Okay, that headline is a bit of an overstatement. They were too lethargic to be a lynch mob. But much of that audience would been happy to see a liberal dose of tar and feathers applied to my hide.
Following is an excerpt from the “Lambasting the Labor Department” chapter of Public Policy Hooligan. The conference occurred in 1990 – after the Readers Digest published my article on “The Federal Job Training Fiasco.”
**** from the book:
As a result of the uproar over the Reader’s Digest article, I was invited to speak on a panel at a conference run by the Iowa Economic Development Fund, which ladled out JTPA funds throughout the state. The organizer wanted to expose Iowa job trainers to the controversies swirling around JTPA. Though I expected much of the audience would be hostile, I figured I might learn something from the attendees. Besides, the gig was in Iowa – and I had barely set foot in my birth-state since hastening through on my way to the Idaho Jamboree in 1969.
On a gloomy November day in a semi-upscale yet drab Des Moines hotel, I led off the “national issues” panel. I pointed out that the feds were exercising no oversight, the summer program corrupted kids’ work ethics, and that JTPA success claims were a sham.
I thought at first that the audience was in shock at my comments but then I realized that their mouths never closed. My attempts at humor worked about as well as they had with Romanian border guards.
Ray from Department of Labor headquarters spoke next. Ray was the prototype angry white bureaucrat, with thick glasses and an even thicker scowl. Ray looked upon me as a lowlife who’d crawled out of the sewer and who deserved pulverizing once and for all. He vehemently disagreed with everything I said. He quoted from my early writings to prove I was a nut case who wanted to abolish federal job training programs.
Pshaw, I never claimed to be a moderate.
I was surprised that the audience remained comatose during Ray’s presentation, despite the castigation he lathered upon my work.
The final speaker on the panel was from one of the national business organizations fattening off JTPA. He was fiftyish with a puffy face, empty eyes, a sloppy comb-over, and a paunch-stressed shirt. But when he was handed the microphone, he leaped out of his chair, started rotating his shoulders and roared, “Well, now I am going to liven this up!” He stomped his foot and bellowed that my writings “were so unbalanced, so biased, and so inaccurate that no Iowa high school teacher would have given them a passing grade!” The crowd finally came alive, emitting a cheer that would have done any nursing home proud.
The lobbyist insisted that paying teenagers for playing basketball and talking about sex was a good program because it “restored their respect for the system.” He swore that JTPA was doing fine – except for a few crooks who had exploited the system. When he proclaimed that the main problem with JTPA was that the Inspector General was biased, the crowd roared.
I began to suspect that I had mis-gauged the audience’s cognitive level.
He kept telling the trainers that they were all good people doing a wonderful job, and the crowd went wild. He thrashed the air with his fists and got redder in the face as his eyes vacuumed up the audience’s adulation. It was like a giant group therapy meeting – “Yes – we are the most caring of them all!” It was morally inconceivable that anything done by such fine people could ever harm the downtrodden.
The conference wrapped up with an orgy of awards. The plaques and honorifics probably impressed small town newspapers and lured more sacrificial lambs into the programs. But all the accolades failed to prevent job training corruption from spawning one of the biggest political scandals in Iowa history the following decade.