Friday, September 30, 2011

The Will Of The People Vs. Lines On A Map

Ten years ago new congressional and state legislative district lines were drawn to adjust for population changes reflected in the 2000 census. Those lines were very good for office holders and very bad for any voter who didn't feel well represented and longed for a fresh face.

Despite the fact approval ratings for Congress have been steadily declining and this year reached an all-time low of 12 percent, the congressional district lines drawn in 2001 made it virtually impossible for voters to dislodge an incumbent House member. The boundaries were manipulated to make districts safer for both Democratic and Republican members. There were no competitive elections in any of Wisconsin's eight U.S. House districts in 2002, none in 2004, one in 2006, none in 2008 and three in 2010.

Public approval of the Wisconsin Legislature's performance plunged in the aftermath of the political corruption scandal at the Capitol that erupted in 2001 before slightly recovering later in the decade. But public dissatisfaction remains high today, with 60 percent of Wisconsin residents saying they disapprove of the way the Legislature is handling its job. Yet incumbents running in the Assembly and Senate districts drawn in 2001 were reelected 93 percent of the time over the course of the decade, winning 454 elections and losing only 39.

Considering all this, it is very difficult imagining the new political boundaries drawn this year following the 2010 census could make legislative districts any less competitive. But Republicans who currently control the Legislature managed to do just that. And there aren't just a few more uncompetitive districts, there are a lot more.

The Democracy Campaign looked at the last election for the 132 state Assembly and Senate seats (which was held in 2010, except for 16 even-numbered Senate districts which was in 2008). We looked at how votes were cast in the old districts. Then we looked at where those same voters are now under the new boundaries established this year. The results of this analysis are striking, especially for the Assembly.

The districts shown as either strongly Republican or strongly Democratic are those that were won by 20 percentage points or more (in other words, by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent or greater). Districts are said to be either leaning Republican or Democratic if the elections were decided by between 10 and 20 percentage points. Toss-up districts are those where margins of victory were within 10 points (55 percent to 45 percent or less).

Under the old map, 50 of the 99 Assembly districts were either leaning or strongly Republican. Twenty-seven were either leaning or strongly Democratic, and 21 others were toss ups. Under the new map, Republicans added 10 more districts to their column. But they didn't do it by reducing the number of safe Democratic districts. There were 20 strongly Democratic districts before, there are 20 now. They did it by reducing the number of toss-up districts by a third.

Yes, this is clearly a Republican gerrymander. But the biggest losers are not Democratic office holders. The real losers are the voters. There were precious few districts in the past that produced competitive elections where voters had an authentic ability to change which party would represent them. There are significantly fewer such districts now.

Because Senate districts are larger geographically, it is more difficult to create districts that are either bright red or bright blue. But legislative Republicans still managed to pull it off. Under the old map, 10 districts were strongly Republican and nine were strongly Democratic. Under the new map, 12 districts are strongly Republican and seven are strongly Democratic. The number of leaners and toss-up districts hasn't changed much.

The bottom line is that the job security of current office holders from both parties has been protected. The Republicans' grip on power has been enhanced. The ability of the people to impose their will and get the kind of representation they want has been further eroded.

Which means our democracy has been further weakened. All because of the way lines have been drawn on a map.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Supreme Version Of The Clean Campaign Pledge

Here's hoping I'm wrong, but the one-sentence collegiality pledge approved by the Wisconsin Supreme Court strikes me as being about as valuable as the countless "clean campaign" pledges candidates for public office have made over the years. Which is to say roughly a thimble full of spit.

Those candidate pledges have come in various forms and sizes, but they all basically boil down to this:

I pledge to run a clean campaign (unless any opponent shows the slightest sign of doing otherwise, or I am running behind in the polls, in which case I will reduce the bastard to rubble).

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How Did Political Class Get So Clueless?

I'm looking through today's print edition of The Capital Times and I come to page 22. Something called the "WisPolitics Stock Report." A telling title, implying that political ideas and public policies are nothing but commodities traded in some marketplace.

One of the things whose stock is said to be rising is the cost of recall elections. Cute.

The article says this: "Insiders agree on one thing – there was a ton of money spent on this year's recall elections. Exactly how much is another question. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign pegs overall spending at $43.9 million among the candidates, political committees and special interests. Some argue the numbers are inflated, particulary the $9 million estimate for spending by the conservative Wisconsin Club for Growth; conservatives don't trust the WDC numbers considering executive director Mike McCabe's advocacy at events like Fighting Bob Fest."

Where to start.

Let's begin with the numbers. As the recall campaigns were being waged, Republican spin doctors were repeatedly telling news reporters that their side was being grossly outspent. One Capitol reporter told me the claim was a 12 to 1 spending advantage for the Democrats. Another reporter said he was told it was 15 to 1. Some loose talk in Internet chat rooms put it as high as 20 to 1.

After the elections were over, conservative bloggers and the right-wing echo chambers seemed to settle on 2 to 1.

A gathering of the facts exposed all such claims to be untrue.

Here's what we know. Looking at the campaign finance reports filed by groups that disclosed their recall election spending shows that most of the money – fully 55 percent – was spent on television advertising. Among those groups that disclosed their expenses, the leading spender was the labor coalition We Are Wisconsin which reported $10.7 million worth of campaigning for Democratic candidates.

As for the groups that kept their spending a secret, the one that spent the most clearly was Wisconsin Club for Growth. According to TV ad invoices shared with us by stations across the state and in the Twin Cities market, Club for Growth outspent We Are Wisconsin on TV ads by more than 18 percent.

So why did we estimate Club for Growth's spending at $9 million when this outfit spent considerably more on the single biggest campaign expense than another group that reported spending nearly $11 million? The answer is that we could only put a price tag on known activity. We Are Wisconsin reported spending substantial sums of money on things like direct mail, online advertising and automated telephone messages commonly called "robocalls." These kinds of expenses are next to impossible to track for the groups that don't disclose their spending. Club for Growth probably spent considerable amounts of money on such forms of campaigning, but we couldn't account for much of any of it.

The known facts don't suggest our numbers are inflated. If anything, our estimate of Club for Growth's spending is likely too low. But there is one way to know for sure. Publicly disclose all the spending. Have every group that spent money to influence these recall elections open their books. Show the people of Wisconsin the money or shut the hell up.

Club for Growth and its allies aren't happy that their bogus claim about being hopelessly outgunned by Democratic groups in the recall elections was exposed as a hoax. But they either can't or won't provide evidence disproving our findings. So if they can't find a hole in the message, they go after the messenger. Oldest trick in the political book.

Here's where the political class puts its utter cluelessness on display. To them, the mere fact that someone gives a speech at an event like Fighting Bob Fest is proof that this someone must favor Democrats over Republicans, never minding that the event's namesake Fighting Bob La Follette was a Republican.

They pore over every word of said speech and grow apoplectic and start yelling "SEE! SEE! He hates Republicans!"

Well, I do hate Republicans. At least what passes for a Republican these days. I once worked for three Republicans in the Assembly. After that, I worked for that known liberal group the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. I hate what the party of Lincoln has become.

But what they can't comprehend is that I hate the Democrats too. This is the insiders' blind spot. Everyone in the political class thinks that if you hate them, you must love their opponent.

They don't understand normal people. I have something in common with the vast majority of Americans. I am politically homeless. I hate both parties with a passion. Neither is worth a damn at the moment.

Partisans can't fathom that. Which means they really can't fathom what most Americans are feeling.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why Bystander Candidates Are A Bad Thing

Wisconsin just got a big dose of what the U.S. Supreme Court wrought by its ruling in the Citizens United case torturing the meaning of the First Amendment to allow unlimited election spending by corporations and other wealthy interests. In this summer's senate recall elections, we were treated to $44 million worth of "free" speech.

Over three-quarters of that money was not spent by the candidates in the nine recall races, but rather by a vast array of interest groups that sponsored their own advertising and mounted their own campaigns to influence the elections. Candidates raised and spent record sums of money – indeed, three different candidates broke the previous record for spending by a state legislative candidate – and yet the candidates were outspent on the order of 4 to 1 by outside groups.

As a result, the candidates in these races were barely heard from. The vast majority of campaign messages that voters saw and heard came not from those who were seeking to represent those voters, but rather from special interest surrogates. I call them "outside" groups because that's what they are. They have names that make them sound homegrown, but they are anything but.

The biggest spender for the Democrats was We Are Wisconsin, which reported spending over $10.7 million on the recall elections. It also reported receiving $10.1 million to fuel that spending from just three national unions based in Washington, D.C. – $5.8 million from the AFL-CIO, $3 million from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and $1.3 million from Service Employees International Union. Some Wisconsin-based unions also kicked in, as did some state residents, but the big money came from outside our borders.

The biggest spender on the Republican side was Wisconsin Club for Growth, which did not disclose either its recall election spending or its sources of income. But we do know that Club for Growth outspent We Are Wisconsin on television advertising by more than 18 percent, according to ad invoices shared with us by TV stations across the state and in the Twin Cities market. And we were able to find two of the group's sources of income by scouring IRS records – a $250,000 donation from Texas oilman Trevor Rees-Jones and a $150,000 contribution from the global securities firm Citadel, which has offices in New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, London and Hong Kong.

What we are left with are auctions rather than elections. The candidates are bystanders, barely able to get a word in edgewise, watching from the balcony with the rest of us as phony front groups doing the bidding of faraway business tycoons and union bosses command center stage, exercising rights bestowed on them by the highest court in the land under a radically redefined First Amendment to instruct us how to vote.

One problem with the prohibitively expensive speech that passes for First Amendment expression in modern political campaigns is obvious. The end product is a bunch of elected officials who are seen as bought. Owned. Hopelessly beholden. Corrupt. With each passing election, fewer and fewer people have much hope that the representatives who are elected will actually represent them.

That cancer alone is reason enough for major surgery on the way elections are financed. But there is another malignancy that is more difficult to see but is deadly to democracy just the same. In real elections, voters need to hear directly from those seeking to represent them. In the auctions we have now, candidates are rarely heard from. Shadowy surrogates tell us what to think of these people we are expected to elect.

Voters do not get to know the people who will become elected officials. They only know caricatures of those people, caricatures created by anonymous manipulators who have a great deal to gain by distorting the images presented to the electorate.

This political carcinoma inevitably metastasizes. One of the ways the spreading disease manifests itself is in campaigning that is akin to a drive-by shooting. When candidates are speaking in their own voices, they run the risk of voter backlash if they take the low road and smear their opponents. But when outside groups do most all of the talking, there is no way for voters to hold anyone accountable for dragging campaigns down in the gutter. They are not on the ballot, so they can spin and twist the truth with impunity. They can lie outright. They can engage in character assassination. And they face no prospect of punishment from voters.

This is what you get when you have special interest telethons and bystander candidates at election time. Vomit-inducing political discourse. Public officials who are almost universally despised. An anything-but-United States of America.

Friday, September 09, 2011

How Buying The World A Coke Fuels Political Revolt Here At Home

John Nichols had it right. Obama's jobs speech needed to be a doozy. I'm afraid it wasn't. Now we'll see how Congress responds. Or if Congress responds at all.

The alternative to some decisive leadership from Washington on the economy is frightening. It is a vacuum. A vacuum that ends up getting filled with the kind of hokum being peddled here in Wisconsin.

The governor who famously promised to create 250,000 new jobs and 10,000 new businesses in Wisconsin by the end of 2014 laid out a simple plan for delivering on that promise. Cut the hell out of business taxes and reduce or eliminate government regulations, and we'll be swimming in jobs in no time.

Scott Walker is either a complete fool or a total tool. Or maybe he's both, but in any case the problems with his recipe for economic growth are coming into sharper focus with each passing day. Walker's approach means starving education. It means weaker consumer protection. And fewer environmental safeguards as well as a wholesale abandonment of green energy initiatives.

Even at this cost, if lower taxes and less regulation for business could ignite the state's economy, more than a few Wisconsinites undoubtedly would regard it an acceptable trade-off. But therein lies the other main problem with the just-get-government-out-of-the-way method of job creation. You can cut state business taxes to zero – which is where they already are for a good many companies – and you create hardly any detectable added incentive to create jobs here in Wisconsin. You can let corporations take advantage of consumers, rape the landscape and poison the air and water with impunity, and not make it one bit more logical for them to employ more people here in our state.

Two articles of economic faith used to bind us together – employers and workers, consumers and merchants. The first was that businesses needed investment in things like education because they needed a capable workforce. The second was that companies needed to look out for the general welfare because they needed a middle class. Without one, there would be no one to sell to. Technology and globalization have laid waste to both of those articles of faith.

With roboticized means of production, the sheer number of workers manufacturers need is not nearly as great. And in a global economy, they certainly aren't reliant on Wisconsin to supply them with the few workers they need. They can easily locate their production facilities elsewhere. Terms like offshoring and outsourcing and downsizing weren't part of our parents' or grandparents' vocabulary, but they are part of ours. So starving education in a place like Wisconsin is not as big a deal for today's capitalists as it used to be. An abundant supply of highly-trained workers in a particular place just isn't as valuable to them as it used to be. To the extent they need workers at all, they can go anywhere in the world to find them. And wherever they go, the workers they find will invariably be cheaper than those they left behind.

Likewise, having people to sell to in a little corner of the world like ours isn't essential to them anymore. In this global economy, the real sales growth opportunities lie outside our borders. Look at Coca-Cola. The average American consumed 394 coke products in 2010. In China, the average was 34. In India, 11. There are over 1.3 billion people in China and nearly 1.2 billion in India. Just over 300 million in the United States. How many more cokes is your typical American going to drink in a year? Coke has pretty much maximized its exploitation of the U.S. market, but has vast growth potential in countries like China and India.

Coca-Cola and so many other companies don't need to sell to us as much as they used to. And they don't need to employ us as much as they used to. Which brings our jobless recovery into much sharper focus. For working people, economic recovery happens when the jobs come back. But for the corporatists, economic recovery is when the profits come back. And they can be spectacularly profitable without selling to or employing people in places like Wisconsin. They'll gladly take another tax cut from the likes of Scott Walker and they'll be delighted if consumer protections and environmental safeguards go by the wayside. Makes their profit margin just that much bigger. But it won't make creating jobs in Wisconsin any more of a priority for them.

Maybe politicians like Scott Walker can't see it because they are blinded by their ideology. Or maybe they see it clearly and are happy to go along for the ride because it'll get them where they want to go. Eventually, average working people will catch on that the "job creators" are really just profit takers with no community or state loyalties. There certainly will be anger. Political upheaval and instability too. Even violence.

Unless wiser heads prevail and soon, we're headed for rocky times. Radical times. Maybe even revolutionary times.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Our Deadly Society

Mahatma Gandhi famously said there are seven things that will destroy us: wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice and politics without principle. He called them the seven deadly sins.

Gandhi's words weren't directed at America. At least I don't think they were. He was addressing an Indian audience. But when we apply Gandhi's measure to life in the U.S. today, the result is unsettling to say the least.

1. Wealth without work. There has been a massive redistribution of wealth in the U.S. over the last 30 years. The poor are getting poorer. Racial minorities and young people, in particular, are falling behind economically. The middle class is stuck in a rut, spinning its wheels. It's the rich and super-rich who have been getting ahead in America and it's not their labor that is making them ever richer. They are making money off their money. And it's not just the Bernie Madoffs of the world running pyramid schemes who are getting spectacularly wealthy without working for it. The hedge fund dealers and securities traders and market speculators and finance mavens are doing the same thing.

2. Pleasure without conscience. Call it what you will. Conspicuous consumption. Ostentatious display. Affluenza. Living the good life while others suffer is no stranger here.

3. Knowledge without character. Six words. The Smartest Guys in the Room.

4. Commerce without morality. Enron qualifies here too. But there are countless other examples, from the lengths Wal-Mart goes to be able to sell a polo shirt for $8.63 to the geniuses who invented derivatives or credit default swaps or whatever other names they came up with for larceny on Wall Street. See Inside Job. Or google "Massey Coal" or "Don Blankenship."

5. Science without humanity. Never forget Tuskegee. Can't forget the Manhattan Project either. Or what's done to animals, not to cure cancer or some other dread disease, but to come up with a better shampoo or hairspray.

6. Worship without sacrifice. Service to others and the social justice ethic have grown increasingly hard to locate in much of organized religion in America. The separation of church and sacrifice is central to the creed of the religious right, the latest manifestation of dominionism and prosperity theology. Let's just say Matthew 22:39 and 25:40 are not top of mind in the modern American church.

7. Politics without principle. We have pay-per-view congressmen when they're back home who become pay-to-say congressmen when they are on Capitol Hill. And Washington isn't the only place such grotesquely unprincipled politics are found. It's endemic to Wisconsin now too. If you need convincing, just take a tour of our website, especially here and here. Enough said.

We are on thin ice by Gandhi's standards.