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Tilting at windmills.

I'm sorry, he's in a meeting" has been the classic excuse secretaries use to help their bosses avoid unwanted telephone calls. Increasingly, however, the excuse is genuine. Business executives, according to a recent survey, now spend an average of 16.5 hours a week in meetings. This is roughly 40 percent of the work week and may go a long way toward explaining the decline of American competitiveness in world trade.

The Peters Principle-take care to distinguish it from the less persuasive Peter Principle -provides that organizations cease to function effectively when employees spend more than 15.8 percent of their time attending meetings or writing memoranda. When I was in the Peace Corps, I learned that when an organization is young and vigorous, its employees are filled with urgency and excitement about what they are doing. They can't bear to waste time attending formal meetings or fussing over the wording of a memo. They communicate by phone, by shouting across the room, and by catching one another in the hallways. It is not until they become more concerned with the appearance of action than with action itself that they begin to favor meetings. If you go to a meeting, it appears you are doing something. Indeed, you can even seem breathlessly busy as you pull on your coat and rush off, shouting over your shoulder, "Hold the phone calls, Mrs. Jones, I've got to make that two o'clock meeting in Smithers's office."

At the meeting itself, nothing happens. But it can still result in a press release saying that Secretary So-and-So and his aides held an urgent meeting on the farm problem today. The story will appear in the papers. An event seems to have occurred, the public's thirst for action is slaked, but nothing actually has happened. In the past, this sort of make-believe in Washington has been tolerable because there were enough tax revenues to pay for it. But what is to become of us if the businessmen whose enterprises are supposed to produce those revenues are playing the same make-believe themselves?. . . .

If you read Paul Barrett's "Refund? What Refund? Why the IRS is Screwing Up" in our September 1985 issue, you will be interested to learn that The Philadelphia Inquirer has obtained IRS documents through the Freedom of Information Act that confirm our worst suspicions, including examples of taxpayer returns having been discarded by IRS employees in Philadelphia, Austin, Texas, and Kansas City, Missouri. An employee in Philadelphia tossed 92 returns into a wastebasket. But the champion was a fellow in California who didn't throw the returns away. He hid them. Because he wanted to conceal the fact that he could not process them on schedule, he hid 39 bags of mail, including $800,000-worth of refund checks, in his home. . . .

If Kitry Krause's article on the hazards of trucking deregulation(November 1985) left you somewhat apprehensive, consider what the California Highway Patrol found last fall when it conducted a surprise spot check of trucks on Route 152 at the summit of Pacheco Pass. The site had not been used previously for inspections, so it was not one that truck drivers had learned to avoid. 129 trucks were stopped. More than 80 percent had safety violations serious enough to be cited. About half had bad brakes. "41 percent were in such bad shape," according to the San Jose Mercury News, that the police "would not let them leave the inspection site until they had been repaired."

We don't want to wake up finding that someone's longlost nephew is the true owner of our home So most of us buy title insurance to protect ourselves against claims that the title to our property may be defective. Like almost every other aspect of the real estate business, the sale of title insurance has developed a strong tradition of ethical marginality. One example is, as Sari Horwitz pointed out not long ago in The Washington Post, that often you are sold title insurance by the lawyer who represents you. How can he get the best deal on your insurance if he is also thinking of getting the best deal for himself on the commission that he will get for selling it to you. The title companies urge him to rise above any inclination he might have to put your interest first by offering commissions that range from 50 to 70 percent of the cost of the insurance

To me, however, the most absurd aspect of title insurance is one the Post article failed to mention. It is that the same lawyer who sells you the title insurance is also the person you are paying to check the title for you. You pay him to go down to the courthouse and search the records and certify that the title is good. Then you pay him for insurance just in case he did a sloppy job. Shouldn't he be the one who is paying for the insurance to cover his errors?. . .

Alot of people were cynical about Ted Kennedy's motivation in withdrawing from the presidential race, attributing his decision solely to his fear of defeat. That fear may have been a factor, but I also believe his explanation that he wanted the press to stop giving a political, interpretation to his every act. His recent trip to South Africa was the example he gave. Another example came soon after the announcement, when Kennedy went to West Virginia to visit the communities that had been devastated by the fall floods. If he had not withdrawn from the presidential race, the trip would have been viewed as a political gesture, designed to win West Virginia's support in 1988. Now it can be seen for what it truly was: an attempt to show the people of West Virginia that a United States senator cares about what has happened to them.

This magazine has been severely critical of Kennedy's private life. But, as a public man, we have found him to be a good senator, whose instincts are unfailingly generous. We hope his good qualities will now receive the recognition they deserve. . . .

Most of us have a sneaking suspicion that defense contracts are highly profitable for industry. But I didn't know how profitable until George Wilson of The Washington Post reported recently that "defense contractors made more than twice as much profit on government work as on commercial business."

One explanation for the profit comes from the story of what happened after the Sgt. York antiaircraft gun was canceled last year. Like me, I'm sure you thought this would result in a big saving for the taxpayer But now comes Carla Lazzareschi of the Los Angeles Times with this news:

"The Pentagon confirmed that it will pay Ford Aerospace and Communications, the prime contractor, and its 2,000 subcontractors for all 146 of the tank-mounted gun systems that the Army had ordered, even though only 65 of them have actually been delivered."

Lt. Col. Craig McNab explained that the Army will pay the $1.8 billion even though "it would be pointless now for Ford to go ahead and assemble them. "

The way to save money on canceled weapons is for the government to refuse to pay anything but the actual costs incurred by the contractor and the reasonable profit he would have expected to make on the work he has done. . . .

The New Year brings with it new banking deregulation, so be sure to read your bank statement very carefully during the next few months. Note what fees and charges are being levied against your account. They may be eating a good part of that 7 percent interest that ads have promised you. You may also find that you aren't getting that 7 percent because your account fell below a certain figure for just one day. If you're being taken to the cleaners, switch to another bank, but be sure to keep an eye on it, too. . . .

Another area of deregulation to be concerned about is what the local phone company is doing to you. Now that it is permitted to go into all kinds of other businesses, there's a danger that it will use its monopoly power over what it charges you to subsidize its entry into the various high-tech ventures that all of these companies seem to be planning. . . .

I have been heartened by the recent explosion of awareness of a point this magazine has been making for years, namely that the elderly, far from all being needy, are often better off than the rest of us, and therefore a lot of people that are getting Social Security don't need it-and that the burden on the rest of us of providing for those who are not needy is becoming intolerable. In the past year, these facts have finally been faced in articles in Scientific American, Demographics, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, and The Washington Post.

Of all these publications, however, only the Journal made anotherpoint that is equally important. It is that while many of the elderly don't need Social Security. Claude Pepper gets $11,015, and Tip O'Neill and his wife , collect $15,614-there are also many old people who not only need what they are getting, they need more. These are the people who depend on Social Security for all or almost all of their income. The Journal's Clark Ansberry tells of one widow with a dependent daughter who gets just $408 a month. It's simply impossible for two people to live on that amount, let alone live decently.

Social Security shares two defects with unemployment compensation.

Both are paid to rich andpoor alike and thus waste money on the former. And both are paid on the basis of previous earnings. Because benefits are linked to previous earnings, low-income earners receive less when they need more

Perhaps now that so many other publications are joining us in seeing what is wrong with the programs, it won't be long before they adopt our prescription as well as our diagnosis.

That prescription is, of course, to combine all the government's income maintenance programs into one program of insurance against need. Everyone would pay for it-I'm totally opposed to the various conservative schemes to privatize Social Security-but only those who become needy would collect.

"Just wait one minute," you say. "If I pay for it, shouldn't I be able to collect?" The answer is no. This would be like auto insurance. You are protected if you have an accident, but you get nothing if you don't. Or cancer insurance. You don't want to get cancer and you don't expect to be paid unless you do. Similarly, you don't want to become needy and you won't be paid unless you do....

Everyone who writes a book worries about who will review it. Themost chilling possibility is that the reviewer will be your worst enemy. That this happens, and not just rarely, was one of the revelations of a long article on book reviewing by David Shaw in the December 11 Los Angeles Times.

Last summer, for example, Paul Erdman reviewed a novel by MichaelThomas for The New York Times. Erdman said the book was a "tasteless exercise. . .an ego trip disguised as a novel."

The Times had every reason to expect just such a blast. Four years earlier Thomas had reviewed an Erdman novel for The Saturday Review and said: "It fails miserably."

Harold Willens's book on the nuclear arms race was assigned by The Wall Street Journal to a reviewer named Sam Cohen, who had frequently been Willens's opponent in debates on nuclear issues. "Asking Cohen to review my book," says Willens, "was like asking King George Ill to review Thomas Paine's Common Sense."

Gore Vidal says that he has repeatedly been asked to review booksby Norman Mailer and the late Truman Capote, both of whom he has been widely known to detest. This sort of thing seems permissible-even fun-in a journal of opinion to whose predjudices its readers have reason to be on guard. But a biased review in a supposedly objective publication like The New York Times Book Review could be devastatingly unfair to author and reader alike.

One anecdote Shaw tells will warm the heart of every author who has been savaged by a scathing review, and fantasizes about the day the critic will realize that he has been dead wrong:

In 1949, Herb Gold wrote what he calls "a vicious review of Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm '"

Today, Gold told Shaw, he thinks Algren's book is admirable, evenremarkable. He says he wrote the original review out of frustration and envy, "out of my needs at the time' rather than as an honest piece of literary criticism. . . .

A researcher has tracked the criminal history of every person born in Philadelphia in 1958 who continued to live in the city from 1968 to 1975. His study finds that only 7 percent of the group were chronically delinquent but that 7 percent committed 75 percent of all crimes done by their age group. When you put this together with previous studies that have shown that 80 percent of chronic juvenile criminals become chronic adult criminals, you can begin to see that there are some very bad kids out there whom, assuming they can be identified accurately, we should put away for a very long time even if they are kids. . . .

One of the most heartbreaking failures of modern liberalism has been the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill. Far too many patients have been released who have proved incapable of caring for themselves. They have become a large, if not the largest, part of the tragic group called the homeless. Libertarians feel that it is just dandy for these people to have the freedom to stay out on the streets and freeze to death. But if you have ever loved anyone who is mentally ill, you do not want them to have the freedom to kill themselves while their mind is unsound. That's why I was pleased to see that New York has enacted a law permitting the police to forcibly remove the homeless from the streets when the temperature falls below freezing. In too many cities they are not picked up until they're ready to go to the morgue. . . .

More than 240 teachers in the District of Columbia public school system are absent each week, according to a recent article in The Washington Post. Perhaps they are ill, you say. A possibility, certainly, but one that tends to lose its persuasiveness as one discovers first that most of the absences are on Fridays and Mondays and second that the absenteeism rate among the District's teachers is more than double the national average for nonvacation absences by workers of all kinds.

Public employees do tend to take a lot of time off. After three years' service federal civil servants get 20 days of annual leave. This is vacation time They also get 13 days of sick leave. Weekends are not counted. So 15 days of annual leave can produce a 21-day vacation. The five other days taken in conjunction with Christmas and New Year's can produce ten more days off, for a total of 31 for the year, without even beginning to use the sick leave, which is, by the way, cumulative so that what you don't use this year is tacked on to the future.

The Christmas-New Year parlay empties federal offices at the end of each year, with as much as 60 percent of the work force on leave This is especially hard on the Postal Service, which of course needs its workers more than ever at Christmas. This year, John Nolan, the postmaster for New York City, was so desperate about the problem that he came up with an incentive program to reduce absenteeism: postal employees with perfect attendance records during the holidays will be eligible to receive two free tickets to the Broadway show of their choice. . . .

There's still time to sign up for the Louisiana State Bar Association's Rome Congress to be held April 28-May 3. I have before me an eight-page brochure describing this event, only two sentences of which mention anything having to do with the law; otherwise every word is about sightseeing and entertainment. Do you think this will keep the Louisiana lawyer from deducting the cost of the trip from their taxes? Of course it won't. And it isn't just because they're from the same state as Governor Edwin ("You name it and I can get away with it") Edwards.

It's because lawyers allover the country have come to accept this form of tax cheating as perfectly normal and legitimate. So, I realize, has practically everyone else. But I pick on the lawyers because they have a special obligation to uphold the law. . . .

You may recall an item in "Tidbits and Outrages" last year about how the Boston Red Sox were using a segregated social club in Florida. The man who originally told the The Boston Globe about this practice, a black coach named Tommy Harper, was subsequently fired by the Red Sox for having, talked to the press. This led the Globe to point out that after the firing of Harper, the Red So"do not have one black coach, minor league manager, or full-time instructor in the organization. . . .and haven't won a World Series since 1918."

Traditional morality may reflect a considerable amount of folk wisdom, as recent research, reported in Psychology Today, indicates. In only 10 percent of the cases studied did both partners feel that divorce had improved their lives. Another finding strongly supportive of tradition is in Polly Toynbee's new book, reviewed on page 58 of this issue, on adopted children. When adoptees try to find a natural parent, Toynbee reports, they invariably seek their mothers. . . .

Federal employees have another characteristic, which, like their propensity for taking time off, is not in the public interest. It is that, when jobs become available in their agencies, they keep the fact a secret from those members of the public who might want to apply so that they can tip off their friends to the vacancy. This is called the buddy system, which also involves writing a job description that can be met only by the friend. How is the news of the opening kept from the general public? Let UPI's Iris Krasnow tell the story:

"Securing government agency employment in Washington is no easy task, but finding the phone numbers to find the jobs may be tougher yet.

"Most employment hot lines are unlisted. . . .Among the agencies with unlisted job information numbers are the U.S. Information Agency, the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, and Transportation, the CIA, the FBI, the U.S. Army, the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the Smithsonian Institution."

I have written about my concern that the modern middle class cares more about imitating its betters than in helping those it has left behind. The latest example is "buppies." They are the increasingly affluent black urban professionals. A new magazine called EM has been created especially for the males among them. Its inaugural issue is, according to Time, "filled with photos of immaculate male models decked out in silk ties, Shetland-wool blazers, and camel-hair overcoats." One article is called "A Guide to Investing in a Leather Couch."

A recent illustration of this trend is Ivanhoe Donaldson, the brilliant Washington Buppie who was Mayor Marion Barry's top assistant and political guru. Donaldson spent too much of his time not using his brain to help meet the terrible problems of the city' poor black population but instead figuring out how to steal money from the taxpayers to finance his taste in fancy cars and restaurants

Donaldson will be the third person close to the mayor to go to jail, joining Barry's former wife and former girlfriend. In each case, the crime was committed while the person was close to Barry. At the time of these

transgressions, both the ex-wife and Donaldson were driving Mercedes they scarcely could have afforded on their regular salaries. Yet the mayor was not suspicious. This seems curious to me. . . .

Ever since George Will achieved stardom by quoting Edmund Burke every other Thursday, political writers have been searching for ways to add a touch of class to their act. Sometimes their efforts fail to convey the erudition they intend. For example, in December Pat Caddell wrote this in The Wan Street Journal

"We are so Copernican here in Washington; we think the whole world revolves around us '"

Just, of course, as Ptolemy thought the earth revolves around thesun. . . .
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Title Annotation:meeting thine enemy...buppie taste...and other odds and ends
Author:Peters, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Feb 1, 1986
Previous Article:The making of a public man.
Next Article:Banking on unreal estate - the appraisal scam.

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