Monday, April 27, 2015

American Aspiration

I realize I've been dormant for a long time on this front.  Since last I wrote, Representative Scott Garrett is still representing the Fifth District, Gov. Chris Christie is still the governor, but Papa Joe was convicted on racketeering.  

I'm writing not because I've moved back into the Fifth district, but because I've published a small book on politics.  I missed writing about politics, and decided instead of a new blog I'd release my thoughts in book form.  American Aspiration: Where We Are and Ways to Get Where We Want to Be is now available in the Kindle Store, with additional formats coming soon.  A little sample of topics and the introduction is below.  Enjoy!

Here's the table of contents:

Introduction. 2

Part One:  Where We Stand. 4
  • Facts to Keep in Mind
  • Government Deficit & Spending
  • Household Wealth and Debt
  • Our Lack of Information

Part Two:  Why We Can’t Have Nice Things. 12
  • Political Industrial Establishment
  • Privatization of Essential Services & No Bid Contracts
  • Congress & Our Lack of Participation

Part Three:  How We Begin to Make Things Better. 19
  • Vote in the Next Election, and the Next, and the Next
  • Get Informed in 10 minutes a Week
  • Buy American like Your Job Depends on It
  • Take a Breath and Think
  • Start Talking To Each Other

Part Four:  Nice Things We Could Have. 30
  • Infrastructure
  • Vocational Training & Higher Education
  • Honoring Those That Serve
  • Stuff Others Already Have
  • Where Do We Go Now?

Notes. 37

And the Introduction:

This began innocently enough as my latest blog creation, and became this collection of short essays.  Like many, I see the direction the country has been moving as troublesome.  Politics has always been a bit of a love/hate relationship for me, I have always believed better things are possible when our system works the way it should, and have rarely seen that happen.  I was a Boys State Senator, ran my county’s Republican office, went to the New Hampshire primaries, ran for Congress as an Independent, wrote a blog visited by the press, as well as staffers in Congress and the White House, and attended President Obama’s Inauguration.  As one of my former Political Science professors noted, I like to get my hands dirty.  
Probably where I felt I had the most impact during my run for office was during my classroom chats.  You got the sense there was optimism and energy in students, despite the cynicism of some of the adults in the room.  Years later, through conversations around the lunch table at work, I realized optimism or even a basic understanding of government is lacking.  It’s not just the millennials, many of my peers and elders have been so overwhelmed by the 24/7 political sniping and institutional ineptitude that they’ve thrown up their hands. 
So, I sat down with the hope/intention of writing something that would make it easy to find the information to make decisions and (hopefully) have readers feel more comfortable participating in the system.  It honestly isn’t that hard if you know where to look, but as I wrote I realized some background and context would probably be helpful.  The idea of telling people to go to such and such a website blind didn’t feel right, so here we are.  The collection is broken into four parts:
  • Where We Stand covers some interesting facts like how we’re spending money, the United States ranking 25th in median income, and how little we know.
  • Why We Can’t Have Nice Things reviews special interests, privatization and our lack of participation as it relates to our “leaders” in Washington, our states and school boards.
  • How We Begin to Make Things Better dives into voting and becoming informed with an e-mail a week, as well as buying Made in the USA, digesting information and talking politics with others.
  • Nice Things We Could Have goes over items many nations ranking higher already have, and asks about the things we could have that we don’t.
 My hope is that you’ll read this, talk about it, and gift it to friends and family on your way to a more involved citizenship.  If you’re already involved, I hope you will recommend or gift it to someone you know is not involved but would be receptive.  While I could have put it up as “just another” blog, the grand experiment is that the insights in this book are enough that it is gifted and paid forward to others. 
While I tried to make it approachable, some of it may seem technical.  I’ve been told by some it’s a quick read, and by others it’s very heavy, so I believe it’s probably just about right.  It’s not intended to be an overly scholarly piece, more of a conversation starter, but I do have lots of end notes for those who may wish to dig deeper.  If nothing else, my hope is that you benefit in some way from reading this.  

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Signing Off for Now

After taking the heart of the election season off, this is pretty much a forgone conclusion, but I figured I would make it official. Blog the Fifth, for now, is going on the shelf. I have a number of reasons, but I leave it feeling a sense of accomplishment.

The first goal of Blog the Fifth was to hold Representative Scott Garrett accountable, and I did. He and his staff went from making stuff up to sticking by his beliefs without spinning like crazy. In a sense, he's been rewarded, absolutely crushing all comers. I'm not saying I agree with the man, but he's earned my respect for not wavering and not resorting to the distortions so many of his fellow Republicans did in recent months.

Even though he may no longer be my Congressman after redistricting, there is something to be said of knowing exactly where your guy stands and that he usually gets about 60-65% of his constituents to support him.

The second goal was to shine light on the corruption in Bergen County. When I started this thing, Papa Joe and his cronies were running everything and making an open mockery of what good government should be. Papa Joe and his chosen officials are all but gone now, and that's something everyone in Bergen County should be happy about.

County Executive-elect Kathe Donovan is someone I met back in '96 when I was interning at the BCRO, and she was as genuine then as she is now. She was endorsed by Democrats and Republicans alike, and hopefully will lead a thoughtful course correction in the way Bergen County has done business for far too long.

This whole thing isn't to say that I'm going to stop writing.

I've already reserved a new address for a new blog: Mighty Moderate

I plan to start posting over there soon, but for now, thanks to everyone who encouraged this project, read, and commented. Until next time...

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Corruption Inspired Monster Rant

The Bush administration and their enablers have truly morphed into the proverbially bad "gift that keeps on giving." What should serve as a warning to voters this fall who actually care about pesky things like good accounting, the Pentagon seems to have misplaced another $2.6 billion from 2004-2007. From the AP:
The audit found that shoddy record keeping by the Defense Department left the Pentagon unable to fully account for $8.7 billion it withdrew between 2004 and 2007 from a special fund set up by the U.N. Security Council. Of that amount, Pentagon "could not provide documentation to substantiate how it spent $2.6 billion."
I had written a couple years ago about the $15 billion in fraud inviting payments, as well as how Bush eliminated the auditors overseeing expenditures. While this latest finding is not surprising, it should serve as a reminder of the type of management and oversight Republicans utilized the last time they were in control in Washington.

In other Republicans on the wrong side of protecting our nation news, in the Senate they stood solidly for allowing foreign corporations, even those controlled by foreign governments like China or Venezuela, to spend unlimited money in elections. This is their answer to the power of the small donation that vaulted Obama into the Presidency.

Republicans are basically standing by the belief that Abramoff on HGH is a good thing. For a quick reminder of who Abramoff is:

The Sunlight Foundation posted several key questions for opponents that you will never hear answered, but every reporter and voter should be asking every Republican, including our Representative Scott Garrett, who voted against this thing:
  • Why, when the Supreme Court specifically said, “transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages,” are you opposed to a bill that does that?
  • How can you claim that the DISCLOSE Act violates the first amendment when disclosure regimes have long been upheld as constitutional? Campaign contributions, candidate, party and PAC expenditures and lobbyists disclosures have long been upheld as legitimate methods of deterring corruption and the appearance of corruption in the political process.
  • What is the basis for claiming the bill treats corporations and unions differently? The House and Senate bill ensure that unions and corporations are subject to the same transparency provisions, including disclosure of contributions to electioneering communications and stand-by-your-ad requirements. Under the Senate bill, both corporations and unions are required to report transfers among affiliates, including dues, greater than $50,000.
  • How is the public served when a shadow group can conceal everything about itself and still influence elections by pumping unlimited amounts of money into campaign ads? The interests of the messenger can be easily disguised by giving a group an innocuous or even misleading name. At its core, the DISCLOSE Act is designed to lift the curtain off of such groups so that public can judge the veracity of a campaign ad and the credibility of the speaker.
To be a little more positive, this is a big week for Garrett, as his covered bond legislation will be put to a committee vote. From the Wall Street Journal:
The measure, crafted by Rep. Scott Garrett (R., N.J.), would establish a covered bond regulator within the Treasury Department that would define the criteria for issuers as well as the types of assets backing the bonds. The regulator would write regulations to oversee covered bond programs and protect bondholders.

The legislation envisions a U.S. covered bond market supporting lending in several sectors - to businesses and consumers as well as cities and towns.

Garrett has been touting this method for a while, and it may be his first piece of legislation to have solid bi-partisan support (unlike de-funding things like the Department of Education or the Department of Transportation).

While the chances are slim, Garrett working with Democrats may give fire to his Tea Party opponent in the general. Mark Quick posted the following on the website of the New Jersey Patriots (spelling his):

I am a canidate for NJ 5th district and Scott Garrett is no friend of those whom believe Illegal Aliens need to be deported not given a free pass. Garrett does not support an Arizona type law for NJ nor will he try and do anything in Washington DC, he is a LIAR and needs to go.
Having run as an Independent myself back in 2006, I think independents serve an important part of any election. They give an outlet for voters who don't feel the main party candidates offer them an alternative, and may spark a question or two of the main candidates from the mainstream media. In Quick's case, it's clearly for the far right. For those interested in learning more about Mark, you can go to his website here, I've also posted links to the other campaigns on the top right.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Tea Party Communists, Christie Slushies & AC Grab

Representative Scott Garrett took to the floor the other day to praise a group called Constituting America. Garrett praised the organization for it's efforts to get kids into the Constitution. While we've had our disagreements over the years about interpretation, he's been pretty consistent on the importance of people reading the Constitution and I agree.

Unfortunately, a quick review of the group's website reveals this is, at best, an effort to launch an education arm of the Tea Party. It's highly partisan, and it's founders do so little to hide the agenda I'm surprised they're capable of receiving 501(c)3 status. Here's a sampling:
By letting Congress take away your right to own a gun, you will let a dictator seize your country and your home, because he will encounter no resistance.
On top of that, this is one of the stated goals for the education contest Garrett was praising:
Encourage students and citizens to wear red clothing in celebration of Constitution Day.

A little sarcasm here: Really? What are we? Communists? Fascists? Canadian? The last time I checked the flag was red, white and blue. All joking aside, Garrett has never taken to the floor to support a non-partisan group like Kids Vote, or (to my memory) the League of Women Voters, so it's more than disappointing that we have yet another example of Garrett being overly partisan.

In other news, Governor Chris Christie apparently has a public relations slush fund. Blue Jersey has been beating the drum on this, Rob Tornoe did a great cartoon (pictured), and Charles Stile has a must read piece on the issue for The Record. Here's the comment that's most chilling:
"I'm telling you that my position is when it was under U.S. Attorney. People have to operate under the law," he said. "If they operate under the law, then that's the way it goes."
Christie's argument is that this is legal, and let it go. The problem with that is that's the same argument Papa Joe used in his corruption trial.

With the vapid privatization report now complete, Stile's point that this slush fund could return us to the glory days of pay-to-play should terrify taxpayers. Privatization done wrong will hurt our state, driving taxes higher. If that report is any indication to the quality of work being done by those heading up the privatization decisions, we are in for a redo of the DMV privatization from a decade ago. Opponents of the privatization plan really need to remind people of what it was like the last time we tried this. It didn't go so well.

And now that Christie is armed with this privatization report, it's expected Christie is going to announce a take over of the gaming district of Atlantic City today. It seems out of character to be expanding government in a time of fiscal crisis, but one could easily make the jump: Christie takes over the casino District to "save" Atlantic City, but in order to save taxpayers' money, all the normal functions of government are privatized. I hate to be this cynical, but Christie has laid out his thoughts and plans so clearly on other items, it would almost seem odd if it didn't follow this pattern.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Saving $$$, White House Honesty, Brawling Legislature?, Steinbrenner,

The weather last week put my office building on a forced conservation plan. We had lights turned off, elevators shut down, and constant reminders to keep our temperature a degree or two above normal, and to have our electronics go into sleep mode sooner. You know what, we lived. It begs the question why we as a society can't do this all of the time. It would likely save businesses and the government billions of dollars a year.

Shocker of the Week: White House Press Secretary speaks the truth by saying the Democrats could lose control of the House. Less than shocking: House Democratic leadership is aggravated by the truth. Note to Democrats: if your faithful do not believe you seriously could lose if they don't show up in November, you are going to lose the House.

State Senator Mike Doherty almost came to blows with a fellow State Senator over his assertions during a speech on education funding. From the NJ Herald:

A debate over education funding nearly turned into a scuffle on the Senate floor Thursday when two state senators had to be physically separated.

Sen. Dick Codey -- one-time governor and former Senate president -- played referee to Sens. Ray Lesniak, a Democrat, and Republican Mike Doherty. Codey said he jumped in once he heard Lesniak tell Doherty he would "punch his nose down his throat."

As the level of discourse at all political levels becomes more and more polarized, it may only be a matter of time before we start seeing fights like they have in Taiwan on a semi-regular basis.

One has to wonder if the passing of George Steinbrenner will rank as a "where were you when you heard" moment for those in the New York area. I was walking into the PATH. I was more upset about Bob Sheppard myself, because he seemed like a nice person with that beloved voice. Steinbrenner was who he was, and as a Mets fan I wasn't emotionally invested in loving or hating him, but he was without a doubt larger than life.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

NJ Budget Fixes, Recovery?, Birthday, Covered Bonds

Here's a novel approach to save our state, county and local governments money: Stop accepting credit cards.

According to the State Budget, NJ will bring in roughly $361 million in DMV fees. Even though everyone used credit cards the last time I went to the DMV, let's say half of those are paid with credit card, $180 million. Based on standard rates charged to merchants, we could save between $3.6 and $5.4 million. That's just one department that collects fees, and enough money to restore some of the tax credits that Governor Chris Christie cut that actually create jobs. Granted, the state may get a discount, but it's worth looking at.

The funny numbers of economic reporting continued on the Friday before the holiday:
The jobless rate did come down in June from 9.7 percent the month before. But that was mainly because 652,000 people abandoned their job searches.
The practice of not counting people as unemployed who have given up has been an issue of mine for a while. It's bi-partisan idiocy, making claims of the economic recovery more in line with the Emperor's New Clothes.

The other thing that impacts the jobless numbers: when people's unemployment benefits have run out. If the Republicans like Representative Scott Garrett continue to vote against extending unemployment benefits; there will be millions off the roles and the unemployment rate will be something Democrats can point to in the fall elections as success. Like I said, this is bi-partisan idiocy.

Friday is the birthday of Representative Scott Garrett. Sincerely, I wish him a Happy Birthday. In a very real sense, it's nice that many years he gets the week "off" from being in Washington (due to the recess) and can spend his birthday with his family.

For his campaign staff, however, it's unfortunate that the gift may have been given to Garrett's opponent, Tod Theise. In what was an overall positive piece, showcasing Garrett's chances of claiming the Chairmanship of the Financial Services committee that was denied to his predecessor, Herb Jackson wrote the following:
Getting a pet project that neither house had approved into a conference bill that leaders of both houses want to pass is the ultimate Washington insider move.
In an anti-establishment year, you have to believe that makes a TV commercial or two.

It also should be of concern that without hearings, without having the idea vetted (though most articles seem to favor it), Garrett has been able to create his own financial trading market. That's not exactly how our government should work. Unfortunately, similar to earmarks it, seems to be the game being played with Garrett a willing participant (yes, I know he took 2010 off from them for the campaign).

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Blogging via Rant

Well, it's been a while. And I've been asked a few times what I've been doing, and it's been a number of things, but not this. So, in Larry King style, I'm taking baby steps to get back into blogging. So, at least once a week, you'll be able to see the ramblings of a rehabilitating blogger on the road to a full return. Eventually, I'll get back to the research end of things, but for now here we go:

It's tough to stomach the fact that an estimated 71.2 million to 139 million gallons of oil have gone into the Gulf thanks to BP and the all around mess up down there. If the average gallon of milk is a foot tall, on the high end of that estimate we could already stack milk cartons past the moon.

Our Representative Scott Garrett took to the floor on Wednesday with a speech aimed at scaring people out of their support for financial reform, invoking among other things, Big Brother (2:20 mark). It's always interesting to me to see how one of the poster children for the Club for Growth, works also to appeal to the Tea Party members. At some point, their marriage of convenience will come crashing down. Steve Bell said it very well:
Indeed, the battle within the GOP won’t be among so-called moderates, social conservatives, and populists. The real battle will be between the pro-Ayn Rand Club for Growth (which supports the right of any banker in New York City to make any amount of money he or she can) and the populist Tea Party gang (which wants to hang every banker in New York City).
I've pointed out before, the Club for Growth doesn't care about deficits, which happens to be the main issue for the Tea Party. Garrett walking the tightrope should be interesting should the day ever come.

A milestone for transparency, the DISCLOSE Act, passed. The bill says that people spending massive amounts on campaigns have to give the "I'm Joe Smith, and I approve this message" line on their commercials. It also prevents foreign companies like BP or foreign governments like China from buying elections here. Almost all Republicans (including Garrett) voted against it. I read their arguments that it impinges on free speech, but in the real world it doesn't. You still can say/spend what you want. What it does do is make you accountable for what you're saying, and if people don't like it and stop buying your product, well that's the free market at work.

Garrett does have a challenger this fall: Tod Theise won the Democratic primary. A former Republican from the western part of the Fifth, it should be interesting to see how much of the vote gap he can close in Sussex and Warren.

Good luck, Tod.