because for 32 years I ran a small business, namely this magazine. It also falls heaviest on those who need tax relief the most-for people making less than $70,000 a year, it is the largest tax they pay.
Bill Drayton and Bob Walker of the Get America Working! organization propose to replace the payroll tax with taxes on materials, energy, and land. Whatever substitute is found will take great courage to enact. Proponents will be accused of tampering with Social Security, which the payroll tax is supposed to fund, and the mere possibility of having that charge made against them is enough to panic a good many politicians. This is why I admire John Kerry, Bob Graham, and Carol Moseley Braun for having the moxie to propose at least some moderating of the tax.
On Sept. 6, The Washington Post ran a story about a poll that showed that most Americans believe that Saddam Hussein played a role in the 9/11 attacks. This story appeared on the front page. On Sept. 18 came a Post story describing George W. Bush’s confession the previous day that there was no evidence that Saddam was involved in 9/11. This story was run on page A18. If the misconception merited page 1, didn’t the truth deserve the same prominence?
Speaking of Iraq, a new report called “Operation Iraqi Freedom: Strategic Lessons Learned” has been prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Congressional Democrats “asked the Pentagon for a copy, and were told no,” report Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough of The Washington Times. “They then asked if a copy could be brought to a classified room, where it could be read but not copied. Again the Pentagon said no.” The reason for the Pentagon’s reluctance, say Gertz and Scarborough, is that “the report gives the administration poor marks for planning for a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.” This news is especially credible because Gertz and Scarborough work for a conservative newspaper that definitely does not encourage reporting critical of the Bush administration.”
When Arnold Schwarzenegger said he was going to ask George Bush for lots of favors, he betrayed a shocking ignorance of the president’s indifference to the plight of the states. Republicans are supposed to favor the states, but during the Bush administration, state revenues have plummeted, thanks in part to the tax cut’s reduction of the federal money available for sharing with the states. The result includes states having to reduce their Medicaid programs by, reports The New York Times, “scaling back eligibility, cutting benefits, increasing co-payments, and freezing or reducing payments to doctors and hospitals.”
Another result of the financial squeeze on the states is what the Times calls the “eye-popping tuition increases” at state universities and colleges, with double-digit rises all over the place topped off by 39 percent at the University of Arizona. Since 80 percent of college students attend state schools, this should not be a cause for indifference.
If you have not already guessed, the District of Columbia’s public institutions have a marked similarity to those of the Third World. More than two-thirds of the city’s fourth-graders and more than half of its eighth-graders have “below basic” reading ability, according to a recent report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The district’s scores were worse than those of all 50 states, and according to George Archibald of The Washington Times, were “only slightly better than non-English speaking children in the territories of Guam, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa.”
We taxpayers who were not the beneficiaries of Bush’s tax cuts have to accept the burden of paying the costs of mailing the checks to the beneficiaries. But should we also have had to pay-as we did in the case of the most recent cut-for the letter that the government sent out before the checks arrived announcing “we are pleased to inform you that the United States Congress has passed, and President Bush has signed into law, the Jobs, Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. The new law provides broad-based tax relief.” The Republican National Committee couldn’t have said it better.
Speaking of the latest tax cut, how are the already affluent, the major beneficiaries of Bush’s largesse, going to cope with the challenge of spending it? Crocodile and alligator skins are in this year, reports The Wall Street Journal. Gentlemen’s crocodile loafers by Bottega Veneta can be had for $2,440 a pair. Alligator satchels by Josie Natori are available to ladies who saved $5,500 on their dividends. Or, if you’re rich and fat, Vanessa Grigoriadis of The New York Times says you can fast for a week at the New Age Health Spa for only $3,400. Sales at high-end retailers are already soaring. At Neiman Marcus, they were up 14.7 percent in September alone.
“The three top officers of Pepco Holdings [the utility that couldn’t get the lights back on in Washington] paid themselves $6.6 million in 2002 and possess at least $4 million in stock and stock options. Pepco’s current budget for overhead power-line maintenance is $13.7 million,” reports our alumnus Gregg Easterbrook. “The company’s three top officers are pulling down almost as much as the utility’s entire budget for overhead line maintenance.” Easterbrook, writing on his new Web site, Easterblogg, adds that two nights after Hurricane Isabel hit, with half a million Pepco customers still in the dark, “Pepco Holdings chairman John Derrick sat drinking champagne at the premier black-tie event of the Washington social season, the National Symphony Orchestra ball,” followed by an “elegant dinner and dancing on the roof terrace of Kennedy Center,” one of the few places in Washington with power.
Another place that never lost its power was The Washington Post. Could this explain, Easterbrook asks, why the Post was so tender in its comments about Pepco’s performance? Just how miserable that performance was is suggested by a comparison with Duke Power, which reinstated full service in North Carolina in three days even though that’s where the brunt of the storm hit. It took Pepco eight days.
Back to Wall Street for a moment. Did you know Jack Grubman is still being paid $200,000 a year by Solomon Smith Barney? What’s more, two loans by the firm to Grubman valued at $15 million are being forgiven. Why should Grubman be rewarded? His inflated stock picks cost investors zillions while he was getting rich on investment banking fees from the companies whose stocks he was touting.So now you’re as indignant as I am. So why the payoff? It’s to buy Grubman’s “cooperation” with Solomon Smith Barney “in regard to any past, present, or future legal or regulatory issues,” reports The Wall Street Journal. In other words, the firm is being sued for its complicity in Grubman’s misdeeds and the fellows need to be sure to have their stories straight when they go to court.
In its “engagement” letter to a new client, PricewaterhouseCoopers said, “we will bill you for out-of-pocket expenses, including travel.” What the prestigious accounting firm did not tell the client was that it got rebates from airlines, hotel and rental car, and credit-card companies. The client paid for travel expenses at pre-rebate rates. PricewaterhouseCoopers was then paid the rebates by the airlines, etc. Did it give the rebates to the client? Of course not.
William Robertson is my new hero. He’s suing Princeton to get back $525 million that his family foundation has given the university’s Woodrow Wilson School for Public and International Affairs. His reason for the suit-and the reason I’m all for it-is that Princeton officials knew that the money was given “to send students into federal government, and [the school has] ignored us.” Robertson’s foundation pays each student’s entire tuition. Princeton could easily require federal service in return for the tuition, but it does not. The result, reports Michael Powell of The Washington Post, is that “year after year, the [graduate] school has churned out bright young men and women who go to work in non-profit agencies and universities and private industry-just about anywhere but the federal government.”
This government desperately needs these bright people. Unfortunately, what is true at Princeton is true at practically every other prominent school of public affairs. At best, only a small percentage of graduates go into government. What’s sad about all this is that, if they got there, they’d find, as I did, that there’s a lot of interesting and challenging work, plus the enormous satisfaction of serving the public interest. So, why not encourage them to try it out by making any tuition subsidy dependent on their spending at least three years or so in Washington?