Devil in the Details


In a March 28 editorial, the Wall Street Journal
commented that "'Learning disabled' is one of those ephemeral but handy
categories . . . particularly handy, it turns out, for well-heeled high
schoolers hoping to score well on their college boards." The editorial
referred to reports questioning whether the waiver of time limits on SAT exams
for learning-disabled students was being abused.

Using figures from the Educational Testing Service, the Journal notes
that the number of learning-disabled students taking the SAT has risen from
18,000 in 1991 to an estimated 30,000 this year. "To qualify as 'learning
disabled,'" the writer says, "you need parents who will foot a $1,000
bill to get you the certificate."

Are rich kids really buying learning-disabled status to get more time to
finish the test? Look again: Since the total number of students taking the SAT
has gone up in the last five years, it's not surprising that more
learning-disabled students are taking the test too. The supposedly dramatic
numeral increase cited by the Journal translates to a percentage
increase of just three-tenths of 1 percent.

The Journal should really retake its math boards. Here's the
concept: When both the numerator and denominator of a fraction increase by
roughly the same amount, this does not yield a big percentage change. And, hey,
take all the time you need.

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Americans for a Balanced Budget made headlines in
late April when it released a poll purporting to show, as the group's president
put it, that "Washington union officials are hopelessly out of touch with
rank-and-file union members." But the actual results, obtained in a survey
by conservative pollster Frank Luntz, tell a very different story.

When Luntz asked union members point-blank whether they were satisfied with
national union leadership, 62 percent said yes. In fact, the majority of
respondents said they had a more favorable opinion of their union than when they
first joined (10 to 14 years ago, for the average respondent). Luntz's own
summary of the findings, available only on request, conceded that "rank-and-file
union membership generally approves of unions."

But those numbers didn't make it into the press release. Instead, ABB
highlighted the fact that "only" 20 percent of the respondents have a "favorable"
opinion of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. That sounds dismal, but Sweeney's
real problem is low name recognition–not high disapproval ratings. Of the
53 percent of respondents who had heard of Sweeney, fully two-thirds gave
him a favorable rating. Republican presidential hopeful Bob Dole—99 percent
name recognition, but a mere 33 percent approval rating—wishes he had it so

The poll was intended mainly to show that the rank and file opposed the use
of union dues for negative advertising against Republicans. When posed that way,
the question indeed elicited 62 percent opposition. But it's not clear how much
of that reflected the emphasis on "negative advertising." A similar
survey by pollster Peter Hart, using different wording, found two-thirds of
unionists favored political action in support of pro-union candidates.

The Luntz poll, incidentally, found that 59 percent of respondents thought
the most important responsibility of unions is "protecting current jobs
from layoffs and downsizing." With the exception of Pat Buchanan,
conservatives aren't exactly lining up to address that concern.


When Taco Bell took out full-page ads in several
national newspapers to make its April 1 announcement that it was buying the
Liberty Bell ("to help reduce the national debt") and renaming it the "Taco-Liberty
Bell," many people didn't get the April Fool's joke. A company spokesperson
said that phone lines were overloaded with confused callers.

But it's not surprising that people missed the spoof. After all, Philip
Morris actually sponsored a national tour of the Bill of Rights a few years ago.
And the Orkin Pest Control company, paying homage to its prey, paid for the
renovation of the Smithsonian Insect Zoo.

Little goes unsponsored these days. Sports arenas and events are a good
example— D.C.'s Cap ital Center became the U.S. Air Arena and San
Francisco's Candlestick Park is now 3Com Park, though the company only bought
rights for one year, leaving open the option that the sponsor might change
annually—a sort of seasonal billboard. College bowl games now include the
Federal Express Orange Bowl and the (at least aptly named) USF&G Sugar Bowl.
But for now, our national monuments are safe. Contrary to a joke by White House
spokesman Mike McCurry, we won't see the Lincoln-Mercury Memorial anytime soon.
But keep an eye on the Liberty Bell—Taco Bell is, in fact, donating $50,000
for its upkeep.

—Robyn Gearey


Washington Post columnist James K. Glassman
recently put in a plug for bolstering the earned income tax credit (EITC),
Washington's favorite antipoverty policy. Was the normally conservative Glassman
stricken with a sudden bout of sympathy for the working poor?Hardly. He was just
offering up the EITC as an alternative to raising the minimum wage, a program he
finds even more odious. "What makes the current push so maddening,"
he complained, "is that the administration originally chose to back the
EITC as an efficient alternative to the minimum wage."

Of course expanding the EITC instead of raising the minimum wage might be a
more plausible argument if it wasn't Glassman making it. Last fall when
Congressional Republicans put the program on the chopping block, Glassman penned
a vituperative column attacking the EITC as "A Program Gone Bonkers." "At
its core," he argued in defense of the GOP cuts, "the EITC is a
massive transfer scheme."

Massive, no, transfer, yes. That's what programs like the EITC and minimum
wage do—they transfer wealth from the rich to the poor. Glassman objects
not because they don't work, but because they do.

—Jonathan Chait

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