Tilting at Windmills

As a student of government, my admiration for Condoleezza Rice has not been unbounded. But, as a football fan, my hat is off to her. Asked before the Super Bowl to predict the winner, she picked the Patriots by three points on a field goal by Adam Vinatieri, which is exactly what happened.

Recently on Jim Lehrer’s “News Hour,” during the Brooks/Shields segment, David Brooks, in contending that the Republicans were much more flexible on Social Security reform than the Democrats, said that they were willing to raise the payroll tax on incomes over $90,000. After Brooks had repeated this point several times, Mark Shields leaned over and said, “Who are they?” Brooks sheepishly answered, “Bush and Lindsey Graham.” Since on this issue Bush has been ambivalent at best, that leaves a “they” of one.

I had thought that “fatwa” was a pronouncement of heavy import–like “eliminate the heathen from our midst”–laid on the faithful by some ayatollah. I’m grateful to Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post, who has explained that this is not at all the case. One fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ali Sistani says that facelifts are permissible. Another, Fatwa 2638 to be exact, says “there is no objection to swallowing the food which comes out from between the teeth at the time of tooth picking.” All this sounds quite tolerant, but beware of Fatwa 2648: You should not drink water “from the side of a container which is cracked or chipped off.”

Although I have never been a NASCAR fan, I have long regarded it as one of the last sports where the average fan is king. Now, I regret to report, the luxury skybox has come even to NASCAR. As they do in basketball, baseball, and football, the wealthy are able to avoid mixing with the hoi polloi by paying a fee of between $70,000 and $200,000, according to The Washington Times.

A similar trend is apparent in health care. What are called “personal patient advocacy” firms offer “concierge” or “boutique” care, which, according to The Wall Street Journal, can cost $25,000 a year for a membership on top of a $30,000 initiation fee. This buys not only “executive physical, chauffeured limousine service to appointmentsa personal patient advocate who researches doctors and treatments,” but also the booking of doctor and test appointments and an annual meeting with “a specialist in the area of aesthetic enhancement,” meaning a dermatologist or a plastic surgeon.

Readers sometimes ask why so many Tilting items come from the Charleston Gazette. I’m a faithful reader of the paper for two reasons. I like to keep up with what’s happening in my hometown. But a more important reason is that I want to maintain contact with the real world. Washington is a city with a tendency to view make-believe as reality. Memos are written, meetings are held, offices reorganized, legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president, all creating the appearance of vibrant activity to those involved, without the slightest necessary impact on reality out in the country this city is charged with governing. I read the Gazette to find out what’s happening out there.

Here is an example. You probably saw stories last month revealing that individuals on the terrorist watch list could still purchase guns legally. A number of these reports mentioned in passing that the mentally ill could not buy guns. The reporters should read the Gazette. Since 1999, at least four murders have been committed in West Virginia with guns purchased from licensed dealers by people suffering from mental illness–three of them with conditions serious enough that they have been repeatedly committed to mental hospitals. Why did the other journalists think that couldn’t happen?

Because Congress had passed a law. The law, however, is a perfect example of congressional make-believe. In West Virginia and 44 other states, gun dealers have no way of checking to see if a purchaser has a record of mental illness. If the dealer can’t find out the facts, he can’t be held liable for the sale.

Jared Sandberg o f The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about how the “dread of Sunday night affects even workers who like their jobs.” I am one of them. I also welcome the arrival of Friday night, even though for most of the last 45 years I have worked on Saturday. These two feelings must have been ingrained by the time I left primary school. I know they had taken hold when I reached Charleston High School, where I can remember liking everything about it except having to get up in the morning. Come to think of it, that may be the key. Even when I worked on Saturdays, I felt free to sleep late. And even when I didn’t have to work on Monday, I felt guilty if I stayed in bed.

Another example of make-believe is a law passed in 1990 requiring drug companies to give Medicaid the “best price.” According to the Government Accountability Office, however, the law has not been enforced. The result, according to Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), is that “for fifteen years, drug companies have been profiting from a system that costs taxpayers untold hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars annually.”

Why have the companies not obeyed the law? They say that the government office that administers the drug program, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has failed to give them “clear guidance” on how to figure out the best price. Government officials, according to Robert Pear of The New York Times, defend themselves by saying they “lacked the resources” to verify the correctness of the price.

In one case that the government discovered accidentally through some drug company whistleblowers, Schering-Plough was found to have short-changed the government by a total of $345 million.

You may remember that last year we reported that more homeland security money per capita was being spent in Wyoming than in New York. Now a New York Times article on port security tells us things are getting better. The obvious terrorist targets, including New York, Los Angeles, and Oakland, are getting the lion’s share of the money. Still, grants are also being given to the ports in St. Croix, the Virgin Islands, Martha’s Vineyard, Ludington, Mich.–and you won’t believe this–“six locations in Arkansas.”

Traveling to New York on a modest budget, never easy, may soon become impossible. The affordable hotels where I’d stayed in the last decade–the Empire, the Mayflower, and the Gramercy Park–have closed so they can be converted to more profitable uses. It reminds me of the Monthly‘s early offices. At the first one, 1150 Connecticut Avenue, we rented seven rooms with a fireplace and bay windows for just $475 a month, a deal that was clearly not going to last–and it did not. In five years, we had to move because the building was torn down and replaced by a glitzy edifice featuring wraparound windows and rents that were out of sight.

We moved to the LaSalle building at 1040 Connecticut, where the rent was the same but the rooms were smaller, tiny in fact, and there was no fireplace. The building had its own charms, however, with a mixture of offices and apartments that made life more interesting than it is in the usual office building.

Among the more colorful tenants were several ladies of the night. You would sometimes run into their customers in the lobby, waiting for the elevator and casting nervous glances over their shoulders, fearful that the next person through the door would be their mother-in-law.

I ran into John Mitchell, Nixon’s attorney general, several times in the lobby. As to his destination, I cannot say with certainty, but it was definitely not the offices of The Washington Monthly. Of course, after five years, that building was torn down in order to make way for one more glamorous. By the way, the official New York hotel of the Monthly those days was the Royalton. In its pre-Ian Schrager era, a room could be had for $8.50. The “deluxe” room was $17.

There have been a lot of stories recently about the sorry state of American high schools, illustrated by falling test scores and other alarming evidence. But nothing I have seen has dismayed me as much as this revelation of the high school student’s ignorance of the First Amendment. Asked if they agreed that newspapers should be allowed to publish stories freely without government approval, only 51 percent of students said yes, according to a survey conducted by the Knight Foundation. In other words, 49 percent think that government approval should be required.

After a great tragedy, Washington’s tendency is to announce tough measures designed to prevent a repetition, and then to steadily chip away at them under pressure from lobbyists. After 9/11, private planes were forbidden to use Reagan National Airport. The reason was that Reagan National is within seconds of the White House and the Capitol, which are, of course, prime targets for terrorists. Now, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) has introduced a bill that will let private planes back in Reagan National.

The private plane lobby is strong, including not only the planes’ manufacturers and the general aviation industry that services them, but also corporations with their private jets and private pilots, many of whom are influential members of their communities. Their argument is that if commercial airlines can use the airport, why can’t we? That argument sounds reasonable, but while there are only a few thousand commercial pilots, there are 250,000 private pilots.

How is the government going to investigate all of them to find out they’re not terrorists? And even if it could, many of them fly from airports that have little or no security, from which terrorists could easily steal one of the planes, head for Reagan National when it is open to private aviation, and then at the last second turn the plane into a flying bomb headed for the White House or the Capitol.

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may have been a trifle harsh in describing Alan Greenspan as “one of the biggest political hacks in Washington.” But Greenspan is a good distance from the heroic figure depicted by most of the media. If there was a decisive moment in the debates over Bush’s tax cuts in 2001, it was when they were endorsed by Greenspan. Yet they, and Bush’s subsequent tax cuts, have been primarily responsible for the deficit that Greenspan now so piously bemoans. My guess is that he was motivated on the tax cuts not so much by political loyalty as by a desire to be reappointed by Bush, the same reason he supported the very opposite program, Clinton’s deficit reduction in 1993. He got his reward. He was reappointed by both presidents.

Susan Estrich, who has come to think of herself as a political guru on the dubious basis of her experience running Michael Dukakis’s campaign in 1988, recently applied to become a columnist at the Los Angeles Times. When the editorial page editor, Michael Kinsley, turned her down, she speculated that his brain might have been damaged by the Parkinson’s disease from which he suffers. I don’t like to use the word “contemptible” about any other human being, but I do not hesitate to apply it to Susan Estrich. Anyone who reads Kinsley’s column knows he’s just as smart as he ever was, and I’ve never known anyone smarter.

“S.S. Option: raise tax cap. Increasing Social Security tax on wealthiest could raise billions” reads a four-column headline at the top of the front page of the Charleston Gazette. Even though eliminating the $95,000 cap on income subject to the Social Security tax could keep the system solvent for another 75 years, I have not seen such a headline in The New York Times or The Washington Post. A recent headline in the Sunday Style section of the Times helps explain why: “Six figures? Not Enough.” It seems that a hundred-thousand dollar salary no longer equals serious success to many big-city professionals. If $100,000 is not enough, they certainly do not want to see an increase above $90,000 in the amount of income subject to the withholding tax. Among the professionals we’re talking about are the top reporters and editors at both the Times and the Post, who now earn more than $100,000–the average at the Times is $110,000–and, in the case of two-paycheck families, well over $200,000.

At long last, the media are paying attention to the FDA’s failure to follow up on the drugs it approves to find out how they actually perform and what adverse effects they may have. The result has been a pledge of reform by the FDA. But take a close look at the agency’s budget. Is the administration putting its money where its mouth is? It sounds like it is when we’re told that there will be a 24 percent increase in the appropriation for follow-up. But look closer: It’s 24 percent of the current $27 million, or exactly $5 million.

If The New York Times failed to give the merit of raising the $90,000 limit on Social-Security taxes the same prominence accorded by the Gazette, the Times has given top-of-the-front-page prominence to one tax. Guess what the fellows at the Times are worried about? It’s the Alternative Minimum Tax, which is designed to keep the wealthy from using deductions to erase their tax bill. Yet the Times headline paints the AMT as a villain: “Case of Vanishing Deductions: Alternative Tax called culprit.” The Washington Post and the Times even editorialized against the AMT.

I asked Robert McIntyre of the Citizens for Tax Justice why these upscale professionals were so upset about the AMT. He explained that, although the very rich have by and large been able to devise ways to avoid the AMT, it now threatens the moderately wealthy those with incomes in the $100,000-$500,000 range. McIntyre says it could wipe out their gains from the Bush tax cuts. Is that bad?

Ominous news for Democrats comes from the Gazette‘s Tom Searls, who interviewed two political experts about the significance of Bush’s victories in 2000 and 2004 by margins that grew from 6 to 13 percent. “Once could have been a fluke,” the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato told him. “Twice indicates a new trend, especially because the margin was so much larger this past year.” Robert Rupp of West Virginia Wesleyan College added: “2000 wasn’t just the aberration that many Democrats had hoped. The fact [Bush] won so convincingly shows West Virginia is a state that not only will Democrats have to work for, but possibly concede.”

Around 16 years ago, The Washington Monthly launched a feature called The Worst City Government. Often written by Katherine Boo, it sought stories of municipal ineptitude from around the country. The District of Columbia emerged a clear winner over other cities, and so dominated the column that we were afraid it was becoming boring, and decided to close it down. The District government, however, continues to operate as ineptly as ever.

Now, we know at least one reason why local officials sometimes fail to adhere to the highest standards of public administration. There is a go-go club in the basement of the Franklin D. Reeves Center, which otherwise houses only District government offices. We found out about the club because on Feb. 13 a man was stabbed outside. The stabbing followed “the attempted shooting of another club patron a few minutes earlier,” according to The Washington Post’s Bill Brawley.

A giant problem for West Virginia is Workman’s Compensation, a fund that corporations are supposed to finance in order to pay benefits to their workers who are injured on the job. The catch is that in West Virginia a lot of the coal companies fail to pay their share of the premiums. They have been allowed to get away without paying, sometimes by corrupt officials, but more often for the same reasons that keep the state from enforcing environmental laws: It doesn’t want to risk shutting down the companies and throwing their employees out of work. The coal industry, according to the Gazette‘s Paul J. Nyden, is responsible for half of the unfunded liability of the Workman’s fund, which now runs more than $3 billion. Is there a similar problem in other states?

For many months now, druggists have been deluged with complaints from customers who can’t seem to find Prilosec on the store shelves. A clue as to why it is missing comes from the fact that it and a much more expensive prescription drug called Nexium are made by the same manufacturer, the British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.

I have taken both drugs to treat an acid-reflux condition. They work equally well. So I switched from Nexium to Prilosec to save money. It seems likely that AstraZeneca does not want to encourage others to follow my example. The manufacturer makes a lot more money when you use Nexium. And you’re certainly more likely to use Nexium when you can’t find Prilosec.

Did you see The Washington Post article by Michael Dobbs that the SAT prep courses are now urging students to use fancy instead of simple words when writing the newly required essay? They recommend “antithesis” over “opposite,” and “irrefutable” or “incontrovertible” instead of “true.” And for “false,” they prefer “untenable” or “fallacious.” They must think Hemingway would fail the SAT.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have edited a good many really fine writers. They have taught me that the fancy word is justified only when it is truly more precise than a simple word, or when it makes the reader laugh, and is at least forgivable when the writer is desperate for a synonym. The worst way to use fancy words is to impress the reader with the writer’s intelligence. Yet this seems to be exactly what the SAT prep courses are recommending.

My favorite example of make-believe involves odometers. When it was revealed that used car dealers were fiddling with the mileage to make their cars more alluring to buyers, Congress made it illegal to tamper with odometers. But it only appropriated enough money to hire four inspectors. There are 120,000 used car dealers.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.