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