by Martin Harris
Cultural anthropologists -even dissertation-subject-seeking grad students-haven’t yet analyzed the fairly-recently-evolved Fourth Estate tribe of media commentators, both print and (new mutation) electronic. When they do, they’ll find at least a couple of clans, identifiable by presentation style. Members of the larger group make their points with a lot of assertion and not much proof, while those in the smaller group choose the alternate option. If you’re well-known, like erstwhile Presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan, you can take the easier (believe-me-because-I’m-famous) route, as she did in several recent pieces partially about contemporary credibility-shrinkage in various levels of governance, where she made her arguments in well-crafted but fact-deprived paragraphs. Her focus was more zeitgeist thansachlich, more mood than fact or quote. Those of us in the minority clan need to be more specific, so here are three examples. One is the Federal Reserve, another is the Environmental Protection Agency, and the third is a remarkably matched (well, on one specific subject, anyway) pair of State Governors, in Tennessee and Vermont.
First (if ranked for hubris-in-the-face-of-history) is the Frederic Mishkin op-ed (he’s an Economics prof and ex-Fed Governor) in the 29 Sept Wall Street Journal, wherein his complaint is the header: “Politicians Are Threatening the Fed’s Independence”. In mid-piece there’s this quote: “…keeping inflation stable requires that long-term expectations of inflation stay anchored in both directions, neither rising nor falling.” Indeed, that was has been the Fed’s prescribed-by-Congress job -at first, only, and now primary- since its founding in 1913. His argument is that “…R’s and D’s both want to weaken the Fed’s independence…” to accomplish that monetary goal. So how well has the Fed actually done in the past 98 years? The answer can be read on the Economic History website, where there’s a calculator labeled Measuring Worth. If you plug in $1 and 1913, and ask for the 2010 equal in purchasing power you’ll see $22.70. That a 96% shrinkage under Fed management. He writes that “…the Fed’s policy-making has contributed to an environment in which inflation has fallen and has remained remarkably stable…” but to argue that the Fed has used its 98-year “independence” skillfully invites charges of a credibility gap, does it not?
Second ( first if ranked for hubris-in-the-face-of-logic) is the EPA’s formal complaint against Kansas feedlot operator Michael Callicrate for his failure to store hay, a “pollutant”, in accordance with hazardous-materials-storage rules. When did “hay” become a hazardous material? EPA doesn’t say, not on its website and not in the complaint. Attempts by your Humble Scribe to research this subject led to a finding that the EPA has found the beef-feeder guilty of violating rules against “polluting the waters of the US” which suggests that its highly-skilled ag experts may have confused low-moisture hay with high-moisture silage, some of which exudes small amounts of leachate during fermentation. Whether such leachate, chemically similar to potable ethanol, is a pollutant, and whether typical silo or bunker leakage has or even could pollute US waters is not discussed. Nor is the political decision to indict one cattle feeder while exempting others. To defend EPA in this regulatory instance invites charges of a credibility gap, does it not?
Third (first if ranked for hubris-in-the face-of-reason) are the reactions of most State Governors to the inability (or unwillingness?) of their State Education Departments to bring their public school students to Proficiency-at-grade-level by 2014, a decade-old Federal requirements (yes, Virginia, there are strings attached to “free” money) as they all did, under normal expectations, back when promotion to the next grade was conditioned on demonstrated proficiency in the last grade. The Guv’s are now condemning, variously, the No Child Left Behind Legislation, the specific Federal tests (which have been in place, but ignored until recently, since 1969) on which scores have been flat (at the 2/3 failure level) ever since, and testing in general on the supposed grounds that “mere testing doesn’t really illustrate all the ineffably wonderful things we’re doing with only four times the spending and half the class size we had then”. Two examples: Vermont Guv Shumlin opines against the tests thus: “The one-size-fits-all requirements and sanctions imposed by NCLB result in derogatory labels and punitive sanctions demoralizing to students, teachers, principals, and families” as if expecting schools to inculcate competency in basic reading and math were (subjunctive contrary to fact) totally unreasonable, and worse: esteem-damaging. And Tennessee Guv Haslam opines in similar vein, arguing for : “…the Federal government narrowing its role and allowing Tennessee the flexibility to abide by its own rigorous standards.” Those would be the TCAP tests, designed to show “Proficiency”, in Grade 8 reading for example, with a score equal to 210 on the federal NAEP, which sets Basic (that’s below Proficient, for readers in East Overshoe) at the 245-out-of-500 level. To seek waivers from the pretty easy tests your kids can’t (in some few cases, won’t) pass, when it’s your and their jobs to arrive at that admittedly limited achievement level, invites charges of a credibility gap, does it not?
And a closing Humble Scribe question: is governmental credibility, at any of the above levels, worse than it was in the maybe-mis-remembered days of yore? There were, after all, the Kennedy “missile gap” which won him an election, and a destiny in Dallas; the eventual revelation that Alger Hiss was, denials-at-the-time notwithstanding, spying for the Soviets; the Teapot Dome oil scandal of the 1920’s and the far larger railroad-building scandals of the 1870’s, all of which far outweigh a single mere Solyndra (or multiple green-crony reiterations) or such easy-target assertions as the recent three outlined above. Maybe the practical demonstrated answer, for which neither Noonan nor your Humble Scribe can furnish either rhetoric or proof, is that “credible politician” is, in these post-Jeffersonian times, an oxymoron. In the grand old game of poker, three-of-a kind is, indeed, better than some alternatives. In contemporary politics, as described above, that’s easy to seek but hard to find.