Monday, June 30, 2008

The Good Professor's Epic Blunder

After Epic Systems decided to pull its business from any vendor with ties to Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, it was to be expected that someone would proclaim Epic's action un-American or un-something or other.

What was unexpected is that such an unthinking view would be expressed by a professor at a major university. Howard Schweber, a professor of law and political science at UW-Madison, took exception to what he called Epic's "secondary boycott" of companies that support WMC. Professor Schweber told the Wisconsin State Journal, "putting pressure on a person or business not to associate with another person or business is ethically dubious in my mind. If people have the power to coerce others to remain silent or change their views, that's a threat to personal liberty."

Ethically dubious? How's that? And how does Epic choosing which companies it wants to do business with constitute a "threat to personal liberty?"

Aside from Epic being totally within its rights, has Professor Schweber ever heard of the Montgomery bus boycott? Does he believe Rosa Parks was "ethically dubious" or a "threat to personal liberty" when she refused to give up her seat? Was the boycott that Dr. Martin Luther King and his allies organized soon thereafter unethical? Most Americans don't seem to think so, because there's a national holiday named for King, for crying out loud.

How is Epic's economic noncooperation ethically different than the tactics Mohandas Gandhi and his followers employed to end British rule and win India her independence? For his efforts, Gandhi came to be known as the Mahatma, or "Great Soul." Not the kind of nickname normally given to the ethically challenged.

King and Gandhi were hardly the first to use economic leverage to advance a cause. Ever hear of the Boston Tea Party? Weren't the colonists coercing the British to change tax and trade policies?

Does Professor Schweber teach his students that strikes are unethical? How about trade embargoes or other economic sanctions one nation (often ours) imposes on another whose behavior is deemed unacceptable? Sure they're staple tools of foreign policy, but applying Dr. Schweber's Epic test, aren't they over the line ethically?

Far from a sin, Epic's actions put the company in very good company. If there is a discernible shortcoming, it is this: WMC does not have clean hands when it comes to elections in this state, but neither do many others. It's not that Epic is doing anything wrong. And it's not that WMC doesn't have it coming. It's just insufficient. Many more deserve the Epic treatment.

Friday, June 27, 2008

WMC Gets Blowback On Supreme Court Hijacking

The efforts of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce to take over Wisconsin's Supreme Court are sending shock waves through the state's business community. Some of the biggest ripples just came from what is not only one of Wisconsin's fastest growing employers but also a pillar in the state's new economy. And now one of the state's leading construction firms has taken notice and has reacted.

It's Newton's third law, applied to politics.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Obama Opts Out

As pretty much everyone knows by now, Barack Obama announced yesterday that he will forego public financing for the general election. What everyone may not know is that it was in response to a Midwest Democracy Network candidate questionnaire that Obama originally committed himself to participating in the public financing system.

Obama is right about one thing. The system is broken and badly needs fixing. But he knew that when he pledged to publicly finance his general election campaign. What he didn't know then was how wildly successful his campaign would be in raising money, especially in small amounts from well over a million Americans. That surely changed his calculation about public financing.

Still, he should have honored his commitment. Now that he's decided not to, he has a special obligation to make sure the broken system is fixed if he is elected president.

Monday, June 16, 2008

In Search Of Post-Television Politics

I grew up knowing "squeaky clean Wisconsin" – a place known from coast to coast as a beacon of clean, open and accountable government. In the span of a single generation, we squandered the glorious inheritance that was passed down to us and our state slowly but surely became a political cesspool.

There are many reasons why Wisconsin's political culture changed so radically for the worse over the course of what, in historical terms, is a breathtakingly short period of time. But one cause of Wisconsin's fall from political grace stands out. It can be defined in a single word. Two letters, actually.


Television transformed our politics in two ways. First and most obviously, it is the driving force behind the non-stop money chase that has spawned the system of legalized extortion and bribery that is corrupting our government and undermining our democracy. A generation ago, candidates for state office worked the union halls and the Rotary Clubs and the newspaper editorial boards and knocked on thousands of doors and wore out one pair of shoes after another. Today, candidates routinely campaign 30 seconds at a time on TV. All those ads cost a fortune. Hence the average politician's canine appetite for campaign contributions.

Public officials turned into glorified collection agents for the TV stations is perhaps the most visible way television has poisoned politics. But TV has had another equally insidious effect on the political culture. It has made us dumber about civic matters.

We're undeniably more highly educated than past generations, but as a commentary in Sunday's Boston Globe illustrates, we're actually no better informed about government and politics than people were 40 or 50 years ago, and in some ways we're actually dumber. According to the article's author, who recently penned the book "Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth About the American Voter," a big part of the explanation for this paradox can be found in one word. Two letters, actually.

No force in our society has done more to turn politicians into whores than television. And nothing has contributed more to the citizenry's shallowness and superficiality.

We thought our way into the television age, and now we have to think our way out of the most numbing side effects of our addiction to TV. The Internet is no doubt part of the solution. But it remains to be seen whether we can really Facebook or YouTube our way out of the hole we've dug for our democracy. The jury is still out on what, if any, role newspapers will play. Our public schools have to provide part of the answer, as one of our recent blogs suggested. That goes for libraries too. What will become of them?

But regardless of what tools we use to do the job, the task at hand still comes down to reinventing citizenship.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Robed And Naked

Annette Ziegler became the first state Supreme Court justice in Wisconsin history to be found guilty of judicial misconduct and disciplined by the high court for failing to disclose financial conflicts of interest she had in cases she handled as a circuit court judge and refusing to recuse herself from the cases and let another judge handle them as state ethics rules require.

Now that Ziegler's sitting on the Supreme Court, she's recusing up a storm. Her political ties and her campaign finances make her so conflicted she will have to be a part-time judge.

It doesn't take a law degree to see a trend in the making here. While Ziegler sticks out like a sore thumb for now when it comes to her recusal rate, she won't for long. Not unless the way Supreme Court elections are conducted is completely overhauled. If future high court races go the way of the last two, more and more members of the court are going to be forced to recuse themselves more and more frequently.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Prologue To . . . Joystick Justice?

Our nation's founders didn't see eye to eye about many things, but they all saw how critically important education would be to the American experiment. James Madison's famous words can be recited from memory:

"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or, perhaps both. . . ."

Despite advising that "the most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do," Thomas Jefferson devoted more words to lecturing his fellow countrymen on the value of education than perhaps any other subject.

We haven't listened well enough. We haven't learned.

Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told her audience at a New York City conference that "two-thirds of Americans know at least one of the judges on the Fox TV show 'American Idol,' but less than one in 10 can name the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court."

O'Connor is hardly alone in sounding the alarm about students' appalling knowledge of history and the ill health of citizenship education, but not many are going to the lengths she is in search of solutions. She even is helping to design video games she hopes might be able to make learning about things like the Supreme Court hip. Some call it her plan for "joystick justice."

Laugh if you like, but O'Connor shouldn't be ridiculed for grasping at cyberstraws. Such measures would not be necessary if our society was making civic instruction anything approaching a priority. When is the last time you heard a school superintendent or the Department of Public Instruction say that preparing young people to be informed and engaged citizens is the most important thing our schools do? Put another way, when is the last time you heard an educational leader sound like Madison or Jefferson?

There's a reason for that. Our society has sent the schools an unmistakable message: Preparing kids to be part of our economy trumps preparing them to be part of a democracy.

That's why math and science are all the rage. It's why civics is an afterthought. And it explains why people like Sandra Day O'Connor are looking for salvation in video games.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

'I Got It, I Got It . . . No, You Take It'

Investigators did the old Alphonse and Gaston routine with what appeared to be improper phone calls Supreme Court justice-elect Michael Gableman made when he was Ashland County district attorney. So the truth about whether he used his government office for personal political gain will remain buried.