American Czars

George Will

12/28/2008 12:01:00 AM - George Will

WASHINGTON -- In 1966, the price of eggs rose to a level that President Lyndon Johnson judged, God knows how, was too high. There were two culprits -- supply and demand -- and Johnson's agriculture secretary told him there was not much that could be done. LBJ, however, was a can-do fellow who directed the U.S. surgeon general to dampen demand by warning the nation about the hazards of cholesterol in eggs.

Johnson, the last president with a direct political connection to Franklin Roosevelt, was picked by FDR in 1935 to be Texas director of the New Deal's National Youth Administration. Two years later, Johnson came to Congress, a rung on the ladder that led to glory as Egg Czar. Today, with Washington experiencing a Roosevelt revival, Johnson's spirit, too, goes marching on as the federal government permeates the economy with politics.

Or not. In an interview with Business Week, Rep. Barney Frank, the effervescent Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Financial Services Committee, was asked, concerning the auto industry, "How do you make sure the government doesn't meddle too deeply in day-to-day operations and bring politics -- like a push for green cars -- into the equation?" Frank replied: "Oh, well, a push for green cars is very much a part of what we're involved in. We don't think that's politics." So, when the government, its 10 thumbs stuck deep in the economy, uses its power to compel an industry to pursue the objectives of the political party that controls both of the government's political branches, that is not politics.

Business Week: "Should GM acquire Chrysler?" Frank: "I'm not competent to say." Frank's humility is selective: He obviously thinks he is competent to say what kind of cars should be made.

Business Week: "Does Congress realize how few hybrids have been sold, as it pushes Detroit to make them, and will Congress give consumers greater incentives to buy these cars?" Frank: Those who are "blaming the auto companies forget to blame somebody else -- the consumers. In the recorded history of America, no one was ever forced at gunpoint to buy a Hummer. But we do believe that the combination of genuine concern about global warming and energy efficiency means people are now ready to buy these cars." Consumers are such a disappointment to Congress. But what Congress really believes is that people are not ready to buy those cars at a price that reflects the costs of making them. Why else has it voted tax subsidies for buyers?

Forty years ago, Vietnam was a disaster and the Great Society was a disappointment as Johnson limped back to Texas. Today, there is more Johnsonian confidence in government's competence than at any time since Johnson's policies shattered such confidence. The resurgence of confidence began under today's Texan president.

The 1996 Republican platform said: "The federal government has no constitutional authority to be involved in school curricula. ... That is why we will abolish the Department of Education (and) end federal meddling in our schools." One year ago, the Department of Education announced: "U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings today honored President Lyndon Baines Johnson in a ceremony officially renaming the U.S. Department of Education Building ... as the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building."

The domestic achievement for which George W. Bush will be most remembered, the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, was the seventh reauthorization of LBJ's 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which brought the federal government heavily into primary and secondary education. NCLB requires states to define "proficiency" in reading and math, and achieve 100 percent proficiency by 2014.

Frederick M. Hess, director of education policies studies at the American Enterprise Institute, notes that unless the "proficiency" standards are risible, the goal is delusional.

It is ironic, Hess writes, that 50 states establishing divergent standards -- the decentralized approach Republicans demanded -- have sparked demands for centralization, in the form of national standards, a decade after congressional Republicans opposed President Bill Clinton's plan for voluntary national standards.

Furthermore, Hess notes, there has been striking dissonance between Republican resistance to race-conscious government policies, and NCLB "requiring states to identify every student by race and then report test scores -- and impose sanctions -- on that basis." The Johnsonian attributes of NCLB, which Hess says include "Great Society-style ambition and race-conscious rhetoric," suggest that the Egg Czar, who also was the first National School Superintendent, would feel right at home in a Washington where he could be Automotive Engineer in Chief.