Tilting at Windmills

The Small Business Administration canceled 8,000 loans to hurricane victims without notice to the borrowers. When the borrowers sought an explanation, they were told, according to Ron Nixon of the New York Times, that they had voluntarily given up their loans, which was not true.

Why this fiasco? The SBA was being criticized for being too slow in getting money to borrowers whose loan applications had been approved. The SBAs solution to this public relations problem: cancel the applications of the borrowers who were waiting for money. If you dont show up on our books as having applied for a loan, we cant be accused of being too slow to give you the money.

A similar example of bureaucratic logic occurred when FEMA learned there might be a problem with formaldehyde in the trailers they had provided for Katrina victims. Ordinary human beings might conclude that the trailers should be tested immediately to see if formaldehyde was present, and if it created a danger to the health of the occupants. But were not talking about ordinary human beings. Instead, were dealing with an attorney in FEMAs general counsels office, who, according to Claudia Lauer of the Los Angeles Times, replied: Do not institute any testing until we give the OK. Once you get results and should they indicate some problem, the clock is running on our duty to respond to them.

And, proving that it was definitely a part of the Bush administration, FEMA blocked investigation of this incident by invoking attorney-client privilege.

One bureaucracy that has a splendid record of efficiency has been put on a near-starvation diet by the Bush administration. Staffing at the Social Security Administration will soon be at its lowest level since 1974, reports the Washington Posts Stephen Barr. The number of disability claims waiting for hearing decisions is at an all-time high.

The agencys head, Michael J. Astrue, says that inadequate funding since 2001 is largely to blame for staffing and workflow problems. Was the Bush gang trying to create problems with the present Social Security system to gain support for its privatizing proposals?

The Associated Press reports that the Army missed its recruiting targets for the second month in a row. It may be that potential recruits heard the same news that I did on CNN: that 200,000 soldiers have now been on two or more tours in Iraq.

Can you imagine what its like to fly out of Baghdad thinking that at last youre safe, youre not going to have your brain injured or your legs blown off, and youre going home to your family and friendsand then comes the order to go back to the exact kind of hell you have just escaped? There is no way to avoid the order other than desertion. Only draft dodgers like George Bush and Dick Cheney, who have never faced this dilemma, could bear to do this to these young men and women, more than 3,700 of whom have been killed and 27,000 wounded.

Our younger readers may not know that even at their Vietnam worst, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did not require soldiers to do two tours, much less three.

George W. Bush is said to identify with Abraham Lincoln. Most observers have found it hard to detect any similarities. But I may have found one: on at least one occasion, Lincoln displayed the same lack of empathy for his exhausted army that has been characteristic of our current president. Documents have come to light indicating that Lincoln was indignant at General George Meade for not following up on the Union victory at Gettysburg by not immediately pursuing the retreating Confederates, cutting them off from their bases in Virginia and bringing the war to a quick end. If you know anything at all about Gettysburg, you know it was a vicious and bloody struggle, leaving both victor and vanquished battered and battle-weary.

If Meade had given the order to charge after the Confederates, mutiny would only have been prevented because the soldiers were too tired to do anything.

A fact that I suspect most people dont know is, as the Boston Globes Sean Murphy reminds us, that U.S. marshals are political appointees. The U.S. marshals (to be clear, not the air marshals) are responsible, writes Murphy, for securing courthouses, protecting judges, juries and witnesses and other court officials, capturing fugitives, and transporting prisoners. But instead of Tommy Lee Jones relentlessly doing his duty pursuing Harrison Ford, what we get are people like Anthony Dichio, appointed by George W. Bush on the recommendation of a former Republican governor, Paul Cellucci, for whom Dichio had acted as a driver. Dichio ultimately had to be dismissed from his marshals job because of what the Globe described as his lax work habits.

American newspapers are shrinking, not only literally reducing their size, but cutting back their coverage. In a recent speech, reprinted in Duke magazine, Kevin Sack, a former prizewinning reporter for the Los Angeles Times who is now with the New York Times, cited statistics showing that 2,100 newspaper jobs were lost in 2005 and another 1,000 in 2006. Noting that his former employer, the Tribune Company, had closed bureaus in Johannesburg, Moscow, London, Beijing, Beirut, and Islamabadnot that theres much news in any of those placeshe fears we are fast approaching the day when the Associated Press and the New York Times may be the only print organizations that comprehensively cover our country and our world.

Not to worry, were told. The Internet will fill the gap. But the truth is that the bloggers rarely offer us anything more than opinion, seasoned occasionally by a new fact or two. No in-depth reporting is done, and complexity is rarely acknowledged, even less explored.

Back sometime in the 1980s, the Monthly had a writer working on an article proposing welfare reform. I favored a work requirement, but, wanting it to be humane, I pressed the author to recommend part-time jobs for welfare mothers. She kept coming back to report that she could not find a single expert who agreed with me. Those who favored a work requirement all thought the jobs should be full-time. I lost interest in the article, and the author lost interest in working for the Monthly.

So you can imagine the warm glow of vindication that came over me when I read about the recent survey by the Pew Research Center that found, according to David Crary of the Associated Press, that 60 percent of working mothers said a part-time job would be best.

I hope this news will penetrate the minds of those running welfare reform, so they can stop pressuring those poor women to leave their children, often taking a long bus trip to a full-time job and returning home too exhausted to do a decent job of parenting.

And I hope every employer will get the message. Right now, there just arent enough part-time jobs. Pews Paul Taylor tells the APs Jocelyn Noveck that by and large the workplace has not accommodated the desire for part-time work.

It is depressing to learn that House Democrats have passed a farm bill that offers little reform of the present insane subsidy system. The reason cited is that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wants to protect the seats of newly elected Democrats from rural districts. But who are these Democrats afraid of? Fifty-seven percent of farmers get no federal subsidies.

Who does benefit? The largest 8 percent of farms receive 58 percent of the payments, reports George Will, who can hardly be suspected of loading a statistic to make a populist point. If its only 8 percent who are going to be hurt, you wouldnt think these Democrats would be afraid. It must be the money those 8 percent can contribute to the defeat of candidates who displease them.

In case you missed the most recent farm subsidy scandal, its the news that the Department of Agriculture paid $1.1 billion to farmers who were no longer farming because they happened to be dead. One farm in Illinois, according to the Washington Posts Sarah Cohen, collected $400,000 on behalf of an owner who lived in Florida before his death in 1995. The farm certified that the deceased was actively engaged in its management. According to the Government Accountability Office, payments like this are approved without review 40 percent of the time.

First Alliance, a California sub-prime lender aspiring to the big time, sought financing from Lehman Brothers, one of the pillars of Wall Street. A Lehman vice president was assigned to investigate First Alliance.

His report described First Alliance as a sweatshop pushing high-pressure sales for people in a weak state. He concluded that company employees left their ethics at the door. So what did those respectable bankers at Lehman do? They lent First Alliance $500 million and helped it raise $700 million more.

The Wall Street Journals Michael Hudson cites Lehman as a prime example of how Wall Streets money and expertise have helped transform sub-prime lending into a major force in the U.S. financial markets. This explains why, now that the sub-prime business is in deep trouble, some consumer advocates and reformers are pointing the finger at Wall Street.

Another villain identified by a Journal repor- ter, in this case Greg Ip, is also an eminenceindeed, none other than Alan Greenspan. It seemed that when a Federal Reserve governor suggested to Greenspan that the Fed use its examiners to crack down on predatory lending, Greenspan rejected the idea.

This magazine has consistently criticized the National Education Association for its opposition to teacher accountability. We always assumed, however, that the NEAs position stemmed from a loyalty to the best interests of its members.

But it turns out that the NEA is putting its own interests ahead of its members. According to a lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington State, and reported by Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times, the NEA breached its duty to its members by accepting millions of dollars in payments from two financial firms whose high-cost investments it recommended to members. This reminds me of the colleges and universities that accepted bribes from student loan lenders to prefer their loans over the loans from the federal government that would have provided a better deal for the students.

I worry that the AARP is involved in a similar conflict of interest. It has recently announced that it is expanding its involvement in the health insurance business. This represents the completion of a full circle for the AARP. The organization was conceived in sin as the offspring of the Colonial Penn Insurance Company, and only achieved legitimacy as it separated itself from Colonial Penn. Gradually, however, it has crept back into the insurance business, first with Medigap and then with prescription drug coverage. It has maintained a shred of honor by offering coverage on the low side of whats available from other companies. Even so, it now has a stake in maintaining the system of private insurance which gives it a strong stake in opposing the single-payer reform in health care that many of us see as essential.

Have you considered how ill-equipped we have been for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Not only have we been terribly slow in providing our soldiers with the protection they need against IEDs, but the weapons we have provided are often better suited to overkill than to precise targeting of the guerillas were fighting. We had the same problem in Vietnam with bombs landing in the wrong place and killing innocent victims, and firepower more suited to Normandy than to picking out guerillas in a small village. Israel made a similar mistake in Lebanon, seemingly destroying half the country in a futile attempt to single out Hezbollah members.

Why didnt we learn the lessons of Vietnam? One excuseand a good onewas that our potential enemy for the next two decades was the Soviet Union. But since 1993, there has been no excuse for not applying the lessons of Vietnam, especially when they were emphasized after the disaster in Somalia. I fear the reason we did not learn these lessons is because the defense industry makes a lot more money on jets and tanks than on body armor. And Pentagon bureaucrats find it easier to commit large sums on the big-ticket weapons and thus increase their immense budgets with all of the generous perks and promotion opportunities that such budgets entail.

You must be sure to read Dale Russakoffs series in the Washington Post on whats been happening to average people as the rich have been getting richer. In one item she tells of a United Airlines flight attendant whose income fell from $47,000 in 1994 to $43,000 last year, even though she is working significantly more hours. Because of a default by United, the pension she can look forward to has been cut from $2,400 a month to $1,440 a month.

During the years that the United Airlines flight attendants salary was decreasing and her pension was cut almost in half, the average S&P 500 executive was seeing his compensation grow and grow and grow. According to Ellen Simon of the Associated Press, it didnt just double, it is now six times more than it was in 1990.

It is well known that doctors augment their incomes with lecture fees, free trips, and other goodies courtesy of the pharmaceutical companies. Im sure that most people, however, were shocked by the recent disclosure of the worst offender among medical specialists. According to Gardiner Harris of the New York Times, it is psychiatrists, the supposed guardians of our mental health. In Vermont, for example, they received a reported $2.25 million from drug manufacturers. One Minnesota shrink was on the take to the tune of an incredible $689,000. These figures do not include the free drug samples that are provided by pharmaceutical salesmen. It is hard not to suspect that all this largesse has not influenced the explosive growth of psychiatric drug prescriptions, most dismayingly among children, in whom the effects of such drugs are the most controversial.

Longtime Monthly readers will not be as shocked by these figures as those who have more recently come to our pages. Veterans will remember an article by E. Fuller Torrey which revealed that not a single Washington psychiatrist did charity work. How can we be surprised that we have a nation dominated by selfishness and greed, when that is what we learn from our exemplars of normal behavior?

One good provision in the House farm bill provides for an increase in the value of food stamps for Americans desperately struggling to make ends meet. A tiny group of congressmen deserve the credit. They lived for a week on food stamps, which have an average value of $3 a day. The story of the hardship they endured helped persuade their fellow legislators to do, if not the right thing, at least something better. A family of four will now get an additional $48 a month.

You may wonder why the NASA scandals took so long to reach public attention. A possible explanation is that NASAs inspector general, Robert Moose Cobb, has not proved to be the most diligent of investigators. One ethics report found that, in the words of the Washington Posts Marc Kaufman, Cobb had created the appearance of a lack of independence by lunching, drinking, and golfing with top NASA officials. Another ethics report concluded that Cobb interfered with investigative and audit staff for reasons that appear, at the very least, improper. And Senator Bill Nelson cited allegations that Cobbagain in Kaufmans wordsdid not investigate several incidents that could have embarrassed NASA and its leadership.

Im aware, George W. Bush told a recent press conference, that perhaps someone in the administration did disclose the name of that person [Valerie Plame]. You know, Ive often thought about what would have happened if that person had come forth and said, I did it. Would we have had this [sic], you know, endless hours of investigation and a lot of money being spent on this matter?

Here is a truly delicious revelation of the White House mind at work. We dont have to feel guilty. There would have been no problem for Karl or Dick or Scooter if Richard Armitage had come forward and said he was the first leaker. That would have left everyone off the hook.

Well, not quite. It seems that Armitage did disclose his leak to the State Department counsel, William Taft. According to the Posts Michael Abramowitz, Taft then called the White House to say he had information about the leak. Did the White House want to know about it? The answer was no. The White House official who gave it: Alberto Gonzales.

Whatever the artistic merits of the great change that occurred in popular music in the mid-1960s, it definitely separated the generations in one sense. Those who had passed their thirtieth birthday thought the music was too loud. Those younger only seemed to want it louder. This appears to be at least one case in which the old fogies were right. According to an article by Stephanie Rosenbloom in the New York Times, there are now more people aged forty-five to sixty-four with hearing loss than there are people over sixty-five with hearing loss. Its the younger group thats cupping its ears and saying, Speak up.

I loved Barack Obamas response in the South Carolina debate that he would be willing to talk to the bad guys. Hillary Clintons comment, by contrast, seemed to come straight out of Condoleezza Rices playbook. I was troubled, however, when Obama joined the ranks of the responsibles as he seemed to forget his out-of Iraq-by-March pledge and instead talked about being as careful going out as we were careless going in. Many of the people who talk like that are talking about a matter of years to get our soldiers out of Iraq.

I would remind them that we removed 537,000 troops from Vietnam in four years. That is at a rate of more than 140,000 per year. Furthermore, the Nixon administration was definitely in no hurry to leave, because it wanted to prop up the failed South Vietnamese government for as long as possible.

One thing I hope Barack Obama and others who are being influenced by the responsibles will be sure to investigate is what lies behind those practically forever estimates of how long its going to take to get out. Consider this report from Times Michael Duffy:

It seems to me that every one of these items, including the Coke machines, could be left behind, as well as all the worn-out military equipment, most especially the thousands of vehicles that are a step away from the junkyard. What we want to be sure to evacuate are all American military and civilian personnel, the Iraqis who stuck their necks out for us, and all military equipment thats in good shape.

I concede the responsibles could be right in their belief that our staying will at some point lead to a stable Iraq. But I ask them to ask themselves if they are confident enough of such an outcome that they can in good conscience tell the soldier leaving for a third tour to risk his life one more time. Would they be willing to risk theirs? ?

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.