Monday, July 26, 2010

When the White House acts badly

by Don Klein

The Shirley Sherrod case is a perfect example of what happens when society becomes politically truculent. Somebody ends up tripping over his own feet. Nobody escaped this incident with clean skirts. But there were two kinds of disgrace citations to be awarded to those involved.

On one side we had the predictable underhanded troublemakers and on the other side we had the botched up stupidity of the do-gooders. I am not sure which is more harmful to the country in the long run.

I cannot image a single mentally sound person being surprised to learn that Fox News broadcast a phony, abridged video designed to discredit the NAACP and the Obama Administration. That’s their bread and butter. Their mother's milk. Lying and distorting news which defames their most favorite designated scapegoat is as natural to Fox as bananas are to monkeys.

Does anyone expect honest reporting and fair handling of news from a corporation whose owner is Rupert Murdoch, the Australian news mogul who makes his money selling trash wherever possible? His London tabloid, The Sun, for example, carries a daily page of naked young women to boost circulation and sadly tons of Brits plunk down their hard-earned moolah for this version of the "news."

He ruined the once liberal New York Post and now is on the way to infusing the erstwhile Wall Street Journal with his kind of questionable "journalism." When Murdoch is finished with it, the WSJ will be less than a shadow of its former self, much to the sorrow of all journalists and readers.

So there is no great surprise to learn that his television news network would sink to its lowest and portray in edited tape a decent government employee as a racist, especially since the record showed she was just the opposite. That’s the way Fox plays the news – hit someone below the belt, watch the confusion it creates and run for cover when the facts finally come out.

Then we have the other side of the controversy. It was more damaging, and to me very disheartening, the way Sherrod was treated by her superiors in the Obama Administration. Without a question, without a review of the phony tape, without even a second thought, she was asked to resign. They couldn’t even wait for her to get to her office. She was forced to fall on her sword on the side of the road while enroute to her destination.

Now let’s be clear. If a federal employee was found stealing paper clips and reams of stationery they would be hauled up before superiors and asked to explain their actions. Sherrod, a mid-level specialist in the Department of Agriculture, was denied that routine procedure expected by all employees. She was booted onto the sidewalk like an unruly drunk thrown out of a saloon.

Why? Allegedly because they expected Glenn Beck to feature her story on that evening’s broadcast on Fox. Her bosses wanted to get ahead of the story. So there was no time for her side to be told, nor was there time to review the entire video which exonerated her from any wrongdoing.

Slam dunk. She was out on her ear with not so much as a howdy do. That was worse than anything Fox did or Beck could have done (Beck did not mention the story that night). The Secretary of Agriculture violated this woman’s employment rights by dismissing her without a hearing on grounds that proved to be erroneous.

Shame. Is that what we should expect from our government? It is said she was asked to resign on the insistence of the White House. If that is true we need some house cleaning there. We have a bunch a nervous Nellies more concerned about what Beck might say than being fair with a longtime employee.

I never cared much for the people who surround Obama and provide him with advice. I often wonder if they were the ones who managed from behind the scenes the attempt to get bipartisan support for the Health Care bill by watering down its provisions. I wonder how much influence these people had in convincing Obama to accept a nearly toothless Financial Reform bill.

I will never forgive these opportunists on the Obama team for unjustly branding Bill Clinton a racist during the 2008 primary campaign. I know politics is rough and hard, but I viewed Obama as principled leader, a man who sought the higher plain of political participation.

But someone in his office gave the agriculture people reason to believe that Sherrod had to be jettisoned to avoid further conflict with Fox commentators. What crap. What cowardice. Loyalty requires that you stand up for you people and get the whole story before acting like jittery mice approaching a cheese-laden mousetrap.

I would hope that Obama, a decent man with honorable goals, will find out who pushed for Sherrod’s resignation and take that aide to the woodshed for a sound spanking. This incident did more harm to the Obama gang than anything they’ve done previously. This is not the act of an upfront, straight forward administration we thought we elected almost two years ago.

Obama should get rid of his overprotected adjutants (or at least reject their advice) and start being a pacesetter. As a Constitutional scholar he knows when a person’s rights have been violated. To have his administration guilty of such antics is a letdown to all his supporters.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The trouble with bigness

By Don Klein

It’s a big world. At this moment there are some 6,855,726,713 people living on Earth, give a few million more every week or two. Soon there will be 7 billion people. By time my eight-year-old granddaughter is eligible to vote the world population will be well on its way to 8 billion souls.

That’s a lot of people. The world is mired in population growth and will only get worse as the years pass. The question is will we be able to survive as a species? The earth has it’s limits, but human growth apparently has none. How much population growth can we expect on a finite globe?

I consign answers to these and other questions to people a lot younger than me who will have to endure the future. This is a subject for those who think in scores of years, who do not measure the future in single years or at most in a decade, like me.

There is one thing I can talk about, however. A big world requires everything about it to be big. Selling a million records is no longer the phenomena it once was. A high school dropout can "write a song" after lunch, record it the next day and a few weeks later be a millionaire because it has caught on with just small segment of the population while millions of others are not even familiar with the performer’s name.

When you have a country like the United States with 310 million population and sell a million of anything you have appealed to one-third of one percent of the available market. In other words if you have a product that only a tiny fraction of the public buys–- a record, a Tee shirt, a picture frame, a widget –- you could be a millionaire these days.

Extend that throughout the world with its 6.8 billion people and you realize what bigness is. This means in order to compete worldwide you must be a heavy hitter. In sports it means the National Football League has to show its mettle in Europe and Asia looking for new markets. Major League baseball recruits from Latin America, Asia and even Australia for players to appeal to foreign audiences. It explains why all of a sudden the World Cup became so popular in a country like ours that once confined soccer to a minor slot in high school and college sports.

In business, bigness is even more important. Although there are still a healthy smattering of small businesses, the super market has wiped out the Ma and Pa corner grocery. There are giant restaurant chains supporting both table cloth sit-down restaurants and fast food emporia.

Huge agricultural combines control the food industry in the US and elsewhere. Household retailers have gotten so big that even onetime monster enterprises like Montgomery Ward cannot compete anymore and the American auto industry is down to a mere three manufacturers-going-on-two as Chrysler struggles in its death throes.

Insurance companies are larger and stronger than ever, oil companies make billions by the minute and medical and pharmaceutical services are so wealthy that most doctors can turn away new patients and drug companies have profits equal to the gross national product of many nations.

With all this the world is out of balance because as bigness continues, there is the sad plight of the ordinary guy. He still struggles at a pathetic level to keep all these mammoth institutions healthy.

In order to deal with unabated bigness man created big government and that perhaps is the worst disappointment of all. Big government usually means plodding government. Services are slow to begin and sadly, once having begun, it is virtually impossible to stop even when no longer needed. Village and town councils are much more efficient, if less flush.

Presidents and Cabinet secretaries "make" policy but lower level government workers decide "how" those policies are implemented. And few ever like what they are doing. The bigness of government easily allows for irresponsibility. So many people have their hands in the pot while policy is cooking no one can be blamed when things go wrong. This is the government workers paradise, their insurance policy.

You can always find a retired doctor who loves to talk about his work, or a retired butcher or bus driver, or accountant, or even journalists. But I have never met a retired government worker who had anything good to say about his/her years of service. They all have horror stories to talk about.

There is little incentive when you have a job which provides you with incremental salary boosts, offers you promotions whether you deserve it or not, and where you are protected by concrete civil service rules even when you fail to live up to the lowest of standards.

That explains I suppose the failures of the Minerals Management Services of the Department of Interior, on whose shoulders rests a large part of the blame for the BP spill. It also explains the failure of the Securities and Exchange Commission in not monitoring Wall Street manipulators prior to the financial meltdown in 2008 and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mack for the mortgage scandal.

Government regulators just didn’t do their jobs despite the importance we attach to their work and despite being well paid. In the end, no one was punished for failing to do what they were supposed to do, unlike private industry.

There is no responsibility in government. There are just benefits hidden behind the myriad of employee rules and thousands of ambiguous regulations.
That’s the evil of big government. But unlike Ronald Reagan’s maxim to the contrary, enforced regulations are necessary. As we get bigger, government laxity could become even worse until we start dismissing people for failing to do what they are paid to do.

It will not solve all our problems but it certainly will help.