Charlie Peters Has More To Say!

[This Op-Ed by Joe Nocera appeared in the NYTIMES this morning. Nocera writes about a man many of us remember fondly, Charlie Peters. A lawyer, WWII Veteran, Kennedy campaigner,  Master’s in English and former West Virginia Legislator, Charlie was chosen by Shriver to run the first evaluation unit in a federal agency at the Peace Corps. Peters did so with relish, hiring professional journalists and fanning them out overseas to independently evaluate the new Peace Corps programs, many times these reporters wrote evaluations that upset the people back in HQ who had created those programs.

The RPCVs who were around in those early days remember him fondly. Well, Charlie is still at it, spinning out words of wisdom after all these years. And what Charlie has to say about government agencies, and the personnel in them, still rings true.

The Peace Corps attempted to avoid stagnation with the unique policy of  “In, Up and Out.” The question today is has that program been enough to keep the Peace Corps and its employees from, as Charlies puts it, maturing and then “become more concerned with self protection, and maneuvering for the next promotion?”

Here’s what Nocera and Charlie have to say about the new ‘baby’ in D.C., the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. A lot of the employees Nocera writes about, back in the day, could have been early Peace Corps Staffers and PCVs.]

Government’s Not Dead Yet
March 26, 2012
By Joe Nocera

I met up recently with my old mentor, Charlie Peters, the founder, editor and driving force behind The Washington Monthly, where I worked in the late-1970s. Charlie is a supreme idealist who believes deeply in the good that government can do. He saw it growing up with Roosevelt’s New Deal and then again as a member of Sargent Shriver’s Peace Corps, where he served as the agency’s first director of evaluation.

Now 85, Charlie still believes that that government can make a difference in people’s lives. Knowing that many Americans have turned against this idea, he is writing a book “to give evidence that it has happened – and to show it can happen again,” he told me. The New Deal and the Great Society were eras when “money was not the driving force in choosing a career,” he said. “Passion was. People wanted to be able to do something about the country’s most pressing problems – and government was the place to do that.”

As Charlie spoke, it occurred to me that there is one agency in today’s government where you can still see that passion: the Consumer Financila Protection Bureau. Last week, I went to Washington to spend some time with some of the bureau’s new employees.

The brainchild of Elizabeth Warren, the consumer bureau was part of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, and it has been charged with looking out for the interests of financial consumers. Warren initially brought it to life, and her charisma and rock-star status was a powerful early draw. “I saw her on TV, and then read her book The Two-Income Trap, ” said Sean O’Mealia, 25, who joined the bureau from a consulting company. “I really believed in what she was saying about helping consumers. That was my motivating force.”

Warren, alas, left after Senate Republicans made clear that they would never confirm her as director, and President Obama named Richard Cordray, the former attorney general of Ohio, to be the agency’s first director. He has been trying to instill a culture that can best take advantage of the young talent flocking to its door. “To corral their sense of idealism and put it in the service of improving life for the average consumer, that is a tremendous thing,” he said. In thinking about how to instill that culture, Cordray kept reflecting on Charlie’s old boss, Sargent Shriver. “He built on the awareness that there is tremendous talent and energy in young people.” That is what Cordray was trying to do.

To judge by the people I spent the day talking to, he’s done it well. Angela Peoples, 25, had been the legislative director at the United States Student Association, which had pushed hard to ensure that the new bureau would have authority over student loans. In her still-young career, she had met many students who felt trapped by their loans, and it is the issue she most cared about. Her boss, Rohit Chopra, 30, a former consultant, said, “A whole generation of people are overleveraged with student loans. They won’t be able to get a mortgage or save for retirement. They won’t be able to do the things that are profitable for the banks.”

I met a designer, Audrey Chen, 33, who had worked at Comedy Central and was thrilled to be designing documents that would allow consumers to understand and compare financial offerings. O’Mealia told me how much he admired Cordray’s commitment to consumers and how he and other young staff members had become concerned that Cordray was working so hard that he wasn’t eating enough. (They took to getting him fruit every night to make sure that he had something to eat.) I met Garry Reeder, 26, who had gone from “a trailer park in North Carolina” to an M.B.A. student at Columbia University. “You can’t do that without credit,” he said. “But credit also makes a lot of people’s lives more difficult.” He wanted to make sure that people fully understood what they were getting into when they made a financial transaction. “You can’t have a system where the only way an institution does well is if the other party doesn’t fully understand the transaction.”

When I reported back to Charlie about my inspiring day at the new consumer bureau, he wasn’t surprised. “The beautiful thing about a new agency is that everyone is very driven to accomplish the mission. As they mature,” he added, “that’s when people become more concerned with self protection, and maneuvering for the next promotion.” True enough, but a problem for another day.

The last person I spoke to at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was Holly Petraeus, the wife of David Petraeus who leads the agency’s office for the military and their families. “I think there are still idealists in Washington,” she said. “And they work in this building.”

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  • The exciting days of the creation of the early Peace Corps are a romantic icon in the unlikely world of Public administration: even for President Nixon, even as he planned to rebrand the Peace Corps and bury it in the new umbrella agency: Action. In a paper from the Nixon administration, entitled “FY 71 – 72 Building Citizen Services for the 70’s,” the timeline for getting the new agency off the ground is outlined, with this directive:

    “a) In the next two months a special task force must design (10) federal models of service to begin before August 1971. (a la Peace Corps, 1961)”

    The paper can be found in:
    Record Group 490
    Records Relating to the Peace Corps Reorganization Task Force, compiled 1969 –
    ARC Identifier 1406924 / MLR Number P 39
    Box 2 Last folder – untitled

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