Monday, September 20, 2010

Charlie Baker, Moral Auditor

Salem office,  Department of Transitional Assistance

A few months ago, Charlie Baker, the Republican candidate for Governor, proposed his “Baker’s Dozen” for cutting costs.  I’d read about it in Blue Mass Group when he first proposed these measures but initially I didn’t take them seriously;  candidates say things or are reported to say things all the time that turn out to have too little context to reasonably comment on.  Besides, most day to day political coverage is noise.

I reread the post on BMG that first caught my attention, Charlie Baker proposes new government bureaucracy to approve lifestyles

Charlie Baker’s Dozen ideas to eliminate government waste is still on his campaign’s website so I’m going to assume it is on his ongoing platform.

Point 8:

8. Conduct forensic financial analysis for benefits eligibility – Between $10M to $20M in savings
State agencies need to consider more than just tax returns when determining individuals’ eligibility for public benefits and services. A lifestyle analysis quantifies the living expenses of individuals - such as credit card bills, recreation activities, auto loans, grocery bills - and compares the expenses to known sources of income. If the money spent during the period analyzed exceeds the known funding sources, it is quite possible that there is another source of income. The state should conduct this analysis on a pilot basis for a few services – such as public defendants and public housing - before individuals are deemed eligible for the benefits.

Baker’s idea came from, amongst others, Dan Winslow, former legal counsel to former governor Mitt Romney in an article for Commonwealth Magazine.  Beyond Red and Blue wrote about this in 2008:

For state entitlement eligibility, a simple LAF checklist can consider discretionary spending such as whether persons or households seeking free or discounted state services own property, have credit cards, hold bank accounts, or own a new car, multiple cars or a boat. The checklist could also consider whether an individual purchases cable television, Internet service, or premium cell phone service and whether they buy airline tickets, possess illegal drugs, or smoke a pack of cigarettes daily.

On the face of it, Baker’s proposal seems to be just a financial audit, like the ones Social Security does on SSI recipients.  But Winslow’s association with the Romney administration makes me recall Eric Kriss’ infamous “Givers and Takers” speech of a few years back.

With that history I don’t think this provision is a financial audit.

It is a moral audit, and Baker wants to be our moral auditor.

Many, many people in the disability community, and outside it, get public housing, health insurance and food benefits.  There are people who may get any of the three without ever having set foot in a welfare or Social Security office.

There are working people who live in Pioneer Terrace, a much-maligned housing project near Salem State.

Many will be affected.  Charlie Baker, in his ads, brags about firing 5,000 state employees if he’s elected.  How many people would we need to staff his new moral auditing division?  How many of the 5,000 would need to seek public assistance?

David, of BMG, makes the point that “lifestyle analysis” requires expertise and not cheap at that, based on how the IRS goes after people with yachts.  I think he’s wrong on this point, though. 

The Baker administration, if elected, wouldn’t go to that length;  It would outsource the new agency to one of the Indian or Chinese shops to which most of our customer support calls end up.  The outsourcers would get a directive to flag as many people as possible for fraud for the cheapest possible price, working through their backlog as fast as they can, however they can.

Someone in public housing would get a thick envelope and a threatening letter, and a request to account for all the spending they made over the past five years, say, all in longhand with a 10 day filing deadline.  A representative would follow up with questions, all along the lines of:  “Why did you get that?”,  “Why do you need a computer—can’t you go to the library?”, “Why did your son pay for dinner out?”, “Why aren’t you getting a better job?”, “Why are you still in public housing?”

And then the eviction notice would come.  Maybe there’ll be an appeal process.  If it’s funded.

I think Winslow’s, and Baker’s mindsets are such that they would not stop at a merely fiscal audit, even if they might not say it out loud.  Certainly, Romney only disavowed Kriss because he made his own reputation look bad;  Romney hired him, as he did Baker and Winslow, and he damned well knew what they were all about.

It’s a “small government” nanny state and it will demean many people in the disability community.  Many of them already fear they are somewhat “less worthy” than an able-bodied person.

If we vote for Baker, we may be telling them, as well, that because they are often on the wrong end of the economic scale, they should not be allowed to manage their own lives either.

There will be the stories that come out with this, like the little old lady who gets audited (“But I voted Republican!”  “Oops, our bad!”)  or the disabled war veteran (“Say, son, you sound like you’re old enough to enlist.  Don’t you love your country?  Why aren’t you in the service?”  “Um, ah, err…”  I’d love to hear that one.)

But first, the dignity of the state’s disabled community will be degraded.  And a lot of money will be spent.  Baker won’t care, as long as he’s spending it.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Restaurant at Jail to open next week

The Great Escape at Salem Jail

Reported at Salem Patch, the restaurant at the Jail, The Great Escape, will open Monday.

Future site of the restaurant in the Jail

When I saw this in the open house, I had wondered if this would be the restaurant.  I seem to have guessed right.

Despite the guy from Northfields and the associated controversy over the green space, a restaurant operator came through after all. 

I’m not sure how they’ll do long-term, and I don’t know if I’ll afford to eat there myself, but I wish them luck.  Hats off to New Boston for their tenacity in seeing this through.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Not Remembering 9/11

Flag Towers Memorial, Salem, 9/11/2002

As we mark the ninth anniversary of Al Qaeda’s attack on September 11th, I’m proud of this artwork.  I produced it for my friend Leo Jodoin and his TV show, Salem Now, which I have been a crewmember for the 13 years it’s been produced.  It features the improvised, informal, but now established, 9/11 memorial at Market Basket.

I’m proud of my art.

But I’m not proud of what has become the fetish of worship and hysteria that now defines September 11th.

Over a very long summer, we have been hearing about the imam who plans to build a Muslim cultural center a few blocks from the site of the former World Trade Center.  His plans have gone through and before a large number of boards and commissions in Manhattan, as any other project would.

In Salem, I know this process well, and the Commission on Disabilities is one of the participants in the rituals that developers go through to get things built.

The imam’s project has gone through all the hoops and hurdles in Manhattan.  But a lawsuit from one of the relatives of a 9/11 victim is reportedly pending.

To say what I think of this, I need to go back to last spring, when the developers of the Salem Jail wanted to turn the greenspace fronting Bridge St. into a parking lot as a condition for a restaurant on the premises.  There was a heavily attended meeting about this that saw nearly all of the neighborhood groups come to testify.

I wrote about what happened in that meeting but I’ll repeat it:  A guy from Northfields spoke out against the proposed lot.  But more than that, he went into a long speech about what kinds of development would be suitable in the neighborhood.

My neighborhood.

And he told us that the elderly complex—my building—would not be in favor of commercial development.

I was livid.   Beyond mad.  Angry.   Pissed.

The Northfields guy was telling me and my neighbors what was right for us.  I can’t even speak for my neighbors!   We have, in fact, been living next to a commercial office building for many years.

Now, how am I going to tell that imam that he cannot build his center because I believe Muslims brought me pain on 9/11?   I don’t consider myself to have any standing;  as of now, it’s not even clear if the courts will give standing to any relative of a 9/11 victim to bring suit against the organization that plans to build there (a former clothing store that is not even within sight of the WTC block.)

I didn’t like that guy from Northfields presuming to speak for me or my neighbors, so why should I have a position on that cultural center?

There is no rule of law that could enable me to go to Manhattan and stop this.  It’s gone through all the permitting down there and that should be that.  The First Amendment has no asterisks saying “except some religions we don’t approve of”.  (Catholics who oppose the cultural center might want to look at their own history in America first.)

In the next town over, there is a political activist, famous for her anti-tax, limited-government advocacy.  She writes for the local daily, whose editorial board shares her opinions.  She has spoken out against the cultural center (it is not a mosque.)

Does she really think that is in her limited-government bailiwick, to just reach out and tell a municipality in another state even that they must deny a project just because she doesn’t like it?  That is by no means small, limited government!

If she were consistent with her desire for small government and private-sector development (and the imam runs a private organization), she’d advocate for someone like the Koch brothers to buy the Ground Zero site, an enormous parcel of land that much of Salem would fit into, and turn it into a martyr’s center to the sacred 9/11.  (Newt Gingrich also wants to “federalize” the site to create such a memorial.)

There is already a 9/11 church at the site, and their pastor has the hate for Muslims. 

And that is the other reason I feel shamed this day.

For some years now, the Republican party has become more radical and more religious, throwing many moderate conservatives, particularly those in the Northeast, out the door.

They have all but encouraged Christian fundamentalism.   This atheist does not see a lot of distinctions between Al Qaeda’s apocalyptic Islamism, and what Christianism is said to be by many fundamentalist pastors.

Pat Robertson said that “9/11 happened because America looked away from God”.  Was God rooting for Islam that day?

A few years ago when Janet Jackson “performed” at the Superbowl, one columnist from a Seattle paper said that “Al Qaeda had a point!”  We fear jihad, but we now have our own “prayer warriors” in Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, Fist of the North Star.

We all were happy to see the Taliban in Afghanistan, and their theocratic government, brought down.  But I’ve come to think that, to prominent Republicans and Christians, amplified by Fox News, the only sin that Al Qaeda and the Taliban have committed is, is doing terrorism in Allah’s name rather than in Jesus’.

I have recalled General Boykin’s words:

.' Well, you know what? I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol."

And that man was a high-ranking officer in our Army.

We even have our own apocalyptic movement in America.  Osama Bin Laden had to inherit his wealth, but Tim and Beverly LaHaye, authors of the “Left Behind” series, have made their millions convincing people that God will take his own people and leave the world to rot for Satan—and that a good Christian should wish for it!

Afraid of violent Islamism?  From what rhetoric I’ve seen over the past few years, we have more to worry about from our own people.  The Tea Party, whose copies of the Constitution only seem to have the Second Amendment in them, loves its armaments.  Prayer warriors, backed up by Browning, Smith and WessonSomeone flew a plane into an IRS office in Austin, Texas.

If Tim McVeigh bombed the Murrah Building in OKC today, rather than in 1995, I am certain people would be excusing what he did.  “It’s too bad about that dead baby but her mommy shouldn’t have worked for the government!”  McVeigh himself would be a prisoner of conscience.  Not only would the Tea Partiers call for his freedom but also not a few editorial boards, perhaps even our activist next door.

All because Bin Laden happens to be a Muslim instead of a Christian.  I wonder if he’s for limited government in that world caliphate he wants to build?  If anyone is concerned about the moral state of the world, he certainly is!  He could convert to Christianity tomorrow—as extremely unlikely it may be—and he’d fit right in with some!

That’s why I don’t want to “commemorate” or “remember” or “memorialize” this day.  We put Japanese-Americans in camps in the name of December 7th, Pearl Harbor and we were wrong—and we knew it.  I don’t want to see what we’ll do against Allah—or for Jesus—in the name of 9/11.

UPDATE:  I haven’t read Dinesh D’Souza’s book The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, or heard of it before this week, but Andrew Sullivan reviewed it for Powells a few years back.  I’d still like to find it at the library and read it, but from what I read from this review, and other blogs I’ve seen online about D’Souza on his most recent book, he’s virtually shaken hands with Bin Laden, and he recommends his ideological peers in the Republican party do the same.  That has only reinforced my commentary.