The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

April 30, 2008

Analysis of the Day

The Washington Post’s (and Newsweek’s) Robert Samuelson on gas prices.

Second verse, same as the first

This past weekend, former Assembly Speaker John Gard announced he’s running for the Eighth Congressional District seat he lost to Democrat Steve Kagen in 2006.

Ordinarily, given that Kagen has already beaten Gard once, one would not give Gard much of a chance to win the rematch (think Dwight Eisenhower vs. Adlai Stevenson), especially considering that conventional wisdom says 2008 will be a bad year for Republicans. I’m not sure the conventional wisdom isn’t changing, though. Since Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama appear to be on a course of Mutually Assured Destruction, John McCain’s chances of winning the presidency improve every day that the Democratic presidential race goes on. According to Rasmussen Reports, which does daily presidential tracking polls, the race is clearly too close to call, whether McCain faces Obama or Clinton.

That poll question, though, means less than doing the harder work of adding up electoral votes. As of Monday, Obama/Clinton had the lead in states with 200 electoral votes, while McCain led in states with 189 electoral votes; if you add “leaners,” Obama/Clinton led 260–240. Given how much of a disaster this coming election was supposed to be, McCain’s in a pretty good place after all. Additional good news for McCain comes from another Rasmussen poll in which those surveyed trust McCain more than either Clinton (natch) or Obama on the economy, the war in Iraq, national security and taxes.

The 2004 presidential election taught political geeks that lesson number one is to turn out your base. McCain has had issues with conservatives, and some prominent ones have announced they’re either not going to vote in November, or not vote for McCain. (Those evidently never heard the thoughts of German chancellor Otto von Bismarck: “Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best.” More on that subject in a future post.) However, one of the lessons of the 2006 midterm elections was that ignoring the swing vote makes you lose, and it’s pretty obvious that McCain is better suited to drawing independent-minded voters than his more conservative primary opponents.

It’s been generally assumed that winning presidential candidates have, or at least should have, swept along candidates of their party into Congress. Republicans controlled at least one house of Congress in six of George W. Bush’s eight years in office, and had both houses between 2003 and 2007. When Ronald Reagan swept Jimmy Carter into the dustbin of political history in 1980, the Senate also changed from Democratic control to Republican control, and that stayed until 1987. When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, both houses of Congress were already under Democratic control, and his first two years went so well that, by 1995, both houses of Congress switched to GOP control. (Which makes one wonder why there’s such Democratic fondness for the Clintons — in the eight years he/they were in office, Clinton got more than 50 percent of the vote in neither election, and lost control of Congress, which no one thought was even possible in 1994.)

A McCain win might help Gard or another Republican candidate in the Eighth District. The fact one can remember the Democratic congressmen from the Eighth — Rev. Robert Cornell (1975–79), elected in the wake of Watergate; Jay Johnson (1997–99), who won the same night Clinton was re-elected; and Kagen, elected on a generally bad night for Republicans — suggests that the Eighth is a Republican-leaning district, largely because there’s no evidence that there isn’t.

Gard is part of a club that I’m sure he’d love to leave — Republicans who have lost in the Eighth. Cornell won over one-term incumbent Harold Froehlich, who replaced 28-year incumbent John Byrnes, in an election in which one had to struggle to find any GOP wins. Cornell, who left because Pope John Paul II prohibited Catholic priests from holding political office, left four years later, and Toby Roth spent the next 18 years in Washington. After he retired, Johnson won over then-state Rep. David Prosser, now a state Supreme Court justice, but his stay in Washington ended with a loss to then-state Rep. Mark Green in 1998. Green has been rumored to be a candidate for his old job in 2008; as much as he seems to enjoy being ambassador to Tanzania, he seems more likely to run for governor again in 2010 since a Democratic president isn’t likely to keep him as an ambassador.

Both Prosser and Gard were speakers of the Assembly, one of the most public positions in state politics. I pointed out Friday that of the two houses of the Legislature, the Assembly, unlike the Senate, is a dictatorship of the majority party, and by far the most contentious (the difference between the Assembly and the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison is that Feast with the Beasts is at the Zoo) and most polarized (Democrats are more liberal in the Assembly than in the Senate, and Republicans are more conservative in the Assembly than in the Senate) of the two houses. Both Prosser and Gard thus generated a record as Assembly speaker, much more so than any other state rep, and records are of course fair game in politics. Gard’s major failure as Assembly speaker was not getting the Taxpayer Bill of Rights passed when he had his chance (both houses of the Legislature were controlled by Republicans when Gard was speaker). Neither Prosser nor Gard had very good campaigns in their respective runs for office, one reason why names such as former Green Bay Mayor Paul Jadin come up as potential alternative Eighth District candidates. And Republicans running for Congress and the Senate suffered due to the fact that congressional Republicans, instead of sticking to the principles on which they were elected, governed as Democrats who spend slightly less money.

Kagen now has a record too — specifically, a voting record, which matches House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 95 percent of the time (it is a “master of the obvious” kind of statement to say that the political culture of the Eighth Congressional District of Wisconsin is more conservative than that of the Eighth Congressional District of California), and matches National Taxpayers Union positions 7 percent of the time. Contrary to what you see on Kagen’s House Web site — Kagen “responds to the needs of small business and consumers!” Kagen “assists homeowners!” Kagen “protects Great Lakes from invasive species!” — he seems to specialize in sticking his foot in his mouth and making proposals that completely miss the point (recall his solution to high gas prices) or are constitutionally dubious at best (for instance, his discovery that health insurance preexisting condition exclusions constitute discrimination, a discovery made by no constitutional scholar I’m aware of). Despite his promise to not let his constituents down, he already has, by aligning himself with the most left-wing elements of his party, one of the things that made Johnson the only Democratic congressman to lose a reelection bid in 1998.

It amazes me that Kagen got elected in the first place given how he talked as a candidate — suggesting that crimes are a cry for help by the criminal and his infamous “Injun Time” comment (no Republican would ever get away with saying that). Wisconsin voters (or at least a majority of them) have this habit of making the wrong choices, such as, in 2006, choosing Jim Doyle for governor over Green, inexplicably choosing the nonentity Dawn Marie Sass over Treasurer Jack Voight, and choosing Kagen over Gard. Eighth District voters should be ashamed of themselves for having elected someone who believes Kagen’s behavior in his first month in office is how adults should act, and someone who had to be called to task by the state’s largest newspaper (which, by the way, endorsed him in 2006) not for political positions, but for behavior. (As his predecessor said at the time, “He has already forgotten the first important rule of being a congressman. And that is when you speak, especially in Washington, D.C., you don’t speak for yourself. You speak for and represent a whole bunch of folks back home.”) Kagen should have stayed at his medical practice, where he can do actual good for people, instead of doing actual ill in Congress. Comparatively speaking, former Brown County Executive Nancy Nusbaum (one of the few people in Wisconsin political history who has run for Congress as both a Republican and a Democrat) would have been a better Democratic choice than Kagen.

There are two truisms that apply to the Eighth District: (1) The easiest race to win is an open seat, as both Johnson and Kagen found out, but (2) the hardest race for an incumbent to win is his or her first try for re-election. I think Kagen will discover the latter to be true, whether his ultimate GOP candidate is Gard or someone else.

April 29, 2008

Presidential Campaign Analysis of the Day

George Will HERE. The best quote:
Michelle [Obama], who was born in 1964, says that most Americans' lives have “gotten progressively worse since I was a little girl.” Since 1960, real per capita income has increased 143 percent, life expectancy has increased by seven years, infant mortality has declined 74 percent, deaths from heart disease have been halved, childhood leukemia has stopped being a death sentence, depression has become a treatable disease, air and water pollution have been drastically reduced, the number of women earning a bachelor’s degree has more than doubled, the rate of homeownership has increased 10.2 percent, the size of the average American home has doubled, the percentage of homes with air conditioning has risen from 12 to 77, the portion of Americans who own shares of stock has quintupled … Has your wife perhaps missed some pertinent developments in this country that she calls “just downright mean”?

OCYKTMW!

The first exposure I ever got to art was, of course, Looney Tunes cartoons, a staple of Saturday morning TV for decades. I’ll write more about that some other time; I bring this up to explain the title of this post, a line delivered by Bugs Bunny after having suffered some sort of indignity: “Of course you know THIS means WAR!”

“OCYKTMW!” will be an occasional entry showcasing idiocy in government and elsewhere. I came up with the title in part because WAPL’s “Weenie of the Week” and Sports Illustrated’s “This Week’s Sign of the Apocalypse” are already taken. I was thinking of calling this “Why I Hate Government,” except that (1) not every entry may be about government and (2) that title seems a bit harsh, even though I do not agree with Bill Clinton’s self-aggrandizing claim that “You can’t say you love your country and hate your government.” (See Founding Fathers, 1770.)

Entry number one takes us to Los Angeles, where the bureaucrats are, in the words of the Center for Consumer Freedom, “on the lookout for the most notorious ring of pork pushers: food cart vendors who serve bacon-wrapped hot dogs.” This is because Los Angeles County ordinances allow hot dogs to be served by vendors only if boiled or steamed, not grilled, which seems quite incompatible with wrapping in bacon. Los Angeles County is so set on enforcing the boil-or-steam law that they have reportedly jailed vendors who dared offer the grilling option to their customers, thus, in the words of Reason TV, trapping vendors “between government regulations and consumer demand.”

I’ve never had a bacon-wrapped hot dog (my preference is for Chicago Dogs or what’s apparently popular in Massachusetts, with baked beans on top), although the mere description of what LA Weekly calls “So Good It’s Illegal” attracts my interest. My late father-in-law was a hog farmer, and I find most forms of pork — bacon, ribs, pork chops, pork roast, ham, pig roasts — delectable (that is, until someone spoils it by adding sauerkraut). The first time I went to Famous Dave’s, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Bacon makes almost anything palatable, and is particularly delightful wrapped around my favorite seafood, shrimp.

More to the point: What kind of mindset (regardless of whether this was a county board ordinance or a bureaucrat-generated regulation) believes that this kind of issue is worth one-tenth of a second of thought, let alone an entire enforcement mechanism that has put people in jail for as long as 45 days? If it’s because of the myths tied to pork and certain diseases, they are just that, myths. If it’s out of the belief that people are too stupid to know what’s good and bad for them … well, I guess there’s plenty of blame to go around for that.

What’s worse is that, according to the LA Weekly article, the L.A. food police has helped create an entire “black market,” if you want to call it that, of hot dog vendors who follow no government regulations at all and pay taxes not to government, but to street gangs. (Very similar to the effects of jacking up cigarette and alcohol taxes, but you already knew that.) That doesn’t strike me as being an improvement.

Government idiocy (and I apologize for repeating myself) like this makes me an even bigger backer of any kind of tax reform proposal that would result in enormous cuts in government. Government that has the personnel and time to enforce ordinances about street vendor-sold bacon-wrapped hot dogs clearly has too many people, too little to do, and too much of our tax money.

April 28, 2008

America’s Dairyland vs. Flatland

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (a Journal Communications medium, as is Marketplace) notes that The New North is trying to attract consumers from Illinois coming this direction on vacation to avoid, of all things, high taxes:

“We hope to put together some of the retailers to see what we can do to promote the added benefits of the region,” said Joshua Morby, spokesman for The New North, a coalition of 18 counties in the northeast part of the state.

Chicago’s sales tax will go to 10.25% on July 1, as a result of a recent action by Cook County. Some parts of Cook County outside the city of Chicago will have sales tax rates ranging from 7% to 10%, depending on municipal rates.

Illinois’ base sales tax rate is 6.25%. Wisconsin’s base sales tax rate is 5%. In Milwaukee County, the rate is 5.6%, and many counties across the state are at 5.5%

“It’s not every day that we get to brag about the advantages of low taxes in Wisconsin,” Morby said.

The New North coalition envisions a campaign that will be timed for back-to-school shopping. The season will coincide with the tax rate increase in the Chicago area and with a time when many Illinois families are vacationing in Wisconsin.

Posted comments on this item at The Chicagoist show some interesting perspectives. One poster notes that Wisconsin’s income tax is higher (4.6 to 6.75 percent vs. Illinois’ 3 percent) and Wisconsin taxes retirement income, unlike Illinois, although Wisconsin doesn’t tax Social Security as of Jan. 1. (Bloomberg ranked Wisconsin the worst state for retirees, estimating that retirees pay an average of $17,528 in property, income and sales taxes.) On the other hand, a bill in Illinois’ Senate would increase personal income taxes 60 percent, and increase corporate income taxes from 4.8 percent (7.3 percent when adding a “personal property replacement tax”) to 8 percent.

One reason Illinois is considering tax increases at what is a bad time to increase taxes (are you listening, Sens. Obama and Clinton?) is because of public employee health care and pension obligations. One advantage Wisconsin has over Illinois is that there historically has been little corruption and patronage in government in this state; as for Illinois, well … as one wag put it, he wanted to be buried in Illinois so he could continue participating in politics. (Barack Obama is discovering as his presidential campaign starts to leak oil that being an Illinois politician is not necessarily a positive at the national level. The county Chicago’s in is known as “Crook County” for a reason.) One source claims that 4,000 retired Illinois state employees have pensions exceeding $100,000 a year. A number of Milwaukee County officials lost their jobs over a county retiree pension scandal. Many municipalities and school districts are also dealing with unfunded pension liabilities for their employees.

Morby’s tax comment might be the quote of the month. Several states, however, create tax holidays to take advantage of their higher-tax neighbors, particularly around, for instance, the holidays or school supply purchase time. The concept is purely supply-side — what they lose in sales tax revenue is gained in, for instance, increased profits for businesses. (That is a concept completely foreign to Wisconsin government.) As it is, only one Midwest state, Minnesota, has higher total taxes than Wisconsin, which is 14th highest. Perhaps Illinois, which is 16th highest, can pass Wisconsin soon, but only if Republicans maintain control of one house of the Legislature to prevent Gov. Jim Doyle’s next attempt to pass the largest tax increase in Wisconsin history.

April 25, 2008

From blogger to candidate

Jo Egelhoff, former Appleton alderman and proprietor of FoxPolitics.net, announced this morning that she’s running for the 57th Assembly District seat being vacated by Rep. Steve Wieckert (R–Appleton).

To date, two candidates, Republican Peter Stueck, an Appleton alderman and Outagamie County supervisor, and Democrat Penny Bernard Schaber, who lost to Wieckert in 2006, have announced they’re running. (Should Stueck win, I can already hear his campaign slogan in 2010: “Stick with Stueck.” Egelhoff already has been given the tag “Tailgunner Jo” by one of her regular blog commentators.)

Egelhoff’s 10 years on the Common Council certainly qualifies her for the Assembly job; I don’t know Stueck, but I assume he’s qualified too. What gives me pause a bit about Stueck is his Barack Obama-esque comment that, as he was quoted in the Appleton Post~Crescent, “Too many people are spending too much time standing up for their particular party and not doing the work that needs to be done.” That’s a lovely sentiment when arguing favorite athletic teams. With few exceptions, though, there are huge differences between legislative Republicans and Democrats, on taxes and solutions to improving the state’s business climate. Moreover, the Assembly, like the U.S. House of Representatives, is a dictatorship of the majority party; the minority party might as well not even be in the chamber, from what I’ve witnessed. It’s easy to tout unity when one side caves to the other, which I suspect is Obama’s definition of unity.

As for Bernard Schaber, her positions include restoring the public intervenor (also known as “environmentalist roadblock”) in state government, “promoting cost effective, and positive issue oriented campaigns that are not influenced by financial contributions” (which is probably not an endorsement of smaller government), and “balancing revenues with spending,” probably a code phrase for acceptance of tax increases since she doesn’t mention cutting taxes.

Even if her positions were reasonable, the problem with electing any Democrat, as people who voted for Rep. Steve Kagen (D–Appleton) should have realized, is that you get all the other Democrats with your Democrat. In Northeast Wisconsin’s case, electing Reps. Tom Nelson (D–Kaukauna), Bob Ziegelbauer (D–Manitowoc, praised by one of his Republican colleagues as a better Republican than many Republicans in Madison), Terry Van Akkeren (D–Sheboygan), Gordon Hintz (D–Oshkosh), Louis Molepske Jr. (D–Stevens Point) and James Soletski (D–Green Bay) means you also get Reps. Spencer Black (D–Madison), Frank Boyle (D–Superior), Fred Kessler (D–Milwaukee, who recently took out his rage over the Supreme Court election result by introducing a proposal to end Supreme Court elections), Mark Pocan (D–Madison), David Travis (D–Madison) and Sheldon Wasserman (D–Milwaukee) — all of whom have demonstrated over their excessively long careers that there is nothing that government shouldn’t try to regulate and/or tax, including everything in your wallet.

You think I’m exaggerating? The fourth sentence of the 2006 Democratic Party of Wisconsin platform reads: “One of the primary jobs of government is to ensure that everyone can lead dignified, healthy, and fulfilling lives.” (I’m surprised Gov. James Doyle hasn’t created Cabinet-level departments of dignity and fulfillment.) Wisconsin Democrats, having discovered the right to health care in the U.S. Constitution, also want a single-payer health care system, along with an end to any government funding of non-public schools and more money for public schools, school property taxes to skyrocket through the end of the Qualified Economic Offer, “a tax system that is based on ability to pay,” balancing the federal budget “through wise spending and fair taxation.” (The word “fair” in that instance always means “more than you’re paying” to those in the productive class.) The Wisconsin Democrats also jump into corporate governance by proclaiming that “American companies have a duty to our nation to be established here at home, follow our environmental and labor laws, and pay taxes.” And, oh, by the way, they “call upon Congress to begin impeachment proceedings immediately against President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld,” who beat them to the punch by resigning.

I’d love to hear any of the Democrats who represent part of the Marketplace circulation area, or those who want to represent this area, explain why their party isn’t a bunch of anti-business, anti-free market, anti-wealth, tax-addicted, collectivist leftists. The evidence will be pretty hard for them to overcome.

“The National Weather Service has issued …”

Today is the conclusion of Tornado and Severe Weather Awareness Week in Wisconsin. Because Mother Nature apparently appreciates irony, we also have the first prediction of potential severe weather of the year in northeast Wisconsin.

(Links before I resume, since these are our tax dollars at work: If you are in Fond du Lac, Green Lake or Marquette counties, your forecast comes from Sullivan; otherwise, your forecast comes from Ashwaubenon. Severe weather information can be found here. A projection of weather beyond this week can be found for six to 10 days, 8 to 14 days, one month and three months.)

I have an odd fascination with severe weather (odd because, as my mother would no doubt tell you, severe weather provoked outsized anxiety in the much younger version of me, and because my worst subject in school was science). I haven’t ever gone storm-chasing (unlike a certain sales and editorial assistant I know), and I probably should be less fascinated seeing as how severe weather could provoke a confrontation between the two large trees on our lot and our house that no doubt would be expensive. Perhaps it’s that severe weather is a sign of spring and summer, which I find vastly preferable to winter.

Growing up in Madison in the era before every TV station had its own color weather radar, I remember watching weather reports that included mention of “Neenah radar,” a radar station that was in operation between 1972 and 1995. The Neenah weather radar station is gone (I believe the tower is still there, though, on what now is Neenah’s southwest side), as is the National Weather Service’s Madison office, where a neighbor of ours used to work. Dane County, home of the People’s Republic of Madison, is one of two counties that has averaged one tornado per year for the past 25 years.

Last June 7, the severe weather forecast was a bit apocalyptic, to say the least. So when nothing (as in no weather at all other than high winds) happened in Fond du Lac County, I assumed the National Weather Service had messed up a forecast once again … that is, until I saw the coverage of the tornado and storm damage in the northern part of the New North. Three years earlier, on June 23, 2004, severe weather blew up pretty much out of nowhere, including a tornado that sucked a man out of his basement and killed him near Markesan. (More detailed reading on that outbreak can be found here.) And three years before that was a hurricane-like storm that twisted road signs on U.S. 41, peeled back roofs on buildings near 41, and caused the water in Lake Winnebago to actually move into and out of lake homeowners’ back yards.

I don’t have evidence for this, but I believe the National Weather Service issues more tornado warnings than in past years, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. The old criteria for issuing a tornado warning was the sighting of a tornado by a spotter or a “hook echo” on radar. Now, sufficient rotation in a severe thunderstorm, which can be detected by Doppler radar, will result in a tornado (or, as I call them, STCOPAT, for “Severe Thunderstorm Capable of Producing a Tornado”) warning.

The usual pattern is that when warnings don’t pan out, people ignore them until a warning does pan out and people die, after which the pendulum swings the other way. In the four days after the 1984 Barneveld tornado, in which eight people died (because there was no tornado warning, since the tornado formed just outside Barneveld in the middle of the night), two tornado warnings were issued, the first for a supposed tornado less than a mile away from our house in Madison. (That warning interrupted my brother’s high school graduation party; had there been a tornado, we would have seen it, and we didn’t.)

One July day in 1996, I stopped after work at a used bookstore in Appleton that had on its radio Wisconsin Public Radio, which was broadcasting tornado warnings for other parts of the state. When I checked out, the man at the cash register made a scoffing kind of remark about how the Weather Service usually gets forecasts wrong. But not that day, as people in Oakfield discovered.

The Weather Service is, of course, a convenient target for jokes about their accuracy, or lack thereof, in predicting weather. Then again, this state’s particular climate makes predicting weather difficult. This is, after all, the state that has had tornadoes in January and December, and has had snow in May. Back in my weekly newspaper days, a tornado hit in the county where I was working one March afternoon. (My then-girlfriend, now wife, was visiting a client in the client’s mobile home, which of course is where one would prefer to not be when the tornado sirens activate.) That night, I covered a severe weather spotter training session not far from where the tornado hit, driving through blowing snow to get there. I’ve also had the experience of announcing that a tornado watch was in effect during a basketball game in November.

Wisconsin is not considered to be part of the famous Tornado Alley, but Wisconsin does have its own Tornado Alley, along U.S. 151 between Grant County and Fond du Lac; 151 goes either through or near most of the top counties for tornadoes in Wisconsin since 1844. I grew up in Dane County (27 tornadoes since 1982), used to live in Grant (23 tornadoes) and Dodge (21 tornadoes) counties, and now live in Fond du Lac County (24 tornadoes), so even though I have never seen a tornado, I’m guessing it’s a question of when, not if.

8:50 a.m. Update: The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center places us in the "Slight" risk area for severe weather today, which means a 5 to 25 percent chance of one or more instances of severe weather (hail of ¾ inch or larger, winds of 58 mph or more, and tornadoes) within 25 miles of any point within the “Slight” area (see the top map). More specifically, as of 8 a.m. there is a 2 percent chance of a tornado within 25 miles of any point (second map), a 15 percent chance of hail of ¾-inch hail within 25 miles of any point (third map), and a 15 percent chance of winds of 50 knots, or 58 mph, within 25 miles of a point (bottom map). Interestingly, heavy rain or lightning don’t fit into the Weather Service’s definition of severe weather, given that flooding and lightning are first and second on the list of storm-related causes of death.

12:40 p.m. Update: The tornado threat has increased to 5 percent in southwest and south central Wisconsin and remains 2 percent for essentially everyone south of a curve from Green Bay to La Crosse. The Weather Service will update these maps again at 3 p.m.

2:50 p.m. Update: The National Weather Service has issued this Tornado Watch for, in the Marketplace circulation area, Fond du Lac, Green Lake, Marquette, Sheboygan, Waushara and Winnebago counties (which covers both my office and my house) until 8 p.m. A line of severe thunderstorms is developing from Lone Rock southward into Missouri, moving northeast around 40 mph. The Storm Prediction Center has increased the tornado threat to 10 percent within the watch area.

Evening update: Since I went to De Pere for an interview at 4:45, I missed all of this:
  • 4:28: A severe thunderstorm warning for Fond du Lac County until 5:30.
  • 4:30: A severe thunderstorm warning for Marquette and Green Lake counties until 5:30.
  • 5:00: A severe thunderstorm warning for eastern Fond du Lac and western Sheboygan counties until 5:45.
  • 5:04: The Weather Service expects hail to 2 inches diameter, 70 mph winds and tornadoes from the storms affecting "all of south central and southeast Wisconsin."
  • 5:34: Tornado warning for Green Lake County until 6:15 for a STCOPAT near Pardeeville moving northeast at 44 mph.
  • 5:37: "Trained weather spotters" spot a tornado near Dalton moving northeast at 46 mph.
  • 5:48: The cats in our house are freaked out by the weather radio and sirens going off for a tornado warning for southern Green Lake and northwestern Fond du Lac counties until 6:30. The "strong tornado" is near Markesan moving northeast at 53 mph; it's expected to be in Ripon by 6:05.
  • 5:55: The sky in Ripon is reported to be an aquamarine color. Bad sign.
  • 5:57: Back at the Menasha nerve center, a severe thunderstorm warning is in effect for northwestern Calumet, northeastern Winnebago and southern Outagamie counties until 6:45, for a line of storms from Oshkosh to Menasha moving northeast at 45 mph.
  • 5:58: The tornado is supposed to be near Fairwater heading toward West Rosendale and Rosendale. But around this time, a funnel cloud is seen above Ripon's south side (though not by me, since at this moment I'm noticing how dark it's getting in De Pere).
  • 6:11: The Fox Cities-area storm is now in Mackville heading northeast. Winds of 60 mph have been reported at the Outagamie County Airport and in Combined Locks.
  • 6:14: Tornado now sighted near Wiota, southeast of Ripon, moving toward Rosendale.
  • 6:20: The 5:57 severe thunderstorm warning is cancelled because the storm has moved out of the area. However ...
  • 6:22: Tornado warning issued for eastern Winnebago and southwestern Calumet counties until 6:45, for a STCOPAT nine miles southwest of Oshkosh heading toward Oshkosh at 47 mph.
  • 6:28: Rotating wall cloud (from whence come tornadoes) sighted five miles southwest of Oshkosh heading toward Oshkosh.
  • 7:37: Tornado watch cancelled.
Today's storm report for Wisconsin: One tornado near Wyocena; hail reported in, in chronological order, Waukesha, Juneau, Adams, Sauk, Dodge, Columbia, Portage, Wood, Green Lake, Winnebago, Marathon, Fond du Lac, Lincoln, Oneida and Vilas counties; high winds reported in Grant, Outagamie (three trees downed in Appleton), Brown (uprooted trees in Green Bay), Kewaunee and Waukesha counties. Either the Weather Service gets an A for today, or the weather cooperated with their forecast. (No, I am not going to do this for every instance of possible severe weather this spring and summer.)

Postscript: Around 7:50 p.m. a woman called WIXX to say that she called her house and told her husband to turn off all the electrical appliances in their house because there was a tornado warning. The husband replied: "A tornado warning? I'm going to get my camera!"

The last thing the woman said: "I'm going back on the Pill."

April 24, 2008

Happy (?) Tax Freedom Day

Today is, according to the Tax Foundation, Tax Freedom Day in Wisconsin — the day when the estimated amount of taxes equals the estimated amount of income generated. (An explanation of how that’s determined can be found HERE.)

Wisconsin’s federal, state and local tax burden as a percentage of income (13th highest this year) is always one of the nation’s highest for two interdependent reasons — government spends a lot of money in this state, and Wisconsin usually lags the national average in income. As it happens, in 2005 (the last year with available figures), median household income was actually higher in Wisconsin ($48,903) than in the nation ($48,023). Per capita income, however, is lower ($30,898) than the national average ($31,632). The explanation for the differences is simple: Wisconsin has one of the highest workforce participation rates in the country; there are more multiple-earner households in Wisconsin than in the rest of the U.S.

The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance has an explanation in “Why Are Wisconsin’s Taxes High?”, which quotes historian Daniel Elazar as putting Wisconsin into the third of three groups of political cultures among the states — “Moralistic,” which considers government “a positive instrument with a responsibility to promote the general welfare.” Elazar put an interesting mix of nine states in that category — Maine, Vermont, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Colorado, Utah and Oregon. That is as opposite as you can get from the “Individualistic” model, found in a belt of states almost exactly south of the Moralistic Belt, that “emphasizes the centrality of private concerns” and places “a premium on limiting community intervention.” It shouldn’t be surprising that, when the study was written in 2003, seven of the nine Moralistic states ranked in the top 18 states for tax burden.

Put together the worldview from our Yankee forefathers that was “activist and favorably disposed to government” and the evangelical Protestant-based “Social Gospel view,” and you get:
  • “A system of numerous local governments funded to an increasing degree by state, rather than local, taxpayers.”
  • Tax-funded public education that started even before Wisconsin became a state.
  • The Wisconsin Idea, “a multi-campus university that was engaged in the state’s public life.”
  • A much more pro-union environment than most states.
  • “An extensive network of health and social service programs.”
  • And the coup de grace, “income and inheritance taxes that could both redistribute wealth and income — and provide the funding base needed to support the active government that many Yankees, Scandinavians and Germans” who settled this state supported.
About that last point: There is another way to describe “redistribute wealth and income.” The more concise and precise term is: “Theft.” Any taxation that goes past paying for the actual functions of government should be considered theft, which, while it may be "moralistic," doesn't strike me as being moral at all.

Being part-German and part-Scandinavian, I guess I should apologize on behalf of my misguided ancestors for foisting upon all of us what the WTA study calls our “‘high-tax, high-service’ state today.” (This past winter made me curse my ancestors for coming to this state in the first place.) The second half of that assertion is correct only in that government does a lot in this state; the assertion that government does a lot well in this state is dubious at best.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 42.6 percent of Wisconsinites (including half of your editor/columnist/blogger) are of German origin. Germany was where socialism and communism were born. To tamp down socialism, German chancellor Otto von Bismarck enacted the world’s first old age pensions and disability insurance and worker’s compensation. (He also gave one of the great government quotes of all time: “Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.”)

Wisconsin’s unique contribution to our political culture was the Progressive movement started by Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette, governor, U.S. senator and the namesake of my Madison high school. The good things the Progressives did (direct primary elections, direct election of U.S. senators, the referendum, fierce opposition to discrimination) were overcome by La Follette’s assertion during his days as governor that two major spheres of business, timber and railroads, were the biggest evils of the time. In his 1922 U.S. Senate campaign he proposed government takeover of railroads and utilities. Two years later, he ran what’s been called “the most successful leftwing Presidential campaign in American history.” La Follette’s two sons, Robert Jr., a U.S. senator from 1925 to 1947 (replaced by, ironically, Joe McCarthy), and Philip, governor from 1931 to 1933 and from 1935 to 1939, created their own Progressive Party, which called for the creation of several new state agencies to parrot Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and even called for the distribution of milk as a public utility.

La Follette’s Progressive movement (as opposed to Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive movement; I wrote a college term paper on the differences between the two) is the most influential political movement in this state’s history. Wisconsin’s Progressives made the envy of wealth politically palatable, and that attitude moved into the Democratic Party after the Progressive Party died in 1946. Wisconsin was, no surprise, the first state to institute an income tax, in 1911. Maybe Fighting Bob didn’t intend for what at the time was considered to be big business to metastasize into big government, but that’s what happened in Wisconsin. (In fact, there is a school of thought that claims that regulation of railroads worked to the benefit of the established railroads and against their potential competitors.)

The Germans who came to Wisconsin were used to and were believers in big government. Progressives opposed wealth and focused on workers to the exclusion of business of any size, ignoring the fact that without businesses, there are no workers. Put the two together, and you have outsized government and undersized incomes.

One more reason is that government in Wisconsin is big — big as in a lot of governments. When faced with choosing between the New England town model and the more common county model of government, Wisconsin chose … both. As a result, we have 72 counties, 190 cities, 400 villages and 1,260 towns, plus 426 school districts, 16 technical college districts (to go with our 13 University of Wisconsin System two-year schools, but that’s a topic for another day), and several hundred special districts with taxing powers. Also as a result, we have 573 police departments to go with 72 county sheriff's departments, and 863 fire departments, 35 of which are full-time (that is, non-volunteer) departments. Fox Cities taxpayers are paying the salaries and benefits of eight police chiefs (which is seven too many) and 10 fire chiefs (which is nine too many). State taxpayers are paying the salaries and benefits of 426 school district administrators, which is at least 100 too many.

Those who want to cut taxes and government spending in Wisconsin have to fight our ancestry and history, plus 2,292 units of government, plus organizations that believe that your taxes aren't high enough. On that cheery note, Happy Tax Freedom Day.

April 23, 2008

Journalist, heal thyself

Smoke and Consequences” revealed that raising cigarette taxes will not solve the problems proponents think it will, but will create other problems thanks to the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Apparently, the Wausau Daily Herald did not read this blog, because the newspaper’s opinionmongers have decided that what we overtaxed Wisconsinites really need is … another tax increase, specifically in beer taxes. This will, say the editorialists, halve the state budget deficit (because apparently cutting spending is never an option), and deal with the problems “associated with Wisconsin culture of alcohol abuse,” and, hey, “
most people wouldn’t even notice a 20 cents-a-gallon tax increase.”

It is instructive to note that newspapers that editorialize in favor of tax increases don’t mention tax increases that would directly affect them. No newspaper would, for instance, suggest that sales taxes be extended to single-copy or subscription purchases of their own newspaper. Only a guest columnist in Isthmus in Madison, who actually believes that “
taxes are part of what makes Wisconsin a great place to live,” suggested a sales tax on advertising; I wonder how the publisher of Isthmus, a free newspaper that gets all of its revenue from advertising, feels about that.

I will, of course, be an advocate of none of the proposed tax increases listed here. In fact, I am more likely to be struck dead by lightning (odds approximately 1 in 1 million), win the Powerball jackpot (odds 1 in 146,107,962), or replace Brett Favre at quarterback (odds … well, you can’t count that high) than favor any tax increase in this space. (Other than my modest tax proposal, that is.) No social problem we face today, including the aforementioned “Wisconsin culture of alcohol abuse,” will be solved by throwing more money at it, for

April 22, 2008

An Earth Day reader

Some light reading on Earth Day and the subject of our environment that you are not likely to get in the mainstream media:
  • “Happy Earth Day” from the American Enterprise Institute, a demonstration that the gloommongering of environmentalists makes you miss the actual progress we’ve made in the environment.
  • “Irrational Green Exuberance” by National Review, which suggests that global warming paranoia is following the path of the overpopulation paranoia and the “we’re-running-out-of-everything” paranoia of the 1970s.
  • China Confidential’s take on gas prices.
  • ABC-TV’s John Stossel inconveniently punching holes in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (the title of which shows that Gore picked up the most notable quality of Bill and Hillary Clinton — pathological lying.)
  • Columnist Mark Steyn on global warming, of which he says, “alas, with all the ‘climate change,’ we only have a few Earth Days to go before the entire planet goes belly up.”
  • Novelist Michael Crichton about the religion of environmentalism. (And to those who have confused Gaia with God, may I suggest rereading Genesis 1:26–30.)
  • The Economics of Earth Day,” which shows that private enterprise is a better friend of the environment than undeveloped nations or, as P.J. O’Rourke pointed out, the former Eastern Bloc.
  • Similar thoughts from Investor's Business Daily.
  • The Abundant Wildlife Society of North America notes the difference between conservation and environmentalism.
  • In keeping with conservationist Theodore Roosevelt’s quote, Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe,” the Church of Euthanasia, with the prescription, “Save the planet — kill yourself.”
  • An analysis that says that global warming is the opposite of what we should worry about.
  • OK, I was wrong about the mainstream media: A Newsweek interview with a founder of Greenpeace.
  • Newt Gingrich on “smart environmental and biodiversity policies,” or the opposite of what we have now.
  • A reading list on free market environmentalism.
  • And finally, “Earth First! People later,” which asks the following questions about environmental priorities:
    … Visualize the people living on Earth 100 years from now. Let’s imagine that they can reach back in time and speak to us, give us some feedback on the world we’ll be leaving them. What do you think they'd ask us to focus on? Where would they have us concentrate our scarce time and energy?
    A world in which hunger and AIDS have been eradicated or a world where the sea level is 6 inches lower?
    A world free of Jihad where everyone lives under some form of representative democracy, or a world that is 2.1 degrees cooler in the months between October and March?
    A world with 10% more polar bear habitat or a world where even the poorest or the poor have clean water and a sanitary place to go to the bathroom?
    These are our choices. We can’t do everything.
    So next time you fret about whether your car is Gore compliant or if you’re protecting your precious Gaia by buying carbon offsets for your private jet, think for a minute about how it would look to our friends a hundred years hence, or better yet, to a little kid in present-day Africa or Asia who’s starving to death.
    Maybe we ought to return to an elemental truth the folks a hundred years in our past knew clearly and without reservation.
    People come first — the Earth can take care of itself.

Irony of the (Earth) Day

If you thought yesterday’s item about U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen (D–Appleton) complaining about gas prices was ironic, here’s today’s contribution, on Earth Day:
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is issuing an Air Quality Advisory for Particle Pollution (Orange) for Brown, Calumet, Columbia, Dane, Dodge, Fond Du Lac, Green, Green Lake, Iowa, Jefferson, Kenosha, Lafayette, Manitowoc, Marquette, Milwaukee, Outagamie, Ozaukee, Racine, Rock, Sauk, Sheboygan, Walworth, Washington, Waukesha, Waupaca, Waushara and Winnebago counties effective 9:00 am on Tuesday, April 22, 2008 through 10:00 am on Wednesday, April 23, 2008.

The advisory is being issued because of persistent elevated levels of fine particles in the air. These fine particles come primarily from combustion sources, such as power plants, factories and other industrial sources, vehicle exhaust, and wood fires.

The Air Quality Index is currently in the orange level, which is considered unhealthy for people in sensitive groups. People in those sensitive groups include those with heart or lung disease, asthma, older adults and children. When an orange advisory for particle pollution is issued, people in those groups are advised to reschedule or cut back on strenuous activities.

People with lung diseases such as asthma and bronchitis, and heart disease should pay attention to cardiac symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath or respiratory symptoms like coughing, wheezing and discomfort when taking a breath, and consult with their physician if they have co ncerns or are experiencing symptoms. Fine particle pollution deposits itself deep into the lungs and cannot easily be exhaled. People who are at risk are particularly vulnerable after several days of high particle pollution exposure.

April 21, 2008

Gasoline, and gas bags

This is rich, not to mention ironic coming on the eve of Earth Day:
Congressman Steve Kagen, M.D. again urged the President to take immediate action to reduce high gas prices. Speaking at The Little Gas and Convenience Store in Green Bay, Kagen repeated his request to the President to increase gasoline supplies by suspending purchases of oil for the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR).

“Mr. President, it is time to act. Record high prices for gas and diesel fuels are crippling our economy, taking our hard earned money and putting it into bank accounts of Big Oil companies and market speculators,” said Kagen. “The President must take immediate action to provide immediate relief for small businesses and ordinary people who are fighting to keep their heads above water.” ...
Evidently Rep. Kagen hasn’t gotten the talking points memo from the Democratic National Committee that nothing should be done that might encourage oil companies to find more sources of oil in this country. Democrats, after all, have blocked efforts to drill for oil off the U.S. coasts and in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. Democrats, as the party in thrall to the environmentalist left, also have refused to favor a method of generating electricity (to recharge your hybrid) and heat that would replace fossil fuels such as natural gas and heating oil — that is, nuclear power. Democrats also have been behind the environmental laws that have resulted in the construction of exactly zero new oil refineries in the U.S. since 1976. (Ponder that one the next time you hear of a hurricane warning for states on the Gulf of Mexico.)

Anyone who thinks Democrats are going to do anything to reduce gas prices hasn't been paying attention. Democrats, after all, are the party that believes in jacking up gas prices to levels Europeans and Japanese pay — which, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, are $8.07 a gallon in the United Kingdom, $8.26 a gallon in France, $8.44 a gallon in Germany and $9.32 a gallon in the Netherlands. (In comparison, gas prices in Japan are a bargain-like $4.96 a gallon.)

Democrats increased federal gas taxes 4.4 cents per gallon in 1993, not as much as President Bill Clinton proposed, a 26-cent increase. Neither of this year’s Democratic presidential candidates has suggested suspending the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gas tax this summer, as Republican John McCain has. Don’t hold your breath waiting for Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama to suggest that, and don’t hold your breath waiting for Democratic Gov. James Doyle to propose suspending the state’s 32.9-cent-per-gallon fuel tax either. Obama and Clinton both propose, and Doyle proposed, new windfall profits taxes on Big Oil (the same industry, incidentally, that had a worse return on investment than other industries in all but four years between 1987 and 2006), something that Doyle swore wouldn’t be passed on to consumers. (And if you believe that, I’d like to show you a bridge over Little Lake Butte des Morts for sale.)

Gas prices elsewhere in the world demonstrate that gas prices are a worldwide issue, due first to higher demand as economies such as China’s and India’s grow. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, China, India, Russia and the Middle East will consume more oil this year, for the first time in history, than the U.S. Oil prices actually have increased roughly in keeping with increases in prices for other storable commodities, including food commodities. Worldwide energy prices also demonstrate that the notion of “energy independence” is a pipe dream when energy markets are worldwide markets. But people who understand anything about economics (which includes the readers of Marketplace, but apparently not Kagen) know that restricting the supply increases the price, just as increasing demand increases the price. We've also discovered, the hard way, how much energy prices contribute to the price of pretty much everything.

Suspending Strategic Petroleum Reserve purchases will do next to nothing to change gas prices, particularly when you consider that China is also purchasing oil to create its own strategic petroleum reserve of 100 million barrels by 2010. The reality is that, short of a worldwide depression beginning tomorrow, gas prices are not going to decrease. As someone who commutes to work, I certainly hope they don’t increase anymore than they already have. (If you want a really scary thought, consider this: The federal government may be making Strategic Petroleum Reserve purchases on the belief that purchases will be cheaper now than in the future.) But increasing demand coupled with stupid policy decisions of the past have put us where we are today.

Kagen needs to learn three facts about our economy: (1) Gasoline and diesel fuel are forms of energy, and
(2) energy powers this country's economy, so (3) when you reduce available energy, you hit the brakes on our economy. Kagen's party has had a lot to do with the third of those facts. It would be better for all of us, not to mention his reelection chances, if he proposed better ideas to power our economy, without costing us more money, than his Democratic brethren have.

Another leave-me-alone vote

The writer of this column (more pretentious than saying “I,” isn’t it?) was accused of being a “libertarian nut case!!” in a recent email. (Although I think she was kidding.)

If true, I have a lot of company among the celebrity set (to which I do not belong): Actors Clint Eastwood, Drew Carey, John Larroquette, Russell Means, Michael Moriarty (who doubles as a 2008 presidential candidate), Kurt Russell, Tom Selleck; columnists Dave Barry and P.J. O’Rourke; ABC-TV reporter John Stossel; magician Penn Jillette (of “Penn and Teller” fame, along with this Showtime show); musicians Rush, Ted Nugent and Dwight Yoakam; “South Park” creator Trey Parker; Cypress Semiconductor CEO (and Oshkosh native) T.J. Rodgers; Charlie Sykes of fellow Journal Communications media outlet WTMJ radio; and, of course, Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, among others.

(By the way: What do Eastwood, Larroquette, Selleck and I have in common? We're all 6 feet 4.)

Add, perhaps, to the small-L libertarian list Rick McNeal of WAPL (105.7 FM), whose discussions about TV Turnoff Week today through Sunday, brought to you by the Center for Screen-Time Awareness, included this poem:

While I’m sure their efforts are well intended
I can’t help feeling that it would be so nice
if we had a day or week or month just dedicated
to encouraging people to stop telling us how to live our lives!!!

We live in a country that’s supposedly built on freedom,
that promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Yet, it seems many people can’t be happy
unless they’re telling everyone else what’s best. ...

“Get the hell out of my face day”
Is an event that I suggest.
A day when minding your own business
and letting others live their own lives is stressed. ...

Which makes sense, of course, for someone in the media. How anyone whose livelihood is thanks to our Founding Fathers’ good sense to add the First Amendment can favor any restrictions on the First Amendment is beyond me. McNeal and his partner in broadcasting crime Len Nelson (and for that matter Bob and Tom, where comedian Tim Wilson appears) lost a listener for part of their show when I started taking my children to school in the morning, but that’s my problem, not theirs.

As I am not a card-carrying member of the Republican Party, I am also not a card-carrying member of the Libertarian Party, and I have never voted for a Libertarian Party candidate. I didn’t (and won’t) vote for Ron Paul for president because, for one thing, his positions on “border security” and immigration are not libertarian at all, and for another, in a post-9/11 world isolationism is as coherent a foreign policy as it was before World War II — that is, not at all. The basic philosophy, however — personal freedom while maintaining personal responsibility is vastly preferable to the domestic authoritarianism of our two (as of today) Democratic presidential candidates.

A subject that won’t make the agenda

From the emailbag:

Governor Jim Doyle will depart this week on a business trip to Ireland and the United Kingdom to build relationships with business and government officials and discuss Wisconsin’s leadership in stem cell research and addressing climate change. The Governor will visit Ireland and the UK April 23–28, 2008.

“This trip is an opportunity to strengthen important relationships with business and government officials and promote Wisconsin as a world leader in so many areas, from groundbreaking stem cell research to reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” Governor Doyle said.

I doubt this will happen, but Gov. Doyle should notice the difference in business tax rates between Wisconsin and Ireland, which we reported April 15:
  • Ireland: 12.1 percent.
  • U.S. and Wisconsin combined: 40.1 percent.
If having the 15th highest business tax rate in the world is being a world leader, well, America’s Taxland is already there.

April 18, 2008

Smoke and consequences

One of my favorite immutable laws of life (phrase borrowed from Gregg Easterbrook, author and the ESPN.com Tuesday Morning Quarterback) is the Law of Unintended Consequences — the concept that, no matter how good something sounds, things may happen as a result that you never intended to happen.

The latest example of the Law of Unintended Consequences is the newly discovered link between, of all things, municipal smoking bans and increases in drunk driving. The Journal of Public Economics found that fatal drunk driving crashes increased between 2001 and 2005 in and near communities that enacted indoor smoking bans. The researchers concluded that people drove to find bars in communities that didn’t prohibit smoking, or to bars with outdoor smoking areas.

The only area of the U.S. where this phenomenon wasn’t found was in New England, where many communities have smoking bans (and which, the researchers didn’t note, is much more densely populated than most of the rest of the U.S.). One possible explanation is that drinkers who smoke have two things to do, whereas nonsmoking drinkers have just one.

UW–Milwaukee researcher Scott Adams noted that the way to eliminate the apparent smoking bandrunk driving link would be a “well-enforced national smoking ban,” which is a contradiction in terms, given that there are many states whose governments are less interested in turning into America’s Nannyland.

A related application comes in the report that the state expects to fall short of its cigarette tax revenue projections, despite increasing the cigarette tax from 77 cents per pack to $1.77 per pack. The president of the Wisconsin Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Stores Association says convenience store cigarette sales have dropped up to 30 percent since the tax increase, with sales going instead to retailers outside the state lines, tribal-owned shops (which don’t assess state cigarette taxes), or the Internet.

The lesson about cigarette taxes is that, if you want to raise “sin taxes” with the idea of discouraging use of the products on which they’re applied, that’s an arguable position. (I would argue that such sin tax increases are back-door attempts at prohibition, and since the first time the U.S. tried prohibition, we’ve gotten to enjoy the effects of organized crime.) To expect, however, that you’re going to generate suitcases full of consequence-free tax revenue by increasing, for instance, cigarette taxes, is not true, as this proves. (But you already knew that from this National Taxpayers Union report previously quoted in this space.) The next major crime news story will be the increase in the tobacco black market, as states raise tobacco taxes to stratospheric levels, with related effects on crime rates.


There are few good arguments (but there may be some) for smoking; there are much better arguments for personal freedom. I have yet to come across a believable rationale (and a few anecdotal examples are not a reasonable rationale) that counters the argument of bar owners
, who certainly should be expected to know their business, that smoking bans are bad for their business. If there is a market for non-smoking bars, then there should be more non-smoking bars, by consumer choice, than by governmental fiat. (This site lists 22 non-smoking places in Marketplace’s 18-county circulation area; this list doesn’t include Fond du Lac, which bans smoking in restaurants.)

The same argument, incidentally, applies to employees of taverns and restaurants. Smoking ban advocates ran radio commercials while the Legislature was debating the statewide smoking ban from employees of bars who claimed illnesses up to cancer from exposure to the secondhand smoke in their workplaces (even though the evidence that secondhand smoke causes lasting health effects is shaky). I asked John R. Lott, Jr., author of Freedomnomics, about the employee secondhand smoke argument, and he replied:
My answer is that the argument for workers is exactly the same as it is for customers. If employees are asked to work in less desirable place, you will have to pay them more to get them to do it. Firms compete for workers on the basis of salary and other dimensions, such as work place quality. Firms have to see how much they have to pay these workers to work in a smoke filled room and how much smoking customers are willing to pay for that service. If the cost of the workers is less than what the customers are willing to pay, some restaurants will offer smoking.
That, of course, is an entirely inadequate answer for the anti-smoking forces, who, as Don Watkins observed in the Santa Monica (Calif.) Daily Press, seem to have other motives in mind:
Implicit in the war on smoking, however, is the view that the government must dictate the individual’s decisions with regard to smoking, because he is incapable of making them rationally. To the extent the anti-smoking movement succeeds in wielding the power of government coercion to impose on Americans its blanket opposition to smoking, it is entrenching paternalism: the view that individuals are incompetent to run their own lives, and thus require a nanny-state to control every aspect of those lives.
Those forces are, so far, getting away with it because American attitudes are increasingly opposed to smoking and smokers. That’s fine, but there’s less distance than you might think from opposition to smoking to opposition to alcohol, or foods perceived as unhealthy, or whatever other cause the Lifestyle Police might take up next. (For instance: New York City requires chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus and menu boards; the federal judge who upheld the regulation sided with the city, whose bureaucrats believe New Yorkers are too fat, over the First Amendment. This analysis suggests that average New Yorker weight started increasing around the time of New York City’s bar and restaurant smoking ban in 2003, something most people who have quit smoking can understand.)

Moreover, anti-smoking forces apparently are not able to resist the temptation of exaggerating their case. Dr. Michael Siegel, described as “
a physician with 21 years of experience in tobacco control who recently became disillusioned by the direction in which the anti-smoking movement is going,” created the Center for Public Accountability in Tobacco Control because of such inaccuracies as the assertion that secondhand smoke causes atherosclerosis, a disease that takes 20 years or more to develop in regular smokers. Siegel also finds the assertion that people who smoke in the presence of children are committing child abuse to be a dubious argument, not to mention legally untenable. As Siegel puts it:
To anti-smoking advocates, there is no middle ground. By virtue of who we are, and by virtue of who the tobacco companies are, everything we say must be correct and everything they or their allies say must be wrong. To align oneself with a position that runs counter to the anti-smoking one, no matter how extreme, is tantamount to working for the tobacco industry. It automatically makes you a tobacco stooge, or at least a tobacco sympathizer. You have officially and irredeemably crossed over to the “dark side.”
Siegel also points out that this ends-justifies-the-means attitude toward truth and accuracy actually hurts the anti-smoking argument:
What good is all the research that I’ve conducted on the actual hazards of secondhand smoke when anti-smoking groups are going to tell the public that a few whiffs of tobacco smoke can cause atherosclerosis? What value is there in my research when these groups are going to tell the public that brief exposure to secondhand smoke causes as much damage to the heart as years of active smoking?

What exactly is the purpose of conducting careful scientific research on the effects of secondhand smoke if anti-smoking groups are essentially just going to make things up, making whatever claims they want to the public in order to embellish the emotional appeal of the message?
Appleton Mayor Tim Hanna got criticism from a former Appleton alderman for casting the deciding vote against an indoor smoking ban in Appleton in 2004, and then for appearing as an advocate of the proposed statewide smoking ban earlier this year. (Politicians never work both sides of an issue, right?) I wasn’t at Marketplace at the time, but I think the smoking ban issue worked perfectly and understandably in Appleton:
  1. Hanna’s 2004 vote killed the proposed indoor smoking ban, which was his right to do as mayor.
  2. Appleton voters then overwhelmingly approved the indoor smoking ban in a 2005 referendum, which was their right to do as citizens.
  3. Now Hanna wants to extend the ban statewide so that Appleton isn’t subject to the downsides of the ban, including, according to the Tavern League of Wisconsin, the closing of eight bars or restaurants in Appleton since the ban took effect. (You can decide how many of those closings were based, and to what extent, on Appleton’s smoking ban.)
I’m not sure if smoking ban proponents are so blinded by their hatred of the demon leaf (which would explain this list that backs up this incredible-sounding assertion, “Smoking bans are killing people”), or are so lovingly overflowing with their desire to turn smokers from the path of their own inhaled destruction, or are the resurgence of the 19th-century Clean Living Movement, or what. The more one delves into the anti-smoking movement, the more doubts about their motives grow, like ashes on the end of a lit cigarette.

I’m not going to argue that smokers are the victims of discrimination. (For one thing, I’m skeptical that an attitude based on behavior constitutes discrimination.) I don’t smoke (one Cuban cigar celebrating a Packers Super Bowl berth does not constitute starting smoking), although I have relatives and friends who do, and I have relatives who have died from smoking-related health problems. Since the Surgeon General’s report on smoking in 1964, no one really has an excuse for being ignorant about smoking's effects.

That, however, doesn’t excuse yet another attack on our liberties — in this case, the ability of business owners to decide for themselves (or, that is, to have their customers and employees decide for them) whether or not to allow smoking in their businesses — regardless of the motivations. We are supposed to be a nation of laws, not emotions, and laws based on feelings instead of our constitutional rights will inevitably be bad laws.

April 17, 2008

Hysterical News Story of the Day

The hidden killers in a yard sale.

Success, after 20 years

There is one more April 1 election result that is personally interesting to me. Voters in Grant County, in southwest Wisconsin, voted to reduce the size of their county board from 31 supervisors to 17.

This is an issue I walked into in my first post-college job, as the reporter at the Grant County Herald Independent in Lancaster. For the three years I was there, plus the year and half I was editor and co-publisher of the Tri-County Press in Cuba City, I wrote occasional editorials wondering why a county of, at the time, 51,000 population needed 32 county supervisors. (That was supposedly an improvement from years earlier, when the county board had 68 supervisors — one for each town and village, and one for each city ward; Grant County has five cities.) Controversy really erupted when we discovered that most of the supervisors, most of whom were retired farmers, were on the Grant County employee health insurance plan, and they were certainly not paying the full cost of insurance.

Our reporting of that fact and editorializing against that fact made the Herald Independent’s editor and I really popular with the county board. (There must be a sarcasm emoticon somewhere …). Following the 1990 Census, the board did reduce its size … from 32 supervisors to 31 — approximately one supervisor per 1,600 people; by contrast, each of the 16 Appleton aldermen represents about 4,500 people — and yet the health insurance benefit remained, which was particularly costly — the county had probably added supervisors to the health plan years earlier to get more covered people and thus reduce costs; the problem was that, because supervisors were mostly retired farmers, the county had to cover all of their health costs, which obviously increase as the covered person ages.

The precipitating event, after more than 20 years of editorial attention and more than 20 years of the County Board intransigently refusing to even consider the issue, apparently was overcrowding at the Grant County Jail. Sheriff’s Department employees, frustrated that the county board had done nothing about jail overcrowding, circulated the petitions that put the issue on the April ballot, and it passed with almost 69 percent of the vote.

Fond du Lac County, where I live, reduced its county board in half by referendum in 2006. A friend of mine opposed the referendum, asking why anyone would vote to reduce their representation in government.

The answer, of course, is that if you don’t feel you’re being represented by the existing power structure, having, in Fond du Lac County’s case at the time, 36 or 136 supervisors won’t make a difference. (To extend that point, I think, given the quality of their work, Wisconsin could get along fine without its two U.S. senators. Neither has represented me for one day of their combined 36 years in Washington, particularly U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold [D–Madison].) The truism that stuff expands to fill the available space also applies to the workloads of elective bodies; fewer supervisors should mean the remaining supervisors will either have to work harder or, wonder of wonders, regulate less.

The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance quotes an unnamed governor of Wisconsin who said, “Don’t overestimate what people know, but never underestimate their intelligence.” Or, as the saying goes, the wheels of justice grind slow, but grind they do.

April 16, 2008

Can we export Obama and Clinton?

The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance reports that Wisconsin exports increased 11.8 percent between 2006 and 2007 to a record $19.2 billion. Wisconsin is now the 19th biggest exporter in the U.S., up from 21st in 2006. The top categories: Canada is our largest export market ($5.8 billion), China is the fastest growing export market (up 35.4 percent), and industrial machinery is our largest export commodity ($6.2 billion, up 11.8 percent).

The reality of free trade’s benefits specifically to Wisconsin stands in stark contrast to the anti-free-trade positions of Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. (Who, if their positions are based on ignorance, should click HERE for the economic education they should have gotten years ago.) Their stance is at least consistent with their positions of what The Economist calls “political miserabilism,” but things would be immeasurably worse off for everyone if a President Obama or another President Clinton succeed in restricting trade.

If there is one position about which there is absolutely no rational opposing rationale, it is free trade. Free trade only benefits consumers, manufacturers, farmers more than farm subsidies do, and the environment — in other words, everyone, including our trading partners. Does that mean that no individual or business is ever harmed by free trade? That depends on what you consider “harm” — individual businesses or workers may not be able to compete, but that’s merely what economist Adam Smith identified in 1776:
“It is the maxim of every prudent master of a family, never to attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy. … If a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we ourselves can make it, better buy it of them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage.”

“Suppose the Japanese could manufacture everything more cheaply than we can — which is certainly not true,” writes Princeton University Prof. Alan Blinder. “Even in this worst-case scenario, there will of necessity be some industries in which Japan has an overwhelming cost advantage (say, televisions) and others in which its cost advantage is slight (say, chemicals). Under free trade the United States will produce most of the chemicals, Japan will produce most of the TVs, and the two nations will trade. The two countries, taken together, will get both products cheaper than if each produced them at home to meet all of its domestic needs. And what is also important, workers in both countries will have jobs. …

“If there were only one industry and occupation in which people could work, then free trade would indeed force American wages close to Japanese levels if Japanese workers were as good as Americans (and who doubts that?). But modern economies are composed of many industries and occupations. If America concentrates its employment where it does best, there is no reason why American wages cannot remain far above Japanese wages for a long time — even though the two nations trade freely. A country’s wage level depends fundamentally on the productivity of its labor force, not on its trade policy. As long as American workers remain more skilled and better educated, work with more capital, and use superior technology, they will continue to earn higher wages than their Japanese counterparts. If and when these advantages end, the wage gap will disappear. Trade is a mere detail that helps ensure that American labor is employed where, in Adam Smith’s phrase, it has some advantage.

John McCain, whatever his faults on other issues, has been a consistent free trader throughout his political career. I would say that that statement doesn’t apply to Obama or Clinton, except that making that statement requires you to separate what they’re saying on the campaign trail from what they either have done before or are doing now. An Obama advisor recently told Canadian officials to not worry about Obama’s criticisms of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Clinton has been telling people she opposed NAFTA since her husband, who pushed NAFTA, was president, but the record shows something else. Slate.com columnist Daniel Gross terms Clinton’s criticisms of Obama’s trade positions
a “triangulator calling a three-sided figure a triangle.”

Conventional wisdom says that Clinton’s and Obama’s trade positions, in Gross’ words, merely reflect the reality that
“viable Democratic candidates for national office will (1) make negative comments about free-trade deals while campaigning in a state where hundreds of thousands of blue-collar manufacturing jobs have been lost and yet (2) be committed to free trade should they happen to win.”

Obama’s campaign slogan is “Change you can believe in.” What exactly can we believe from Obama? (That question need not be asked about Hillary Clinton, who, independent of her issues with honesty, should research her husband’s positions on trade and, for that matter, the positions of the Doyle administration.)