Tilting at Windmills

Wonder why?

The Discovery Channel recently ran an hour-long documentary on the Costa Concordia disaster. If the name of the ship’s owner, Carnival Cruise Lines, was mentioned, it was so sotto voce as to go undetected by my ear.

A ray of hope

“Fewer graduates of elite Ivy League schools are choosing careers in finance,” reported the New York Times recently. The Wall Street Journal, however, ran this headline: “On Campus, Wall Street Still Carries Its Cachet.” But the evidence offered by the Journal confirms that the Times has it right. The University of Pennsylvania reports that the proportion of its graduates going into financial services declined from 38 percent in 2008 to 33 percent in 2011; at Harvard the decline was from 28 percent to 17 percent; Dartmouth from 23 percent to 12 percent. The trend may be modest, but I still find it encouraging. Maybe this last recession will have a similar effect to the Great Depression. “In the 1920s an ambitious young man headed for Wall Street,” observed historian Robert McElvaine. “During the New Deal, though, he went into government.”

At one point in the 1930s, in one section of the Department of Agriculture, fifteen of the twenty-six lawyers were graduates of Harvard Law School. Fifteen of twenty-six! The Department of Agriculture!

“It’s a great idea, but…”

As a veteran observer of clever bureaucrats, I have come to admire a tactic often employed by the secretary of the treasury, Timothy Geithner. When the White House is considering reforms that he does not favor—and major reform is something Geithner rarely embraces—he doesn’t say, “This is a terrible idea and I’m against it.” Instead, he begins by praising the proposal and its proponents: “It’s a great idea, really brilliant of you fellows to think of it.” Then, seemingly almost as an afterthought, he adds, “Have you considered that there’s just a chance that it could lead to a Wall Street meltdown?”

It is a technique worthy of Sir Humphrey, the wily civil servant played by Ni -gel Hawthorne on the British television series Yes Minister.

When the 800-pound gorilla speaks…

You may recall the firing of Shirley Sherrod. Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, dismissed her hours after a video purporting to show her making a racist remark was posted by the late right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart. The White House denied having been involved. Vilsack agreed, saying he had made the decision on his own. It later turned out that Sherrod was innocent. The Breitbart video had been edited to give a false impression of what she said.

Recently, 2,000 pages of internal e-mails concerning the event were released by the administration. In the eighth paragraph of a Washington Post story about the messages there is what I suspect is a major clue as to what really happened, and maybe even the smoking gun. When informed of the video by an official at Agriculture, Reid Cherlin, then a White House spokesman, responded by inquiring what USDA was going to say about the matter and asking, “Has she been fired? I’ll alert folks here.”

At some agencies—Treasury is an example—frequent contact with the White House is the norm, and such a message would barely cause a ripple, let alone a wave. But in a place like Agriculture, where contact from Pennsylvania Avenue is relatively rare, words like Cherlin’s can rocket around the agency with incredible speed. As the message is repeated from one person to another, there is a temptation to make it sound more and more dramatic, so that gradually “Has she been fired?” will be transformed into “The White House wants her out of here pronto.”

Block the vote

If you have doubted that the efforts of Republican state legislators to suppress minority voting are succeeding, ponder this news. From the time when Florida’s new election law took effect in July of last year through late March of this year, 81,471 fewer people have registered to vote than during the same period before the 2008 elections. This is the troubling finding of an analysis by the New York Times, reported by Michael Cooper and Jo Craven McGinty.

Among the law’s burdens is a requirement that groups conducting registration drives must “turn in completed forms within 48 hours or face fines.” This threat of being penalized for not meeting this absurdly unrealistic deadline has been so discouraging that groups like Rock the Vote and the League of Women Voters have abandoned their registration campaigns in the state.

Can you believe it?

Politico seems to have actually succeeded in shaming a K Street firm into dropping a valuable client. This rare feat was apparently accomplished by its revelation that the Livingston Group—composed of former Republican Congressman Bob Livingston, former Democratic Congressman Toby Moffett, and Tony Podesta, brother of a former aide to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama—had tried to justify the Egyptian military’s raid on NGOs that were trying to encourage democracy. It’s good that Livingston has finally seen the light. Still, the group must have had a very strong stomach to spend four years not only representing the current military government of Egypt but the Hosni Mubarak regime that preceded it. And dropping the client seems to have been less a result of conscience and more of being found out.

Land o’ Likes

As you may recall, I am not a fan of Facebook, fearing it has become a major encourager of self-involvement. Confirmation of my concern comes from a study reported by Damien Pearse in the Guardian which finds “a direct relationship between Facebook friends and the most ‘toxic’ elements of narcissistic personality disorder,” including “self-absorption, vanity, superiority, and exhibitionistic tendencies.”

Further evidence that Facebook encourages relationships that are more superficial than real comes from a story in the New York Times about a therapist who committed suicide not long ago. One of his associates observed, “I looked at his Facebook page recently … he had over a thousand friends. But there are acquaintances and there are friends, and I think he probably had a lot of acquaintances and not a lot of real friends.”

Cashing in by going public

The sponsors of the new JOBS Act seem to have assumed that encouraging IPOs will help small businesses in their struggle to survive. But what these initial public offerings of stock usually represent is a “cashing in” by the owners of companies that are already successful. For example, the most recent IPO you’ve probably heard about is Facebook’s.

By the way, Fortune’s Allan Sloan explains that the reason only 5 percent to 7 percent of Facebook’s shares are being offered is to “create an initial shortage of stock so that the share price runs up when public trading” starts. “It’s not enough for Mark Zuckerberg & Co. to have created an amazing, incredibly valuable company,” continues Sloan. “They feel the need to use this tacky market trick to drive up Facebook’s value even more.”

Under the radar

The latest example of White House inattentiveness comes courtesy of the General Services Administration, which managed to create a scandal by squandering $823,000 on a conference of its employees at a luxury casino outside of Las Vegas. Why, you may ask, should the White House bother keeping an eye on the GSA? Because it does the purchasing and leasing for the rest of the federal government, and does so far from the media limelight, corruption is a constant danger.

In a properly functioning administration, the Office of Management and Budget serves as the president’s eyes and ears, providing early warnings of trouble down below in the executive branch. I had hoped that the OMB under Jack Lew would do a better job at this than it did under Peter Orszag, who seems to have devoted himself primarily to making sure he looked good in the books being written about the Obama White House. But the first signs are not auspicious—there was no early warning of trouble at the GSA.

The Sherrod case, by the way, is another example of the tendency of the White House to become involved in an agency’s affairs only when the agency gets in the news. The sole exceptions are State, Treasury, the national security agencies, and those that are involved in carrying out programs sponsored by the administration.

A bad argument

The New York Review of Books seems to have embraced Diane Ravitch’s campaign against public school reform. It has published articles by her in back-to-back issues this year. In the March 8 issue, she argues that

The “no excuses” reformers maintain that all children can attain academic proficiency without regard to poverty, disability, or other conditions, and that someone must be held accountable if they do not. That someone is invariably their teachers.

Nothing is said about holding accountable the district leadership or the elected officials who determine such crucial issues as funding, class size, and resource allocation. The reformers say that our economy is in jeopardy, not because of growing poverty or income inequality or the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, but because of bad teachers. These bad teachers must be found out and thrown out. Any laws, regulations, or contracts that protect these pedagogical malefactors must be eliminated so that they can be quickly removed without regard to experience, seniority, or due process.

This magazine has been part of the reform movement since 1969. We have criticized the unions for protecting bad teachers. But we have never said that teachers alone should be held accountable for the failures of public education, and we have never contended that poverty and disability have nothing to do with these failures. We have also criticized second-rate administrators and the responsible elected officials. Indeed, Ravitch’s portrayal of the reform movement is close to being false—and is given a smidgeon of truth by the Johnny-come-lately Republicans who have only recently joined the cause of school reform because they are out to destroy the union movement. (I can remember how hard it used to be to get conservatives interested in reforming public education—their favorite solution to its problems was to provide vouchers so students could attend private school instead.)

Ravitch cites Finland’s teachers as being so good that they never have to be fired. This might be true here if we had Finland’s rigorous standards for training and hiring teachers, but in our public schools, hiring has largely been based on “education” credits or degrees obtained, mostly, from second-rate teacher’s colleges (now often called Somethingorother State) where methodology is emphasized, subject matter is not, and passing grades are far too easily obtained. These standards exist because teacher’s colleges and teacher’s unions have advocated and defended them.

Koch d’etat

The Koch brothers, you may have heard, have tried to oust the leadership of the CATO Institute. CATO’s policies agree with the Kochs’ right-wing positions 80 percent of the time. But that’s not enough for the Koch brothers. They want total control. This mirrors what has happened to the Republican Party today. You have to be right wing all the way.

Michael ♥ Lloyd

If you were one of those liberals flirting with the notion of a third party headed by Michael Bloomberg, consider this recent headline from the New York Times. “With Visit to Goldman, Bloomberg Says, Chin Up.” The accompanying story by Michael Grynbaum notes that Bloomberg, “who has earned billions on Wall Street, has built his reputation as a staunch defender of its culture.” I suspect there’s another factor involved. It is that much of the economy of Bloomberg’s city has come to depend on the surplus wealth generated by the Wall Street money machine. After all, that money supports the value of Manhattan real estate, not to mention all the high-end restaurants—and for most of us outsiders, most restaurants in New York seem high end—as well as the worlds of art, fashion, and private education.

Pick your poison

One error that some school reformers make is to place too much emphasis on testing, even when it takes into account different student backgrounds. Consider the case of a teacher who was good enough to be immediately rehired by the excellent Fairfax County, Virginia, school system after she had been dismissed in the District of Columbia primarily because of her students’ poor test scores. I believe evaluation of classroom performance by principals, other teachers of proven ability, and, in the case of secondary schools, by students themselves should weigh equally with test results. In an article in the April issue of the Atlantic , Jonathan Alter reports that the Chicago schools have found that students are the most reliable evaluators. Come to think of it, I bet you knew who your good teachers were and which ones were really lousy.

What is ironic is that I’m sure reformers came to overemphasize testing precisely because unions had been so loud in characterizing other methods—including evaluation of classroom performance by principals and unbiased and qualified teachers or by surveys of student opinion—as being too “subjective.” Testing seemed to answer the problem by being objective.

Never look an exposé gift horse in the mouth

If you wonder why I beat the drum so constantly for better media coverage of government, here’s a quote from Robert Gates, the former secretary of defense, about his time at the Pentagon: “You know, in 4 1/2 years [at the Pentagon] I never had a line outside my office of senior executives coming … to tell me all the problems in their service or in their organization. Some of the biggest problems that I acted on were first brought to my attention by an inquiry from Congress or an article in the press. I found out about [deplorable conditions at] Walter Reed from a series in the Washington Post by Dana Priest…. I found out about the problem with the lack of armored vehicles in Iraq through a USA Today story.”

Gates goes on to offer this advice to other agency heads: “So I would say when there is an article critical of us … don’t go into a defensive crouch … maybe you’ve just been handed a gift to solve a problem you didn’t know existed.”

My lament is that there are fewer and fewer Dana Priests in the media, as the industry fixates more and more on the political significance of the day’s Big Story. By the way, do you share the mixture of boredom and desperation that I feel as that story is discussed on cable news by the same talking heads making the same predictable comments, rarely if ever contributing a fresh fact?

The great “Great Divergence”

As we all know, income inequality in this country has been growing for a long time. The latest evidence: in 2010 the top 1 percent of taxpayers captured 93 percent of the additional income created over the previous year. Thirty-seven percent of it went to 0.01 percent, households with average annual incomes of $23.8 million. These facts come from studies reported by Steven Rattner and Harold Meyerson in op-eds in the Times and the Post.

For a brilliant account of how and why this nation has become more and more unequal, I recommend The Great Divergence, a new book by Timothy Noah. One study he cites shows that from 1948 to 2005, “under Democratic Presidents, the biggest income increase went to people in the bottom 20th percentile,” but “under Republican Presidents … the pattern was precisely the opposite.”

Under the Democrats, Noah finds that incomes grow and become more equal simultaneously. In other words, the economic pie becomes larger for everyone at the same time that the slice going to the bottom 95 percent gets bigger. The Republicans’ current complaint about class warfare seems to come down to the fact that, though they have done well under the Democrats, they’re mad because the rest of us did proportionally better.

Noah identifies Bryce Harlow, who worked in both the Eisenhower and Nixon White Houses but spent most of his career as the top Washington lobbyist for Proctor and Gamble, as a prime mover in the anti-equality conservative revival that became increasingly powerful from the 1970s on, coming perilously close to proving Harlow’s contention that “when business really tries, when it is fully unified and raring to go, it almost never loses a big battle in Washington.”

Missing in action

In all the coverage of the shooting rampage by the soldier in Afghanistan, and the role that his repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan may have played in it, I did not see anyone mention a crucial fact that has been noted before in this column: at any one time, there are fewer than 100,000 combat troops in the U.S. military. So when you read that we have 500,000 soldiers, you get a false impression that the combat deployments are spread among them. In fact, it’s the same 100,000 who go back again and again.

It is also a painful comment on the lack of military experience among journalists that I think this column is the only place where the following fact could be found: draftees had to serve just one year in Vietnam, including time in combat. When they got on that plane for home, they knew they were safe. In the last decade, whenever soldiers have gotten on that plane, it has been with the haunting awareness that they almost certainly will be back.

The liberal Republicanosaurus

For those too young to recall that there were once more than one or two liberal Republicans, I can assure that they actually existed in considerably greater number. When I arrived in Washington in the 1960s there were five Republicans who, more often than not, voted on the liberal side: Jacob Javits, Kenneth Keating, Clifford Case, Hugh Scott, and Thomas Kuchel. And there were seven other Republicans, like Margaret Chase Smith and John Sherman Cooper, who occasionally voted with the liberals. When Robert Kennedy, who had replaced Keating in the Senate, was shot in 1968, Nelson Rockefeller appointed a liberal Republican House member, Charles Goodell, to succeed him. Goodell would later marry my neighbor, Patricia Goldman, who in the 1970s happened to be the executive director of the Wednesday Club, a group that included about thirty liberal House Republicans. There was also a Wednesday Club in the Senate. When Olympia Snowe retires at the end of this year, Susan Collins will be the only remaining member.

A challenge for the media

For all his faults, Barack Obama is obviously the best presidential candidate. And the Democrats in Congress, for all their faults, are clearly better than their Republican counterparts. This should mean that the result of this year’s election will be a Democratic landslide. But a recent study reported in the New York Times concludes there is such a small percentage of voters in play that the election could be easily swayed either way. There is a danger that the Romney attack machine will do to Obama what it so effectively did to Perry, Gingrich, and Santorum. The challenge to the media is to refuse to let itself or the public be fooled in the process so that, by the morning of Election Day in November, the relative merits of the candidates and their parties will be crystal clear.

Charles Peters

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.