Monday, March 31, 2014

Okay, Rumsfeld Believes What He Says, But That Does Not Make It True

Despite his role as the key player in the late, unlamented fool's errand known as the Iraq War, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has remained the most elusive of subjects.  A big part of this has to do with him not meeting our expectations, or in any event my own: He remains unapologetic, unrepentant and unconscionably obtuse when it comes to discussing the war, notably the chief rationale for starting it -- that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction -- which of course was discredited almost from the start.
Errol Morris has now penetrated Rumsfeld's armor (which he compares to a turtle's carapace) in a four-part New York Times op-ed series based on his interviews for The Unknown Known, a 2013 documentary in which Rumsfeld discusses his career from his days as a congressman in the early 1960s to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
I happen to think the Times series is way too long, and spare me the copious footnotes, okay?  But I slogged through the entire series with the (it turns out) prescient feeling it all had an Alice in Wonderland quality about it, and was rewarded with these closing observations by Morris in the fourth part: 
"The history of the Iraq war is replete with false assumptions, misinterpreted evidence, errors in judgment. Mistakes can be made. We all make them. But Rumsfeld created a climate where mistakes could be made with little or no way to correct them. Basic questions about evidence for W.M.D. were replaced with equivocations and obfuscations. A hall of mirrors. An infinite regress to nowhere. What do I know I know? What do I know I know I know? What do I know I don’t know I don’t know? Ad infinitum. Absence of evidence could be evidence of absence or evidence of presence. Take your pick. An obscurantist’s dream.
"There’s a quotation I have never liked. It comes from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up. 'The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.' Not really. The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and know they are opposed.
"People embrace contradictory positions, often without being aware of it. Sometimes not caring. Sometimes proud of it. Rumsfeld seems (with pleasure) to say 'p' and 'not-p.' What he would call the two sides of the coin. One side: 'If you wish for peace, prepare for war.' The other side, 'Belief in the inevitability of conflict can become one of its main causes.' Not exactly a contradiction. But where does he stand? His follow-up: 'All generalizations are false, including this one' — doesn’t clarify much of anything.
"When asked how Colin Powell could have presented such shoddy evidence for W.M.D. in Iraq to the United Nations, Rumsfeld told me, ' . . . because he believed it.' Fine, as far as it goes. My guess is Rumsfeld is right. When Powell appeared before the United Nations on Feb. 5, 2003, he believed what he was saying. . . .
"Rumsfeld, too, may believe what he is saying. But believing something does not make it true. The question is why he believed what he believed. On the basis of what evidence? Mere belief is not enough.
"In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice, perplexed by her encounter with the Cheshire Cat, says, 'I have seen a cat without a grin, but I have never seen a grin without a cat.' I had a similar experience with Donald Rumsfeld — his grin and my puzzlement about what it might mean. I was left with the frightening suspicion that the grin might not be hiding anything. It was a grin of supreme self-satisfaction and behind the grin might be nothing at all."
History already has judged Rumsfeld's stewardship harshly, and he certainly was the worst defense secretary since Robert McNamara, who served under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. McNamara, in turn, was the worst since Jefferson Davis, who as secretary of war under Franklin Pierce worked tirelessly for Southern interests and was instrumental in helping push the U.S. toward civil war.

In fact, Rumsfeld was the worst hands down.

Like Rumsfeld, McNamara was a control freak who thought he had all the answers, lacked the crucial element of common sense and surrounded himself with sycophantic acolytes. Like Rumsfeld, he presided over an unpopular war built on a foundation of false assumptions and outright lies. Like Rumseld, there was an amorality to his actions. And like Rumsfeld, he squandered the respect of his generals and admirals.
But without McNamara, there still would have been a Vietnam War, while there would not have been an Iraq war without Rumsfeld.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Beyond Shameful & Brilliantly Successful Republican Lie Machine

Since the election of Barack Obama in 2008, the Republican Party has forsworn governance for something it believes to be far more effective -- lying. 

The party has lied consistently and unapologetically about matters large and small, whether in grossly mischaracterizing the president and his policy initiatives or in committing to work with Democrats on a variety of issues, including the congressional supercommittee to fashion a deficit-reduction package, and then pulling the rug out from under the table.  While the strategy of lying is shameful when considered in the perspective of the long arc of American political history and its many honorable practitioners, it has been brilliantly successful, so successful that the GOP's cavalcade of lies could conceivably put it within hailing distance of recapturing the Senate in the November elections.

The Republican playbook has been simple:
* Avoid abstract ideas and appeal to the emotions. 
* Constantly repeat just a few ideas by using stereotyped phrases.
* Always give only one side of the argument.
* Continuously criticize your opponents. 
* Pick out one "enemy" in particular for special vilification.
This playbook would be immediately recognizable to students of the Third Reich.  It was employed, almost word for word, with insidious effectiveness by Joseph Goebbels, Adolph Hitler's minister of propaganda.
This is not to compare Republicans with Nazis.  I do not.  But like Hitler and Goebbels, Republicans have seized on lying as an effective tool for getting the attention of a restive electorate not unlike that in Germany in the early 1930s. 
In a contemporary American context, these are most notably "low-information voters" to use the polite pollster catchphrase to describe working-class whites still smarting from the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression and deeply distrustful of the Big Government that nevertheless has kept many of them afloat.  It is this group that could make the difference in several states where Republicans have a shot at picking up Senate seats.
* * * * *
Among the biggest Republican lies are these:
The Affordable Care Act Will Result In The Loss of 2.3 Million Jobs.  In fact, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported last month that the act will reduce the total number of hours worked by about 1.5 percent to 2.0 percent from 2017 to 2024, almost entirely as a result of workers being able to choose to supply less labor because of the benefits the act provides.  (Then there are other hard-to-kill ACA lies, including claims the act creates death panels and pays for abortion as contraception.)
Obama Has Doubled The Deficit.  In fact, his administration has reduced the deficit by a nearly one trillion dollars in five years, and is one of only just three administrations in the last 50 years that will leave office with a lower deficit than when it began.  (In case you're wondering, the last Republican to manage that feat was some guy by the name of Eisenhower.)
The Keystone XL Pipeline Will Create 120,000 Jobs.  In fact, the State Department estimated in its Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement that 16,100 direct and 26,000 indirect jobs would be created over the two years of construction.
Tax cuts stimulate the economy.  In fact, Moody's Analytics estimates that every dollar spent on unemployment benefits generates $1.61 in economic growth and every dollar spent on food stamps generates $1.74 in economic growth, while every dollar spent on rolling taxes back to Bush-era levels creates a measly 32 cents in economic growth, a whopping 68-cent loss on investment.  So much for trickle-down economics.
Voter Fraud Is A Serious Issue That Requires Strict New Laws.  In fact, an estimated one one-hundredth of one percent of the votes cast in general elections are questionable as the extremely rare prosecutions for voter fraud cases abundantly show.  In Ohio, for example, a GOP-inspired war on voter fraud netted 20 possible cases out of nearly six million votes cast in 2012.  This was just one of many attempts by the party to suppress turnout of minorities who reliably vote Democratic.
Man-Made Climate Change Is A Hoax.  In fact, while a tiny minority of scientists remain skeptical that humans are causing climate change and failure to address it will be catastrophic to the planet in the long term, NASA states the evidence that global temperatures are rising at an alarming rate is overwhelming.  And record cold and snowfalls in the Eastern U.S. over the past winter were a consequence of record temperature increases in the Arctic.
It Is Safer to Have A Gun In Your House Or On Your Person.  In fact, having a gun doubles the risk that household members will kill themselves or family members.  (The figures for suicide risk is substantially higher.)  Meanwhile, someone is 50 percent more likely to be shot dead by their own hand than by a criminal assailant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And my favorite: Obama Is Giving Away Free Cellphones For Votes.  In fact, there is a program offering low-cost phones to people who can’t afford them. The program was created with the support of that great conservative god, Ronald Reagan, in 1984, and is paid for entirely by phone companies and not taxpayers.
* * * * *
It is tempting to blame the news media for rarely fact checking even the most egregious Republican claims, but in the 24/7 news cycle world, that would be nearly impossible.
As it is, the fact-checking organization PolitiFact has found Republicans to be "less trustworthy" than Democrats.  In one study, PolitiFact found that 52 percent of Republican claims were "mostly false," “false” or “pants on fire,” versus 24 percent of Democratic statements.  Some 54 percent of Democratic statements were rated as "mostly true" or "true," compared to just 18 percent of Republican statements.

Los Angeles Times economics columnist Michael Hiltzik is the rare media maven who has fact checked the litany of woes attributed to the Affordable Care Act in Republican-backed advertising and has yet to find any real "Obamacare" victims. 
"What a lot of these stories have in common," he has written, "are, first of all, a subject largely unaware of his or her options under the ACA or unwilling to determine them; and, second, shockingly uninformed and incurious news reporters, including some big names in the business, who don’t bother to look into the facts of the cases they’re offering for public consumption."
* * * * *
Of course, fudging the truth, if not outright lying, has a long and dishonorable place in American politics.  (Heck, even George Washington was being disingenuous when he is said to have uttered, "I cannot tell a lie.")  But credit Republicans with raising lying to an art form, as well as calculatedly using lying as a substitute for actually engaging in governance.  You know, articulating policy positions and sticking to them for longer than a press conference, and helping fashion compromises for the common good, as opposed to shutting down the government when they don't get their way and vilifying the president, sometimes in terms that are unmistakably racist.
Michael Tomasky quotes Paul O'Neill, who was prepping George W. Bush for a presidential debate, as telling him that "The public prefers spending on things like health care and education over cutting taxes. It’s crucial that your remarks make clear that there is no trade-off here."
"Put more bluntly," Tomasky writes, "what O'Neill was saying here is: You have to lie. By definition, you have to lie. You can't tell people that tax-cutting will result in less money for these programs, which is the truth, so you/we Republicans have to invent a fiction of no trade-offs, of a free market that can deliver everything. What Bush delivered to us was essentially no net job growth in eight years and the worst crisis in 80."
Which certainly didn't stop Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan from peddling that same lie in 2012.
* * * * *
While Republican bashing may seem like good sport for commentators like myself, in reality it is a deeply depressing state of affairs when a political party abandons advocating serious policy positions. 

Exhibit A in this regard is that the GOP has yet to float a credible alternative to the Affordable Care Act in the five years since Obama presented it to a joint session of Congress in February 2009.  It is so much easier to simply lie over and over.  And declare that the so-called free market is the best mechanism for managing health care.  This is perhaps the biggest lie of all because it is the very reason the U.S. leads the industrialized world in infant mortality, obesity and anxiety disorders, and is last in life expectancy despite having by far the highest health-care costs.
The Democrats, mind you, have not been exactly lie-free, notably President Obama's whopper that under the Affordable Care Act people would be able to keep their health-insurance plans no matter what.  (Actually, the vast majority will be able to do just that, but an embarrassed Obama nevertheless had to backtrack on the claim.)
But the truth (pardon the term) is that when a lightweight like Ryan -- himself a Pinocchio of staggering dimensions -- is viewed by the GOP as its leading intellectual, it simply is easier to try to scam voters than educate them.  (Ryan qualifies for additional scorn for his thinly-veiled attacks on inner-city blacks whom in his and the GOP's view are undeserving layabouts.)
We are all -- and I include Democrats, as well -- losers when the Republican Party delegitimizes itself because it cannot stop lying.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Random Musings On The Spring Equinox: Global Swarming & More

I cannot remember being so anxious for spring to spring as this spring. 
Not that I have forgotten about the winter of 1977-78, when our wood stove ran nonstop from Thanksgiving to Saint Patrick's Day and the last of the snow didn't disappear until early April.  But this winter just passed was worse in that I had spent two weeks camping in the Florida Keys in February 1978 and have no tan to show off this year, only memories of a record snowfall, too many zero and sub-zero nights to count (I sometimes had to wear socks to bed, for cryin' out loud!), as well as umpteen trips on hazardous roads to a physical therapist to get back into fighting trim after several bone fractures.
On the plus side, I am healing nicely, finished writing a 60,000-word book and sent it off to the publisher, and there were no power failures.  This had less to do with the lousy weather, which included several ice storms and tree branch-breaking high winds, than the fact we purchased an insurance policy in the form of an emergency backup generator for the mountain retreat, which sits in its gleaming black and orange newness in the garage this Spring Equinox.  Had we not opted for the generator, we undoubtedly would have had outages.
Global warming deniers are pointing to the Polar Vortex phenomenon and resulting Arctic-like weather in much of the eastern U.S. over the first two-plus months of the year as evidence that the planet is doing just fine temperature-wise.

The truth -- and there's science to back it up -- is that the bitterly cold weather is a result of global warming.

As meteorologist Michael Mann puts it: "[W]hen a drunken Arctic leaves Alaska warmer than Georgia in mid-winter, and California as high and dry as it has ever been, we should know we may have a problem."
Two developments show that newspapers -- some anyway -- are still providing vital public services despite the death knell many pundits have been sounding for the industry for years.
The first involves The New York Times, which despite some rough sailing in the first decade of the millennium, is alive and well -- and publishing important new online content, in this instance and some others, in conjunction with feisty outside investigative news organizations.
"The Men of Atalissa" is the story, told in complimentary print and documentary video formats, of how a group of men with intellectual disabilities seemed to be happily living in a small Iowa town for more than three decades.  The dark truth, eventually uncovered by unsuspecting neighbors and confirmed by government agencies, was beyond shocking.
The second involves the Philadelphia Daily News, where I labored for a good many years, and continues to survive despite parlous financial conditions that can be blamed in part on a series of owners who know bupkiss about running newspapers.  Among my proudest accomplishments as an investigative editor was mentoring up and coming reporters, including Barbara Laker.
In 2010, Laker and colleague Wendy Ruderman won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism for a series of stories revealing that members of the city's narcotics squad were as corrupt as the criminals they targeted, and over a seven-year period had fabricated busts while systematically looting mom-and-pop stores and terrorizing immigrant owners. One squad member also sexually assaulted three women during raids.
Laker and Ruderman repeatedly risked their lives to expose the narcotics squad, a story they tell beautifully in the just-published Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly LoveBuy it, okay?
Meanwhile, there's a new kid on the beat -- the robo-journalist. (Cough, cough.)
The face of the abhorant Citizens United ruling, which gave carte blanche to corporations and individuals to pour billions of dollars in donations to skew election results, in many instances turning local races into national ones, are the Koch Brothers. 
They are the fascist industrialists who have bankrolled innumerable advertising campaigns -- to the tune of some $407 million in 2012 alone -- for ultra-conservative causes so filled with lies and misrepresentations that even Joseph Goebbels would blush.
Democrats are finally and belatedly pushing back.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who will never be confused with Mary Magdalen, is leading the effort, while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has set up a website,, to remind voters of just what these bros stand for.
When is the last time the Koch Brothers-embracing Republican Party has been on the right side of history? The Emancipation Proclamation some 150 years ago?  That probably is an exaggeration, but considering that buck-stopping Harry Truman was president when I was born, I cannot think of a major social issue in my lifetime that the GOP led the charge on.  (No, chastising mothers who don't pack brown-bag lunches for their schoolchildren doesn't count.)

And so it comes as no surprise that Republicans are again out in the cold on what, by my lights, are the three most important social issues of the moment: Providing health care for as many Americans as possible, endorsing equal rights for gays and lesbians, as well as same-sex marriage, and supporting the legalization of medical marijuana and decriminalization of personal marijuana use.
While the Democrats have beaucoup problems, notably the disaffection of working white males, who were once the party's core constituency, the GOP will pay at the polls in the 2016 presidential election because of being on the wrong side of these social issues.  Its own core constituency is shrinking and is increasingly made up of people who put their teeth in a glass when they go to bed at night, while all three of those issues have widespread support among the comers -- young voters who are signing up for Obamacare in robust numbers, have no problem with someone's sexual orientation if it doesn't correspond with their own, and understand that marijuana not only has pain-easing palliative uses, but is not the gateway drug that the scolds claim it is.
Is there a bigger sack of excrement than the Central Intelligence Agency?  I think not.  
These are the idiots who, after all, missed the 1950 Chinese invasion of Korea, the 1959 takeover of Cuba by Fidel Castro, the 1963 Cuban missile crisis, the 1979 ouster of the Shah, Iranian revolution and rise of the ayatollahs, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, the coming of Osama bin Laden, as well as that 9/11 thing.
And now the CIA has been caught out spying on Congress, for Chrissake, because certain members, chief among them Senator Diane Feinstein, had uncovered the agency's repeated lies over its despicable illegal torture and detention program.  How ironic that Feinstein, long an apologist for the CIA, has gotten a taste of her own medicine. 
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Abolish the freaking CIA! 
I am a versatile writer, but always have been challenged when writing about music, especially the jammy-improvised music of which I am most fond.  So it was something of a revelation to read what some French guy had to say, as quoted by New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff in a marvelous review of the Allman Brothers' farewell residency at the Beacon Theater this month:

"There’s a prevailing notion around improvised music that the essence of a song is never truly arrived at — that, as the French philosopher and musicologist Peter Szendy has written, it 'must remain always yet to come, at the (endless) end.' But every now and then, especially in 'True Gravity' and 'Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,' I felt that I was hearing both real-time improvisation — the meaningful, textured, changeable, hypothetical kind — and a version of a song that might as well be definitive, the one on which to end your search."
Image: "Allegory of Spring" by Sandro Botticelli

Friday, March 14, 2014

I Was Indeed So Much Older Then. I'm Younger Than That Now

Most of the people my age is dead. You could look it up.
Today is my birthday, an occasion that I have tried to ignore since I was a youngster and my mother would prepare my favorite dinner of hot dogs and French fries with ice cream cake roll for dessert.  But this birthday is different because I find myself two thirds of the way to the century mark and, despite sundry debilitations and the loss of friends, all of which I will bore you with shortly, I am a happy guy.  
This state of mind comes as somewhat of a surprise as old age, at least in the chronological sense, has crept up on me. 

It seems like only yesterday -- or perhaps it was the day before yesterday -- that I had a crush on my 6th grade teacher (a hottie who was already old at the age of 25 in my young eyes).  That I celebrated my 21st birthday in five states (Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Total Inebriation).  That I turned an untrustworthy 30 (at a Grateful Dead concert), my 40th and 50th birthdays (I don't remember the exact circumstances because I was headed for and then working through a lengthy bout depression), and my 60th birthday (in the company of a Tall Blonde who had blasted me out of my emotional doldrums).
Having spent the last half of 2013 looking at hospital room ceilings and painfully graduating from wheelchair to walker to cane after bone fractures suffered under the most mundane of circumstances, as opposed to a hard landing while skydiving or chasing Jennifer Lawrence, I should be pretty bummed out.
There indeed have been moments when I felt blue, but I have had some very effective therapy in the form of completing a book, some three years in the writing, that celebrates the lives of some of my dearest friends -- with whom I lived on a farm during the 1970s -- "a kidney stone of a decade," as a character in the Doonesbury comic strip once characterized that time, but was a joyous odyssey for our little tribe.
* * * * *
Aside from, or perhaps because of its therapeutic aspects, writing for me has become "a feat of self-preservation," to quote the preeminent novelist Philip Roth.  Over a 45-year career that included thousands of newspaper bylines, writing put food on the table, gas in the car, and nappies on my children's bums.
I stopped writing when I first quit the newspaper business after 35 largely rewarding years and some three weeks before the 9/11 attacks, which felt kind of like being a fireman without a pole to slide down, let alone a truck to speed to the blaze in.  (Roth did the same thing a couple of years ago insofar as novels are concerned after a two dozen books and several decades on the New York Times bestseller list.)  I eventually came to realize that writing was my lifeblood.  Hence a second career as a blogger and penning a true-crime murder mystery book that has sold well enough to keep me in single-malt Scotch, if not on the Times bestseller list.
And now There's A House In The Land (Where A Band Can Take A Stand), my rather cumbersomely titled tome about that little tribe. 
Eight of the 22 members of the tribe are dead.  So I suppose I should be grieving over this rather hefty toll.  Or at least feeling its emotional weight.  But I have shed more tears over Bart, the farm's Irish Setter, than these friends, who come through in my memories -- and my 60,000-word memoir, now delivered to the publisher -- as a wonderfully spirited bunch who surely would disapprove if they know I was mourning their passing instead of celebrating their lives.
* * * * *
At the age of 93, Roger Angell, the legendary baseball writer and longtime New Yorker editor, has a bit more than a half century on me, but I could relate and then some to what he wrote in a recent essay: "Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. . . . I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces. If it returns, we seize upon it avidly, stunned and altered again."
Good luck (okay, mostly) over seven decades certainly has something to do with the fact I'm still vertical.  But I hasten to note that I first got together with that doldrum-blasting Tall Blonde at the funeral for one of those eight friends, and that was nearly 17 years ago.  The fact we're still going strong (talk about bare expanses of shoulder!) goes a long way to explaining why, along with celebrating and not mourning the dear departed members of that tribe, I am a happy guy two thirds of the way to the Big One-Oh-Oh.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

What Rhymes With Crap & Corruption? Can You Say New Jersey?

(Portions of this post were originally published in September 2006)
New Jersey joined the fledgling American union early on, unanimously ratifying the Constitution a few days after Delaware and then Pennsylvania. That may well be the last time over the intervening two-plus centuries that there has been unanimity about anything to do with New Jersey. Except for widespread agreement that it is the weirdest of states and, I hasten to add, profoundly and incurably corrupt.

Say "Iowa" and you think of cornfields.  Say "Texas" and you think of the Alamo. Say "Florida" and you think of Disney World. But say "New Jersey" and you think of . . . Oil refineries?  Toll roads?  The 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping?  The Sopranos?  And most recently Chris Christie, who has parlayed a career as a crime-busting U.S. attorney into a career as the most corrupt New Jersey governor in recent memory.

To begin with, New Jersey has a profound identity crisis that borders on schizophrenia.
Situated smack dab between New York City and Philadelphia, New Jersey exhibits traits of both cities and their cultures, but (the rich Bruce Springsteen songbook notwithstanding) has no identifiable statewide culture of its own to speak of.  Worse yet, with the exception of a modest homegrown public television network, its citizens must rely on TV broadcasts from out of state.

Oh, the horror!

Singer-songwriter John Gorka nicely sums up the state in the closing lines of "I’m From New Jersey," which he sings with a mournful languidness that borders on narcolepsy.
I’m from New Jersey. It's not like Texas.
There is no mystery, I can't pretend.
I'm from New Jersey, it's like Ohio,
But even more so. Imagine that.
I know which exit, and where I'm bound,
Tolls on the Parkway they will slow you down.
New Jersey people, they will surprise you,
Cause they're not expected to do too much.
They will try harder, they may go further,
They never think that they are good enough.
I'm from New Jersey, I don't expect too much.
If the world ended today I would adjust.
Can't you just feel the pain?

New Jersey’s license plates have been long adorned with "The Garden State" slogan because of the one-time proliferation of small truck farms. Many grew the most delicious tomatoes anywhere, among them the famously disease- and pest-resistant Rutgers variety.  If you wanted the best for that sauce, salad or sandwich, you asked for "New Jersey tomatoes, please."

You can still find the occasional basket of locally grown tomatoes at a roadside vegetable stand, but most of the truck farms have been plowed under for the state’s current bumper crop – suburban sprawl, which is the unplanned and uncontrolled spread of development from cities to practically everywhere else. Nobody except developers and construction companies (and politicians on the take) want sprawl, but nobody seems to be able to stop it.  So it’s not for nothing (pronounced nuttin by gen-u-wine old-time residents) that New Jersey is the most densely populated of the 50 states.

(Speakin of nuttin, the state also has a vernacular all its own: A shoobie is a tourist, any carbonated beverage is a coke, everything is measured by blocks, to hook up is to have sex, route is a term never heard (it’s always take "9," not "Route 9"), a sub is a sandwich made with various meats, cheeses and vegetables, while a pie is a pizza, the beach is the shore, and to travel there is to go down the shore.)

Back back to our story . . .

The aforementioned tomato was named for New Jersey’s largest institution of higher education – Rutgers University.

That brings up another big image problem.

New Jersey is the only state without an eponymous university of consequence. The sports teams of Pennsylvania State University, University of Washington, Kansas State, Ole Miss, and so on and so forth, are magnets for state pride, bragging rights, paraphernalia from baseball caps to t-shirts to beer mugs, as well as lots of college sports betting, most of it illegal. When was the last time you heard someone say, "We’re from Rutgers and we’re going to kick your ass!" 
Rutgers' inferiority complex is so bad that in recent years it has pored millions of dollars not into educating the little dears who make up the student body, but the football program.

It gets worse . . .

Even the most cursory Internet search reveals that almost everything written about New Jersey has to do with official corruption.

In fact, New Jersey is the second most corrupt state in the union after Louisiana (no surprise there), according to political scientist Larry Sabato, who co-authored an entire book about New Jersey’s love affair with the bribe.

This often falls under the heading of "Pay to Play," shorthand for a fact of New Jersey life: If you want to do business with the government at any level, you have to grease politicians' palms, usually in the form of campaign contributions.

The list of the many dozens of politicians who have succumbed to the siren song of corruption in recent years is at least a reflection of New Jersey’s diversity.  They're white, black, Latino and Asian.  (The excuse often made for this epidemic is that an unusual amount of power resides at the local level and in the governor's office with nothing in between.  To which I say, bullbleep.)

When Christie's predecessor, Jon Corzine, was sworn in as governor in 2006, the keynote of his inaugural address was a pledge to enact sweeping ethics reform. If that sounded familiar to jaded New Jerseyans, it’s because predecessors since time immemorial had said the same thing.  And like those predecessors, the clean-up effort went nowhere.
Corzine, a financial executive who is wealthier than God, was best known as governor for shacking up with a woman while still married and then bankrolling her to the tune of $6 million when they broke up, and for being badly injured after being thrown from a State Police vehicle in a crash because he wasn't wearing a seat belt.
By the way, Corzine replaced Richard Codey, who had become acting governor after the sudden resignation of James McGreevey in 2004 because of an extramarital affair with a male aide whom he had appointed head of the state’s department of homeland security despite not having a lick of experience.
Then there is Christie, whose cojones seem to be as big as his belly, even after he secretly underwent lap-band weight loss surgery.

In an effort to perfume his image among Republicans who see him as a moderate alternative for the GOP presidential nomination -- as opposed to conservatives beholden to the Tea Party and outright kooks -- Christie has repeatedly beaten up on police officers, firefighters and teachers who belong to New Jersey state public employee unions. 
But the nomination is looking like a long shot after revelations that Christie administration insiders engineered five days of George Washington Bridge lane closures in Fort Lee, causing monumental gridlock and a public-safety emergency, because the Democratic mayor of that burg refused to endorse him in Christie's 2013 re-election campaign for governor.
That, it turns out, was the tip of the iceberg: 
Beyond Fort Lee, these insiders, with the knowledge and approval of Christie (as eventually will come out), traded or withheld juicy development projects -- and possibly Hurricane Sandy relief aid, as well -- depending upon whether mayors endorsed or did not endorse him. 
The rot is not confined to politics.

Most people see New Jersey through a car windshield on that infamous turnpike. Which makes the jackbooted troopers who patrol the toll road good will ambassadors of a sort.  What sort?  The sort that will stop you because of your skin color.
Then there is the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, the state's largest and supposedly most prestigious health-care institution, which did such a good imitation of being a mob family, what with no-bid contract kickbacks and such, that it became the first university in the country to be overseen by a court-ordered federal monitor. 
And where else but New Jersey would 44 people be charged with money laundering, including three mayors, two state assemblymen . . . and five rabbis.
Worse yet . . .

In a rare fit of self reflection, New Jersey changed its slogan from "The Garden State" to "Come See For Yourself" a few years back.  You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know it cost millions and millions to redo all those state line signs, official stationary and, of course, license plates.  The motto didn't stick.

A more appropriate slogan might be "The 'Kick Me' State."

Well, I'm not going to take it anymore. I’m tired of all the snide remarks, jokes and hang-dog song lyrics. Besides which, some of my best friends are from New Jersey.

So I’m going to the record straight:

New Jersey is a really special place. If you know where to look.

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Perniciousness Of Intimidating Public Employees To Not Do Their Jobs

Worker intimidation -- as in My Way or the Highway -- is nothing new in American business, but is now spreading to include government employees with a toxic perniciousness as two ongoing scandals show.
They are the massive Duke Energy coal ash spill in North Carolina, where Governor Pat McCrory, a former longtime Duke Energy executive, threatened employees of the state environment agency if they attempted to do their jobs by reining in the utility, and the Port Authority of New Jersey and New York, where henchmen appointed by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie threatened Port Authority employees if they revealed the existence of a "war room" where a secret plan was hatched to foist huge Hudson River crossing toll hikes on commuters by drowning out criticism and limiting public input.
From a New York Times story on Duke:

"[R]egulators were told they must focus on customer service, meaning issuing environmental permits for businesses as quickly as possible. Big changes are coming, the official said . . . 'If you don’t like change, you’ll be gone.'

" 'They’re terrified,' said . . . a retired supervisor who keeps in touch with many current employees. 'Now these people have to take a deep breath and say, I know what the rules require, but what does the political process want me to do?’ "
From a Bergen (N.J.) Record story on the Port Authority, which has been in the media crosshairs since politically-motivated lane closures gridlocked the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge for five mornings in September:

"[A] longtime janitorial worker who tried to get into the war room over a weekend to reach a leaky pipe was so forcefully admonished that he told others that he feared he would lose his job as a result . . .

"There are commonalities in the circumstances surrounding the lane closures and the toll-hike rollout: a culture of secrecy, rank-and-file employees who feared for their jobs and the sidelining of the agency’s executive director."
Let's be clear about this: We're not talking about governors -- Republican all -- like Wisconsin's Scott Walker or New Jersey's Christie who are using unionized public employees who happen to be doing their jobs as whipping boys to make political points.  We're talking about wielding political cudgels to force public employees to not do their jobs.
Photo courtesy of CNN