Tilting at Windmills

I worry about our strategy in Afghanistan, with its reliance on air strikes and increased conventional ground forces, as distinguished from the kind of small-unit Special Forces we need to fight against guerillas. The air strikes have hit far too many of the wrong targets, killing innocent people and inflaming Afghan opinion against us. Some of the air strikes are carried out by drones operated by “pilots” sitting in a trailer, some of whom work for twelve straight hours a day for 120 days.

An irritating new practice has been embraced by the telemarketing business. Whereas the sound of your answering machine used to deter the salesperson, a growing number of them now leave long messages that clog up your machine. And to add to your aggravation, there is now a new technique that permits the marketer to get directly to your voicemail without the phone ringing.

Just as we were going to press with this issue, the media finally began to call out the McCain campaign for its lies about Barack Obama. Under the headline “McCain Barbs Stirring Outcry as Distortions,” reporters Michael Cooper and Jim Rutenberg did so on the front page of the New York Times. The day before, on the television show The View, cohost Joy Behar told McCain, “We know that those two ads are untrue. They are lies. And yet you, at the end of it, say, I approve these messages. Do you really approve them?”

“Actually, they are not lies,” McCain replied, lying again. One of the lies that Behar was talking about was the McCain ad that said Obama favored “comprehensive sex education” for children in kindergarten, when what Obama actually advocates is teaching children how to recognize improper sexual advances. I hope that the press will continue to put the corrections on the front page and the lies inside, rather than the other way around.

Since the early 80s, Ive been struck by how many of the brightest young people have gone to Wall Street. I would have preferred to see more of them go into government or journalism or into making useful products and giving people jobs. Back then, I was so concerned about the trend that I commissioned an article by Philip Weiss deploring the fact that Steve Rattner, a promising young New York Times reporter, had decided to abandon journalism for Wall Street. I foolishly hoped the article would stem the tide. But the tide turned out to be a flood.

The result is described in Kevin Phillipss new book, Bad Money, which describes how the concentration of talent in the world of finance and in the pursuit of wealthinstead of in making a decent living while doing something worthwhilehas corrupted those involved, and threatened a nation with economic disaster.

There were so many smart guys trying to get rich that they ran out of honorable ways of achieving their goals and had to resort to inventing financial instruments that were of dubious value but were designed cleverly enough to fool even themselves.

How were the American people persuaded to accept lax Republican regulation and the resulting (as Phillips puts it) “period of speculative indulgence and conspicuous favoritism to the upper income brackets”? My guess is the major factor in the tolerance of the excesses of the rich is that too many average Joes have come to aspire to wealth. My father never wanted to be rich. Neither did I. Neither did most of his friends or mine. Neither does my son, who is now forty-five. But beginning with his generation, the number of people with that aspiration has been growing. Now, even on public televisionthe traditional home of book readers, concertgoers, and tree huggersthere is a popular show called Stay Rich Forever & Ever!

I watched a segment the other day during which sober-looking citizens in the audience shook their heads in sympathetic concern as they were told about the estate tax burden on an individual with $5 million. The shows slogan, oft repeated by its host Ed Slott, seems to be “Keep your money away from the government,” uttered without the slightest awareness of any obligation of the wealthy to give back.

The Washington Post recently ran a lengthy story, “How Washington Failed to Rein In Fannie, Freddie,” that managed to mention only one name of an official or lobbyist of those organizations. Shouldnt the guilty parties be identified, so the public will know who actively engaged in misdeeds, and who rented their reputations to the wrongdoers in exchange for generous compensationand who, by the way, seemed remarkably incurious about what was going on under their noses?

The claim by McCain and countless Republican speakers that Obama will raise your taxes is the lie that drives me craziest. Its latest incarnation says Obama plans “painful tax increases on working American families,” when according to the Times, for four-fifths of the populationthose making $112,000 a year or less”Mr. Obamas tax cuts would mean a net savings of more than $900 a year on average, while Mr. McCains proposals would save people less than half that.”

The danger of this lie is that it has been repeated so often, and until now so little disputed by the media, with the occasional correction always confined to an inside page, that there is a real possibility that it has become engraved in the public mind.

I should also note that Steve Schmidt, who became the chief campaign strategist for McCain this summer, has been terrifyingly effective with his lies. But even Karl Rove thinks Schmidt may have gone “one step too far.” For once I find myself hoping Karl is right.

“What if the FBI is right about Bruce Ivins?” asks Randall J. Larsen, a former department head at the National War College, in the Wall Street Journal. Larsen doesnt deal with the big mystery in my mind when I saw the headline: Why was a man with obvious mental problems permitted to handle anthrax? But what Larsen points out is another cause for anxiety. Ivins, according to the FBI, managed to “convert anthrax spores into a dry-powdered weaponized form”and he did so without any prior training in the weaponization process. Larsen adds that the type of anthrax spores used by Ivins is readily “available in laboratories around the world.”

Neither McCain nor Obama has any experience in the executive branch of government. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, our most successful modern president, had worked for eight years as assistant secretary of the Navythe place where policymakers, career military, and civilian bureaucrats intersect. So he learned how the system works, or doesnt work.

For the next president to learn even half of what FDR knew, hes going to require extensive tutoring in the culture of the executive branch. I suggest case studies showing, for example, how the lessons JFK learned from the Bay of Pigs disaster helped him triumph in the Cuban missile crisis.

Another case could explain how recent White Houses have tended to live in bubbles, isolated from the rest of the government and often ignorant of what is going on down below until it comes to the medias attention, usually in the form of a scandal. This could be contrasted with the insatiable curiosity of an FDR, who not only used the Budget Bureaunow the Office of Management and Budgetas his eyes and ears, but also used people he respected outside the chain of commandhis wife and her friend Lorena Hickok are examplesto find out how federal programs were actually performing. He knew that bureaucracies gild lilies and conceal bad news.

There is an understandable tendency on the part of newly elected presidents to treat the period between the election and the inauguration as Miller Time, a well-deserved break from the rigors of the campaign. Unfortunately, this is also the time when great care must be taken in choosing the individuals who will head the various federal agencies and work in the White House. A good case study on the pitfalls of not doing so is Bill Clintons transition in 1992, with his attorney general debacle and inattention to the staffing of the White House.

“U.S. aid to Africa is becoming increasingly militarized,” reports Stephanie Mc-Crummen of the Washington Post. Why, you may well ask, are we giving military aid to Africa, when the help the continent needs is with health, education, and poverty? According to McCrummen, in the last decade the militarys share of the U.S. foreign aid budget for Africa has grown more than sevenfold, while the share for the U.S. Agency for International Development has decreased by more than a third.

Indeed, the United States seems to be pursuing a policy of rearming the world. According to Eric Lipton of the New York Times, “the Department of Defense has agreed so far this fiscal year to sell or transfer more than $32 billion in weapons and other military equipment to foreign governments, compared with $12 billion in 2005.”

This is of a piece with the news from C. J. Chivers of the Times that foot dragging by the United States is holding up an international agreement “to cut the global illicit trade in small arms.” Whats behind Americas failure to embrace an agreement that could reduce violence all over the world? The National Rifle Association. According to Chivers, the NRA regards the agreement as “a thinly masked effort to undermine lawful civilian gun ownership.”

The NRA has to be high on the list of truly evil lobbies. It sees every kind of gun control as a step toward gun abolition, and cons its members into fearing that the guns they use for hunting will be seized by federal agents.

Speaking of the NRA, the best argument Ive seen yet for gun control is statistics compiled from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention records by Mike Stobbe of the Associated Press. A full 55.4 percent of gun deaths are suicides, 40.2 percent are homicides, 2.6 percent are unintentional, and only 1.1 percent are clearly the result of legal actions like self-protection.

The new president also needs to understand the civil service. Republicans tend to come in with a hostile attitude toward career civil servants, and Democrats with too rosy a view. The truth is that while there are some civil servants who are both talented and dedicated, there are others who are mediocre time servers and a few who are downright incompetent.

New blood is desperately needed at all levels, so the president and the agency heads he appoints must make a major effort to attract able people to the career service. He should know that when civil servants are left to their own devices, instead of aggressively recruiting the best talent available, they prefer filling vacancies by promoting from within, and hiring from the ranks of their friends, a practice known as the buddy system. So any push to recruit outside talent has to come from the president and his agency heads.

The so-called “pay gap” is an example of the kind of hustle the new president can expect to encounter from the civil service lobby. It takes a partial truththat some important civil service jobs are underpaidand transforms it into a widely accepted falsehood: that all civil service jobs are underpaid. Proponents of the pay gap myth use phony comparisons of real jobs with federal job descriptions, which, as Leonard Reed once wrote in these pages, can “endow a file clerk with responsibilities before which a Harvard MBA would quail.”

The truth is the average total federal compensation, counting generous health and retirement benefits, is $116,450, compared to $56,615 for the private employee. Even if the benefits are not considered, the average fed gets $77,143 compared to $48,035 for the average nongovernment worker. (Statistics courtesy of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Cato Institute, and Joe Davidson of the Washington Post.)

The Defense Intelligence Agency has created a new counterintelligence center that, according to Walter Pincus of the Washington Post, will carry out”covert operations at home and abroad against people known or suspected to be foreign intelligence officers or connected to foreign intelligence or international terrorist activities.” If you think that these functions are already supposed to be performed by the CIA and the FBI, youre right. By the way, at the press conference announcing the new initiative, a reporter asked the Pentagons Toby Sullivan if he would describe some past successes of the DIA. “No, I cannot,” he replied. “Were talking about classified operations.”

A caution to Obama about his possible cabinet appointments: one is said to be Eric Holder as attorney general. Holder has an excellent reputation, but as the Justice Department official who screened pardons for the Clinton administration, he went along with the disgraceful pardon of Marc Rich, which he should have protested. Instead, he gave it a rating of “neutral, leaning toward favorable.”

Its a little hard not to suspect that Holder was trying to ingratiate himself with Marc Richs lawyer, Jack Quinn. Why? Because Quinn was known to be very close to Al Gore, who seemed likely, at the time, to be elected president. And Holder wanted to be Gores attorney general. In fact, according to an article by Andrew Longstreet of the American Lawyer, Holder had directly conveyed this wish to Quinn.

One problem with government that is also true of many schools is salary increases given without regard to merit, or to whether a job is easy or hard to fill. This results in a lot of overpaid employees, whether they are civil servants, teachers, or administrative staff. If salary increases went only to those of demonstrated merit, or to those who would be difficult to replace, it would reduce not only the cost of government, but also, in the case of some colleges, the tuition bills you or your kids struggle to pay.

Speaking of the cost of higher education, Im delighted to see that alumni are finally putting pressure on their old schools to use their sometimes gigantic endowments to finance the education of the needy. Too many schools, however, are still just piling up the bucks instead of using them for education, the purpose surely intended by most donors.

I have a stake in the cost of higher education. My son Chris teaches high school in San Bernardino, California, where he has for several years run a program to encourage students to go to college. Hes had remarkable success at getting them prepared and then admitted, many with a choice of several schools.

The catch is that most of his students40 percent of whom are Hispaniccome from families of very limited means. So being admitted does them no good if they cant afford the tuition and other costs. Even at Californias most affordable state universities, the costs run between $14,000 and $17,800 a year. At the most sought-after University of California campuses, it is $22,000 to $25,000. The best financial help Chriss students can geteven assuming a solid B averageleaves their parents with $5,000 to $10,000 a year to pay, which many of them simply cannot afford.

If youve been tempted by nuclear power advocates who offer it as a partial or complete solution to the energy crisisas I must confess I have beenyou should consider two facts. One is that after having had sixty-three years to contemplate the problem of nuclear waste, we still arent able to agree on where to store it. The other is the recent news from France, which is always touted as the exemplar of nuclear powers success. Recently, previously undisclosed leaks have been revealed at nuclear plants at Tricastin and Roman-sur-Isere. “They brought to the fore the risks of nuclear power, which French people had forgotten,” Bloomberg News quotes a French radioactivity researcher as saying, “and highlights the weaknesses of control and alert procedures.”

Recently the Washington Post has published two long stories on the AARP, neither of which mentions the fact that it is a front for insurance companies. Consider how many television commercials you see selling an AARP-endorsed insurance plan. One of the organizations main partners, United Healthcare, has been caught paying outrageous sums to its executives. So why doesnt the press treat it more skeptically?

The danger is that the AARP is now positioning itself as a leader in the campaign for national health care. You can be sure that if its the leader, then the national health care we get will take care of the insurance industry first.

Another case study for the new president could come from a largely unnoticed episode in Bob Woodwards new book, The War Within. In 2005, Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S. military strategy in Iraq was to “clear, hold, and build: to clear areas from insurgent control, to hold them securely, and then build durable Iraqi institutions.”

In Baghdad, when U.S. Army commander General George Casey read her testimony, he called his superior at U.S. Central Command, General John D. Abizaid, asking: “What the hell is that?”

This illustrates a classic problem in the relationship between top officials in Washington and those in the field charged with carrying out policy. The top officials can live in a fantasy world, where they think the policy they describe to the press and Congress is actually being implemented in the field. Often, as with Casey, the field is never consulted in the formulation of the policy. And just as often, as with Casey, someone in the chain of command forgets to tell the guys down below what they are supposed to be doing. It is equally common for people at the top to care more about what theyre telling the press and Congress than about what they are communicating to the field.

Speaking of fantasies at the top in Washington, a doozy was recently revealed in an op-ed in the New York Times by three 9/11 Commission staff members. The commission was told that by the time Flight 93 had turned toward Washington, President Bush had “issued the shoot-down authorization” and that Vice President Cheney had passed it on to the military in time. The commission found, however, that the authorization was not issued until after the crash of Flight 93, and was not passed on to the Air Force pilots in the air. The staff members conclusion: “the Washington establishment talked mainly to itself, disconnected from the reality on the ground and in the air.”

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.