Left Field

The Bush Beat, Wendell Cox, Subcomandante Marcos, Michael Dell


In his State of the State address, Governor Bush declared that “the failed practice of social promotion” in public schools must end. (President Clinton had said much the same thing in his State of the Union speech a few days earlier.) It is now the bi-partisan political wisdom, despite considerable research evidence to the contrary, that holding students back will help them in the long run.

Left Field, nevertheless, remains curious: why should such a longtime beneficiary of social promotion as Governor Bush now oppose a practice which worked so well for him? Although the Guv’s education, for example, began in the socially unpromising environs of Midland’s public schools, he soon moved to more distinguished surroundings: Houston’s Kinkaid School and Massachusetts’ Phillips Andover. By the Governor’s own admission, his academic career was unremarkable at best. So it would appear that his subsequent stints at Yale and Harvard Business School were but the dearly purchased social promotion of a son-of-a-Bush.

Consider also the photo above, dated September 4, 1968, and featuring then-Congressman George H.W. Bush ceremonially pinning the bar on his son, a new Second Lieutenant in the Texas Air National Guard. The Governor and the Guard insist he received no special treatment during his military service. Yet questions persist about a stateside guard unit (the 147th Fighter Group) which offered space to Bush and other political scions (notably Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen’s son, Lloyd III) in the midst of the Vietnam War, when long waiting lists for such positions were the rule nationwide. Veterans point out that Bush, who enlisted in May as an airman basic, received his second lieutenant’s commission in September – perhaps the quickest such ascension in military history (matched by his 1973 discharge, also early for a pilot with his training). And while Bush says he “volunteered” for combat and was never called, in fact he was trained in F-102 fighters – aircraft by that time no longer in use in Vietnam.

Retired General Walter B. “Buck” Staudt, the commander of the 147th Fighter Group in 1968, continues to insist that Bush received no favors from the Guard. Then-Speaker of the House, Ben Barnes, says that during those years he helped the sons of several important Texans get into the Guard, but as to George W. Bush – he can’t specifically recall. George the Younger acknowledges he was not exactly gung-ho about enlisting. “It was either Canada or the service,” he told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram last November, “and I was headed for the service.” After all, Dad and Grandpa had a lot fewer friends in Canada.

Wendell Cox, Invisible Handyman

Whenever the invisible hand of the market needs a helping hand, Wendell Cox is there. Last year, Cox, a consultant based in suburban St. Louis, showed up in San Antonio with an unsolicited performance review of VIA, San Antonio’s public transportation authority. Although VIA has been ranked among the best transit authorities in the nation, Cox’s study – sponsored by James Leininger’s Texas Public Policy Foundation – found the agency to be “unproductive” and inefficient. He recommended privatization, either by replacing VIA’s union workforce with privately contracted staffers one at a time (through attrition), or, for quicker results, eliminating the entire operations staff and contracting it out to the lowest bidder. Last month, Cox gave Austin’s Capital Metro much the same assessment, recommending increased privatization once again.

Coincidentally, Cox’s firm – Wendell Cox Consultancy – has also done a lot of work for private bus companies who bid on such contracts. Cox has conducted dozens of seminars on competitive bidding for the American Bus Association, which represents private intercity and contract bus operators, and for the National School Transportation Association, which represents private school bus operators. He also served as the marketing director for a Slovenian bus company trying to break into the U.S. market in the early nineties. But suggestions by Left Field that some “invisible handshaking” might be going on left Cox outraged. “The fact is that everybody in consulting works for all kinds of people, and I think it is a real damn shame,” that some insist on questioning his integrity. “It’s typical, because they don’t have any arguments for the stuff I come up with.”

What a load of stuff it is. Over the last ten years, Wendell Cox Consultancy has been the attack dog for groups opposing public transportation projects – especially light rail and commuter rail – across the country. On his website, Cox takes credit for helping derail light rail projects in Milwaukee, Chicago, Phoenix, Seattle, St. Louis, Denver, and Salt Lake City, as well as a high-speed rail project in Florida. In addition to Leininger, Cox’s funders include such stalwart free marketeers as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, “an organization of market-oriented state legislators.”

Cox and a few other libertarian policy types “have made a whole industry of debunking any kind of investment in public transportation,” says Roy Kienitz of the Washington, D.C. based Surface Transportation Policy Project. “It’s all the same stuff, the same set of statistics, generated mostly eight to ten years ago, that are recycled over and over again.”

Most likely – and perhaps understandably – Cox’s free-market passions can be traced back to his days a member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, which oversaw one of the worst transportation boondoggles in U.S. history, the L.A. subway and light rail project. (After twenty years and billions of dollars, the agency has little to show for its efforts other than a giant sinkhole in Hollywood and a series of federal indictments.) Since going private in 1985, Cox has been on a crusade against publicly subsidized transit, government spending, unions, regional government, and aggressive land use planning. “The first thing we need to do,” Cox told Left Field, “is get away from ideology and wishful thinking … and start planning transportation systems based on demand.” That means cars, cars, cars. “There is this view, and it’s particularly extant in Austin, that we can force the city to be more compact and therefore force people out of there cars and onto transit, and that is absolute madness,” said Cox. “It is simply not going to happen.”

De Colores

Like The Book of Job – admittedly on a smaller scale – it’s a classic Bad News/Good News story.

As was widely reported a few weeks ago, when National Education Agency chairman William J. Ivey was informed (by a New York Times reporter) that The Story of Colors, an N.E.A.-supported children’s book, had been authored by Subcomandante Marcos of the Mexican Zapatistas, Ivey immediately cancelled its $7,500 grant. But the outpouring of publicity and support for El Paso’s Cinco Puntos Press (www.cincopuntos.com) has meant not only a recoup of the money – in the form of a $15,000 grant from the California-based Lannan Foundation – but a run on the book, now scheduled for a second printing.

“We’re sold out,” says Cinco Puntos co-publisher (and poet) Bobby Byrd, when Left Field called to ask if the dust had settled. “We’ve got stacks of books we’ve got to get in the mail and U.P.S., and then we wait for the second printing.” Byrd’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing with media inquiries, expressions of support, and new orders from around the country. Meanwhile, various free speech organizations as well as the American Booksellers Association have been protesting Ivey’s decision to the N.E.A. Ivey claimed he was cancelling the grant, approved through the exhaustive N.E.A. awards process, to prevent the possibility of funds going to the Zapatistas. In fact, says Byrd, the Agency had long known the book was translated from the Spanish through an agreement with Colectivo Callejero, a Oaxacan artists’ collective, and that Marcos had previously waived all rights to the material. “Ivey’s argument was that the money might go to the Zapatistas [but] he never even asked the question…. His argument was essentially an argument of fear – he just caved in before there was any controversy whatsoever, in response to a fact-checking call from a Times reporter.”

The Story of Colors is based on ancient folk tale as set down by Marcos, translated by Anne Bar Din, and illustrated by Guadalajaran artist Domatila Domínguez. Domínguez and her husband Antonio Ramírez organized Colectivo Callejero, which is planning five “Historias” in all. The second is La Historia de los Preguntas (The Story Of Questions) which Cinco Puntos is also considering for U.S. publication. Members of the Oaxacan collective, says Byrd, “have always thought, that in recent history in Mexico and elsewhere, the art that is generated from left-wing ideas or leftist ideology has been really didactic and polemical, without having a real aesthetic – it was for the production of an idea instead of the production of art. So what they are trying to do with these books, and with their own art, is to produce an aesthetic that dovetails with their political feelings or beliefs – but for which the main impetus is the production of a beautiful object.”

Byrd says the cancellation has been even bigger news in the Mexican press and indigenous communities than it has in this country. “The book is an expression of a folktale from an indigenous community,” says Byrd. “This kind of decision leads toward a homogenization of literature, as opposed to the diversity which the N.E.A. is supposed to promote and nurture.”

Michael Dellosophy

There’s no one better loved in American business lore than the shoestring entrepreneur who ascends to the Fortune 500. One of the cultural services provided by the computer industry (with the help of the business world’s editorial pep squad) has been its updating of this old up-from-nowhere mythos to suit the virtual present, and so it’s no surprise that Michael Dell has at last “written” a book.

Dell, of course, is the computer-sales wunderkind who began by selling computers out of his U.T.—Austin dorm room (and before that, by selling stamps out of his pre-adolescent bedroom). He’s more successful than Steve Jobs, and unlike Bill Gates, his hero status hasn’t been threatened by some long, shadowy dispute with the government. Best of all, his company, Dell Computer Corporation, isn’t just a part of the information revolution – it’s the most revolutionary part of that revolution, according to Direct from Dell: Strategies That Revolutionized an Industry. By selling equipment over the phone and online, Dell Computer has hit upon what author Michael-Dell-with-Catherine-Fredman calls “the right business model for the Internet age”: maximizing “interaction” with consumers while minimizing physical inventory, and rousing the Delletariat masses with the radical slogan, “liquidity, profitability, and growth.”

Naturally, an adolescent entrepreneur doesn’t become head of a billion-dollar corporation without a few growing pains along the way, and Direct From Dell reveals how this process works. It turns out that the lessons a young geek must learn in order to become a titan of industry are precisely those learned by the protagonists of family sitcoms, in particular:

To thine own self be true. Young Michael, made giddy by fast-rising sales, buys too many memory chips in 1989. Must recommit to company’s philosophy of minimizing inventory.

Seek the advice of someone older and wiser. In 1993, with his business expanding in a zillion different directions and, once again, too much inventory, young Michael perceives that his company is about to “hit the wall.” Calls in consultants from Bain & Company and former Motorola executive Mort Topfer (“Dell needed Mort”). Mort introduces Dell to the concept of planning. Learning how to come up with the right plan, writes Dell-with-Fredman, is “an invaluable lesson for any company.”

Find out how the little people live. Over time our hero learns that the more information you possess about the customers, the less of that dratted inventory you have to keep around. And if you visit with employees, you learn some things about what’s going on with the company. Dell ventures out onto the factory floor; Dell lurks anonymously in Internet chat rooms where Dell computers are discussed.

“Play judo with the competition.” All right, so this precept never made it into an after-school special or anything, but in the behemoth-dominated computer industry, writes Dell-with-Fredman, it’s grow or die. In 1996 Michael Dell, a man now, unsheaths his Excalibur, and penetrates the server market. He scores. He looks fondly ahead to the next century, when the “penetration rate for PCs” will rise around the world, and to billions more in sales. “It comes from being willing to challenge conventional wisdom and having the courage to follow our convictions,” he tells us.

Polonius would be proud.