THE DIFFERENCE between private and public schools in the District of Columbia is, to use one of President Carter's favorite words, a disgrace. Karl Marx would find in it confirmation of his worst suspicions about the rich: They send their own children to private schools, and watch without uttering a word of protest while the children of the poor are miseducated by the imcompetent.
This is not a problem that can be solved by throwing more money at public schools. District public school teachers are already the highest paid teachers -- public or private -- in the Washington area. My wife works for a private school where the salaries are at levels that went out of style in 1935 -- roughly 60 per cent of what the public school teachers get -- yet my wife's school is clearly superior. Why? Its administrators can hire and fire strictly on the basis of competence. In the District public schools, by contrast, firing is an impossible dream and administrators are even prohibited by union rules from watching potential employes perform in a classroom before hiring them.
Being able to hire the competent and fire the incompetent is the secret of good education -- and it's time we let everybody in on it. It means we have to break the power of the teachers' unions. Nothing is more clear, yet no truth is more resisted by liberals who think they would forfeit their credentials if they took a stand against a union -- any union. But if they troubled themselves to talk to public school teachers, they would find some good ones who agree that the leadership of the union pays little or no attention to the quality of education -- instead following the easy path to reelection by protecting the incompetents with job security provisions that are smothering our schools.
Watch for movies advertised as "Soon to be a Major Paperback Book." David Obst, the literary agent turned publisher, has moved his Simon & Schuster office from New York to Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. "Producers and studios have good ideas," he told Paul Nathan of Publishers Weekly. "Simon & Schuster has writers looking for good ideas. By being at the source I can find out what a studio or major producer wants to do next. If the project is what I think is a viable book, we can get studio financing for it." This is truly a great leap forward and long overdue. If only Paramount had financed "Moby Dick," Melville doubtless could have been persuaded to write a scene for Jacqueline Bisset in a wet T-shirt up on that whale.
An old friend of mine works for Jerry Brown and recently invited me to join the governor for a couple of hours while he was in town. Having heard that he is the kind of man who would kick the cane of an old lady seeking his autograph, I didn't expect to like him. But I did. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation, perhaps partly because he's clever enough to turn an interview around and ask questions himself -- questions that seem to reflect genuine curiosity about the person he's talking to.
But he is more than clever. He is properly suspicious of our most priestly professions. One of his heroes is Ivan Illich, who, you may recall, believes that an unseemly amount of illness is "iatrogenic" -- brought on by the physicians themselves. To guard against the professionals' tendencies toward self-protection, Brown has put laymen on the boards of the California medical and bar associations. With his support, a state law has been passed requiring all disputes under $15,000 to be resolved by arbitration rather than in the courts. These are small steps, but anyone who challenges our adversary system of law -- its expenses and encumbrances and its habit of generating hatred -- has my respect. e
On the other hand, two of Browns's answers left me dismayed. When I asked if he saw any problems with the civil service, he answered, "Didn't Carter's bill take care of that?" And when I asked him about his defense program, he said he didn't have one.
The White House in the Nixon-Ford years didn't do much for our political system, but it seems to have offered a first-rate course in Creative Writing 202: Roman a Clef Suspsnse Thrillers. First there was one by John Ehrlichman, then another by William Safire, then another by Ben Stein, then "First Lady" by Ron Nessen. The remarkable thing is that all of these books have some merit, and Safire's "Full Disclosure" is a really fine thriller.
The Senate, on the other hand, offers a different approach to publishing. In 1974 Doubleday gave Howard Baker a $22,500 advance for a novel. The book has never been written, but Doubleday is too polite to try to recover its money from the minority leader of the U.S. Senate. Baker has thus fulfilled the wildest dream of every writer: to be paid for a book without actually having to write it.
I have a simple plan to clean up politics in America. It has two phases.
Phase One: Prohibit campaign contributitions of more than $100 per person to any candidate, and require radio and television stations to give free time to candidates and devote a specified amount of time to campaign coverage. One hundred dollars is not going to make anyone beholden to anyone else, and the need for larger contributions will be eliminated if candidates are relieved of the cost of radio and television advertising. And free time is not too much to ask from stations whose licenses to mint money are conferred by the public.
Phase Two: Prohibit the packaged campaign commercials with their artfully edited films and tapes that make the most hapless wretch look like Redford and sound like Churchill. Candidates will still be free to say whatever they want -- they'll just have to say it in their own words, and we'll have a chance, at least, of finding out who they really are.
Speaking of radio and television, someone -- I wish I could remember who -- has recommended that the government auction off broadcasting licenses every 10 years or so. This seems thoroughly sensible to me. Think what the taxpayers could get from the bidding for television channels in major markets. We might also apply the auction principle to other publicly granted licenses that confer some degree of monopoly right to the holder -- such as the right to have one of a limited number of liquor stores or banks in an area, or a race track's right to exclusive racing days, or an airline's or a trucker's right to lucrative routes.
Another solution to the television station problem, suggested by my colleague Robert M. Kaus, is to elect their owners. The people who own these stations have tremendous power -- granted to them by the public in their licenses. So why shouldn't the public be able to elect them, as it elects other people to whom it grants power?
Last year the magazine I edit ran an article chiding Washington's new YMCA for becoming an elitist health spa, with membership fees beyond the reach of the average man, let alone the poor. Its officials cried foul. This year, to appeal to the vital concerns of their community, they are offering a seminar in "Accumulating and Preserving Your Estate," always a topic of lively interest in the ghetto.
Because I am a child of World War II, my antennae alvays vibrate at the slightest indication of another Pearl Harbor. I worry when our computers falsely warn, as they did recently, of an attack, because that means they may malfunction again and fail to warn us of a real attack. I also worried when I read about that runaway plane that carried LSU's football coach to his death. We are told that when the plane reached North Carolina and crossed into the air defense interception zone for the Atlantic Coast, two F4s scrambled from a base near Goldsboro and followed the plane to the Virginia border, where, "their fuel running low, they broke off." Do the planes that are supposed to be ready to repel an enemy attack have only enough fuel to fly across the state of North Carolina? e
Afghanistan scares me. It is a violation of rules that have never been expressed but have always been followed by the United States and the Soviet Union since 1945. These rules did not prevent stupid or immoral acts by either party, but they did tend to control the damage. Under them neither side was to invade a country that had been neutral or in the other's sphere of influence. Hungary and Czechoslovakia were invaded but both were in the Russian sphere, as the Dominican Republic was in ours when we sent troops there in 1965. Chile and Cuba became communist through the efforts of native communists, not through invasion. South Korea was invaded by North Korea, not by Russia. At the Bay of Pigs, Cuba was invaded by other Cubans, with our help to be sure, but it was the same kind of help the Russians have the North Koreans and the North Vietnamese. Russian troops did not enter Cuba and American troops did not enter South Vietnam and South Korea until there had been aggressive acts by the other side's surrogates. In Afghanistan there is not the slightest evidence that the Moslem rebels are American surrogates. The Russians have changed the rules.
It seems to me that we should respond with the one action that is sure to make them lose sleep at the Kremlin. We should begin to rearm China. Rearming Pakistan will deter Russia no more than rearming Poland would have deterred Hitler. If the Russian leaders want us to stop rearming China, all they have to do is withdraw from Afghanistan.