Tag Archives: Wisconsin

The Danger Zone

Democratic systems vary, but they share certain foundational assumptions. The most important of those is the starting point: We The People are the “deciders.”  Ultimate authority rests with the voters.

In democratic theory, candidates contend for support during election campaigns, voters cast their ballots, and the candidate who garners the most votes wins. (At least if there’s no Electoral College involved).

In order for this process to work, both winners and losers must respect the will of the people.

Losers may disagree with positions endorsed by the winning candidates, and as the “loyal opposition,” they may work in accordance with the rules to defeat the winners’ agenda, but democratic norms require that they acquiesce to the people’s choice.

When that doesn’t happen–when the losers disregard the rules and norms in order to frustrate the choices made by the electorate–governance can no longer be considered either legitimate or democratic.  Political actors who accept authority when they win, but defy the settled norms of democratic behavior when they lose , undermine the public trust and make a mockery of the rule of law.

The visceral reaction to Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented theft of a Supreme Court seat reflected a widespread recognition that this was no ordinary political maneuver–it was the arrogant demonstration of a cheat that he would abide by the rules only when they favored him.

When Republicans in the North Carolina legislature stripped the incoming Democratic governor of powers the office had previously exercised–because they could–it was their middle-finger-to-democracy gesture.

That “in your face” rejection of democratic norms is spreading.

In a newsletter for the Boston Globe, Michael Cohen recently pointed out, “in a normal representative democracy, if you run for office and then lose you let the other party run things for a while. That doesn’t mean a political party can’t oppose those efforts, but it does mean that you have to respect the voters’ decisions.”

That isn’t what is happening in Wisconsin or Michigan.

In these two states, Republican gubernatorial candidates were defeated in this year’s midterm elections. Democrats also won both attorney general races. And now Republicans are refusing to accept the results.

Instead they are trying to use lame-duck sessions – before the Democrats are sworn into office – to weaken the power of the incoming Democrats and put in place policy changes that will benefit Republicans.

Let’s start with Wisconsin, where soon-to-be former governor Scott Walker and his Republican allies in the state legislature have spent the past eight years making a mockery of democracy in the state.  Upon taking office they rammed through a highly controversial measure that stripped collective bargaining rights from the state’s public sector unions. Then they re-wrote legislative maps to give themselves out-sized control of the state government. In the 2018 election, Democrats won 53 percent of the vote, compared to 45 percent for Republicans. Yet, because of gerrymandering, that translates into a 64-36 advantage for Republicans in the state assembly.

But apparently that’s not enough for Republicans. Now they are enacting legislation that would kneecap Democrats once they take office….

For Governor-elect Evers, Republicans would not only force him to enact work requirements for Medicaid, but would also require him to get the legislature’s permission before submitting any request to the federal government to change how federal programs are administered. In effect, Republicans would give themselves a veto over much of what Evers would try to accomplish as governor. Walker has stated publicly that he will sign the bills.

….

Republicans aren’t even being shy about their agenda. In Wisconsin, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scot Fitzgerald defended his party’s actions by saying, “I’m concerned. I think that Governor-elect Evers is going to bring a liberal agenda to Wisconsin.”

He’s right. But of course Evers’s agenda is what Wisconsin voters chose.  To put roadblocks in front of it is to, in effect, say to voters that their choices don’t matter. It’s hard to imagine a statement more contemptible in a democracy than a political leader telling a state’s voters, “only the views of the people who voted for me matter.” But that’s precisely what Fitzgerald and his Republican colleagues are doing.

Changing the rules after they’ve lost the game. Undoing the results of a democratic election because they lost.

This behavior is nothing less than an attack on America and its values.

Easy To Destroy, How Long To Repair?

A friend who lives in Wisconsin occasionally sends me items from newspapers in that state that he thinks will interest me. Most have obvious implications for other states–and since Scott Walker became Governor, those implications have tended to range from worrisome to terrifying.

The most recent news from what I’ve come to call “the frontier of shooting yourself in the foot” was a report about the University of Wisconsin’s loss of thousands of engineering students.

The story began by explaining why engineering is “more than classrooms and theory: It’s a hands-on discipline for turning ideas into prototypes and products that help people.” The university should have a number of advantages when it comes to attracting engineering students–most recently, it has used private grant funds to create an innovative “maker space” appealing to both in-state and out-of-state applicants.

Accommodating those applicants is a different issue.

There are roughly 4,500 undergraduate students in UW-Madison’s engineering sequence today. About 6,600 applied last year, including many qualified applicants from outside Wisconsin who could add to the state’s talent base.

The main barrier to taking more is a lack of faculty to educate more students without diminishing the quality of the experience for all. Private gifts help, but the core funding for faculty hires comes from state government support and student tuition.

As the article delicately puts it, those funding sources “haven’t grown.” That’s a rather massive understatement: the Walker Administration’s cuts to funding for the university can only be characterized as savage. In the wake of those cuts, and other measures inimical to higher education, the once-storied University of Wisconsin has seen faculty depart and rankings slip.

Walker not only engineered (no pun intended) an enormous $250 million cut to the University of Wisconsin’s budget, just when other state universities were finally emerging from the recession. He also proposed to get rid of academic tenure.

As one observer wrote at the time,

With his draconian budget cuts and his assault on the tenure system, Walker is sending a message that professors at Wisconsin should sit down and shut up. Some of them–those most able to move, which likely includes some of their best talent–might now be looking for greener pastures elsewhere.

An article in Slate a year later considered the consequences of these changes in funding and tenure protections. Several highly-regarded professors had left; others at risk of being “poached” were retained (at least temporarily) at a cost of some $9 million dollars in pay raises and research support. As the Slate article explained:

Academics, whether they have it or not, want some form of tenure to exist to protect the integrity of the knowledge that is produced, preserved, and disseminated.

Wisconsin professors simply do not want research limited by the whims of 18 people appointed by a governor with an openly stated anti-education agenda. And you shouldn’t, either. Think university research doesn’t affect you? You’re wrong. Hundreds of technological and social advances that you depend upon have been made thanks to the research of some brainiac at some university somewhere: what kind of cities to plan; how (and where) to alleviate poverty and hunger; what kind of diseases to treat; what kind of drugs to invent (or make obsolete); what kind of bridges and roads to build (and where). If professors are not protected from disagreeing with the agenda of their “bosses”—whether that be Dow Chemical, Gov. Walker, or President Trump—the consequences will go far beyond one person’s paycheck.

What is happening in Wisconsin is tragic: Scott’s vendetta against intellectual “elitists” is affecting everything from the quality of the state’s workforce  to its reputation and its ability to attract new employers. Last year, the state ranked 33d in job creation–not dead last (Kansas has that distinction) but nothing to brag about.

What is happening in Wisconsin is also where Donald Trump and today’s rabidly anti-intellectual GOP want to take the rest of us. And that is truly terrifying. It’s relatively easy to destroy an asset; rebuilding it, and restoring a sullied reputation is a far dicier proposition.

 

 

 

I Don’t Know What This Is, But It Sure Isn’t Capitalism…

A number of media outlets have recently reported that Foxcomm, a company usually referred to as a “Taiwanese giant,” will open a plant in Scott Walker’s Wisconsin. As the Guardian prefaced its article,

The announcement by the Taiwanese giant Foxconn that it will build an LCD-manufacturing facility in Wisconsin worth an estimated $10bn was met with considerable fanfare.

But the state has a troubled history in matters of economic development, and the company, a supplier to Apple, Google, Amazon and other tech giants, has a lackluster record when it comes to fulfilling its promises. The news should raise red flags.

In a way, it is a transaction that barely merits publicity; for as long as I can remember, states and municipalities have been trying to entice “job creators” to their areas by offering bigger and better incentives: tax abatements, infrastructure improvements, job training “grants”–all manner of goodies funded out of our tax dollars.

The deal, backers say, will create 13,000 jobs in six years – in return for a reported $3bn in state subsidies. Only 3,000 of those jobs will come immediately. Furthermore, the Washington Post has reported that Foxconn has a track record of breaking such job-creation promises. In 2013, the company announced plans to hire 500 people and invest $30m in Pennsylvania. The plan fizzled out.

Walker and Paul Ryan aren’t the only politicians taking credit for this deal; the White House immediately weighed in, with President Trump reportedly saying, with his characteristic modesty and eloquence: “If I didn’t get elected, [Foxconn] definitely would not be spending $10bn.”

Jennifer Shilling, a Democratic Wisconsin state senator, is one of those who have criticised the deal, noting that the company “has a concerning track record of big announcements with little follow through,” and questioning the legislative appetite for a $1bn-to-$3bn corporate welfare package. Of course, Wisconsin’s legislature is controlled by Republicans who won’t need bipartisan support to pass the enormous subsidies.

The Guardian noted the patchy performance of Foxcomm elsewhere–Foxconn investments in Indonesia, India, Vietnam and Brazil failed to live up to the hype, despite written agreements–and also referred to the less-than-impressive performance of Wisconsin’s previous economic development efforts.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) is a participant in the Foxconn deal. During Walker’s brief presidential run, it was dogged by questions over failed loans. Businessman and Republican donor Ron Van Den Heuvel was indicted for fraudulently borrowing $700,000 from a local bank. Months after WEDC was created in 2011 the agency, then led by Walker, lent him more than $1.2m, without performing a background check.

Likewise, the state’s manufacturing and agriculture tax credit has been widely criticized as a simple refund for millionaires, according to the Wisconsin Budget Project (WBP) nearly “wiping out income taxes for manufacturers and agricultural producers”.

What the Guardian and other outlets failed to address was the absolute absurdity of these sorts of “job creation” efforts. The use of tax revenues to lure large, profitable corporations to one’s city or state may or may not be immoral (I vote for immoral), but the practice is hardly consistent with genuine capitalism and free enterprise, which require that entrepreneurial activities take place on a level playing field.

Criticisms of these sorts of economic development agreements tend to focus on whether the state or city has made a “good deal.” (Evidently, Wisconsin has not.) But that is almost beside the point. The local factory or other home-grown enterprise that prospers enough to hire new workers doesn’t receive these perks; meanwhile, new, sometimes competitive enterprises are being lured to their state with their tax dollars.

This is corporatism, not capitalism. Paul Ryan and Scott Walker are said to be fans of Ayn Rand, but I’ve read Atlas Shrugged. Rand was a capitalism fundamentalist, and would have been disgusted by this deal; she would have labeled the beneficiaries “looters.”

And she’d have been right about that.

 

 

 

Oh Wisconsin….

And the hits keep coming…

It’s bad enough that every day brings a new outrage from those a reader of this blog aptly dubbed “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” –Trump, Pence, McConnell and Ryan. What is even more depressing at a time when our hopes for sanity lie with local resistance to the anti-intellectualism, self-dealing and demagoguery in Washington is news of similarly destructive behavior by state-level fools and toadies.

Remember Wisconsin’s Scott Walker? A perfect contemporary Republican–a corrupt lackey of big money, antagonistic to education, dismissive of science? Of course you do.

When I read a friend’s post to the effect that Wisconsin’s DNR webpage had been scrubbed clean of all uses of the word “climate”–and altered to imply a lack of scientific consensus about anthropogenic global warming–I checked with Snopes.

Turned out to be true.

In a 26 December 2016 op-ed published by the digital newspaper Urban Milwaukee, environmental writer James Rowen reported that a section of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) web site, originally titled “Climate Change and Wisconsin’s Great Lake,” had been substantially altered:

Gone are references to known “human activities” contributing to a warming planet, warming’s contributions to changes in rainfall and snowfall patterns, extreme weather events, drought, species and economic losses are among other truths whitewashed off this official, taxpayer-financed website.

Snopes reproduced the former text, which had accurately reported the relevant science, and that which replaced it; the new language says that reasons for changing conditions “are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”

Responding to our request for comment, Wisconsin DNR Communications Director James F Dick stated that their office’s official position is that the science is not settled and that the page was updated to reflect this view.

Of course, the science is settled. As Snopes concludes,

The overwhelming scientific consensus from the climatological community is that the climate is indeed warming and that human activity is contributing to that process.

Here’s what mystifies me: if the settled science is right, and we do not act, we will face massive planetary devastation. If the settled science is wrong, and we do act, the worst thing that will happen is we’ll get cleaner air and water, and cheaper and more renewable energy.

This doesn’t seem like a difficult choice.

Oh yes– fossil fuel companies will make less money. But I’m sure that has nothing to do with climate change denial….

When the history of this era is written–assuming there are survivors left to write that history–it will undoubtedly be called “the age of insanity.”

When Evidence Doesn’t Matter

A friend who lives in Wisconsin recently shared an article from the Madison newspaper, detailing the declining rank of the University of Wisconsin in the wake of Scott Walker’s savage cuts to that institution.

Now-retired UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley would often say that it took well over 100 years for the people of Wisconsin to build a world-class university, but it won’t take but a few years to tear it all down.

We saw the first signs of how true Wiley’s observation is when late last week the National Science Foundation reported that the UW-Madison has fallen from the ranks of the top five research universities in the country, a position it had maintained for the past 40 years.

The news underscored how the university is being impacted by the draconian policies of the current crop of Republicans who are running state government. .The governor and several key legislators have consistently insisted that UW faculty are overpaid and coddled. Walker chided that budget cuts could be weathered if only professors taught one more course. Other legislators would go so far as threatening more budget cuts when they would hear of a class they didn’t like.

Not surprisingly, a number of professors have left for greener pastures, and have taken their research grants with them, exacerbating the University’s fiscal woes.

As the article points out, Walker’s dogged insistence that cutting taxes and spending are the cure for anything that ails state government isn’t just affecting the university.

Wisconsin’s once-proud K-12 public education system is being forced to go begging to property taxpayers with referendums just to keep school districts’ heads above water. The condition of our lakes and streams and even our groundwater has been deteriorating each year and the DNR, charged with protecting it all, is being starved to death under a secretary who won’t fight for it. Our job creation is far below the national average and Wisconsin workers, many no longer protected by unions, earn less.

Wisconsin’s experience isn’t unique. Kansas’ economy continues to decline under the similar ideology and even more draconian policies of Sam Brownback. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, has presided over the abysmal performance of Detroit’s schools, thanks to a radical privatization philosophy she and Trump want to employ nationally. Paul Ryan and other House Republicans have their guns trained on Medicare, ignoring the fact that the program is both popular and cost-effective.

In each of these cases–and many others I could cite–elected officials are pursuing their ideological commitments with a decidedly religious fervor. Reality be damned.

When evidence doesn’t matter and experience doesn’t inform, Dark Ages aren’t far off.