Monthly Archives: July 2015

Public Money for Party Purposes

Several members of the U.S. Senate, led by Senator Bob Casey (D-Stupid), have asked the Senate Appropriations Committee to provide $100 million for security at the Democratic and Republican conventions this summer.

And The Curmudgeon says nuts to that.

Political conventions, you see, are party functions, not public functions. So why should the public pay for them? If the parties want to have parties they should pay for them themselves. This is a theme The Curmudgeon has addressed before: elected officials spending taxpayer money for political activities.

Come to think of it, why do they need conventions at all? The last time The Curmudgeon can recall that a nomination wasn’t completely sewn up before a convention was in 1976, when Ronald Reagan still had a theoretical chance to wrestle the Republican nomination away from Gerald Ford.

And before that?

1960 and the Kennedy nomination – maybe.

Was there any drama in 2012? Was there any chance the nominees weren’t going to be Mitt Romney and Barack Obama? So why have a convention?

conventionIf the parties want conventions, by all means, they should go ahead and have them.

But if they want to throw themselves a big party they should do it with their own money and not ours.

July News Quiz

  1. The Sarah Palin Online web site, which charges subscribers $9.95 a month for unfiltered, direct communication with Miss Wasilla 1984, will close down on August 1 after just one year because: a) it was losing money; b) Palin’s crayon broke; c) one of the Obamacare death panels killed it off; or d) it turns out she was wrong and there really isn’t a sucker born every minute?
  2. Ariana Grande is: a) the river Mexicans have to cross to sneak into the U.S.; b) a new size of decaf latte now available at Starbucks; c) a utility infielder for the Boston Red Sox; or d) yet another female singer destined to be known more for her bad behavior than for her musical ability?
  3. The leading critic of a new California law banning people from citing their personal beliefs as their reason for not vaccinating their children has been: a) the American Medical Association; b) the American Academy of Pediatrics; c) the National Institutes of Health; or d) actor/comedian Jim Carrey?
  4. The leaders of a suburban Philadelphia Catholic school fired a teacher who is a lesbian because: a) they were afraid she’d abuse female students; b) they were afraid that even though she’s a lesbian she’ll abuse male students as well because all those people are sex-crazed; c) they were afraid the Vatican would revoke the school’s identity as a Catholic school because the pope’s tolerant but not that tolerant; or d) they were afraid she’d teach lesbian math?
  5. Images from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reveal that Pluto: a) has ice on its surface and other signs of geologic activity; b) is a planet after all; c) is only a dwarf planet but since it’s politically incorrect to refer to anything as a dwarf it will now be known just as a planet; or d) has bigger ears than Snoopy and Scooby-Doo?
  6. Members of the Westboro Baptist Church will picket the funerals of Marines killed by a shooter in Chattanooga, Tennessee because church members: a) oppose U.S. military endeavors overseas; b) believe god sent the shooter in response to the recent Supreme Court decision to legalize same sex marriage; c) need to do something to attract attention to follow up on their musical parody of the Whitney Houston song “I will always love you” that they call “God will always hate you;” or d) are bat-shit crazy?
  7. In two Long Island cases involving alcohol and drunk driving, a judge set bail at $500,000 for a dock worker who killed four women riding in a stretch limousine but only $250 when a business owner and friend of the judge drove his pick-up truck into a car carrying two farm workers, killing one and injuring the other, because: a) business owners are more trustworthy than blue-collar workers; b) the lives of farm workers have less inherent value than those of women riding in a limousine; c) if a judge can’t help a friend, what’s the point of being a judge; or d) this is the state of justice in America today?
  8. Jim Webb is running for the Democratic nomination for president because: a) anything’s better than Hillary; b) it beats working for a living; c) birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas like The Donald do it; or d) royalties from songs he wrote like “MacArthur Park,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Up Up and Away,” and others have dried up and a guy need to earn a living somehow?
  9. Pat Buchanan was a panelist on Meet the Press last week because: a) NBC thought his participation would help improve ratings; b) David Brooks wasn’t available to play his usual role of the conservative whom liberals can tolerate; c) with the ascent of Donald Trump, stupid is now back in style; or d) bigot is the new black?
  10. According to the World Health Organization, the first country to eliminate the transmission of HIV from mothers to their unborn children is: a) the U.S.; b) Canada; c) England; or d) Cuba?

But What’s the Point?

In the mid-1980s The Curmudgeon was working at his first writing job when the office’s soft drink vendor arrived to replenish the stock and explained that he had a new drink to offer: a caffeine-free Coke. It was new at the time and he wondered if we wanted any. The Curmudgeon doesn’t drink soft drinks at all and doesn’t even drink coffee, so he has no experience with caffeine and its benefits/effects, but one of his co-workers immediately turned to the vendor and asked, “Caffeine-free? What’s the point?”

The Curmudgeon had the same reaction last week when he read that the maker of Oreos is coming out with a new, thinner Oreo cookie.

Okay, so the new Oreo has fewer calories: 47, versus the regular Oreo’s 53 calories.

oreosAnd okay, so the chocolate cookies are thinner: 7.5 millimeters, compared to 12.5 for the original cookie.

But… less cream?

Less cream?

LESS CREAM?!!!! The cream is why we eat Oreos, so…

…what’s the point?

The Governor Has it All Wrong

The constitutional deadline for adopting a state budget in Pennsylvania came and went a month ago and there’s no end in sight to the stalemate between the state’s Democratic governor and the leaders who run an overwhelmingly Republican state legislature.

At issue, as always, is spending: the Democrat says he was elected to spend more money in certain areas and to raise certain taxes if necessary to do it and the Republicans say they were elected to prevent taxes from being raised no matter what the reason.

But the governor’s on shaky ground when he insists he needs to raise taxes so the state can more adequately fund public school education.

Why? Because there’s very little interest in quality public education in Pennsylvania – and there hasn’t been for as long as The (fifty-seven-year-old) Curmudgeon can recall.

Teachers will tell you that if you show them a student with an interested and involved parent, they’ll show you a student they can teach. You certainly won’t find very many such parents in Philadelphia, where parents’ idea of “doing something” about their kids’ inadequate education is to protest. They don’t necessarily know what they’re protesting, but they protest. But check their kids’ homework? Attend parent-teacher night? No way.

And it’s pretty much that way across Pennsylvania. After all, they don’t call the vast expanse of real estate between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh “Pennsyl-tucky” for nothing.
Four years ago, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, while running for president, called President Obama a snob for suggesting that public schools prepare all children to be able to attend college. Santorum – himself a college and law school graduate (for all the good it did him) – was merely echoing the views of his former constituents. They don’t need no stinking college for their kids. They didn’t go to college themselves and they’re doing just fine without it themselves. Never mind that the world has changed and the world of work has changed and the demands made of the workforce have changed: if it was good enough for them it’s good enough for their kids. While The Curmudgeon understands that not everyone needs to go to college and there are plenty of great ways to earn a living without it, it’s still probably a good idea for public schools to provide that preparation so that kids who haven’t made definitive career plans before they’re fifteen years old still have that option, and are prepared to pursue it, if they eventually decided they do want to attend college.

So while Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, who has a bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth, a master’s from the University of London, and a PhD from MIT, is a man who clearly values education, he’s preaching the virtues of education and advocating better funding for public education in a state that doesn’t share those values at all.

On the Campaign Trail (late July)

A lot has happened on the campaign trail since last we took a look. The most obvious and most important is the Democratic Party’s new best friend, Donald Trump. The Donald may do more to drive moderate Republicans and independent-leaning voters into Democratic arms than anything any Democrat could ever say or do.

trumpThe Donald, of course, is an idiot: from his fact-challenged blathering about Mexicans to his astonishingly ignorant attack on John McCain, he is nothing if not reminiscent of something we all learned about in school: the Know-Nothing Party. Here’s how Wikipedia – yes, The Curmudgeon knows, not exactly an authoritative source on anything beyond the time of day but good enough for this particular purpose – describes the Know-Nothings:

The Native American Party, renamed in 1855 as American Party, and commonly named Know Nothing movement, was an American political party that operated on a national basis during the mid-1850s. It promised to purify American politics by limiting or ending the influence of Irish Catholics and other immigrants, thus reflecting nativism and anti-Catholic sentiment. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, whom they saw as hostile to republican values and controlled by the Pope in Rome. Mainly active from 1854 to 1856, it strove to curb immigration and naturalization but met with little success. Membership was limited to Protestant men.

If nothing else, The Donald is a modern Know-Nothing. In fact, he’s the head Know-Nothing, the grand poobah of Know-Nothingness.

But there were other amusing things taking place on the campaign trail as well, so let’s take a look. (And for this edition, The Curmudgeon is going to skip The Donald. He’s headline news every day and if you’re the kind of person who’s read this far you’ve probably already seen all those headlines and at least skimmed most of those stories, so there’s no point in telling you things you already know – no matter how much fun they are.)

Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush faces the same problem his father did – and his brother, to a lesser degree: the perception that he’s not conservative enough for the voters who have hijacked his party. He has a head start on overcoming this challenge because it turns out that Jeb has a bit of Nathaniel Hawthorne in him.

Nathaniel Hawthorne – you know, as in The Scarlet Letter.

Jeb’s 1995 book Profiles in Character included a chapter titled “The Restoration of Shame” in which he wrote:

One of the reasons more young women are giving birth out of wedlock and more young men are walking away from their paternal obligations is that there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior, no reason to feel shame. Many of these young women and young men look around and see their friends engaged in the same irresponsible conduct. Their parents and neighbors have become ineffective at attaching some sense of ridicule to this behavior. There was a time when neighbors and communities would frown on out of wedlock births and when public condemnation was enough of a stimulus for one to be careful.

The Huffington Post also reported that

scarlet letterBush points to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, in which the main character is forced to wear a large red “A” for “adulterer” on her clothes to punish her for having an extramarital affair that produced a child, as an early model for his worldview. “Infamous shotgun weddings and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter are reminders that public condemnation of irresponsible sexual behavior has strong historical roots,” Bush wrote.

As governor of Florida in 2001, Bush had the opportunity to test his theory on public shaming. He declined to veto a very controversial bill that required single mothers who did not know the identity of the father to publish their sexual histories in a newspaper before they could legally put their babies up for adoption. He later signed a repeal of the so-called “Scarlet Letter” law in 2003 after it was successfully challenged in court.

Bush’s ideas about public shaming extended beyond unwed parents. He said American schools and the welfare system could use a healthy dose of shame as well. “For many, it is more shameful to work than to take public assistance — that is how backward shame has become!” he wrote, adding that the juvenile criminal justice system also “seems to be lacking in humiliation.”

Jeb also wrote that

In the context of present-day society we need to make kids feel shame before their friends rather than their family. The Miami Herald columnist Robert Steinback has a good idea. He suggests dressing these juveniles in frilly pink jumpsuits and making them sweep the streets of their own neighborhoods! Would these kids be so cavalier then?

It seems safe to expect that while daddy extolled the virtues of “a kinder and gentler society” and brother W. talked about “compassionate conservatism,” Jeb is going to be all about “shame and defame.”

Jeb also thinks the economy’s lagging because Americans don’t work hard enough. Americans “need to work longer hours and through their productivity gain more income for their families,” he declared.

Actually, Jeb, we’re already working longer hours. The New York Times’ Paul Krugman explains.

Americans work longer hours than their counterparts in just about every other wealthy country; we are known, among those who study such things, as the “no-vacation nation.”

According to a 2009 study, full-time U.S. workers put in almost 30 percent more hours over the course of a year than their German counterparts, largely because they had only half as many weeks of paid leave.

And the productivity of American workers? Up seventy-five percent between 1979 and 2012 and up nearly twenty-five percent between 2000 and 2012 alone.

Jeb needs to get out more.

But ignorance of the facts is unlikely to be much of a deterrent to saying stupid things. The next thing you know, he’ll be complaining about the forty-seven percent.

Actually, he’s already started.

At a town hall meeting in New Hampshire last week, Jeb was confronted about his suggestion earlier in the week that Medicare should be phased out.   One woman declared that “We’re not going to have adequate coverage for our children or our grandchildren without Medicare. I paid into that for years and years just like all these other seniors here and now you want to take it away?” Apparently bumfuzzled, Bush replied that “Here’s what I said: I said we’re going to have to reform our entitlement system. We have to.”

Undaunted, the woman replied: “It’s not an entitlement. I earned that.”

Which, after seeing Medicare payroll deductions from her earnings her entire career, she absolutely did.

Welcome to the campaign trail, Jeb. You’re not in Florida anymore. And your spokesperson who characterized the woman as a “liberal activist” needs to find a position in your campaign more suited to her abilities because you can’t simply dismiss people who raise legitimate issues by pretending there’s something wrong with them just because they did so.

Finally, Jeb is trying to position himself as a Washington outsider. Who knew he had such a sense of humor?

Poor Bobby Jindal

Remember when you were in school and were confronted with the old riddle “If a tree falls in a forest and no one’s there to hear it, did it make a sound?” Well, that seems to apply to Poor Bobby Jindal’s official announcement that he’s running. When people announce that they’re running for president they usually make a bit of a splash. Poor Bobby’s announcement caused barely a ripple – if that. Practically no one noticed because practically no one takes him or his candidacy seriously.

Continuing his long-time practice of talking to voters like he’s talking to a child, Poor Bobby declared that “We have a bunch of great talkers running for president. We’ve had enough of talkers. It is time for a doer.”

Now The Curmudgeon is willing to go along with Poor Bobby on the idea that members of Congress who are running for president are talkers, but that’s mostly what members of Congress do, right?

But governors? That’s just not fair. Governors are the real doers in this country, and whether you like them or not – and The Curmudgeon is confident that you know where he stands on most of the candidates who are or have been governors – the idea that Scott Walker, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Jeb Bush, Mike Huckabee, George Pataki, and Rick Perry are talkers and not doers is ludicrous. Likewise, any suggestion that people like Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, and even The Donald, haven’t been doers for most or all of their professional lives is downright ignorant.

But then again, that’s just so Poor Bobby, isn’t it?

The Washington Post described Poor Bobby as “…the first Indian American to become a U.S. governor and now, to become a serious presidential candidate.”

Well, that’s just so not true, isn’t it?   What is true is that the only people who take Poor Bobby’s candidacy seriously share his last name.

bobbyMaybe The Curmudgeon is being too hard on Poor Bobby – including by referring to him as “Poor Bobby.” Actually, Poor Bobby’s real first name is “Piyush,” but at the age of four he so identified with the Brady Bunch character of that name that he insisted on taking it as his own.

Oh well, it could’ve been worse. He could’ve identified with Cindy.

Scott Walker

Walker’s candidacy is built upon the foundation of his successful effort in Wisconsin to remove the testicles from public employee unions, but he knows that if he wants to become president he’s going to need to do more than that.

So there’s guns.

walkerWalker, you see, is all for ‘em. In fact, when it comes to guns, he’s Walker, Wisconsin Ranger. (Not to be confused with Walker, Texas Ranger, who’s solidly in the Huckabee camp.)

As governor, he recently signed two new gun laws: the first eliminates the forty-eight-hour waiting period to buy a gun – apparently, if someone wants to kill someone, Walker doesn’t want to give him a chance to wait around and maybe cool off – and the second permits off-duty and retired police officers to carry concealed weapons in public schools because there are apparently some pretty menacing third-graders in Wisconsin.

And there’s gays, too.

Walker wants to protect our children from gay men – and especially our Boy Scout children, because he apparently is unaware there’s a difference between homosexuality and pedophilia. In Walker’s mind, every gay man’s a perv and every Boy Scout needs to be protected from pervs.

Come to think of it, maybe Walker should take a similar approach to priests.

As reported by the Washington Post,

“I have had a lifelong commitment to the Scouts and support the previous membership policy because it protected children and advanced Scout values,” Walker told the Independent Journal Review, a popular news site with a young conservative following that published his comments on Tuesday afternoon.

walker boy scoutA spokesperson for Walker’s campaign added that

The previous policy protected Scouts from the rancorous political debate over policy issues and culture wars. Scouts should not be used as a political football on issues that can often be heated and divisive.

Well, that solves that problem, right? Now, the subject can’t possibly become a political football and be used as a divisive issue, right?

Ultimately, Walker’s running for president because god wants him to run for president. Don’t believe The Curmudgeon? Here it is in Walker’s own words:

This is God’s plan for me and I am humbled to be a candidate for President of the United States.

Mike Huckabee

Huckabee took time away from trying to convert the U.S. to his church to observe that since Bill deBlasio took over as mayor of New York City and pulled back on the city’s “stop and frisk” police tactics, shootings in the city are up twenty percent.

There are a few problems with this assertion, beginning with that it’s not true.

A court found New York City’s application of “stop and frisk” unconstitutional. The city was appealing the decision but was expected to lose, so deBlasio said on the campaign trail that he’d do what the courts were already planning and order the city’s police department to end stop and frisk.

But the shootings aren’t up twenty percent. Not even ten percent. Try 6.6 percent. Not good, but not twenty percent.

commandmentSo Huckabee’s a little off; apparently, this very religious guy was absent the day his minister taught about the ninth commandment’s proscription against lying. Of course, you can be that way when you’re a commentator on Fox News, where facts are never allowed to get in the way of a point you’re trying to make, but Huckabee needs to learn that when you’re on the campaign trail lots of people are listening and some of them are going to check out what you’re saying to try to figure out if it’s really true.

So lying’s not such a good idea.

Rand Paul

Rand Paul is a libertarian who likes to talk about how oppressive federal regulations are, and on the campaign trail last month he told the story of a man who spent ten years in jail for having dirt on his land.

Except that’s not what happened.

The man in question purchased 2600 acres of land in Mississippi with the intention of building a mobile home park (and future tornado target) on it. When he started work, regulators told him he lacked the permits necessary for such development. He ignored them. They told him that half of the land was considered wetlands and therefore could not be developed in the manner he intended. He ignored them, too. The guy then advertised and sold some of the land for mobile home use even though he didn’t have permission to do any of this. So he and his partners, including his daughter, were indicted and convicted of forty-one counts of conspiracy to defraud, environmental violations, and mail fraud.

Not for having dirt on their property.

But Rand Paul’s not going to let a little thing like the facts get in the way of his screed against government regulations.

Since we blew the cover off Poor Bobby Jindal’s actual first name it seems only fair to report that Rand Paul’s first name is really Randall but growing up he was always called Randy, not Rand, until his wife decided that “Rand” sounded more grown-up. That’s unfortunate, because if he went by Randy we could have so much fun with that:

Once a doctor of the eye

Now a really scary guy

Running like his dad

A guy who’s just as mad

What planet are you from

Oh Randy

Yes you came, and you spoke, and we loved it

Oh you’ve stolen our hearts, oh Randy.

 

Called to run for president

A candidate so heaven-sent

Hating public schools

Okay guns for all those fools

The voters going wild

Oh Randy

Yes you came, and you spoke, and we loved it

Oh you’ve stolen our hearts, oh Randy.

 

Ideas from 1893

Throwback to that century

ISIS is okay

But send Medicare away

Reject disaster aid and keep civil rights at bay

Oh Randy

Yes you came, and you spoke, and we loved it

Oh you’ve stolen our hearts, oh Randy.

 

No more regulation

Call for isolation
Libertarian

Don’t care about Iran

All abortions we should ban

Oh Randy

Yes you came, and you spoke, and we loved it

Oh you’ve stolen our hearts, oh Randy.

(Yes, yes, he knows: The Curmudgeon shouldn’t give up his day job.)

 

Ted Cruz

Cruz came out recently in support of a couple that refused to host a gay wedding at their wedding facility. This appears to make Cruz the pro-discrimination candidate. The Curmudgeon wishes him well with that. See his conversation with the couple here.

You wonder how Cruz would feel if the couple refused to host a wedding for an Hispanic couple.

Ben Carson

This whole Planned Parenthood flap is a fabrication: opponents have made an accusation that they illustrate with a heavily edited tape, but when you see the complete, unedited tape their allegations have about as much credibility as a Fox News analysis.

But Ben Carson, bless his heart, has a whole different beef with Planned Parenthood: he says the organization was created in part to eliminate black people.

Yes, he really said that.

And to think they let this guy use a scalpel.

Rick Santorum

It’s hard to believe that 2012’s candidate of the lunatic fringe is now just a garden-variety lunatic, but Santorum hasn’t been able to beg, steal, or borrow any attention on the campaign trail because he can’t figure out how to say anything more outrageous than, say, The Donald, Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, or Ben Carson. So he has a new tactic.

When in doubt, blame the women-folk.

Specifically, Scott Walker’s wife doesn’t share her husband’s opposition to gay marriage, and Santorum’s none too happy about that.

Explained one published report,

“Spouses matter,” Santorum said in an interview Monday. “When your spouse is not in-sync with you — particularly on cultural issues, moral issues — [you] tend not to be as active on those issues.”

That’s pretty bizarre logic – and maybe the first time Santorum’s publicly expressed respect for women – but then, considering the source, it’s not entirely surprising.

Taking Care of Business (chapter 14)

For an introduction to the novel Taking Care of Business, links to all chapters posted so far, and a list of characters who have appeared so far, go here, to the Taking Care of Business resources page. To see every part of Taking Care of Business posted so far in one place, go here.) 

One day in mid-March, Shaniqua Watson’s turn finally came to sit at the witness table in the ornate council chamber. Even before she spoke she set tongues to wagging – and confused the council members present – by arriving alone, without the vast entourage of staff that traditionally accompanied department commissioners to budget hearings so they could answer the many obscure questions that members of council often asked on such occasions. Instead, she was accompanied only by a laptop computer, which she opened as soon as she took her seat.

Expecting a long and difficult day – the mayor had warned her about the party’s hostility toward her attempt to deliver accessible, quality public services – Watson kept her opening remarks brief, summarizing her department’s responsibilities, giving a statistical overview of its performance, and pointing out that while on the whole the mayor had proposed that his government do the same job in the coming year as it was doing in the current year with the exact same amount of money, she now was proposing to do more than in the current year with two percent less than the current year’s budget.

The seven council members present – out of seventeen members, since most preferred not to get involved in the nuts and bolts of city government or were off doing the day jobs they held because it was ridiculous that some people expected them to live on their $105,000 annual salaries alone – looked aghast. Budget committee chairwoman Mary Amordella voiced the concern of her colleagues.

“Are you serious?” she asked Watson.

“Yes, councilwoman. It’s all right there, in the budget.”

In the gallery, Gene Dowler of the Gazette nudged the Post’s Megan Malone.

“Watson’s right, it’s all there, in the budget. Council’s had it for three weeks. Is Mary being disingenuous or just stupid?” he whispered.

“I’m not sure, but when it comes to Mary, you’ll seldom go wrong betting on stupid.”

“Councilwoman Amordella, if you’ll recall, I contacted your office last week and offered to present this budget to you personally prior to this hearing. I was told that you declined my offer,” Watson said.

The councilwoman said nothing.

“Commissioner Watson, if I may.”

The speaker was Councilman Barber, who represented an especially low-income area of Philadelphia and took great pride in championing his constituents’ interests.

“Commissioner Watson, how do you propose doing the same job in the coming year with a smaller budget than you have now?”

“That’s not what I said,” Watson replied.

“It most certainly is. So you’re admitting that Philadelphians, including my constituents, will be expected to settle for less in the coming year because of your failure to negotiate an adequate budget with the mayor’s staff?”

Expressions of support could be heard from the gallery.

“That’s not what I said,” Watson repeated. “I said we intend to deliver more service even with a smaller budget.”

Barber laughed.

“And how do you plan to do that?” he asked.

“Better management. We will do more with less,” she insisted.

“How?” Barber asked in an incredulous, mocking tone.

“In a number of ways, councilman. For starters, we’ll take advantage of some of the capital funds set aside for our use to purchase new equipment that will make our workforce more productive.”

“So while our playgrounds and libraries go unbuilt because the mayor says the city can’t afford them, you get to buy new toys for your department? That’s outrageous,” Barber declared.

“Councilman, the mayor cut my capital budget twenty-eight percent. This is what I’m doing with what he left me.”

“And our playgrounds?”

“I’m the streets commissioner, not the recreation commissioner. I wouldn’t presume to speak for her or the mayor.

“As I was saying, we’ll also purchase some very innovative software I used in Baltimore to redraw our trash collection and snow removal routes. This will enable us not to replace some workers as they retire or move on.”

“Software you say you used in Baltimore?”

“Yes, councilman.”

“Well, this is Philadelphia, commissioner. The population of Philadelphia is more than twice that of Baltimore and our city is three times larger in area. We need Philadelphia solutions to our problems, not Baltimore solutions. You’re in the big city now, commissioner, and the sooner you realize that, the better.”

“Yes, councilman, I realize I’m in the big city now. I saw the sign when I drove up I-95 when I moved here.”

Commissioner, that kind of response is unacceptable.”

Watson ignored Barber’s admonition.

“The software we used in Baltimore also has been used with excellent results in Houston and Chicago – two cities that are bigger than Philadelphia,” Watson replied.

“To continue, the final major component of doing more with less is that I expect to be able to identify significant savings in several contracts for supplies and services that we’ll rebid when they expire at the end of the current fiscal year.”

Barber turned toward one of his colleagues, Councilman David Steers. Steers was a trial lawyer on those rare occasions when someone made the horrible misjudgment of hiring him, and he and Barber had agreed that he should do most of the day’s questioning of Watson.

Steers rose and cleared his throat as Barber took his seat.

“Those are some interesting tactics you’re proposing, little lady,” he began.

Watson did not respond to his attempted insult.

“They’re not tactics, councilman, they’re management strategies, and I believe they’re sound strategies.”

Philadelphians, Steers knew, harbored enormous mistrust of educated people, and he thought he might take this opportunity to subject Watson to the ridicule of the literally hundreds of thousands of city residents who never finished high school – as if such individuals followed the proceedings of their city council – and who recognized no correlation whatsoever between their incomplete education and their struggle to find employment and earn a decent living and therefore saw no reason to encourage their own children to complete their education or even their homework, let alone pursue higher education.

“Well, we haven’t all had the opportunity to get an MBA like you, commissioner,” he said sharply.

“Or a law degree, for that matter, like you,” Watson replied.

Steers grew red in the face.

“Let’s take a closer look at your ‘management strategies,’” Steers said, regaining his composure and raising his fingers to create quotation marks in the air as he said the words “management strategies.”

“Commissioner, a moment ago you said you thought you’d be able to collect the city’s trash with fewer men in the future.”

Watson interrupted him.

“Men and women,” she interjected.

“Excuse me?”

“We employ a number of women who throw trash as well.”

“Very well,” Steers said, a little off balance from the unexpected correction. “Men and women. You’re probably not aware of this, being an outsider and still a stranger to Philadelphia, but this is a very strong union town and none of our unions are going to stand by while some outsider reduces their membership. They’ll strike and grind this city to a halt before they allow that.”

“Actually, councilman, the union is already on board with this plan.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’ve met with Mr. Gilliam, the local’s president, and he’s on board with what we’re planning.”

“That’s not possible,” Steers insisted.

“Not possible yet nonetheless true, councilman. I’ve met with him several times to outline what we have in mind. He indicated that in consideration for certain recent management initiatives that he and his members strongly support, he’s willing to accept a minor reduction in workforce so long as no layoffs are involved.”

The councilman/trial lawyer thought he had the commissioner now.

“So you’re negotiating such matters outside the city’s collective bargaining process and current contract with the union?”

Watson paused for a moment, sorted through several folders, and then opened the folder she had brought to the top of the pile.
“Actually, councilman, in section fourteen, paragraph six of the collective bargaining agreement, on page 118, you’ll find a clause that specifically permits such side negotiations and agreements subject to the mutual agreement of both parties, legal review by the city solicitor, and written notification of city council through a stipulated process.”

“I never received such notification,” Steers bellowed indignantly. He looked to his fellow council members. “Have any of you?” His six colleagues all shook their heads from side to side.

“We delivered notice to council president’s office, with a copy to council’s counsel, more than two weeks ago. I have copies of signed receipts for the correspondence.”

“But council members haven’t been notified,” Steers declared. “This council will not tolerate such disrespect, young lady.”

“If you intend no disrespect yourself, councilman, you wouldn’t call me ‘young lady.’”

Steers was taken aback; the audience stirred and the reporters sat up and tried to pay attention.

“Notwithstanding your clear disrespect for me, councilman, I intended no disrespect of you and your colleagues. While the contract explicitly requires notification only of council’s president and chief counsel, we also notified the chairman of council’s streets committee in writing and separately, by email, we notified all fifteen other council members and their respective chiefs of staff.”

“I received no such notification,” Steers protested.

“You did,” Watson replied.

“Are you calling me a liar?”

“I have receipt notification from all thirty email recipients. I was pleased to learn that the city’s intranet offers such a feature. If the councilman would like to see copies…”

“Let’s move on,” Steers cut her off.

“Tell us about these contract savings you envision.”

“Very well,” Watson said.

“I’ve reviewed every contract our department has for services and supplies that expires at the end of the current fiscal year and discovered several for which, in my professional opinion, the city is paying far too much for what it’s receiving in return.”

“And you believe you can do better than our city’s award-winning procurement department?” Steers asked, referring to a department that had, in fact, won no awards and had never come across a city contract it could not find a way to rationalize awarding to a politically connected company.

“I believe I can, yes. I know vendors that will give us the same quality at a lower cost – and, in some cases, for a much lower cost.”

“And these vendors, they’re owned or run by friends of yours?” Steers asked sternly. He could not imagine directing contracts to parties that did not meet such criteria.

“Absolutely not, councilman,” Watson replied. “I would never permit a friend or relative to bid on a contract for any public operations in which I’m involved.”

“I doubt the savings are that great,” Steers suggested.

“Let me give you an example,” Watson replied.

“That won’t be necessary,” Steers said. He suddenly realized he might have made a mistake in raising the question of favoritism in awarding contracts because he knew that more than a few of his council colleagues and political associates benefited from such favoritism.

“Really, councilman, I think this is a useful discussion.

“Let’s take a look at the blue recycling buckets we provide for free to every city residence. Under the current contract we pay $4.18 per bucket, and we generally purchase about 55,000 buckets a year. That’s an annual expenditure of $229,900.

“When I put out a bid for similar buckets in Baltimore, $4.18 per bucket would have been the high bid, not the winning bid. The company we awarded the contract to was located in Alabama, and we paid $2.04 a bucket – less than half of what Philadelphia is paying today. So if we could get a similar contract here, we could save more than $100,000 a year.”

At this moment Steers could not help himself; he felt he had a point he absolutely had to try to make because all of his other attempts to embarrass Watson had failed so miserably. In so doing, he momentarily forgot that this was probably an issue better avoided.

“Yes, but isn’t our contract with a Philadelphia company?” Steers knew that it was. “And wouldn’t awarding it to a company in Alabama cost local jobs and essentially…” he paused just briefly before raising his voice to a higher volume, “take food out of the mouths of our some of city’s children?” Steers leaned back in his chair, a smile of satisfaction filling his face.

“That was my first thought, too, councilman, so I looked into it a little further,” Watson said.

Steers’ smile evaporated. He now remembered why he had had misgivings about pursuing this particular line of inquiry.

“The current holder of this contract is a Philadelphia company called Harrowgate Services,” Watson continued. “It incorporated two weeks after the city put out the bid for the bucket contract. Its owners are the city’s former finance director, the wife of a ward leader, and one of your law partners, councilman. According to city records, the company pays no wage taxes, which means it has no employees, so no local children are counting on salaries from parents employed by this company to keep them in Cheerios and chocolate milk. The business use tax it pays suggests that it has no revenue other than this particular contract. Clearly, this was a company formed by some very politically connected people who got together for the specific purpose of bidding on this contract and this contract alone.”

“That’ll do, commissioner.”

“I agree, but there’s just one more thing. Just to be clear that this price differential has nothing to do with the quality of the goods, the buckets that the Alabama company sold us in Baltimore two years ago were made at the same plant in China as the buckets Harrowgate Services is selling us now for twice the price. The buckets are identical.”

“I said that’ll do, commissioner.”

“But last year,” Watson persisted, “the Alabama company started manufacturing its own buckets, which means that in addition to producing a quality product at a superior price, it’s now creating jobs for American workers.”

“Minimum wage jobs, no doubt,” Steers harrumphed – as if thousands of his constituents, living in an area where the unemployment rate hovered around twenty percent, would not appreciate the opportunity to find any job, including one that paid minimum wage.

“Union jobs, actually,” Watson replied.

Committee chairwoman Amordella had seen enough. She struck her gavel and adjourned the hearing until the following morning.

 

(More next Sunday)

Sometimes, New is Not Improved

Time magazine reports that Sealed Air, the company that makes bubble wrap, is introducing a new version of its product, with one major change.

bubble wreapThe bubbles don’t pop.

Why? Why would they do that? Why would they eliminate what clearly gives so many people so much pleasure?

Sometimes, new is not improved.

Yet Another Reason People Hate Politics

From 2011 until February of this year, Marilyn Tavenner ran the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the federal agency that runs Medicare and Medicaid. Among the things that agency does is set the amounts Medicare pays to certain insurers and reviews all other Medicare and Medicaid premiums and rates.

Last week Tavenner took a new job as president of American Health Insurance Plans, an association of health insurance companies.

Which will make her those insurers’ top lobbyist.

Of course, virtually all of those health insurers have major business dealings with…you know it’s coming…the federal agency Tavenner ran until six months ago.

It’s disgusting.

Well, He’s Certainly an Expert on the Subject

Who better to tell it like it is on the subject of the influence of money on politics than a guy who went to jail for using money to influence politics?

Pennsylvania is in the unusual position of having three vacant seats on its seven-member state Supreme Court this year, so the election in November (yes, Pennsylvania still lives in the dark ages and elects its judges) is pretty important. A lot of interests have a lot of interest in this election.

And they’re spending a lot of money in support of those interests.

Recognizing both the importance of the election and the potential challenges that arise when those interests start pouring money into judicial campaigns, the Philadelphia Inquirer turned to a noted political authority on the subject.

That authority is Robert Asher, a member of the Republican National Committee, former chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party, and currently the head of a group called PA Future Fund, which has invested more than $80,000 (so far) toward the purchase of two of the three Supreme Court candidates.

The PA Future Fund, by the way, describes itself as

…a pro-growth State Political Action Committee, whose members are dedicated to improving Pennsylvania as a place to live, work and do business. The Future Fund encourages and supports the election of candidates who share its members’ vision for Pennsylvania’s future – a future in which Pennsylvania’s business and commerce will continue to grow stronger. The results are policies and legislation that ensures the state’s growth and a membership that is continuously enhanced through its shared ideals.

The Inquirer asked Asher why people – including his organization – contribute to state Supreme Court candidates. Here’s how the Inquirer described that conversation:

What exactly do these people want? Merely a “fair hearing,” said Bob Asher, the Republican power broker who chairs PA Future Fund, another top contributor to the Supreme Court race, with $83,500 spent on two GOP candidates so far. “We want the business community, when they have issues, to have a fair hearing,” he explained to The Inquirer.

What the Inquirer didn’t share with its readers, though, is why Asher, this “Republican power broker,” is such an authority on the subject of the influence of money on politics.

But The Curmudgeon will share.

money in politicsWhile chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party in the 1980s, Asher was convicted of perjury, racketeering, conspiracy, and bribery in connection with the awarding of a state contract. Asher spent a year in jail for his crimes – after which he returned to politics and was welcomed back with mostly open arms by his Republican brethren.

And here he is today, a member of the Republican National Committee and the head of a group of Pennsylvania businesses. Clearly, those people have no problem with Asher’s past and are quite comfortable associating with him and being associated with his past.

Yet another reason why people hate politicians.

“Congress Shall Make No Law Respecting an Establishment of Religion, or Prohibiting the Free Exercise Thereof…”

constitutionYou may recognize this headline; it’s the first part of the first amendment to the U.S. constitution – you know, the first of the bill of rights. The rest of the first amendment says “or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

This shouldn’t be news to anyone, but even though it was adopted in 1791 – that’s 224 years ago – it apparently hasn’t reached Arizona yet. That’s where state senator Sylvia Allen has her own ideas about freedom of religion.

Specifically, that we shouldn’t have it.

Her idea: make church attendance mandatory.

In a video clip you can find here, she said that

Probably we should be debating a bill requiring every American to attend a church of their choice on Sunday to see if we can get back to having a moral rebirth.

When given a chance to reconsider her remarks, Allen wasn’t exactly backing down. As reported by U.S. News & World Report,

foot in mouthThe Arizona Capitol Times caught up with Allen after the fact. She classified the remarks as “flippant,” but stood by their intention. “People prayed, people went to church,” she said, recalling her 1950s upbringing. “I remember on Sundays the stores were closed. The biggest thing is religion was kicked out of our public places, out of our schools.”

The Curmudgeon won’t even bite on Allen’s suggestion that this mandatory church-going be on Sundays even though his particular church is a Saturday church. In Allen’s world, The Curmudgeon’s people probably don’t count – or need to be converted.

He is, though, interested in her harking back, as so many do, to the 1950s as some kind of “good old days.”

Yes, the good old days of the 1950s.

The good old days when in many states, black people couldn’t vote – or drink at public water fountains, ride some buses, eat in many restaurants, stay in many hotels, get jobs, find housing, and much more.

The good old days when just thinking certain ways in the era of McCarthyism could cost you your family, your job, your livelihood, and your freedom.

The good old days when women who entered the workforce were subject to a degree of discrimination that dwarfs even the considerable discrimination they still face today.

The good old days when in many states it was illegal to prosecute men for domestic violence and considered a ridiculous thing to do in many others.

The good old days when businesses could refuse service to anyone – and often did.

No, The Curmudgeon isn’t going to bite on that, either.

What really bothers him is that an elected official serving in a state senate can be so colossally ignorant of the law of the land and one of the basic principles underlying the country in which she lives.

Ordinarily The Curmudgeon might suggest that if she had a brain she’d be dangerous but it’s clear that she’s plenty dangerous even without one.