Monthly Archives: December 2014

Journalistic Demagoguery

It’s easy to poke fun at politicians. If you don’t believe that, spend a few minutes scrolling through this site’s archives, because The Curmudgeon has certainly done his share of poking, including as recently as last weekend.

Politicians are an easy and natural target: many of us, and especially The Curmudgeon, have a natural antipathy toward authority figures, plus, like baseball umpires, we tend to notice politicians mostly when they do something wrong or something we don’t like – or, increasingly, when we grow frustrated about them not doing much of anything at all.

A natural object of disdain is the salaries of elected officials. For starters, most higher-level elected officials are paid more – often, much more – than the average working person. Worse, some get to decide their own salaries and benefits – something we despise even though it’s hard to envision a better way. Who else should decide? People chosen by politicians? How would that be an improvement? The public? If that were the case, most people would set elected officials’ salaries at the minimum wage and only give them raises when that minimum wage increased – and then, only grudgingly. The Curmudgeon also is not enamored of popular sentiment: after all, a significant proportion of the public thinks that anyone who can do third grade arithmetic is therefore qualified to teach third grade arithmetic and that $50,000 a year is an extravagant amount of money to pay a public school teacher. Those people are wrong, and they are stupid.

But sometimes we go too far, such as in the case of a jaded Philadelphia Daily News columnist who has been at his job for too long and who, in a column a while back titled “PA pols who go belly up to the trough” (in all fairness, columnists don’t necessarily get to choose the titles of their pieces), launches his ride on the roller coaster of ridiculousness by asserting that “It might surprise you to know that a few – not many, but a few – Pennsylvania lawmakers are not, well, pigs.”

Just “a few”? Out of 253 members of the state legislature, just a few are not “pigs”?

At first the columnist is just singing the praises of members of Pennsylvania’s state legislature who choose not to sign up for pensions and then those who decline health insurance and finally writes about some other benefits state legislators receive.

But pigs at a trough? Really? For accepting pensions for jobs at which they work?  Does that really – really – make them pigs?

The Curmudgeon doesn’t think so. They have a job and their constituents like them enough to keep returning them to that job for long enough to qualify for a pension, so why shouldn’t they accept a pension that comes with the job? (Even though he has no pension himself, only what he’s managed to save on his own, The Curmudgeon is all for pensions and certainly doesn’t begrudge those who have them. He also has no problem with public employees receiving reasonable pensions.)

Are there politicians – and specifically, members of the Pennsylvania state legislature ­– who are pigs feeding at the trough? Absolutely. Legislators who live more than a certain distance from the state capital, for example, are entitled to a “per diem” payment for food and lodgings when they travel to the capital but are not required to document that they actually made such trips and incurred the expenses. The legislature takes off the months of July and August because there’s supposedly no work to be done, yet some members are believed to continue traveling to the capital, under the pretext that there actually is work to be done, so they can collect their per diem payments. Then there’s the matter of one state legislator who for a time chose to fly from Philadelphia to the state capital in Harrisburg – a trip of only 100 miles, even though from the Amtrak station that’s just a few minutes’ drive from his home he can get a train that covers the same distance in just ninety minutes at a fraction of the cost of airfare and leaves passengers a five-minute walk from the state capital. That same legislator also bills taxpayers for thousands of dollars a year for books he purchases, claiming he needs to read them to do his job, while neither sharing the titles of this essential reading with the public nor donating the books to a worthy public library when he has finished them.

Now these people are The Curmudgeon’s idea of pigs feeding at the trough.

Some of those who don’t take state pensions and health insurance make that choice because they’re already wealthy and don’t need these benefits or have other employment that provides health insurance or are insured through working spouses. Some seem to do it to score political points: in the column, one legislator, who also practices law – we know they don’t make any money – declares “that’s not why I ran.” Others have lucrative careers in other fields. Is the columnist suggesting that only wealthy people should serve in elected office?

That brings The Curmudgeon to one of his pet peeves in the area of the compensation of elected officials: those who, when a raise is forthcoming – whether voted by their legislative peers or as a result of an automatic adjustment based on increases in the cost of living – declare that they’re not going to accept the latest pay raise.

In many cases, these people actually accept the raises and donate the money to charity.

Noble, no?

Noble – no. What they’re really doing is donating taxpayer money to groups (and taking credit for it) in exchange for favorable attention that they hope will translate into votes in future elections. Imagine that you live in the district of state representative X and he donates $1000 to the community center in your neighborhood. How do you think that might affect your decision the next time that state representative’s name is on the ballot?

What’s even more appalling about this “I won’t accept this raise” proclamation is that when you get right down to it, it amounts to public officials choosing which laws they will follow and which they won’t.

Wouldn’t you like that kind of freedom?

“I will stop at red lights only between the hours of eight and nine a.m. and five and six p.m.”

“I will not murder but do not feel bound by any law that prohibits stealing.”

“I will pay social security taxes but won’t pay federal income taxes or file a federal income tax return.”

No, ordinary working people don’t get to pick and choose the laws they’ll follow and elected officials have no right to do that either.

So we return to the original question: isn’t the columnist who suggested that not just some but most politicians are pigs at a trough more than a little out of line? The Curmudgeon thinks he is. While The Curmudgeon dislikes so much about what so many elected officials do with the power we’ve given them, he does not begrudge them a living wage for the roles they fill, nor is he at all comfortable with the idea that a misguided attempt to change this could result in only the wealthy holding important public offices (and maybe a few people who are committed to a life of poverty). And a newspaper columnist who has occupied a front row seat watching these officials for decades knows this and knows better, but he also knows he has the power to rile people with his words, no matter how ill-chosen they are, and doesn’t mind mixing a little demagoguery into his columns. (And before you even go there, there’s a world of difference between a columnist writing for a daily newspaper that reaches more than 100,000 readers a day and some yutz with a blog that reaches an average of eight visitors a day.)

He’s wrong, he knows he’s wrong, and he did it anyway – and that, too, is just plain wrong.

About “Footloose”

Footloose was on television last weekend and The Curmudgeon caught a few minutes of it, including the (very fun) ending.

footlooseBut it got him to wondering…

How is it that in a town where dancing was not permitted and then that prohibition was lifted, all the kids instantly know how to dance – and dance pretty well?

(And speaking of Footloose, if you’re a fan, you may like this.)

A Side Note About Ferguson

Without directly addressing the events of recent months in Ferguson, Missouri, last weekend The Curmudgeon came across this bit of perspective on the place in the fall edition of The American Prospect magazine, which reported that

until the mid-1960s, Ferguson barred African Americans after dark, blocking the main road from Kinloch with a chain and construction materials. A second road remained open so housekeepers and nannies could get from Kinloch [note: a nearby town] to jobs in Ferguson.

The Curmudgeon doesn’t know exactly what happened in Ferguson on that August night – and maybe we never will – but this offers a sense of what that place must be like for the people who live there.

A Message to Readers

He’s not sure he’s mentioned it in this space, but The Curmudgeon works for a small health care consulting company. It’s a pretty dynamic little outfit, and one of the many things it does for its clients is seek help from government, at both the state and federal levels, for a wide variety of things.

And yes, that sometimes means lobbying.

But no, The Curmudgeon is not a lobbyist. No one in their right mind would ever let him speak to a public official on behalf of a client that’s paying good money for professional assistance: he lacks the patience, the polish, and the temperament for such endeavors. As far as he can recall, the last time he spoke to a public official face to face was in 1990, when he was dragged by one of his bosses to a nearly deserted city hall in Philadelphia the day after Christmas to meet with the mayor as part of preparation to write testimony for Philadelphia’s city treasurer about the extent of the city’s financial crisis at the time. This wasn’t even lobbying, it was a writing assignment, and The Curmudgeon was invited to ask questions – but when he did, Mayor Wilson Goode absolutely blew up at him over the questions he asked, and when the mayor finally calmed down he just sat there, smoldering.

If looks could kill, you wouldn’t be reading this today.

And since then, employers have pretty much kept The Curmudgeon away from public officials – and, for the most part, clients as well. Oh, sure, there was the time when The Curmudgeon was doing some human resources consulting and, in response to a question from the CEO of a small company about why his employees didn’t come to him when a certain sensitive problem arose, The Curmudgeon looked him in the eye and said “Because they’re afraid of you,” much to the horror of the more experienced consultant sitting by his side at the time. The client absolutely loved it and called The Curmudgeon’s boss to tell her so, but she was afraid The Curmudgeon had just gotten lucky and was not about to risk alienating a paying client and made sure to steer him clear of clients from that point forward.

Before he started this blog, The Curmudgeon told his employers what he intended to do and said he would write anonymously, so he wouldn’t risk compromising the business. They liked that idea. A lot. The last thing they wanted was for a relatively low-level employee to poison the waters for a paying client – and The Curmudgeon agreed with them. That’s why he told them about the blog in the first place and proposed writing anonymously.

It made sense. There are people in the public sector for whom The Curmudgeon, in this very space, has expressed, shall we say, less than unvarnished enthusiasm, and there may be times when his colleagues may be asking those very people and their friends and partisans to support a law or a regulation or policy change or position that would benefit one of the company’s clients. The last thing the company needed was a political opponent trying to dig up dirt on the company, visiting its web site, finding The Curmudgeon, putting two and two together, and going to some powerful member of Congress and saying “Hey, look at what this jerk from the lobbying firm is writing about you! I say we screw them!”

And you know what they say about biting the hand that feeds you.

Even though he thinks he’s done a reasonably good job of shielding his identity, his employers recently asked The Curmudgeon to strengthen the firewall between the blog and his true identity. The Curmudgeon thinks that’s a reasonable request. After all, he knows which side his bread is buttered on, as another old saying goes.

But the blog, like the show, must go on.

(Good lord, that’s three clichés in the space of three paragraphs. Quick, someone destroy this monster before it clichés again.)

To enable it to do so while also respecting his employer’s wishes, The Curmudgeon will discontinue announcing upcoming posts on his Facebook page as of the end of the year. For those of you who count on Facebook to tell you when something new has been posted, an alternative is to go to the blog, find the little link on the bottom right-hand side of the screen that says “follow,” and hit that link. When you do, a new screen pops up and asks for your email address. If you enter your address there, you’ll receive an email from WordPress, the folks who host The Four-Eyed Curmudgeon, the morning after he posts something new. The Curmudgeon recently tested this and it works just fine.

Or, if you’d rather not, you know by now that seldom does more than a day or two pass without The Curmudgeon posting something new here.

The Curmudgeon – no, for once, let’s say “I” – I appreciate your visits to this page and hope we can continue to get together online occasionally for as long as I can think of things to write about and for as long as you’re willing to put up with some pretty far out there views. It’s a pretty big world, though, so running out of things to write about seems pretty unlikely.

And by the way, if you ever want to use this space to get something off your own chest, feel free to let me know and we can arrange a “guest column” for you.

Finally, just to be sure his vast readership gets this message – just so you know, The Curmudgeon considers any day his total number of visitors reaches double digits to be an excellent day – he will repeat this message every weekend between now and the end of the year.

Again, thanks for your patience and continued support. I enjoy writing for you.

Petulance From the Right

As any student of American government (or viewer of The West Wing) knows, presidents haven’t always appeared before Congress to deliver a state-of-the-union address. Early presidents just sent a written report. Ever since they started delivering them in person, however, one tradition has prevailed: Congress controls the Capitol, so the president can only address Congress if he is invited.

Therein, as they say, lies the rub.

A few obnoxious Republicans, like toddlers who have managed to eject all other children from the sandbox, have decided that since they’re in control now, it’s time to teach that Barack Obama a lesson.

So they asked House Speaker John Boehner not to invite Mr. Obama to deliver a state-of-the-union address next month.

And while they’re at it, they also want to cut the White House budget, including the budget for Air Force One.

Speaker Boehner, bless his blood-orange heart, rejected the state-of-the-union proposal – but then, rather than seizing the opportunity to give his children a lesson in manners and grace, decided instead to throw in two cents worth of petulance of his own:

The more the president talks about his ideas, the more unpopular he becomes. Why would I want to deprive him of that opportunity?

Will these people ever just…grow up?

 

 

It Speaks for Itself

prayer

Doing Wrong by “Gone With the Wind”

gwtwThe Curmudgeon has never been keen on Gone With the Wind – not the movie, which he remembers first seeing during a theatrical revival at a neighborhood movie in the late 1960s with his grandparents – who in hindsight could not possibly have gotten much of it because their English just wasn’t good enough – and especially not that long, dreary slog of a book.

Despite his own feelings, he realizes it’s a much-loved classic, and for this reason he found it somehow…wrong in some way to turn on the television at lunchtime on a Wednesday afternoon, as he did last week, and find the movie airing on AMC. Showing Gone With the Wind at that time of day struck him as somehow disrespectful, just not the way to treat a classic.

Chris Christie, Pigs, and Walking the Talk

Last week, New Jersey governor Chris Christie announced that he was vetoing a bill that would make it illegal for pig farmers in his state to confine pregnant pigs in crates so small that the pigs can’t turn around. His explanation for vetoing the bill was telling: among other things, he said the bill was a “solution in search of a problem.”

Let’s hope Christie continues to oppose laws that propose solutions for things that aren’t problems.

Actually, the pig-in-a-crate matter isn’t much of an issue in New Jersey, where there aren’t a whole lot of pig farms. It is a big issue, though, in Iowa, where Christie may soon be spending a great deal of time, and the bill was an opportunity for people with bad intentions to cause problems for him in that state before he even decides whether he wants to make Iowa his home away from home for the next year.

But the solution for things that aren’t a problem explanation is something that, to borrow from television police shows, can and should be used against Christie in the court of public opinion if the need arises in the future.

The Curmudgeon is specifically thinking about the continuing Republican effort to make it harder for poor people and people of color to vote.

The truth is, New Jersey hasn’t been involved in such efforts over the past few years. In fact, most of the election-related laws proposed in the New Jersey state legislature in recent years, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, have attempted to make it easier, not harder, for people to vote. True, New Jersey is one of a shrinking number of states without a state-wide early voting system and Christie vetoed a bill to change that, but he then turned around and authorized the use of mail-in and fax voting to help people displaced by Hurricane Sandy. Without question, and to Christie’s credit, he has not been among those trying to suppress the vote of the very people who are least likely to vote for him.

But that may be changing.

In addition to being governor of New Jersey, Christie has two other roles that appear to be influencing, or really, softening, his apparent opposition to making it harder for people to vote. First, he’s considering running for president. Second, he’s chairman of the Republican Governors Association, and in that capacity, his resolve against vote suppression is showing signs of weakening.

Not too long ago, Christie appeared before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform – and let’s not get The Curmudgeon started on the kinds of reforms chamber of commerce types would like, because they’re mostly out of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and involve paying people less money to work longer hours under more hazardous conditions. In his speech, Christie said he wants to see Republican governors in charge of state “voting mechanisms” when the 2016 presidential election is contested.

Yes, that’s what he called them: “voting mechanisms.”

Speaking about important presidential battleground states like Florida, Ohio, and Wisconsin, Christie told his audience that

The fact is it doesn’t matter if you don’t really care what happens in these states… you’re going to care about who is running the state in November of 2016, what kind of political apparatus they’ve set up and what kind of governmental apparatus they’ve set up to ensure a full and fair election in 2016.

“Governmental apparatus”? Please. That’s short-hand for a number of vote-suppression measures we’ve all come to know well in recent years:

  • Requiring voters to present photo ID at the polls. This blossomed as a Republican tactic a few years ago even though – or perhaps specifically because ­– by now it’s well-established that the elderly and people of color are far less likely than others to possess such identification and to have the means and opportunity to obtain such identification. What’s also well-established is that the states that attempt to do this are the same states where the elderly, and especially people of color, are voting in greater numbers than ever.
  • Movements to reduce or eliminate Sunday early voting programs. This has become one of the main tools African-American and Latino churches use to encourage their members to vote – a practice that has come to be known as “souls to the polls – and of course, Republicans want as few African-Americans and Latinos souls visiting those polls as possible.
  • Cutting back on other early voting approaches. This may come as a surprise to you ­– it certainly did to The Curmudgeon – but one-third of all voters voted early in the last two presidential elections. Since Republicans don’t like how those elections turned out…
  • Limiting voter registration drives. Campaigns to encourage people to register to vote may seem as American as apple pie and Chevrolet, but Florida, Illinois, Texas, and Virginia actually limit such drives. Why? Because such campaigns tend to produce more registered minority voters and more registered Democrats.
  • Efforts to end same-day registration. This was a great idea: let people who aren’t registered to vote do so on election day. When it turned out that most of the people who did that registered as Democrats, Republicans turned around and started closing the door on this option.
  • Requiring proof of citizenship at the time of registration. Do YOU have proof of citizenship? If not, do you have any idea, off the top of your head, where you’d go or what you’d do to get it? Didn’t think so.

The problem here is that the people who are considered “true” conservatives these days – you know, the loony ones – are very suspicious of Chris Christie, and if he’s going to have any kind of chance of winning their votes in primary elections, he’s going to have to do something – exactly what isn’t clear, but something – to prove he’s one of them. He’s started to criticize President Obama more, but his gratitude for the president’s swift and effective response to Hurricane Sandy so enraged conservative voters – apparently, they would have preferred that storm-displaced New Jersey residents just go away and die rather than receive assistance from a federal government led by a Democrat – that Christie’s going to have to throw these people a bone sometime soon.

And his remarks before the Chamber of Commerce suggest that access to the ballot may be that bone.

So…

Knowing as we all do that vote fraud is truly a non-problem in this country – The Curmudgeon has written about this before, as have many others – The Curmudgeon hopes that if and when Christie makes voting issues his bone, people will remind him about his dismissive rejection of the pig cage legislation because it was a solution in search of a problem.

Just like attempting to limit access to the ballot in the name of fighting election fraud is a solution in search of a problem.

And that instead of going for that bait, Christie will declare attempts to make it harder for people to register and vote exactly that – a solution in search of a problem – and walk his talk by rejecting such nonsense.

Khloe Kardashian is Dating…Who?!?!?

Recently someone told The Curmudgeon that celebrity no-talent Khloe Kardashian is dating a guy named…French.

And The Curmudgeon thought…

Surely that’s not true.

She can’t possibly be dating…

But the age difference…

And there must be lifestyle conflicts but…

Someone please tell him she’s not dating…cabot

Public Composting Programs are…New?

Last week the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story about the latest in government-sponsored recycling programs: composting. The idea, started in other cities, began with requirements that organizations that produce large amounts of food waste, like restaurants and prisons and hospitals, find ways to compost that waste.

And the paper acted like this was something new.

It’s not.

If you’re of a certain age you may recall the days when every home didn’t have a garbage disposal.   Without that device to take care of food waste, your parents collected that waste and put it in a special can – usually, a smaller version of your regular metal trash can – and put that small can out on the curb once a week but not on the same day as the regular trash. That separate day was for garbage collection, not trash collection, and as The Curmudgeon recalls, the entire city of Philadelphia’s garbage collection was performed by a group of pig farmers.

It was a classic win-win-win situation: your family got rid of its food waste, the city paid nothing for garbage removal, and the pig farmers got a bounty of feed for their pigs for nothing more than the cost of picking up the garbage. The practice ended only when garbage disposal units became more prevalent, fewer people put cans out on the curb, and it no longer made financial sense for the pig farmers to send trucks up and down city streets just to pick up a few garbage cans.

Food composting is, The Curmudgeon imagines, a reasonably good idea – so long as you don’t live next door to the composting facility – but it’s hard not to laugh at those declaring this to be the next step in the evolution of recycling when a reasonable argument can be made that it was actually the very first step in the evolution of recycling.

Which only goes to show – and The Curmudgeon can only use this term because his mother doesn’t read his blog, because she absolutely hates it – that what comes around goes around.