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.)

June 30, 2008

Analysis of the Day

Forbes.com’s Rich Karlgaard (hey, I wonder if he’s related) on the real losers if Barack Obama gets elected president — to wit, most of the readers of Marketplace:
Here’s how Obama’s tax war will play out: The corporate executive, the $2 million-a-year law partner, the successful small business owner — along with hedge-fund billionaires — will consult lawyers. They concoct a strategy to strip their taxable income to the lowest legal levels. They will make up for lost compensation in other ways — perks, deferred income, whatever. The rich are not stupid. They did not get rich by being suckers.

The $300,000 W-2 earner, on the other hand, will be in a world of hurt. There will be no place to hide. …

Suppose Obama sets the top income tax rate at 40%, starting at $200,000. Suppose he also blows away the roof on FICA taxes, currently 7.65% capped at $97,500 (if my figures are right). Thus, the $300,000 W-2 earner who lives in California or New York will see his last earned dollar taxed in 55% range.

This will be before property and sales tax.

Today's $100,000 to $150,000 W-2 earners, who might be snickering at the fate of their $300,000 W-2 peers, will themselves be pushed into Obama’s $200,000 killing zone in a few years. That's what inflation will do.

Occasions of sin

Those of you who subscribe to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (which, like Marketplace, is published by Journal Communications) may have been following the saga of Milwaukee Ald. Michael McGee Jr., who now faces federal prison time after he was convicted of charges of bribery, extortion, attempted extortion and failure to file a financial form on a wire transfer of $15,000.


One of the crimes for which McGee was convicted was shaking down store owners in his district, soliciting payments so that the store owners could keep their liquor licenses. The Milwaukee Common Council allows an aldermanic veto over the issuing or renewal liquor licenses in aldermanic districts, known euphemistically as “aldermanic privilege.”


WTMJ radio‘s Charlie Sykes (WTMJ is also part of Journal Communications) came up with what he called “a radical idea“ that really isn’t: “Instead of banning aldermanic privilege being used in the issuing of liquor licenses, how about simply banning liquor licenses being granted by politicians?” In other words, why give aldermen the privilege of deciding who gets to have, and who cannot have, a liquor license?


It may be surprising in a state with such a vigorous brewing history, but, to quote a history of early liquor laws on the Wisconsin court system Web site, “Wisconsin was torn by battles over alcohol during its early years,” particularly when the state’s first settlers, New Englanders who were teetotalers, ran into the German immigrants who enjoyed beer even during the work day. (Those were the days.) Then came Prohibition, the most spectacularly stupid joint effort of Congress and state legislatures in our nation’s history.


Current liquor laws (including our three-tier distribution system) date back to the end of Prohibition in 1933. (Technically, Prohibition lasted less long in Wisconsin, because the law enforcing Prohibition didn’t pass until 1921, and state voters approved a 1926 referendum allowing beer manufacturing, and a 1929 referendum repealing the 1921 law.) For some reason, federal and state powers of the time couldn’t imagine going back to the old laws that existed before Prohibition, so they created multiple layers of laws protecting people who enjoy alcohol from themselves. State law, for instance, allows municipalities to issue one liquor license per 500 residents. (Ephraim is the only dry municipality in Wisconsin, by the way.)


Tavern owners may not have intended this to happen, but liquor licenses are a form of what economists call “rent-seeking” — using government to make money instead of through trade or production of wealth. In this case, the liquor license limit means that only a set number of businesses are allowed to make money through the sale of alcohol for on-premise consumption. Tavern owners compete only among themselves; if you want to get into the tavern business, and your municipality has issued as many liquor licenses as allowed by law, your choices are (1) buy an existing bar or (2) go elsewhere.


The issuing of liquor licenses is a political act. It may be a more obvious political act in Milwaukee, but the city council or village or town board approves liquor licenses. (Some communities have a board that reviews liquor license applications and gives recommendations of approval or disapproval, but the city council gets the last word.) As we’ve seen with McGee in Milwaukee, giving individuals veto power over liquor licenses is a temptation to corruption. I doubt “aldermanic privilege” is so blatant elsewhere, but I wonder how many city councils would go ahead and approve a liquor license in an area where that area’s alderman opposed the license, for whatever (legitimate or illegitimate) reason.


So what (other than "that's the way we've always done it") is the rationale for political bodies’ issuing liquor licenses? What, for that matter, is the rationale for the 500-population-per-liquor-license limit? Why should the issuing of liquor licenses not be an administrative act, like a driver’s license, available to whoever wants one, with the market deciding who succeeds and who fails? As with a driver’s license, someone who gets too many points (for giving underage drinkers alcohol, or getting too many police calls, etc.) could lose their liquor license. Moreover, as Sykes pointed out, taking the liquor license out of city council hands doesn’t mean that tavern locations couldn’t be controlled through zoning. (That's the counter to those who claim that unlimited liquor license availability would lead to a bar on every street corner; the other is that, as with everything else, the market, rather than artificial government control, would decide how many bars a municipality should have.)


McGee’s case is an example of motive (getting money from business owners) meeting opportunity (the availability of his vote or veto). As with campaign financing, the way to curb abuses by elected officials is through limiting the authority of our elected officials. Since limiting their authority is up to elected officials, converting liquor licensing from a political process into an administrative procedure isn’t likely to happen, because, as we all know, politicians are loath to give up their own power. Which doesn’t mean that discussing it is a radical idea.


June 27, 2008

This writer has watched too much TV

I am not a person who reflexively believes the way things used to be is better than the way things are today. For one thing, history, good or bad, does not go backwards. (Then again, a Barack Obama presidency may bring back the good old days of Jimmy Carter-level taxation.)

I am, for better or worse, a child of the TV generation. When our oldest son, Michael, started watching TV, it amused us greatly that he was watching the same PBS shows, “Sesame Street” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” that we watched growing up. (It wouldn’t surprise me, though I don’t remember it, if I watched episode number one of “Sesame Street,” portions of which, of course, can be viewed on YouTube.) I’m sure pediatricians or psychologists would be horrified to learn that, when I was seven years old, I was a religious watcher of “Hawaii Five-O,” on CBS Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m. and then, once the “Family Hour” was instituted, 8 p.m. (More on Five-O later.)


Cable TV has been a bonanza (not to be confused with “Bonanza”) of old TV over the years, having taken on what broadcast stations used to do during off-network hours. (Old reruns on broadcast TV have largely been replaced by original-run syndicated programming.) One highlight of going to my in-laws was the ability to watch weekend reruns of “Emergency!” and "The Green Hornet," which at the time were on channels we didn’t get where we lived. On a different weekend in southwest Wisconsin, another channel was showing a marathon of the old cartoon show “The Banana Splits,” with four people costumed as lifesize stuffed animals. (I apologize in advance for inserting the theme music, “Tra-la-la La-la-la-laaa tra-la-la la-la-la-laaaaaa,” into your brain for the next several days.) One of the voice talents on the show was the great ventriloquist Paul Winchell, who gained anonymous notice later as the voice of Tigger and Dow Bathroom Cleaner’s “scrubbing bubbles.” TNT used to have a morning segment called “Lunchbox TV,” featuring reruns of “Starsky and Hutch,” “CHiPs” and “Kung Fu.”


While my early watching was usually cartoon-related (the next time I write on old TV, I might focus on old locally based cartoon shows, such as "Circus 3" in Madison, and old locally based bad horror movie shows, such as WGBA-TV's "Chiller Theater," hosted by Ned the Dead), most of my TV watching has been in some variation of the action/adventure genre. Early on, I developed a two-pronged formula as to whether the series was worth my watching: (1) cool wheels, well before I could drive (including, in the case of “Star Trek,” space vehicles), and (2) cool theme music, before I’d developed appreciation for music. That might be the only explanation for why I watched “The A-Team,” although George Peppard did appear to be having the time of his life as the head of said A-Team.


For us old TV buffs, WBAY-TV’s RTN has been a godsend. RTN’s local daytime schedule includes one of the great dramas, “The Fugitive” (the finale of which was the highest rated TV show in history until someone shot J.R. Ewing), plus “The Streets of San Francisco,” “The Rockford Files” (a series I thought as a nine-year-old was edgy because the title character said “damn” and “hell” a lot), “Get Smart” (two words: Mel Brooks) and “Hogan’s Heroes” (ironically, many of the actors were survivors of or escapees from Nazi Germany), with “Ironside,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Magnum P.I,” and “Mission: Impossible” on weeknights, and “The Wild Wild West” (a science fiction Western, if that makes any sense) and “It Takes a Thief” on weekends.
(It is the opposite of ironic, whatever that is, that a WBAY digital channel is rebroadcasting shows that originally were on WBAY when it was a CBS affiliate, including “Get Smart” in its last season, “Hogan’s Heroes,” “Hawaii Five-O,” “Perry Mason,” “Magnum P.I.,” “Mission: Impossible” and “The Wild Wild West.”)

If I were programming “Steve TV,” using the aforementioned formula, the program schedule would include:

  • Hawaii Five-O” (9 p.m. weeknights), which has the best opening sequence, bar none, in the history of TV. It was “Miami Vice” 15 years before “Miami Vice,” crime in lush locales. The irony is that, if you ask any Hawaii tourism official of the 1970s, “Hawaii Five-O” did more than almost anything to attract tourism to Hawaii, even though the show depicted the state as riven with crime and even espionage. (One of the stars once pointed out that if the show had been realistic, Five-O would have solved every crime the state has ever had about halfway through the series.)
  • Magnum P.I.” (10 p.m. weeknights), which replaced “Hawaii Five-O” on the CBS schedule using the same Hawaii studios “Five-O” used. Star Tom Selleck was a star worth emulating in the 1980s, although no one at my part-time newspaper job was impressed when, one day, I drove to work in my mother’s red Chevy Camaro (the closest thing I could find to a Ferrari 308GTSi) wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Like “Hawaii Five-O,” the depiction of Hawaii, where everything grows all year and frost is the name of an old poet, makes those in the less-than-great white north pine for tropical climates.
  • Emergency!”, one of the many Jack Webb productions. This one was different from Webb’s “Dragnet” and “Adam-12” (which I religiously watched before “Hawaii Five-O”) in that it lasted an hour and wasn’t about Los Angeles police. It was about Los Angeles County firefighters and paramedics, complete with a cool rescue squad truck, and the paramedics got to do all kinds of dangerous things in the wonderful (though noticeably smoggy) southern California climate, supported by doctors at an L.A.-area hospital. (Why this series has not been remade in the post-9/11 era, where there is much more interest in emergency services as TV show themes, is beyond me.)
  • Starsky and Hutch,” a series about two hip plainclothes detectives who drove around in a vehicle guaranteed not to attract bad-guy attention, a red Ford Gran Torino with a huge white Nike-like swoosh on the side. (Similar to the “Magnum P.I.” Ferrari.) The first season, where the title characters were cops instead of social workers with badges as they became later in the series, featured theme music by Lalo Schifrin, who, though he didn’t compose many TV themes or movie scores, composed some great ones, including “Mission: Impossible,” “Mannix,” “Bullitt” and “Dirty Harry.”
I’m a fan of the more obscure series too. “It Takes a Thief” (Sundays at 11 p.m. on RTN) starred Robert Wagner as a rich jewel thief who steals things for the government. (And you thought stealing stuff for the government was limited to the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Revenue.) The classic theme music was from jazz composer Dave Grusin. I doubt anyone remembers another Jack Webb offering, “Chase,” which featured not just cool theme music but, in the same series, a fast car, a helicopter, a motorcycle and a police dog. (Nirvana for pre-teen boys.) A couple years later, NBC-TV replayed a one-season series, “Hawk,” about a half-American Indian New York City police detective, because of its star, who, 10 years after the series first aired on ABC, was the top-grossing box office star in the U.S. — Burt Reynolds. Even more obscure was a series I remember watching, though I remember almost nothing about it — “Bearcats,” about two guys “looking for adventure” around the turn-of-the-century West, traveling from place to place in an old Stutz Bearcat.

How do we know these and other TV series were superior to much of what’s on TV today? Because Hollywood keeps remaking TV of the ‘60s and ‘70s as movies, even series that were not perhaps crying out to be redone as movies, such as “The Incredible Hulk.” Since the 1980s, we have seen the movie returns of “The Untouchables,” “Mission: Impossible” (star/producer Tom Cruise is about to be bounced off the series due to his bizarre recent behavior, from what I read), “The Saint” (think of the original British TV series as Roger Moore’s audition to replace Sean Connery as James Bond), “The Avengers” (perhaps the worst remake, because while Uma Thurman was a fine replacement for Diana Rigg, Ralph Fiennes is no Patrick Macnee), “The Wild Wild West” (again victimized by bad casting, because Will Smith reminds no one of original star Robert Conrad), “I Spy,” “The Mod Squad,” “Charlie’s Angels,” "S.W.A.T.," “Starsky and Hutch,” and, this summer, “Get Smart,” an unappreciated classic in its time, and, based on reviews, unappreciated by critics now, though not by moviegoers. Dick Wolf, the creator of the “Law & Order” franchise, brought back “Dragnet” for two seasons as a one-hour drama, but although I enjoyed it (hearing the announcement “sentenced to death by lethal injection” at the end was a particular thrill), few other viewers apparently did.


Most of those remakes are not popular among the series’ original fans. In the case of “Starsky and Hutch,” which was on FX earlier this week, the producers made fun of the original series, and if you do that, you’re making fun of the original series’ fans, whether or not the original premise strained credulity. The movie casting of Ben Stiller as Starsky and Owen Wilson as Hutch was just ridiculous. (Having Hutch sing “Don’t Give Up on Us,” the only successful single of original costar David Soul, was a nice touch, though.) If you watch any remake directed by Brian De Palma (who redid “The Untouchables” and the first “Mission: Impossible”), you know that any similarity between the original and De Palma’s remake is limited to the title.


Most of the remakes miss the spirit of the originals, which were created in the old Television Code days, when writers and directors couldn’t go nearly as far as TV goes today and thus had to be more inventive. The quality of most series usually drops the longer the series goes on (particularly “Star Trek,” most of the third season of which could qualify as the worst program in the history of entertainment) when, as a Star Trek chronicler once put it, format becomes formula. At some point, the powers that be in TV entertainment decided that what viewers wanted was more reality — flawed heroes, storylines unresolved after just one episode, social commentary, and more downer episode endings — when, not to be Pollyanniaish about it, most viewers want escapism out of their entertainment. (This is probably not an original theory, but the more grim the daily news is, I’d suggest, the more escapism people want.) Call me a philistine, but the longer the classic series “M*A*S*H” went, the less interested I was in it as the series became more socially profound and less funny. (The fact the series lasted approximately four times as long as the actual Korean War didn’t help either.) A series that was supposed to emulate “Emergency!”, “Third Watch,” was unwatchable because the creators (who formerly worked on “ER”) decided instead to foist enough angst on each character to make them, or the viewer, look for their stash of cyanide tablets.

A lot of fans of old series (many of whom expand on the original through writing fan fiction) want to bring back their favorite series, only to be disappointed by the failure of the comeback (proposals to bring back “Hawaii Five-O” have languished for more than a decade) or to be disappointed in the comeback, since obviously different people (namely actors, writers and producers) are involved. History, good or bad, does not go backwards, even on TV.

June 26, 2008

The (third) party pooper

About this time in a race for high office, it is commonplace to rue the dearth of “quality” candidates, and to pine for an alternative for each party’s final candidates.

Some pine for an alternative to the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. We have, of course, a lot more than two parties; officially the Democratic and Republican parties are joined by the Wisconsin Green Party, the Libertarian Party and the Constitution Party.

Our Founding Fathers — and, for that matter, the founders of Wisconsin — did not intend for our country or our state to be a two-party system. (In fact, political parties aren’t mentioned at all in the U.S. Constitution.) The Democratic Party dates back to Thomas Jefferson, and it was in existence when Wisconsin joined the Union in 1848. The Republican Party was formed in Ripon six years later from, in part, the old Whig Party.

Third parties (the catchall name for parties not named Democratic or Republican) are prominent in our state’s political history, as entertainingly chronicled by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute's Christian Schneider. Everyone who graduated from a Wisconsin high school knows about Wisconsin's Progressive Party (as opposed to Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party), first a part of the Republican Party, then a separate party that essentially supplanted the Democratic Party for much of the first half of the 20th century, and then part of the Democratic Party. Milwaukee has had three Socialist Party mayors.

Schneider notes that George W. Bush could have won Wisconsin in both 2000 and 2004 given that his margin of defeat to Al Gore was much smaller in both elections than the total number of third-party presidential votes. (In 2000, Gore won by 5,708 votes, which is less than 5 percent of the total of votes cast for third-party or independent candidates, including Libertarian Harry Browne, Reform candidate Pat Buchanan, Natural Law Party candidate John Hagelin, Socialist Workers Party candidate James E. Harris, Workers World Party candidate Monica Moorehead, Ralph Nader, Constitution Party candidate Howard Phillips, and write-ins.) As for 2008, the New Republic’s Tucker Carlson wrote a frequently amusing account of following around Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, who served as a third-party candidate during the Republican primary.

(Trivia question: Who is Albert Schmedeman? Trivia answer: Between 1900 and 1958, he was the only Democratic governor of Wisconsin, serving one two-year term from 1933 to 1935. “Fighting Bob” La Follette’s sons, Robert Jr. and Phil, were Republican, respectively, U.S. senator and governor, switching to the Progressive Party in the 1934 election.)

Minnesota had its own experience with a third party governor when professional wrestler-turned-suburban mayor Jesse Ventura was elected governor in 1998, running on the Reform Party ticket, before affiliating himself with the Independence Party of Minnesota. (You may recall that the Reform Party was created by H. Ross Perot so he could run for president in 1992. Apparently, Ventura never received the Reform Party’s imprimatur, and after 2000, when archconservative Buchanan got the Reform Party’s presidential nomination, Ventura didn’t want it.)

Ventura was almost completely useless in office for the obvious reason that beleaguers all third-party candidates: He had no base of support in the Minnesota Legislature. Having to cobble together coalitions on every issue when there is no one else with your own party label requires political savvy at the bare minimum. This is the most convincing evidence of those who claim that third-party votes are wasted. To get elected is not enough, something that Ventura learned.

As has been pointed out before, third parties usually serve to hurt incumbents; Perot helped Bill Clinton get elected in 1992 (and then prevented Clinton from getting to 50 percent of the vote in 1996), Nader helped George W. Bush get elected in 2000, and Republicans are concerned that Libertarian Bob Barr will siphon off votes that otherwise would go to John McCain this fall. In Wisconsin, Libertarian Ed Thompson managed to pull enough votes away from Republican Gov. Scott McCallum to put Democrat Doyle in the Executive Residence. (Schneider isn’t sure of that conclusion, but I am; there isn’t another persuasive explanation as to how Doyle could be elected governor with just 45 percent of the vote, in the same way that Clinton was elected president with 43 percent of the vote.)

Third parties obviously have the right to exist, but, as Democrats will tell you, not only do they usually fail in their electoral goals, but their presence often backfires on their political goals. Only rabid left-wingers and Nader could claim that there were no significant differences between Gore and Bush in 2000, and the word "traitor" was one of the nicer words Democrats used to describe Nader after 2000. Few political observers think Nader, who is running this year, will have much effect on this year's race, which could be a sign that Barack Obama is sufficiently left-wing to appease most Democrats. More people think Barr, formerly a Republican congressman, will affect McCain's vote totals, given the (inaccurate) perception that McCain's not really a conservative.

In 2010, Wisconsin could have, besides Democratic and Republican candidates for governor, a Wisconsin Greens candidate to the left of the Democrat, a Constitution Party candidate to the right of the Republican, and a Libertarian who's not really a moderate but whose views could fall on the left (social issues) or right (economic issues) of the political spectrum. In an election for governor, the other three's presence wouldn't have much impact on the race, which makes you wonder what the point of a third-party candidacy is. Ed Thompson might have believed there was little difference between Doyle and McCallum, but no one who pays attention to politics argued that in 2002.

The point of a third-party candidacy, of course, is to assert that the big two parties are inadequate — too conservative or too liberal, or whatever it was Perot was arguing in the 1990s. (The point can also be to stick it to your former party, as U.S. Sen. James Jeffords of New Hampshire did by resigning from the GOP, or as U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman did by bolting the Democrats and then getting the ultimate revenge by getting reelected anyway. Jeffords, Lieberman and socialist "independent" Bernie Sanders of Vermont caucus with the Senate Democrats anyway.) Third-party activists seem to argue that it's too much work to make the Republican Party more conservative and less of a me-too party, as supporters of Barry Goldwater did to Ronald Reagan's benefit, or to make the Democratic Party more centrist and electable, as the Democratic Leadership Council did to Clinton's benefit.

I'll believe the Wisconsin Green, Libertarian or Constitution parties are viable political parties when one of their number has an office in the State Capitol.

June 25, 2008

Prestegard for governor!

The genesis of this piece comes from two places. The first was when I wrote to the administrator of a survey that asked the question of whom the survey-taker would prefer for president. The response I got was: “I’d rather it be you than who we have now!” Very kind.

The second was a comment in opposition to my point of view in “Patrolling the state budget,” in which the writer suggested, “I think we need to see your name on the ballot for Governor so that you can fix all the shortcomings you point out. Or, perhaps you are just satisfied to sit back and take shots at what other people are doing?” (As opposed to every other opinionmonger, apparently.)

There are several really good reasons why I won’t run for governor, or any other office, in my lifetime. First, running for office is contrary to the ethics code of Journal Communications, my employer, so I’d have to choose between this job and running for an office I would be far from certain of attaining. That’s particularly important given that I lack the means of independent wealth to have employment not be an issue. (Today’s campaign finance laws prevent the kind of approach Ronald Reagan used to become governor of California in 1966 and Eugene McCarthy used to run for president in 1968 — using a few large donors to bankroll your campaign.) I’ve already had one political campaign experience at well below the state level; I told people I wanted to finish either first or last, and, well, I got my wish, due probably in part to my refusal to sound like a politician. I didn’t mind losing, and I wouldn’t mind losing another race, although it would be tough to disappoint the (insert single-digit number here) people who would work for my election.

I’m reasonably certain that my political worldview isn’t in the mainstream of the Wisconsin Republican Party. Tommy Thompson wasn’t a fiscal conservative (then again, with a constantly growing economy, one can get away with not being a fiscal conservative), and there seem to be at least as many RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) as Republicans with actual GOP principles in the Legislature, and almost no libertarian-leaning Republicans in this state. (I could run for the nomination of the Republican Party and the Libertarian Party, I suppose.) I’m even more certain that my political worldview isn’t in the mainstream of Wisconsin political thought, which, as I’ve argued before, favors government and income-redistributing levels of taxation. I don’t have a problem telling those who reflect that mainstream that they’re wrong, but telling someone they’re wrong does not usually compel that person to vote for you.

I’m pretty certain I don’t want to inflict on my family — or myself, for that matter — the kind of silly personal scrutiny that accompanies candidates for statewide office. (I can just imagine some snarky Capital Times, Isthmus or Shepherd Express columnist making fun of my weight, my hair, my facial hair, my footwear, my inability to keep my lunch and my clothing separate, my complicated sentence structure, my personality quirks, etc.) Running for office would probably be a great exercise plan — a state senator once told me he lost 28 pounds campaigning door-to-door one summer — but the thought of being driven around the state by someone else, even in a Janesville-built E85-powered Chevrolet Suburban, for an entire spring, summer and fall, not to mention the next four years, is antithetical to my nature. (Driving myself around the state would be much more fun.) And the presence of this blog and my writings of the past 23 years means that I have a record of sorts, and I’m sure opponents and the media (assuming they wouldn’t be the same group) would relish the opportunity to use certain of my past writings — such as, say, “A modest tax proposal” — to demonstrate the rabid-eyed conscienceless Nazi wannabee they’d accuse me of being. (Then again, Thompson’s 1986 GOP rival described him as a “two-bit hack from Elroy,” which worked pretty well for Thompson.)

The purpose of this ego-enhancing mental exercise is to point out that there needs to be a sea change in the Wisconsin Republican Party, and a gubernatorial candidate is the obvious person to lead the change. For too long, the state GOP has seemed to represent the same things Democrats did, except of a slightly smaller scope with slightly lower levels of taxation. The failure of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, enactment of which should be policy plank number one for the fiscal conservative, is all the proof you need, particularly given that all that tax limits do is limit increases in taxation.

Moreover, this state is a fiscal disaster area, thanks to the contributions of both parties. If our elected officials want to stop Wisconsin from becoming, in the words of one state representative, “Alabama with high taxes,” the state needs to get on the road to eliminating, not obscuring with accounting tricks, the state’s structural and accrual budget deficits, and the later the fix occurs, the harder it will be. At the same time, to increase taxes to balance the budget is a nonstarter in this tax hell of ours.

So here’s plank number one: If I am elected governor (and the world doesn’t end immediately after that), I will pledge that, before reelection time, the state budget will be in complete balance — on a cash basis (which is all that state law requires) and accrual basis and structurally. A governor can do that since Wisconsin governors have the most broad veto power of any governor in the U.S.

But lest I be accused of being partisan or a superlegislator, I’d give the Democratic and Republican leaders of both houses of the Legislature this deal: In order to balance the budget by June 30 of the next gubernatorial election year, I would let those four decide how to do it, with the goal of eliminating all the budget deficits by the June 30 before election day, three fiscal years from inauguration day. The conditions: No tax increases, no general fee increases, no long-term debt increases where they’re clearly not appropriate (bonding for road projects is like buying a house with a mortgage, but state government borrows too much), and any deficit that is not cut will be cut by my veto pen. Since there hasn’t been an overridden gubernatorial veto in recent memory, I’m certain the veto-created budget cuts would stick.

This would require, based on the state’s current financial condition, a budget cut totaling about 16 percent of state general fund spending — probably two-thirds in the first budget cycle after the election, with the remaining third in the budget cycle before re-election. That will require, for instance, reducing federally mandated spending to the bare federally required minimum, reducing the number of state employees, eliminating some things that state government now does, and merging government operations where mergers will lead to savings. As I said before, the longer the state waits, the bigger the cuts will have to be.

Once the budget deficits are eliminated, then the real work can begin to make (here comes plank number two) the state’s economy as recession-proof as possible. (Wouldn’t it be interesting to grade governors based on growth in gross state product?) That includes a combination of personal income tax decreases (I’d prefer a single-rate system), eliminating the corporate income tax as it applies to business activity in Wisconsin, cutting the size and scope of state and local government (which would have to be part of the deficit elimination process anyway — I’d like to be known as someone who left office with a smaller statute book than when I took office — and is the best form of campaign finance reform) enforced by tax and spending limits applied to all levels of government, improving schools through expanding public and private school choice statewide, promoting Wisconsin-made products through promoting free trade, and improving the state’s energy infrastructure.

Other things are important too — creating a state rainy-day fund with actual money in it (the state’s fund is currently at $65 million, a bit less than the almost $1 billion states average), eliminating state agencies’ ability to create laws through regulation (creating law is the job of the Legislature, not unelected bureaucrats), and other enhancements of individual liberty (for instance, legalizing concealed-carry) and property rights. (I’d love to move the Upper Peninsula from Michigan into Wisconsin where it belongs, but that may be impractical.)

This thought exercise, or at least the sentiments in it, may strike readers as radical. But we in Wisconsin have done things the old bigger-government-is-better way for decades. And the result has been lower-than-average personal income and higher-than-average taxes. It's hard not to conclude that state government is broken, based on what you read here and elsewhere. I would say we are long overdue for a new approach — if not by me (and it won't be by me), than by someone else.

(P.S. For those horrified by this vision of what I would espouse if I were running for governor: Relax. I'm too busy to run.)

Just what people in disaster areas want to see

Notice the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center's severe weather forecasts for today, Thursday and Friday. You may have observed they have an annoying tendency to be accurate these days.

The line from the Milwaukee/Sullivan weather office’s Hazardous Weather Outlook gives one pause: “Spotter activation may be needed through Friday evening.”

June 24, 2008

Hysterical News Story of the Day

The headline on this Associated Press story gives it away: “Everything seemingly is spinning out of control.” Based on this story, one hopes suicide hotlines are well staffed.

This story is an example either of the lack of fortitude of American culture today, or the excessive self-centeredness of American culture today — the idea that we are unique not just in the world, but in world history, that no one has ever dealt with anything worse than what we deal with today — or probably both. Why, as the story notes, “a barrel-scraping 17 percent of people surveyed believe the country is moving in the right direction,” the least since the survey in question began … in 2003.

That’s right. No previous generation in American history has ever had to deal with high gas prices, or bad weather, or or an ugly-looking presidential race. Any presidential scholar knows that Barack Obama and John McCain and their supporters are pikers compared with those who worked in, say, the presidential campaigns of 1796 (“His Rotundity” John Adams, accused of wanting to marry off one of his sons to one of King George III’s daughters to create an American monarchy, vs. Thomas Jefferson, described as “a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father”), 1800 (by now, Adams had come to have “hideous hermaphroditical character,” and of Jefferson opponents wrote, “Great God of compassion and justice, shield my country from destruction”), 1828 (when one of the big issues was the wives of candidates Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams), 1860 (Abraham Lincoln, “horrid-looking wretch, sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper and the nightman,” vs. Stephen Douglas, said to be “about five feet nothing in height and about the same in diameter the other way,” with only the Union itself at stake), 1876 (to get Rutherford Hayes all the Electoral College votes they could, the GOP agreed to end Reconstruction, which led to all the evils of the Jim Crow South), 1884 (Grover Cleveland, who fathered a child while he was not married, vs. James Blaine, who concluded a letter admitting to shady railroad dealings with the advice “Burn this letter!”, which was not followed) and 1928 (Republicans claimed the existence of a secret tunnel from New York City to the Vatican, through which the pope would advise Democratic candidate Al Smith).

No previous generation in American history has ever had to deal with inflation, or unemployment, or a weak dollar. No previous generation in world history has ever had to deal with the results of bad weather. Woe is us. One wonders what would happen in this country if we ever actually really had bad times, of the scope of the Great Depression.

The ridiculousness of this state of mind boggles the mind. My grandmother, who died last year at age 98, lived through, in her adult lifetime, the Great Depression and World War II, in addition to divorcing one husband and burying two others, and experiencing the death of her first grandchild before he reached two years old. My parents started a family in the midst of the bad days of the Cold War; they have vivid memories of the Berlin Wall crisis and the Cuban missile crisis, when there was good reason for thinking our way of life — maybe their actual lives — had just days remaining.

I was a history minor in college. After that, one of my duties at various newspapers I worked at was compiling that staple of small-town newspapering, the old-time news column. This was more interesting than I thought it would be at the time, because newspapers of the past serve as primary history, providing a window into popular thought of the time. Newspapers of the late 1930s were pretty foreboding reading as they chronicled our descent into the second world war of that generation. Newspapers of the 1940s not only noted war dead and injured, but increasing rationing, with every kind of raw material being diverted to the war effort. Newspapers of the 1960s were equally foreboding reading as opinion writers wondered what was becoming of a country where assassinations and riots were becoming commonplace.

Amity Shlaes’ book on the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s failures in dealing with it, The Forgotten Man, points out that many Americans in the 1930s saw the Great Depression as the new normal, not an economic downturn (though steep) caused and worsened by bad policy. In January 1938, with, after nearly five years of the New Deal, unemployment at 17.4 percent and the Dow Jones Industrial Average at 121, Shlaes writes, "There was a new sense of permanence about the Depression. Being poor was no longer a passing event — it was beginning to seem like a way of life. Roosevelt's prophecies about America seemed to be coming true — the country might be like old Europe, frontierless, something out of Dickens."

The one rational note in the AP story, from American University historian Allan J. Lichtman, points out that “the U.S. has endured comparable periods and worse, including the economic stagflation (stagnant growth combined with inflation) and Iran hostage crisis of 1980; the dawn of the Cold War, the Korean War and the hysterical hunts for domestic Communists in the late 1940s and early 1950s; and the Depression of the 1930s.”


You’ll note that we did in fact survive two World Wars, the seemingly-endless Great Depression, the Cold War and Jimmy Carter’s presidency. (My wife and I were born when Lyndon Johnson was president, and LBJ is someone whose legacy has gone decidedly downhill as time passes.) I suspect our country will even survive a Barack Obama presidency, though I am not eager to experience one. Gasoline prices of $4 per gallon, slow economic growth and Brett Favre’s retirement are not, I believe, a sign of the end times.

(For your future reference, the
end times will arrive on either Sept. 29 or Nov. 11, 2011, or sometime in 2012, or perhaps 2014, or 2016, or 2017, or 2023, or October 2028, or 2034, or 2038, or 2060, or 2076. Then again, the end-of-the-world predictions of 1925, 1954, 1990, 1997, 2000, 2001 and 2006 did not come to pass, nor did any of these predictions. Perhaps you should read Matthew 24:36 and Matthew 24:42 for further guidance.)

The flip side of this is that anyone expecting things to radically improve as the result of the election of any particular candidate in November is in for a dramatic disappointment. Our lives are still mostly up to us, or at least up to us in the really important areas. The mass media helps to make things seem worse than they actually are due to its focus on the coasts, which are subject to more economic ups and downs than those of us in flyover country. (The East and Gulf coasts also are subject to hurricanes.)

Life is shorter than we all think it is, and to waste a moment thinking about twaddle like this AP story is to spend a moment you’ll never get back.

Update: For those who pay attention to end-of-the-world predictions, this site suggests you not be in “southwest California” July 8. What is their evidence? Why, the fact that Florida beat Ohio State for the NCAA Division I football and basketball national championships.

June 23, 2008

Analysis of the Day

Robert Novak in the Washington Post about what should be the Republican Party’s 2008 contract with America, the entitlement reform plan of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R–Janesville). The punch line:

Actually, to embrace Ryan's Roadmap requires more political insight than courage. … His constituents, who sent liberal Democrat Les Aspin to Congress for 22 years, are legendary “Reagan Democrats” who have soured on the GOP. Ryan believes they are far ahead of politicians in their alarm over entitlements. “Do we have the guts to act?” asks Ryan.

Ryan fears potential national disaster is ahead because we “will exceed the European extent of government and bring our economy to extinction.” He foresees the U.S. government share of the economy rising from 20 percent to a calamitous 40 percent by the time his three children (ages 3, 4 and 6) reach their 30s, requiring a doubled tax rate.

Temper Tantrum of the Month

Certainly, political party conventions are not the place to hear measured, thoughtful, two-way dialogue about the issues of the day.

But U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen (D–Appleton) apparently was channeling his inner two-year-old when he made this comment at the Democratic Party Convention in Stevens Point earlier this month: “They don’t belong in Washington, they don’t belong in our statehouses, they don’t belong in our local governments for centuries to come for what they’ve done to our country.” (Brought to you by The Appletonian.)

So are we to expect that Comrade Kagen will introduce a bill in the next Congress to arrest, try and imprison all Republicans? Or will he be satisfied with introducing a constitutional amendment to ban the Republican Party?

Kagen apparently is insufficiently intelligent or lacks enough sense to figure this out, so I’ll give him a piece of advice that costs much less than $3.899 per gallon: Democrats do not win elections in the Eighth Congressional District by getting out only the Democratic vote. For Kagen to win re-election, he will have to get Republican-leaning voters to vote for him. Kagen’s aforementioned burst of verbal diarrhea is not only unbecoming of a congressman, it is far beneath his constituents, at least half of whom are sympathetic toward the Republican Party.

June 20, 2008

Take me out to the ballgames

Any new parent learns quickly that your life doesn’t belong to you once you reach the delivery room. (Hospital delivery rooms probably should have a sign over the entrance: “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.”)

One proof of that comes when your children reach the age to have activities of their own. Their schedule becomes your schedule, in part because none of our kids are old enough to drive, and in part because, after all, one parental obligation is attending your children’s events and getting otherwise involved.

Here was the week of June 9 at the Prestegards, incorporating only the periods when I was at home:
  • Monday: Soccer for Dylan (age 5) and Michael (age 8) starting at 5:30.
  • Tuesday: Shockingly, nothing was scheduled, other than dinner, laundry and getting kids to bed.
  • Wednesday: Following his last (half) day of school, baseball for Michael at 6 p.m. (With my wife working evenings, I had to get all three kids to his game, a process similar to herding cats, pushing pasta forward, or trying to figure out Barack Obama’s position on trade.)
  • Thursday: There was supposed to be baseball practice for Michael, but that got flooded out. So instead, we cleaned up the water in our basement, not exactly an athletic activity, though it is hard work.
  • Friday: Baseball for Michael at 6 p.m.
  • Saturday: Baseball practice for Michael at 8 a.m., followed by four baseball games in Beaver Dam starting at 11:30 a.m.
  • Sunday: Go to church, mow the grass, cookout with friends and their two daughters.
As hectic as that schedule appears, it is likely to get worse in future years. Dylan’s only sport this summer is soccer; he becomes eligible for T-ball next year if he wants to play. At 2, Shaena isn’t eligible for any sport other than watching her brothers and distracting her parents from watching her brothers. Summer school, including a session on football, starts in Ripon next week, Michael had a basketball camp this week and will have tennis lessons starting next week, the boys will be attending church camp, Michael has Cub Scout camp in July, our church has visitors from Costa Rica coming in July, there will be visits to grandparents … you get the picture. (For all I know, your schedule may be more hectic than this.) Weeks like the previously listed week might be why my wife and I enjoy watching “Hawaii Five-O” at 9 p.m. — not for the great stories or acting, but because it is the first opportunity to sit down with the kids in bed.

Having never lived in other parts of the U.S., I don’t know if areas of longer good weather try to compress this much into this relatively short window of time, less than three months between the end of school and the beginning of the next school year. (Regarding global climate change, if it improves Wisconsin’s weather, I’m all for it.) The aforementioned schedules don’t include any of those “enrichment” activities parents you read about in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times push on their kids — tutoring, language courses, long-term sleepaway camps, etc. — with the goal of getting into one of the élite colleges. (Our children are responsible for their own lives once they leave home.) Kids need to have time for things like riding bikes, playing in the park, squirting each other with water, and the long-term project of driving their parents insane.

Baseball is the star attraction this summer. In addition to the youth league team Michael’s on, another team of eight-year-old players has been formed in Ripon with the goal of, ultimately, improving the skills of the Ripon players who will be taking the field starting in the spring of 2016. This team played four games in Beaver Dam last Saturday, leaving the four Prestegards (Dylan was with his grandparents), plus all the other Ripon players and their parents, grandparents and other fans covered with a mix of suntan lotion, bug spray, dust, sand and sweat, semi-dehydrated by the sun and wind.

(For those of you unfamiliar with high school sports, this concept originated in Wisconsin with the state’s winningest basketball coach, Jerry Petitgoue of Cuba City. When Petitgoue was named coach at Cuba City in 1972, he determined that, for his players to have the skills he wanted them to have by the time they played for him, he and others needed to teach his future varsity players those skills as early as possible — as in first grade. By the time his players were freshmen at CCHS, those who were part of the entire program learned together how to play, with more skills and techniques added each year. Given that Petitgoue has won more than 700 games and three state championships in 37 years at Cuba City, I’d say he has a pretty good system. Other coaches think so, because his “feeder system” is now emulated in practically every team sport across Wisconsin and beyond.)

The upshot of this is that Michael will play at least 15 baseball games this summer (he has to miss one for church camp), which is five fewer than high school players are allowed to play. The great thing is that this is entirely his idea — my policy is to never ask him if he wants to practice; he does it or asks me to play catch himself. I’ve seen enough “Little League parents” over the years to know that that is not the way to conduct yourself as a parent. The only thing I insist on is that when he does baseball things, he do them the right way — particularly with his debut as a pitcher this summer.

(I’m living proof that athletic talent skips generations. My father was a member of his high school’s state champion half-mile relay team. My brother was a varsity swimmer in high school, and managed to juggle summer swimming and baseball. Other than two years sitting on the bench of my high school’s boys volleyball team and about four weeks sitting on the bench of a freshman basketball team, my talents were in … the band. Given this, you’d think that my body parts would had less hard mileage than your typical high school athlete, but then again I had five years in the University of Wisconsin Marching Band, which is definitely hard mileage. Also, I’m now 43, and there are few 43-year-old professional athletes.)

Of course, when the child gets involved, the parent has to get involved too, beyond just showing up. My generation grew up with fathers as coaches and mothers as chauffeurs, since women’s athletics had not formally arrived on the scene. (The mother of one of Michael’s teammates recently commented about how her son resisted her batting advice, which seems shortsighted other than the usual kids-ignoring-their-parents dynamic.) This summer, notwithstanding my absence of athletic talent, I’ve assisted with both of Michael’s teams. As a result, every joint on my right arm now makes noise, and I was limping around for a while after doing something to my left hamstring.

Then again, as Vince Lombardi said, you’ve got to be able to play with the little hurts.

Up next: Cardinals “at” Pirates at Murray Park in Ripon Friday at 6:15 p.m.

June 19, 2008

How to beat Democrats in November

At last, Republicans may have figured out a way to beat Democrats in November:

Focus on gas prices. (Or, as Investors Business Daily calls it, make the initials GOP stand for "Get Our Petroleum.")

The $3.949 that as of today appears on gas station signs in the Fox Cities, more so than any economic slowdown, is what voters will focus on in November. For most consumers, I think the biggest issue they face is not economic uncertainty with their jobs, it is how much gas prices affecting their lives, in that not only are gas prices making driving more expensive, they are making most things we buy more expensive.

It is true, as noted here before, that two major contributors to high oil prices are increased worldwide demand and the weakened dollar. But our current policies of drilling nowhere that we’re not drilling now within our borders are making things worse.

President Bush Wednesday threw the issue back in the hands of the Democratic-controlled Congress by pushing Congress to approve drilling offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, moving on development of oil shale, and allowing easier expansion of existing oil refineries.

“I know the Democratic leaders have opposed some of these policies in the past,” said Bush, who added that if Congress heads to their July 4 recess without taking action, Congress will need to explain why “$4 a gallon gasoline is not enough incentive for them to act. And Americans will rightly ask how high gas prices have to rise before the Democratic-controlled Congress will do something about it.”

One of those Democrats controlling Congress is U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen, M.D. (D–Appleton), who is getting hammered, and rightly so, by his Republican opponent, John Gard, for Kagen’s unusual combination of futile gestures and let-them-eat-cake attitude.

Kagen has been a complete dunce on the subject of high gas prices, and in ways that his more-conservative-than-he-is constituents probably are having trouble understanding. Just this year, he has (1) commanded Bush to stop making Strategic Petroleum Reserve purchases, something that, now that SPR purchases have stopped, has had zero apparent effect on gas prices; (2) got the House of Representatives to sign on to his idea to solve the gas price problem by suing OPEC, a truly moronic proposal; and (3) brought in Rep. Collin Peterson (D–Minnesota), chair of the House Agriculture Committee, to deliver the Jimmy Carteresque news that “We needed these higher prices to force us to change our ways.”

(Embarrassingly for Kagen, however, Peterson then departed from the Kagen hymnal by saying, “I’m for drilling, I’m for nuclear, I’m for coal, whatever it takes to get us out of the Middle East.” Evidently no one briefed Peterson on Kagen’s insight that the U.S. must “have an energy policy other than drill-and-burn.”)

This is all ironic given that Democrats tried to defeat Bush on gas prices in 2004, saying that Bush’s tax cuts were being sucked up by gas prices that had jumped over $2 a gallon earlier that year, and promised to do something about gas prices during the 2006 campaign. Well, Democrats certainly done something — since Democrats took over control of Congress in January 2007, gas prices have now increased 75 percent, and gas price increases may not be finished.

This issue is a winner for Republicans who take advantage of this issue. The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes points out that only 20 percent of voters surveyed in a Gallup Poll blame the oil companies for high prices (the Democrats’ standard campaign line), and 57 percent of those surveyed now favor drilling where drilling is not permitted. (I wonder what the result of that specific poll question would be in Wisconsin, where new drilling is banned under state law.)

John McCain is mostly right about energy, advocating drilling offshore and expanding refineries and use of nuclear power. (The phrase “nuclear power” appears nowhere on Kagen’s campaign site, which is pretty remarkable given that a nuclear power plant sits in his congressional district.) Barack Obama, to no one’s surprise, is almost completely wrong, focusing on policies that are guaranteed to make energy even more expensive and even more scarce, apparently kowtowing to his environmental buddies like Al Gore, user of enough energy at his house to power 19 average homes.

McCain, Obama and Kagen are wrong in thinking most voters care about climate change in an era where $50 won’t fill up your gas tank. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll places the percentage of voters who see energy and gas prices as their top issue at 18 percent, with the environment and global warming at 4 percent. Moreover, alternative energy, such as solar and wind power, that every candidate seems to tout will have zero effect on oil prices seeing as how oil isn’t used for electricity generation and fuel oil is decreasingly used for heating. (Electricity is obviously used for charging batteries, but the technology isn’t there to make electric cars feasible for actual families, and don’t hold your breath that will be anytime soon. In fact, there is alarming evidence that the real energy crisis isn’t in oil, it’s in electricity.)

For those who are concerned with the environment, it should be noted that hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which roared through the Gulf of Mexico and its oil rigs, produced not one single oil spill. Environmental regulations on oil drilling are much more stringent in the U.S. than they are in the Middle East. (And, in fact, the environmentalist left now finds itself having to rethink its knee-jerk opposition to offshore drilling.)

U.S. News and World Report’s James Pethokoulis advocates a new seven-step approach for McCain that is likely to resonate with voters far more than Obama’s and Democrats’ blame-America-first view of energy. (You may not know, for instance, that in the 35 years since the first energy crisis, U.S. consumption of oil has increased just 15 percent.) It is either naïve or ignorant to believe that the U.S. will ever get to a point where energy consumption will decrease from one year to the next — unless the economy stops growing, that is, and suggesting that the economy needs to shrink isn’t likely to be a winning assertion for Democrats.

Bush’s proposals are predicted to take several years to affect gas prices. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case, though. If the world oil markets, speculators in which are partially blamed for high oil prices, get the signal that the U.S. is prepared to add supply on its own independent of OPEC, that could in fact deflate prices to some extent short-term.

Whether or not there is a short-term effect on gas prices, and whether or not energy independence is actually an achievable or desirable goal, if the Republicans actually want to win races this November, their winning issue is at the corner gas station.

June 18, 2008

A snapshot of the news media

On Monday I wrote about the death Friday of NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert.

Russert died Friday, which, in the news cycle world, allowed the electronic media to memorialize him, but not the print world, and its online versions. Some of their reactions came earlier this week, and they were not, to put it charitably, very kind, although they were more critical of the smotherage of Russert’s death than of Russert himself.

NBC and its half-sibling MSNBC did the most over the weekend, which isn’t surprising, given that Russert hosted “Meet the Press” on NBC and his own show on MSNBC. More surprising is the amount of coverage by Russert’s competitors, CBS (which opened its Friday news with his death), CNN, Fox and ABC. In an ordinary world, this would be considered respect for someone’s good work and good life — as the Los Angeles Times’ Tim Ruttan put it, for “the right man at the right time with the right technique.”

The opposing view started Monday with Orlando Sentinel writer Hal Boedecker, who began with a half-true statement that nonetheless comes across as nasty to Russert: “Here’s one thing you can say about journalists: Surely no one loves us as much as we love ourselves. That’s one lesson of the Tim Russert coverage.”

The half-true statement is “Surely no one loves as much as we love ourselves.” At the same time, though, no one hates the media as much as the media hates itself. (If the media could be condensed into a single person, psychotherapists could make a career of one patient.) Which is, I think, what some of the anti-Russert’s death coverage is about.

Boedecker tried to wear the sage-voice-of-the-newsroom cloak when he wrote, “People needed to be reminded about the Iowa floods — people are suffering on a grand scale there. But, of course, those people live far from the Washington Beltway, and so they won’t gain the vast air time accorded to journalists and politicians.”

Again, a half-true statement — heaven knows there is far too much non-news coverage of Washington and politics, something I think Russert grasped. (However, as demonstrated in the annual editions of the will-Brett-retire-or-not volumes, that phenomenon is not limited to politics, nor sports, if you recall the coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith, who was famous for, shall we say, her appearance.) A bigger problem with the news media is its mawkish voyeurism of someone else’s bad times, as if sticking a camera or microphone or notebook in the face of someone who is watching his accumulated life drown in his house will make everything better. How does watching TV coverage of the Iowa floods reduce the suffering of the people suffering through them?

Those who think coverage of Russert’s death was excessive should rewind to July 1999, when John F. Kennedy Jr. died in a plane crash. Cable news networks spent the entire day on the deathwatch of someone who was famous mainly because his father was famous and he was handsome with a glamorous wife.

Slate.com’s Jack Shafer writes for a publication that fancies itself as a cynical, ironic, smarter-than-thou observer of politics and life in general. (If Slate.com were a TV show, the lead character would be played by David Spade in his “Just Shoot Me” persona.) Shafer’s sense of self-importance oozes through in his negative assessment of the Russert death coverage:
I wonder whether the media grievers gave a moment of thought to how this Russert torrent they produced played with viewers and readers. Did the grievers really think Russert was so important, so vital to the nation’s course, and such an elevated human being that he deserved hour upon hour of tribute? I wonder whether any of the responsible journalists paused to think, Hey, this is really weird. We're using our unchecked editorial power to soak the nation with our tears about our friend, and that's unseemly! On days like this, I, too, hate the press.
Well, how did this play with viewers? The media is a bottom-line business, and the bottom line is ratings. Ratings for “Meet the Press” Sunday were almost 60 percent higher than for a typical Sunday, and second only to the “Meet the Press” that ran five days after Sept. 11, 2001. (And “Meet the Press” under Russert got the best ratings of any of the Sunday-morning political talk shows.)

This criticism strikes me as being unseemly given that it is about someone who hadn’t even had his funeral yet. Boedecker demonstrates that media people outside Washington can be every bit as snarky as those within the Beltway. And those who objected to the wall-to-wall coverage of Russert’s death, the solution, of course, was to change the channel.

I have discovered something odd about the media from being in the media for, now, 20 years: Celebrity. Just having your picture in a magazine on a regular basis, and making TV appearances from time to time, puts you on a first-name basis with people you don’t know, but who (think they) know you. I discovered this for the first time when I started appearing on the Wisconsin Public Television “WeekEnd” show an average of once a month starting in the late 1990s. People started coming up to me and saying they watched me on “WeekEnd,” a show that I thought was viewed by, perhaps, tens of people. Any of the news anchors on Green Bay TV have this happen much more than I have.

Russert, therefore, was “known” by many, many more people than he personally knew. (Perhaps his realization that this would be the case explains his initial reticence to host the show.) To regular viewers of “Meet the Press,” he was the constant through 17 years, three presidents, 9/11, the Iraq war and numerous traumatic or indecipherable events. He was the guy who asked questions they’d like to ask, who came across, despite his Democratic political background, as being the guy who would hammer Democrat or Republican for inconsistency or the inability to explain why the guest believed what the guest believed.

Russert also — and I think this is the big punch line of all this — had a life outside of journalism and outside of politics. I wrote Monday about his love of his father, his being married to the same woman for much longer than your typical big media type, and his love of his son. And if you’re not touched by this, I would check your heart to see if it’s still there.

One of the responses to Boedecker’s rant described the Russert death coverage as “almost as overdone as the Orlando Sentinel’s continuous lauding of Tim Tebow,” the Florida Gators’ Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. (Next time, Hal, look in the mirror before you write.) One of the responses to Shafer’s screed quoted Shafer: “‘He was thoughtful. He was kind. Of the highest integrity. Generous. Loyal. And so on. Just because it's true doesn't make it news.’ Uh, these days the death of one with those qualities should make news.”

The tributes to Russert, I would argue, were not just a tribute to the quality of his work, but a tribute to his ability to have a life that was worth living outside of his work. And the critics of said tributes might just be jealous that they haven’t done anything in their careers, or their lives, worthy of such retrospective praise.

June 17, 2008

This column has a seven-second delay

No, I did not wake up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. I am writing, however, about obscenity, specifically obscenity in the broadcast media.

Obscenity in the broadcast media has been a favorite subject of the Federal Communications Commission during George W. Bush’s stay in the White House. The FCC has spent much of the 2000s going after things that, according to the Federal Communications Act of 1934 (which stipulates regulating the airwaves to the standard of “the public interest, convenience and necessity”) and FCC policy, shouldn’t be on the air — to wit, Cher’s disagreeing with negative reviews of her recent work in 2002, the witty repartée between “The Simple Life” stars Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie in 2003, U2 lead singer Bono’s expression of happiness at receiving a Golden Globe award in 2003, Janet Jackson’s exposure during the Super Bowl in 2004, and race car driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s reference to barnyard products after a NASCAR race that same year.

The FCC’s Web site has a primer on how obscene, indecent or profane one can be on the public airwaves. Those terms were created by Congress but defined by the FCC, which also is responsible for enforcing the law and prosecuting violations of that law.

This first demonstrates the problem with the FCC’s being ruled by political appointees. The FCC is run by five presidentially appointed commissioners, three of whom presently are Republicans. The next president will get to appoint an FCC commissioner almost immediately, and that could swing the commission’s view on naughty words on the air within the next year. The FCC became interested in obscenity issues while Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s, became less interested when Bill Clinton was president in the 1990s, and then became interested again since Bush became president in 2001 — specifically, a $775,000 fine against Clear Channel over one of its employees, “Bubba the Love Sponge.”

A 2007 U.S. Court of Appeals decision invalidated the FCC’s tighter focus on obscenity, and of course the whole mess has ended up in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court. As the Christian Science Monitor described it, the case “addresses a concern among some observers about a coarsening of American culture via greater use of crude and offensive language on television and radio. At the same time, it raises fundamental questions about the nation’s commitment to the First Amendment principle of free speech.”

Now that I’m a parent of school-age children, I feel the need to make sure that what’s on the radio when they’re in the car isn’t something they shouldn’t be hearing at their age. (Because, of course, kids never hear anything they shouldn’t hear at school, right?) So between our house and school, there’s no “Bob and Tom,” or Rick and Len, because one can’t tell if Bob and Tom might play “Prisoner of Love,” something I really don’t want to have to explain to my kids. And I can’t say I particularly appreciate the TV networks’ playing shows that parents might think are inappropriate for their kids to watch, say, before 9 p.m. Central time. (Tonight, for instance, Fox has “Moment of Truth,” rated TV-14, CW has “Beauty and the Geek,” rated TV-14, and E! has two episodes of “The Girls Next Door” at 7 p.m. TBS has four episodes of “Family Guy,” whose TV-14 rating may be inconsistent with its title.)

It is not, however, Bob and Tom’s responsibility to censor their content for those of more delicate sensibilities than mine. (For that matter, it’s not the job of a radio station to censor the lyrics of Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” or the Ozark Mountain Daredevils’ “Jackie Blue” because those songs’ lyrics includes the words “making love.”) It’s my responsibility as a parent, given the ages of our children, to make the decision on whether my kids should listen to it, and if I think they shouldn’t, the radio moves on to a different station. (Also, CDs are helpful, as long as you don’t play The Who’s “Who Are You” or Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know.”) Clear Channel, who got the aforementioned $775,000 fine, created a company-wide Responsible Broadcasting Initiative while waiting for the FCC to decide on a definition of obscenity. Bubba the Love Sponge, the target of that fine, and the infamous Howard Stern now do their thing on satellite radio, which, as of now, is not regulated by the FCC.

Those who think the media cause our (by their definition) coarse culture are missing the point: The media more reflects the culture than creates the culture. Our culture has increasingly coarsened since the do-your-own-thing 1960s, and if anything, the media was behind the curve of the culture promoted by the Baby Boomers. One does not improve the culture through laws, regulations and mandates; the culture improves (however you define that) through individual acts, such as not watching dreck like, well, name your favorite "reality" show. The media is about money, first and foremost, and if people didn't watch "American Idol," "Survivor," "The Simple Life" or whatever other barnyard product, the media wouldn't produce those shows.

This demonstrates why I feel more libertarian than conservative most days. I don’t appreciate the government telling me what I can and cannot watch because what I might want to watch might offend others. And, as usually happens in situations like this, ridiculous lengths usually ensue, such as TV stations putting sporting events on seven-second delays just in case those great sideline microphones might catch a player or coach saying something others might not want to hear. (For instance, NFL referee Gerry Austin was caught during Super Bowl XXX telling someone — I thought it was another official, although it could have been a team official on the sidelines — to, “Goddammit, shut up!”)

All of this is likely to become an issue again, but in a different direction, should Barack Obama be elected president. Liberals with a weak commitment to the First Amendment have been itching to bring back the “Fairness Doctrine,” which held that, because the radio and TV airwaves are publicly owned, broadcasters were obligated to cover controversial issues and carry opposing viewpoints of those issues. The Reagan Administration created a “Fairness Report” in 1985 arguing that the Fairness Doctrine was a violation of the First Amendment and contrary to the public interest. Congress passed a law writing the Fairness Doctrine (which was an FCC policy, not law) into the federal statute books, but Reagan vetoed it, and it’s not been enforced since a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1989.

It’s pretty transparent as to why liberals want to revive the “Fairness Doctrine.” Conservative or libertarian talk radio, such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Journal Communications’ Charlie Sykes, is a financial and ratings success, which is why there is so much conservative talk radio. In contrast, liberal talk has been a financial and ratings flop on commercial radio, as demonstrated by the great financial difficulties of Air America and the death of the liberal talk shows of Mario Cuomo and Jim Hightower.

The “Fairness Doctrine” may have been a defensible idea in the infancy of television — in the days when, in the Green Bay TV market, TV viewers got only channels 2, 5, 11 and 38 — but as time has gone on, the concept of a “Fairness Doctrine” has become increasingly outmoded. The Reagan Administration’s argument in the 1980s was that, with the growth of cable TV, one could not say that the public airwaves were really scarce anymore. If that was the case in the 1980s, it is overwhelmingly the case today, with broadcast content coming from over-the-air radio, over-the-air TV, satellite radio, cable TV and the Internet.

One wonders why broadcast TV and radio should now be held to a different standard than satellite radio or cable — or, for that matter, newspapers, which have never been held to a fairness standard because that would be clearly contrary to the First Amendment. In the e-age, it’s about content, and if newspapers or magazines are allowed to print whatever they wish (subject to libel laws, which are enforced in civil courts), why should broadcast outlets not be able to say whatever they wish? How are restrictions or requirements about content not antithetical to the First Amendment?

In the portions of communications where there is scarcity (that is, the broadcast spectrum), it is reasonable to expect the FCC to regulate physical issues, such as making sure that one radio station doesn’t crank up its signal to blot out every other station in the area. Content should not be within the purview of the FCC, and it’s inconsistent to say that, for instance, you like the opportunity to listen to conservative talk radio, but you don’t like the opportunity to listen to Bob and Tom. Content is for the media outlet to create, and content is for the listener or viewer to decide to keep listening or watching or not.

June 16, 2008

How to think about unexpected death

One of the tributes to NBC-TV’s Tim Russert in today’s USA Today was written by Michael Gartner, the former president of NBC News, who hired Russert as NBC’s Washington bureau chief, and then as host of “Meet the Press”:

A few years ago, I called him and asked if he’d make a big speech in Des Moines, where I live. It was part of a lecture series at Drake University. I knew he was in great demand, I said, but I asked if he’d do it as a favor for me. “They’ll pay you $30,000,” I added. He didn’t think twice. “I’ll do it under one condition,” he said. “The $30,000 goes to that program for kids that is Christopher’s memorial.”

Christopher was one of my sons, and he idolized Tim. Christopher died in 1994, at age 17, from an initial attack of juvenile diabetes. I had left NBC by then, but within hours of Christopher’s death the phone rang at home in Des Moines. It was Russert. I was in tears, and he seemed to be, too. He expressed his deep sorrow, and then he said:

“Look, if God had come to you 17 years ago and said, ‘I’ll make you a bargain. I’ll give you a beautiful, wonderful, happy and healthy kid for 17 years, and then I’ll take him away, you would have made that deal in a second.”

He was right, of course, that was the deal. I just didn’t know it.

As it turns out, there was a similar deal — the terms were 58 years — with Tim.

We just didn’t know it.


About that recession …

Never mind.