Posted tagged ‘Wisconsin’

Only (Dis)Connect

June 9, 2011

News today of the essence of your modern GOP:  the Wisconsin legislature’s joint finance committee just passed a measure that would:

(A) force the University of Wisconsin to give back $39 million in federal funds to support the spread of high speed internet across the state…

(B) would essentially kill the nonprofit internet provider network that serves most of Wisconsin’s public schools and almost all of its libraries.  Oh, and

(C):

“Another provision in the plan would bar any University of Wisconsin campus from participating in advanced networks connecting research institutions worldwide, according to [state superintendent of public instruction] Tony Evers’s memo.”

Which is to say that the University of Wisconsin researchers would be materially hampered in conducting research in any field that involves significant amounts of data and the expertise of people more than a sneaker-net away.

The immediate stupidity of all this is, I think, obvious.

So for the rest of this, I’ll just dive into a couple of the broader implications of this latest folly.

First:  this is the Pawlenty doctrine in action.  No public action should be taken when a Google search reveals a private alternative, no matter how inadequate that substitute might be.

I’m not making that up.  This is how the those currently dominating Wisconsin — and GOP — politics framed this issue:

Republican lawmakers told the Wisconsin State Journal that the university should not be in the telecommunications business.

By this standard, of course, Wisconsin should simply shutter the University of Wisconsin, or rather, eliminate all state support for the institions; after all, the University of Phoenix provides a private sector alternative.  Hell — why should taxpayers subsidize drivers on I 94 heading to Madison from Milwaukee; why not convert the whole system to toll-supported private ownership? After all, private enterprise seeks nothing more than simple equity:

Telecommunications companies themselves cast the debate as a question of competition. Bill Esbeck, executive director of the Wisconsin State Telecommunications Association, was quoted on Channel3000 saying that WiscNet should  be allowed to run only without financial support from the University of Wisconsin.“WiscNet can continue to offer services, but in the future they are just going to do that on a more level playing field with the private-sector options that already exist,” Mr. Esbeck said.

Because, of course, everyone knows that the unfettered free market in US telecom services has left us with bleeding edge internet access. Or not.

This is what’s at stake in the political debate right now, so starkly expressed that even the MSM should be able to figure this one out.

The Republican party and its supporters reject the idea of the commonweal.  Outside of defense (and subsidies for the most comfortable) there is nothing a modern society could need — no infrastructure, no common good — that a government should provide.

Really:  education, transportation infrastructure, knowledge-making, the weather service, parks:  you name it, and there is a private alternative, and no matter whether it costs more or does less, or puts individuals or the nation at risk, private = better.

Sadly, though, that means  the entire GOP argument about government, debt, deficits and the economy turns on a false “fact.”

That’s the “fact” that the market for all kinds of goods and services is the ideal “free market” — the economists’ spherical cow — populated by that Randian hero, the perfectly rational economic actor.  Never mind that what Ec. 10 courses define as a free market exist for a very small number of transactions in the real world, nor that buckets of Nobels have been handed out lately to economists who realized that all kinds of factors — features of economic activity and intrinsic qualities of human nature — produce a world of folks engaged in exchange who do qualify as god-like, always-reasoning beings.

Which is to say that in the best reading, our Republican friends are simply mired in fantasy…

…or else, (and more likely IMHO, that many or perhaps most of the leadership is simply bought and paid for by the usual suspects.

In any event, the distinctino doesn’t really matter.  Whatever is going on inside the heads of Walker and the Fitzgeralds, or the Boehner’s and all the rest, the end result is the same:  current GOP thinking and action both transfers public goods to private hands to the net detriment of the citizenry as a whole…

…while directly threatening the future wealth and power of Wisconsin — in this case — and the United States as a whole.

Which is my second point.  Just to focus on the seemingly minor point of crimping the University of Wisconsin’s need for speed in its internet:  cutting off these funds action  it harder for any citizen of Wisconsin to learn, to research, to advance their ideas in schools or for a business idea or whatever. That’s what it means when you maim internet access at public libraries:  over the years a less-informed, less data-practiced citizenry is no asset to a state.  In time, Wisconsin will enjoy some difficult-to-quantify — but real — loss of good jobs, of new enterprises, probably of population.  It will be a poorer place.

And that effect will be magnified by the direct damage to basic and applied research done right now by limiting the return on Wisconsin’s enormously hard-won stock of human capital at the universities.

I hope to blog later today on a couple of stories of research and researchers that have made exceptional use of big data and the connections to be forged between different bodies of knowledge and people with diverse expertise. But for now, what matters is that such work is increasingly the cutting edge of a whole range of scientific and technological research initiatives.  And the one thing required for such work is access to a robust network. This is what the Wisconsin Republican-led legislature is targeting, with a determination that extends to turning down other people’s money.

The states really are the laboratories in which the future of our nation is being tried…so look to Wisconsin to see what could happen in a wholly GOP led United States.

There we see in microcosm how it is that empires die:   first they sell themselves off to the highest bidders. Then they crumble.

The Republican party cannot be trusted with even a whiff of power.  We have a lot to do over the next year and a half.

Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

Images:  Quentin Massys, An Allegory of Folly, early 16th century

 

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I’ll Take Godwin for $1,000: Wisconsin Rule of Law Edition*

March 29, 2011

Via TPM, we find that Wisconsin Judge Maryann Sumi (echoing a commenter here, what a great name for a judge) has again enjoined the state of Wisconsin from implementing the union busting law passed in dubious battle last month.

Based on the following, I’m guessing she’s seriously pissed (a legal term of art, you know):

Apparently that language was either misunderstood or ignored, but what I said was the further implementation of Act 10 was enjoined. That is what I now want to make crystal clear…

adding that

Now that I’ve made my earlier order as clear as it possibly can be, I must state that those who act in open and willful defiance of the court order place not only themselves at peril of sanctions, they also jeopardize the financial and the governmental stability of the state of Wisconsin.

Most sentient puddles would conclude that perhaps they should obey the court’s order until the substantive issues had been fully litigated.  Governor Walker and his henchmen do not share that conviction:

But minutes later, outside the court room, Assistant Attorney General Steven Means said the legislation “absolutely” is still in effect.

Please note that the speaker quoted there is an Asst. Attorney General. As in a lawyer.  As in an officer of the court.

So, I guess this is the time to go all Godwin.  It is important to remember that authoritarians almost always use the simulacrum of law to provide a tattered aura of legitimacy for their lawless exercise of power.  Hitler did certainly; his critical powers derived from  grants by the Reichstag.

Please note:  I am not saying Wisconsin is going the way of Berlin, c. 1933.  I am saying that the disdain for the ordinary structure of governance and law is how people behave when democracy is an accessory, and not essential to the entire idea of legitimate authority.  Courts are convenient to such folks when complaisant, and superfluous if not.

To be sure, Walker is a pissant way out of his depth, but as many others have noted, he’s important precisely because he is so overt and obvious in his anti-democratic hatred of that messy business of governing.  He lets us see plainly what his slicker and more sophisticated co-conspirators plan to do:  achieve ends that could not command popular support on their own by any means necessary.

For that, I suppose we should be grateful to the claque of clumsy thugs now in power in Wisconsin.  They are showing us what lurks below the hood of the Republican machine. And so I’ll say to all those right bloggers who maunder on about Obamacare or the Libyan attacks or birth certificates or whatever, if you wish to invoke the words “rule of law” you better have something to say here.

Gotta give them time, I guess, but my bet is on crickets.

Image:  Lucas Cranach Allegory of Justice, 1537

*By the way.  I do know I’ve been conspicuous (as in, unnoticed) by my absence lately.  There have been two reasons.  The first is a press of work so insane that I have ended each day by curling up with a scotch bottle for the five spare minutes alotted me between unconsciousness and panic.

The second is that I occasionally have these funks brought on by the sheer catastrophe of the world.  Sometimes, the accumulation of stupidity, misery, disaster and sheer capricious accident/horror leaves me gobsmacked for something to say.

It’s been that way lately, and I cannot say how much I admire, for example, the front pagers and commentariat here who sustain articulate smarts and anger despite the evident awfulness of existence.  But I’m better now (though still wrecked by an insatiable inbox), so expect more Hitler references and baroque painting on a semi-regular basis.

You have been warned.

Reality Has A Well-Known Liberal Bias, Wisconsin Edition

February 25, 2011

I know that probably everything below is obvious to this audience and/or already presented better by someone else here, but anyay:  following up John’s post on the deliberate deception behind “contribute more” demand of public service workers in Wisconsin, here’s some inconvenient data.

The shorter:  public service workers are not overpaid.  Not even a little bit.*

Let me turn it over to an MIT colleague (one vastly more accomplished than I), Thomas Kochan,

Kochan is a Wisconsin native and a University of Wisconsin graduate.  He’s recently been involved in some creative and effective labor negotiations in Massachusetts, notably the exceptionally tricky (and successful) effort to merge several state transportation agencies with a variety of unions and contracts into one big happy family.  In his day job, he studies industrial relations and labor policy at MIT in both the Engineering Systems Division and the Sloan School of Management (i.e. not habitats exactly  overpopulated with DFH’s).

Here’s what he had to say to his home state:

It has to start by getting the facts right. Wisconsin’s public service employees are not overpaid relative to their private sector counterparts. Rutgers University professor Jeffrey Keefe has done the analysis. (See his complete study on our Employment Policy Research Network website: www.employmentpolicy.org.) Controlling for education and other standard human capital variables he found that Wisconsin’s public sector workers earn 8.2 percent less than their private sector counterparts in wages and salaries. Taking fringe benefits into account shrinks the difference to 4.2 percent. Thus, public sector workers have lower wages and higher fringe benefits (yes, pensions and health care benefits are the two standouts). But overall, they are not overpaid compared to the private sector. No easy scapegoat here.

That is:  Wisconsin state workers are living exactly the way their fellow citizens  should want them to:  they are deferring present consumption for  income security in retirement.  This is what every financial counselor begs their clients to do.  It is what as a society we want to happen — better by far that our citizens anticipate and prepare for life after work than to hit the bricks with a grin and a sawbuck in their pockets.

And  Wisconsin civil service is exercising such prudence at a cost to the taxpayer lower than that of private sector workers.  You can argue whether or not that 4% figure is a sufficient price to pay for the (at least partly) notional job security public employees possess, but the basic point is clear:  Wisconsin state workers are hardly bilking the tax payer to enjoy lives of sloth and opulence.

And as for Governor Walker — this is just the (n)th over determination of the fact that his attack on public unions has nothing to do with underlying issues of state finance.

Rather, it is both malign — an attempt to complete the transfer of wealth from the middle to the affluent begun with the recent tax cuts he championed — and dumb, another way to undermine the state’s economy in the midst of recession, according to an analysis by the Institute for Wisconsin’s Future.

Is there a better way?

Kochan thinks so.

Given that the evidence seems to me to be overwhelming that the GOP both in Wisconsin and nationwide does not actually seek ways to govern well, such optimism could be dismissed as feckless idealism, yet one more out-of-touch professor’s dream of the way things ought to work in a world that we do not inhabit.

Except for this:  Kochan has just recently completed his participation in what any observer of Massachusetts politics would have told you is impossible:  to secure a policy and employment practice (and pay) bargain in the context of a merger of six state agencies and a bunch of unions and contracts.  (see the linked op-ed. for a bit more on this).

It can be done, in other words — though only if the parties recognize some common interest.  Here’s Kochan’s thumbnail sketch of what Wisconsin could do (were it only governed by grownups — which is my snark, not that of my far more genial and patient colleague):

1. Get the facts right and communicate them to the public. Create an expert panel to document and generate options for addressing your pension and health care issues. Have this panel report within three months.

2. Use these findings as inputs into your own “Grand Bargain” by bringing together state officials, representatives of all public sector unions, and neutral facilitators experienced in interest-based negotiations (you have some of the best in the country living in Wisconsin) and instruct them to negotiate solutions to the problems and to communicate their solutions to the public.

3. Use the lessons learned from this experience to carry out an evidence-based analysis of how to modernize the state’s public sector bargaining statute to fit the needs of today’s more transparent and financially strapped environment. That approach worked well before — a similar expert panel provided the ideas that were enacted into Wisconsin’s public sector statute in 1962. You can do it again, and if you do Wisconsin will again lead the nation in the practical, forward-looking problem solving that us ex-Wisconsinites brag about almost as much as we brag about the Packers.

I’m beginning to get the sense that some real buyer’s remorse is sinking in over in Packerland.

I certainly hope so.  For this isn’t just a battle about unions and worker’s rights and futures — though it certainly is all of that.  But layered over those battles is the big one:  does the idea of a social contract stand a chance in America anymore?  If not, then it’s decline and fall time, I’m fearing:  the cocktail that Gov. Walker is mixing for Wisconsin — more income inequality (and lives made harder to live) and less wealth overall in the long term — is the bitter cup the rest of us will taste soon enough.

*It’s certainly true you can get local exceptions like the notorious Vallejo public safety contracts implicated in that city’s bankruptcy in 2008.  But nationwide, the numbers are clear.  Just to anticipate the use of data points like that coming from this one badly run small city, the old trick of pulling out the extreme tail of a distribution and deeming it typical is effective in media terms; it’s a disgraceful and stupid way to make policy.

Images:  Rembrandt van Rijn, An Elderly Woman (in widow’s dress and black gloves), 1632-1635

William Hogarth, Marriage à la Mode (No. 2), c. 1743