Friday, October 29, 2010

Did Someone End the Wars and Forget to Tell Me?

Noticeably absent from the political discourse leading up to next week's election is any discussion of the two or three wars that our men and women in and out of uniform are currently fighting.  With only a few exceptions, this year’s congressional races are ignoring our wars in the Middle East.

Republicans, naturally, are focusing their campaign on the slow pace of our ability to extricate ourselves from the Bush Recession.  Although President Obama and the stimulus package have slowed the hemorrhaging of jobs, the turnaround has not been fast enough to satisfy everyone.  The GOP’s game plan in ignoring the wars is a smart one for them – making sure the public does not remember that it was the Republican president and vice-president that brought us into these wars under false pretenses.  In fact, had John McCain and Sarah Palin won in 2008, we might be fighting today in Iran as well as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.  And war is good business for Republican benefactors like Halliburton and Blackwater.  So they’re happy to keep this out of the realm of public discussion.

Democrats are naturally fragmented on their approach to the wars.  While the maxim “it’s the economy, stupid” dominates the campaign strategy, most Democrats are not leveraging the fact that the biggest drain on our economy is the four trillion dollar extravaganza in the Middle East.  We are building infrastructure in Iraq using foreign labor, while our infrastructure here is crumbling and American jobs are not being created.

President Obama declared the combat mission in Iraq to be over, albeit without the grandiloquence of Dubya’s “Mission Accomplished” photo op.  Yet, the streets of Baghdad are still dangerous, and unless we change our policy, American troops will be in harm’s way for years to come.

Like in the ‘60s, some Democrats are reluctant to speak out against the wars because they are afraid of being accused by the pro-war faction of not supporting the troops.

So despite the fact that American (and Iraqi and Afghan and other) men and women are dying, and despite the fact that war is no longer the choice of last resort, this election is not about the conflicts.  We are letting our status as a military superpower diminish our status as an economic superpower as we pump more lives and treasure into these adventures.

Once the mid-term election is over, we will begin the long process of the 2012 presidential election.  Will these never-ending wars finally become an issue?  Will a lame duck President Obama finally act as Commander-in-Chief and unequivocally direct the military to accelerate withdrawal?  Will the normally bellicose Republican Party finally become fiscally conservative and realize that the way to fix the economy is to make the same draconian cuts to the defense budget as they promote for education and social programs?  Or like in 1968, will there be viable anti-war presidential candidates and an uptick in anti-war demonstrations that the media can’t ignore to help drive the political establishment toward a more realistic and economically viable approach to dealing with those that wish us harm?  Realistically, it doesn’t matter who carries the anti-war banner.  But someone has to.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Scariest Halloween Story – Ever

With Halloween coming up, it’s tempting to visualize a scary scenario where Sarah Palin glides into the White House without winning the popular or even the electoral vote.

There’s a better than even chance that Sarah Palin will capture the Republican nomination in 2012.  After she abruptly quit her job as governor, she has been criss-crossing the country raising funds, acting as the Godmother of the party and supporting those candidates who drink the Tea Party Kool Aid.  Her almost inevitable nomination would set up an Obama-Palin race.  Yet, there are those who would find neither candidate to their liking.  Independents and the ever-vanishing sane wing of the GOP might think Palin too unqualified and Obama too much of a disappointment for their tastes.  Enter the ambitious and ΓΌber-rich Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg could finance his own campaign and could conceivably capture some electoral votes from Palin or Obama.  All he needs to do is carry one or two states in a close election to result in no candidate receiving a majority in the Electoral College.  It’s even possible that he could win some electoral votes from the two states which allocate their electors proportionally.

So what happens in a scenario where neither Obama nor Palin receive enough electoral votes to win?  The decision is made by the House of Representatives.  And by all the punditry spewing across the airwaves, internet tubes, and in dead tree media, the Republicans are poised to take the House.  In this situation, each state casts ONE vote for a presidential candidate, so the sparsely populated Alaska has the same clout as highly populated California.  With a GOP majority in the House, the outcome from an Electoral College deadlock could be a President-elect Palin, even if she loses the popular vote and has fewer electoral votes than Barack Obama.

Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fundamentalism is Not Restricted to Religious Fundamentalists

Recently, the Jewish Standard, a newspaper of the Bergen County (NJ) Jewish community, printed a wedding announcement for a same-sex couple.  There was an outcry by the Orthodox rabbinate, and the paper cowardly relented and announced that it would no longer publish such announcements.  This policy was met with a vociferous outcry from the community and comments on the newspaper’s blog were overwhelmingly negative about the restrictive and discriminatory policy.  The Standard is now in the process of reconsidering its policy.

Now, the same discrimination has come to a secular newspaper.  The Manchester Union Leader has announced that it will not publish wedding announcements for same-sex couples, even though New Hampshire is one of a handful of states with full marriage equality.  The rationale is that the paper is against New Hampshire’s marriage law, and to publish such wedding announcements would be against editorial policy.

The Union Leader has served the citizens of New Hampshire for almost 150 years, but this policy is a blunder.  For a newspaper to be credible, it must separate its editorial policy from its responsibilities as a news organization.  The newspaper has historically been one of the leading voices of conservative journalism, but this policy of blatant discrimination is a black mark on whatever journalistic integrity it had.  Any newspaper has the right to print or not print whatever its publisher desires.  But legitimate newspapers, especially ones that dominate a state’s circulation, have a moral responsibility to print the news without discrimination.  Today, the citizens of New Hampshire are ill-served by their state’s largest newspaper.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wonder Woman

When the history of American politics in the first decade of the 21st century is written, there will be a lot of discussion about gridlock and obstructionism.  But it will also be noted that one politician stood head and shoulders above the fray and managed to swim upstream and thrust crucial legislation through the quagmire of partisan politics.

In her relatively short tenure, Nancy Pelosi has been one of the most effective Speakers of the House in my lifetime.  Vilified by the right and kept at arm’s length by her own party, she almost singlehandedly achieved the impossible – a quantum leap in health care reform – the most important legislation in this arena since Medicare was born in the 1960s.

Faced with an opposition party that quickly became irrelevant by its admission that its goal was to obstruct all of the President’s initiatives, Speaker Pelosi took on the challenge of building a coalition within her own party.  She built this alliance among the most liberal, the middle-of-the road, Blue Dog conservative, and anti-abortion zealots, all living under the Democratic Party banner.  What came out was a weak bill, still beholden to the for-profit insurance cartel, but one that also gave American citizens some excellent reforms.  Extended dependent coverage, elimination of pre-existing conditions, and elimination of lifetime caps are things that should have been part of the American system decades ago, but with Mrs. Pelosi’s drive and skill, we have those benefits today.

Her opponents characterize her as a raging liberal, but nothing could be further from the truth.  To the dismay of the left, when she assumed the role of Speaker in January 2007, she took the issue of impeaching President Bush off the table.  While this was probably necessary to maintain political comity, it sets a dangerous precedent – telling future presidents it’s OK to start a war of choice based on deliberately false information.  By this standard, a president can be impeached for lying about oral sex, but sending Americans to die in a trillion dollar war based on lies is neither a high crime nor a misdemeanor.

Mrs. Pelosi also earned the disdain of liberals by removing the most cost-effective option from Health Care Reform even before the debate began.  She eliminated the single-payer, or Medicare for All, approach – leaving a lot less room to negotiate for a better health care bill.  Again, something that was probably politically necessary, but did not serve the American people well.

No doubt, much of the venom directed at the Speaker is from those who are uncomfortable (to say the least) about seeing a woman in a position of significant power.  We saw this with Hillary Clinton’s first attempt at reform and also with Madeline Albright’s tenure as Secretary of State.  Many of these are the same people who refuse to accept the legitimacy of an African-American in the White House.

It is likely that Mrs. Pelosi’s tenure as Speaker will be cut short in January as John “Hell No We Can’t” Boehner will assume the podium in the House chamber.  This is a shame because we still have a long way to go to improve health care and pass other progressive legislation in this country.  But with the unlimited secret funding of right-wing candidates in today’s environment, it looks like the GOP/Tea Party will assume control.  Further meaningful reform will be delayed longer than it should be while the 112th Congress will become an arm of corporate interests, sending jobs overseas and privatizing essential government services into for-profit enterprises.

Hopefully, Mrs. Pelosi as a back bencher can help stem the tide of Republican deconstruction of our recent accomplishments and lay the groundwork for campaign finance reforms and further improvement to health care in the years to come.  Thank you, Madam Speaker.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Why Christine O'Donnell Matters

If Delaware voters have any sense, Christine O’Donnell will be soundly defeated by Chris Coons in their senatorial contest.  But there’s a disturbing trend in American politics that is epitomized by her third try for a Senate seat.

O’Donnell is touting her somewhat-below-average academic career as one reason to vote for her over her Amherst and Yale-educated opponent.  Her Palinesque argument is that she is “common folk”, closer to the average person than someone who attended prestige universities.  (OK, you don’t have to remind me that Dubya attended Harvard and Yale, but those family connections and drinking binges are the exception to the rule.) 

Realistically, once candidates are out of college for two decades, their track record in the “real world” is more important than where they matriculated.  But the fact that a candidate was successful in a top-notch school and had the drive and intellect to receive a post-graduate degree does say something positive about that person.  Would you go to a doctor who bragged about being educated at East Podunk Medical Correspondence School?

While it may have been a good thing in simpler colonial times, I don’t want a person with average intelligence representing me.  I’d much prefer someone smarter than me who can deal with complex economic and trade issues, up-to-date scientific concepts, and the nuances of foreign policy – all at the same time.  For too long, our nation has treated our educational system as a drain on our tax coffers rather than an investment in our future.  O’Donnell’s attitude only serves to perpetuate this harmful attitude.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Message for Deciminyan Readers

I am pleased to let you know that I am now a staff writer on the best political blog in the Garden State, Blue Jersey.  You’ll be able to find my postings about the Garden Soprano State there.  But the Deciminyan blog is not going away.  I’ll continue to post items of general (i.e. non-Jersey) interest here.

I will let you know of my articles on both blogs through Facebook and Twitter.  So if you “like” Deciminyan on Facebook or “follow” Deciminyan on Twitter, you’ll be informed of the latest postings on both blogs.  And, as always, your comments are welcome.  Thanks for following.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Christie Running in 2012

All signs are pointing to a Chris Christie campaign to be on the 2012 presidential ticket.  He has started this campaign already by crisscrossing the country to promote Republican candidates in state-wide races.  But up until recently, he has not proactively promoted the conservative social agenda.  Yes, he is anti-choice and against marriage equality, but he has not yet pursued these measures with the same “in-your-face” approach as he has with his vendetta against public education and teachers.  He is aware of the large number of his New Jersey constituents who still want social justice, and is more circumspect with regard to promoting the conservative line on women’s issues and gay rights.  His relatively low-key approach is most likely designed to avoid firing up the opposition and maintaining as low a profile as he can here.  But to become a national figure, Christie needs to demonstrate his embrace of the right-wing social agenda.

Christie’s approach to implementing the conservative platform is not subtle, but more incremental.  He pleased his base by vetoing a $7.5 million bill for women’s health services even as he approved a gigantic tax cut for millionaires.  Now, he is embracing another Palinesque initiative – abstinence education.  Despite the fact that our schools are in dire financial straits and that it has been shown that such initiatives do nothing to stem the rates of teenage pregnancy, the Governor is promoting a $1 million program to tell teenagers to “just say no”.  

Ratcheting up the right wing agenda is not the only sign that Christie has national ambitions.  If you think his gallivanting around the country is limited to the upcoming elections, you are mistaken.  He is already on the post-election tea party lecture circuit.

It has often been said that every state governor has presidential ambitions, and it’s difficult to find a politician more ambitious than Chris Christie.  And there are lots of reasons for him to make his move in 2012.

Given the secret funding of Republican candidates by shadow groups, the fact that the GOP has a propaganda arm in Fox News that is second to none, including Pravda, and the fact that the 2012 election will be the first under the census redistricting controlled mostly by Republican governors, there’s a good chance that Barack Obama will be a one-term president.  If Christie is not on the 2012 ticket, his next chance to run for national office could potentially be 2020 – a lifetime in presidential politics.  Sure, he’ll be only 58 years old then, but he will have had a much longer track record of mistakes and miscues than he has today.  And the demographics of the electorate will be different, with a larger percentage of the non-white population included in the mix.

So is Christie aiming for the top slot, or looking to become Joe Biden’s successor?  The way the stars are aligned today, it seems unlikely that he would be successful in challenging Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, or Mike Huckabee.  But why would someone as ambitious as Christie settle for the number two spot?  This question can be answered in two words:  Dick Cheney.  Cheney was the second in command to a weak, clueless, and gaffe-prone George W Bush.  Christie may view himself in the same powerful role under a President Palin.  And without any debilitating health problems like those that plagued Mr. Cheney, Christie would then be viable as a 2020 candidate at the top of the ticket.  Of course, there’s plenty of time for the top contenders to stumble, leaving room for the Meshuggineh from Mendham to step in.

The only significant impediment to a Christie run is his lack of foreign policy experience.  To the xenophobic Tea Party, this is not a significant issue because diplomacy requires nuance, and the GOP does not do nuance.  But it might be an important issue to the rest of the electorate, especially given that we will still be in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, and possibly Pakistan, when the election comes around.  So watch for Christie to ramp up his foreign policy creds – perhaps by participating in missions abroad to promote New Jersey business, or perhaps by participating on foreign junkets with some of his congressional friends.  Such actions would confirm his desire to be on the 2012 ticket.

Christie is smart to lay back and let the big guns fight it out right now.  But don’t be surprised to see our absentee governor vacationing in Iowa or New Hampshire next year.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Republicans Cry Out for More Taxes

No, this is not an Onion headline.   It’s true.

Medford is a town in Burlington County, and it’s as Republican as you can get.  Assemblyman Scott Rudder hails from there, and Chris Myers (John Adler’s opponent in 2008) is its Deputy Mayor.  Last year, Chris Christie carried the township with 60% of the vote in a three-way race.

So why at a public meeting this week were township residents clamoring for a tax increase?

Medford is one of two towns in the county that does not utilize the Burlington County central emergency dispatch system for 911 calls.  At least until now.  The township council recently adopted an ordinance to eliminate the town’s local dispatch service and transfer to the county system on January 1.  While the savings estimates run from $300,000 to $600,000 per year, that was not the only reason for the switch.  The county system employs more modern technology, which improves how dispatchers can handle cellular calls.

Residents were upset.  Despite the financial and technical advantages, they felt that the local dispatchers knew the town better, and were willing to pay higher taxes if the revenue could be targeted for retaining the township’s services.  Several wanted this to be decided by ballot, but it’s too late for it to be part of the November election.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an attempt at shared services suffer from what I’d call the Reverse NIMBY effect.  Residents like home rule, close control, and familiarity with service providers.  And while I’d bet that Medford residents overwhelmingly support tax cuts, when it comes to a specific service, they sing a different tune.  But if the cost of government is to be contained, we will need more of these types of efficiencies which come with consolidation and sharing.

Governor Christie is squandering a golden opportunity.  Our state has a large deficit problem, and our governor, who claims to be unconcerned with his popularity, should use his bully pulpit to promote consolidation as a means to save money for the taxpayers.  Yes, during the transition from local to centralized services there will be a learning curve that would degrade performance for a short time.  But with proper planning, these inefficiencies can be temporary and ephemeral.   This is the true meaning of the governor’s “shared sacrifice” mantra.  Accept short term inefficiencies to reap the long term benefits of economies of scale.  This will benefit citizens of all political stripes.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Adler's (Other) Tea Party Problem

Monday night’s debate between John Adler and Jon Runyan had its share of Tea Party folks posing their wedge issues during the question and answer session. One person asked each candidate if he would vote for their current House leader (Nancy Pelosi for Adler, John Boehner for Runyan) as Speaker if their party were in the majority. Luckily for Runyan, the answer was a no-brainer. But I was surprised at John Adler’s response.

Adler is a skilled attorney and politician, and did not give a direct “yes” or “no” answer. Playing into the propaganda propagated by the Tea Party and Fox News, he stated that he felt that Speaker Pelosi was “divisive”, and that troubled him. Where has he been?

The capstone legislation of the 111th Congress is, of course, the Affordable Care Act. The House Republicans were just a dead weight in its passage through the labyrinth of legislation. All GOP members abided by their loyalty oath and publicly stated that they would vote “no” on every one of the president’s initiatives and obstruct this important bill, even though it is essentially the same bill that the Republicans promoted as an alternative to Hillary Clinton’s health care initiative in the ‘90s. So, as leader, Speaker Pelosi needed to corral all of the Democrats – Liberals, Centrists, and Blue Dogs – to cobble together a bill that they could collectively support. Pelosi is a masterful politician and got the compromises necessary to pass the bill, despite 34 Democrats (including Adler) voting against it. Her ability to bring this diverse group of Democrats under the “big tent” is by no means divisive – on the contrary it is close to miraculous.

Adler’s pandering to the right wing’s anti-Pelosi (possibly anti-powerful woman) mantra indicates his willingness to swing toward what is required to be re-elected rather than toward what is right and decent. His remarks will encourage other conservative Democrats to mount a challenge to the leadership of one of the most effective Speakers in my lifetime.

Cross-posted from Blue Jersey

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Adler/Runyan Debate

Tonight was the big showdown.  The first (and probably only) public debate between the diminutive incumbent, Congressman John Adler, and the leviathan ex-footballer Jon Runyan.

The social hall at the Cherry Hill Jewish Community Center was filled 30 minutes before the start of the debate, and attendees were standing around the sides and back by the time the debate started.  Supporters from both sides were well-represented, although the Runyan supporters were clearly more vociferous.  But there was a solitary Adler supporter who yelled “hee-haw” (referring to Runyan’s donkey tax deduction) every time Runyan made a point that the heckler disagreed with.  Ersatz Tea Party candidate Peter DeStefano was conspicuous by his physical absence, but his quixotic entry into the race was present in the discussion (Adler disavowed any participation in the DeStefano campaign “to the best of my knowledge.”)

Following the candidates’ opening remarks, the event was conducted in three parts.  First, a panel presented questions to each of the candidates.  Then each candidate presented questions to his opponent (these questions were prepared in advance), and finally there was an opportunity for the audience to question the candidates directly.

The panelists consisted of Dr. Myra Gutin of Rider University (who, by the way, is a nationally recognized academic on the topic of First Ladies), Leon Tucker who is managing editor of the Courier Post, and Julia Roberts (no, not that Julia Roberts) who is the chair of the young adult division of the South Jersey Jewish Federation.

The positions of both men are well known, especially Adler because he has a voting record from his first term.  Adler cited his experience by name-dropping of many of the people he’s talked with in his short career on the Hill – from Barack Obama to Ben Bernanke to General David Petraeus to Benjamin Netanyahu.  Runyan touted his “tenacity” on the football field.   I’ll highlight some of my impressions in areas that may not have received full coverage or where there are significant differences between the two candidates.

Government Spending.  Unsurprisingly, both candidates were in favor of cutting government spending.  They were asked to name specific areas where this could be accomplished.  Runyan’s answers were very Christie-esque – across the board cuts to 2008 spending levels without consideration of priorities or changes to the external environment.  He would cut out (unspecific) waste and espoused that there are a number of “simple solutions” to getting spending under control like capping government pay and cutting back the number of government employees (although he did not specifically say where).  Adler cited instances where he voted for or would support cuts including agribusiness subsidies and repeal of the advanced income tax credit.  The congressman proudly announced that he voted against eight of twelve spending bills.  He proposed bringing all troops back home from Iraq – including the 50,000 we have there now – to help with the spending problem.

Energy.  Adler is adamantly against offshore drilling from New Jersey to Virginia and is a proponent of wind farms and nuclear power.  Runyan said that offshore drilling is a tenth amendment states’ rights issue and the Federal government does not have the right to regulate offshore drilling.

Israel and Iran.  Both candidates are staunchly pro-Israel and would take action to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.  Neither ruled out military action against Iran, but Alder would consider a naval blockade before air strikes.  He said the Senate has been dysfunctional on this and many other issues.  Runyan said “nothing is off the table” with regard to military action against Iran.  On the conflict with the Palestinians, Runyan said the United States should stay out of it and not pressure the two parties into anything.  Adler pointed out that a two-state solution is unrealistic in the short term because there is no one to negotiate with.  He said that the Palestinian Authority must unequivocally support Israel’s right to exist before negotiations begin.  Runyan is in favor of moving the American embassy to Jerusalem.  Adler pointed out that this would have deleterious ramifications, and we should work this out with the Israelis.

Basic Rights.  While both candidates touted their independence from party doctrine (and Adler has clearly demonstrated that), Runyan pointed out that he is pro-choice.  When asked about support of laws that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, Adler said he has voted for such laws and would continue to do so.  Runyan’s response was, “we are allowed to be different.”

Second Amendment.  Adler said that certain weapons such as bazookas and machine guns should not be available to private citizens and that such bans have been upheld by the Supreme Court.  Runyan is not in favor of any limitations on weapon ownership.

Tort Reform.  Adler pointed out that he voted for tort reform when he was a state senator, and claimed that most doctors support his campaign.  Runyan took a swipe at lawyers and lamented the fact that most politicians are attorneys.  He cited the experience in Texas as a good example of tort reform (can anyone supply some background on Texas’ approach?)

Education.  A question on education funding was asked by a Lenape High School student who was subsequently booed by the Tea Party contingent in the room.  Runyan stated that it is the personal responsibility of parents to “educate their child at home”, although I don’t think he was espousing universal home schooling.  Adler pointed out that his four children attended public schools and claimed “public schools are the key to America’s future.”  Neither candidate offered substantive solutions.

Health Care.  Adler said that even though he voted against the Affordable Care Act, he would not vote for repeal.  Instead, he would promote fixing those areas that he feels need improvement such as cost containment.  On Medicare, he pointed out that physician reimbursement needs to be increased in order to keep more doctors in the system.  Runyan said he would vote for complete repeal of what the Tea Party calls “Obamacare”, although he then backtracked and said the ban on rejection for pre-existing conditions was a good idea.

Overall, Adler continued to hammer the fact that he is a centrist (he used the word “bipartisan”), even pointing out an instance where he co-sponsored a bill with right-wing extremist Scott Garrett.  Runyan’s main points were anti-tax and small government.  In response to one of the many questions posed by Tea Partiers, both men agreed that President Obama is neither a Muslin nor a Socialist.

With the exception of the abortion issue, Runyan toes the Tea Party line completely.  He is in favor of the failed Bush economic policies and “nuance” and “compromise” don’t seem to be in his vocabulary.  Adler is the “centrist” he claims to be – what we used to call a “moderate Republican”.

We have a clear choice in November.  Yes, Adler is the lesser of two evils, but I’d rather be represented by an intelligent and independent thinker than an ex-footballer who is proud of his Tea Party endorsements.  The bottom line is that for progressives, Adler is a flawed candidate.  Runyan is a dangerous one.  

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Nothing is Ever A Total Loss - It Can Always Be Used as a Bad Example

Cross-posted from Blue Jersey

There’s a lot of talk about consolidation and shared services as a way to address New Jersey’s budget crisis.  Some baby steps have been taken in areas such as public safety, county-wide purchasing, and library services.

While consolidation and sharing of services is a noble goal in the abstract, sometimes it just doesn’t work out.  Case in point:  the Woodlynne Police Department.

Woodlynne is a tiny one-quarter square mile borough tucked between Camden and Collingswood.  Four years ago, in an effort to save money, the borough disbanded its police force, sold off its squad cars and other assets, and outsourced police protection to Collingswood.  Like almost all public service agencies, the Collingswood Police Department had severe fiscal challenges, and in 2009 started to cut back on police patrols in the Woodlynne borough.  This soured the relationship between the two municipalities, and eventually they agreed on an amicable divorce – Woodlynne would resurrect its independent police department.

The borough of 3,000 residents hired about a dozen officers who were laid off from their police jobs in surrounding municipalities, and hired a former Camden police chief as their Director of Public Safety at a $60,000 annual salary.  The new Woodlynne Police Department started operation this past Sunday.  Much of the equipment such as bulletproof vests, guns, and forensic devices was recycled or donated from other departments or the state, although the borough did invest in two brand new squad cars.

I’m not qualified to comment on whether this insourcing initiative is good or bad for the citizens of Woodlynne.  It’s possible that the lure of home rule, clash of personalities, or insufficient service from Collingswood all contributed to this reversal.  What’s important here, though, for the rest of the state is to capitalize on Woodlynne’s and Collingswood’s experiences and apply those lessons learned to future cost-cutting efforts.  The New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety should interview the principal parties and document what worked, and what didn’t.  The Department should establish a repository of lessons learned from this and similar efforts – those that succeed as well as those that fail.  And those lessons need to be part of the planning process for future consolidation efforts and sharing of services.  By systematically exploiting mistakes of the past, we have an improved chance of ensuring a better future.

Friday, October 8, 2010

It Gets Better

As a rule, I don't cross-post material that I have not created from other sites.  But this video from Ed Potosnak, candidate for Congress in NJ-7, is powerful, poignant, and carries an important message.

New Jersey's Blockhead

Becky and Charlie are ten year old twins.  They sometimes play well together, but there’s also an element of sibling rivalry.  Both enjoy playing with wooden blocks, and (pardon the stereotyping, but I’m using it to make my point) Becky likes pink blocks while Charlie likes blue ones.  Their family is about to go on a long vacation, and the twins and their parents are scurrying to pack the minivan in order to get on the road.

Becky is busy helping Dad prepare lunches, and Mom calls out to Charlie for assistance.  “The minivan is getting full”, she said, “but here’s a box to take for you to fill with blocks for you and your sister.”  Charlie takes the box up to the bedroom and realizes that not all the blocks will fit in the box – so he has to choose which ones to take.   He knows he likes the blue ones while Becky plays with the pink ones.  What does he do?

If he’s a spoiled selfish kid, and doesn’t care about his sister, he will fill the box with blue blocks which would give him lots to play with on vacation.  Maybe he’d throw in a couple of pink blocks to placate his sister and his parents.  He’s looking forward to being able to brag to his friends how he got all the blue blocks he wanted.  A more mature ten year old would realize that by sacrificing half of his blue blocks, and filling the box half blue/half pink, both he and his sister would have enough to play with, even though neither gets as many blocks as they would like.

Now fast forward, and suppose Charlie is Chris Christie.  Clearly, he would fill the box with blue blocks – things that promote his own political self-agenda, curry favor with his cronies and millionaires, and say to hell with his sister and brother citizens of New Jersey.

When there are choices to be made with limited resources, no doubt tough decisions need to be made, and sacrifices need to be shared.  A mature ten year old would realize this.  A self-centered, bratty ten year old would not.  Balancing budgets is more complex than apportioning blue and pink blocks, but the general approach is similar.  I wish our governor would recognize that fact, and not act like a bratty ten year old.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Landrum Cell

The year is 2015.  Bob Landrum of Connellsville is one of the wealthiest men in southwestern Pennsylvania.  A high school chemistry teacher by profession, Bob was an amateur inventor and had discovered a breakthrough in solar cell technology back in 2013.  His new solar cell, using a technology that he patented, was nine times more efficient at generating electricity than the best state-of-the art cells were previously.  Despite his wealth, Bob and his wife Carol sent their two children to public schools.  “We want Timmy and Sarah to experience the diversity of America and they need to interact with other children from all walks of life and from all kinds of families” explained Carol.

Bob had started to manufacture his Landrum Cell, as he named it, in his garage.  The process was complex, manually intensive, and required a high level of skill.  Because of this, commercialization of the current design of the Landrum Cell was impractical, although Bob was able to sell his product to niche markets like NASA and electric car experimenters where the efficiency of electricity production was more important than cost.

Even though production quantities were limited, Bob’s product commanded a premium price, and his income soared.  Eventually, he retired from teaching, hired a few smart engineering students from Carnegie-Mellon University to help with production and further development, and continued to produce small quantities of his product from his garage for a select group of customers.  Carol, who was trained as a nurse, managed the non-technical aspects of the business like payroll, marketing, and personnel.

Bob and Carol knew they had to expand their business and make the manufacturing of the cells cost-effective.  They wrote a business plan with the goal of taking his company public.  Bob knew the demand for his product would soar, especially after President Palin’s disastrous invasion of Iran in 2013 which cut off much of the oil from the Middle East.  With gasoline at $7.50 a gallon, oil company profits were soaring while average Americans looked back at the slow but steady Obama economic recovery as “the good old days” when unemployment was below 10%.  Although credit was tight, with banks only supporting non-value-added ventures like hedge funds, Bob knew he had a winner with his patented technology and needed capital to expand.

The Landrums' business plan called for the establishment of a 177,000 square foot factory.  The plan was conservative, but with the patented high-demand technology it showed the Landrum’s business becoming a $7 billion enterprise within five years, creating over 8,000 jobs.  Because of the complexity of the Landrum Cell technology, this would be no ordinary factory, but would require highly skilled workers – many with advanced degrees in chemistry, physics, and engineering – to oversee the fabrication process.  Bob and Carol immersed themselves in the challenges of starting up a new company and they became astute self-taught businesspersons.  Bob was a “hands-on” type of individual and had a reputation of being a fair but demanding employer.

The process of taking a company public is complex, and the Landrums wanted to be close to where the action was – Wall Street.  So they decided to leave southwestern Pennsylvania and move the operation to the New York metropolitan area.  They started to search for locations for the new factory and R&D center there.

Many sites were under consideration, New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island, and Westchester County.  Competition among those sites was fierce, each one considering capturing the Landrum business as a plumb because of the exciting potential to make a significant dent in the high cost of energy using clean technology.

Like its competition, New Jersey did a full-court press to woo the Landrums to the Garden State.  Officials offered development grants, tax abatements, and scoped out several potential sites for the factory.  Governor Loretta Weinberg met with the Landrums personally.  But it was not to be.  The Landrums did not choose New Jersey for their factory.

After the decision, Carol explained to a reporter, “We firmly believe in sending our kids to public schools, and the schools in New Jersey, while they had a superb reputation, have deteriorated under the Christie administration.  The best teachers were driven out and replaced by inexperienced recent graduates while class size has grown to unacceptable levels.  Despite recent improvements under the new administration, New Jersey’s schools will take several more years to recover.  Most of our workforce feels the same way, and we wanted to make the move attractive to them, also.”  Bob added, “A significant part of our decision was based on the availability of good infrastructure.  We need roads and rail to ship our product as our volume expands.  Unfortunately, in New Jersey, roads deteriorated significantly due to the neglect under the Christie administration, and with the high demand for our product, we can’t afford to have it sitting idle in a traffic jam.”  When questioned by the reporter, Bob added “As you know, our manufacturing process uses lots of water, and it costs us time and money to purify the water we get.  Because of the neglect in water quality under the Christie administration, we have found that using New Jersey’s water would require additional purification steps, which are not necessary in the site we ultimately chose.”  He continued, “I’m a big proponent of public transportation, and I need to meet with the Wall Street folks several times a week.  The lack of a new Hudson River crossing makes commuting into the city from New Jersey pretty onerous, and it’s much easier from my new location.”

“We appreciate Governor Weinberg’s effort to attract our business,” he continued, “but right now, New Jersey is too far behind its competition to make this economically viable for our expanding venture.  We like the new governor’s plans for making New Jersey a better place to live and work, and perhaps in the future, when our business expands further, we might consider a second factory there.”  President Palin’s new Secretary of Education, Chris Christie, was unavailable for comment.

This parable is dedicated to the real Bob Landrum – my (New Jersey public) high school physics teacher who taught me the joys of calculus, how to learn from my mistakes, and encouraged me to pursue what turned out to be a rewarding 40-year career in engineering and program management.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Forgetting Who We Work For - Part Deux

Last week, I blogged about the debacle regarding road and rail projects and the Transportation Trust Fund.  I reminded politicians on both sides that they work for us, and their lack of urgency in coming to terms with a multi-billion dollar issue is a failure their part to do the governing we pay them to do.  They ended up kicking the can down the road – postponing a real solution until the end of the year, but at least the road crews are back at work.

Now, there’s an even more egregious instance where one of our elected officials seems to have forgotten who he is working for.

I don’t begrudge Governor Christie for hitting the campaign trail.  Elected officials of both parties do this, and with today’s telecommunications infrastructure, a leader can be almost as effective (or ineffective) from Des Moines as he can be from Trenton.  But I am very angry at the way our leader uses sarcasm to belittle New Jersey’s citizens.    While campaigning in Iowa, Governor Christie mocked students and teachers by using a whiny voice saying “Mom, Dad, I can’t study.  I can’t work.  My grades are suffering because Mrs. Smith, she’s not getting her pay raise this year.”  Perhaps the governor thinks that our students are too dumb to read newspapers, but how is a student supposed to respect his or her hard-working teacher when the governor doesn’t?  The governor went on to categorize disagreements with his approach as “garbage.”  Since when is legitimate disagreement “garbage?”

Following that comment, the governor added, “…and you wonder why I’m in Iowa?”  Yes, governor – I wonder how your denigration of the Garden State will help attract business and tourists.  You are the ambassador from New Jersey to the rest of the world.  Keep your disagreements in Trenton – after all, you already have the legislature wrapped around your pinky.  But when on the road, you should be promoting New Jersey, not smearing it.  That’s what we pay you to do.

Monday, October 4, 2010

"...with liberty and justice for some."

I am not a lawyer, and am presenting my opinion based on what I can discern from on-line articles.  Input and clarifications from any attorneys reading this blog are encouraged.

While our nation was founded on the idealistic principal of “justice for all”, and we continually strive toward that goal, it has never been truly attained.  The wealthy can take advantage of high-powered attorneys to help them skirt the law, while the poor obtain their “equal justice” by working with taxpayer-supported public defenders.  Often this works well, with defendants receiving a fair trial, but clearly there are limits.  A rich defendant has almost unlimited resources to spend on obtaining exculpatory evidence and judicial theatrics (remember the OJ trial?).  An indigent defendant’s resources are limited, even with free counsel.  Now, a new thumb on the scale of justice is making it even more difficult for the poor.

An article in USA Today reports that some states are now restricting public defender services.  In the landmark Gideon vs Wainright case, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional right to an attorney for felony cases.  The participating justices in a New Jersey Supreme Court case on a related issue have ruled unanimously that legal representation for the poor must be provided in any case that might result in incarceration.

The USA Today article goes on, stating that some states are imposing fees for public defender services.  Defendants are either coerced to waive their right to an attorney or forced to amass huge debts.  Clearly, in a country where almost one person in one hundred is incarcerated, the “rehabilitation” aspect of prison life has been subsumed by a “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” attitude.  Elimination of adequate defense for all, combined with the Tea Party’s drive to eviscerate defendants’ Miranda rights, and the growing initiative to privatize prisons under for-profit companies, simply increases the burden on the taxpayer, adds to corporate coffers, and does not address the root cause of the problem.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Forgetting Who We Work For

Before I retired, I worked for Lockheed Martin and its predecessor companies for over 40 years.  Like most large conglomerates, Lockheed Martin has established a corporate slogan to instantly summarize its values and goals.  Several years ago, it chose the grammatically-challenged slogan “We never forget who we are working for.”  Part of the reason for this choice was to remind employees as well as customers that their ultimate customer is the American taxpayer, who foots the bill for a vast majority of the corporation’s military and civil programs.

It would be a good idea if Governor Christie, Senate President Sweeney, and the other leaders of the State of New Jersey could adopt a similar attitude.  Their most recent egregious example of forgetting why they are employed happened this weekend when the state transportation commissioner halted all roadwork due to the failure of the governor and legislature to come to agreement on funding.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, or even a civil engineer, to realize that these projects are not only expensive, but that to start and stop a major construction effort in the middle of its execution adds cost that is borne by taxpayers.  Whenever a large project is stopped in the middle of its tracks, whether it is the Hudson River tunnel or the road improvements to I-295, there is work to be done to make the site safe, inventory work in progress, and bring things to an orderly shutdown.  There’s the added inconvenience and safety issue to the taxpayer due to the need to drive through an incomplete road with temporary barriers and interim signs.  And when the project re-starts, there’s the inefficiency of re-hiring, re-training, and re-orienting the workers whose momentum was lost during the shutdown.  These costs add up, and guess who pays?  Also, laying off hundreds of construction workers does not exactly help our struggling economy.

There’s enough blame to pass around for this latest fiasco.  I don’t really care if it’s Governor Christie’s bullish attitude in refusing to provide long-term plans regarding the Transportation Trust Fund, or the legislature’s attempt to mirror the governor’s popular intransigent attitude by not taking up the issue until the last minute.  Mr. Christie and Mr. Sweeney, don’t forget that you are working for me.  As far as I’m concerned, your squandering of my money is grounds for termination.  Maybe this issue is not front page news, but I will be reminded of your disdain for my tax dollars every day when I drive up and down I-295.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Sins of Omission

Jews around the world recently observed the beginning of a new year, highlighted by a day of prayer and fasting known as Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement.  The day-long service gives us many opportunities to reflect on our deeds over the past year and enumerates the list of sins which we may have committed.  We contemplate sins in various aspects such as those we have committed under duress, and those which we have committed willingly.  Another way to categorize our transgressions is to consider those we have committed overtly versus those we have committed by not taking the correct action.

Most Jewish communities have local newspapers, usually published weekly, that contain news and articles of interest to the local Jewish community.  Here in South Jersey, the Voice, published in Cherry Hill, fulfils that need.  North Jersey, which has a higher Jewish population density, has several such newspapers, one of which is the Standard based in Teaneck. 

Since these newspapers each serve a relatively close-knit community, it is customary for them to carry articles about life-cycle events such as births, bar/bat mitzvah, engagements, weddings, anniversaries, and obituaries.  They do so for all branches of Judaism, from the most traditional to the most liberal.  On September 24, the Standard published an engagement announcement celebrating the upcoming marriage of two individuals with deep Jewish roots.  One works in the Manhattan office of an organization in Jerusalem that treats blind children with multiple disabilities and his father is the principal of a prominent Jewish day school.  The other is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary and is working on an advanced degree in Jewish Studies.  They plan to be married next month.  Both are men.

Just like in the secular community, the Jewish community is divided on the issue of marriage equality.  The Orthodox, which is the fastest growing portion of the Jewish community, is more traditional and is vehemently opposed to same-sex marriage.   The Reform movement is the liberal wing, and same-sex marriage is permitted.  Generally, Conservative Judaism is considered middle-of-the-road – embracing egalitarianism while maintaining most of the more traditional customs such as kashrut – the Jewish dietary laws.  The Conservatives follow Halacha (Jewish Law), but unsurprisingly rabbis have come up with varying interpretations.  It’s fairly safe to say that each Conservative synagogue can determine its own policy toward same-sex marriage.

While there is much overlap in the secular and religious debate, there are some important differences to take into account.  As I pointed out in an earlier blog post, there is no legal basis to prohibit same-sex civil marriage in the United States, but the court battle is still a work in progress.  And no proponent of marriage equality is proposing that religious marriage ceremonies be conducted outside the tenets of the faith.

After the Standard published the engagement announcement, there was apparently some virulent feedback from the more traditional community.  In this week’s issue, they published the following: 
We set off a firestorm last week by publishing a same-sex couple's announcement of their intent to marry. Given the tenor of the times, we did not expect the volume of comments we have received, many of them against our decision to run the announcement, but many supportive as well.
A group of rabbis has reached out to us and conveyed the deep sensitivities within the traditional/Orthodox community to this issue. Our subsequent discussions with representatives from that community made us aware that publication of the announcement caused pain and consternation and we apologize for any pain we may have caused. 

Then, the editors of the Standard went on to announce that they were going to commit a sin of omission: 
The Jewish Standard has always striven to draw the community together, rather than drive its many segments apart. We have decided, therefore, since this is such a divisive issue, not to run such announcements in the future. 
This policy is hypocritical on many fronts:

First, a joyous event like the merging of two families through marriage does not drive the community apart – it brings us together.  How does alienating and casting out of a loving couple promote the Jewish value of Tikkun Olom – repairing the world?

Like many American Jewish newspapers, the Standard accepts advertising from non-kosher restaurants.  Those who choose to observe kashrut to its ultimate degree can choose not to eat at those establishments just as they can choose not to marry a same-sex partner or not to read an engagement announcement.

Unlike in Israel, here in the United States, there is no “chief” rabbinate.  Each of the observant communities follows its own religious tenets while typically working with each other on community projects, support for Israel, and other aspects of Jewish life.  Jews in America must be inclusive, not exclusive, to continue this good work.

The Orthodox are certainly entitled to their strict interpretation of Halacha and no one is proposing any changes there.  But to foist their beliefs on the community at large and disenfranchise their fellow Jews goes against all of the principles of Judaism that my parents and grandparents blessed me with.

Events of the past week show the disastrous results when we cast out or marginalize members of our community.  The Standard should reclaim its mantle as a community newspaper and reverse its unwise policy regarding engagement announcements.  Sins of omission are as wrong as sins of commission.