Thursday, December 27, 2012

So Much From So Few

Just before Christmas I did an interview with WisconsinEye, our state's version of C-SPAN, about the dizzying amounts of money spent on state and federal elections in Wisconsin since the Supreme Court's 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case. More than $376 million can already be accounted for, and the meter is still running. Fundraising and spending reports due in late January will add considerably to the tally.

Now consider this: A new report by the national Campaign Finance Institute shows that an elite cadre of donors amounting to just over 1% of the country's adult population makes all the donations that fuel all the spending in elections for governor and state legislature. In Wisconsin, we have marginally more donors than the average state. Just over 2% of our adult population makes campaign contributions in state elections.

In 2010, Wisconsin had a voting age population of close to 4.4 million people. Not quite 93,000 gave to state election campaigns.

For many years, our nation's motto was E Pluribus Unum. Out of many, one. Now it's more like E Pauci Nimis. Out of a few, too much.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

There Are Damned Fools, And Then There Are Democrats

Democrats chalked up their defeats in the recall elections held earlier this year to one thing . . . money. But with Barack Obama safely returned to the White House, Democrats are warming up to the money game in a big way as they look ahead to the 2014 elections. No longer do they see Super PACs and dark money as necessarily bad things.


They can't win over the long haul playing the game this way. I don't say this because I think the really big money flows only or even mostly to the Republicans (it doesn't) or because I agree with the mainstream media consensus that big money lost in the 2012 elections. On the surface it might appear that the likes of fat-cat, right-wing donors like casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson lost because he spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million on five races and his candidate lost every race. Overall, something like $6 billion was spent on federal elections that returned the same president and same leaders in both houses of Congress.

One year does not a trend make. Big money wins more than its share of elections. Candidates backed by Sheldon Adelson and his ilk win more often than not, Scott Walker being a very prominent close-to-home example. But big money wins even when it loses. It wins because of the way it has distorted the policy agenda, the way it dictates what is even debated in the halls of Congress and in state capitols. And this manner in which big money's power is manifested hurts Democrats considerably more than Republicans.

If Democrats don't figure out a way to break free of the political money trap, there is little hope for turning around policies that are leading to growing income inequality here in Wisconsin and across the country. When is the last time there has been a meaningful debate on Capitol Hill or in Wisconsin's legislature about poverty? The ranks of the poor have done nothing but grow thanks to the great recession, yet elected officials are allergic to debates on the subject. Why? The answer is simple. Politicians can't raise money talking about poverty. Poor people don't make campaign contributions.

When and where have there been actions taken to arrest the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us? We've been growing apart economically for 30 years now, yet elected officials have continued to back policies that aggravate this condition. Why? Again the answer is simple. Abandoning trickle-down economics in more just a rhetorical way doesn't help politicians raise money. Most campaign donations come from the wealthiest in our society. Here at the Democracy Campaign, we've been managing a database of contributors to state campaigns since 1996. If you were to count up all the donors in that database, they would amount to about 1% of Wisconsin's population. Any one candidate for state office gets financial support from a small fraction of 1% of the people, and it's overwhelmingly the fraction of 1% of society that actually benefits from trickle-down policies.

I've written before about how Democrats nationally and here in Wisconsin have lost the support of rural communities and have watched helplessly as Republicans have built a rich-poor alliance. Well, when is the last time you can remember Democratic lawmakers talking about rural issues or putting forward a rural agenda? There is near-total silence on the subject. Why? Once again, the answer is simple. Politicians can't raise money talking about rural issues. Rural folks don't make many campaign contributions. When we've done zip code analyses of campaign contributions in Wisconsin, we've found that most of the money comes from just a handful of the state's 900 zip codes. All of them are urban or suburban communities.

If Democrats stay caught in the political money trap, how can they really stick up for working people in more than just an empty rhetorical way? After all, even before the Republicans' Act 10 crippled Wisconsin's public employee unions, Democrats were getting $6 from business interests for every dollar they were receiving from unions.

Because of the way it determines what actions elected officials ultimately take and what they even talk about, big money wins even when it appears to lose. And Democrats lose most of all when big money wins. When they are trapped into playing the money game, they lose their ability to act in a way that speaks powerfully to working people and the poor and especially those living in rural areas, without whom Democrats cannot hope to build a sustainable electoral majority in Wisconsin.

They could have acted to spring the money trap when they controlled the legislature and governor's office a few short years ago. They didn't. And now they're thinking these Super PACs funded by the super-rich might not be such a bad thing after all.

They also could have reformed the redistricting process. They chose not to. Now they have to live with gerrymandered districts that make it hard to see how they can gain control of the legislature any time in the next decade. Hell, even in a year when the state voted to keep a Democrat in the White House and put a Democrat in the U.S. Senate, Democrats lost the state senate and didn't make a dent in the large GOP majority in the Assembly. Democrats won more votes in these legislative contests, but Republicans won more seats thanks to the way the district lines were drawn.

In this world, there are fools. And there are damned fools. And then there are Democrats.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Putting 'Em To The Test

I was invited to speak to a local Rotary Club the other day about money in politics, and with the election right around the corner I ended up talking mostly about election spending in general and all the repugnant campaign advertising in particular. I told them I could think of no other industry that would risk advertising this way.

As I stood at the podium, over my left shoulder was a banner bearing Rotary's "Four-Way Test." Is it the TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned? The club president was struck by how miserably campaign ads fail the test all four ways, and said so. He was speaking for the group, to be sure. I told them today's politicians don't fare any better on the test after they are elected and turn to governing.

Reflecting on that recent meeting got me to thinking about the common creed I wrote last Friday, and I came up with a five-way test based on that creed and applied it to today's major parties.

Are the parties of, by and for COMMON FOLKS? Not hardly. A royalty has taken over American politics and lords over both parties. Commoners are politically homeless.

Do they demonstrate COMMON DECENCY? Not by a long shot. Both sides seek power through campaign advertising that almost always is misleading and deceptive and often is downright untruthful. It is fantasy to believe power sought dishonestly will lead to decency in governing.

Do they use COMMON SENSE? Rarely if ever. One prime example is the national debt, where one party says cut social programs but increase spending on defense and keep cutting taxes for the wealthy, while the other puts social programs off limits, won't cut defense much but is willing to increase what the superwealthy pay in taxes. Neither's math adds up to anything close to a balanced budget. On climate change, one party is in complete denial and the other is afraid to speak forcefully much less act decisively. One is scary, the other scared. Together, they guarantee the biggest environmental threat of our time if not in all human history doesn't get discussed. Makes no sense considering its importance, but it doesn't come up in debates. Solutions aren't on the to-do list.

Do they find COMMON GROUND? Um, no. They are polarized to the point of dysfunction. The extremists among them regard compromise as a profanity. Moderates are on the verge of extinction. Statesmanship has become an alien concept. The use of wedge issues to divide us has been raised to an art form.

Are they working for the COMMON GOOD? Another failing grade. Time and again government policies are skewed to benefit the few at the expense of the many. The gap between the rich and the rest keeps growing. Income inequality in America is reaching historic proportions.

We need at least one party that owes its allegiance to the whole of society. We need a Common Party.

When we get one, the difference will be black and white.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Common Creed

Another time for nose holding is nearly upon us, another time when "none of the above" would win more than a few elections in America if such a ballot option existed. Twice before such widespread alienation and dissatisfaction brought about a major resculpting of the political landscape, and both times Wisconsin was on center stage in these dramas.

Yesterday's post focused on how a repeat performance might symbolically manifest itself. Today's turns to possible substantive manifestations. The following thoughts are offered as a reminder of what is missing in politics and a plea to search for a better way and imagine what is possible.

We are commoners.

We believe the biggest problem facing Wisconsin and all of America today is a political system that caters to a few at the expense of the many. At the root of this problem is political corruption – a pervasive, systemic corruption that plagues us with “leaders” who are not free to lead and leaves our country paralyzed when it comes to dealing with the most challenging issues of our time.

We believe the way politicians seek public office in this day and age – with advertising that is routinely misleading and often downright untruthful – is immoral and destructive to civic life. Power sought through dishonest means cannot possibly lead to just and honest policymaking or clean and open government.

We believe in a free market, not a market manipulated to favor the most politically privileged participants in our economy.

We believe in all-for-one economics – policies ensuring that the fruits of a vibrant economy benefit the whole of society. We are equally committed to rural revitalization and urban renewal. Instead of subsidizing global conglomerates, efforts to stimulate the economy should emphasize community-based small enterprise development, empower local entrepreneurs and cooperatives, and enable us to once again grow together rather than growing apart. We believe supply-side economic theory has it wrong. Demand, not supply, is the primary driver of economic growth. Trickle-down policies have been a miserable failure, never producing more than a trickle for the masses and producing grotesque economic inequality and the slow but steady extermination of the middle class.

We believe government is necessary to a civil and just society and prosperous economy. But we insist on a limited government – one that is as small as possible and only as big as required to do what society needs done collectively. Government programs that work should be supported and ones that do not should be reformed or ended. Most importantly, what government does must serve the broad public interest and promote the common good, not just benefit those who lavishly fund election campaigns or have high-priced lobbyists advocating on their behalf.

We believe in living within our means and paying for what we get today instead of mortgaging the future and saddling generations to come with our debts.

We believe in one-for-all taxation. We see no need for new taxes, but insist that everyone pay the ones we already have. There should be one tax system that applies equally and fairly to all, not two as is effectively the case today – one for the wealthy and well-connected enabling them to avoid paying their fair share and another for the rest of us without the tax shelters and escape hatches.

We believe we are all in the same boat and will sink or sail together. We believe in waging war on poverty, not poor people. We believe it is everyone’s right to pursue material gain and accumulate wealth, but vigorously object to its use to buy government favors or special treatment.

We believe in aspiring to intelligence, not belittling it. Becoming well educated and learning to think critically should be valued and expected, not feared or obstructed. Education is our best hope for building a better and more prosperous future, and our best weapon against economic and social decline.

We believe in science. And we believe we all have a duty to respect nature and take care of the air, water and land. Environmental protection is not the enemy of economic development. A healthy economy and healthy planet must go hand in hand. We believe there are three bottom lines in business. A truly productive and successful company is one that is financially profitable, one whose workers and customers are treated justly and well, and one that is a responsible steward of natural resources.

We believe in the free exercise of religion. In the interest of safeguarding this freedom, we believe in the separation of church and state, as state intrusion into religious practice intolerably threatens the freedom to worship while church influence over governing poses a grave and unacceptable danger to democracy.

We believe in the right of privacy and placing trust in individuals to make their own life choices and in families to serve as the moral backbone of our society. The limited government we insist on should not only be restrained in matters of the economy, it should be unintrusive with respect to our personal lives, morality and sexuality.

We believe in standing for and working to guarantee the basic human rights of all people regardless of race, gender, class, physical condition or sexual orientation, including all those enumerated in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the United States of America and ratified by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Brands And Breeds And Subversive Deeds

Monday I suggested that maybe the time has come for a new political brand. Then I got to wondering how the donkey ever became the symbol of the Democrats and the elephant the emblem of the Republicans. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, the answer came in no time.

The donkey's association with the Democrats dates all the way back to 1828. During Andrew Jackson's presidential campaign his opponents called him a jackass, which amused Jackson and inspired him to use the image of the strong-willed animal on his campaign posters. Later, cartoonist Thomas Nast used the Democratic donkey in newspaper cartoons and made the symbol famous.

Turns out Nast also had a hand in enshrining the Republican elephant. In an 1874 cartoon, Nast drew a donkey clothed in lion's skin, scaring away all the animals at the zoo. One of those animals, the elephant, was labeled “The Republican Vote.” That's all it took for the elephant to become the enduring symbol of the Republican Party.

So here we are in the 21st Century and the logos of the two major political brands are 19th-Century creations. What exactly are their relevance in this day and age? Donkeys are known to be stubborn, not especially bright, but possess great endurance. Elephants are slow moving, powerful and are said to have long memories. Today neither animal does a thing for the average American. Wait a minute, maybe these are apt symbols after all.

If a compelling case for a new political brand is building – and I think it is, what with the swelling ranks of the politically homeless and their utter dissatisfaction with both major parties – then what should it be?

A good symbol needs to be familiar, instantly recognizable and memorable. And, well, symbolic. Sticking with the animal theme, what could be a better fit here in Wisconsin than the cow? Cows are synonymous with Wisconsin and our state's strong work ethic. They are a damn sight more useful day to day than either donkeys or elephants. They help nourish our children, and us grown ups too.

Imagine this new brand gets established and a whole new breed of candidates begin challenging Republicans and Democrats alike – not as a third party but as a first-party insurgency in GOP and Democratic primary elections. You can hear the rallying cries already. Put the Cow in the Capitol!  Kick Their Ass!  Throw the Trunk in the Junk!

There has to be substance behind the symbolism of a new brand. A new political breed needs to stand for something new and different. And it needs a name. Some thoughts on that tomorrow....

Monday, October 22, 2012

From Third To First

Clearly the current political landscape is stomach turning for most if not nearly all citizens. That’s why the ranks of the politically homeless have grown so. Pew Research Center findings show that the number of Americans who refuse to align with either major party is at its highest level in 70 years. That speaks volumes about the disillusionment so many feel about politics and those in power.

The question is what to do about it. Neither major party is seen as working for the common good or doing what’s best for America. They are seen as working for the narrow, wealthy interests that fund them. This leads more than a few to pine for a third way.

The problem is that third parties in this country are destined to fail. Third parties fail because, well, their aim is to make it so we have three parties. For better or worse, ours is a two-party system. It is not a parliamentary democracy.

Third-party movements also routinely fail because they organize to the left of the Democrats or to the right of the Republicans. Thus they largely operate on the political fringes, and only meaningfully compete for the votes of a small part of the electorate. Put another way, they seek to clip a major party’s wing but don’t try to cut its heart out.

Third-party aficionados rightly lament that their fate is sealed by the fact that we have winner-take-all elections. They have a point when they say that if we had proportional representation or instant runoff voting or one of its variants, things would be different.

Such reforms would greatly benefit society and improve our democracy. The Democracy Campaign has advocated this kind of reform for nearly a decade. But how do you get from point A to point B? How do you get proportional representation or rank-order voting or a none-of-the-above ballot option? Any of these reforms would have to be passed by a legislature controlled by the major parties and signed into law by an executive from one of the major parties. The major parties would have to agree to weaken themselves and threaten their grip on power. Not bloody likely.

So the rules are rigged against third parties and changing the rules won’t happen without the consent of the two major parties. How then do you loosen their stranglehold?

An answer can be found right here at home. Attempts to create alternatives that can shake the major parties to their foundations have succeeded a couple of times in Wisconsin’s history, but in each case they were what I would call first-party movements, not third-party movements.

First-party movements do not aim to give us three parties. They force one of the two existing major parties to either adapt or perish. One time a major party got replaced. The other time both major parties were reformed.

In the time of slavery, the Whig Party was one of the two major parties in America. The Republican Party was born here in Wisconsin out of frustration over the lack of a true anti-slavery party and eventually drove the Whigs to extinction.

And then out of the cauldron of bank failures and economic depression in the 1890s, the Progressive Party rose to challenge the Republicans and Democrats. That first-party movement didn’t end up replacing either, but reformed both. Both parties developed predominant Progressive wings. Teddy Roosevelt was elected president as a Progressive Republican. Woodrow Wilson won the presidency as a Progressive Democrat. The nation's character, and Wisconsin's in particular, were fundamentally reshaped.

The lesson from the history books is to stop hoping for three parties and start focusing on creating one that is worth a damn. You do that by creating some competition in the form of a new political brand and then go to battle in major party primaries to win voters over to that new brand.

To be both constructive and successful, the brand can’t be an appeal to the fringes, it has to be a threat to the major parties by strongly appealing to the heart of the electorate. It also can’t be a resurrection of an old political brand. The Progressive label, for example, doesn't means what it once did; the term is now loaded. If there’s a new political brand to be created, it needs a new name.

Rather than trying to run candidates on a separate party line on the ballot, leaving them vulnerable to the spoiler and wasted-vote phenomena, why not compete directly with the major parties in their own primary elections? Most people who end up voting for Republicans or Democrats are actually politically homeless. Most hate both parties. Create some competition within each party. Give people an appealing new option within each party.

In private industry, if a product is out there and no longer seems to meet the needs of consumers, some competitor jumps into the market with a new and improved product. The same principle needs to be applied to politics, in a realistic way that takes into account the way the American system is structured.

Third-party organizing has been tried many times, and many times it has failed. First-party organizing has been tried twice – when enough people were feeling alienated and politically homeless – and two times it succeeded in producing major political realignment and reform. Maybe we are approaching another such moment when the established political arrangement can be subverted from within. Maybe the time has come for a new political brand. What might that brand look like? More on that soon....

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Our Mouseland

Ever get the feeling we're a nation of mice ruled by cats?

The question is unquestionably pertinent to the times we live in, but I am hardly the first to ask it. It was far more famously posed by the late, great Canadian statesman Tommy Douglas. Douglas was no ordinary politician. The CBC, Canada’s national television network, named him “The Greatest Canadian” in 2004, based on a viewer survey. Yet he is known by few if any Americans despite being grandfather to the Hollywood actor Kiefer Sutherland.

Douglas was elected to Canada’s House of Commons in 1935 and served with distinction there for nine years. He then left federal politics to become Premier of Saskatchewan in 1944. One of the many highlights of his time as Premier came near the end of his 17-year tenure when his administration established the continent’s first universal health care program in Saskatchewan. Word of the success of the province’s medicare program spread like wildfire and quickly got the attention of the federal government, which in 1966 created a national health care program modeled after Saskatchewan’s.

Douglas was beloved as much for his homespun gift of gab as for his formidable accomplishments in the political arena. He was a master storyteller, and his speeches often took the form of fables. He was especially fond of telling his audiences a fable called “Mouseland.” He spoke of a nation of mice governed by cats. The masses either chose black or white cats as their leaders, but never their own mice. The laws of the land were always good ones – for cats.

We’ve become well acquainted with Tommy Douglas’s Mouseland. An American royalty has control of our government. Us mice keep choosing cats to rule us. Sometimes red ones, sometimes blue. But regardless of their color, the laws they write and the programs they establish are all good ones – for cats.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Clear And Colorless

Over the weekend I went with my family to a science fair on the University of Wisconsin campus. There was everything from a way-over-my-head display on stem cell research to a crash-dummy demonstration of how much force is behind those highlight-reel hits by football players, which not coincidentally was next to a multimedia presentation on concussion research. Among the highlights of the fair was a Bill Nye the Science Guy type of show put on by Lebanese-born chemistry professor Bassam Shakhashiri featuring lots of explosions and other neat tricks.

At one point, Dr. Shakhashiri called attention to several long cylinders containing liquids of different colors. Before making them erupt like volcanoes, he pointed to each one and asked the audience what color the liquid was. For the first, quite a few shouted "blue." When he pointed to another, children and adults alike called out "red." He pointed to another containing what looked like water and asked again for his audience to identify the color. I mouthed the word "clear," and probably a dozen others gave the same answer out loud.

Professor Shakhashiri scolded us, noting that all of the liquids were clear but this last one was also colorless and further admonished us that clear and colorless are not the same thing. I learned this weekend what I should have already known, but for my own lackluster effort that earned only a C in high school chemistry.

Just as there is a difference between clear and colorless, there is a difference between freedom and democracy. We live in what unquestionably qualifies as a free and open society. There are undeniably some troubling assaults on essential liberties that must be beaten back, but overall we enjoy a great deal of social and economic freedom, especially when compared to most of the rest of the world.

At the same time, our democracy is quite ill. In a healthy democracy, political power is widely shared. Today in America, real power is concentrated in the hands of a very few. Most people believe their voices aren't being heard and a great many are convinced their votes don't count for much.

This is the American paradox. We are both free and increasingly undemocratic. We can more or less do as we please, but we have little or no say over anything important.

This is the genius of America's ruling class. They avoid the pitfalls that regularly ensnare two-bit dictators and authoritarian regimes by allowing us substantial freedom while still exercising near-full control over the direction of public debate and public policy. They do it by owning the information and systematically propagandizing the population. And they do it by working us and entertaining us to death, keeping us free but perpetually distracted while they go about accomplishing their aims. Those aims cost us a great deal, but we either don't notice or don't care because we freely occupy ourselves with an anesthetic combination of work-a-day responsibilities and trivial pursuits.

An open society is precious. Freedom is worth paying a steep price to have. But so is democracy. Trouble is, many if not most among us aren't worrying too much about democracy's sickly condition because they don't distinguish between the freedom we have and the democracy we don't.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Out With The Big And In With The Small

Most regular people are feeling helpless if not hopeless when it comes to the commanding influence of money in politics. Different people call what we have now different things, but mostly agree it's not much of a democracy so long as power is concentrated in so few hands. At least as far as election financing goes, our system qualifies as a plutocracy (government of, by and for the rich). Some might say we have a kakistocracy (government by the worst and most unprincipled people). Or maybe a kleptocracy (government run by thieves).

Word play aside, the reality of today's politics is that money does not talk, it screams. And the root of the money problem is that there is so much of it and it comes from so few.

Part of what caused our current mess is systematic neglect and malpractice by elected officials who refuse to acknowledge much less repair obsolete campaign finance rules and anti-corruption laws. Another part of the cause is that the Supreme Court took a look at 45 of the most important words ever written and decided that when those words were penned two centuries earlier the authors must have meant "money" when they used the word "speech" and really meant "corporations" when they said "people."

Over the long haul, anyone who believes in democracy has a duty to do what it takes to make sure these rulings end up in the trash bin of history where they belong. But that will likely take decades. In the meantime, there is much that can and must be done to work around the legal nonsense foisted on us by the Supremes and, in so doing, make political power less concentrated and more widely dispersed.

One way to do that is to insist on long-overdue updates to ethics laws that once protected the public from government corruption but no longer do so. Another way is to press for new laws enhancing corporate accountability and protecting shareholder rights, like the state legislation proposed last session and supported by the Democracy Campaign. If the Supreme Court is going to treat things as human beings and allow those things to spend unlimited amounts on elections, then the things should have to notify the human beings  namely investors  who supply them with capital and should have to get the investors' permission to use their money this way.

But the most important short-term treatment for the sickness that has been visited on us and our democracy involves direct intervention in how the money flows. Again, the root of the money problem is there is so much of it and it comes from so few. For the time being, the courts are insisting that money flow freely and all but a handful of elected lawmakers are doing nothing to challenge the judges. So until sanity returns, all spigots have to be opened wide. In which case, we need more spigots. To be more precise, we need to make sure that all the money is not pouring out of a few enormous spigots.

Put another way, we can fight big money with small money.

A small donor empowerment plan was just introduced in Congress, and the Democracy Campaign has proposed a reform plan based on the same model for state elections here in Wisconsin. The idea is simple. Make small donations worth a lot more than they are worth today. Give candidates a strong reason – and a big reward – for seeking small contributions from the local communities they want to represent. And hence give more people a reason to believe that making a small contribution will actually make a difference.

If the incentives provided by the public matching programs in our plan and the one just proposed in Congress could convince as little as 5% of the population to make small political donations, big money could be replaced by small money in our elections.

For years now, politicians of every stripe have embraced the old idiom "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" and surrendered to the concentrated power of the few in our society who can afford to pump massive amounts of money into the political process. We have it within our power to put a subversive twist on that idiom. If you can't stop 'em, outnumber 'em.

Monday, September 17, 2012

What Citizens United Has Wrought

You can likely count on one hand, with fingers to spare, the number of Supreme Court rulings that your average American can name, much less explain. Citizens United is one of the few. An unusually large number of people know of the case and have formed an opinion about the court's decision. The words "Citizens United" have become part of our political vocabulary, shorthand for democracy for sale.

Even fairly casual observers know that the Citizens United ruling blessed unlimited corporate spending in elections. But when most people hear the word "corporation," they think business corporation. And they probably expected Citizens United to unleash an explosion of campaign ads sponsored by Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil and the Bank of America. When that didn't happen, some concluded that Citizens United must not have been such a big deal.

Business corporations were never going to be the ones, visibly at least, to exploit the ruling and sponsor a torrent of campaign advertisements. Companies want to sell to everyone, and it's not good for business to alienate half of the population. What Citizens United was always most likely to do, and what it has in fact done, is produce an explosion in the number of political corporations. These new corporations – the offspring of Citizens United and a subsequent case called SpeechNow – now dot the landscape, many of them getting vast amounts of money funneled to them by businesses and their top executives.

As of today, 844 federal Super PACs have been formed to influence the 2012 presidential race and other federal elections. Some are for the Republicans and some are for the Democrats. They have names like Restore Our Future, Priorities USA, American Crossroads, Winning Our Future, Endorse Liberty, Make Us Great Again, and Liberty for All. Then there's Now or Never, New Prosperity Foundation, Prosperity First, Brighter Future Fund, Strong America Now, American Sunrise, America Shining, and Restoring America. Not to mention America for Americans and Americans for America (no, I am not making that up, there really are two separate groups with those names). And there's America Forever, America Get Up, America on the Move, American Crosswinds, American Crosswords, Americans for Balance, Americans for New Leadership, Americans for Real Change and, of course, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow. That last one is comedian Stephen Colbert's real-life parody of all these other groups.

The meter is obviously running, but at last count these Super PACs have raised more than $349 million raised so far in 2012 and have spent over $243 million. Conservative Super PACs are outspending their liberal counterparts by more than 3 to 1. Despite getting their heads handed to them in this game, the Democrats are warmly embracing Super PACs.

And here's the statistic that speaks volumes about the fundamental character of these outfits: Of the money Super PACs have raised from individual donors, 80% has come from just 196 Americans. That's 63 one-millionth of 1% (.000063%) of the population giving four-fifths of the money.

On top of the Super PACs, there are 59 nonprofit “charities” that have spent $70 million so far in 2012 to influence national elections. These include groups like Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Crossroads GPS (an arm of Karl Rove's American Crossroads), League of Conservation Voters, Planned Parenthood, the National Rifle Association, Right to Life and the Club for Growth. These political groups are masquerading as tax-exempt charitable organizations, meaning that American taxpayers are subsidizing their political agendas. And unlike Super PACs, there is no disclosure of their donors. They can keep their sources of funds a secret. By the way, conservative nonprofits are outspending liberal ones by more than 6 to 1.

Here in Wisconsin, election authorities approved a rule (GAB 1.91) after the Citizens United decision came down, allowing committees to be formed to do unlimited corporate spending in state elections. After the rule went into effect in 2010, 13 such groups were formed to influence that year's elections. Twenty-one more were formed in 2011 to sponsor advertising aimed at swaying voters in last summer's recall elections. And then another 23 were formed in 2012 to influence this year's recalls as well as the regular elections this fall.

Among these state political corporations are the American Federation for Children, Citizens for a Progressive Wisconsin, Advancing Wisconsin, Wisconsin Right to Life, Republican State Leadership Committee, Koch Industries, Greater Wisconsin, Working America, Progressive Kick Wisconsin, Sportsmen for Wisconsin's Hunting Heritage, Taxpayers Hoping for Change, Patriot Advisors, Equality Wisconsin, Restore Wisconsin's Image and Reputation, Rebuild the Dream in Wisconsin, Coalition for American Values, Independents for Better Government, and Midwest Victory Team.

These groups and the rest of the 57 political corporations formed after the 2010 Citizens United ruling have collectively spent over $25 million on campaigning in Wisconsin elections. Because of inadequate state campaign finance disclosure laws, these groups are able to keep the public in the dark about where their money comes from.

Disclosure is inadequate because Citizens United rendered Wisconsin's disclosure laws obsolete overnight. Corporate election spending was banned in this state in 1905. So of course there was no law requiring disclosure of corporate election spending, because there was no such spending, it was illegal. When the Supreme Court struck down that ban in the Citizens United case, we not only lost the protection against the corrupting effects of unlimited corporate cash in elections but we also didn't get disclosure. Transparency in these transactions would require new laws requiring the disclosure of the origins of the funds fueling corporate electioneering. New laws that neither the current Republican-controlled legislature nor the Democratic majority that preceded it have enacted.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Wearing Our Children's Clothes

I think it was Thomas Jefferson who said that expecting each new generation to forever live by the customs and laws of past generations is like expecting adults to wear the same clothes that fit them as children.

If only Wisconsin lawmakers would heed that wisdom.

Our state outlawed bribery in 1897. Ponder that for a moment. That means for the first half-century of statehood it was perfectly legal to bribe a public official in Wisconsin. But the people eventually grew sufficiently intolerant of that corrupt practice and it was banned. It was that sort of law that earned Wisconsin its reputation as a beacon of clean, open and honest government.

Today the bribery law offers little real protection from political corruption. Only a total fool would offer or accept an old-fashioned bribe when there are completely legal means to accomplish the same aims. The bribery ban is toothless today because it is silent on the money in election campaigns. So is the gift ban that was added to the state ethics code in 1973. The code's conflict of interest law enacted that same year also says nothing about campaign contributions.

Not addressing campaign money undoubtedly didn't seem like much of an oversight in 1973. After all, that was when Bill Proxmire was spending $150 or $200 on his statewide campaigns and was repeatedly elected to represent Wisconsin in the U.S. Senate. Lawmakers in 1973 couldn't possibly have seen $81 million elections for governor or multi-million dollar races for a seat in the legislature coming.

While their lack of foresight is understandable and therefore forgiveable, our inability or unwillingness to adapt ethics laws to today's political realities is neither comprehensible nor pardonable. Wisconsin remains stuck with an ethics code for public officials that made sense 40 years ago but no longer fits given how we've grown. We have an ethics code that stands guard against the corruption that could possibly result from someone buying a legislator a beer, but offers no protection from the corruption that is infinitely more likely to result from someone spending hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars on advertising singing a legislator's praises.

It is long past time to think about how utterly obsolete the bribery law and the gift ban and other such anti-corruption measures have become, how ridiculous these laws now look, and how little they do to keep the political system clean and honest. If you give a politician a t-shirt with your company's name on it, or a coffee mug bearing your group's logo, you are committing a crime. But it's entirely legal to write out a check for $500 or $1,000 or $10,000 and hand it to that same politician. What's more valuable to politicians – and what's more likely to influence them – the t-shirt or the check? The mug or the money?

We've allowed a fiction to grow up around us that there is no problem with large amounts of money changing hands in politics. It's considered free speech. As if an act of patriotism. It's called a "contribution" or "donation." Sounds downright charitable. It's time to call it what it is. Bribery. There's nothing charitable or patriotic about that. Bribery is a crime and its modern form should be recognized and treated as such.

We've grown accepting of, or at least resigned to, money's dominion over politics. If there's to be a future for American democracy, we have to get over that. We have to become as intolerant of corrupt practices as the people of this state were a hundred years ago.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

You Call These Elections?

Even before the smoking guns were found, it was obvious that Wisconsin Republicans took full advantage of the redistricting process last year and drew new district maps designed to tilt the electoral scales in their favor.

The biggest losers, however, are not the Democrats. That distinction belongs to the voters.

This becomes clear when you look at the votes by legislative district in the 2008 election for president and the 2010 election for governor – one a strong Democratic year, the other a big year for Republicans.

Based on voting patterns from those two years, only four of the 33 new senate districts are purple; that is, true battlegrounds where elections could go either way. Nine are either light red or blue, meaning they either clearly lean Republican or show a tendency to favor the Democrats. The other 20 are bright red or vivid blue. Solidly Republican or solidly Democratic.

Of the 99 districts in the Assembly, the 2008 and 2010 election results show that 12 of the new districts qualify as toss ups. Another 21 lean Republican or lean Democratic, with 17 of the leaners on the Republican side compared to just four for the Democrats. The remaining 66 assembly districts are solid for one party or the other.

There are 33 districts (28 assembly and five senate) where there is a major-party candidate who will go unchallenged in the November election. Voters literally won't have a choice and the outcomes of those elections are obviously foregone conclusions. But in the vast majority of the other districts, the choice voters will have looks to be an empty one, especially when you look at how the financial competitiveness of the races are shaping up in addition to the effects of redistricting.

There are only five races (four assembly and one senate) where the worst-funded candidate has at least 70% of what the best-funded candidate in the race has. Interestingly, only one of the races where there are competitive cash balances at this point in the election season is in a district that qualifies as a toss-up based on 2008 and 2010 election outcomes. That's in central Wisconsin's 72nd Assembly District, where the incumbent Republican legislator has about a $5,000 fundraising edge over his Democratic challenger so far.

The assembly's 37th district is an open seat and both parties' candidates have about the same amount of money so far, with about a $500 edge to the Democrat. But based on the 2008 presidential election and the 2010 election for governor, the 37th rates as a solidly Republican district. The 43rd district race pits two incumbents who are running in the same district under the new maps. The Republican has raised close to $11,000 more so far than the Democrat, but the district went for Obama for president in 2008 and Tom Barrett for governor in 2010. The 86th district is an open seat that clearly leans Republican.

The only senate race that is close financially so far is in the 18th district surrounding the southern part of Lake Winnebago where the Democrat has raised more than $80,000 so far, with her Republican opponent collecting about three-quarters of that amount. The 18th leans Republican, however, going for Obama by a whisker in 2008 but Walker by a wide margin in 2010.

When you look at both how the districts are drawn and how the money is stacking up, there are precious few races that look to be competitive this fall. The combined effect of redistricting and fundraising makes voters virtually powerless in almost all districts.

Not a pretty picture. And not the way democracy is supposed to work.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Only Issue

When everything is important to do, nothing that really matters gets done.

That is the essence of what Thoreau expressed so much more eloquently: "There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root."

If you care to admit how deep our country's problems run and if you care a whit about the future we bequeath to our children and grandchildren, Lawrence Lessig's book Republic, Lost is must reading. If this brilliant assessment of the condition of our democracy is anything, it is a clarion call for rootstriking.

Branches of evil abound. Witness the recklessness and irresponsibility on Wall Street that brought America's  and the world's  economy to its knees. The only surprise is that anyone was surprised, after Depression-era protections against such chicanery were systematically weakened and eventually swept away altogether. Banks became glorified casinos. In 3...2...1..., the financial system descended into chaos. Homes were lost. Life savings vanished. Economic growth ground to a halt. Sales slumped. Employers laid off millions. Factories were shuttered.

Were banksters thrown in jail? No. Was Glass-Steagall reenacted? No. Why not? Because, at the root, our nation's "leaders" are not free to lead. They are paid by the likes of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase and Citigroup and Bank of America to do nothing.

For others, the branch that simply must be hacked is the massive redistribution of wealth in America and the slow but steady extermination of the middle class. In 2010, 93% of all income growth in the U.S. went to the wealthiest 1%. The concentration of wealth at the top is the greatest in living memory.

Are tax rates for millionaires and billionaires being restored to levels seen in past years when our economy was most prosperous and America was growing together rather than growing apart? No. Why not? Because, at the root, our "leaders" are not free to lead. The 2010 midterm congressional elections were bankrolled by less than 1% of Americans and 2012 will be no different. The richest 1% control one-third of America's net worth, but just 1% of the 1% contribute a quarter of the money to all federal political campaigns.

Some see climate change as the problem that none of us can afford to see go unaddressed. Yet our nation's "leaders" have their heads buried in the sand on global warming. Is Congress moving on cap-and-trade legislation to address carbon emissions? No. Are big public investments being made in renewable energy sources? No. Compared to federal subsidies for oil and gas production, green energy gets almost nothing. Why? Because, at the root, our "leaders" are paid by Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries and Chevron to remain in denial over climate change.

Few things affect all of us as much as what we eat. Yet our food policy is a mess. All manner of poisons are dumped on crops, and regulations have been eased. Drug allergies are on the rise and more antibiotic-resistant bacteria emerge almost daily, yet factory farmers are allowed to "treat" disease prophylactically by feeding healthy cattle antibiotics. We face alarming levels of childhood obesity and unprecedented rates of diabetes among children, yet we continue to heavily subsidize the processed food industry and the production of high-fructose corn syrup among other culprits. Why? At the root, Monsanto and Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland and their ilk are paying handsomely to make sure our nation's "leaders" keep things the way they are.

As Lessig concludes, there really is only one issue in America. Our "leaders" are not free to lead on any of the gigantic problems facing our country. There are countless branches of evil, but one root that must be struck.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Wisconsin's Enemy Within

First you are surprised. Then you get mad. Then you shrug. Then you are numb.

I was reminded of the path so many follow in their thinking about money in politics and corruption in government when I received an email the end of last week from someone wishing me "good luck in getting into the 'subterranean,' the 'tentacles of corrupt money' that infiltrate our elections.... We just have to try living with some things, no matter how badly they stink. Wish we could fix some of this, but money talks."

Wisconsin used to be known from coast to coast for squeaky clean politics and open, honest government. That reputation was the byproduct of stratospherically high ethical standards. Our state was in the vanguard of the war on corruption when bribery was banned here in 1897, and Wisconsin blazed another new trail when corporate electioneering was prohibited in 1905. Standards were further raised with the enactment of the Corrupt Practices Act in 1911. Primary elections were pioneered here, opening up the process of nominating candidates for public office, turning over to voters a task previously performed by party bosses in smoke-filled rooms.

The 1970s brought new waves of ethics and campaign finance reform, most notably the establishment of a comprehensive ethics code that included the nation's strictest gift ban prohibiting lobbyists from giving "anything of value" to state officials. That same decade Wisconsin became one of the first states to start publicly financing election campaigns.

In 1978 Wisconsin's high standards were on prominent display when a state senator named Henry Dorman was criminally charged for an intolerable ethical breach. The charges were eventually dismissed, but not until after voters threw him out of office and ended his political career. His crime? Charging a few personal calls to a state telephone credit card.

Looking back, we probably should have known in 1976 that the days of high ethical standards in Wisconsin politics were numbered unless we took fairly drastic actions. That's the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case called Buckley v. Valeo that money is speech. At the time, Bill Proxmire was spending $150 or $200 on his statewide campaigns for office and Wisconsin voters were repeatedly sending him back to Washington to represent us in the U.S. Senate. No one could yet imagine that in our lifetimes we would see over $80 million spent electing a governor.

The way the money game in politics evolved in the next several decades has made a mockery of our ethics code. The gift ban's definition of "anything of value" does not cover the thing of greatest value to today's politicians – campaign contributions. In 1973 when the law was enacted and Bill Proxmire embodied Wisconsin politics, that probably didn't seem like much of an oversight. Today, in the age of Citizens United and Super PACs and Scott Walker, that omission renders the law meaningless. The gift ban isn't worth the paper it's written on.

This past year has been a rough one for high ethical standards in Wisconsin politics. Just about every fundraising and spending record, broken. Smear campaigning, everywhere. Public financing, repealed. Public faith in the system, bottomed out. One blow after another to the body of democracy.

But the biggest blow of all to the Wisconsin way is the state of mind of most of our citizens when it comes to the political landscape. Most of us are not surprised anymore. Most of us are not mad, at least not enough to act on our anger. Most of us just shrug. Most of us are numb.

I had the honor of talking with a delegation of Argentine municipal officials when they visited our state last week. They were here thanks to an exchange program sponsored by the U.S. State Department. I have no doubt I learned more from our meeting than they did. For my part, however, I pulled no punches in assessing the condition of American democracy, and openly condemned both government policy and the behavior of elected officials. Several of the Argentine guests told the translators they were surprised our government had allowed them to meet with me considering how critical I was of the American system.

Their observation made an impression on me. The best thing about America's system is that we've always expected it to be the best in the world. And we have had the freedom to speak up about what is wrong with it. Democracy is not dead so long as we remain free and willing to do so. But democracy won't be as strong as it can and should be unless the expectations we have and the standards those expectations lead us to set are sky high.

Democracy in our land faces greater threats than any seen in our lifetimes. We have our work cut out for us as citizens. There are a great many corrupt behaviors and practices that need to be stopped. The first is our own indifference.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Better Ways To Spend $81 Million

This week the Democracy Campaign issued a report showing that candidates, interest groups and political committees spent $81 million on the recall election for governor. Reflect on that a moment . . . $81 million was just spent in the pursuit of political power, with the aim of convincing voters that Scott Walker is a scandal-plagued, promise-breaking, "right-wing rock star" and that Tom Barrett has singlehandedly thrown Milwaukee's finances into disarray, put most everyone there out of work and rubbed salt in their wounds by repeatedly raising their taxes.

For anyone whose life does not revolve around the pursuit of political power, it is impossible to ponder $81 million being spent in Wisconsin on a state election – more than double the previous record that was just set in the last election for governor in 2010 – without thinking about how much good that kind of money could do if spent for some productive purpose.

Think what the Brewers could do with $81 million. They could have a bullpen. With plenty left over for other roster upgrades.

Or that $81 million could go for something important. It could fund the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation's entire budget for a year. That's the agency formerly known as the state Commerce Department that is responsible for promoting job creation. Think about that. A bunch of millionaires and billionaires and special interest groups from across the country just dumped as much money into smear campaigns as Wisconsin spends in a year promoting job growth.

The $81 million wealthy donors poured into trashy ads that poison our democracy while nourishing the bottom lines of the media conglomerates would cover the budget for the state's Environmental Improvement Fund for nearly two full years. This is the program that helps local communities provide safe drinking water and protect public health by funding improvements to wastewater treatment facilities, storm water runoff projects, as well as helping municipalities build, upgrade or replace public water systems.

All the money spent on the governor's race could provide more than 25 years worth of funding for the agency that provides services to victims of child abuse and neglect and finances prevention efforts. Or it could fund the agency charged with assisting people with developmental disabilities for 60 years.

The governor's race is obviously not the only example of how mind-boggling sums of money are poured down a rat hole, nor is it the biggest. By the time this year's presidential election is over, some $3 billion is expected to have been spent on advertising that often is deceptive, sometimes downright untruthful and always dispiriting.

That's as much as the federal government spends in a year on the entire Community Development Block Grant program. Three billion dollars. That's what the federal government spends in a year on urban renewal projects aimed at revitalizing our cities, programs to create affordable housing, and efforts across the country to stimulate community development and stabilize neighborhoods hard hit by foreclosures.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Walker's Legal Defense Fund Paid Public Relations Bill

A fund created by Governor Scott Walker to pay legal expenses associated with a John Doe probe doled out nearly $10,000 for a public relations bill in the closing weeks of his June 5 recall election, a report filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service shows.

A report filed by the Scott Walker Trust shows it paid $9,988 May 15 to APCO Worldwide Inc. in Chicago - one of the largest independent public relations agencies in the country.  The purpose of the expenditure was listed as "public relations" on the quarterly reported filed with the IRS.

Walker established the fund in March to pay legal bills in connection with a three-year-old John Doe probe by the Milwaukee County District Attorney's Office into the activities of former aides to Walker while he was Milwaukee County executive.  Walker has repeatedly said he is not the target of the probe and that the fund was established to pay lawyers to review emails and other documents as part of the probe.

So far, three former aides, a county appointee and a campaign donor have been accused or convicted on charges ranging from illegal campaign contributions to campaigning on state time to embezzlement.

The report to the IRS shows Walker's defense fund spent $155,489 of the $160,000 transferred to it as of June 30 by Friends of Scott Walker, his gubernatorial fundraising committee.  Except for the public relations bill, the remaining payouts went to three law firms. 

The report shows the fund paid $115,000 to Sidley Austin LLP, a Chicago law firm where Walker has reportedly retained the services of criminal defense attorney John Gallo.  The fund also paid $29,200 to Milwaukee attorney Michael Steinle and his law firm, Terschan & Steinle Ltd. and $1,301 to Lind Weininger LLC, a Madison law firm.


Friday, June 29, 2012

Democracy Disconnected

No doubt remains that there is a profound disconnect between the people of this state and nation and their elected representatives.

Among the current inhabitants of the Capitol, either in Washington or Madison, there is a high degree of comfort with today's politics, and especially with the role money plays. And that peace of mind with respect to how the game is played crosses party lines.

Venture off Capitol Hill and across the Potomac, and you find a bipartisan consensus that the political game is rigged and the players are crooked. Same's true closer to home when you leave Wisconsin's Capitol Square.

According to the recently released "American Values Survey" by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic magazine, seven in 10 Americans believe the actions of elected officials reflect the values of the wealthy, not those of working-class people. Americans are united in their belief that money and lobbyists have too much influence in politics, with 78% of Republicans and 73% of Democrats agreeing on this point. Eight in 10 Americans believe there is too much money spent on election campaigns, with 83% of Republicans and 80% of Democrats agreeing with the following statement: "There is too much money concentrated among a small number of groups and individuals spent on political campaigns in America, and strict limits should be placed on campaign spending and contributions."

Supermajorities of people of every political stripe are sick and tired of the rigged political game and the crooked players. Yet those players, the elected representatives of the sick and tired, stubbornly resist reform and shamelessly cater to the small number of groups and individuals who supply them with their campaign money.

In a country whose founders rebelled against taxation without representation, we now have elected officials giving their cash constituents representation without taxation. What do their voting constituents get? Sicker and more tired.

It'll end some day, but not until the bipartisan citizen consensus that the system is sick turns into a bipartisan rebellion against those who spread the disease.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Party Of Big Government And The Welfare State

The political class is full of people who believe that perception is reality, and who are committed to spinning people dizzy so their distorted perception becomes a disfigured reality that favors the spinners and the benefactors on whose behalf they do their voodoo.

In America today we have one political party that is seen as the pro-government party and another seen as the anti-government party. Funny thing is, it was the anti-government party that was responsible for the biggest expansion of government in the last 50 years, an inconvenient truth told by one of that party's leading voices 10 years before he was one of the last men standing for his party's presidential nomination.

The sprawling bureaucracy known as the Department of Homeland Security was created by the Homeland Security Act of 2002 sponsored by one of the anti-government party's top congressional leaders with co-sponsorship by well over 100 of that party's members before being overwhelmingly approved by both houses of Congress and signed into law by the anti-government party's president. A mere decade after its establishment, DHS ranks as the third largest cabinet-level federal agency.

This vast expansion of government power manifests itself in countless ways, from patdowns and full-torso scans to body cavity searches and phone wiretaps. It is the police state on steroids, courtesy of America's anti-government party.

Reality is reality. Although it's hard to tell sometimes with all the efforts to scramble the signals by cynically manipulating perception. One of the anti-government party's most beloved figures completed his transformation from lightweight actor to national political colussus in 1976 by spinning a fictitious yarn about a "welfare queen" on the south side of Chicago with 80 names, 30 addresses and 12 Social Security cards who was collecting veterans benefits for four nonexistent deceased husbands as well as other public aid that brought her tax-free income to over $150,000 a year.

He understood perception. He cared little about truth. He was not bothered by irony. In 1976 and 1996 and 2006 the anti-government party was the most outspoken and ardent defender of what is by far the biggest component of the welfare state. It remains so today. It maintains a flow of government assistance to the nation's corporate welfare kings that dwarfs what those stigmatized by the "welfare queen" label could ever hope to see.

Reality is reality. If we're not too disoriented to see it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Common Threads Politicians Can't See

The ranks of America's politically homeless are larger than at any time in 70 years. This is no accident. Nor is it sustainable.

It is no accident because both major parties currently are blind to common threads that could be used to knit together segments of society that for the time being are torn apart. It is not sustainable because broad and deep public disenchantment with both parties creates a vacuum and vacuums never last forever in democracies.

Today both the Democrats and Republicans are captive parties that cater to narrow interest groups. Neither is seen as working for the benefit of the whole country. Which is why it's been three-quarters of a century since so many people have refused to align with either major party.

At similar moments in our nation's past, transformational forces have risen up and challenged the major parties to either adapt or perish. Sometimes they've adapted as waves of reform washed over them. Other times unsustainable conditions led to major party realignment. Another such moment approaches.

There are common threads available to any politician or political party with a hankering for sewing. When the time comes  and it will come  that the risk of uniting finally outweighs the rewards of dividing, the sewing should start where the rips are most evident.

Someone or some party has to put forward a vision, and practical policies embodying that vision, of what for lack of a better term could be described as All for One Economics. Today we have two economies. One for the powerful and privileged that works really well for them. And another for everyone else that leaves much to be desired. This too is no accident. It is the result of deliberate policy choices.

The Republicans gave us trickle down, and this reverse-Robin Hood philosophy has ruled over our economy for more than three decades. It hasn't worked. It hasn't made our economy more prosperous. It hasn't made us less vulnerable to globalization and the accompanying outsourcing and offshoring of American jobs. All it's done is further divide us, creating more pronounced class disparities and more intense concentration of wealth at the top. It hasn't filled everyone's cup.

The problem is that for over 30 years now the Democrats have failed to offer a compelling alternative. Democrats have served up their own version of oasis economics. A few are offered refuge from the desert and plenty to drink  while most are left thirsty. This is why they've lost the support of many of the poorest among us.

Moving toward one economy for the betterment of all could start with a decisive move away from corporate welfare. Trying to bribe big companies to create jobs here isn't working now and has never worked. It just pads the profit margins of the companies and ends up subsidizing the movement of jobs overseas. What if we took the hundreds of millions of dollars we are pouring down this rat hole every year here in Wisconsin and the billions wasted nationally and sunk it instead into micro-grants and loans to local entrepreneurs, small enterprises and community cooperatives?

Instead of giving handouts to multi-state or multi-national corporations (which not coincidentally make huge campaign contributions) in the empty hope that they might do something to help Neenah or Janesville or Wausau, what if every penny instead was directed to inventors and innovators living and raising their families right there in Neenah and Janesville and Wausau? They are rooted in those communities, and so are the people they will end up employing if their ventures can get off the ground.

All for One Economics also would require One for All Taxation. Face it, we now have two tax systems. One for those who make big campaign donations and can afford $250-an-hour lobbyists to work the corridors of power to get them write-offs and loopholes to jump through. And another for the rest of us. Many if not most in our society don't want new taxes, but broad agreement can be found on the idea that everyone should pay the ones we've already got.

Many if not most in our society want a limited government. Limited not only in how much it takes from our pocketbooks, but also limited in other respects. Government has no place in the bedroom and its role should be limited to nonexistent in the doctor's office or at the death bed. Common threads abound here that today's polarized politicians cannot see.

To have any hope of getting to common ground, one more thing is definitely needed: At least one political party that behaves in a way enabling it to plausibly make the case that it is nobody's tool. Today both major parties are tools of the powerful and privileged. Neither is seen as working for the benefit of our whole country, and that perception in squarely rooted in the reality that neither party is working in such a fashion. Many if not most in our society clearly don't want government to do too much. But what government does needs to be done for the benefit of all. There's another common thread right there.

The big question is which party will see the common threads and begin using them to knit us back together. The even bigger question is what transformational force will compel them to open their eyes.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Corporate Welfare Programs Sketchy On Jobs But Good For Wealthy Special Interests

A recent state audit couldn't figure out how many jobs were created or retained from the hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars the state gave away through nearly 200 economic development programs since 2007.

But while the job and overall economic development boost - if any - is a mystery, the campaign contributions these corporate welfare programs help the governor and legislators draw from business, manufacturers and more than a dozen other wealthy special interests is known.

A related pay-to-play report released last month by the Democracy Campaign shows the state will spend about $335 million on new tax credits, cuts or other breaks billed to create or retain jobs in fiscal year 2012-13. That works out to $235 a year for a family of four, and the costs will balloon to $439 million or $291 for a family of four by 2020-21.

The report, "Special Interest Smorgasbord," details nearly five dozen proposals that benefit special interests - usually at a cost to consumer protections or pocketbooks - that were passed in the most recent 2011-12 legislative session. And those tax breaks and giveaways are in addition to present economic development programs highlighted in the state audit that cost state taxpayers $226 million in 2009-11.

The special interests that benefit from all this welfare contributed $13.7 million to Republican Governor Scott Walker from 2009 when he started his run for governor through 2011, and $9.9 million to legislators.

In addition to giving the money away, a new state law makes it difficult to gauge their performance, essentially shielding them from accountability.  State agencies that administer the programs are no longer required to report the number of jobs these programs create or retain in an industry or municipality or the amount of tax benefits that are given out and the identity of the recipients that get them.

But measuring the success or failure of these programs isn't a recent problem. Past audits have identified the same problems. A three-part series done in 1999 by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Steve Schultze highlighted the difficulty in Wisconsin and elsewhere of measuring their performance and cost effectiveness.

Another Democracy Campaign report, "Serving the Have-Mores," done in 2005 reviewed about 3,900 state grants and low-interest loans totaling $771 million from 1999 through 2004 to foster job creation and economic development. It found big donors got the biggest breaks, multi-billion-dollar corporations got state aid they didn't need and the required tracking and performance evaluations of many of the programs was spotty.

Sound familiar?