AN EFFECTIVE VOICE FOR LIBERALS
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES -- It's probably the most influential magazine that nobody's ever heard of. About the size and weight of your average comic book, its contributors include James Fallows, Jonathan Alter, Tom Bethell and Gregg Easterbrook. Its alumni have gone on to distinguished careers at mainstream magazines and journals while contributing influential books of their own along the way.
Founded in 1969, The Washington Monthly is the brainchild of Charles Peters, a sometime federal bureaucrat, state legislator, journalist and founder of the school of political thought called neoliberalism.
It's not quite true that nobody has ever heard of Peters or the Washington Monthly. Among the political movers and shakers as well as the eastern intelligentsia, the Monthly is very well known. This is because it has consistently been ahead of its time in opening up new topics to mainstream discussion. It is also because Charles Peters mentored a generation of journalists who have gone on to exert influence in journals of wider circulation -- The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, Newsweek and Slate.com to mention a few.
To get the flavor of the Washington Monthly, let's briefly consider three articles from recent years.
"Turkey Farm" is the quintessential Monthly piece. Written by Robert Maranto and published in the November, 1999 issue, it deals with a long-standing Charles Peters obsession, the attempt to make government work. The article describes the effects of federal civil service rules which make it difficult, if not quite impossible, to fire incompetent employees.
With the deck stacked against them, federal managers tend to avoid using official means of dealing with their turkeys. Phone surveys of managers by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), reported in Poor Performers in Government: A Quest for the True Story, found that only 7.5 percent of the managers of low performing employees moved to reassign, demote, or remove them, and 77.8 percent of those managers reported that the efforts had no effect. While OPM gives a rough estimate of around 65,000 poor performers in government, from September 1997 to September 1998, only 159 federal employees were removed by performance based personnel actions, with another 1,693 removed for issues other than performance, such as breaking the law. Federal managers suffer low performers or act informally to improve their work and never use the federal personnel system, or only use it as a last resort.
Look back over past issues and you will find many articles dealing with how to make government work better. The set of political views that Charles Peters calls neoliberalism includes as a core tenet the idea that government, even big government, can and should be a force for good, can and should take on necessary tasks and do them well.
In this sense, Peters offers the intellectual counter to the Reaganesque position that government is inherently too big and needs to be downsized without regard to the good it might do. The article on "turkeys" offers suggestions as to how to remedy the problem of difficult employees as opposed to a blanket condemnation of government employment.
Charles Peters, almost alone among political leaders, has consistently explored governmental inefficiencies and ineptitudes as problems that can and should be fixed. The monthly has determinedly pursued problems in governmental agencies and federal programs in this light.
One article endowed with almost eerie prescience was "Weapons of Mass Confusion," written by Joshua Green and published in the May, 2001 issue (note the date).
The article begins, "If the United States should fall victim to a chemical or biological terrorist attack like the one that killed a dozen people and injured 5,000 in Tokyo's subway six years ago, the nation would turn to men like Lt. Col. Xavier Stewart of the Army National Guard. Stewart commands an elite mobile antiterrorism squad that specializes in unconventional weapons. He has military training in chemical, biological, and nuclear weaponry. His team is among the Guard's proudest assets, a product of the federal government's aggressive five-year effort to prepare for an unconventional terrorist attack."
The article goes on to show how the Army National Guard system created to respond to terrorist attacks is a classical boondoggle, incapable of carrying out a mission that is itself of questionable value. It is understaffed in skill positions that require hundreds of hours of training and would not be able to respond to an emergency until hours after local fire departments.
Green explains in detail the history of congressional actions (taken in the pre-September 11, 2001 era) in response to terrorist threats. It was classical pork barrel married to political urgency.
The government's sudden emphasis on terrorism, with new funding to back it up, created an environment ripe for pork. A bidding war in Congress quickly ensued. "There was a rush on Capitol Hill," says a senior researcher at a nonpartisan national security think tank. "There were literally dozens of agencies whispering in lawmakers' ears that their organizations could do the job and, in turn, make that congressman look good for choosing them." The National Guard's civil support teams sprang from these sessions. But they were hardly alone. Other agencies that won funding included the Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Army, Air Force, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Justice Department, Energy Department, Agriculture Department, and the Department of Health and Human Services. Even the National Park Service managed to exploit the terrorism threat by commissioning a $400,000 study that revealed "the vulnerability of the national monuments." In the end, more than 40 agencies, overseen by a dozen congressional committees, received a role in the nation's terrorism defense plan. The waste was enormous. The Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Act spawned 90 different programs for the single purpose of training local officials. Today they compete just to find clients. "The money went everywhere," says one former defense contractor, who requested anonymity. "But the Guard [teams] were the worst of the bad ideas."
The article continues with a statement that summarizes another core principle of Peters' neoliberalism: "The Nunn-Lugar-Domenici Act was the catalyst in the war against chemical and biological terrorism. But the funding process it set in motion demonstrates how quickly good plans can go awry without sufficient fiscal oversight."
If we are to have good government, the Monthly says, we need to have diligent oversight over the agencies and departments of the federal government.
Peters, in taking this position, was that rarest of liberal voices, a strong critic of the way Bill Clinton's administration failed to exercise effective oversight and control over federal agencies.
There is one more excerpt from this article that exemplifies how the Washington Monthly has often been ahead of the curve when it comes to exposing serious issues.
The president has shown himself adept at talking up issues close to his heart. He could sell terrorism defense the same way he's selling his tax cut--by talking up the disintegration of the Middle East peace process, the growing menace of Osama bin Laden, and the aggressive stance his own administration is expected to take toward Iraq. After all, Bush has justified spending trillions of dollars on an unproven missile defense system, which he said is needed to protect against the risk of a nuclear attack. Surely he can spare a few hundred million for the far more likely possibility of a biological or chemical terrorist attack.
Charles Peters is also a pioneer in media criticism. For example, the Monthly has been following one troubling trend in modern journalism: "The Broken Wall; newspaper coverage of its advertisers," written by Blake Fleetwood and published in the September, 1999 issue, describes how newspapers cater to advertisers by self-censoring their news pages. Publishers are particularly afraid to run pieces critical of the heavily advertised real estate and auto sales businesses, but the tendency is general and endemic.
Charles Peters has downsized his responsibilities and now holds the title of founding editor. He continues to write Tilting at Windmills (also the title of a book he wrote), one of my favorite columns. It can be found at www.washingtonmonthly.com. Here is one excerpt to give the flavor of Peters and his Monthly:
Shouldn't the people who profit from Department of Defense contracts pay their taxes? After all, it's our money they're paid with, and it's our loss when they don't pay their share of the tax burden. Unfortunately, 27,000 defense contractors have not paid their taxes. That's right --27,000. They owe a total of $3 billion, according to the General Accounting Office. Ironically, legislation was passed in the late 1990s, giving the Pentagon authority to deduct 15 percent of any payment to contractors who owe taxes, but, guess what? The law has yet to be implemented. As we have frequently noted, it's one thing to pass a law, it's another to get it carried out. In this case, the Pentagon, the Treasury Department, the IRS, and the OMB have a joint task force that is "working on it."
Charles Peters and his Washington Monthly are strong voices for the idea that liberalism is a robust concept and preferable to its opposition.