TB or not TB

When reporters asked what had happened to the border agent who let Andrew Speaker into this country by ignoring a clear instruction not to do so, they were told he had been reassigned. The level of accountability in our public life is, to put it as gently as possible, not high. Bad teachers are rarely dismissed. In the federal civil service, the firing rate is less than 1 percent. Top officials who screw up are permitted to resign to spend more time with their familiesor made attorney general.

We need not go as far as the Chinese, who recently handed a death sentence to their FDA chief, who had been on the take. But we should stop tolerating incompetence.

Thats why I admired what Barack Obama said about teachers in a recent New Hampshire speech. Yes, they should be better paid, he replied to a questioner. But in return, they must be held accountable.

Something is rotten in the state of Georgia

Speaking of competence and accountability, I continue to worry about the Centers for Disease Control. When the test came in on May 22 making it clear that Andrew Speaker had the most dangerous kind of tuberculosis, and he did not immediately agree to go to an Italian hospital, why didnt the CDC make public his identity and the threat he posed? Waiting to do so until he returned to this country, and after all those Czech Air passengers had been exposed, struck me as a demented choice.

And why did Dr. Julie Gerberding defend the actions of Andrews father-in-law, the CDC tuberculosis specialist who, incredibly enough, not only failed to object to his son-in-laws travels, but participated in them by attending the wedding in Santorini? Either he was incompetent and reckless, or the CDC was wrong to label Andrew a public health threat. In any event, I will continue to keep harping, as I did most recently in our January/February issue, on the need for a major news organization, like the Washington Post or the New York Times, to make a thorough examination of the CDC, identifying its strengths and weaknesses and explaining how the latter can be remedied. For me, the need is already crystal clear. We have a problem in Atlanta.

Praise for Hillary

Although Im for Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential race, I want to congratulate Hillary Clinton on winning the first debates in South Carolina and New Hampshire. She came across as warmer and less singsong, and looked genuinely impressive. I also congratulate her on her recent bill to provide up to $10 billion of federal money to make sure that all four-year-olds have pre-kindergarten education. This was the only subject Ive ever discussed at length with her, and I was struck by the depth of her passion for the cause.

Blame for Hillary

On the other hand, I have to point out that Mrs. Clinton was incredibly fortunate to escape mention of the Levin amendment in the New Hampshire debate. That morning, an article in the New York Times Magazine by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. pointed out that she voted against the amendment to the resolution authorizing Bush to go to war in Iraq that would have required exactly the type of diplomacy and inspection effort she now says she favored before any military action. Someone should have asked, Since you favor it now, why didnt you vote for it then?

Those who can, should teach

Since Harvard has so much influence on other institutions of higher learning, Im heartened by the campaign to restore teaching to a place of importance among the Harvard faculty. For years, research and publication have been the dominant paths to eminence for Harvard professors. Students could go through four years of a Harvard education and graduate without knowing a professor well enough to get a letter of recommendation. Large lecture courses led by senior faculty whose actual teaching skills were beneath modest, assisted by bored graduate students, were the rule. Now, according to Sarah Rimer of the New York Times, a group headed by the distinguished social scientist Theda Skocpol is proposing that teaching rank equally with contributions to research in annual salary adjustments. She has a tough challenge before her. Previous attempts to recognize teaching, such as the Levenson Teaching Prize, have not been notably successful. One Levenson winner told Skocpol, I earn high praise (and more money) for every paper or academic achievement, while every teaching achievement earns a warning of how I should not wander off research.

Every time this subject comes up, I urge people to read Teacher in America, by Jacques Barzun. And I commend it now to Skocpol. It tells how highly teaching was valued at Columbias undergraduate college in the 1930s and 40s, and shows that a faculty culture can, instead of disdaining teaching, disdain not teaching.

What Bill should have said to Colin

Did you hear Mike Gravels great point about gays in the military? During the June 3 Democratic debate, he asked why Bill Clinton hadnt confronted Colin Powell when Powell said that other soldiers wouldnt accept gays. According to Gravel, what Clinton should have said was: You wouldnt be here right now if Harry Truman had fallen for the same argument against blacks in the military.

Chalk it up to old age

Republicans love to complain that there is too much government regulation. The truth is that there is often too little. Consider the FAA.

In 2005 a wing fell off a fifty-eight-year-old seaplane operated by Chalks Ocean Airways. The resulting crash killed the twenty people on board. You would think the FAA would be extra vigilant in inspecting a fifty-eight-year-old plane, especially one owned by Chalks, since the FAA had received a letter almost a year before the crash from one of Chalks own pilots expressing concern about their safety practices. The National Transportation Safety Board found that the FAA inspectors should have noted that, according to Matthew Wald of the New York Times, a crack in the wings skin had been ineffectively repaired. A safety board member added that the FAAs maintenance overseer had sufficient cues to identify a problem and didnt do anything about it.

As usual, however, Congress is not blameless in matters of regulatory failure. After the top had ripped off a worn-out Boeing 737 in 1988, Congress passed a law tightening standards for old planes. But the rule does not go into full effect until 2010. Andyou will not believethisplanes approved by the government before 1958 are exempt.

Id hate to see the untalented people

In case you missed it, the key mistake in the lobbying reform bill thats making its way through Congress is that the prohibition for lobbying for ex-congressmen and their staffers is for only one year. Reformers are trying to make it two years. I think the ban should be permanent for both former congressmen and former staff members. Incumbents argue that any ban of more than one year will discourage talented people from taking jobs on Capitol Hill. The truth is that in my lifetime, a whole lot of talented people served on Capitol Hill in the 1930s through the 1960s when lucrative lobbying jobs were not their obvious next stop. Actually, it was not until the 1970s that such jobs became a common second career for former congressmen. As for former staffers, it wasnt until the 1980s that they began to cash in.

What streams?

In some cases, its already too late for regulation. Recently in West Virginia, environmental groups sued to stop a mountaintop removal in Logan County, but then had to abandon their suit. Why? Because the mining company had, according to the Charleston Gazettes Ken Ward Jr., already destroyed the streams the court action had been sought to protect.

Laughing all the way to work at the Bank

Some of the articles about Paul Wolfowitzs girlfriend, Shaha Riza, hinted at other rich veins of inquiry about the World Bank. Al Kamen wrote of the Banks hideously cushy payroll, and buried in a long article in the Washington Post was this comment from one prominent Washingtonian with long experience in multinational institutions: The Bank is a black hole of indolence and bureaucracy.

Bloombergs Amity Shlaes got the hints and did a little digging. She found that one of the Banks H-level employees can make considerably more than Riza was scheduled to collect$226,250 per year, to be exact. There are now 1,000 H-level employees. They can rise to the I level, and make as much as $268,560. There are 200 of them. For most Bank employees, the salaries have the considerable additional benefit of being tax free. And as if that isnt enough, the Bank provides what Shlaes describes as gold-plated pensions for its retiring workers, 1,000 of whom also get consulting contracts for which they collect additional income while traveling the globe at the Banks expense. Finally, for years, the Bank has provided free tuition for the offspring of their employees. This has made it a significant factor in the continuing prosperity of private schools in the Washington area.

AEIs crusade for human rights

I hope those of you with a passion for social justice make sure to read the latest issue of the American, published by the American Enterprise Institute. The magazines point of view was discernable in anessay in its first issue, titled Why Do We Underpay Our Best CEOs?

The most recent issue features an article bemoaning prison hardships endured by todays white-collar criminals. The magazine laments the loss of the good old days of the 1970s at Lompoc, the white-collar detention facility in California, where inmates like H. R. Haldeman would order expensive chili from the legendary Chasens restaurant in Beverly Hills, or maybe shoot a few holes of golf at a neighboring course. Now those days are gone. While the white-collar offenders dont have to share cells with the violent, they do have to wear prison uniforms and associate with drug dealers. Worst of all, the tennis courts are no more. And, horror of horrors, each month, inmates can spend no more than $290 at the commissary and 300 minutes on the telephone.

Obviously these poor fellows deserve our deepest sympathy. As the Washington Posts clearly touched Peter Carlson observes, Its heart-warming to know that the AEIs devotion to the welfare of the rich does not stop when the rich are convicted of multiple felonies and shipped to the slammer.

The cost of refinement

If you want a hint as to why gasoline prices have been so high, you may find it in a line buried in a recent story in the Wall Street Journal. Lately, American refiners have made a pretax profit of roughly $30 on each barrel of oil they use to produce gasoline. For contrast, the Journal cites a major Asian refining center, Singapore, where the profit is one-third that of the American refineries.

And the prize for worst government agency still goes to

In an article on the Department of Homeland Security in the spring issue of the Wilson Quarterly, New York Universitys Paul Light points out that one of the departments components, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, has long been one of Washingtons worst agencies. In 2002, Government Executive magazine gave it the lowest grade in a survey of federal agencies. Now that the service is part of DHS, is it any better? It does have a new namethe U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. But as the Washington Posts Spencer Hsu reports, at least one of the old recipes for failure continues in full force. It is the reliance on user fees to finance a substantial part of its budget. At first, user fees might sound like a good idea. But heres an example of their true cost, as explained by Hsu: Last June U.S. immigration officials were presented a plan that supporters said could help slash waiting time for green cards from nearly three years to three months and save one million applicants more than a third of the forty-five hours they could expect to spend in government lines. The plan was rejected, because speedier action would cost the agencys renewal fees for waiting applicants.

User fees can be okay, but not if the agency relies on them for its income. They should go directly to the U.S. Treasury, so that the agency will not be tempted to tailor its actions to maximize its fee income. This, you may know, has happened not only at the INS, but also at the FDA and the patent office, where the fees act as a disincentive to thorough scrutiny.

The most grotesque example of the influence of fees is this new immigration agency policy: if you pay an extra special processing fee of $1,000, they will speed up your application that is being delayed by their need for renewal fees.

The fighting neoliberal

As I pointed out in the last issue, neoliberals can be firmly against the war in Iraq but still be in favor of a strong military. Thats why I applaud Barack Obamas statement that he may actually increase the military budget if necessary to rebuild the strength of an Army that has been dreadfully weakened by the war in Iraq. And thats why I admire recent reporting on equipment that needs to be improved, including articles on the need for V-shaped armored vehicles to minimize the impact of IEDs, NBCs Lisa Myerss report on the better body armorcalled dragon skinthat we should be using in Iraq, and the 60 Minutes report on the billions of dollars the Coast Guard has wasted on unseaworthy ships.

Oversight, overboard

The Coast Guard story, by the way, illustrates an important thing to understand about government agencies. The fact that one performs well in one respect by no means guarantees across-the-board excellence. For instance, the Coast Guard that performed so nobly in rescuing Hurricane Katrina survivors totally fouled up in the case of the unseaworthy vessels. In the latter instance, the Coast Guard gave the contract for overseeing the project to the same contractor that was building the ships. In other words, the fox was going to guard the fox. The result was predictable. Just as there would have been no chickens left, there were no seaworthy vessels produced.

Occasionally, the right is right

Conservatives love to argue that you cant solve social problems simply by throwing money at them, as they claim is always the preferred liberal solution. Usually it seems to me that the conservatives simply dont want to pay taxes. But occasionally they have a point. An example is the District of Columbia, which spends $12,979 per pupil to produce what may come close to being the worst public education in America. Neighboring Maryland spends just $9,815 to provide education that ranges from better to infinitely superior.

Seeing the light

A recent story that would have benefited fromand might even have been made unnecessary byfamiliarity with the Monthly was the front-page Washington Post article by Steve Mufson that told readers: A Depression-era program to bring electricity to rural areas is now using taxpayer money to provide billions of dollars in low-interest loans to build coal plants even as Congress seeks ways to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The agency behind this program is the Rural Utilities Service of the Department of Agriculture, which is the successor to the Rural Electrification Agency. That agency was created by President Franklin Roosevelt to bring electricity to farmers whose water had been pumped by hand and books read by kerosene lamp. But, as James Bennet pointed out in a 1990 Monthly article, the goal of bringing electricity to the farm was largely accomplished by World War II. The agency endured because of a powerful lobby called the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Another factor in the agencys survival was the desire of its bureaucrats to keep it alive and growing with plenty of good jobs and opportunities for promotion, despite the fact that its original purpose had been achieved. If the Post and other media had followed up on Bennets story instead of ignoring it, we might have gotten rid of this program then, and there would have been no need for Mufsons expos.

The road not taken

One Gaza analyst told the New York Times that there is an increase of fundamentalism and the birth of groups believing in violence and practicing violence as a model created by bin Ladenism. The result is the chaos we see in Gaza today. If only, instead of invading Iraq, Bush had concentrated on bringing about a just peace between Israel and Palestine. Our failure to act there, just like our failure in Iraq, has only strengthened the extremists by attracting thousands of new recruits to their side.

The rest are waiting in line at the INS

I continue to worry about Iraqi refugees and our failure to take them in. One million are in Syria, another 700,000 in Jordan. How have we done? From October 2006 through April 30 of this year, we took in exactly sixty-nine.

Runway spending

Every time you fly a commercial airliner, you pay a tax, and sometimes as many as six taxes; those fees have added up to more than $104 billion since 1997, according to Bob Porterfield of the Associated Press. Much of the money benefits both the commercial planes that most of us use, and the private planescalled General Aviationthat fly hobbyists, corporate executives, and the filthy rich around the country. But $7 billion of the tax money has been used exclusively for General Aviation facilitiesthat is, facilities you and I do not use. For example, as Porterfield points out, the Napa Valley Airport collected $6.3 million in the last two years, even though it mainly serves private jets and small planes, in addition to being a private training base for Japan Airlines. Unless youre on your way to Tokyo or Yokohama, its hard to see any benefit that the rest of us get from this, other than the pleasure of watching the character played by Kevin Costner in the movie Rumor Has It fly the character played by Jennifer Aniston to his Napa vineyard. The film, by the way, illustrates another benefit often enjoyed by private pilots. Costner and Aniston drive up to his Gulfstream in his Mercedes convertible and board without the hassle of a security check.

Improbable triumphs

Ive long been fascinated by improbable sources of major accomplishment. Take, for instance, those marvelous caveman commercials for Geico. You would think they must have been created at some center of with-it creativity like New York or Los Angeles. Instead, they are the product of the Martin Agency, located in that hotbed of hipness, Richmond, Virginia.

In my own field of political journalism, the clear winner in the improbable-source contest is the Washington bureau of McClatchy newspapers (formerly Knight Ridder). Under the leadership of John Walcott, it beat the pants off its big-time competitors on the story of the decadethe Bush administrations rush to war for the wrong reasons. The New York Times blew the story completely. Only Walter Pincus raised red flags at the Washington Post, and his editors took care to put his warnings on page 17 or 18. Walcotts gang continues to do outstanding work, most recently doing a great job of covering the Department of Justice scandal, and getting the story of failures in health care for Iraq War veterans ahead of the Washington Post and the rest of the media.

When reporters asked what had happened to the border agent who let Andrew Speaker into this country by ignoring a clear instruction not to do so, they were told he had been reassigned. The level of accountability in our public life is, to put it as gently as possible, not high. Bad teachers are rarely dismissed. In the federal civil service, the firing rate is less than 1 percent. Top officials who screw up are permitted to resign to spend more time with their familiesor made attorney general.

We need not go as far as the Chinese, who recently handed a death sentence to their FDA chief, who had been on the take. But we should stop tolerating incompetence.

Thats why I admired what Barack Obama said about teachers in a recent New Hampshire speech. Yes, they should be better paid, he replied to a questioner. But in return, they must be held accountable.

Speaking of competence and accountability, I continue to worry about the Centers for Disease Control. When the test came in on May 22 making it clear that Andrew Speaker had the most dangerous kind of tuberculosis, and he did not immediately agree to go to an Italian hospital, why didnt the CDC make public his identity and the threat he posed? Waiting to do so until he returned to this country, and after all those Czech Air passengers had been exposed, struck me as a demented choice.

And why did Dr. Julie Gerberding defend the actions of Andrews father-in-law, the CDC tuberculosis specialist who, incredibly enough, not only failed to object to his son-in-laws travels, but participated in them by attending the wedding in Santorini? Either he was incompetent and reckless, or the CDC was wrong to label Andrew a public health threat. In any event, I will continue to keep harping, as I did most recently in our January/February issue, on the need for a major news organization, like the Washington Post or the New York Times, to make a thorough examination of the CDC, identifying its strengths and weaknesses and explaining how the latter can be remedied. For me, the need is already crystal clear. We have a problem in Atlanta.

Although Im for Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential race, I want to congratulate Hillary Clinton on winning the first debates in South Carolina and New Hampshire. She came across as warmer and less singsong, and looked genuinely impressive. I also congratulate her on her recent bill to provide up to $10 billion of federal money to make sure that all four-year-olds have pre-kindergarten education. This was the only subject Ive ever discussed at length with her, and I was struck by the depth of her passion for the cause.

On the other hand, I have to point out that Mrs. Clinton was incredibly fortunate to escape mention of the Levin amendment in the New Hampshire debate. That morning, an article in the New York Times Magazine by Jeff Gerth and Don Van Natta Jr. pointed out that she voted against the amendment to the resolution authorizing Bush to go to war in Iraq that would have required exactly the type of diplomacy and inspection effort she now says she favored before any military action. Someone should have asked, Since you favor it now, why didnt you vote for it then?

Since Harvard has so much influence on other institutions of higher learning, Im heartened by the campaign to restore teaching to a place of importance among the Harvard faculty. For years, research and publication have been the dominant paths to eminence for Harvard professors. Students could go through four years of a Harvard education and graduate without knowing a professor well enough to get a letter of recommendation. Large lecture courses led by senior faculty whose actual teaching skills were beneath modest, assisted by bored graduate students, were the rule. Now, according to Sarah Rimer of the New York Times, a group headed by the distinguished social scientist Theda Skocpol is proposing that teaching rank equally with contributions to research in annual salary adjustments. She has a tough challenge before her. Previous attempts to recognize teaching, such as the Levenson Teaching Prize, have not been notably successful. One Levenson winner told Skocpol, I earn high praise (and more money) for every paper or academic achievement, while every teaching achievement earns a warning of how I should not wander off research.

Every time this subject comes up, I urge people to read Teacher in America, by Jacques Barzun. And I commend it now to Skocpol. It tells how highly teaching was valued at Columbias undergraduate college in the 1930s and 40s, and shows that a faculty culture can, instead of disdaining teaching, disdain not teaching.

Did you hear Mike Gravels great point about gays in the military? During the June 3 Democratic debate, he asked why Bill Clinton hadnt confronted Colin Powell when Powell said that other soldiers wouldnt accept gays. According to Gravel, what Clinton should have said was: You wouldnt be here right now if Harry Truman had fallen for the same argument against blacks in the military.

In 2005 a wing fell off a fifty-eight-year-old seaplane operated by Chalks Ocean Airways. The resulting crash killed the twenty people on board. You would think the FAA would be extra vigilant in inspecting a fifty-eight-year-old plane, especially one owned by Chalks, since the FAA had received a letter almost a year before the crash from one of Chalks own pilots expressing concern about their safety practices. The National Transportation Safety Board found that the FAA inspectors should have noted that, according to Matthew Wald of the New York Times, a crack in the wings skin had been ineffectively repaired. A safety board member added that the FAAs maintenance overseer had sufficient cues to identify a problem and didnt do anything about it.

As usual, however, Congress is not blameless in matters of regulatory failure. After the top had ripped off a worn-out Boeing 737 in 1988, Congress passed a law tightening standards for old planes. But the rule does not go into full effect until 2010. Andyou will not believethisplanes approved by the government before 1958 are exempt.

In case you missed it, the key mistake in the lobbying reform bill thats making its way through Congress is that the prohibition for lobbying for ex-congressmen and their staffers is for only one year. Reformers are trying to make it two years. I think the ban should be permanent for both former congressmen and former staff members. Incumbents argue that any ban of more than one year will discourage talented people from taking jobs on Capitol Hill. The truth is that in my lifetime, a whole lot of talented people served on Capitol Hill in the 1930s through the 1960s when lucrative lobbying jobs were not their obvious next stop. Actually, it was not until the 1970s that such jobs became a common second career for former congressmen. As for former staffers, it wasnt until the 1980s that they began to cash in.

In some cases, its already too late for regulation. Recently in West Virginia, environmental groups sued to stop a mountaintop removal in Logan County, but then had to abandon their suit. Why? Because the mining company had, according to the Charleston Gazettes Ken Ward Jr., already destroyed the streams the court action had been sought to protect.

Some of the articles about Paul Wolfowitzs girlfriend, Shaha Riza, hinted at other rich veins of inquiry about the World Bank. Al Kamen wrote of the Banks hideously cushy payroll, and buried in a long article in the Washington Post was this comment from one prominent Washingtonian with long experience in multinational institutions: The Bank is a black hole of indolence and bureaucracy.

Bloombergs Amity Shlaes got the hints and did a little digging. She found that one of the Banks H-level employees can make considerably more than Riza was scheduled to collect$226,250 per year, to be exact. There are now 1,000 H-level employees. They can rise to the I level, and make as much as $268,560. There are 200 of them. For most Bank employees, the salaries have the considerable additional benefit of being tax free. And as if that isnt enough, the Bank provides what Shlaes describes as gold-plated pensions for its retiring workers, 1,000 of whom also get consulting contracts for which they collect additional income while traveling the globe at the Banks expense. Finally, for years, the Bank has provided free tuition for the offspring of their employees. This has made it a significant factor in the continuing prosperity of private schools in the Washington area.

I hope those of you with a passion for social justice make sure to read the latest issue of the American, published by the American Enterprise Institute. The magazines point of view was discernable in anessay in its first issue, titled Why Do We Underpay Our Best CEOs?

The most recent issue features an article bemoaning prison hardships endured by todays white-collar criminals. The magazine laments the loss of the good old days of the 1970s at Lompoc, the white-collar detention facility in California, where inmates like H. R. Haldeman would order expensive chili from the legendary Chasens restaurant in Beverly Hills, or maybe shoot a few holes of golf at a neighboring course. Now those days are gone. While the white-collar offenders dont have to share cells with the violent, they do have to wear prison uniforms and associate with drug dealers. Worst of all, the tennis courts are no more. And, horror of horrors, each month, inmates can spend no more than $290 at the commissary and 300 minutes on the telephone.

Obviously these poor fellows deserve our deepest sympathy. As the Washington Posts clearly touched Peter Carlson observes, Its heart-warming to know that the AEIs devotion to the welfare of the rich does not stop when the rich are convicted of multiple felonies and shipped to the slammer.

If you want a hint as to why gasoline prices have been so high, you may find it in a line buried in a recent story in the Wall Street Journal. Lately, American refiners have made a pretax profit of roughly $30 on each barrel of oil they use to produce gasoline. For contrast, the Journal cites a major Asian refining center, Singapore, where the profit is one-third that of the American refineries.

In an article on the Department of Homeland Security in the spring issue of the Wilson Quarterly, New York Universitys Paul Light points out that one of the departments components, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, has long been one of Washingtons worst agencies. In 2002, Government Executive magazine gave it the lowest grade in a survey of federal agencies. Now that the service is part of DHS, is it any better? It does have a new namethe U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service. But as the Washington Posts Spencer Hsu reports, at least one of the old recipes for failure continues in full force. It is the reliance on user fees to finance a substantial part of its budget. At first, user fees might sound like a good idea. But heres an example of their true cost, as explained by Hsu: Last June U.S. immigration officials were presented a plan that supporters said could help slash waiting time for green cards from nearly three years to three months and save one million applicants more than a third of the forty-five hours they could expect to spend in government lines. The plan was rejected, because speedier action would cost the agencys renewal fees for waiting applicants.

User fees can be okay, but not if the agency relies on them for its income. They should go directly to the U.S. Treasury, so that the agency will not be tempted to tailor its actions to maximize its fee income. This, you may know, has happened not only at the INS, but also at the FDA and the patent office, where the fees act as a disincentive to thorough scrutiny.

The most grotesque example of the influence of fees is this new immigration agency policy: if you pay an extra special processing fee of $1,000, they will speed up your application that is being delayed by their need for renewal fees.

As I pointed out in the last issue, neoliberals can be firmly against the war in Iraq but still be in favor of a strong military. Thats why I applaud Barack Obamas statement that he may actually increase the military budget if necessary to rebuild the strength of an Army that has been dreadfully weakened by the war in Iraq. And thats why I admire recent reporting on equipment that needs to be improved, including articles on the need for V-shaped armored vehicles to minimize the impact of IEDs, NBCs Lisa Myerss report on the better body armorcalled dragon skinthat we should be using in Iraq, and the 60 Minutes report on the billions of dollars the Coast Guard has wasted on unseaworthy ships.

The Coast Guard story, by the way, illustrates an important thing to understand about government agencies. The fact that one performs well in one respect by no means guarantees across-the-board excellence. For instance, the Coast Guard that performed so nobly in rescuing Hurricane Katrina survivors totally fouled up in the case of the unseaworthy vessels. In the latter instance, the Coast Guard gave the contract for overseeing the project to the same contractor that was building the ships. In other words, the fox was going to guard the fox. The result was predictable. Just as there would have been no chickens left, there were no seaworthy vessels produced.

Conservatives love to argue that you cant solve social problems simply by throwing money at them, as they claim is always the preferred liberal solution. Usually it seems to me that the conservatives simply dont want to pay taxes. But occasionally they have a point. An example is the District of Columbia, which spends $12,979 per pupil to produce what may come close to being the worst public education in America. Neighboring Maryland spends just $9,815 to provide education that ranges from better to infinitely superior.

A recent story that would have benefited fromand might even have been made unnecessary byfamiliarity with the Monthly was the front-page Washington Post article by Steve Mufson that told readers: A Depression-era program to bring electricity to rural areas is now using taxpayer money to provide billions of dollars in low-interest loans to build coal plants even as Congress seeks ways to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The agency behind this program is the Rural Utilities Service of the Department of Agriculture, which is the successor to the Rural Electrification Agency. That agency was created by President Franklin Roosevelt to bring electricity to farmers whose water had been pumped by hand and books read by kerosene lamp. But, as James Bennet pointed out in a 1990 Monthly article, the goal of bringing electricity to the farm was largely accomplished by World War II. The agency endured because of a powerful lobby called the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Another factor in the agencys survival was the desire of its bureaucrats to keep it alive and growing with plenty of good jobs and opportunities for promotion, despite the fact that its original purpose had been achieved. If the Post and other media had followed up on Bennets story instead of ignoring it, we might have gotten rid of this program then, and there would have been no need for Mufsons expos.

One Gaza analyst told the New York Times that there is an increase of fundamentalism and the birth of groups believing in violence and practicing violence as a model created by bin Ladenism. The result is the chaos we see in Gaza today. If only, instead of invading Iraq, Bush had concentrated on bringing about a just peace between Israel and Palestine. Our failure to act there, just like our failure in Iraq, has only strengthened the extremists by attracting thousands of new recruits to their side.

I continue to worry about Iraqi refugees and our failure to take them in. One million are in Syria, another 700,000 in Jordan. How have we done? From October 2006 through April 30 of this year, we took in exactly sixty-nine.

Every time you fly a commercial airliner, you pay a tax, and sometimes as many as six taxes; those fees have added up to more than $104 billion since 1997, according to Bob Porterfield of the Associated Press. Much of the money benefits both the commercial planes that most of us use, and the private planescalled General Aviationthat fly hobbyists, corporate executives, and the filthy rich around the country. But $7 billion of the tax money has been used exclusively for General Aviation facilitiesthat is, facilities you and I do not use. For example, as Porterfield points out, the Napa Valley Airport collected $6.3 million in the last two years, even though it mainly serves private jets and small planes, in addition to being a private training base for Japan Airlines. Unless youre on your way to Tokyo or Yokohama, its hard to see any benefit that the rest of us get from this, other than the pleasure of watching the character played by Kevin Costner in the movie Rumor Has It fly the character played by Jennifer Aniston to his Napa vineyard. The film, by the way, illustrates another benefit often enjoyed by private pilots. Costner and Aniston drive up to his Gulfstream in his Mercedes convertible and board without the hassle of a security check.

Ive long been fascinated by improbable sources of major accomplishment. Take, for instance, those marvelous caveman commercials for Geico. You would think they must have been created at some center of with-it creativity like New York or Los Angeles. Instead, they are the product of the Martin Agency, located in that hotbed of hipness, Richmond, Virginia.

In my own field of political journalism, the clear winner in the improbable-source contest is the Washington bureau of McClatchy newspapers (formerly Knight Ridder). Under the leadership of John Walcott, it beat the pants off its big-time competitors on the story of the decadethe Bush administrations rush to war for the wrong reasons. The New York Times blew the story completely. Only Walter Pincus raised red flags at the Washington Post, and his editors took care to put his warnings on page 17 or 18. Walcotts gang continues to do outstanding work, most recently doing a great job of covering the Department of Justice scandal, and getting the story of failures in health care for Iraq War veterans ahead of the Washington Post and the rest of the media.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.