September 27, 2009 A campaign finance reform refresher course By Bill Kraus
Okay, class, let’s go over this again. I know it’s easy to forget. But it’s important.
The main objective of all the campaign reform ideas is to set spending limits.
These should be high enough so candidates, particularly less well known and new candidates, will be able to raise enough money to become well enough known to attract enough votes to run competitive races.
The basic reform proposal is an incentive for candidates to accept a spending limit. If a candidate agrees to abide by the spending limit the government will wholly or partially fund his or her campaign.
The dangers of agreeing to a spending limit are not inconsequential in an era where money is perceived as crucial to political success.
The first is that one of the candidates may be wealthy or well funded enough to not agree to limit spending. The reforms handle this by agreeing to add more public money to offset what the so-called “millionaires” spend.
Anyone agreeing to a spending limit is also exposed to the risks that come from third parties that decide to participate in the campaign.
Some third-party participants are overt. They run separate, parallel campaigns with unlimited amounts of money which they raise from unidentified sources to outspend the spending-limited candidate.
Other third-party campaigns are more subtle. They spend their money in favor of or against an issue or idea and ask voters to “contact” not “vote for or against” the candidate who doesn’t share their opinion on this issue or idea.
The comprehensive reform measures provide public funds to offset the spending in the campaign by both kinds of third parties.
The theory and hope is that because additional public money will be available to spending-limited candidates, the millionaires and third parties will decide that it is not in their interest to participate, because by doing so they will actually be putting money into the campaigns of candidates they dislike.
The reform legislation is complex. The idea is simple. One incentive. Three disincentives.
September 20, 2009 Appoint, counterpoint By Bill Kraus
The rules for judges running for election fill several arcane pages and boil down to three simple directives:
1.Judges cannot take money for judicial favors. 2.Judges cannot lie. 3.Judges cannot promise to rule one way or another on any subject.
A lot of discussion about applying these simple rules focused on whether the ad Justice Gabelman ran was a lie or not. The devil is in the interpretation.
The objective is to have judges who are disinterested and fair. Recent trends, however, would make this impossible dream even more so. Two cases have been decided at the highest level which indicate that judges can have a partisan bias and can run on it, which seems to come very close to breaking rule 3 above.
Another case has said that the remedy for partisanship and predictability is recusal. The application of this ruling is widely believed to lead to judicial paralysis. Most experts agree that the best a supplicant is going to get is judicial aspiration to open-mindedness leading to fairness.
Should judges be elected or appointed?
Those in favor of appointment contend that this is what we have already in most cases in Wisconsin. Although 5 of the present 7 justices on the Supreme Court won open seats, over time the odds that a Justice will get the job by appointment first are very high. So, they say, why not change the Constitution and face up to reality.
They also say that this mixed system flirts with cronyism which may suborn mediocrity. An appointive system where the governor must select from a list of candidates selected and vetted by dispassionate, experienced, public spirited people who want only the best for the Wisconsin judiciary guards against those kinds of missteps.
Those who favor election over appointment offer two arguments. The first is that in a state like Wisconsin where we elect coroners and people to statewide offices which have no responsibilities there is no chance to pass the necessary constitutional change to get to an appointive system. Get real, they say.
The more persuasive argument is that despite recent nastiness, low voter turnouts, and high campaign costs it is important that judges engage with the people, walk the streets, campaign. An ivory tower judiciary can develop an insularity, a distance that blinds its members to collateral damage and produces such absurdities as “money is speech” and “corporations are people.”
A middle ground was not suggested, but there is a way to get one of the virtues of an appointive option for the elected system. It is possible to enact the selection of candidates procedure by statute which would be part of the appointive system and not have to change the constitution. Governors would be required to pick a candidate from a pool created by the aforementioned dispassionate, experienced, public spirited committee members. We would elect first time justices to open seats. Those appointed to fill unfinished terms would have to go through the rigorous hoops that an appointive system would prescribe if we had an appointive system.
And, of course, we can make the elective system itself better and more civil and less expensive by offering full public funding and spending limits, by maintaining the Judicial Commission standards, and by enacting monetary disincentives which would seriously discourage third-party campaigns and phony issue ads.
September 13, 2009 Citizen politicians By Bill Kraus
Several decades ago the Republican Party leaders came mostly from business and the professionals who represented businesses. And to a significant extent, although I am less familiar with their history, the Democratic citizen pols came from labor unions or their allies.
The corporations and the unions were not the district and county chairs and campaign managers, but their people were.
The desirable side effect of this activity was that these political operatives knew the issues, the people, the ideas, the system.
Sometime in the last 40 years or so, business leaders decided to outsource political action instead of participate in it.
The mercenaries took over and the results have been rewarding for them and disastrous for the rest of us.
The mercenaries treated politics as a marketing problem and solved it by segmenting the market and escalating the rhetoric.
The candidates became creatures of the extremist groups and whoever had enough money to finance increasingly costly media-driven campaigns.
Worse yet, the business activists went back to the office or the plant and turned political activity over to friendly associations or simply abandoned it altogether.
Politics may still have been in their budgets, but it no longer was on their schedules. Inevitably, business and its needs took second place to what the mercenaries decided they needed to win elections: lots of money, the full participation of the zealots, and campaigns that played to the so-called base, whose interests were social not economic.
So we come to the place where business people are largely disengaged as well as not particularly well informed on anything that doesn’t have a direct impact on their particular businesses.
We come to a place where it takes someone like Thomas Friedman to point out that business needs the burden of health insurance off their backs, needs an immigration policy that makes the best brains in the world, because there are no business leaders who are citizen politicians to make these assertions off a prominent platform.
Business leaders can’t buy their way back into the game. They have to suit up and start playing again the way they did in the 1960s. They have to take politics back from the mercenaries so that the hired guns are working for the citizen pols instead of vice versa.
September 7, 2009 The economy's known unknowns By Bill Kraus
Cars: It seems we don’t need a new car after all. Styles don’t change. New models' improvements are minimal. The one we own was built to last. We’ll keep it.
Houses: The McMansion era may be history. Those who own them would move to something smaller and less bucolic in a New York minute if they could sell the one they own. But there’s a big inventory of unsold monsters that has to be whittled down first.
Anything that’s fashion driven: Sort of the antipathy of anything we need.
Art: A lot of art sales are driven by housing, which is going nowhere. Most of the rest is discretionary.
Sports: We love our Packers and Badgers so they’re safe, but other fans are less smitten. There are going to be TV blackouts where NFL games aren’t sold out. Golf tournaments are looking in vain for sponsors. Golf courses are looking in vain for players.
Advertising-driven media: We all know that newspapers are either dead or dying. If part of health care reform is a ban on advertising prescription drugs to incipient hypochondriacs, TV will follow suit. How many network shows can lite beer carry after all?
Charities, do-good, and trade organizations: All hurting. Some more than others. People with weak cash flows and their own structural deficits to worry about are understandably reluctant to borrow money to give away. Even dutiful tithers are tithing against a smaller base number.
It’s hard to think of many things that are booming. Maybe mattresses. A country that was characterized by zero savings has suddenly started putting money away (in mattresses?) at a ferocious pace. This may be propelled by a fear of rainy days ahead. Since it’s already raining, the move to the mattresses is hardly misguided.
What about politics? If the health care proposal is an indicator, the forces of the status quo are still digging deep when threatened with change.
What has yet to be determined is whether this kind of generosity will extend to candidates for major offices like governor and Congress. It is possible that, like charities and other organizations, these candidates may be asked to get by with less. Since the spending on these races in this century has been somewhere between excessive and outrageous, it is not unreasonable to expect a return to what we used to regard as normal here.
Maybe a tougher test will be the multi-million dollar races for legislative seats that will determine majorities in the statehouse.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the big and small political contributors may have started to wonder if they have done anything beyond making a few mercenaries and some TV station owners rich and whether this is a particularly good idea.
There is even a possibility that the people who are assaulted and demeaned by TV-dominated negative political campaigns might respond to a poor boy campaign if any candidate had the guts to try one. It’s even possible that many candidates will have no choice.
The recession as an unintended but welcome campaign finance reformer? What an idea!
September 5, 2009 McKibben, Bob Fest, and 350 By Karen Rybold-Chin
Bill McKibben told Bob Festers last year that climate change was the critical issue of this century. It still is and McKibben is traveling the globe to keep the movement growing.
Current carbon dioxide levels are 387 parts per million and climbing. How long life can be sustained without devastating effect at this concentration of carbon dioxide no one knows, but we do know that 350 is the safe upper-limit.
McKibben sends his greetings to those of us who will be attending Fighting Bob Fest on September 12, and he wants you to know that communities around the planet are beginning to understand what's at stake, our future.
He recently told me, "I'm in South Africa this morning, just arrived from Oslo, on to Israel and Palestine tomorrow...This movement has gone viral, all over the world--with your help we can make the most important number in the world, 350, the most well-known."
There will be a 350.org table at Fighting Bob Fest next weekend. Please look for it and sign up for a local action on October 24th, 2009.
Here is Thom Hartman on the importance of the number 350.
September 4, 2009 Now it's Obama’s unjust war By Dick Vander Woude
I’m no pacifist. It's just that since becoming an adult I’ve not witnessed U.S. involvement in combat that seemed justified. When President Barack Obama was inaugurated and shortly thereafter committed our troops to combat in Afghanistan, I kept my mouth shut. I wanted be believe he knew something the rest of us didn't.
No more. I am passionately pro-Obama, but I disagree with him on our national role in Afghanistan. Did he see Charlie Wilson’s War? Wasn't there a lesson in this story, especially in the closing scenes where we see the value of discovering the need for more schools than guns if we are to achieve a lasting peace?
Then there is Jeff Sahara’s historical novel, Rise to Rebellion, about the American struggle for independence. In it we get a refresher course in British arrogance, the kind of arrogance that fails to recognize what motivates and creates patriots. British arrogance came to be one of our essential weapons. U.S. arrogance is helping the Taliban.
I have also recently read David Maraniss’s They Marched into Sunlight and discovered how American arrogance became a weapon for the Viet Cong, and a tool of the peace movement. Then there is the new movie The Hurt Locker about soldiers who defuse bombs in Iraq. It seems that war is addictive. Maybe more so for those who authorize and direct it then for those willing to fight in them.
I just attended a Senator Feingold town hall meeting and discovered he is thinking many of the same thoughts. He recently penned an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal arguing that now is the time to disengage. Conservative columnist George Will made the same arguments a few days after Feingold did.
It is time to get out and build those schools.
In the meantime how do we defend our nation, its citizens and our way of life from terrorists who believe we are the great devil? My answer: attack the root. Decapitate its leaders politically if not literally and teach people how to nourish their lives with knowledge and understanding.
We as a nation can best defend ourselves and help others when we practice and share mercy, justice and humility.
"Is this a private fight, or can anyone join?" -Old Irish saying