Sunday, December 18, 2011

You Can Do Better, Mr. Pepper

“We Can Do Better New Jersey” is a shadow organization that promotes school vouchers. Its web site gives no information about who funds it, nor does it list any of its principals. It refers to its founders as “various educational and philanthropic groups and individuals.”

There’s little doubt that the dollars behind this group come from those for-profit businesses that will benefit from the passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Act and the funneling of taxpayer money to their coffers.

Like many advocacy groups, “We Can Do Better New Jersey” also has a Facebook page. It appears to be run by one Dominic Pepper. But it is clear that he is not interested in any debate on vouchers based on factual discussions.

Recently, I posted my opinion on WCDBNJ’s Facebook page (see below). Within minutes, my post was removed and I was permanently banned from the group. Several other pro-education advocates posted similar messages and were also banned within minutes.

I have to say that Mr. Pepper is very efficient. My posts on Governor Christie’s page (also fact-based and not disparaging) usually stay there for several hours before they are removed, and (so far), I’ve not been banned from the Governor’s taxpayer-funded on-line presence.

And while I’ve been banned from his Facebook page, Mr. Pepper is welcome to post on mine (and has).

WCDBNJ has every right to run its Facebook page as it pleases. But the fact that the organization is not interested in civil discourse about vouchers is troubling. Perhaps it is worried that those pesky facts will get in the way.

When asked about the impact on those school districts which must send voucher money out of their systems, Mr. Pepper cited a report from the Office of Legislative Services stating that the OSA would not impact the districts financially. My request to Mr. Pepper for a copy of the OLS report went unanswered, but other pro-education advocates posted a link on my Facebook page that showed Mr. Pepper’s assertion to be absolutely false.

It’s a shame that Mr. Pepper and his organization are afraid to debate the issue. I am sending a link to this post to Mr. Pepper, and challenge him to refute the facts about charter schools and vouchers that were meticulously researched and documented by Jersey Jazzman here. If there’s no response, I will assume that Mr. Pepper simply cannot debunk the myths that organizations like his are promulgating.

Debates are based on factual arguments. Mr. Pepper is afraid to engage in debate simply because facts are not on his side. New Jersey should follow the lead of Pennsylvania and we should maintain and improve our public education by rejecting OSA and vouchers. And Mr. Pepper should not  ban pro-education advocates from the discussion.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Signs of the Times

If you drive through Pitman, NJ, you will see a banner hanging across the main drag which has in big letters, “Allah Akbar.” That’s a transliteration of the Arabic that means “God is Great”. No one should object to that. After all, our national motto is “In God We Trust.” We pledge allegiance to the flag “under God.”  But there’s a large contingent of people in that town who object to the banner praising God. They’re not atheists, but Christians who object to extoling God’s greatness in another language. (I’m pretty sure God understands Arabic.)

Most of the above paragraph is a lie. Yes, there’s a banner in Pitman, but the words were Photoshopped.  The real image is here; the banner says “Keep Christ in Christmas.”

I don’t celebrate Christmas, but if those who do want to remind people about the religious meaning in their holiday, that’s their business. But they have no business using public facilities to do so. They can put the slogan on their homes and churches, but by placing it on a main thoroughfare, they are using public resources to promote a religious belief.  I’m willing to bet that many of these same so-called religious Christians support Lowe’s bigoted decision to withdraw advertising from a television program that depicts Muslims in a positive light.

Those who wear their religion on their sleeve must be insecure in their beliefs. Why else do they need to be constantly reminded about God and Christianity? My message to my Christian friends is keep Christ in Christmas and follow the teachings of your Jewish carpenter by feeding the hungry, supporting the poor, and promoting peace instead of conflict. Don’t disenfranchise your non-Christian fellow citizens as the Tea Party wants to do (below). Merry Christmas. 

Valesky on Marriage Equality

Over two decades ago, I did some volunteer work for a non-profit organization in Syracuse, New York. One of the executives at that organization was a young man named Dave Valesky. I remember his genuine appreciation toward me and other volunteers for putting in time to help there. His attitude toward his volunteers made working there fun and rewarding.

After I moved to New Jersey, I was pleased to learn that in 2004, Valesky was elected to the New York State Senate to represent the people of Central New York as a Democrat.

I was even more pleased to read this Catholic senator from a conservative district has been a supporter of marriage equality, leading to full marriage rights in the Empire State.

So even though the parameters of the marriage equality battle may be different in New Jersey, I reached out to Valesky to learn about his decision to vote for equality and how it might help the upcoming debate here. He was gracious enough to spend some time with me on a telephone interview.

Valesky was not always a supporter of marriage equality. He told me that at one time, he felt that civil unions would grant equal rights to same-sex couples. But prior to the 2009 vote, he took it upon himself to do some research – what he called an “educational process” – to learn more about the issue. Through this effort, he came to the conclusion that civil unions were “separate and unequal” in terms of the benefits that accrue to people who receive state marriage licenses.

But the key factor in Valesky’s decision to vote for marriage equality, both in the failed attempt in 2009 and the success in 2011, was separation of church and state. He said that his Catholic sacrament of marriage is totally different than the piece of paper he received from the State of New York. He spoke about this on the Senate floor, and with the help of four Republicans, marriage equality passed in the Republican-controlled Senate. (The New York Senate consists of 32 Republicans and 30 Democrats, four of whom caucus separately from their party as an independent group. Valesky is one of the four.)

I asked Valesky about the impact of his 2009 vote in his 2010 re-election bid. He told me that it was not a significant issue.

Of course, the situation here in New Jersey is different. Valesky told me that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s leadership on this issue was a significant factor in its success. Here, Governor Christie has already stated that his personal opposition to same-sex marriage will trump the equal rights issue. As long as our governor harbors national political ambition, groups like Garden State Equality will have an uphill battle in ensuring equal rights for all New Jerseyans.

While we can count on the progressive Democrats to do the right thing, the key to passing marriage equality will be convincing conservative Democrats, similar to Valesky, that civil and religious marriages are two separate issues. Senate President Sweeney has already said that he regrets abstaining on the vote that was taken last year. But we need to convince other Democrats like Fred Madden and John Girgenti to do the right thing.

Factual arguments and introspection, such as Valesky’s, are necessary. New York’s vote is a shot in the arm to the equality movement here. Contributions to Garden State Equality are essential to help get the message out. And we should show appreciation to those politicians who vote their conscience to promote rights for all.

Valesky is up for re-election next year. His campaign web site is here

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Energy Whores

We need jobs. Not jobs for kids cleaning school bathrooms as Newt Gingrich proposes, but real jobs where breadwinners can earn enough to support their families and maybe a bit more so they can enjoy an occasional vacation or recreational activity. But is the creation of any job, regardless of its consequences, necessarily good for America?

In their never-ending quest for outrageous profits, the dirty energy industry is conducting a full-court press to expand a process that produces tons of environmental waste and pollutes our drinking water.

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” involves pumping tons of liquid into the ground at high pressure in order to extract natural gas. That liquid contains toxic components and eventually finds itself into our drinking water.

The argument that the energy industry uses is that by allowing the fracking process, it will create jobs. A report, recently issued by an industry-sponsored organization, touts the number of jobs that would be created while ignoring the impact on the environment, increased health costs, and more effective alternative energy.

This approach is like saying that one solution to the jobs problem is to legalize prostitution. Like energy, the demand is certainly there, and it would create jobs for thousands of men and women who wish to enter the world’s oldest profession. I’m sure an industry-sponsored study would tout the number of jobs that would be created while ignoring the impact of increased sexually-transmitted disease and the inevitable break-ups of nuclear families.

There’s a better way to create jobs and meet our energy demands. The age of clean, renewable energy is here, and we need to ensure that our energy investment dollars are shifted from the dirty fuel industry. Today, the life cycle cost per kilowatt-hour of solar energy is cheaper than nuclear, and the break-even point for wind-generated energy is approaching quickly.

In New Jersey, alone, there are 25,000 jobs today in the solar renewable market even without a significant indigenous solar panel manufacturing capability. The ongoing thrust to capitalize on offshore wind power will create thousands more new jobs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and its concomitant health costs significantly.

So when an industry group touts jobs as a reason to adopt a dirty policy, whether it is fracking or prostitution, take it with a grain of salt (or carbon). There are better ways to meet our needs.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Only in America

Since the days of the Wild West, America has had a fascination with guns. Through a misinterpretation of the Second Amendment and the relentless lobbying of the National Rifle Association, restrictions on owning guns and carrying concealed weapons are few and far between. The NRA’s position is especially frightening because it promotes ownership of high-capacity automatic assault weapons whose only purpose is to kill and maim large numbers of people.

Now, as an article in today’s New York Times points out, even ex-felons are finding it easy to obtain guns and carry concealed weapons. In most cases, once a felon completes his prison sentence, restoration of gun rights is automatic or amazingly simple.

No doubt, ex-felons who want a gun are likely to get one, whether legally or illegally. But the article points out that in jurisdictions where former felons are denied gun rights, there is up to a 30% less chance that they will commit another violent crime. Yet, eleven states automatically restore felons’ gun rights without even a single review or hearing. Attempts to inject some sanity into this process are constantly thwarted by the NRA.

While ex-felons can obtain guns without much of a hassle, another right, one guaranteed by the Constitution, continues to elude them. In the United States, 5.3 million ex-felons who have served their time are barred from voting - a critical right that would bring them back into the mainstream of society. This, despite the fact that studies have shown that ex-felons who are able to vote are half as likely to commit another crime.

It’s crazy that the gun lobby holds so much power promoting weapons that kill people, while the voting rights lobbies struggle to provide basic rights to ex-felons.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Penn State's Tragedy of Errors

By now you’ve heard about the alleged crimes committed by the Penn State athletic staff and administration. These were both crimes of commission and of omission. Whether it was institutional culture or a deliberate cover-up conspiracy, the guilt lies not just with the perpetrators and their abettors, but with the institution itself.

Penn State is handling this situation badly – it’s as if Rick Perry were running its damage control operation. First, the school decided to continue with business (and I do mean business) as usual by playing today’s scheduled football game, which it lost to Nebraska. Even worse, it established an investigation committee to be led by Kenneth Frazier, a member of the Board of Trustees and a Penn State alumnus. This is hardly an atmosphere which suggests independence and impartiality.

What should have happened? Pennsylvania Governor Corbett and NCAA President Mark Emmert should have jointly taken the lead in the investigation, not the institution itself. They should appoint a truly independent committee with experts on criminal law, child molestation issues, intercollegiate athletics, and other relevant areas. Even if the Frazier Commission does an outstanding job, there will forever be a pall over its work because of the group’s connection to the university.

The university itself should show some contrition also. It should cancel the remainder of the football season and allow its so-called student-athletes to transfer their scholarships and continue their football careers at other schools.

But it’s not just the school and the state that should take action.

The NCAA, which is fond of sanctioning schools for lesser infractions, should bar Penn State from appearing in post-season play for five years, based on the seriousness of the institutional lapses. What was revealed this week is orders of magnitude worse than a wealthy alumnus buying a car for a prospective athlete.

The media should also examine itself. One news outlet reporting on today’s games referred to the crimes as a “tumult.” A tumult is when a drunken fan spills his beer on someone. What happened in State College was not a tumult, it was a tragedy.

The nation’s universities should also do some self-examination. Are these multi-million dollar athletic programs in consonance with the institutions’ goals? Intercollegiate athletics are supposed to teach life lessons and build character. Penn State is not the first, nor will it be the last, where these goals are subsumed by the almighty dollar.

The justice system should take care of determining guilt or innocence of the various perpetrators in this case. But if the institution continues on with business as usual, then it will not have adequately addressed the issue for Penn State and hundreds of other institutions across the nation.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Election Day Roundup for Blue Jersey

Blue Jersey is down - on Election Day of all days! Here's their morning roundup:

Update: As of 9:25 AM, Blue Jersey is back up! Find them here.

Today’s the Day!

Shuffling the Deck Chairs

Other Political News

Christie is Consistent in his Inconsistency

Victory in the Battle of Trenton


The Next Election

I Miss NJN

New Jersey Parks

New Jersey Roads

Is Scarlet Fever the Cure for Penn State’s Offense?

The Chutzpah Award goes to…


Friday, November 4, 2011

Keeping a Small Town Mayor Out of Jail

The Democratic mayor of Monroe Township (NJ) is in trouble. He's accused of nepotism, sexual harassment, tax evasion, pay-for-access, racial discrimination, and violation of town ordinances.

Among other things, Mayor Michael Gabbianelli allegedly provided a job as a police officer to his son, Michael Gabbianelli  Jr, despite an anti-nepotism ordinance. He also is alleged to have discriminated against an African-American roadside vendor pursuing a sales license in favor of other vendors who are white. To some people, the most egregious of all these charges is that hizzoner blatantly lights up and smokes on government property in violation of town ordinances.

Given these alleged transgressions, it is inevitable that Gabbianelli will face increased scrutiny, maybe even removal from office or prosecution. But there's an almost foolproof way the mayor can alleviate or even avoid the consequences of his actions.

All the mayor needs to do is change his political affiliation from Democratic to Republican. 

While elected officials from both parties engage in inexplicable shenanigans, Republicans generally manage to avoid consequences while Democrats have to face the music.

First, consider the tragically long list of Democrats who paid the price for their bad judgement. President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about a consensual sexual affair. Anthony Weiner was forced to resign from Congress for using his Twitter account to document his sexual proclivities. Democratic state senators Vincent Fumo (Pennsylvania) and Wayne Bryant (New Jersey) are serving prison terms for their crimes. They may soon be joined by former New Jersey Governor and Wall Street Executive, Democrat Jon Corzine. I doubt if any of Corzine's peer GOP CEOs will ever see a day inside a federal prison despite what their actions did to the economy.

Now, take a look at the other side of the ledger. Republican Senator David Vitter not only ignored calls for his resignation after it was revealed that he was a client of a prostitution ring, but he was re-elected to another term by the good citizens of Louisiana. His GOP colleague, Senator Larry Craig also rebuffed calls for his resignation after being caught soliciting sex in a public bathroom. And the most flagrant abuse of political office in our lifetime was that of George W Bush who, after his stolen election and dereliction of duty in ignoring warnings about 9/11, started an illegal war, sanctioned illegal torture, and ruined the American economy for a generation. Apparently Bush's actions don't qualify as "high crimes and misdemeanors", while Clinton's dalliances do.

So my advice to Mayor Gabbianelli is to go down to the Board of Elections and change your party affiliation immediately. You'll avoid the scrutiny that seems to be targeted to Democrats and you are more likely to avoid punishment for your alleged crimes. But don't be surprised if you become the subject of a Jon Stewart spot on The Daily Show.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Knight on the Knights

If you or one of your children are going to college, you know how much the cost of a college degree has increased over the decades. Students and their families are forced to go into significant debt even as the job market for college graduates shrinks. Students from lower income families are especially disadvantaged because loans are harder to come by. Unless the student is fortunate to have garnered a full scholarship, you are also paying a hidden tax – the cost of college athletics.

It’s time to change the tuition funding playbook.

Proponents of big, flashy athletic programs say that intercollegiate athletics brings in lots of revenue. That’s true. But according to a report by the Knight Commission, only seven of the hundreds of institutions of higher learning pumped this revenue back into academic programs. The rest of them appropriated funds that could be used to reduce tuition to subsidize athletics.

The commission recommendations fall into the areas of financial transparency and prioritizing academics for both the institution and the student-athletes.  But the recommendations of the Knight Commission don’t go far enough.

College athletics provides valuable life lessons in hard work, team building, and coping with disappointment. But it has also become a P&L center (with emphasis on the “loss”) for institutions whose primary function should be academics and research.

These are tough times, and we don’t need incremental change – we need a “hail Mary” pass.

The state legislature should pass a law, and the governor should sign it, that requires athletic programs in state-supported universities to operate under a separate financial accounting system. Expenditures should not exceed revenue, just as these legislators advocate for government entities.

If our legislators are honest, they would adopt this proposal. After all, they require that educational institutions should be “run as a business”, and clearly intercollegiate athletics, with their massive television revenues, is a business. By separating the finances of athletics from academics and research, citizens, students, and parents would have visibility into the real cost of these programs and the drain of funds from the institution’s primary functions would stop.

For institutions like Rutgers, New Jersey’s State University, it would mean some cutbacks in the scope of their athletic programs. Maybe instead of having the football team travel to Louisville, Chapel Hill, and New Orleans, they should play teams from the New York and Philadelphia area schools. Instead of granting full scholarships based on athletic performance, they should consider academic potential.

The quality of play may go down. But the excitement and enthusiasm would remain. After all, these players are first and foremost students and like their non-athlete peers, they deserve the best education that money can buy.

All Others Pay Cash

The economy is in shambles. We are still fighting three unnecessary wars. The Wall Street crooks are still not being reigned in while demonstrators are being arrested and brutalized by police. So what does the Republican-controlled House of Representatives do? It re-affirms through a non-binding resolution that the official motto of the United States of America is “In God We Trust.”

I suppose it’s a good thing that these jokers are spending my tax money on frivolous exercises. At least they can’t do any more harm to the economy or international relations while they are diddling around in the House chamber (while many of them are diddling around in other chambers.)

But the bigger issue is the slogan itself. One of the fundamental principles of our republic is the wall of separation between Church and State. God belongs in churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques – not on government buildings or on our currency. The Supreme Court erroneously upheld the use of this slogan, contending that it has been so overused that it has lost its religious meaning. This is a shame – for both the church and the state.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Bon Appétit

Imagine that you are invited to a wedding reception at a snooty Five-Star restaurant in Midtown Manhattan. You know the chef is one of the best in the world, internationally famous, and you are looking forward to sharing a top-notch meal with your friends.

Imagine, also, that you are a vegetarian on a low-carb diet. You arrive at the reception and find that your dinner choices are filet mignon or pasta. What do you do?

Clearly, you can’t order the meat. You’re hungry, so you can’t choose to skip the dinner. You reluctantly get the pasta, which tastes so good that you overindulge on carbs that evening. You opted for the lesser of two evils and had a satisfactory but not satisfying dinner.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere on the dilemma progressives face these days. Nowhere is it more evident than in New Jersey. In the upcoming elections, we will be voting for all 120 members of the legislature, and it’s safe to say that the candidates can be categorized in three buckets:

  •  Republicans who worship Governor Chris Christie, the Koch Brothers, tax cuts, and reduction of social safety net and infrastructure programs (with a few exceptions, which I’ll get into later).
  • Democrats who bow to the state’s bipartisan axis of power brokers and political bosses and who capitulate to the governor’s draconian agenda while lamenting the loss of funding for social programs.
  • Real Democrats who understand that government is complex and that tax cuts do not create jobs by themselves.

Since not all legislative districts have Real Democrats on the ballot, for many voters the choice is between a Republican and a “Christiecrat” – a Democrat who abets the anti-middle class Christie agenda.

Of course, a voter can choose not to vote, to write in a name, or vote for a fringe candidate. Like choosing not to eat at a fancy restaurant, that voter is throwing away an opportunity. Even worse, by throwing away a vote, the voter may be providing support to the most objectionable candidate.

All things being equal, it would be better to vote for the Christiecrat than for the Republican. And it would be better to vote for the Christiecrat than to throw away your vote on a third party or write-in. Under the assumption that the Christiecrat would vote correctly at least part of the time while the Republican would hardly ever vote correctly, this is satisfactory but not satisfying.

But the important thing is to vote.

The political landscape is littered with elections where Progressive Democrats stayed home and we are now stuck with the likes of Chris Christie and Jon Runyan. Maybe we didn’t fully embrace Jon Corzine and the late John Adler, but we would be better served if those two men had been elected.

Lest you think I’m a partisan hack, I am not advocating voting for every Democrat over any Republican. Don’t just vote straight party line. Learn about the candidates from both sides, and make an informed choice.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have had significant dialog with many of the legislative candidates from both parties. There are Republicans out there who are independent thinkers and don’t toe the Christie line – at least now. Whether they will do so if and when they are elected remains to be seen. But I have advocated for some of the Republicans to friends and colleagues because I believe that supporting a moderate Republican over an ineffective Democrat nudges the political balance ever so slightly to the left. That can only help the Democratic Party.

So while the fancy meal analogy is not perfect, starving the Democrats will do more harm than good. Sometimes the lesser of two evils is the best we can do in a two party system. Enjoy the pasta!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Building a Real Monument to Jewish History

The history of the Jews is an amplified representation of the history of other minorities. Other minorities have had a history of persecution and discrimination, but none for as long a time as the Jews. Other minorities have had success in the arts, business, science, and politics, but none as proportionally as the Jews. Other minorities have been targets of genocide, but none as systematically and with such magnitude as the Jews.

So in the history of the world, it is important to document, preserve, and tell the history of the Jews.

A group of prominent Jewish personalities and some successful businessmen are proposing to tell this history with a National Museum of the Jewish People to be built in Washington, DC, between the White House and the Capitol. While this is a noble goal, it is also a bad idea, at least for now.

According to an article in the Washington Jewish Week, the museum, proposed for a site that is for sale by the General Services Administration, would require over $100 million for the building and an endowment to allow for free admission to the high-tech attraction.

I was recently at an event where an African-American activist from Camden, NJ, used the word “genocide” to describe the plight of the people in that poverty-ridden city. While much of the audience sympathized with his pleas, many felt the term “genocide” was over the top, even acknowledging the high number of murders and society’s neglect of its most downtrodden citizens. Nevertheless, the feeling of despair when politicians cut essential services is real and heart wrenching.

Wouldn’t it be better if the celebrities and businesspeople who have the wherewithal to raise $100 million target that money to improve the urban centers across America? Wouldn’t it be better if some of that money could go to tikun olam instead of another glass-faced edifice in Washington? How about a $100 million endowment to help end hunger in America?

It’s important to tell the story of the Jews, and we do so very well. In Washington, the Holocaust Memorial Museum is a sobering reminder about the scourge of Anti-Semitism. In Philadelphia, the National Museum of American Jewish History occupies a prominent position at the birthplace of our nation in a spectacular building showing a comprehensive history of our people’s contribution to our nation.

Let’s not use our limited resources to build yet another museum. The facilities that we have are excellent and convey a compelling story to Jew and non-Jew alike. Instead, let’s build a real monument to Judaism by turning these fundraising efforts to an effort to repair the world as our revered ancestors implored us to do. That’s the real history of the Jewish people.

Whether you’re Jewish or not, a small amount of help from a large number of people can make a difference. In a few days, Jews around the world will be fasting for one day in observance of Yom Kippur. Take the money you spend on food and drink in one day and donate it to the hungry. There are many ways to do this – one such charity is Mazon. You’re on line now – go to their site and make a donation before you forget.

Christie Sums Up What's Wrong with the GOP Today

In his interminable press conference today, Chris Christie took less than a minute to sum up what's wrong with the Republican Party. Watch this short video and then see comments below.

Note that in his litany, he never mentioned the Number One issue facing most Americans today - JOBS. Maybe it's not on his radar screen because all of his cronies are gainfully employed. Also, he never mentioned health care because all of his cronies have health care. He never mentioned education because his kids go to expensive private schools and his cronies are about to reap a windfall in New Jersey taxpayers' dollars for unproven charter schools. The man is articulate but uncaring.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The End Justifies the Means

At least that was the position taken by one pro-voucher supporter at a debate today in Trenton sponsored by the Delaware Valley chapter of Americans United (AU) for Separation of Church and State.

Keith Benson of "Save Our Children" argued that if state-funded Catholic schools perform better than public schools, the constitutional implications don't matter.

Three advocates from the pro-voucher community were invited, although one canceled at the last minute. Joining Mr. Benson was Carm Catanese, a retired business executive who now runs Citizens for Effective Schools in Princeton.

On the side of public schools were John Bartram of AU, Ed Barocas of the ACLU, and  Dr. Walter Farrell, Jr. of UNC - Chapel Hill and the National Educational Policy Center.

I arrived at the debate predisposed against vouchers, and after I carefully listened to both sides, my position solidified.

While the two sides had major differences, the debate was conducted cordially. Except for the statement by a pro-voucher speaker equating today’s public school environment with “genocide”, there was a minimum of rancor.

The pro-voucher advocates cited tons of statistics without connecting the dots. Certainly crime and poverty in urban districts contribute to low school performance, but the speakers were unable to convince me that vouchers would be a panacea to solve these problems. They appealed to the audience using emotional arguments and photos of underprivileged kids, probably because the law and facts are not on their side.

The three speakers in favor of strengthening public schools each took a slightly different approach. Ed Barocas reminded us that the New Jersey Constitution specifically states “No person...shall be obligated to pay...taxes...for the maintenance of any...ministry”. That clause is clearly violated by voucher programs which take taxpayer money to fund religious schools. John Bartram pointed out how survey after survey shows that vouchers do not produce better results. Professor Farrell, the only educator on the panel, concurred and also pointed out that in most cases schools that accept vouchers can cherry pick their students, eject the difficult ones, and don’t always accommodate kids with special needs. Consequently, voucher-supported schools should have better results even though studies show they rarely exceed the performance of public schools.  

Voucher-funded private schools also are exempt from many of the mandates public schools face, such as anti-bullying programs. Farrell also touched on the big business of for-profit private education, the backing of hedge fund managers in this game, and the real costs of some of the alleged “success” stories such as Harlem Children’s Zone.

All the panelists agreed that there is room for improvement in our public schools. How we get there is where they differ. One side uses solid statistics and stays within the bounds of the State and Federal Constitutions. The other dismisses the law and uses emotional arguments and unproven approaches to promote a system which they claim will be better, but in the long run enriches the private school operators at the expense of our kids and the taxpayers.

Barocas, Bartram, Farrell

Benson, Catanese

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Is Chris Christie Trying to get Barack Obama Re-Elected?

Governor Christie may be a mean and heartless, and he has an ego the size of Mount Everest, so there’s no doubt in my mind that he wants to be President. But he’s also not stupid, and he knows that his chances are much better in 2016 than in 2012. But that can only happen if Barack Obama is re-elected next year.

If he runs for president now, Christie may fool many of the independent voters into supporting him due to the tepid performance by President Obama. But the governor knows that he will have difficulty with the radical base in the Republican Party. His appointment of a judge who happens to be a Muslim causes Republicans’ heads to explode, and the fact that Christie is a northeasterner rubs many in the GOP  the wrong way. A Christie entry into the 2012 presidential race would virtually guarantee the emergence of a third party radical Tea Partier which would split the Republican vote and give Obama a second term.

The biggest roadblock to an eventual Christie presidency would be the election of a Republican in 2012. Waiting to the end of a second Obama term in 2016 might seem to be a long time in political life, but the potential of a two-term Republican would leave Christie out of the picture until 2020 – an eternity in American electoral gamesmanship.

So why would 2016 be any different than2012? Christie may be counting on the American public and mainstream media waking up and realizing that the Tea Party is an extremist cult, whose members follow their leaders blindly even if it is against their self-interest. And like most cults, the Tea Party will self-destruct over the next few years.

So instead of running now, Christie is pandering to all factions in the Republican Party, fundraising and generating IOUs for future support. Like Sarah Palin, he is leveraging the idolatry from the press to his advantage. He will most certainly endorse the eventual candidate, but look for him to promote himself more than the candidate as he hits the campaign trail. And look for that little smirk on the SOB’s face when Barack Obama gets re-elected.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


It goes without saying that the President of the United States is a leader. But the current crop of Republican presidential candidates are not leaders, they are followers. They follow the racist, homophobic, and selfish incantations of the Tea Party and have no ideas of their own.

Regardless of political philosophy, a leader would not allow a soldier who served in Iraq to be booed the way one was in a Republican “debate.” A leader would not stand silent while a crowd cheered the concept that a man would die because he did not have medical care. Why didn’t Mitt Romney grab the microphone and lecture the audience, “We do not cheer the fact that a man can’t get medical care”? Why didn’t Rick Perry stop the debate, step out in front of the podium, and thank the soldier for his service?

At one time, I thought that Governor Chris Christie was the exception to the slate of potential Republican nominees who were bereft of leadership. Christie has certainly run roughshod over the Democratically-controlled legislature in the Garden State. But recent revelations about how Christie was led like a lap dog on the leash of the Koch Brothers show that, he too, is a follower and not a leader.

The last Republican president, George W. Bush, was also not a leader. He was the pawn of the Rove, Cheney, Koch axis of evil. Today, the nation is polarized and in desperate need of a true leader to fill the shoes of FDR and Ike.

On the leadership front, the Democrats are only marginally better. While Nancy Pelosi is one of the true leaders in Washington, President Obama has squandered the opportunity for leadership. He has kowtowed to the Republicans, adopting their policies, and continuing to allow them to put dogmatism in front of service. Can he leverage his skills to move from the category of “average” president to a true leader? Can the Republicans find a leader within their ranks to run for something other than President of the Tea Party States? For the sake of our children, let’s hope that a true leader emerges from the pack.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Where is the Outrage?

I didn’t join the cacophony of writers on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. I spent the day doing other things. It’s not that I don’t feel grief and sorrow for the thousands of people affected by the event. I do. But I feel more grief and sorrow for the greater impact that our politicians are imposing on America.

Every loss of human life is a tragedy, and the three thousand lost on that day are a terrible catastrophe. But, unfortunately, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Consider, for example, the fact that since 9/11, 150,000 Americans have been murdered. And what are the root causes of murder? Poverty and easy access to guns. Yet, where is the outrage at the fact that the greatest country in the world has so many people who live in squalor, are being malnourished or starved, and have no way out? Where is the outrage that just about anyone can obtain a gun without any meaningful background check or safety training?

Consider also that 45,000 Americans die each year due to lack of affordable health care. Instead of outrage, the Republicans are trying to reverse the baby steps we have taken to mitigate the death spiral that these Americans are caught in. Where is the outrage?

Consider that more Americans have died in the unjustified wars started by Bush and perpetuated by Obama than died on that horrible Tuesday a decade ago. And add hundreds of thousand Iraqi and Afghani lives to that terrible roster.  Certainly their lives are equally as precious. Where is the outrage?

Consider the death penalty. America joins North Korea, Syria, and Iran as a country that kills its own citizens in the name of justice – including many who are innocent. Where is the outrage from the so-called pro-life community?

No amount of jingoism and flag-waving will mitigate our sorrow or fix these problems. Instead, we need politicians and leaders who pursue help for the downtrodden and real opportunity for all Americans, not just the elite few.

So when you think about what Osama Bin Laden did to us a decade ago, remember those who perished in the towers, the Pentagon, and on the airplanes. But keep in mind that their lives are no less precious than those of the tens of thousands who die each year because of the disregard that our politicians – especially but not exclusively Republicans – have for America’s citizens.

Taylor Rental gets 9/11 right

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The (Redistricting) Calm Before the Storm

Yesterday's meeting of the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Committee was one of the calmest sessions I have witnessed in the State House, but don't be fooled. With the loss of one seat in Congress, this commission's deliberations are bound to heat up and provide us with some fireworks.

The session was a formality, with no substantive issues discussed. By-laws were adopted and a Committee Secretary was appointed. The committee, which consists of six Democrats, six Republicans, and a mutually-agreed-upon independent tiebreaker, will re-draw the congressional election districts based on the population shifts enumerated in the 2010 U.S. Census.

There will be at least three public hearings, where advocacy groups can go on record and suggest parameters for the new maps. The first will be at Rutgers-Camden on September 22, and two others will be scheduled, most likely on the Rutgers campuses in New Brunswick and Newark.

State Democratic Party Chairman Assemblyman John Wisniewski led a similar effort earlier this year to redraw the lines of New Jersey's legislative districts. I spoke with him at the meeting about his views on the redistricting process:

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Third World Health Care - First Class Disgrace

François is a refugee, one of 27,000 from Côte d'Ivoire living in a camp in eastern Liberia. His kidneys are failing and he needs dialysis three times per week. But he can’t receive dialysis under Liberia’s third-world health care system and if he’s lucky he’ll get emergency treatment when his health deteriorates to the point where he is at death’s door.

A typical response to this story is, “Oh, that’s terrible. The poor man is suffering, but that’s the way things are in third-world countries.”

Yet, this story is only partially true. His name is not François. The part about his being without care until he is close to death is true, but he is not a refugee in Liberia – he is an undocumented immigrant living in the United States of America.

François lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where a hospital recently turned away immigrants in need of dialysis. For everyone else, Medicare would cover the cost of the procedure, but despite the words of Emma Lazarus that are indelibly etched on the Statue of Liberty, undocumented immigrants are not eligible to participate in the program. According to a recent article in the New York Times, such patients were “advised to wait until their condition deteriorated enough to justify life-saving care in an emergency room.” Charity care is out of the question, because the hospitals are broke. So under our current system of health care, a patient with renal failure must put his life in jeopardy, wait until he is near death, and then consume precious and expensive emergency room resources instead of scheduling a nearly-routine procedure.

I suppose the plight of an undocumented immigrant needing dialysis in Atlanta is marginally better than that of a refugee in Liberia. After all, the United States ranks 37th in health care (despite being number one in per capita spending), while Liberia is 186th. But the gap is closing.

President Obama’s Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction, but only an incremental improvement. While the elimination of pre-existing conditions as an excuse to deny coverage and the extension of dependents’ health coverage to age 26 were improvements, even those baby steps are under assault from the Republican Tea Party. Obama’s near-total capitulation to the insurance lobby virtually guarantees more obscene profits and CEO salaries while America’s health care system becomes more like that of Liberia than that of our European allies.

While the advocates for the best option, single-payer, were not even allowed to participate in the debates and negotiations, even their approach would not have been enough. What this nation needs is a Health Care Marshall Plan. After World War II, America spent billions of peace-dividend dollars rebuilding Europe. Now is the time to spend even more to rebuild America’s health care system. We not only need to make our health care payment system more efficient and less expensive with single payer, but we also need to invest in making the medical-industrial complex more efficient. We need to leverage technology to bring down costs and reduce medical accidents. We need to make medical school affordable to anyone who has the ability to become a doctor or other health professional. And we need to regain the lead in world-wide medical research and development.

All of this costs money, but it’s money we have. It’s money we are wasting on frivolous wars and their ancillary costs. We need to stop these wars – not in ten years, not in five years, but as soon as it is physically possible to bring our troops and equipment home. We need to restore the incremental tax level to that which we had during our years of prosperity. And we need to prosecute and incarcerate the criminals in the insurance and finance industries as vigorously as we prosecute minorities and others for minor crimes.

Only an America which provides quality health care to all – regardless of race, economic status, or citizenship – is the America that our immigrant ancestors would be proud of. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Deciminyan's First Law

It’s probably been said before, but I’ll call it Deciminyan’s First Law anyway:
When there’s an election between a Republican and a Democrat who acts like a Republican, the Republican always wins.
This was amply demonstrated in my own congressional district in 2010, when my Democratic Congressman, the late John Adler, a Harvard-educated, fiercely intelligent and experienced legislator was defeated by a football player who raises donkeys to avoid taxes. Adler, who had a reputation as a liberal legislator when he served in the State House in Trenton, moved to the right and was one of a small number of Democrats who voted against providing health care for millions of Americans. Now, Barack Obama is following in Adler’s footsteps, and that tells me that Obama will be a one-term president. Here’s why.

While the health care bill debate was punctuated with faux rage from the insurance companies, in essence the law is a gift to the profit-making entities. Subsidies to these for-profit companies will ensure their stock price and executive bonuses will rise while Americans still are afforded a second-rate health insurance system. A single-payer system would have been the best solution, as evidenced by the results in the 36 nations that exceed the United States in this area, but the president succumbed to the corporatists and Tea Party by taking single-payer off the table even before negotiations began.

The president has demonstrated his Republican DNA by his shocking pre-holiday nullification of his own EPA’s clean air standards. Succumbing to the pressure from corporations while ignoring scientists is a hallmark of the Republican agenda, and President Obama has joined that chorus. The rationale is allegedly to save money (read: put more profits in corporate coffers), while the additional billions in medical costs from increased lung and other diseases are ignored, as is the human suffering that will result from dirty air. The jobs argument is also specious because the effort to improve air quality would have spawned job growth as much, if not more, than letting dirty fuels prevail.

From a strategic political point of view, this decision is also a bad one. The pro-pollution crowd is not one that would vote for Obama in 2012, anyway. And by alienating the sensible moderates and the progressive wing of his party, Obama has guaranteed that those people will stay home on Election Day, giving us the nightmare of a President Perry.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Education Reform 101

Check out the excellent 6-part series on Education Reform, written by school teacher and blogger Jersey Jazzman, starting today on

Another Way the GOP is Derailing the Economy

If Planned Parenthood didn't exist, what would be the GOP's biggest bogeyman? Arguably it would be Amtrak.

Rail transport is an often under-appreciated aspect of the engine that drives the economy. It is more fuel-efficient than automobiles, and the portion of the Northeast Corridor that runs through New Jersey is critical to the state's and nation's economy.

Yet, two days after Irene, a portion of the Amtrak system in New Jersey remains closed. This also impacts New Jersey Transit which uses the same tracks.

The faux-fiscal conservative GOP has consistently worked to reduce and eliminate Amtrak subsidies, probably because the typical passenger is not one of their millionaire benefactors. Yet, the impact on the economy due to workers unable to get to their jobs is never a factor in the GOP's calculation.

Europe and China are making huge investments in infrastructure to benefit their economies. Floods, snowstorms, and hurricanes are a fact of life in the northeast. Amtrak needs funds not only for their day-to-day operations, but to invest in preventative and restorative infrastructure so that events like those this past weekend don't  make New Jersey less competitive in the world market.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Tax that Helps America Stay Competitive

The federal gas tax of 18.4¢ per gallon is set to expire at the end of September. Today’s New York Times has an editorial titled The Clear Case for the Gas Tax, enumerating several reasons why this tax should not be allowed to expire. The money collected goes to the Highway Trust Fund, which in turn creates jobs and upgrades our deteriorating infrastructure.

No doubt, the Tea Party Republicans will oppose a proposed extension of this tax, claiming that in these tough times we need to reduce the amount of money that the government collects. They will most certainly ignore the fact that by further depleting the Highway Trust Fund, we will move construction workers from the role of tax payer to the role of unemployment insurance recipient.

There is a very small grain of truth to the Tea Party Republicans’ assertion. One of the downsides of the gas tax is that a poor person who drives 12,000 miles per year (the EPA estimate of average American’s driving habits) pays roughly the same tax as the millionaire who drives 12,000 miles per year. This makes the gasoline tax a regressive tax, i.e. one that has a bigger impact on those with lower incomes.

To ameliorate this disparity, in addition to extending this tax, Congress should address the issue of its impact on the poor.

At the current rate, a driver who gets 20 miles per gallon and drives 12,000 miles per year pays $110.40 in federal gas tax.

But extending the current gas tax is not enough. Congress should increase the tax for a number of reasons. It would more quickly replenish the Highway Trust Fund, and consequently create more middle-class jobs.  Any increase in the price of gasoline helps discourage driving and decreases the cost of dealing with additional pollution and its health issues. While any tax increase would be perceived as an outrage by the Tea Party Republicans, our gas taxes are significantly lower than those in Europe (which also, by the way provides inexpensive and effective medical care to all, not just the wealthy).

While taxes are good in that they provide jobs, essential services, and infrastructure, these taxes must not be regressive.  Doubling the gasoline tax would cost the average driver $220.80 per year. Insignificant for the wealthy, but that $4.25 per week might make the difference between a child in a poor family getting a decent meal or going hungry one more night.

So while Congress should double the federal gas tax, it should also ensure that the burden does not fall upon those who could least afford it. Any legislation should include a tax credit of around $200 for automobile owners earning less than a set amount, say $30,000 per year. This way, the burden will not fall upon the poor as so many other taxes do.

Such a progressive proposal has as much chance of passing in the Tea Party controlled House as me becoming an Olympic athlete. But without improving our infrastructure, America will continue down the path of becoming a first-world nation with third-world services. And not having this discussion will ensure the Tea Party mantra of tax elimination will continue to destroy America.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Republicans are not Terrorists

In a recent column, writer Joe Nocera equated the members of the Tea Party to terrorists, pointing out their “jihad on the American people.”  In response to Tea Party criticism, Nocera quickly issued an apology for his “intemperate” language.

I have several friends who are Republicans. Some are moderate, and some are Tea Partiers. They are certainly not terrorists – I would categorize them as patriotic but perhaps misguided Americans. But let’s separate my friends, who sincerely want what’s best for America, from the Republican politicians and corporatists, who are driven by monetary greed, the lust for power, and their focused goal of removing Barack Obama from office at all costs.

Osama Bin Laden’s aim was to wreck the American economy and instill fear among the American people. And with the assistance of the Bush/Rove/Koch power mongers, he succeeded.

Merriam-Webster defines terror as a state of intense fear. Certainly today’s Republican leadership has succeeded in spreading that state of fear across the nation – fear that any American Muslim is a potential suicide bomber, fear that Hispanics will outnumber Caucasians in some areas and dominate the voting process, fear that curtailing wasteful military spending will cause us to be invaded by China or the Grand Duchy of Fenwick, fear that if we don’t pray in school that God will look unfavorably on us, and fear that if citizens can’t buy AK-47s without a background check, liberal thugs will rape, pillage, and plunder their sometimes ill-begotten treasure.

Even more pernicious is the fact that though their tactics are different, the current crop of Republican leaders, with the help of some chickenshit Democrats,  are working toward the same outcome that Osama Bin Laden strived for – transforming America into a third world banana republic.

So, Mr. Nocera, if your apology was aimed at average Republican citizens, it was justified. But if your original column referred to the leaders of the Tea Party Republicans, no apology was necessary. Rank-and-file Republicans are not terrorists, but their leaders are moving this nation along the path that will give Osama Bin Laden a posthumous victory.

Monday, August 1, 2011

American Exceptionalism

The Tea Party GOP is fond of citing the concept of American Exceptionalism as justification for everything from prioritizing war over diplomacy to cutting taxes for the wealthy. Arguably, the twentieth century was, indeed, the century of American Exceptionalism.

In that century, we fought and won the War to End All Wars, and followed it up with the development and deployment of weapons of mass destruction to end the next war.

In the twentieth century, America exploited the fruits of the Industrial Revolution, developing a manufacturing economy that paid decent wages thanks to regulation and strong unions. We eradicated the scourges of yellow fever and polio and put a man on the moon. Not only did we win the space race, but we also won the Cold War, thanks in part to the Soviet Union’s draining their resources on an ill-advised war in Afghanistan. We developed an educational system with institutions from pre-school to post-graduate that attracted people from all over the world. We invented the transistor and the Internet and made Silicon Valley an engine of growth, opportunity, and prosperity.

The common thread that ties this success story together is government. Government grants for education boosted innovation. Government regulation on fuel economy, the environment, and workplace safety were catalysts for economic growth. Government research and development grants to spur innovation helped a few large corporations and spawned thousands of small ones. Millions of Americans were able to realize the dream of home ownership.

Unfortunately, the momentum has changed in the twenty first century. The engine that drives the economy has stalled. American corporations are shipping green jobs to China and America lags behind Europe and Asia in investments in rail transportation. Tea Partiers cheer when someone like Governor Chris Christie abandons an important rail transportation job in mid-stream, throwing away billions of taxpayer dollars.  In this century’s basic infrastructure race, broadband, America is in the middle of the pack, just behind Luxembourg.

Of course, the decline in American Exceptionalism did not occur overnight, nor is it finished yet.  The decline took root when Ronald Reagan hoodwinked the American people by postulating that “Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem.” But what really threw American Exceptionalism under the bus was the administration of George W Bush and its demonstrably failed policy of trickle-down economics. Bush’s legacy will be the demise of the middle class and the rise to power of the corporate oligarchs. This trajectory toward banana republic status was guaranteed by the Tea Party’s disdain for government services (which they all use) and the taxes that pay for them.

Is there a way to revector this trajectory? Probably not in the short term. Democrats have amply demonstrated their impotence in slowing down the Republican-led demise of our economy, let alone reversing it. Right-wing corporations control much of the mainstream media and Progressives have to work twice as hard to get their truthful message out. Cuts in education will make it easier for Republicans to “dumb-down” elections and win on simplistic talking points about complex issues. With the recent election of Tea Party governors in many states, voter suppression initiatives that hurt the poor and unemployed are on the rise.

Eventually the Republicans will win the White House. If not in 2012, then in 2016. To stay in power, as they exploit workers and the poor and as they shift more jobs overseas, they will need something to rally around, be it another war or terrorist attack.

American Exceptionalism helped us survive the Great Depression and World War II. Is there enough left to help us survive the Tea Party onslaught?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Thorn by Any Other Name

What would you call a person whose actions kill more people than were murdered by Osama Bin Laden? What would you call a person who holds a metaphorical gun to the head of the United States threatening its very existence?

What you call that person doesn't matter. But the fact that the Republicans, epitomized by John Boehner, fit that description is frightening.

It's bad enough that the Republicans, much more than the Democrats, stonewall the confirmation of important presidential appointments. But John Boehner's misuse of his power as Speaker of the House to hold the nation hostage to his party's economic policies is a shonda. If he believes the American people want fewer government services and tax breaks for millionaires, he should follow the established legislative process and introduce a bill to implement these changes. But he knows that such a bill would never pass. Instead, he is using the debt crisis as a bargaining chip and is willing to inflict more pain and suffering to advance his failed political mantra.

And what a failure the Republicans have been. Their Ivy League MBA president brought on the fiscal crisis (and the unnecessary wars) that were repudiated in 2008 and will define America's path in the 21st century.

What Boehner and his ilk fail to recognize is that government is the art of compromise. So while President Obama capitulates to just about every Republican demand, Boehner would rather see the nation default than participate in a shared victory with a president whose legitimacy has never been acknowledged by the Right.

The Republican stench has already hit one agency. Portions of the Federal Aviation Administration have been shut down over a dispute about another bogeyman of the right, unions. The shutdown does not affect air traffic control (yet), but the GOP has shuttered important work in safety and training.  While Bohner and his comrades are still able to fly home to their districts, they have also added thousands of Americans, who had productive jobs, to the unemployment rolls.

Unfortunately, the Boehners of the world put ideology over pragmatism and corporate welfare over compassion. If the outcome of the current crisis is as bad as many predict, the financial ruin of the United States will fall directly in the lap of people like John Boehner. And the number of people who die because the GOPs aversion to health care, the environment, and product safety will be orders of magnitude more than were murdered by an equally fanatic partisan almost a decade ago.