Tilting at Windmills

“The system is broken.” This lament is heard constantly these days. But its the same system weve always had. Resistant to change, to be sure, but, as the New Deal and the Great Society proved, capable of major reform.

Whats wrong now is us, as Evan Thomas points out in a recent Newsweek article with the very apt title “We the Problem.” In my own view, a culture of selfishness gradually developed out of the many good changes of the 1960s. An assertion of justified rights morphed into a sense of group entitlement, soon to be the sense of personal entitlement reflected in the Me Generation of the 1970s and the explosion of greed that followed in the 1980s. Too many people are concerned only with getting theirs, without regard to the other folks. It must be said, however, that the political organization that appeals most strongly to our selfishness is the Republican Party. Its abuse of the sixty-vote requirement for stopping filibusters has become a major obstacle to change, as has its propensity for saying no to any reform that does not involve trial lawyers.

It is ironic that the Republicans, who are trying to label the Democrats as socialist, have themselves been imitating the communists. Recall Lenins strategy to make Kerensky look bad: dont cooperate on anything so he will fail and we can take over.

Remember how Mitch McConnell said that reconciliation had “never been used for major systemic reform,” Orrin Hatch called it the “nuclear option,” and Charles Grassley said that “it was never contemplated for this kind of legislation,” meaning the health care bill? Much of the media bought this Republican propaganda. I recall Wolf Blitzer saying reconciliation was not used for “major legislation.” Then came Slates Timothy Noah, who pointed out that the most momentous piece of social legislation in the last twenty years, the welfare reform bill, was entitled the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 and was supported by McConnell, Hatch, and Grassley.

After Noahs piece, we learned that at least fifteen major pieces of legislation since 1981 were passed using reconciliation, making Obamas health care bill the sixteenth, not the first as the Republicans contended.

When Vanity Fairs Michael Lewis asked why Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas were making another movie about Wall Street, they told him that their original message did not get across. Douglas explains, citing a typical reaction from people from the world of finance: “Man, I want to tell you, you are the single biggest reason I got into the business. I watched Wall Street, and I wanted to be Gordon Gekko.” In other words, the people who have been coming to Wall Street in recent years are not corruptible, as was the ambitious airline mechanics son played by Charlie Sheen in that movie, but already corrupt on arrival.

The attacks on Obama for not being clear about his message grew to a point where they became the conventional wisdom. Yet I noticed that even when what Obama was saying could not be more clear, as in his recent criticism of insurance companies, the media filter made it almost impossible for his message to reach the public. Journalists are so eager to give us their take or to solicit the opinion of “Democratic and Republican strategists” that Obamas actual words tend to get short shrift. Consider, for example, the Washington Posts lead story on March 9 about Obamas speech the previous day at Arcadia University. The second paragraph contains one sentence of the speech. Twenty paragraphs later, the speech is quoted again. And those are the only times Obama gets through the maze of analysis and opinion about his tactics and strategy.

This magazine has been a pioneer in injecting analysis and opinion into facts-only journalism. But we have tried to include enough of these elements to explain what we think the facts mean, not to relegate them to the role of bit players in the story.

When Timothy Geithner had finished telling the Atlantics Joshua Green that he warned the financial community of the dangers of derivatives long before the collapse, Green asked him why he had not warned the public. Geithner answered, “I dont believe in the Chicken Little stuff It wasnt my place, and I tried to focus on changing the things that I could affect.” Does Geithner really think that a clear warning to the public from the head of the New York Fed, Geithners job at the time, would have had no impact? As secretary of the treasury will he still feel its not his place to warn us should another fiscal disaster threaten?

As an illustration of Obamas lack of sophistication about the executive branch of the federal government, I cite the slowness in implementing the stimulus bill.

In our March/April issue last year, I warned the White House that it was entrusting far too much stimulus money to the Energy Department, which I said was notorious for its inability to spend money quickly and effectively. On February 5 of this year, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Energy Secretary Steven Chu expressed frustration Thursday that most of the roughly $37 billion in stimulus money Congress gave his agency last year had yet to be spent.” (Italics mine.)

I wonder if you will be as shocked as I am to learn that currency tradersthe people who speculate on whether the dollar or the yen or the euro will go up or downhave to put up only $1,000 in order to trade $100,000 in currency. I made this discovery reading a back-section article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Foes take on debt curbs from CFTC.” It reports that the Commodity Futures Trading Commission has proposed to cut the hundred-to-one limit to ten to one, and even that limit would not apply to banks and securities brokers, which fall outside the CFTCs jurisdiction.

It is frightening to realize that the power of the speculators is such that they can resist even the most modest reform with hope of success. The argument they and their supporters use, as summed up by the Journal, is that “investors could be even less protected if trading moves to a country with lax rules.” My own solution is that they just stop speculating and get into more constructive lines of work.

Rahm Emanuel should ponder the fate of the recently departed Desire Rogers. “A social secretarys job is to help the first family put their own social mark on the White House,” Nancy Reagans press secretary, Sheila Tate, tells the Daily Beasts Sandra McElwaine. “If it becomes about [her], then theres a problem.” The same rule applies to the chief of staff. He cant let the story be about him.

When a White House is perceived as failing, as Obamas was this winter, it is tempting for a member of the staff to try, either directly or through his friends, to let the world know that he is not responsible for the failure. Thus it was that, as this White House was in its greatest peril after the Democratic defeat in Massachusetts, there suddenly appeared four major stories picturing Emanuel as largely right and the president as largely wrong. I believe Jonathan Alter, author of The Promise, when he assures me that Emanuel would never intentionally hurt Obamabut that is exactly what these stories did. And I believe the Posts Dana Milbank when he says Emanuel was not a source for the first article, but I am confident Emanuels friends were sources.

When the story continued in three more articles, you had to realize that Emanuel was either involved or had not cautioned his friends to hold their tongues because they were hurting the president. Noam Scheibers piece in the New Republic specifically notes that Emanuel “refused to speak to me on the record,” leaving a mile-wide hole, which Emanuel could have filled by providing guidance and background on a “not-for-attribution” basis. It seems unlikely that all this has gone unnoticed by his colleagues at the White House. My best guess is that Emanuel will be gone by the end of the year. A likely replacement, Im told, is Phil Schiliro, whom insiders credit with doing the heaviest lifting in the final passage of health care.

Murray Hills is my favorite political candidacy of the year. What makes it so is that Murray is a corporation running for Congress from Maryland. Its candidacy instantly reveals the absurdity of the Supreme Courts decision that voided restrictions on campaign contributions by corporations on the ground that corporations have the same rights as people.

In Afghanistan, were counting on two conditions to permit us to withdraw: an effective Afghan security force and an effective government. As to the first, reports from C. J. Chivers of the New York Times and Atia Abawi of CNN are not reassuring. Chivers concludes that “the day when the Afghan Army will be able to perform complex operations independently remains far off.” Abawi has reached a similar conclusion, noting that we have concentrated more on the “quantity” of Afghan troops than the “quality.”

As for the Afghan government, its hard to believe that were changing the culture of corruption that dominates public affairs in Afghanistan. After learning from the New York Times that the crooked brother of Hamid Karzai is on the CIA payroll, and reading the numerous accounts of the corruption of Afghan police, we learn from the Washington Post that the U.S. Army is working with Colonel Abdul Razziq, a prominent Afghan police official, who is accused of stuffing ballot boxes for Karzai and is viewed by some U.S. officials as “a notorious criminal whose behavior corrodes the credibility of Afghan authorities.” To top it all off comes a report from the Post that Karzai “has taken control of a formerly independent body that monitors election fraud,” freeing himself to steal future elections without fear of exposure.

Have you read about those Chinese Muslims at Guantanamo? It seems that the U.S. government now admits that the Muslims, known as Uighurs, have been unjustly imprisoned for eight years, but the government opposes their request to be released in the United States, and the Supreme Court has just refused to consider their appeal. If, as it appears, we have done a terrible wrong to these peopleand eight years at Guantanamo strikes me as a terrible wrong indeedwhy arent we obligated to admit them to the United States as the very least we can do to atone?

The fighter plane the Defense Department is now buying is the F-35. It is priced at at least three times the cost of one of the planes it is supposed to replace, the F-16, and six times the cost of the other, the A-10. According to a reliable Pentagon spending critic, Winslow Wheeler, the F-35 cannot perform some of the functions of the planes it is replacing. The A-10, for example, supplies low-altitude support for ground troops, while the F-35 will have to provide that support from an altitude of at least 20,000 feet.

The F-35 is another example of our tendency to devote too much of our national security budget to high-ticket items. By contrast, the entire Coast Guard will receive less money in 2011 than the Pentagon will pay for one F-35 alone. And the poor Coast Guard is in peril of fiscal starvation. According to an op-ed in the New York Times by Lawrence J. Korb and Sean E. Duggan, twelve of the nineteen cutters sent to help Haiti had “severe problems at sea,” because their average age is forty-one years compared to fourteen for the average Navy ship.

One of the great triumphs of the Republican Party has been its success at demonizing the estate tax as the “death tax.” This has enabled them to cut it back dramatically. Until January, the tax only applied to estates over $3.5 million, and this year it has been eliminated entirely. To understand just how successful the Republicans have been, consider the fact that as late as the early 1970s, estates over $200,000 were taxed.

In 2011, the tax will be reinstituted on estates over $1 million, which strikes me as a reasonable figure. But you can be certain there will be a major Republican move to kill the tax again, even when the country desperately needs revenue.

When that private pilot crashed his plane into the IRS building in Austin, Texas, the first comments on television questioned the safety of private aviation and its potential for use by terrorists. And I thought to myself, “Finally this subject will get the attention it deserves.” Within a few hours, however, the pilots grievances against the IRS became the story, to the total exclusion of safety and terrorism. The reason this was so disturbing was that the Washington Posts Spencer S. Hsu had just reported that the Transportation Safety Administration is “preparing to scale back a plan to expand aviation security rules for the first time to thousands of private planes.” As we have frequently pointed out, there is nothing to prevent pilots from using private planes, some of which are large jets, to carry out suicide attacks. And as the Texas incident made clear, even small planes can inflict horrendous damage.

Goldman Sachs is in the news again, and for the same kind of double dealing noted in our last issue. This time its in trouble for helping Greece hide its escalating debt and then helping to create an index that enabled speculators to bet that Greece would default. I cant help wondering how much longer Warren Buffett, a man I admire in so many ways, can justify his large stake in Goldman when its behavior so often has skirted far too close to ethical boundaries.

The U.S. Postal Service is another agency with terrible money problems. It desperately needs to cut expenses. Reducing mail delivery to five days a week seems a perfectly reasonable solution to its problem, yet it is opposed by many congressmen. They are being totally irresponsible, demanding six days of delivery but asking the postal service to somehow magically pay its own way.

General aviationthats the fancy term for the world of private planesis not the only example of indulgent regulation by the Federal Aviation Administration. Maintenance of the planes flown by the regular airlines is another. “During the past six years, millions of passengers have been on at least 65,000 U.S. airline flights that shouldnt have taken off because planes werent properly maintained,” reports Gary Stoller of USA Today. After a six-month investigation, he found that FAA records showed that “substandard repairs, unqualified mechanics and lax oversight by airlines and the FAA are not unusual.”

One example is the American Airlines jet that had an engine catch fire on takeoff on September 28, 2007, because of a series of maintenance mistakes by mechanics. Lives can be lost: a mechanic working on a Continental jet was sucked into an engine because the crew did not have the right information about how to handle the maintenance issues at hand; eighty-eight passengers were killed on an Alaska Airlines plane that crashed because a part on its tail was not lubricated properly.

Getting student loan reform passed as part of health bill reconciliation was a maneuver worthy of Lyndon Johnson at his wiliest. Obama, Pelosi, Reid, and the reforms sponsor Rep. George Miller deserve great credit for not giving the banks and Sallie Mae time to muster all their potent artillery to protect the wasteful and unnecessary federal subsidies they have been receiving. Unfortunately, this major accomplishment has gone largely unheralded by the media.

The Charleston Gazette reports that West Virginia needs $145 million this year to “shore up” its pension fund. Public employee pension shortfalls are not confined to West Virginia. The Pew Center for the States reports there is a $1 trillion difference between what all fifty states have promised retiring public employees and what the states have put aside to cover the cost. One of the most flagrant examples is Illinois, where the gap is more than $50 billion.

India and Pakistan have agreed to talk over their differences, and the West Bank Palestinians have agreed to talks with Israel. These are hopeful signs. Now if the United States would only lean on India to be fair about Kashmir and Israel to freeze its settlements, the results could be wondrous, not only for our relations with the Pakistanis and the Palestinians but with the entire Muslim world. It would also be a major step toward reducing the number of potential recruits for terrorist organizations. It is just possible that the recent Israeli insult to Vice President Joe Biden will finally inspire the United States to get tough with Israel. Since this is an election year, however, dont hold your breath.

If you pay any attention to the history of World War II, you probably know about the young lieutenant who ignored the radar warning that couldve alerted commanders that Japanese planes were on their way to Pearl Harbor. His name is Kermit Tyler and he is usually depicted as a hapless incompetent. But in an obituary of Tyler, who died recently, I found some strikingly exculpatory evidence. He “was never trained for that job,” David Martinez, the chief Pearl Harbor historian at the National Park Service, tells the Washington Post. “He had a walk-through the previous Wednesday but had never spent a full day there.”

Furthermore, the radar operators neglected to tell Lieutenant Tyler that the blips on their radar showed fifty planes and that they were not the much smaller number of B-17s Tyler knew were scheduled to fly into Hawaii that morningand so he assumed that was what the radar operators saw.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the local school system “routinely grants tenure to new teachers after cursory reviewsand sometimes none at all.” The systems “evaluation of teachers does not take into account whether students are learning.” The result is that “[f]ewer than 2% are denied tenure.” Of course, this problem is not confined to Los Angeles. “In most states, after two or three years, teachers are given lifetime tenure,” reports Newsweek, describing the situation nationwide. The magazine concludes, “In no other socially significant profession are the workers so insulated from accountability.” This may seem a stretchafter all, bar associations tend to be quite tolerant of dubious ethics and competence. But most clients can make their own judgments of quality and take their business elsewhere if they think their lawyer is not good enough. Public school students and parents usually have to accept the teachers they get, so Newsweek is right.

Ive actually found an example of a lawyer being held accountable by the law. Of course, this West Virginia attorney had to go pretty far to get his misbehavior noticed. Hes been indicted for stealing more than $1,000 from a client and then beating the client with a baseball bat when the client complained.

Speaking of justice for Obama, he has not been given nearly enough credit for his stand on education reform. By advocating the dismissal of underperforming teachers, he and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, have incurred the anger of the teachers unions, something no other Democratic president has risked doing. Jimmy Carter was in the pocket of the NEA, and Bill and Hillary Clinton, after being burned by trying to reform public schools in Arkansasteachers rioted outside the governors mansiondid not touch that third rail of liberal politics again.

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Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly.