August 25, 2006
Another missing link
By Bill Kraus
I had a conversation recently with a former regent and lifelong supporter of the University of Wisconsin. He was complaining about his representative who was a consistent critic of the university, its people, its policies, and by inference the regents who oversee its management.
These criticisms, he said, consisted mostly of mean-spirited destructive quibbles.
“What can I do about him?” he asked.
“Run someone against him,” I replied.
“I don’t know how to do that,” he said.
And therein lies the problem. The civic leaders who used to be political activists and leaders as well are gone. Their logical successors have outsourced politics. This means they are not in a position to direct or influence their elected representatives. That’s why my friend and the universities he loves are 500-pound political weaklings. They can be brushed off, because they do not threaten the invincible incumbents who now occupy most of the seats in the state Legislature, thanks to their legislative leader sponsors.
What those legislative leaders want is majorities and sure votes on the items on their agendas.
And what the legislators, who are beholden to those leaders, must do to continue to be in office is deliver what the leaders want. What their constituents want is in second place, several games out of first.
This can change. It isn’t easy to find and fund a candidate and orchestrate a political campaign, but it isn’t rocket science either.
And anyone angry enough to do that will be astonished at how quickly even the safest candidate in the safest district will react to a challenge. Any challenge.
I know. The filing date has passed. A lot of constituent-deaf candidates are unopposed. Write-ins are hopeless. Are you sure? It’s not too late. Even if you lose, you win. At the very least you get the incumbent’s attention. And you also get a lesson in how to play politics. The only game for adults.
August 19, 2006
An honorable profession
By Bill Kraus
Lobbyists, as a matter of fact and history, are an important part of legislating and governing.
What lobbyists bring to the process are information, expertise, and multiple points of view.
Their contributions are especially important on matters which are important but not publicly, universally prominent, below the radar as it were.
It should be no surprise that lobbyists are involved in the election process as well. They know who is likely to share their views (actually their clients’ views) on the matters that will come before them and which are important to their clients’ perceived interests.
As the election system became more about money and marketing and the candidates’ need for money escalated, they naturally turned to the people with the big bucks: the lobbyists’ clients.
Jack Abramoff is certainly no paragon of rectitude, but he diverted from the business of providing information to influence legislation to providing money to influence legislators.
What surprises me is these practitioners of a once honorable trade aren’t reacting to the fact that they have become bagmen in a corrupt system.
August 12, 2006
By Bill Kraus
The first stage in the treatment is to give complete information on the taxation side. To say that Wisconsin ranks 1st, 5th, 8th whatever in tax collections can be both true and misleading. True if the comparisons with other states is tax-to-tax. Misleading if the comparison doesn’t include fees, which are a more palatable (usually) form of taxation.
When you include the $900 or so annual license plate fees charged in an unnamed southwestern state, you find that the money going to the state from its citizens matches up pretty well with what we pay in Wisconsin for whatever services the state provides.
Due to considerable nagging and, perhaps, an attack of conscience, the most recent report from my friends at the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance do this addition before ranking the public sector bite.
What they are now reporting is the percentage of income that states assess their citizens for the public sector services that they provide.
That was easy.
What’s harder is to assess the quality or value of those services. A Wisconsinite I know who spent part of his illustrious academic career in New Orleans conceded that taxes and fees were lower there.
He also pointed out that there was another chapter to the story.
“What you have to take into account in New Orleans,” he said, “is that you will have to put new shocks on your car more frequently because the roads are mostly potholes, you will have to send your children to private schools because the public education system is somewhere near hopeless, and you will have to arrange for your own police protection to compensate for the inadequacies of the city's police force.”
Taxes and fees are lower. Costs are the same. And prices could be even higher.
Until and unless this part of the equation is calculated, any rankings are so incomplete as to be misleading. The Securities and Exchange Commission doesn't let corporations get by with this kind of reporting. We should expect at least that level of candor from and about our governments.
August 5, 2006
By Bill Kraus
The purpose of political campaigns is to let the voters know who the candidate is to the extent that credentials, experience and the like do that and what the candidate wants to do about the matters on the public sector agenda if, as and when elected.
Negative campaigns divert from these core messages to talk about who the candidate’s opponent is (disparagingly) and what the candidate’s opponent has done, or more likely, what the candidate’s opponent has not done or has done badly.
Beyond proving that the candidate is better equipped to handle the job and has a better record the purpose of the campaign is really to let the voters know that the candidate can handle the job in contention and, more important, the unexpected and even surprising developments that are certain to confront any incumbent. Events have a way of not simply intruding but often being in control.
The voter needs to know that the candidate is up to the job. Competence and character are what political campaigns are about.
That was then.
Now ideology is ascendant. The candidate has to pass a series of litmus tests on mostly behavioral subjects, and no “don’t knows” or wrong answers are allowed. The Ed Koch dictum--“If you agree with me on 9 of 12 things, vote for me. If you agree with me on all 12, go see a psychiatrist”--no longer works.
This is like substituting a multiple-choice test (where the choices are yes or no) for an essay test, which is bad.
What is worse is the question of how to deal with the complex items on the public agenda is no longer debatable and open to compromise; ideology tends to be black and white, pass or fail.
Politics as the art of the possible has disappeared. Politics has gone rigid. One way. My way or no way.
There is no color blend that is a mix of red and blue.