New Jersey’s political pathology: Could it happen here?

(Centennial Fellow) During the campaign for ratification of the U.S. Constitution James Madison, wrote to John Randolph in 1788 extolling the concept of Federalism—saying that “this system allows each state to indulge their own governmental peculiarities, while at the same time by their example offering instruction to all other states regarding good practices to be emulated and bad ones to be avoided.”

For over two centuries Madison’s words have proved wise and prophetic as the individual states have served as vibrant laboratories of democracy exporting countless good practices to their neighbors.

In the category of “bad ones to be avoided” today one can find no better cautionary tale than New Jersey as I was reminded on a recent mission to the Garden State on behalf of the Centennial Institute.

Whether seen from afar or even more so up close, New Jersey is in thrall to an absolute “perfect storm” of political incompetence, and corruption, union greed and obstructionism, nepotism, over the top judicial activism, educational dysfunction, and financial chaos.

Think of the very worst such excesses ever seen in Colorado; multiply these a hundredfold, and you begin to grasp the depth of New Jersey’s pathology. As a candid official in Jersey City told me while I was there for a recent policy conference: “We’ve been so bad for so long, that people hardly notice, or think it’s like the weather – nothing to be done about it.”

Governor Chris Christie thinks something can and must be done about it. It is a measure of the state’s desperate condition when an aggressive, “in your face” Republican can not only get elected, but also win support for reform from an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature. You know things are bad when private sector unions join Christie in opposing the excesses of public sector unions.

For readers craving specifics regarding the above indictment, I recommend two excellent sources whose well documented case makes my own criticisms seem mild.

The first is Steven Malanga, senior editor at City Journal whose lengthy article appears in the Winter 2012 issue of that publication, and was recently excerpted in the Wall St. Journal (“New Jersey’s Judicial Road to Fiscal Perdition”).

Malanga details the phenomenal over-reach of the New Jersey Supreme Court beginning in 1976 when they forced the state legislature to institute an income tax to fund education spending by ordering the shut-down of all New Jersey schools until the legislature complied.

In 1985 the Court ordered the legislature to fund all urban school districts at the same level being spent in the state’s wealthiest school districts, and further ordered yet more “supplemental” spending to offset the “additional disadvantages” of urban students.

In 1998 the Court ordered the state to provide pre-school education for all 3– and 4– year–olds in all urban districts where per pupil spending is as high as $30,000 per student per year.

In the last twelve years alone, the state has sent over $40 billion dollars to its urban districts yet their student achievement levels have not improved, and remain among the worst in the nation.

The second source is an award winning documentary film entitled “The Cartel”, which has been favorably compared to the much better known education classic “Waiting For Superman”.

The “Cartel” in question is the national syndicate of American teacher unions. While the particular focus is New Jersey, what you see here is in essence to be found in every state. The educational dysfunction, political manipulation, financial malfeasance, and general obstructionism of teacher unions may vary from state to state but it is only a difference of degree, not of kind.

The film brilliantly illuminates how the scam works: the unions apply their immense resources of money and manpower to elect friendly school boards and other state and local politicians. They then negotiate contracts with those who they have elected. Unsurprisingly the contracts are generous which brings the unions more members, and more money to buy more politicians. And so the judicially enabled cycles continues and metastasize over decades – employees doing very well, children very badly.Poignantly the film shows us the faces, voices, and tears of the parents and children who are being cheated out of the one thing they most need to save their lives; Education. And they know it. Their frustration is palpable, as is their powerlessness.

As you watch the children on the screen your hearts will break but you’re probably thinking “Oh, that couldn’t happen in our state.” Wrong! It is happening all across the land. The unholy triumvirate of runaway judges, greedy unions, and manipulative politicians is everywhere undermining the foundations and the future of the Great American Democracy.

If you look you will see it. If not, recall those ancient words: “None so blind, as those who will not see”


William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Washington Times, Denver Post, and Human Events.

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