April 29, 2012
This is what power looks like
By Bill Kraus
Power is finite. To put it simply, if I have it, you don’t, or, as is more often the case, vice versa.
Every once in a while we get sharp reminders about who has it.
A recent story in the NY Times about a gathering of police chiefs in Washington is illustrative.
"[Milwaukee] Chief Flynn recounted pleading with a state senator to include a provision on Wisconsin's concealed weapons law that would ban habitual criminal offenders from obtaining permits. The senator, he said, told him, 'Here's the phone number of the National Rifle Association lobbyist in Washington DC. If it's OK with him, it will be OK with us.' The provision was not included."
This immediately calls to mind the indisputable fact that the paranoids who run the National Rifle Association have power.
They can coerce elected officials almost everywhere into protecting everyone’s right to own firearms of any description up to and including those whose only possible purpose is to kill people. They also have convinced the pushover elected officials that public safety will be enhanced only when everyone who owns a concealable weapon can “pack it” to revert to the vernacular if they wish, except in Illinois of all places.
The double whammy of this news item is it also proves the power-is-finite assertion.
The police chief doesn’t have the power needed to trump the NRA.
The press, which in the not-so-distant past had enough power to blow this small story into a major cause celebre which would have had a chance, albeit a slim one, to add to the police chief’s power and diminish that of the people who run the private, single-issue organization that is the NRA, does not have the horses to follow up on this lead.
Certainly the senator must be from an area the chief represents where guns are not the sanguine part of the culture they are in less densely settled places, and just as certainly the army of bloggers (including me) who are not going to take this story the next obvious and essential step.
Which raises another perplexing problem. Where did the power of the press go? Did it simply disappear?
The claim that it went to the internet is specious. The internet is an undigestible, unvetted, undisciplined stream of opinions disguised as facts. It is universal and divisive. Does anyone go to the internet looking for something unpleasant or someone they disagree with?
It takes a minor event like this one to call attention to the fact that perhaps we have lost the instrument we always counted on to, in the words of a man named Wildavsky, speak truth to power.
We also counted on the press to make those in power to turn square corners.
Is it time to reinvent the press? If so, how? And in what configuration?
April 22, 2012
The future--if there is one--of representative government
By Bill Kraus
The success of the concept of representative government depends heavily on the intelligence, integrity, and similar attributes, of the representatives themselves.
For many years the political parties recruited, slated, and helped elect most of these representatives.
After the well intended Watergate reforms foundered on the law of unintended consequences by diverting the money flow that is the mother's milk of politics, a short-lived era of entrepreneurial candidacies finished off the parties' roles of recruiting and slating those who wanted to represent us. The money went directly to these candidates instead of to the insulating parties which the legendary Ody Fish called a "kinder mistress."
The legislative leaders moved quickly to rein in this development. They set up campaign committees and used their power to contol the flow of legislation to divert the flow of money to them.
The inevitable result of the recruiting, slating and funding moving to legislative leaders was the dawn of the lemming era. This was characterized by a diminution of ambition, a rise of careerism, and an intensification of the age old and crucial battle to win majorities.
This cozy little arrangement was disrupted by the idiot billionaires who, for many reasons of their own, agreed to fill with large sums of money the campaign coffers that the paranoid candidates and their professional advisers deemed essential.
Then along came the populist multitudes. The tea parties, the occupiers and all varieties of organizations that made the indisputable assertion that representatives who were beholden to money might not be representing them anymore.
All of these more or less undesirable developments demeaned the trade and its practitioners to the point that the representative politics envisioned by the founding fathers--an honorable trade practiced by superior people--has become the subject of widespread disdain.
The road back to that ideal aspiration is not clearly marked.
What is more worrisome is that there do not seem to be many people even looking for it.
So I echo the questions the irrepressible Bob Williams posed to the annual convention of the state bar association a few years ago: If not us, who? If not now, when?
April 15, 2012
The big disconnect
By Bill Kraus
The disconnect between what voters say they want in campaigns and what campaigners deliver, instead, is astonishing:
Voters want less spending on campaigns, less or no robo calls, a shorter campaign season, and candidates who are--to be crude--not for sale; not so beholden to the money that makes all of the other things that voters want less of possible.
Campaign managers say that money is, always was, the mother’s milk of politics, that the amount needed has inflated dramatically as the media has become more expensive, volunteers have been replaced by hired hands, and money is needed to counter third-party spending in campaigns.
Voters want fewer TV commercials.
Campaigners point out that the people who used to be a prime communication medium when campaigning was largely retail are no longer available. TV is now the message and the medium. This shift from organization to mass media has driven costs through the roof and made message condensation essential. The internet and social media may be in the campaigners' future, but the way to make them the message/medium hasn’t been invented yet.
Voters dislike negative ads.
If this were true, campaigners say, negative ads wouldn’t work. Voters have not yet shown they prefer the kinds of positive campaigns of the not-so-distant past. Voters continue to be swayed by the almost always negative contributions of the third party participants in today’s campaigns.
Voters want serious talk about issues and ideas instead of slam bam thank you ma’am appeals to emotions instead of intellect.
Campaigners dismiss this. They concede it may have been true, but probably wasn’t, when newspapers and campaign brochures delivered by volunteers were the medium and the message. We’re talking ancient history here.
Voters want their candidates and their representatives to be civil and to respect each other and the trade they all practice.
Like the tea party, like recalls and protest politics, like movement politics, the campaigners ask? Doesn’t seem so. Their follow up question is, “What is the civil response to the kind of single issue fanaticism that the shooters, the anti-choicers, the gay bashers bring to the campaigns?”
Voters want spending limits.
The campaigners point to the fact that we are now in the third century of court decisions that prize free speech over the collateral damage to citizen participation done by the 19th century’s “corporations are people,” the 20th century’s “money is speech,” and the 21st century’s Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates even further.
The campaigners will start giving the voters what they say they want as soon as the voters ask candidates to put those things on the vote-driving short agenda and follow through by voting for those who do and against those who don’t.
April 10, 2012
Disclosure laws give legislators a break
By Bill Kraus
I know, I know. We should have term limits. We should cut their pay so we could guarantee that every legislator had to have a job in the real world. We should give them single-digit approval ratings.
What we should really do is give them a break.
The candidates for the Legislature are told how much money that any supporter can give them for their campaigns and that they must report the names, addresses, and occupations of all of the supporters who give them money.
When they get around to spending this money on advertising they to tell the audiences a.) why the voters should vote for them or, as is more likely in this lamentable era when attack ads are favored, b.) why the voters should not vote for whoever is running against them. These ads must be accompanied by disclaimers. The disclaimer on TV ads must say who they are and that they approve the message in the ad.
At the same time, organizations who are running the same kinds of ads in the same campaigns do not have to tell who gave them the money to pay for these ads. Their TV ads do have a quick less-explicit disclaimer. This shows the name of the organization that bought the ad in very light almost readable print for a brief second at the end of the ad well after the message has been read and absorbed.
Both disclaimers are flawed. The disclaimers should come up front, before the ad is displayed. The disclaimers by the non-candidates are incomplete as well. Both because they are so late and quick and because the people who put up the money to buy them are not identified in any public way. The further attempt to obfuscate this pertinent information is that the sponsors of these ads can do so under any label they care to use. A few are specific enough to be traceable to well known organizations. The rest are not. The names of these mysterious organizations are chosen because they are benign, even praiseworthy, and misleading.
The disclosure requirements are clearly unfair.
The most dramatic way to take the shackles off the candidates is to give them the same flawed disclosure requirements and free them from reporting the names of their donors or the amounts their donors can donate.
For reasons that are hard to comprehend, the candidates, once they become incumbents, don’t want to do this.
Maybe they could be convinced to support a playing field leveler on the disclosure announcement rule at the very least.
How about putting the disclosure up front instead of at the end, and requiring all sponsors to say who they are and that they approve of what the viewers are about to see?
This small improvement would have the admirable effect of protecting candidates from being blamed for ads they had nothing to do with. It also would give the viewers a chance to “consider the source,” which might turn some viewers away and warn the rest.
The next time anyone talks to a candidate, try asking him or her whether this disclosure idea which is intended to make that part of the process the same for everyone who is running ads in campaigns is something he or she would support if elected.
If they say they won’t, ask “Why not?”
April 3, 2012
Questions in the aftermath of Walker's tsunami
By Bill Kraus
The Walker tsunami opened with a bang. He (and the two-house majority) had promised to get rid of something nobody understood--the structural deficit--and to balance the budget, which everyone understood.
They did that. They did it largely with proceeds from the only cookie jar in the kitchen: education. The other cookie jars, medicaid and corrections, were sealed shut by the feds and fear respectively.
The rest of the early agenda was mostly about getting even, settling scores.
The public employee unions were the bane of Republican candidates and organizations. They had been successfully outspending and outworking anyone who stood in their way for years. The Walker tsunami put an end to that by limiting their bargaining authority and shutting down dues check off, otherwise known as their money machine.
They put an end to public campaign funding--often referred to as “welfare for politicians”--in all its manifestations, including the judicial one.
They responded to the Republican paranoia about the threat to election participation by illegal, insufficiently identified voters.
They took care of the obsessive 2nd amendment partisans who think guns are good. Wyatt Earp would have been pleased.
They even ventured into the sexual freedom minefield and tried to deflect and defer the hormone machine. In homage to Queen Victoria perhaps.
Other than that they didn’t do much.
Early on, the governor derailed high speed trains for fiscal reasons and because they had promised to do that in the campaign, and it was easy. His suddenly rebellious minions took this another unwelcome (to the governor) step further later in the session by nixing an Amtrak upgrade.
Their attempts to exploit the most prominent economic opportunities presented by new, startup, high tech, high risk companies were also derailed when all those once loyal neophytes in the Assembly turned out to be fiscal fanatics who disapproved of all public spending including that intended to invest in job creation.
The several proposals to simplify and speed up the mining authorization process, which was billed as a fast track to jobs, foundered as well.
This was at least partially attributable to a backlash from the members of the minority who will not vote for anything that gives the majority bragging rights.
The unintended and unanticipated and unhealthy side effect of the tsunami has created an environment which does not encourage innovation at a time when what Wisconsin and the rest of the country need more and better new ideas and leaders who spawn them.
And the questions linger about who or what will undo the damage done. And how?