- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2003

Whodunit?

As the “wartime president” referred to in Jay Whitehead’s Monday Commentary column, “Searching for a space scapegoat,” and on behalf of the 600,000 government employees I recently pledged to represent as the newly elected president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), I think it is important to correct the many erroneous statements made by Mr. Whitehead. First, I have never said anything in relation to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with regard to plans by the Bush administration to privatize the federal government — but since you mentioned it:

It’s not that federal employees within NASA are not able to provide a better product at lower costs; it’s that they were never given an opportunity to compete. Their jobs were simply given to contractors without any competition.

NASA is also unable to supervise its army of service contractors, as reported in a recent General Accounting Office study that emphasized that the agency lacks accurate and reliable information on contract spending and places little emphasis on end results, product performance and cost control.

Unfortunately, NASA isn’t the only agency to suffer from this administration’s privatization crusade. As President Bush pushes his plans to outsource half the federal workforce, the American people who count on this country to provide vital government services are also the victims of big corporate contributors who are scarfing up large chunks of the government as political payoff for their patronage.

Mr. Whitehead would rather blame the toll from contracting out on AFGE instead of working with us to reverse the damage needlessly inflicted on NASA and other agencies. His words betray startling ignorance of how the privatization process actually works. In fact, the pubic-private competition rules, which were rewritten recently to favor private companies, have contractors bragging about the many contracts they’ll win as a result of the rewrite. These new rules even allow work to be privatized directly without determining whether the job can be done more cost-effectively and efficiently by government employees.

Mr. Whitehead is correct on one point. Under my leadership, AFGE will vigorously fight to require agencies to track the cost and quality of work performed by contractors. We will fight to ensure that critical governmental work is performed by reliable and experienced federal employees. We will encourage agencies to carefully consider alternatives to privatization that can generate superior efficiencies. AFGE also will fight to establish a fair and balanced sourcing process when competition for truly commercial services is actually desirable and ensure that federal employees can finally compete vigorously for work performed by contractors.

JOHN GAGE

President

American Federation of Government Employees

Washington

No Kyoto

So, officials of the Kyoto Protocol’s namesake city, in a country famous for the role played by “face,” think that treaty should go into effect (“World weather prompts new look at Kyoto,” World, Friday). This is hardly a compelling argument to reconsider a pact restricting energy use among 38 (of more than 180) countries representing a fraction of the world’s population and (the cleanest, most efficient) half of its energy consumption on the premise of catastrophic man-made global warming. Yet, it sets the tone for Takehiko Kambayashi’s uninformative and misleading article. The piece offers selected regional anecdotes in support of a treaty whose proponents admit it would not detectably impact global climate; accepting all unproven assertions and assuming universal participation, it would instead delay .06 of one degree of warming by six years at staggering economic cost. The simplified arguments and acceptance of facially absurd assertions therefore require only basic responses.

If regional weather determines the theory’s legitimacy, it is curious that the article avoids discussion of America’s mild summer. There is global nothing but, at all times, regional everything. It is further disturbing that the news of a French summer unrivaled in the past 50 years prompts educated individuals to demand a purported weather modification treaty that few serious analysts deny would precipitate a depression in the United States. The logical response is, instead, “Well, whose fault was it then?”

The same holds true for last year’s Central European floods: Why and how did the “100-year flood” get its name if it is a creation of the past 50 years of energy use? With rare exception, averages do not happen, but any contemporary climactic or weather indicator will ever be greater or lesser. Yes, in the age of increased monitoring of weather and 24/7 televised news, we are presented at any given time with freak weather occurring somewhere. A greater folly than reconsidering Kyoto on that basis is hard to imagine.

Finally, the supposed U.S. “rejection” of Kyoto merely repeats a conventional, sloppy mischaracterization of the decision by the Bush administration not to send the treaty to the Senate for a ratification vote, while not “unsigning” the treaty but continuing to send complete delegations to all negotiations. This is the same position as under Clinton-Gore. If “experts” obtain their conclusions through conventional wisdom and less than thorough reporting, why should we trust their judgment?

CHRISTOPHER C. HORNER

Senior fellow

Competitive Enterprise Institute

Washington

The pitfalls of ‘self-esteem’ in education

I appreciated Michael D. Howard’s letter to the editor (“Crunching Numbers?” Aug. 27) in which he related his experiences teaching junior high math in Austin, Texas. Students’ self-esteem was protected to the point where they were prevented from gaining the skills they needed to become mathematically functional. Mr. Howard cited this as one of the reasons he has lost confidence in the public school system.

As a product of public school education in its pre-enlightened era, I can only say that those students in Austin can thank their lucky stars they did not have to endure the esteem-destroying horror my own mathematical education was in the Cleveland School in Allentown, Pa., circa 1952.

Our teacher was Miss Bothwell, a harridan of uncertain age, fierce temper and tigerlike stealth. (She was, one might say, “pre-Miranda” in her teaching style.) Without warning, her ruler — carried like a Nazi swagger stick — would crash down upon the desk of an evildoer. When a student misbehaved in some way, his or her name went on a section of the blackboard reserved for recording the names of miscreants. That recording represented a requirement to hand in the multiplication tables, through 12x12 — handwritten and repeated tenfold.

Additional tics added behind a name indicated repetitions of the assignment. Some names had dozens of tics. As students handed in their assignments, tics were erased. Fierce tongue-lashings would motivate those who were truant in completing the assignments.

Today, a teacher like Miss Bothwell undoubtedly would be arrested for student abuse. Armed police would lead her from the classroom in handcuffs as her liberated captives gleefully erased their names (and tics).

I think about these things when I reflect on the damage she must have done. True, many of those students (including myself) went on to mathematical and scientific careers. We sailed through the high-tech era well “ahead of the curve” — always able to calculate and comprehend complex economic and mathematical matters. We never had to endure being shortchanged.

However, there was a dark side. We insensitively twitted woolly-headed (but well-adjusted) clerks who could not count out change if the cash register did not compute it. Car salesmen could not confound us, and we had no pity on them. (How they must have resented a customer who could do arithmetic in his head.) Ditto for mortgage brokers, investment counselors and bankers. My entire lifetime has been cursed with an irresistible impulse to correct numerical calculations. (I hate myself for this.)

The tyranny, the abuse, the uncaring insistence that we memorize those times tables still haunts me. For years, I would wake up in the night wondering if my name were on the malefactors’ board. I sometimes wonder if I might have turned out better adjusted if someone had stopped Miss Bothwell before she ruined so many students by making them mathematically capable.

Thank heavens, school systems now are being run by people who know where mathematical capability can lead. Their students might be stupid, but they certainly are not maladjusted.

ELWOOD E. ZIMMERMAN

Potomac Falls, Va.

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