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What we've won and what we've lost: a 'Monthly' scorecard.

When we started The Washington Monthly in 1969, our purpose was to look at our political system in a way that would enable us to understand how and why it worked or didn't work. We thought we knew ways of doing this that had seemed unknown to reporters we had seen covering the Peace Corps, the organization from which all the founding staff of the Monthly came. The errors they most often made were relying on the agency's top officials and public relations people for stories, seldom leaving Washington or the capital cities of the host countries where comfort was readily available, and not understanding bureaucratic culture or even being aware of its existence.

By concentrating on officials who were actually on the agencies' firing lines and had firsthand knowledge of their organization's problems and were more likely than agency heads and PR types to be candid about them, we were soon able to identify some of the more significant factors in bureaucratic failure.

The most important secret we discovered was how government officials use make-believe to ensure their survival. The number-one goal of the typical bureaucrat is to protect his job, and, since the only way he is likely to be fired is if his agency's budget is cut, he devotes his highest efforts to defending that budget and if at all possible to increasing it to cover the promotions he yearns for. Deep in the bureaucrat's DNA is the awareness that if his agency attains its goal of, say, eliminating the energy crisis or solving the farm problem, the elimination of the agency and his job would follow. So the civil servant quickly learns to master the tools of make-believe--memoranda and meetings--so that he can appear to be busy while actually accomplishing little if anything.

Make-believe is most common in the middle levels of the bureaucracy. The fat that concentrates there tends to clog the arteries of communication between the top and the bottom of the typical agency. Another factor in this failure of communication is that the people at the bottom are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their job or their promotion. Still another is that the people at the top don't want to know about potential disaster so that they won't be blamed for it--instead of trying to solve problems, many senior officials simply pray that the lid can be kept on during their tenure. This is the Not On My Watch principle of executive behavior.

At all levels of government there was also an almost total lack of entrepreneurial risk-taking that was becoming, along with the other bureaucratic deficiencies we had identified, characteristic of the private sector as well. This similiarity between government and business helped explain why, in the seventies, General Motors was producing lemons while the post office was losing packages.

Among the first agencies we looked at was the Tennessee Valley Authority, which had been widely recognized as one of the most vital and creative offspring of the New Deal. But by 1969, our writer found, it had lost its mission and had become an enthusiastic co-conspirator in the worst sins of the electric utility industry for which it was supposed to serve as a model and a yardstick. This finding was made in the course of an article that uncovered decay in two other institutions: the United Mine Workers, which had once been a great union dedicated to helping workers, and a leading Washington bank, with a pre-BCCI Clark Clifford on its board, that had become a tool of corruption. We now realized the problem of institutional decline was wider than we had thought and broadened our concern to the private as well as the public sphere. Additional evidence of the breadth of the problem came when we began the "Memo of the Month" in 1969 and realized readers were sending examples of bureaucratic absurdity not just from government but also from corporations, unions, universities, and charities. The funniest memo that year came from Western Electric.

But the Monthly's main focus remained on government because we felt our experience working in it gave us a head start on understanding the culture of the natives who lived along the banks of the Potomac. We realized, for example, that one reason for the lack of courage in speaking up was that the life tenure promised by the civil service attracted not risk-takers but people who wanted security. We saw that the kind of term limits we had at the Peace Corps (five years of service, then you were out) had attracted a more courageous person, one who had the self-confidence to contemplate having to get another job in a few years. (Why do people spend so much time thinking about term limits in the Congress but never in the bureaucracy?)

Another reason for lack of bureaucratic courage we discovered was fear of losing health care. This led us to advocate a system of national health insurance that could not be taken away from people if they were out of work. Another was worry about not being able to afford to pay for their children's college education. This led us to support long-term loans to the student instead of to the parent. And we wanted those loans to be income contingent, payable as a percentage of earnings rather than as a flat sum. The reason for this was that we wanted the student to be able to choose work because he was interested in it and thought that it was worthwhile, not because he felt he had to make money. This, we thought, would encourage more people to teach, to enter public service, and to take entrepreneurial risks instead of going to law school.

Law schools and the lawyers they produced had become one of our targets for another reason. We called them the Typhoid Marys of the paranoia that had become our chronic national neurosis encouraging adversarialism and gridlock.

In addition to the adversarialism of the law, we worried about the other forces that kept people apart. By the seventies, the two great institutions that had promoted class mixing and a sense of national community--the military and the public schools--were no longer places where the affluent, the middle class, and the poor got to know one another. The democratic draft, which had put John F. Kennedy of Hyannisport and Harvard on a PT boat with the sons of farmers and factory workers, ended in the mid-sixties. This led us to support a national service program so that people from different social backgrounds would again get to know one another while performing some of the vast amount of work that needs doing, but that society can't afford to pay for, in such crucial areas as health, education, public safety, and environmental restoration.

Public education had fallen on hard times by the seventies, mostly because teachers' unions and self-protecting administrators resisted reform. Here was an institution that could not be discarded because it no longer worked; public schools, a necessary part of our national life, had to be saved. In my own life, the most consciously happy I have been was at Charleston High School in the early forties. Except that it was lily-white, the school was very close to a perfect democracy. As in the military, all social classes--at least all that there were in Charleston, West Virginia--were represented. Students were not judged on the basis of social position but on physical attractiveness, athletic skill, and--unlike those attributes or money, all of which you were born with--by something called "personality," which you could develop on your own. But the decline of the public schools since the sixties has caused most families who can afford it to send their children to private schools, further separating them from the poor and the lower middle class. This led us to support genuine public school reform that would enable principals to fire bad teachers and school boards to dismiss surplus administrators, especially in big cities where they are in such abundant supply. Too many liberals for far too long were hesitant to criticize teachers' unions because liberals were pro-union and were following the old rule of Don't Say Anything Bad About the Good Guys. This is an example of the kind of ideological inflexibility that is another factor in separating the American people. Conservatives have similar prejudices (in favor of the military, for example) which keep both sides from hearing the legitimate points the other fellows are making.

A depressingly strong force that kept people apart during the seventies and eighties was snobbery, people needing to look down on others in order to feel intelligent and sophisticated. We were critical of the tendency of liberal intellectuals to scorn the religious, family, and patriotic values that were so important to most of their countrymen. Snobbery encouraged a materialism that led men and women to become increasingly preoccupied with making money to buy a vacation house in the Hamptons or a Jaguar or some other product that demonstrated both taste and affluence. This need for money to satisfy snobbism drove people away from work that counted and into the insane world Tom Wolfe depicted so well in The Bonfire of the Vanities.

In the nineties, the country seems to have begun to retreat from the excesses of snobbery and materialism. If cheap chic does retain traces of elitism, it is still better than ostentatious extravagance. And most liberals no longer look down their noses at religion, family values, and patriotism. Bill Clinton, for example, could feel free to tell an audience of black ministers that "Martin Luther King did not live and die to see the black family destroyed." Liberals also now respect the entrepreneur--you could not find the word used in a favorable sense in any liberal magazine other than the Monthly in the seventies.

The importance of changing the culture of organizations is now widely recognized. Echoing Tom Peters and other corporate experts, Al Gore's Reinventing Government manifesto, for instance, says "We must change the culture of the bureaucracy." When the Monthly started talking about the culture of bureaucracy 25 years ago, we were alone. When they heard the phrase back then, most people had images of civil servants attending concerts at the Kennedy Center.

Another triumph for a Monthly idea was the passage of an income-contingent student loan program in 1993. The revolutionary potential of this bill, while not generally understood, is real and could be as important as the G.I. Bill was in the postwar era. But the loans should be made collectible through the IRS so that the plan does not become the boondoggle other student loan programs have turned into. The passage of President Clinton's 20,000-participant AmeriCorps national service program is another Monthly victory, though the administration must make sure participants come from all economic backgrounds, not just poorer families, and that they do real work, not make-work. The goal must be service, not self-esteem. On education reform, virtually everyone now recognizes what we have long argued--that the teachers' unions are too powerful and credential-conscious--and there are encouraging signs, from alternative certification of teachers to charter schools, though much remains to be done.

Another long-standing Monthly cause directed in part at justice for the young is trying to ease the burden that the Social Security tax has been increasingly imposing on them over the last few decades. This tax, like the rising cost of health insurance, can be a severe disincentive to employment for businesses that are struggling to stay afloat and can't afford a tax that has to be paid regardless of income. As for Social Security benefits, far too much money goes to the affluent elderly who don't need it. We have made some progress with the passage of taxes on Social Security benefits and with the easing of the plight of the young worker by the Earned Income Tax Credit, but further reform is needed.

One of the Monthly's major goals was to inspire other reporters to do what we were trying to do. On this front we have had some success. Recent examples of Monthly-like reporting in larger publications include Bob Woodward and Benjamin Weiser's Washington Post story explaining how federal disability payments to disturbed children are sources of fraud (prompting similar investigations by Newsweek and ABC's "PrimeTime Live"). The New York Times dissected the immigration and Naturalization Service and chronicled how the FAA failed to regulate USAir. And in The New Yorker, a writer who clearly had first-hand experience teaching in the public schools wrote a devastating story about how the student-teacher ratio could drop from 30 to 1 to 16 to 1 if certified teachers would leave administrative positions. This piece, by the way, proves our point that journalists would profit from the experience of working in the fields they cover so that they have an insider's feel for the worlds they are writing about.

What is less encouraging about the media is the much more evident rise of the culture of "The McLaughlin Group." Journalists now rush to get a certain "take" on an issue instead of gaining understanding. Why? Because quick opinions are national reporters' tickets to the fame and fortune of television punditry. What shows like "Crossfire" and "The Capital Gang" want is someone playing a familiar liberal or preferably conservative role in an entertaining way. In the process, the country is rapidly becoming Limbaughized--a condition where snide sarcasm and inflexible ideology are more important than a thoughtful search for agreement about how to fix what's wrong.

Other Monthly positions that were unusual in the seventies have long since become the conventional wisdom. We wanted liberals to realize that they could no longer be soft on violent crime and that they had to take an interest in having an effective national defense instead of being self-righteously anti-military. Today, these positions are universally accepted. We've also been effective in moving liberals away from their automatic pro-government position into accepting the need for renewal that is implicit in Gore's Reinventing Government program.

The omissions in that program, however, illustrate our nearly total failure to convince the public that we need new people at all levels of government. Gore saw that size of government could be cut and that most of the fat was in the middle--as this magazine has long contended--but he did not see that there is a problem with the people who are left. Jack Kennedy was the last president who made a major effort to attract talented people to government. He has been dead for 31 years. Since civil servants can retire after 30 years of service, most of the people he recruited are gone. Besides, when Kennedy came into office, the hiring authority of the president had already been limited to a few thousand jobs. The last administration able to hire most of the people who worked for it was FDR's.

But it is worth considering that Roosevelt, the most effective president of this century, was also the one who created the most new agencies and hired the most people-2.5 million, to be exact. (Bill Clinton, by comparison, was able to appoint only 3,227.) The brightest successes of the post-FDR era--from the agency that administered the Marshall Plan in the late forties and early fifties to NASA and the Peace Corps in the sixties to the National Transportation Safety Board in the seventies to the Office of Technology Assessment in the eighties--were new organizations with the ability to hire new employees. If you doubt that the quality of the federal employee should be a serious concern, consider that a few years ago when investigators were seeking a Soviet "mole" in a secret CIA installation in Virginia, they came up with 10 suspects out of a total of only 90 employees. One investigator observed, "There are so many problem personalities that no one stands out."

Nothing is more important to improving the quality of government than improving the quality of the people in it. Yet Clinton and Gore give this no emphasis. I think they're afraid to say in one breath that we need to reduce the size of government and in the next to say we want to hire a lot of new people. Yet both need to be done. We should give administrators the authority to fire marginal employees who either can't or won't do good work. You can't make government a jobs program where the main aim is to keep people employed. The aim must be to keep capable people employed in work that needs doing. Get rid of the drones and make a major effort to attract the best people to public service. My old boss at the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver, spent a quarter of his time searching for talent to staff the agency and maintain its vitality. Other administrators would be wise to follow his example.

One new problem is that most Republicans now refuse to acknowledge that government can do anything or that it is even needed. In the Nixon-Ford years, a role for government was conceded. Did you realize that the Environmental Protection Agency got its start back then? But with Ronald Reagan a terrible simple-mindedness took hold on the right: Government, except the defense establishment, was bad, period. And because there has been so much evidence of government incompetence, from the Aldrich Ames case to the postal employees in Chicago and Washington who were discovered concealing stacks of undelivered mail in their homes, a good many liberals are beginning to feel the same way. I know several who opposed health care reform because they were certain the government would screw it up. It's interesting to reflect that when we started the Monthly we assumed everyone had a common interest in making government work. But when we started this, our 25th year, the lead article in our January/February issue was "Government Can Work."

The fact is we must have a government that works. You want an FBI that can find your kidnapped child, an air-traffic controller who won't let your plane crash into another, a Food and Drug Administration scientist who is going to protect you from harmful drugs and unsafe foods. You want an IRS that treats you fairly and doesn't let other people cheat so your taxes are higher. Somehow, we've got to persuade the conservatives to face the fact that they really want these services, and that instead of simply saying government is no good, we've all got to work together to make it good. Most of all we have to convince them that government can improve. Here we are blessed with an example that is provided by an institution conservatives love--the military. At many periods in our history it has been abysmal but at many others it has been magnificent. Think most recently of such embarrassing episodes as the abandonment at Desert One of the Iranian hostage rescue attempt, the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, and the crossed wires of command at Grenada that had officers there making credit card calls to Fort Bragg to get messages to ships just hundreds of yards offshore. But then came the war in the Gulf, which despite a few glitches was a dramatic demonstration of how far the military had come toward getting its act together. Many improvements, especially those in command structure, were due to intelligent criticism from the press and the General Accounting Office, which when this magazine started goading it to improve in the seventies, was not covering the Pentagon at all.

What all this shows is that organizations require constant vigilance to maintain their vitality. A Chrysler or a Ford or a GM or a government agency can go downhill fast if stockholders or taxpayers--and the media that are supposed to keep them informed--aren't paying attention. But if attention is paid, both the car companies and the government agencies can come back.

The Monthly's greatest failure is symbolized by our March 1980 issue that proclaimed America not only needed but was ripe for a "New Idealism" that would overcome the selfishness and fragmentation into self-righteous special interest groups that had become evident in the seventies. We were dead wrong. The situation we deplored, instead of improving, grew worse in the eighties and nineties, culminating in the 1994 election triumph of Gingrichism.

I continue to be hopeful that adversarialism and meanness can be overcome. To me, humor is the key. We must learn to laugh at ourselves again. If only the whole country had the spirit that produced all that marvelous comedy during the thirties, from the sense of their own ridiculousness that W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx showed, to the gentle, caring humor of Will Rogers, to all the wonderful comediennes--remember Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, and Carole Lombard who, like Rosalind in As You Like It, would laugh at the world and at themselves? Today, we have the anguished self-absorption of a Meryl Streep, and the unloving put-down humor of David Letterman, which is designed to display superiority, not self-criticism.

Along with humor, the other prevailing spirit of the thirties was generosity. A couple of weeks ago, I attended the annual reunion of a group who graduated from Charleston High School in 1944. One of my classmates recalled that during the Depression his mother fed everyone who came to her door asking for food. So did my mother. Sometimes we were more than a little nervous, because some of the poor were dirty and more than a few had a haunted look bordering on desperation. But we didn't turn them away. Sometime when you're looking at movies made in the 1933-1935 period, notice the National Recovery Administration signs in every window. They read, "We Do Our Part." The "we" meant that almost everyone except rich Republicans and their lackeys in the press felt a common dedication to defeating the poverty and unemployment that were coming close to destroying the country.

The great mission before us is to expose the "I-want -my-benefits-but-I-don't-want-to-help-anyone-else" spirit that dominates today and so thoroughly embarrass everyone who feels that way that they will begin to laugh at themselves and embrace once again the spirit of generosity and optimism that has been at the core of the American character throughout most of our history.
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Title Annotation:self-evaluation of 'Washington Monthly'
Author:Peters, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Dec 1, 1994
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