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?

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Things Worth Fighting For

Democrats have had plenty of look-in-the-mirror moments these last 30 years or so. And they never seem to take a real good look. Last week's recall election in Wisconsin was another. And from the sounds of it, there's a lot of excuse making but not much reflection going on.

The Democrats' state party chair chalked up their latest defeat in the governor's race to money. A great many others agreed, laying the blame on the infamous Citizens United decision by the nation's highest court, although in the next breath more than a few Democratic activists scolded the party's braintrust for not trusting the citizen movement behind the recall and for screwing up the election.

In what former party chair Joe Wineke described as a "circular firing squad," Democratic stalwarts aimed shots at the DNC, President Obama and current state chair Mike Tate, among others. For his part and presumably his party's, Tate said there were no regrets, gamely insisting "some things are worth fighting for; some things are worth losing over."


But here's the thing with today's Democrats. Some things are worth fighting for. A few things. But most are not. If you want to know which is which, all you have to do is follow the money.

When it was the ox of one of the Democrats' biggest cash constituencies being gored, Democratic lawmakers were itching to fight, with senators going so far as to flee the state to obstruct a vote on Governor Walker's plan to kneecap public employee unions. The most massive street protests Wisconsin has ever seen were organized and sustained for weeks.

What Democrats did when public employee unions were under siege in Wisconsin is not what they did when the housing bubble burst and foreclosures exploded and large numbers of people were losing their homes. What they did for public sector unions is not what they did for little people caught in a financial vise when banks and Wall Street investment firms started behaving more like casinos and brought the economy to its knees. No walkouts. No mass demonstrations. No banksters sent to jail.

Democrats largely looked the other way at credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations and hedge funds and derivatives and subprime mortgages and other such snake oil. Might that have something to do with the fact that you see Goldman Sachs second and JP Morgan Chase sixth and Citigroup seventh on the list of biggest donors to the 2008 campaign of the Democratic Party's national standard bearer?

When public employee unions yelled jump, Democrats asked how high. But when hundreds of thousands of Americans without strong union representation were losing their private-sector jobs to outsourcing and offshoring, Democrats organized no meaningful opposition. They didn't flee the House and Senate chambers to deny Republicans a quorum and throw up an obstacle to congressional approval of "free trade" hoaxes like NAFTA and CAFTA. Hell, they helped pass those measures. Those job-killing schemes would not and could not have been greenlighted without Democratic support.

If you listen carefully you hear a few platitudes and a little bellyaching from Democrats when Republicans double down on policies that haven't helped the economy but have hurt the poor and middle class for over 30 years and pass a new batch of tax cuts for the rich or a new round of deregulation allowing the air to be more easily polluted or the water more easily poisoned. But you don't see 100,000 people circling the Capitol. You don't see every parliamentary trick in the book being employed to throw a monkey wrench in the works.

Might that be because, even close to home, Democrats are up to their eyeballs in campaign money from big business interests?

There are things worth fighting for and even losing for. But for them to ever be things that can win the hearts and minds of most Wisconsinites and Americans, they have to be in keeping with the political law of universality. That is, they have to be things that make the whole state and whole country better off, not just things that are near and dear to one group of big campaign supporters or another.

If there is a clue to how Democrats could crack the electoral code that leads to a governing majority, it is likely to be found in a paradox that haunts their party: Democrats see the Citizens United ruling and the rule of money as central to their downfall, yet the party establishment only seems to see something as worth fighting for if it will help raise money for the next election.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

After The Finger Pointing

Some Democrats will blame President Obama for their party's defeat in Wisconsin, gnashing their teeth over his refusal to come in and campaign with Tom Barrett. Some will blame the DNC for not jumping in the race with all its might. Some will blame the unions for wasting millions of dollars trying to anoint Scott Walker's opponent in a primary fight. Some will blame Russ Feingold for not accepting a role as savior. Some will blame young people for not going to the polls in droves the way they did in 2008.

When the scapegoating subsides, certain realities are left. The Democratic Party proved unable to beat Wisconsin's most polarizing political figure in living memory, one bankrolled by millionaires and billionaires, some of whom could vote in the election and most of whom could not. The nation's worst job-creation record and a mushrooming cloud of scandal and criminal investigations were not enough to prompt the majority of voters to find the Democrats' standard bearer preferable.

When the scapegoating subsides, the real question remains: Will the Democratic Party finally be forced to come to terms with how damaged its brand really is?

To most eyes, the Democratic Party is the party of government and government employees and their unions. Most people hate the government. How do you build a governing majority with a brand people hate?

You don't.

When the Democrats won the hearts of a majority of people in the past, it was because the party had a big hand in creating things that tangibly benefited everyone or at least directly touched every American family in a major way. Social Security and Medicare. Rural electrification. The GI Bill. The interstate highway system.

Today's Democrats have broken the sacred political law of universality. They may say we're all in this together and need to look out for each other, but people in places like rural Clark County where I grew up don't see them practicing what they preach. Most people in such parts of Wisconsin see today's Democrats standing for health and retirement security and better pay for a few, but not for most. This has created an opening for Republicans to build a rich-poor alliance . . . and a governing majority in Wisconsin.

Liberals dwell on how Republicans have used social issues like abortion, gay marriage and gun rights as wedges to splinter off low-income rural voters who used to vote for Democrats and now reliably support Republicans. The left overlooks the economic wedge the right has skillfully exploited.

Republicans ask people in places like Clark County if they have pensions, and the answer is invariably no. "Well, you are paying for theirs," they tell them. Do you have health insurance? No. Well, you are paying for theirs. Are you getting pay raises? No. Well, you are paying for theirs.

For years now Democrats have not plausibly made the case that they will deliver better health or retirement security or higher pay to all. Only the state's few government workers have so benefited from the Democrats' toil. What is the modern equivalent of the GI Bill that offers every family a path to vocational training or an affordable college education? Where is the digital age's equivalent of rural electrification or the interstate highway system?

We have one party that is scary and another that is scared. If one is paralyzed and afraid to lead, people will opt for the one willing to act even if the actions are overly extreme for most people's tastes. It doesn't mean they hold that party in high esteem or fail to see its faults. The truth is most people hate both parties. The ranks of the politically homeless are growing fast. More Americans refuse to align with either major party than at any time in the last 70 years.

In defeat there is still opportunity for the Democrats. But not if they continue to ignore the law of universality and fail to muster the nerve to really lead. And not if they remain resistant to the obvious remedy for their brand problem. The Democratic Party is the party of government, and most people hate the government. Why? Because increasingly they see it as corrupt, run by people they view as crooked. They don't believe government is working for them, and if it's not going to work for them, then they'd prefer to keep it as small as possible.

One party is seen as standing for big government, the other for no government. But neither is seen as truly working for the people. Both are seen as captive parties that owe allegiance to their big donors and ceaselessly cater to those wealthy interests.

For the Democrats, there is a clear way out of the trap they are in. Maybe their defeat in the recall election will be the wake-up call they need. When the scapegoating finally subsides, maybe they will finally come to terms with the cancer that is growing in the body of democracy and see the impact that disease is having on their party's brand.

I'm not holding my breath. After all, in the nearly 15 years I have been doing this work, a Democratic governor reached out to the Democracy Campaign and asked to meet with us only once. That was to read us the riot act for shining light on his campaign money. In all those years, a Democratic state party chair sought to meet with us one time. That was to ask if we would support legislation to significantly increase the limits on campaign contributions to candidates and parties.