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.)

May 30, 2008

Keep on rockin’ in the free world

One of my first ambitions in communications was to be a radio disc jockey, and to possibly reach the level of the greats I used to listen to from WLS radio in Chicago, which used to be one of the great 50,000-watt AM rock stations of the country, back when they still existed.

(Those who are aficionados of that time in music and radio history enjoy a trip to that wayback machine when WLS does their every-Memorial-Day Big 89 Rewind, excerpts of which can be found on their Web site.)

My vision was to be WLS’ afternoon DJ, playing the best in rock music between 2 and 6, which meant I wouldn’t have to get up before the crack of dawn to do the morning show, yet have my nights free to do whatever glamorous things big-city DJs did. Then I learned about the realities of radio — low pay, long hours, zero job security — and though I have dabbled in radio sports, I’ve pretty much cured myself of the idea of working in radio, even if, to quote WAPL’s Len Nelson, “You come to work every day just like everybody else does, but we’re playing rock ’n’ roll songs, we’re cuttin’ up. What other people get in trouble for at work, we get to do.”

I still think it would be cool to do what Rush Limbaugh first set out to do — to combine rock music with conservative/libertarian political talk, or “rock and roll and the right!” (think of Mancow with more music) — but given what I know about radio, it would take a very large offer to get me to consider it.

I do, however, still listen to radio more often in the car than I listen to CDs. The radio industry will tell you about the phenomenon of “iPod burnout” — people looking for the variety that live people on live radio brings (where it hasn’t been replaced by satellite or voicetracking). If the area radio stations knew my listening habits, I would drive them nuts, seeing as how I rotate among more than a dozen radio stations on my commute to and from work. Song I don’t like? Next pushbutton. Four minutes of uninterrupted commercials? Next pushbutton.

(Now that I’m about to write about music, I am warned by the quote from the late musician Frank Zappa: “Rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk in order to provide articles for people who can’t read.”)

For whatever reason, I listen more to songs than artists, and I listen more to songs than CDs. Even artists I don’t like usually have something worth listening to — for instance, Michael Bolton’s “Steel Bars,” cowritten by Bob Dylan. (I draw the line, however, at Air Supply, a group so saccharine that I will not dignify them by linking to them.) And artists I really like, such as Chicago, still produce a fair amount of unlistenable music (in Chicago’s case, the sappy dreck they’ve recorded since the early 1980s, including everything on this CD except tracks 5, 7, 11 and 18).

Perhaps due to my musical background (which may be genetic, given my father’s role with southern Wisconsin’s first rock and roll band, or because I played in a group not known for its singing), I focus on the music, not the words. My political views don’t prevent me from enjoying Midnight Oil, the Australian band that advocates giving much of Australia back to the aborigines and is worried about nuclear destruction, yadda yadda yadda. (The raucous “What Goes On” is an excellent song to play really loud if you’ve had a bad day at work, or if you’re going to have a bad day at work.)

In my car right now is Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” I can’t say I enjoy listening someone who sounds as if he took a cheese grater to his vocal cords, and of course Springsteen has made a ton of money over the years musically beating on those in his own income bracket. I wrote one week ago that the live version of his remake of Edwin Starr’s “War” begins with these deep thoughts: “… Blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed.” As for the premise stated in Starr’s refrain — “War! Huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” — survivors of Nazi Germany’s variety of atrocities might beg to differ. However, independent of the title track, “Born in the USA” is a really good album, including “Cover Me,” “I’m on Fire,” “I’m Goin’ Down,” “Glory Days,” “My Hometown” and “Dancing in the Dark,” and even lesser known songs like “Downbound Train” and “Working on the Highway.” (I’m still trying to figure out his apparent fascination with bells and odd-sounding keyboards, as can be heard on “Born to Run” and numerous other tracks.)

Springsteen appears to have a sense of humor, based on this funny yet oddly poignant speech upon his induction to the New Jersey Hall of Fame. (“When I first got the letter I was to be inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame I was a little suspicious. … But then I ran through the list of names: Albert Einstein, Bruce Springsteen … my mother’s going to like that. She’s here tonight. It’s her birthday and it's the only time she’s going to hear those two names mentioned in the same sentence, so I’m going to enjoy it. … For this is what imbues us with our fighting spirit. That we may salute the world forever with the Jersey state bird, and that the fumes from our great northern industrial area to the ocean breezes of Cape May fill us with the raw hunger, the naked ambition and the desire not just to do our best, but to stick it in your face.”)

Two years ago, National Review’s John J. Miller compiled this list of what he considers the top 50 conservative rock songs, followed by this list of songs number 51 to 100. (Record number one: The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which includes a lyric that might sum up my return to Marketplace: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”) I think it’s really a stretch to conclude that songs like The Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone” is a conservative song (whether or not it’s Limbaugh’s theme song) given that Pretenders singer Chrissie Hynde once suggested one way to promote animal rights would be to blow up McDonald’s restaurants. Hynde then had to apologize when one of her fans actually blew up a McDonald’s. I’m skeptical about The Who too, although there was the occasion when ’60s radical Abbie Hoffman jumped onto the stage during a Who performance to deliver a political rant, only to be silenced by guitarist Pete Townshend’s guitar connecting with the side of Hoffman’s head.

I can’t fathom any list of conservative- or libertarian-leaning rock songs that doesn’t have as number one the obvious choice: The Beatles’ “Taxman,” followed by Metallica’s “Don’t Tread on Me” (“To secure peace is to prepare for war”), the Eagles’ “Get Over It,” and, of course, Sammy Hagar’s “I Can’t Drive 55.” Many songs by the Canadian group Rush qualify too, including “Anthem,” “Freewill,” “Heresy,” “Something for Nothing,” and their answer to “I Can’t Drive 55,” “Red Barchetta.” (If you grew up in a suburbanish subdivision, as I did, you would find “Subdivisions” appropriate too.) I’m not sure that Ted Nugent’s “Fred Bear” (which could be the official rock song of Wisconsin, or at least the official non-Packers-related rock song of Wisconsin) expresses a political point, except that without gun rights, hunting is rather difficult. (So, one would think, is doing a double album about hunting, but Nugent did.) Nugent is well known for his libertarian views, which is interesting given that he appears to be one of the very few rock musicians whose career dates back to the ’60s who didn’t chemically float through the ’60s.

The irony is that “conservative” and “rock song” really don’t belong in the same sentence, although “libertarian” can fit. Rock music — an amalgam of blues, jazz and old-time country music, as the pop charts of the ’50s and pre-British Invasion ’60s shows — has usually been about rebellion from the mores of your parents, as in Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” when not about the usual subject of the opposite gender. (Some things are universal.) Most rock songs that discuss government are anti-government in general, which today could be considered a conservative or libertarian view, I suppose, but wasn’t the case in the ’60s or ’70s. That would also explain why such groups as Genesis, known as a progressive rock group when Peter Gabriel fronted the group, are labeled as sellouts when they veer in a more commercial direction, as Genesis did under Phil Collins. (Some people can’t fathom why 23-minute-long songs such as Genesis’ “Supper’s Ready” aren’t considered commercial. The first Genesis album for which Collins sang lead vocals outsold all six of Genesis’ Gabriel-led albums combined.)

There are political musicians, there are apolitical musicians, and there is at least one omnipolitical musician — Neil Young, whose political views have, to put it mildly, wandered, manages, in “Rockin’ in the Free World,” to cover the entire American political spectrum in one song. Young’s “Southern Man” was answered by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (“Well I hope Neil Young will remember/A Southern Man don’t need him around anyhow”) , the tribute to which is Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long,” which sounds like a cross between “Sweet Home Alabama” and Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.” Others have shifted politically over the years, including Charlie Daniels, who went from “Uneasy Rider” to “In America,” and, for that matter, his apparent answer to his earlier work, “What This World Needs Is a Few More Rednecks.”

One phenomenon of ’80s rock music was the ensemble benefit song, begun with the British Band Aid effort “Do They Know It’s Christmas” for victims of famine in Ethiopia, popularized by USA for Africa’s “We Are the World” for the same cause, and then crashed into the ground by Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City” — in each case, a noble cause supported by a bazillion-selling song that, due to the musical variation of the old saw that too many cooks spoil the broth, was, musically speaking, a chaotic mess. (The Doonesbury cartoon had one of its characters contribute to “We Are the World” by singing one word: “The.”)

Were I interested in music for political reasons, I would listen to country music, since dumping on your country is not in the country mainstream, unless you are the Dixie Chicks and your lead singer decides to shoot her mouth off. (It is one thing to exercise your right to free speech; it is quite another to exercise your right to free speech and then complain about the consequences.) For musical reasons, I don’t listen very much to country, unless it’s the country/rock of, say, the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd, or greats like Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Johnny Cash. I’ve never gotten into the stereotypical my-dog-died my-girl-left-me my-truck-broke-down I’m-gonna-keep-drinkin’-’til-I-can’t-even-think brand of country. (Then again, that’s not what’s played on country radio today; for about the past 30 years, much country music has been indistinguishable from what used to be called “top 40” or adult contemporary.)

If you’re wondering why one should pay any attention to the political thoughts of rock musicians, or for that matter any musicians, the answer is the same for the question of why one should pay any attention to the political thoughts of celebrities: You shouldn’t. I do not lose sleep wondering how actress Jessica Lange feels about the Iraq war, but apparently Lange believed the graduates of Sarah Lawrence College did, so she made sure they knew how she feels at their commencement.

I don’t have any problem enjoying music that expresses different political sentiments from mine. Then again, the phrase “the personal is political” didn’t come from the right side of the political aisle. What does bug me is when politicians appropriate songs for their campaigns. The Clintons ruined Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” forever. (I’d argue that “Little Lies” was more appropriate.) Republicans particularly seem to be tone-deaf about what rock songs are about, dating back at least to when John Mellencamp told the Ronald Reagan campaign to stop using his “Pink Houses,” and when other Republicans were unable to discern that Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” doesn’t really express love of country. (Mellencamp has similarly prohibited Republicans from using “This Is Our Country.”)

My opinion is that musicians should follow Cash’s advice (from “The One on the Right Is on the Left”), but I don’t care whether or not they do:
Don’t go mixin’ politics with the folk songs of our land
Just work on harmony and diction
Play your banjo well
And if you have political convictions, keep them to yourself.
If you’d like to contribute to these deep thoughts, find the Comments function underneath this post.

May 29, 2008

Cue Lena Horne*

The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center has quite a forecast for severe weather today. The “High” risk area on this map comes out very rarely. The last time that included part of Wisconsin was June 7, 2007, the day of the F3 tornado in Shawano, Menominee and Oconto counties.

This is a worse-looking forecast than Sunday’s, which got progressively more foreboding as the day went along. If you live in Iowa, which got hammered by tornadoes Sunday, you’re really not going to be pleased to see this, particularly the tornado forecast of a 30-percent chance of an F2 to F5 tornado within 25 miles of any point. As for those of us in Northeast Wisconsin, the forecast, which didn’t initially include us in the severe weather area, now does, mainly for hail.

As of this morning, severe weather is a possibility for Friday too.

(For review of what all this means, go here.)

One wonders if Severe Studios, which follows storm chasers, qualifies as the Jim Cantore of tornadoes. (For those who don’t know, Cantore is the Weather Channel meteorologist who goes into hurricane areas while people with any sense are leaving them.) As the Weather Channel biography on Cantore says, “When he shows up, you know the weather is going to get interesting.” Or: If you see him, or them, in your area, leave immediately.

3 p.m. update: Friday now looks like it’ll be stormy in most of Wisconsin, particularly to the south.

* What does this mean? This.

Graduates of the Class of ____ …

Several jobs ago, I wrote a sample graduation speech for a weekly newspaper graduation section. I’ve had the chance to do this speech once, and this is the middle of the college and high school graduation season, so …

Members of the Class of 20__:
Let me be among the first to congratulate you on your impending graduation. This event is called “Commencement,” not “Graduation,” because, even though you are ending something today, you are supposed to begin something new after today.

I am under no misapprehension about my role here today. I fully realize that, in most cases, the only thing graduates remember about their commencement speaker is how long he or she spoke. I therefore resolve to give a speech that fits in between the two poles of speaking — between “Why did we bother inviting him if he was going to say that little?” and “Can you believe how long he talked?”. I also realize that I am one of the few people standing between you and your graduation party. So you can determine for yourselves if Shakespeare was correct in “Hamlet” when he had Lord Polonius say that brevity is the soul of wit.

I have three pieces of advice to give you today. You are, of course, free to follow this advice, or not.

The first is to stand up and speak out. Today, fewer than half of people bother to vote, and a larger percentage than that — most people, in fact — don’t bother to express themselves on issues of the day, whether that’s in a government meeting, the letters to the editor section of the local newspaper, or on a Web site. More than 1 million American soldiers died to preserve your right to stand up and speak out, whether or not — and perhaps, especially if not — your views adhere to conventional wisdom or are politically correct. Remember the words of Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” It is not that those who oppose your point of view are evil, but no one listens to the silent.

My second piece of advice is something it took me a long time to learn. You may be sick of where you are right now, ready to get out of school; you may think to yourself that, if I could only get out into the work world, or if I could get a higher educational degree, then my life will really begin. And then you may find your first job out of school is not only not what you really had in mind upon graduation, but that this job of yours is clearly beneath you, and you may think to yourself, if I could only find a better job than this,
then my life will really begin. Or you may be dissatisfied with your social life, and you may think to yourself, if I could only meet a special someone, then my life will really begin. Or you may not really like where you live, and you may think to yourself, if I could find a bigger and better house, then my life will really begin.

I hope you can see where this point is going. Your life is what is happening while you’re waiting for your idealized life to begin. There’s nothing wrong with self-improvement, with looking to better your circumstances. But ultimately your circumstances should not define who you are or how you feel about yourself or your life. And if you’re determining your overall level of contentment based on your job, or your status, or how much stuff you have, I predict that you will have an ultimately unfulfilling life.

Finally: Go home. (I’ll pause now while your parents recover from the shock.) What I mean by “go home” is to remember where you grew up. A lot of you may have plans to move to a bigger metropolitan area — Chicago or Minneapolis–St. Paul, for instance — with the idea in mind that you’ll have more opportunities there. You should remember, though, that your education up through high school was paid for by your parents and your neighbors, whose tax dollars footed the bill for the education you have. More to the point: If you feel any connection to the area where you were raised, you should realize that if you want to see, for instance, jobs where people of your educational level can work, and jobs where people can afford to live in the same place where they work, or vice versa, it may be up to you to provide them. There are few places in the world where that kind of opportunity exists today. This is one of them.

Congratulations, good luck, and thanks for listening.

May 28, 2008

Weather, ideology and news

I noted on Friday that my Memorial Day plans included attending a regularly scheduled catfish fry on the Mississippi River. As it happened, my Sunday plans got blown up by the severe weather that blew up in eastern Iowa and southwest Wisconsin, including tornadoes, one of them an F5, that killed seven people in two Iowa communities. (This might have been the first time I recall Lancaster, where my in-laws live, and Ripon, where I live, being in the same tornado watch. At one point, tornado watches were in effect from Texas to northern Minnesota, and 50 tornadoes were reported from northern Texas to northern Minnesota Sunday.)

In news that is likely to make emergency government managers and property and casualty insurers nervous, this tornado season is already the deadliest in 10 years, and, according to National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center warning meteorologist Greg Carbin, "Right now we're on track to break all previous counts through the end of the year."

That's interesting to note given that this has been a cold spring, or at least it seems that way. Actually, that may be a contributor to the storm-filled spring, given that, as we all know, clashing warm and cold air masses is what causes thunderstorms. We've certainly experienced the cold half of that equation this year (this morning's low was 36 in Appleton and 34 in Green Bay), with only two instances where the high has jumped above 80, and more below-normal temperatures predicted the next 10 days and in June.

On Sunday, the three TV stations — KWWL, KGAN and KCRG — in the Waterloo–Cedar Rapids TV market were on the air continuously from 4:22 p.m., when the first tornado warnings were issued, until midnight or later. They were doing what TV (and radio) is supposed to do — keep the public informed in the event of emergencies. Those stations have a policy, as some TV stations in this area do, of continuous coverage of tornado warnings, unlike the old days, when TV stations would break in for storm warnings, then go back to regular programming. In their case Sunday, that meant continuous coverage of continuous tornado warnings from about 4:25 to 10:30 p.m., and then again from about 11 p.m. until midnight after another round of tornado warnings. Those stations also had to figure out a way to coordinate warnings from three different National Weather Service offices, in Des Moines, Iowa, the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois, and La Crosse.

(The local tie-ins: KWWL’s Jeff Kennedy is a native of Oshkosh, and KCRG’s Joe Winters grew up in Princeton; both are University of Wisconsin graduates.)

In contrast, there is the Weather Channel, which touts itself as the CNN of weather. While storms were ripping up eastern Iowa, the Weather Channel instead was showing a marathon of “Forecast Earth,” their global warming propaganda show. Apparently, actual weather was not as interesting as showing off people driving what appeared to be a four-passenger golf cart, not to mention eco-friendly fashions.

One of the anchors of “Forecast Earth” is Heidi Cullen, whose confidence that we humans are ruining the planet is so complete that she has advocated that TV meteorologists who dare not sing from the global warming hymnal lose their accreditation from the American Meteorological Society. (A good analysis of this issue can be found here.) One wonders what the reaction of Cullen or her bosses would be if someone suggested a good way to combat global warming would be to turn off TV sets and computers.

So, Memorial Day morning, we picked up the Dubuque (Iowa) Telegraph Herald expecting to see in-depth coverage of Sunday’s tornadoes, especially since there were several tornado reports within the Telegraph Herald’s circulation area. What we got instead was one not-very-detailed story buried inside the newspaper about the Iowa tornadoes and one even shorter blurb about one tornado report east of Dubuque, also not on the front page — and an Associated Press blurb at that, not even generated by the newspaper itself.

When you read analyses questioning whether newspapers can keep up in the digital age, the deadline structure required to print a daily newspaper, for which the 24/7 news cycle is not convenient, could be the reason. But when a newspaper just doesn’t bother to exert itself, even on a holiday weekend, to cover news in its own coverage area, is that their digital disadvantage, or just laziness or poor management?

May 27, 2008

Patrolling the state budget

One week ago in Oconto, I met state Sen. Dave Hansen (D–Green Bay), who made a valid point about those of us who believe government spends too much money.

Hansen correctly pointed out that there are many people who advocate that government spend less money, without saying what they specifically prefer less government spending.

Some would argue, also correctly, that that is a job for our elected officials. But lest I be accused of hypocrisy, I’m willing to take up the challenge. I should point out that this is a challenge that already has been taken up by Jo Egelhoff, proprietor of and now candidate for the Assembly. Egelhoff has questioned the scope of four-year-old kindergarten, which, thanks to a veto from Gov. James Doyle, now must be offered to all students within any school district that offers it, instead of targeting it to students who would benefit the most.

My proposed budget cut would not only save money, but provide a particular and popular function of government much more efficiently:

Eliminate the Wisconsin State Patrol.

The State Patrol is an odd function of state government, because the State Patrol is not really a law enforcement agency in the same way that county sheriff’s departments are, or for that matter state police departments in other states. The State Patrol, which is part of the state Department of Transportation, “enforces criminal and traffic laws, conducts criminal highway interdiction programs, and helps local law enforcement agencies with traffic safety, civil disturbances and disasters (natural and man-made).” In other words, the stormtroopers of the state highways enforce the laws created by the busybodies in Madison and Washington, including mandatory seat-belt laws at a time when any idiot ought to realize they are safer wearing belts than not, to ridiculous levels, such as, in one case I was told by a trusted source, ticketing someone for driving 3 mph — yes, 3 mph — faster than the speed limit. The State Patrol also operates the state’s truck weigh stations, which rarely seem to be open whenever I drive past them.

State troopers (the State Patrol is authorized to have 399 of them) are sworn police officers, but they have no police responsibilities that aren’t related to motor vehicles, and they are legally subordinate to the county sheriff. (Like all bureaucracies, though, the State Patrol is looking to grow itself, having created a K–9 unit for which it had no legislative authorization. And like other bureaucracies, the State Patrol has a public relations arm that distributes news releases and creates pretty-looking reports in which it takes credit for things for which it doesn’t deserve credit, including a drop in traffic crashes.)

The State Patrol might have more of a reason for existence if its jurisdiction were limited to the state’s four-lane highways, the most traveled roads in the state, but that is not now the case. There is no evidence that crime in Wisconsin (particularly crime of a statewide nature) is at such a level as to warrant expanding police powers to the State Patrol, either. It would be helpful if the State Patrol did its job better as well, in contrast to their apparent performance during a large snowstorm that stranded motorists on Interstate 39/90 for up to 12 hours this past winter.

Other than inspecting tractor–trailers and operating the State Patrol Academy, there is nothing the State Patrol does that county sheriff’s departments don’t do, and could do more efficiently with dollars the state currently spends on the State Patrol. That is already occurring in one place, in fact: The State Patrol is really the State-Except-Milwaukee-County Patrol, because the State Patrol has no responsibilities to patrol Milwaukee County freeways, and if they don’t patrol the freeways of the largest metropolitan area in the state, what is their purpose?

Interestingly, I've talked to a lot of people about this idea — elected officials, political observers, and taxpayers. I've yet to have a single person say that this was a bad idea, particularly the part about giving the money the state spends on the State Patrol to county sheriff's departments. (Perhaps that State Patrol PR arm isn't working so well after all.)

At this point, I’d like to tell you that the state spends X dollars on the State Patrol. I can’t do that, because the State Patrol’s budget is well hidden within the Department of Transportation budget. I do know that county sheriff’s departments, which are responsible for their own counties instead of the whole state, would spend dollars being used on the State Patrol more wisely. In fact, that already happens in Milwaukee County, which gets $3 million in state fund to patrol Milwaukee County freeways.

In a previous state budget, Doyle proposed creating a state police force under the Justice Department, which would have combined the State Patrol, the Justice Department’s Division of Criminal Investigation, and the Department of Administration’s Capitol Police and State Fair Park Police. Such a department perhaps could include the University of Wisconsin police departments on the Madison, Oshkosh, Eau Claire, Milwaukee, Parkside, Platteville, Stout and Whitewater campuses. (I’ll pause while you mull over that bureaucratic snarl.)

That is one of those ideas that seems good in theory until you consider one fact: That statewide police department would be run by the Attorney General. Doyle, who was elected attorney general in 1990, and his one-term successor Peg Lautenschlager grossly politicized the Justice Department as Democrats seem to want to do. The history of Democrat Kathleen Falk, a former associate attorney general and public intervenor (the taxpayer-funded anti-development bottleneck that no longer exists), indicates that that would have continued had Falk not (fortunately) lost to Republican J.B. Van Hollen in 2006. Doyle and Lautenschlager did nothing to assist actual working law enforcement, but did wander off into areas that, whether or not you agree with their positions, were not about law enforcement. (Doyle, for that matter, spent most of his 12 years in office running to replace Gov. Tommy Thompson. Van Hollen seems content to use DCI officers as personal bodyguards during the upcoming Republican National Convention.)

Either the State Patrol should have its responsibilities expanded, or it should be disbanded. In an era of state budget crises but not rampant statewide crime, the latter is the preferred route.

May 23, 2008

The first three-day weekend

Today starts Memorial Day weekend, the first of this year’s three three-day weekends and historically in Wisconsin, the three-day weekend of the most dubious weather, although this weekend’s forecast sounds pretty good (so far).

This is the point where some commentators harrumph that Memorial Day, which is supposed to honor those who died in military service to our country, has instead become the unofficial first weekend of summer. It’s not clear to me why those two things need to be mutually exclusive. It’s also not clear to me what setting Memorial Day at its old date, May 30, would accomplish.

The reason for Memorial Day was stated by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1884:
… It celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year a national act of enthusiasm and faith. It embodies in the most impressive form our belief that to act with enthusiasm and faith is the condition of acting greatly. To fight out a war, you must believe something and want something with all your might. So must you do to carry anything else to an end worth reaching. More than that, you must be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out. All that is required of you is that you should go somewhither as hard as ever you can. The rest belongs to fate. One may fall — at the beginning of the charge or at the top of the earthworks; but in no other way can he reach the rewards of victory.
Memorial Day is a reminder of the cost of the reality that there are some things worth fighting for. As has been said by many others, freedom is not free. At the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in 2003, former Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury whether the U.S. relied too much on “hard power,” the military, instead of “soft power,” diplomacy. Powell’s answer:
“We have gone forth from our shores repeatedly over the last hundred years and we’ve done this as recently as the last year in Afghanistan and put wonderful young men and women at risk, many of whom have lost their lives, and we have asked for nothing except enough ground to bury them in, and otherwise we have returned home to seek our own, you know, to seek our own lives in peace, to live our own lives in peace. But there comes a time when soft power or talking with evil will not work where, unfortunately, hard power is the only thing that works.”
(More from Powell on Memorial Day can be read here.)

In contrast, the live version of Bruce Springsteen’s remake of Edwin Starr’s “War” begins with these deep thoughts: “… Blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed.” (Did he mean his wife, his family, God or whatever religion he has, too?) As for the premise stated in the song’s refrain — “War! Huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!” — the survivors of several concentration camps and other victims of Nazi Germany may have a different opinion. For that matter, the fact that one-fourth of the Cambodian population was killed after the end of the Vietnam War suggests that U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia may not have been the best thing for Southeast Asia.

You can argue the merits of the war in Iraq, or how the Bush Administration is prosecuting the war on terror. You can even argue whether World War I accomplished anything except for paving the way for World War II. The idea, however, that war is something that can be eliminated if we just all resolve to get along assumes that human nature can be defeated, and that there’s no moral difference between sides. Would pacifists be pleased with a country where the southern third of it owned slaves and no one did anything about it because all viewpoints, even enslaving human beings, are valid?

John Stuart Mill put it best:
War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.
As with many things, the real spirit of Memorial Day can be best found in small towns. (In a general sense, those who live in small towns seem much more rooted in reality and traditional values than the big-city elites.) Back in my weekly newspaper days, I wrote an annual story previewing Memorial Day events, with members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars visiting any cemetery in which a veteran was buried. The observance culminated in a small parade and program at the high school, where “In Flanders Fields” would be read and “Taps” would be played. (I was a bugler in Boy Scouts, so I played “Taps,” though never at a funeral.)

Our traditional Memorial Day weekend plans are to head southwest to the in-laws, so my wife can see her sisters and brother and our children can see their aunts, uncles and cousins. The added bonuses are that the fourth Saturday of most months is the scheduled date for the steak fry held by the Jacob J. Berg–Albert A. Averkamp VFW Post 5276 in Potosi, across the street from the original site of the Potosi Brewery. I have been attending Potosi steak fries for 18 years, usually preceding them with a Brandy Old Fashioned, the official mixed drink of Wisconsin. One day later is the annual Glen Haven Fire Department Catfish Fry, with my four favorite words: “All You Can Eat.” Glen Haven is, I believe, one end of Wisconsin, just as Northport is the other end — the county highway that goes into Glen Haven dead-ends into a Mississippi River boat landing, and even though there are roads northwest and southeast out of Glen Haven, it feels like that’s the end of the state.

Memorial Day has turned into an occasion to remember not just military dead, but members of the family who have passed on as well. The weekend includes a visit to my in-laws’ section of Hillside Cemetery in Lancaster. Most years, if it works schedule-wise, I stop this weekend at Resurrection Cemetery in Madison, the gravesite of my older brother, who died of a brain tumor before his second birthday, a year before I was born. The saddest part about that is that he is buried in a section of the cemetery that was reserved in the early 1960s for babies and young children. And yet there’s something about having your own children running around a cemetery — strange as it sounds, it’s a reminder that life does go on.

Resurrection Cemetery is also the final resting place of someone who grew up in Madison the same time I did, comedian Chris Farley. (I highly recommend his biography, The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts, cowritten by his older brother. Since I read it, I’ve been trying to figure out where our paths crossed; he was born and raised in the Madison area and attended Edgewood High School, graduating one year before I graduated from La Follette High School. I think our paths might have crossed at an Edgewood–La Follette football game in 1980 or 1981; he played defensive line, and I played trumpet.)

This weekend makes one think what this nation’s military dead died for. “They died for our country” is the obvious answer, but what does that specifically mean? Joseph Campbell defined a hero as “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself,” which our military dead certainly did. In the case of this country, “something bigger” isn’t just the flag or something that symbolizes our country; it’s all the things, great and small, that make up our way of life — our right to make a living the way we want, to live where we want, to express opinions about the state of things and to express ourselves in other ways — even something seemingly mundane like three-day weekends.

Jack Buck, one of the great sportscasters of the first 50 years of TV, was a World War II veteran who survived the Battle of the Bulge. He visited Normandy, the site where the Allied invasion of Europe began on D-Day, and, upon seeing visitors to the cemetery in a less-than-solemn mood, penned this poem (from his autobiography That's a Winner):
They chatter and they laugh as they pass by my grave
And that's the way it should be.
For what they have done, and what they will do, has
nothing to do with me.
I was tossed ashore by a friendly wave
With some unfriendly steel in my head.
They chatter and they laugh as they pass by my grave
But I know they'll soon be dead.
They've counted more days than I ever knew
And that's all right with me too.
We're all souls in one pod, all headed for God
Too soon, or later, like you.
President Benjamin Harrison gets the last word about the holiday formerly known as Decoration Day:
I have never been able to think of the day as one of mourning; I have never quite been able to feel that half-masted flags were appropriate on Decoration Day. I have rather felt that the flag should be at the peak, because those whose dying we commemorate rejoiced in seeing it where their valor placed it. We honor them in a joyous, thankful, triumphant commemoration of what they did.
Animated U.S. flag courtesy

May 22, 2008

Ryan for President

Wednesday's Wall Street Journal featured an absolutely brilliant column by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Janesville), a demonstration that not all Republicans are merely Democrat Lite — wanting the same programs as Democrats, but slightly smaller with slightly less taxes.

Ryan is one of the seemingly few politicians to realize the demographic time bomb that awaits a country that fails to do anything about how entitlement spending is gobbling up larger portions of the federal budget and the economy. By the time Ryan's children reach his age, 38, to fund Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and other government functions "will require more than doubling the average tax burden of the past 40 years just to keep the government afloat. Continuing down this path will eventually strangle our economy."

So how do you change that? With "A Roadmap for America's Future," which deals with the entitlement crises and our hideously complicated tax system:
  • A refundable tax credit of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families to pay for health insurance, which would take ownership away from the government and businesses to individuals.
  • Convert Medicare for those younger than 55 to an annual payment of up to $9,500 (the amount based on income) to purchase coverage, and allowing states flexibility to alter their Medicaid programs to fit the states' individual needs.
  • Giving workers younger than 55 the option to invest more than one-third of their Social Security taxes into individual accounts.
  • Give taxpayers a choice to use the present tax system or a two-level tax system, featuring larger standard deductions and personal exemptions, a tax of 10 percent on income of up to $100,000, and a tax of 25 percent above that level. ("Income" would not include capital gains, dividends or estates.)
  • Replace the corporate income tax, which Ryan notes is second highest in the industrialized world, with a business consumption tax of 8.5 percent.
The details obviously are subject to the political process. I quibble only with the last point, which I would change to "eliminate the corporate income tax." It is, as we all know, not a tax paid by businesses; it is passed on to consumers, which is one reason why the corporate tax rate has grown to the second highest in the industrialized world — like sales taxes, it isn't apparent to the consumer, but the consumer is paying it nonetheless.

The business consumption tax plan is probably in there so that Ryan can say this: "Based on the analysis of government actuaries, this plan is projected to make the Social Security and Medicare programs permanently solvent. It will lift the growing debt burden on future generations, and hold Federal taxes to 18.5 percent of GDP," which is actually less than the historic tax level of 19.5 percent of GDP, regardless of tax rate structure.

The Social Security and health insurance initiatives are particularly laudable. Social Security is a giant ripoff for those of us in our 40s or younger, who face the likely scenario of having no Social Security at all when we reach retirement age, since it will start to pay more out in benefits than it collects in taxes in just nine years. Even if that weren't the case, Social Security is still a giant ripoff since there is no property right to Social Security — we get it, or not, at the whim of the government. (Since I began working, my age for eligibility has been increased from 65 to 67, and it's likely to increase further.) As has been pointed out more than once, any investment company that set up a retirement fund as Social Security is set up and funded would be in prison. Similarly, the health insurance market would work much better if individuals had the ability to change coverage and insurers as easily as we can change our car insurance, but that doesn't happen in a market where third parties pay for coverage.

"Levels of projected debt threaten to bankrupt the country, there are trillions of dollars of unfunded liabilities in the government’s major benefit programs, and Americans face an accelerating erosion of their health care and retirement security," says Ryan. "This will burden not only the Federal Government, but the U.S. economy as well, threatening its ability to continue raising standards of living, or to compete successfully in an increasingly international marketplace. This is a future in which America's best century is the past century. Unless we act."

On May 15, Karl Rove wrote a Wall Street Journal column, "The GOP Must Stand for Something." The federal and state Republican Party has done a great job standing only for their own power and reelection prospects, and it has gotten them to lose control of Congress and one house of the Legislature, with prospects for November looking even worse than they were two years ago. Republicans are preferable to Democrats when they act like Republicans and support Republican themes, not when they are Republicans In Name Only. The purpose of being in politics should be to improve things, not to have power, and that is something many Republican leaders appear to have forgotten.

The Republican Party's greatest success of the 1990s was the Contract with America, which spelled out what the Congressional GOP stood for. It was so successful that it led the way to 12 years of Republican control of Congress, despite a popular Democratic president opposing all its tenets, and despite its main author, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, leaving the house in 1999. Even in the cynical sport of politics, ideas mean something. Ideas got Ronald Reagan elected in 1980, and ideas got Republicans Congress in 1994.

Ryan's plan is what the Congressional GOP and presidential candidate John McCain should stand for. And Wisconsin Republicans need to come up with a similar roadmap to deal with Wisconsin's fiscal challenges, including some of the highest taxes in the country and our own deficits.

May 21, 2008

Your Tax Dollars at Work, Gas Prices Edition

In a previous post here, I wrote that “Anyone who thinks Democrats are going to do anything to reduce gas prices hasn’t been paying attention.”

Apparently I was mistaken. U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen (D–Appleton) has come up with a new approach, something he got 323 of his colleagues in the House of Representatives (one of whom is Rep. Tom Petri (R–Fond du Lac)) to sign on to — sue OPEC:
The Gas Price Relief for Consumers Act sponsored by Congressman Steve Kagen, M.D. was approved overwhelmingly [Tuesday] by the House of Representatives by a vote of 324-84. One hundred three Republicans supported the bill that would put in place the means to crackdown on possible anti-competitive practices that could be contributing to the current record-high gas prices.

The Gas Price Relief for Consumers Act of 2008 would allow the United States to sue foreign oil cartels for anti-competitive price discrimination. It would also allow the Department of Justice Antitrust Task Force to aggressively investigate both gas price gouging and market manipulation.

“Until we finally have an energy policy other than drill-and-burn, this bill will begin to set things right for the American people,” Kagen said. “We cannot drill or grow our way out of this energy crisis. We must begin to think differently in America. That includes loosening the stranglehold other nations have on our economy and exploring new forms of energy.”

The Gas Price Relief for Consumers Act of 2008 … authorizes the creation of the Department of Justice Petroleum Industry Antitrust Task Force. Among its responsibilities, the Task Force will examine such issues as the existence and effects of price gouging in the sale of gasoline, anticompetitive price discrimination by petroleum refiners, actions to constrain oil supplies in order to inflate prices, and possible oil price manipulation in futures markets. …

“This legislation will address the loopholes and exemptions that oil companies exploit at the great expense of our citizens,” said Kagen. “By passing The Gas Price Relief for Consumers Act, the House agrees that it is time to give U.S. authorities the ability to prosecute anticompetitive conduct committed by international cartels that restricts supply and drives up prices. OPEC, the world’s most well known oil cartel, accounts for more than two-thirds of global oil production, and OPEC’s oil exports represent about 65 percent of the oil traded internationally.”

Words fail me as to how laughable, stupid and naïve this really is. I’m curious as to which court outside the U.S. Kagen believes would hear this case. Kagen may be shocked to find out that the jurisdiction of U.S. courts does not extend beyond the borders of the U.S. or to non-American citizens. (Apparently, none of Kagen’s colleagues who are lawyers bothered to tell him this.) Kagen also may be surprised to discover that not even an act of Congress can overturn the laws of supply (artificially restricted due to bans on drilling and environmental regulations that have prevented new refineries from being built) and demand (increasing from growing economies outside the U.S.).

The White House says targeting OPEC in the courts “would likely spur retaliatory action against American interests in those countries and lead to a reduction in oil available to U.S. refiners.” I’m not sure if that’s the case (why would OPEC shut off one of its largest customers?), but it certainly will not do anything at all to reduce gas prices. Had Kagen’s Democratic buddies not prevented U.S. oil companies from being able to drill for oil in new locations in this country over the past three decades, then gas prices might not have increased, in Wisconsin, 65 percent since Democrats took control of Congress in early 2007.

“As the Federal Trade Commission has reported, changes in world oil prices have explained 85% of the changes in the price of gasoline in the U.S.,” says U.S. Rep. Steve King (R–Iowa). “The price of gas at the pump closely tracks the price of a barrel of oil in the world market. Further, the FTC has repeatedly found that there is no broad-based collusion to fix prices or engage in price gouging in the retail sale of gasoline.”

If I were in Congress, I would be embarrassed to have my name attached to Kagen’s waste of time. Kagen must have a low estimation of the intellects of Eighth Congressional District voters to believe this will get him more votes in November.

Kagen is right about one thing: “We must begin to think differently in America.” That should begin with sending Kagen back to his medical practice Nov. 4.

UPDATE: July light crude futures sold today for $133.17 per barrel, up $4.19 from yesterday. Apparently the world oil markets are unimpressed with Kagen’s bill as well.

How government should work

Those who are regular readers of this space have read in the last week how I feel about our elected officials in Madison and the circular firing squad that was last week’s budget “fix.”

So I thought it might be refreshing to discuss a municipality where government actually works well. The mayor of Ripon, Aaron Kramer, was on Ripon’s radio station Monday talking about how city government was going to address the city’s … surplus, of nearly $200,000.

(Full disclosure: Yes, I live in Ripon, and I served with Kramer on Ripon’s Plan Commission for four years. I am also an on-air voice for Ripon’s Channel 19, the government access channel funded through cable TV franchise fees. My wife works for the Ripon Public Library, which gets you no tax breaks. I am not writing this to curry any favors with city leaders.)

This surplus was not generated from excessive taxation, incidentally. The city’s 2007 mil rate of $7.10 per $1,000 valuation ranked 94th of the 196 Wisconsin cities, and a bit more than the $6.93 per $1,000 city average, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. (The city’s overall mil rate of $21.77 per $1,000 was 59th highest among Wisconsin cities; the reason for that can be found 11 paragraphs from now.) The city has received more revenue than forecast, a result of economic growth, and has spent less than budgeted, thanks to what Kramer calls “a frugal group of department heads, who were not operating under the all-too-familiar model of spending every available dollar at the end of a budget cycle in order to receive additional money the next time around.” The city’s forecasted 2007 deficit of $140,000 (which was to be covered by carryover funds earmarked for specific projects) turned into a surplus of $70,000, thanks to project bids lower than estimated, not spending contingency funds, selling the city’s Senior Center and making money on the city’s invested funds.

The city’s business park, expanded two years ago following a decade-long debate on how to expand and where, is going to fill rapidly. Two residential subdivisions — the second and third subdivisions to be created in the city in the past 40 years — are being built. A Tax Incremental Financing district on the city’s west side has generated almost $8 million in new development and $177,000 a year in new property taxes. On Tuesday, Ripon Medical Center announced it is moving its hospital (across the street from a certain business magazine editor) to the city’s business park.

And it’s not as if no infrastructure improvements are occurring. The city has borrowed 20 percent of its allowable general obligation debt limit to pay for its share of a new fire station and street and sewer improvements. The city’s outstanding debt has been dropping thanks to a policy of paying off more debt than is taken on in any particular year.

Ripon has four specific advantages, including the particular quality of life that comes from being in a college town (although city–college relations haven’t always been entirely positive). The city has a large industrial sector highlighted by one major manufacturer, Alliance Laundry Systems (they build Speed Queen washers and dryers); a major plastics packaging company; food processors Ripon Pickle, Smuckers and Bremner Foods (the Rippin’ Good Cookies people); and two large service companies, a printer and a company that makes prison security automation equipment. The city’s location on a railroad spur obviously is quite convenient for manufacturers. And unlike many cities around its size, Ripon has a downtown worth visiting, thanks in part to its being part of the state Main Street program. (This is despite the fact that there is no street called Main Street in Ripon.)

Unlike other cities in the area, however, Ripon has little developable waterfront area, and the city isn’t on a four-lane highway. (For that matter, getting through the city can be a challenge due to the fact that it has no through streets.) Thanks to decisions, or lack thereof, of past city leaders, the city hasn’t grown in population for decades, and economic growth was minimal until relatively recently.

Ripon’s recent successes show that there is no substitute for actual leadership. Kramer would be the first to tell you that Ripon’s growth has been a team effort, including city government management and staff, a new economic development director, and others. Interestingly, though, other than the economic development director, most of the people on staff were there during previous administrations, where very little growth occurred. The approach that has worked in Ripon is that the part-time mayor leads in determining general future direction, while the full-time city administrator, Steve Barg, applies and executes that vision. The relationship between elected officials and professional staff in Ripon seems appropriate — city staff doesn’t appear to run the show, as in some municipalities, but city staff is also not micromanaged by elected officials whose reach exceeds their grasp.

One thing that changed besides the mayor was that aldermen and members of appointed bodies with a we-don’t-care-about-growth attitude have been replaced by those who do, or maneuvered into appointed bodies where they can do less damage. (Evidently Kramer has read Machiavelli.) Ripon supposedly has a weak-mayor form of government, but you’d never know that from what’s happened in Ripon over the past five years. The city also has been able to withstand employment losses from more than one major employer over the past few years.

Ripon also is an example of the positive things that can happen in government without party labels
(that’s an observation I’ve heard from mayors all over Northeast Wisconsin’s political spectrum) and without careerist politicians. Down in Madison, in contrast, spats have occurred between parts of the same party for more than a century. (Wisconsin was dominated by the Republican Party in the early 20th century, but the GOP was divided among more conservative Stalwarts and the considerably more liberal Progressives started by Robert M. “Fighting Bob” La Follette.) Before Tommy Thompson took the word “veto” to new heights as governor, the previous gubernatorial leader in vetoes was Gov. Anthony Earl, a Democrat who had a Democratic majority in both houses of the Legislature all four years he was governor. Earl and legislative Democrats were rarely on the same page on budgeting issues.

Kramer has an actual full-time job, and Ripon’s aldermen either have full-time jobs or are retired. In contrast, the words “full-time legislator” appear far too often in the Wisconsin Blue Book section of legislators’ biographies, both Democrat and Republican. Neither the Founding Fathers nor those who founded Wisconsin intended the phrase “full-time legislator” to be part of the political lexicon.

Ripon is not perfect. The city could be in better shape today had previous leaders not made decisions based on the attitude that they liked the city just the way it was. There is no such thing as “just the way it was,” or is, because communities are organic — they grow in real terms, or they shrink. What’s happening today is reversing, finally, shrinkage in real terms (as demonstrated by zero population growth when nearly every community in Northeast Wisconsin has grown in population) over the years.

There is a belief, not without some justification, that Fond du Lac County leaders occasionally forget that Ripon is in Fond du Lac County. (Ripon has a new county park on the city’s east side that consists of a field and a parking area. Still, I shouldn’t complain given that Fond du Lac County manages to operate county functions with average county mil rates but without a county sales tax.) The school district is good but, contrary to their vision statement, not “one of Wisconsin’s outstanding school districts,” although
school district taxes are outstandingly high. (Relations between the school district and its teachers are similar to relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union around 1962.) I’d like to see Ripon grow by about 1,400 population and expand to about 36 square miles of land area. (That is a comment about a municipality near Ripon previously referred to in this space.)

The City of Ripon is an example of the truism that government works best when responsibilities are handled at the lowest practical level.
Ripon also is a cautionary tale that the quality, or lack thereof, of elected officials and administration makes a real difference in whether a community grows, or does not. Nothing city leaders have done appears to qualify as rocket science, but Ripon is certainly better off than many cities in Wisconsin, thanks to progressive leadership.

There are a lot of self-styled progressives in Madison, but nothing that goes on in the state Capitol qualifies as “progressive” in a positive way, unless your definition of “progressive” includes vast structural deficits and accounting tricks played to mask the financial hole into which the state has fallen. There are political leaders (as opposed to “politicians”) out there whose goal is to better the communities they serve, instead of sticking it to their opposition. Few of them, apparently, can be found in Madison.

May 20, 2008

Analysis of the Day

Last month in this space, I reprinted a Marketplace of Ideas column from my first term as editor (Editor 1.0?), "The way things should be." That column reprinted a 1993 quote from an economist, W. Kurt Hauser, who noted that since World War II, regardless of what income tax rates were, tax collections totaled about 19.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product.

David Ranson in the Wall Street Journal reintroduces what he calls Hauser's Law, with this punch line:

What happens if we instead raise tax rates? Economists of all persuasions accept that a tax rate hike will reduce GDP, in which case Hauser's Law says it will also lower tax revenue. That's a highly inconvenient truth for redistributive tax policy, and it flies in the face of deeply felt beliefs about social justice. It would surely be unpopular today with those presidential candidates who plan to raise tax rates on the rich — if they knew about it. ...

Because Mr. Hauser's horizontal straight line is a simple fact, it is ultimately far more compelling. It also presents a major opportunity. It seems likely that the tax system could maintain a 19.5% yield with a top bracket even lower than 35%.

Someone sign up Barack Obama for a Wall Street Journal subscription. (Or, better yet, sign him up for Marketplace; then he can see what life in the Bitterness Belt is really like.)

May 19, 2008

The fix that fixes very little

I’m not ready to call our governor Deficit Dumping Doyle, but qualified praise is due to Gov. James Doyle for doing a better job at addressing the state budget shortfall with his vetoes than the Legislature did in creating the budget repair in the first place.

Doyle cut through veto an additional $201 million of the Legislature’s pathetic $69 million in budget cuts to address the state’s $652 million budget deficit. He also vetoed the accounting trick of delaying $125 million in school aid payments into the next budget cycle, which helps decrease (though not by much) the structural deficit. He also increased reserves from the Legislature-approved $25 million to $100 million, which is more responsible (though not by much).

The “qualified” part comes from Doyle’s grabbing another $101 million from the transportation fund, which increasingly does look like, as someone else first put it, the State Capitol branch of a payday loan store, or, perhaps, the state’s version of the Social Security Trust Fund. He also cut a property tax cut provision for low-income housing, a bad move except that the tax cut provision didn’t belong in the budget repair in the first place; the tax cut should be approved as ordinary legislation, not in the budget. He left in a tax increase on “certain rental and interest payments by businesses to related entities,” which is a bad idea and something that also didn’t belong in the budget repair. Another provision required the state to negotiate smaller salary increases with state employees; he vetoed that on the grounds that current state employee contracts have come in $25 million less than estimated in the current budget.

Doyle also left in another provision he should have vetoed — the requirement that any school district that provides four-year-old kindergarten must offer it to all students in the school district, instead of targeting it to students who need the early help. The jury is out on the effectiveness of four-year-old kindergarten (which my oldest son did at a private preschool and which my youngest son is doing in public school), but if you believe it would help some children, then taxpayer-funded 4K should be offered to those children and not necessarily every child, when it becomes taxpayer-funded daycare. This and the state employee contracts are Doyle’s usual sop to, respectively, the teacher unions and the public employee unions, proving once again that, in politics, you are who your supporters are.

Doyle might be Wisconsin’s original Third Way politician. He has learned from Bill Clinton how to triangulate — to place himself between Republicans and more liberal Democrats — for his own political benefit more than his party’s. As with Clinton, through Doyle’s six years as governor, Democrats have controlled one house of the Legislature only once, the Senate since 2007. Wisconsin also has as many Democratic constitutional officers as before he took office. (In 2006, Republican Treasurer Jack Voight lost to Democrat Dawn Marie Sass, but Democratic Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager was replaced by Republican J.B. Van Hollen.)

Budget-cutting can be simple, depending on your approach, but it is not easy. The estimated budget shortfall totals almost 5 percent of the budget, which one could eliminate by cutting every budget item by the same 5 percent. Remove schools from budget-cutting, though, and everything else must be cut 10 percent. Remove schools and the University of Wisconsin System from cuts, and now everything else must be cut 20 percent. And as Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance President Todd Berry pointed out, only 17 percent of state spending is for state government. We are paying for spending excesses that go back into the 1980s and 1990s, and of course there remain those who think we’re not spending enough on their pet project or cause.

This budget crisis illustrates the political importance of who is where, and also demonstrates that where politics is concerned, there is no such thing as being too cynical. Governors cannot create legislation, although Doyle, with the most veto power of any American governor, can do the next best thing through his use of the line-item veto. (Wisconsin governors used to have more veto power, but that was taken away through the constitutional amendments ending the “Vanna White” and ”Frankenstein” vetoes.) Doyle wants to enact a new tax on hospitals, believing that somehow the federal government and not those paying for health care will pay for it, but couldn’t get that through the Republican-controlled Assembly. Doyle got a party-line vote (with one exception) in the Senate, but needed to cobble together a majority of, but not all, Republicans and enough Democrats to get Assembly approval.

As German chancellor Otto von Bismarck put it, “Politics is the art of the possible,” so it makes one wonder what kind of state government we’ll have if the Assembly shifts from Republican control to Democratic control with the Senate after Election Day Nov. 4. One also wonders what will happen should Doyle decide not to run for reelection in 2010 and, without the pressures reelection efforts bring, decides to let his inner liberal come out.

Even if this turned out better than it could have, this is far from the preferable way to address state budget issues. Doyle’s vetoes only slightly affected the structural deficit and had no discernible effect on the accrual deficit, which total almost $4 billion. Rep. Dean Kaufert (R–Neenah) and others believe the time has come for a public participation process in which the state’s budget functions are prioritized to allow elected officials, in Kaufert’s words, “to find out which programs are viewed by the public as low priorities or expendable and would help balance the budget in real terms” to avoid making this a yearly occurrence. A smaller scale version of this has been done in Sheboygan County.

Remember what I said that where politics is concerned, there is no such thing as being too cynical? Unfortunately, public participation in any budgeting process, as the Public Policy Forum points out, usually devolves into “significant participation from union members and advocacy groups, but little from regular citizens.” When faced with the question of should taxes be cut or should your favorite government function be maintained, voters more often than not answer yes. At least in this state, too many Republicans are RINOs (“Republicans In Name Only”) or Eisenhower Republicans — they like the same programs Democrats like, but they want to spend a little less on them, and they want people to be taxed a little less. And since the primary motivation of politicians is reelection rather than serving the public, making responsible decisions (the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, for instance) inevitably loses out to pandering to the politicians’ favorite special interest groups (who believe that any dollar cut from their cause will be the end of the world as we know it).

Big decisions will have to be made that will affect a lot of people, and those decisions get increasingly difficult the longer they are put off. Since the biggest expense of state government is personnel costs, real budget cuts must include cutting government jobs, as well as reducing the Rolls–Royce benefit packages government employees get. Government programs are programs, not “investments,” and need to be arranged in order of what is really important and what isn’t, and those that aren’t important need to either be severely cut or eliminated. And government needs to be funded by direct, transparent taxation, not indirect taxation such as business taxes, which, as all of us (but not this misguided writer) know, are not paid by businesses, but are paid by consumers.

What’s the alternative? A longtime elected official I talked to last week says the alternative is to watch, perhaps in the next two decades, Wisconsin turn into “Alabama with high taxes” — a state with crumbling infrastructure but high taxes, a state in which any native with the wherewithal to leave for better climates (whether milder winters or better economic prospects) will leave.

May 16, 2008

Analysis of the Day

Michael Novak on what a Barack Obama presidency would be like by 2012.

To boldly do business where no one has done business before

Stardate 10837.3

I have always been a fan of the TV series “Star Trek.” Those who are not are just … illogical. (Even Star Trek non-fans should understand that reference.)

Star Trek was a groundbreaking science fiction TV series during the tumultuous 1960s. Just four years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when it seemed as though the U.S. and Soviet Union were intent on leaving the world suitable only for cockroaches, here was a TV series that suggested that people of both sexes and all races would not merely survive, but thrive to explore “strange new worlds … to seek out new life and new civilization … to boldly go where no man* has gone before.” It also suggested a logical destination of the space race, which culminated in the 1960s with man on the Moon, continuing to, in the setting of the original series, faster-than-light-speed travel to be able explore millions of planets suitable for supporting human life.

* The word “man,” of course, referred to “mankind,” not just men. Remember that this was written in the 1960s. Later versions changed “no man” to “no one.”

Star Trek has had a huge impact on pop culture for a series that lasted just three seasons, the last of which forgettable at best. It was the first serious science fiction TV series that featured a world different from this one (“The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits” were usually set on present-day Earth) as its setting. The format allowed drama, action and adventure, and even comedy interspersed with metaphorical explorations of issues of the turbulent 1960s. Some of the era’s greatest science fiction writers wrote scripts for the original series.

Yes, this is merely a TV series, although no other TV series spawned five spinoff series, 10 movies, hundreds of fiction and nonfiction books, and an entire subculture that started with just 79 hour-long episodes. (Not bad for a series that couldn’t beat such competition as “My Three Sons,” various movies on CBS, “The Tammy Grimes Show,” “Bewitched,” “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” — for those who think Star Trek is a fantasy, imagine the Marines allowing Gomer Pyle to enlist — “Hondo” and “Judd for the Defense” in the Nielsen ratings.) As with any entertainment set in a period different from the present, attitudes in the series do reflect, in the case of the original series, the 1960s, with, in some cases, unfortunate results.

There is also a perception that the acting style of, specifically, star William Shatner was over the top, but if you watch other TV series from the ’60s, the acting style of Star Trek actors is consistent with the ’60s TV drama standard, which was closer to stage acting than movie acting. (Shatner was a Shakespearean stage and movie actor of note when he was cast as Capt. James T. Kirk.) The byplay among Kirk, Spock and Dr. McCoy makes all but the worst episodes (more on that later) worth watching.

My favorite episodes, in the order that they appeared: First pilot “The Cage” (which was not used as the pilot, but was turned into a two-part episode in the series’ first season), second pilot “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” “The Corbomite Maneuver,” “Balance of Terror,” “Arena,” “Tomorrow Is Yesterday,” “Court Martial” (which is supposed to be on WLUK-TV Sunday at 11:30 p.m.), “A Taste of Armageddon,” “Devil in the Dark,” “The Alternative Factor,” “The Changeling,” “Mirror, Mirror,” “The Doomsday Machine,” “Journey to Babel,” “Obsession,” “The Trouble with Tribbles,” “A Piece of the Action,” “The Immunity Syndrome,” “Patterns of Force,” “The Ultimate Computer,” and “The Enterprise Incident.”

I watch TV and movies (sorry, “films”) and listen to music for entertainment, not usually for deeper messages. There is, however, one facet of Star Trek (other than the completely disastrous third season of the original series) that didn’t bother me when I started watching the series, but now gets my attention. It is the same quality that sinks many predictions of the future — the idea that human nature will be somehow defeated in the future.

Most characters in each iteration of the series are either Enterprise crew members, scientists, people the Enterprise meets in their explorations, or aliens. The original series (with the exception of two episodes featuring miners and one featuring a bar/trading post owner) has just two characters who could be considered businessmen, and shady ones at that — Cyrano Jones, who introduced the 23rd century to tribbles, and Harcourt Fenton “Harry” Mudd, who didn’t let the law interfere with, for instance, human smuggling.

The next series, “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” goes even farther. A first-season episode features the discovery of a satellite inside which three people from the 20th century were cryogenically frozen. One of them was a Donald Trump-type who discovered that all his wealth had disappeared, but that was OK because, in the words of the captain, in the 23rd century “We have eliminated need.” That series also introduced the Ferengi, which “have a culture which is based entirely upon commerce”; more accurately, the Ferengi combine the worst stereotypical abuses of unfettered capitalism with the worst stereotypical abuses of patriarchy. Suffice it to say that it is not a positive portrait.

It would be a fair statement to say that the economics of Star Trek are clearly utopian, at least vaguely socialist, certainly based on central planning, and sufficiently redistributionist to be able to supposedly “eliminate need.” Others would go farther and claim that the Star Trek universe is a communist (note the small C) society, featuring the abolition of property rights; state control of transportation, communication and industry; the elimination of religion (or replacement of it with a religion that worships technology and humanism); a two-class system with military, politicians and scientists in one class and everyone else in the other class (just like the U.S.S.R. was); inordinate military control and influence (ditto); and “enforced social uniformity.” Other than the military part, think of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” (More on the philosophy of Star Trek, which could be described as “universal humanism,” can be read here and here.)

One person actually created what he thought was the economic history of the United Federation of Planets (the 23rd century’s answer to the United Nations), based on an economic concept called “participatory economics.” As this person put it:

As far as I know, the creators and owners of Star Trek have never made specific the economic system that is used in the Star Trek universe. I doubt they have much of an idea, other than it’s not capitalism, doesn’t use “free” markets, and is probably quite just. From various quotes from movies and the TV shows, we know that they don't use money (Star Trek IV), they use “credits” (Deep Space Nine), that the encouraged point to life is self improvement, not aggrandizement by wealth (The Next Generation) …

This, of course, is where you know it’s fiction. One of the main premises of the series is that nation–states have been superseded by nation–planets, beginning with Earth. It may be a stretch to suggest that planetary unity is absolutely impossible, but consider this planet, a collection of nations, ethnicities, cultures, languages and religions, at least one of which (radical Islam) having as its goal the conversion or destruction of those who don’t adhere to that religion. World War II ended not because the Allies and the Axis agreed that their differences were not as important as their similarities; World War II ended because the Allies defeated the Axis. The Cold War ended not because the West and the Warsaw Pact had a kumbaya revelation; the Cold War ended because the West’s superior military and economic power forced the implosion of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries, helped in large part to those satellite countries’ citizens figuring out that life away from Communist control was a whole lot better than life under Communist control.

You may think that’s a grim view of history. (Not as grim as Star Trek’s version, though, which includes eugenics wars during Bill Clinton’s presidency — you’d think I’d remember that from my first stint as editor of Marketplace, but somehow I don’t — and a third world war with 600 million dead and nuclear winter in the middle of this century.) It is a realistic view of history and not grim because, fortunately, the correct side — the side that values freedom and individuality — has prevailed so far. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, a unified world cannot exist half-nonfree and half-free. To have a unified world, either both sides have to have the same values, or one side has to prevail. So far, totalitarian governments and movements, whose values are certainly different from ours, have lost to governments based on freedom. And there’s that pesky link between economic freedom and political freedom (one of the personal freedoms) that keeps popping up despite the best efforts of governments to break it or claim it doesn’t exist.

The notion that enterprise and money will go away in the future is similarly dubious, requiring you to believe that resources eventually will become unlimited, but still must be administered by an all-powerful all-encompassing government. (If resources are unlimited, then why does anyone have to administer them?) Commerce goes back more than 2,000 years on this planet, starting millennia before anyone figured out theories of economics, capitalism and markets. One Web page terms “a planet-wide government that runs everything, and has abolished money” as “a veritable planetary DMV.” (That is a line I will probably appropriate to categorize any new government venture — say, nationalized health care.)

As another observer/fan puts it:

The basic problem is that Leninist workers paradises don’t work. That's why the Soviet Union early on abandoned its efforts to have a cashless society and reintroduced the use of money.

Money plays a vital role: It tells you how much somebody wants something that is in short supply. Person A wants to have something that Person B also wants to have (say, a nice fluffy tribble that has been safely neutered). Who wants it more? Money is the best way to settle that. (Fisticuffs not being a good way.) You want this tribble? How much are you willing to pay for it? Supply and demand. …

A society of humans couldn’t be more advanced than us and yet lack money. Whether cash or electronic, money is the most efficient way of settling how wants what how much and thus who gets it. It’s the best way to organize resources on a wide scale. Any other system is going to be inefficient and result in the misallocation of resources and greater human suffering.

Then there's that sticky issue of religion, which is as fundamental a flaw in the concept of Star Trek as its pseudoeconomics, as this writer points out:
NO human civilization has been able to erase the religious impulse from the minds of the majority of its people. NO human civilization has successfully combined lock-step totalitarian government with soft, fuzzy good feelings and compassion. NO human civilization has successfully combined excellence in all areas of human endeavor with collectivist, socialist economics and politics. I just can't believe it.

First of all, no society in the history of the world that has been Marxist, as the Fed[eration] clearly is, has achieved anything worth a darn. The only ones that have been even close to successful are the Soviet Union (now extinct, or at least dormant) and China (which is a stable society with roots far deeper than its present government). In the Trek timeline, there was a period of horrific genocidal war in the 21st century followed by a worldwide dark age. What motive could get humanity all the way to the stars by the 23rd? What got Western civilization through the "dark age" that followed the sack of Rome? Sunny confidence in the essential goodness of human nature? A love for scientific exploration? Baloney. There are basically two motives behind all human progress: economic advancement (for either survival or profit) and religious belief. Both were absolutely essential to the successful Middle Ages that followed. Both were necessary for the birth of modern science in the Renaissance. A society must be very advanced and leisured indeed to produce philosophers that churn out anti-capitalist and anti-religious ideas and a rarefied intelligentsia that takes them seriously.

Star Trek could be, probably unintentionally, an exploration of the tension between freedom and security. Humans, Vulcans and other sentient beings in the 23rd century can have the bottom two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs satisfied by the mighty Federation, leaving them to strive toward the top three levels. That, however, sounds like a sterile and pretty uninteresting, not to mention completely self-absorbed, life. Forget about creating something; never mind about meeting the needs of others. (Oh, that’s right — there will be no need by then!) And, by the way, your choices will have been guided, if not predetermined, by the Department of All. Your freedom of choice, after all, includes your freedom to make what others might consider to be the wrong choice. President Gerald Ford, not known to be a Star Trek fan, nailed it nonetheless: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take from you everything you have.”

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who was a visionary to merely think of the concept (which he described as “Wagon Train to the stars”), fell into the utopian trap of believing that not only would things change in the future, but human nature would change. The characters of Star Trek are idealized people (not surprising given that they are staffing the flagship of their fleet), when the reality is that we flawed humans make mistakes, have always made mistakes, and will always make mistakes, some even with disastrous consequences. We have to consciously choose to do the right thing, every time we have a choice. That ability to make choices not only makes us human; it gives us reasons to get up in the morning.

In the episode “A Taste of Armageddon,” Captain Kirk has destroyed the computer that allows one planet to wage war with another without using actual weapons; their “war” is a computer game until Kirk puts a stop to it. When the planet’s ruler claims that, like humans, they are “a killer species” and thus unable to not wage war, Kirk answers:
All right — it's instinctive. But the instinct can be fought. We’re human beings, with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it! We can admit we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes. Knowing that you’re not going to kill … today. Call Vendekar [the other warring planet]; I think you’ll find them just as horrified, shocked, as appalled as you are — willing to do anything to avoid the alternative I’ve given you — peace or utter destruction. It’s up to you.
And on that note … peace. Live long and prosper.

Additional reading, for those who care: