My Dad turns 79 this weekend, and he is still going strong in a life of scholarship and achievement. He still maintains a small private practice in psychology and the rest of his time is spent in study. No puffing on cigars in leisure for this man.
Although his politics do not line up precisely with mine, a great deal of my attitude towards the capabilities and shortcomings of government was formed through the prism of his experiences. Dad worked for the City of New York for two decades, from 1965 through 1985, first in overseeing remedial education and job training programs, then as an inspector of mental health facilities. He shared with me contemporaneously all the vicissitudes of his tenure. It would be instructive to repeat here a few of the anecdotes from that period, most notably the pre-Reagan '70s.
One mind-boggling story involved the Civil Service examination. In New York City, as in many other local governments, administrative and executive positions were filled from a corps of highly qualified trainees known as the Civil Service. Each year a particular number of positions open within the ranks, usually a few hundred, and thousands of applicants file in to take the exam. If you pass once you are on the list forever, usually guaranteeing you a job within a year or two.
There was an exception whereby a new person could be hired from outside the Civil Service and he could remain on the job for two years pending his certification. If he passed the test during the allotted time, he became a Civil Servant and remained on the job. After a while, this became the preferred method of hiring. Give a person a chance and if their first year is good, have them take the test.
At one point in the mid-'70s it became the liberal orthodoxy to claim that all standardized tests discriminated against minorities, presumably because they made certain cultural assumptions which puzzled all but suburb-dwellers. This contention is arrant nonsense but the courts persisted in giving it credence as a legitimate theory in sociology. So one year, sure enough, the guys who failed the Civil Service test sued to block the city from hiring those who passed.
The case bounced along slowly through the system until the deadline loomed when the previously hired employees had to gain Civil Service status or leave. Since the suit was not resolved in time, the city had to fire all those who passed the test. Having to fill the positions urgently, there was no choice: they hired all the applicants who had failed. The result was truly of a Through-the-Looking-Glass Bizarro-World quality: WHOEVER PASSED WAS FIRED AND WHOEVER FAILED WAS HIRED!
Another episode illustrates the distortion of that time and has implications for the current controversy surround the New Black Panther Party. Because whites were being accused of harboring deep-seated, atavistically recurring, racist impulses, the government sent them to mandatory sensitivity training. Instead of hiring nice universalist types to speak about love for all mankind, they brought it members of the Black Panthers. My father and his colleagues spent entire days in packed auditoriums listening to rants by black-power radicals. In one case the speaker turned around, bent over, and declared that all you whiteys can kiss my black… er, seat. And all these white bureaucrats leaped to their feet and gave him a standing ovation.
One experience my father shared gave me a great deal of insight into the health-care debate that raged prior to the passage of Obamacare. Dad was responsible for conducting site visits at all the mental-health facilities in his territory, which covered part of Queens and Far Rockaway. He practiced an unusually high degree of scrutiny in actual files, seeing how cases were diagnosed and treated. Often he came home crying about individual patients who were being needlessly destroyed by their doctors in his view.
His overall assessment was that the three types of hospital or clinic had significant differences in quality of care. The worst were the government-run facilities where care was distinctly subpar. Then came non-profits, which did a passable job, definitely better than the municipals. Best of all were the private for-profit hospitals which provided a superior standard. Having had that window into reality from the perspective of an inspector who got into the guts of the beast, I could never back a system that eliminates the profit margin in favor of management by bureaucratic fiat.
Happy Birthday, Dad! You have taught me a lot and you are teaching me still, hopefully for many years to come.