A couple of years ago, I wrote in this space about OpenTheBooks.com, then a fledgling project spearheaded by the great Adam Andrzejewski, an Illinois-based businessman who ran for Governor there in 2010. Andrzejewski had the peculiar idea that public money ought to be publicly accountable, that your tax dollars, for examples, shouldn’t get funneled into various slush funds that politicians then use to buy votes or pamper themselves. Andrzejewski’s idea was to create a publicly accessible data base that would track government spending at the federal, state, and local levels. Back in 2013, he and his colleagues had already made an impressive start. I happened to be writing around tax time, so I was interested to see some of the places my tax dollars went in my home state of Connecticut. In 2011, I learned, the University of Connecticut paid James A. Calhoun $5,027,132. An entity called Avon paid one unnamed Instructor $4,299,931, another $4,201,649. And so on. It made me think twice, I can tell you, about writing out my tax check to the state.
Mr. Andrzejewski and his colleagues have not been idle these past couple of years. As I learned at a luncheon presentation yesterday, they have gone a long way towards fullsilling their goal of disclosing “Every dime. Online. In Real Time.” It’s good to be a public servant in New York. In 2011, the New York Public Library paid Paul Le Clerc $711,114. The Town of Clarkstown paid Thomas Putrill $543,416 in 2009 for unnamed services, and the Nassau Health Care Corp. shelled out $525,648 to Leonard O. Barrett. I wonder what it was in 2014? We’ll find out soon enough.
But grossly inflated public salaries are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg (though I continue to be impressed by the retired Los Angeles fire chief who annual pension is $999,000 and change.) No, the real scandal, or the big bucks at any rate, are elsewhere in the system: the more than $2 billion spent annually on “farm subsidies,” for example, a good chunk of which winds up in such conspicuously rural venues as the island of Manhattan, NY. Or how about the $317,000 in “farm subsidies” received by Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam Charities in Chicago? There’s the scandal of the Veterans’ Administration, which rakes in millions upon millions but squanders it on administrators, not doctors. It’s the culture of “pay-to-play” in which political donations come back to the donor in the form of plum government contracts. And on and on.
Mr. Andrzejewski and his colleagues are well on their way to assembling a national database that will put the government’s checkbooks, on the state and local as well as the federal level, online for the people who fork over the money to scrutinize. Now when a politician tells you that taxes cannot be cut, that in fact they must be raised, the people who pay their salaries can look to see where the money is going. Why, they might wonder, are low-interest, taxpayer-supported Small Business Association loans going to Botox clinics or Beverly Hills country clubs (yes, really).
The culture of corruption that has grown up in the U.S. government is not quite, not yet, as bad as some other places, but it is growing apace. Barack Obama came to office promising “the most transparent administration in history.” There is considerable irony that then Senator Obama co-sponsored a bill with former Republican Senator Tom Coburn to bring greater transparency to the federal government. As soon as Obama was elected President, however, the only thing transparent was the secrecy and mendacity that of his administration. Everyone understands that it is just business as usual: that Lois Lerner of the IRS, or here boss John Koskinen, can weaponize the IRS to attack conservatives and then stonewall before Congress with (so far) absolutely impunity.
At stake in what OpenTheBooks.com is endeavoring to do is the future of our political culture: will we continue our descent in unaccountable, tin-pot oligarchy and corruption, or will the citizens rise up and demand a cleansing of the Augean stables? It is too early to say. But an admonitory observation which I quoted in a column some time ago is pertinent: “A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.”
‘The majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury.” It was precisely that exchange that Madison warned about in Federalist 10. Adam Andrzejewski is doing yeoman’s service bringing us back to Madison’s founding wisdom. His initiative deserves your support. Check out OpenTheBooks.com and get involved. The dollars you save will likely be your own.