HORIST: Glad to be wrong: The story of Open the Books
For most of my career, I was paid to prognosticate political outcomes for certain clients. You do not do that for more than 40 years by being wrong too many times. Every crystal ball has a flaw or two, however.
While the election was too close to call with confidence, I did push back on the media narrative that Trump had “no path to the presidency.” He not only had a path, but he had the momentum of that eight-year political tsunami that was wiping out the Democratic Party at all levels. With regard to Trump’s presidency, I am not terribly surprised by his personality shortcomings since they were on full display during the entire campaign. I was a bit pleasantly surprised by his consistently conservative agenda.
My biggest mistaken presidential prediction occurred in 2008 when I assured my clients that Barack Obama would not be elected. I said at the time that his only chance was if two things were to converge – a major political disaster AND an extremely bad campaign by his opponent, John McCain. Not just one of these unlikely events but both were needed to defeat my prediction. Well lo and behold, we get a major recession and McCain runs one of the worst presidential campaigns in American history.
Foreseeing the future also applied to my business clients. One of them had the idea of building indoor tennis courts and charging $15 per hour to use them. As a guy who played unlimited tennis on free park district courts, I thought it was the craziest idea ever. Who would pay to play? As it turned out, a lot of people.
In my more recent example of being wrong, there is the case of Adam Andrzejewski (Angie-eff-ski). Andrzejewski who? you might ask. He is a very personable rich guy who ran for governor of Illinois. He did not do well (and that prediction I got right).
After the campaign, Andrzejewski announced that he was going to start some sort of a civic organization with the innocuous name of American Transparency to highlight waste in government. Having seen no end of rich guys setting up self-serving organizations to keep their names in the public eye, I was dubious – maybe downright cynical. After all, there were already many organizations devoted to cutting waste and spending. What I foresaw was another run-of-the-mill organization that would add little value or have limited influence in the public dialogue.
Boy, was I wrong.
Andrzejewski had found a critical niche in the fight against excessive spending that others did not see or did not know what to do about it. The problem for any group opposed to Big Brother tax and spend policies of the Administrative State was getting specifics out of all those intentionally complex and semi-secretive government budgets – from the federal behemoth to the local mini behemoths. There was just too much to deal with in all those billions of line items that reveal where our tax money goes.
Andrzejewski’ s answer was a project with the demanding title of Open the Books (OBT) – a civic enterprise dedicated to putting all that carefully guarded public sector budget information online so that the average citizen could easily see government spending on the macro and micro scale. The OTB slogan reflects the enormous scope of Andrzejewski’ s ambition — “Every Dime Online in Real Time.”
Even though the information is public record and theoretically available to any citizen who cares to look, public examination has been thwarted in every way possible by our elected officials and the bureaucrats who serve them (and not us). The most flagrant example of transparency avoidance has been the refusal by many government entities to perform the simplest of services by putting their budgets online where they could be perused by a mouse. Another tactic was slow or no responses to legitimate Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
In a combination of genius, determination and personal investment, Andrzejewski forced his way past the opaque barriers of public funding to do “forensic auditing” of government budgets. He and his people meticulously researched budget after budget and developed the computer programming to put all that raw information online in usable form. Just today, I clicked on my Boca Raton, Florida Zip Code and got a list of every local federal employee and their salary. It was not a long list, but I do not live in a major metropolitan area. So, I clicked on Ft. Lauderdale and found a much longer list with a lot of amazingly high salaries.
Like any gargantuan task, Andrzejewski’s project did not start out with a lot of political shock and awe. It took time and much of his wealth to find and download all that information. With all the good intentions and patience of a Buddhist monk, Andrzejewski not only amassed an enormous amount of data, to say the least, but developed a website in which makes it easy to access that information at many various levels and in many ways.
Andrzejewski is not just a record keeper. Open the Books also casts the bright light of public exposure on waste and corruption. OBT issues reports and summaries tied to the issues of the day. This carefully crafted and executed two-pronged approach has caught the attention of the political and media worlds.
Andrzejewski is a frequent guest on news and public affairs programs. He is often quoted in articles and columns in the nation’s major newspapers and magazines, including the Wall Street Journal and Forbes. The Journal’s editorial by Roger Kimball makes no overstated claim when it says that “The investigative work of Open the Books has fomented a revolution in fiscal transparency.”
With more than 4 billion government expenditures already accessible, the OBT database continues to grow – capturing expenditures at every level of government, even school boards and other independent agencies.
In the fight against waste and abusive government spending, Andrzejewski has become a superstar to any citizen or organization dedicated to fiscal responsibility in government. Every concerned citizen and taxpayer advocate group should have openthebooks.com on their computer’s favorites bar.
I cannot think of a time when I was happier to have been wrong.
Larry Horist is a conservative activist with an extensive background in economics, public policy and political issues. Clients of his consulting firm have included such conservative icons as Steve Forbes and Milton Friedman, and he has served as a consultant to the White House under Presidents Nixon and Reagan. He has testified as an expert witness before numerous legislative bodies, including the U. S. Congress and lectured at Harvard University, Northwestern University, Florida Atlantic University, Knox College and Hope College. An award winning debater, his insightful and sometimes controversial commentaries appear frequently on the editorial pages of newspapers across the nation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.