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 good.

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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