Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Why Stop at the Film Tax Credits?

In case you missed the late news today, the film tax credits are as good as gone (pretty much as we anticipated last week).

I doubt there's much that can be done to reverse this course, but since we're heading down this path that will save us an estimated $10 million over the course of a biennial budget that runs about $57 billion large -- or 0.0175% (all in the name of shaving roughly 0.175% off the estimated budget deficit) -- I think we should all come to ask ourselves "Why aren't we cutting more?"

Allow me to offer a modest proposal.

Every year school districts in Wisconsin waste hundreds of millions of dollars on honors English classes, fine arts and music electives and superfluous humanities classes. We should get rid of them all. Clearly there is absolutely no reason to have any of these courses taught to our students because there is no way for them to make a living here in Wisconsin practicing these trades. The only way for a literary-minded English major to make a living in Wisconsin is to teach. We should just eliminate that option all together.

There is no point in trying to teach our kids to read, comprehend and interpret the written word or to create it beyond what is necessary for an interdepartmental memo since there is no way to make a living crafting penetrating prose or insightful story-telling here in Wisconsin. Having our kids creating well-written works of fiction or non-fiction is pointless in this state; as is story-telling in other forms, such as photography, film or music. We spend just under $10,000 per student per year here in Wisconsin. We can lower that figure significantly by just getting rid of these unnecessary programs.

As things currently stand, Wisconsin has great public schools. A kid can grow up spending 13 years in a Wisconsin public school from K-12 (at a tax-payer expense of roughly $130,000) and receive a quality education in literature or fine arts. They can even attend UW-Madison, which has one of the best English departments is the country, or attend film programs in Madison or Milwaukee or even Oshkosh. But when they're done they have to go elsewhere. Usually it's Chicago or one of the coasts. Why are we wasting all of this tax-payer money investing in children who are inevitably going to leave the state to pursue their profession?

Wisconsin has made large commitments to the agriculture, manufacturing, bioengineering and even tourism industries. These are obviously the future of the state's economy and since we are abandoning our creative industries there's little point in having the state of Wisconsin provide costly quality educations to people who will eventually be living, working and paying taxes in Illinois, California, New York or elsewhere.

Right now Wisconsin isn't a draw for smart young adults who want to design things, play in bands on the weekends and maybe spend a year or two working at Starbuck's before that finally get that business plan put together to start their own web design company -- or the people who want to hang around these folks. We're not keeping them here either. Why not just let them go altogether? Better yet, by selling the Wisconsin educational system as one big vocational school, we'll be able to draw families from around the country who want to raise their kids to be farmers, assembly line technicians, bioengineers or tour guides.

Of course, I'm not suggesting we eliminate all English classes. We'll still need to teach kids how to read, but there won't be much point in having them read Shakespeare or Mark Twain or F. Scott Fitzgerald, since they will have no need for it later in life, at least if they plan on continuing to live in Wisconsin. Sure, these and other works may shed light on certain moral and social truths that are difficult to explain in another forms, but since Wisconsin won't be producing any of these works in future there's no sense in bothering introducing them to our students.

Right now, as I said earlier, the only job for an English major who wants to pursue his course of study in Wisconsin is to teach. These jobs are rare. It's next to impossible to get a job in the Oshkosh Area School District, for example, let alone one teaching English. We should should just eliminate these jobs altogether and stop suggesting that young people who want to pursue creative enterprises can do so in Wisconsin. Let's just send them on their merry way and have them take their quality of life enhancements with them.

We've noted elsewhere that Wisconsin has made significant contributions to both the film industry and art in the past and that even today there are folks with Wisconsin ties who have gone on to make large impacts in the medium. This would seem to suggest that Wisconsin is a ripe environment for the development of a film industry and potentially other arts communities. But since our state leadership has no interest in investing a relatively small amount of state funds to encouraging the growth of the industry by allowing it to compete with other states that other lucrative incentives, we should just dismiss these achievements as anomalies.

So if we're going to start cutting fat, let's get serious about it. And while we're at it we can stop fooling our kids into thinking they can make movies and tell stories that might be entertaining, maybe even profitable, close to home. Wisconsin shaves a ton of taxes from it's education budget and stops providing good educations for productive people in other states. Everyone wins.

“You drive like (expletive). Enjoy the flats, moron. Slice and dice from the tire vampire.”

Has an act of vandalism ever been so ... gothic?

I have to give the guy some credit here: The Tire Vampire is a pretty damn catchy name for a local criminal supervillian, which this guy obviously is.

Hip and Hop & Conservatism

There's a peculiar exchange going over at Big Hollywood over the artistic and social merit of hip hop. What's peculiar about it is that the young'un of the interlocutor, one Ben Shapiro (age 25), is the voice of the opposition, arguing that "rap is crap." (No, seriously: that was the actually title of the post). Defending hip hop's honor are two older gents.

Here's the thread: Shapiro's original post, Tim Slagel's reply, Shapiro's response, and here's Michael Wilson getting into the fray.

The aspect that interests me in this whole mess is that Shapiro appears to have no understanding of hip hop beyond what he reads in the police blotter of US Weekly. His points are rehashs of arguments that went stale almost 20 years ago. Slagel and Wilson return fire with a pair of broad meditations on the creation and enjoyment of art. Wilson is particularly helpful in reminding Shapiro that hip hop doesn't have a monopoly on depicting violence:

To wit, if Shapiro’s logic were true, Republicans like Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger, Sylvester “Rambo” Stallone and Clint “Dirty Harry” Eastwood would have all been indicted for inspiring the murderous rampages of their fans. Maybe you could argue that Stallone and The Governator have inspired a lot of weight lifting and maybe even a little performance-enhancing drug use, but you’d be hard-pressed to uncover any real damage from artists who portray people who have literally murdered thousands of people in cold blood over the course of their cinematic careers.

And I’m pretty sure that Eminem never raped or murdered his now-wife Kim (or his mom, as Shapiro noted). Not in real life. And that’s the difference. Art is often an outlet for anger and rage. Deep, dark secrets and uncontrollable internal pain and anguish are artistic expressions that go back to Shakespeare and beyond. Hell, Sophocles wrote about a dude who kills his father so he can fuck his mom… And then Jim Morrison retold it… sort of.

If Shapiro wants more evidence that violence is a theme that extends to just about every genre of American music over any era, he should check out the American Anthology of Folk Music. This collection of folk, blues, country and gospel music from the '20s and '30s contains songs with lyrics that make today's music look down right tame.

I have a suspicion that Shapiro really isn't talking about hip hop (because he clearly seems out of his element when he does) and that he seems more concerned with the potential of hip hop culture to infiltrate the castle of the conservative movement. He comes out and outright says it in his response to Slagel:

More to the point, I would argue that there is no common ground between the rap culture and us [i.e. conservatives]. None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Tim’s arguments in favor of such a common ground are based on fundamental misconceptions about political coincidence of interest. Tim says both conservatives and rappers have a fascination with guns and a distrust of government. This is true in the broadest sense. There’s only one problem: conservatives are fascinated with guns so that they can defend their liberties and property from the 50 Cents of the world (multiple arrests for drug dealing; the name 50 Cent was derived from Kelvin Martin, a Brooklyn robber aka 50 Cent).

Shapiro perpetuates the stereotype that all rap are some how criminals -- its this very kind of blind antagonism to the genre that enables him to completely miss one of the most "conservative" aspects of hip hop: the unapologetic embrace of unfettered capitalism. Here's how Shapiro describes the life of a rapper:

[R]ap culture is disgusting and degrading. Not every song, of course - the culture as a whole. It values the basest elements of human nature, from promiscuous sex to maltreatment of women to sickening violence. It’s no wonder that rappers have the life expectancies of fruit flies: by the time they’re 40 - if they hit 40 - there’s a good shot they’ll have shot somebody, been shot, been busted for hard core drugs, or acquired an STD (see this short list). The millions they earn from gullible white kids in the suburbs who just want to seem cool end up flushed down the drug/sex/fancy car toilet.
Except this is demonstrably not true. Ice T, whom Shapiro criticizes for his "Cop Killer" song -- from an album made 17 years ago that was actually a punk song, not a rap song (people tend to forget this detail) -- now plays a cop on TV. Ice Cube now makes and acts in family orientated movies. Rick Rubin, who helped found Def jam Records is arguably the most respect producer in music today. The other half of the Def Jam team, Russell Simmons, has taken a small media empire and transformed into a multiplatform business. And then there's Sean Carter...

None of these folks have ever been particularly shy about their desires to get money.

And why should they? Shaprio dismisses hoip hop as being about the glorification of violence and the degredation of civilization, but there is probably no other genre of music in the U.S. that is so devoted to the discussion of the American Dream than hip hop. Most rappers write music about the world they're from and the world to aspire to reach. Often times these places are miles apart, but that doesn't make them any less real.

Kinda Surprised I've Never Seen Anyone do this Before...

One of those so-obvious-I-wish-I-would-have-thought-of-it-first type things:


Monday, March 30, 2009

Kill. Me. Now...

Enjoy the quiet genius of Silent E:

“if you buy a car from Chrysler or General Motors, you will be able to get your car serviced and repaired, just like always. Your warrantee will be safe.

In fact, it will be safer than it’s ever been. Because starting today, the United States government will stand behind your warrantee.”

President Barack Oborg

Noooooooo….. This doesn’t scream SOCIALISM at all……

Here's another version of the same post:
“if you have a bank account from any bank in the United States, you will be able to get your deposit insured up to $250,000, just like always [or at least up to $100,000 as of just a few months ago - ed.]. Your warrantee will be safe.

"In fact, it will be safer than it’s ever been. Because since 1933, the United States government will stand behind your warrantee."
President Barack Obama

Noooooooo….. How things have been done in the financial sector for decades……

Come up with something new, please....

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Paul Esslinger's NW Column

If you haven't had a moment to Read Paul Esslinger's column in the NW today, do so now. It tells you everything you need to know about Paul Esslinger and why he should never be Mayor.

As you're reading it, ask yourself this: who is the audience of this missive? The people of Oshkosh? Perhaps, but if they are we're merely an afterthought. All throughout the column a reader gets the impression that this is essentially a letter written in response to this week's endorsement of Frank Tower by the NW. Here are the two paragraphs from the endorsement that dealt with Esslinger:

After nine years on the Common Council, Esslinger should recognize that the time to chart out a comprehensive shift in public works projects isn't a "No" vote in November. It takes leadership in January, February and March to set goals and direct staff to begin planning to accomplish them.

The absence of an alternative, let alone an amendment, captures Esslinger's leadership style. "No" is a powerful word that has a proper place in government, but it cannot be the sole basis of the city's agenda.

All of Esslinger piece essentially deals with this criticism in one way or another. That's not unimportant because it gets straight to the core of how Esslinger functions as a public official: he reacts to things and that's pretty much it.

There's very little foresight when it come to Esslinger and next to no vision. Just take a look at his opening paragraph:

The role of an elected official is to make sound, responsible, common sense decisions consistent with the priorities of the citizens. Recently, a survey was sent out with the water bills of Oshkosh residents'. Many citizens responded with their high and low priorities. Issues of highest priority included: street repairs, flooding issues, garbage pickup, police protection and fire service. The issues of low priority: redevelopment, TIF programs and city purchase of land and buildings. This survey was an excellent and accurate way of obtaining public opinion, and should continue to be done annually.
Esslinger goes on to say that he will essentially take the survey advice and focus on the priorities outlined in the survey. If the people of Oshkosh wanted ice cream as our number one municipal priority, there's little doubt Esslinger would be promising a Baskin Robbins on every corner. He reacts, in this case to a survey, and that's about it.

Now look closely at those specific priorities, all are things that governments react to. Street repairs: can't fill a pothole until one shows up. Flooding issues: something that rarely happens around these parts, but is something folks are still smarting from last spring. Police and fire: not really a problem until someone gets mugged or has their house on fire.

Each of those "priorities" are things municipalities generally react to. When cities develop long term strategic plans or craft visions for future all these things are givens. Unfortunately, Esslinger thinks this is the entire job. For a moment I thought Esslinger was running for mayor of New Orleans when I read this paragraph:
The Oshkosh Northwestern's top story for 2008 was flooding. It featured a lady outside her home visibly upset because her basement was completely flooded, a tragedy she experienced more than once. We also heard of people who had basements collapse due to flooding. These weren't isolated incidents; there were hundreds if not thousands of people that had these problems. Had the council focused on flooding issues years ago, I believe many of these issues could have been greatly reduced or eliminated.
Again, reaction. I know there are quite a few people who are still struggling with flood damage, but fixing sewers is not going to help them a bit, not now in any event. It rarely floods in Oshkosh, especially to the extent that it did last year. That's hardly a reason to devote an entire term as mayor to sewers.

Esslinger is only capable if fighting last year's battles. He has absolutely ability to look forward and as a consequence he has no ability to lead. Oshkosh needs a mayor who will promote new and good ideas and not just acquiesce to the desires of a survey. Esslinger just doesn't comprehend this.

Making matters worse. Esslinger's priorities are entirely backwards. He wants to fix potholes first, then work on "economic development:"

Wouldn't it have been better if the Oshkosh Northwestern's top story for 2008 was "COMPANY 'X' LOCATES IN OSHKOSH?" And when you read the story, it told of hundreds of new, family-sustaining jobs coming to Oshkosh? This leads me to my next priority: economic development.

Too many times we've heard of businesses laying off people or, worse yet, leaving Oshkosh. In some instances this can't be stopped, but I believe we need to do a better job of recruiting and retaining jobs in Oshkosh. We need to have serious discussions and look into new ways to retain jobs in and recruit jobs to Oshkosh. If the leaders in Oshkosh don't focus on job creation, we will struggle to accomplish our infrastructure needs and never be able to accomplish the "quality of life" projects we all would like to get done without incurring further debt.

Pay close attention to the sentence in bold: notice the use of pronouns. Esslinger doesn't say, "As Mayor, I will do a better job of etc." He says "we," which sounds like that's a job he expects someone else to do -- and I'm not necessarily talking about some job he's going to delegate to someone else once he's elected. That sentence makes me believe he's just going to sit around and wait for someone else to do the job. It doesn't actually fill me with confidence. Maybe that's actually a good thing. Esslinger's bouts with unemployment are extensive. That's not a personal shot at him, just a fact. I'm pretty sure that he found work recently, but how is a man who clearly has trouble convincing a perspective employer to hire him (and then blames his unemployment on "political persecution") going to convince others to hire dozens, if not hundreds, of his fellow citizens?

Esslinger is a horrible council member. He brings absolutely nothing positive to the table and frequently sidetracks potentially productive discussion with nonsense issues. He's easily distracted and recently seems incapable of casting some votes without consulting Tony Palmeri first. He's a liability to derail a productive train of thought the moment he walks into council chambers.

We've said this before: Esslinger may be awful, but he does represent a constituency in Oshkosh that is not small and you can tell who those people are by reading Esslinger column. They're working and lower class folks who connect with Esslinger's style of "haves and have nots" populism. The problem s that these folks are better served by just about anyone else. These are the folks that are going feel the brunt of the recession and the people Esslinger does next to nothing for, except perhaps express his periodic anger at one nonsense issue or another.

That's hardly a substitute for effective leadership.

The Problem with Movies Adapted from Classic Books...

... is that they never live up to their trailers:

Honestly, Nothing has Made Me Ever Want to Watch 60 Minutes More

If all interview promos were this awesome, I would never leave the couch:

Friday, March 27, 2009

Epic Recall Fail

I have to give the Recall Doyle folks some credit for breaking some kind of land speed record for shortest recall attempt ever, because as of today this thing is done. Here's the, um, "exploratory portal" as it was, uh, unveiled today:


Yeah, that's actually an "Under Construction" graphic over there on the left side of the site. I thought I was looking at a web site from circa 1998 when I saw that. This thing should have been built and ready to go before the announcement was even made. Clearly the recall guys are just making things up as they go along.

Whomever is in charge of this thing, I think it would be best to put this ill-fated effort out of it's misery. I mean, I'm having a great laugh at your expense, but that's probably not what you were going for. This whole thing has been just embarrassing. The roll-out at AFP fell flat on its face, the recall team can't even convince ideological allies it's a good idea, and now this ... "Grassroots" doesn't have to mean "Amateur Hour," but in this case it most certainly does.

Pull up out of this death spiral while you still can. The moment you take out the papers, you will be destined for a humiliating defeat. This crowd clearly doesn't have the slightest idea what they're doing. Right now I'm calling the date of expiration at March 27th, 2009.

Headlines of the Damned

Today's edition of Headlines of the Damned is brought to you by the BBC:

This has been another edition of Headlines of the Damned.

From the Dept. of Inadvisable PR Stunts

Kathy Carpenter, bless her heart, has a strong rebuttal to the Obama Administration's budget: the first 30 seconds of a press conference in which the GOP presented their own budget yesterday. Quoth her: "An alternative to massive increases in government spending, massive tax increases and a massive extension of government power has been proposed."


Except the rest of the press conference did not go so well. From the propaganda wing of the vast socialist conspiracy, The Economist:
Republican leaders called a hasty press conference to propose their "blueprint" for an alternative budget. They promoted it with leaks to Politico, telling the paper that "we need to hold something up and say, 'Here are our charts. Here are our graphs. It's real.'" The press showed up, expecting details, and got almost nothing. John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House, fended them off feebly: "Are you going to have any further details on this today?" "What about some numbers? What about the out-year deficit? What about balancing the budget? How are you going to do it?"

By the end of the day Republicans were turning on each other, passing blame for botching up a policy rollout. The White House is gloating about a development that has distracted people, temporarily, from the problems with Mr Obama's budget.


I'm Not a Prude, But ...

Best disclaimer in the history of not-so-fine print because you pretty much know what's coming next ...

Owen may not be "personally" offended that there is sex in the library, but -- avert your eyes, ye who are not yet of appropriate getting it on age!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Last Night's "South Park" Episode

I'm not kidding when I say this, but it might have been the most profound half hour of television I have ever watched. If you missed it, watch now.

So about half way through the episode, it occurred to me that Randy was actually trying to convince the town to "Go Galt," to withdraw from the economy by barely using it, while Kyle was "bailing out" the town by taking on his neighbors' debt.

Prove me wrong in the comments below...

The Film Tax Credits are Building an Industry Infrastructure that will Benefit Wisconsin in the Long Run

We've already talked about how film tax credits have transformed Louisiana in small movie-making haven, but since Wisconsin and Louisiana are two very different places it's a good idea to examine some of the differences. The first, and most important, difference was the 40% entertainment infrastructure tax credit that has since been discontinued.

This was clearly a large influence in getting film-makers to invest in making movies in Louisiana for the long term and seemed to attract quite a few interested parties during the period this tax credit window was open. This is something that's been neglected by the state's credit program, but is slowly developing, almost organically, as a result of more films being shot here in Wisconsin.

This is a pretty typical story in terms of smart business people catering to burgeoning demand:
When independent film production company Lightning Rod Studios needed green screen space to shoot its film Carnivorous a few years ago, it found space at RDImage, whose principals learned of the tax incentives being proposed to draw film industry investment to the state.

Later, after realizing there weren’t any large independent soundstages available in Wisconsin and when it became clear the film incentives would become a reality, the three began investigating what it would it take to open a movie studio on the property.
And they had good reason to believe there would be increased activity in the area -- just check out all of the projects that have expressed interest in coming to Wisconsin.

RDI was even thinking about expanding, but is now pulling back:
RDI Stages built a 5,000-square-foot sound stage in an existing building and bought a 17,000-square-foot facility because of the incentives, Rozina said. The company considered buying a third building but decided against it because of Doyle's actions, she said.
And they're not the only ones:

Video production company Pulse Communications in Green Bay started Pulse Studios in June. Studio President Jay Schillinger had planned to build a $60 million, seven-building production studio in Green Bay or Milwaukee, employing 500 people.


Schillinger would still do the expansion if the tax incentives are repealed, but at a slower pace.

RDI Stages cost $6 million dollars to build. The more we've been looking into the numbers that have been thrown around the tax credits the more we've more we understand the figures are exclusively production-related. A $6 million investment in the state's film infrastructure does not get counted in the figures put out by the Commerce Department because the studio wasn't producing anything last year -- even though they made an enormous economic contribution to the area in terms of construction jobs.

Now once movies start getting filmed at RDI the proprietors will start to see some of the tax credits coming back to them. Production companies will rent the space out and use RDI equipment and 25% of RDI's bill will (hopefully) be paid off with tax credits. That wasn't possible last year because RDI did not exist yet. Now that it does, it allows more money from out-of-state films to be spent in state and, just as importantly, it keeps Wisconsin film money in Wisconsin since homegrown filmmakers no longer need to hightail it elsewhere to for studio space. Furthermore, it serves as a lure for films who now can shoot indoors or outdoors in the area. If RDI is successful more studios will spring up to serve the demand or compete for business. This isn't complicated financial witchcraft here, just economics and customer service 101.

This has all happened without any infrastructure incentives, which shows that the productions credits have had a good deal of success in quickly developing the kinds of hardware, facilities and personnel that make a film industry possible. RDI didn't even need a 40% tax credit incentive to invest $6 million into the state's film industry -- they just want business. That should be a testament to just how badly film-makers want to do business here in Wisconsin.

Right now the film tax credits are bringing interested parties to Wisconsin and those films aren't just leaving with the state's tax credits, but they are leaving an infrastructure in their wake that makes the state more attractive to prospective film makers. These early films are developing a kind of institutional memory and technical expertise within the state that will make it more appealing to outsiders while enhancing the product of homegrown movies at the same time.

Wisconsin just can't get by on it's good looks alone and expect Hollywood directors to flock to her. This state's got a lot going for it scenery wise, but someone could just as easily shoot in Minnesota or Michigan if they wanted. What has to set Wisconsin apart is talent, it's ability to make movies -- and the more projects come here, the better the state gets at it.

Even Gov. Jindal Wants to Keep Louisiana's Film Tax Credits

Louisiana's an interesting case study to look at when it comes to film tax credits. It's smaller than Wisconsin population wise and has a slightly smaller economy in terms of GSP, but it was one of the first states to begin offering film tax credits in 2002.

In fact, Louisiana's plan was far more generous, providing a tax credit to companies that were willing to help create an "entertainment infrastructure" -- i.e. studios, set, production companies with brick and mortor headquarters -- in the state. It worked, and Shreveport, of all places, has become something of a modern Southern movie-making Mecca:

Less than three years after Shreveport became Louisiana's de facto film capital, the city's movie industry is riding high. Thanks to aggressive statewide financial incentives, the casino-friendly city on the Red River has become one of the most attractive and busiest locations in the country for feature film and television production, surpassing Austin, once vaunted as Hollywood South, with stunning speed and volume.

Since late 2005, when Hurricane Katrina forced film production from New Orleans and Baton Rouge to the Shreveport-Bossier City area, Shreveport has seized upon filmmaking almost entirely on the power of a 6-year-old financial incentive program, which offers filmmakers 25 percent cash rebates (or tax credits) for all in-state spending on things like equipment rentals, food service, hotel rooms and, at a lower rate, labor. The primary rebates are five times the rate of Texas movie incentives.

Louisiana's current production tax credits are exactly the same as Wiscosnin's. While the infrastucture incentives have since expired, and with the production credit set to dimminsih over the next few years, Gov. Jindal wants to extend the current rate of production credits:

Jindal said he'll support legislation this spring to prevent those tax credits from expiring. He also said he would back extension of tax credit programs for certain investments on research and development that have benefited chemical and other industries.

The best known tax break is a 25 percent tax credit for movie makers that is scheduled to drop to 20 percent next year and 15 percent in 2012. Jindal said he'll support a bill to keep the tax credit at 25 percent through 2012.

With growth like this it's easy to see why:
  • Employment in Louisiana’s film industry increased at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 22 percent from 2001 to 2007. This compares to a national growth rate of 1.8 percent annually over the same time period. Although the average wages are lower than the national levels, they have increased at an average annual rate of 8.2 percent, much faster than inflation.
  • Motion picture projects that received state tax credits generated $26.4 million in state and local tax revenue during 2007, of which approximately two-thirds ($14.6 million) went to the State of Louisiana.
  • According to the Louisiana Economic Development Department, there are several applications pending certification for infrastructure development which were submitted before the program expired. Combined, the estimated budgets for the 54 proposed film studio projects are worth nearly $3.2 billion.
And here's probably the most important figure:
  • State of Louisiana will issue an estimated $115 million in tax credits for projects with certified and estimated expenditures incurred during 2007. Combined these projects had an estimated $429 million in qualified expenditures which generated a total economic benefit to the State of $763 million. This represents an economic stimulus of $6.64 for every $1 in tax credits issued for qualifying motion picture expenditures during 2007.
That's not a small multiplier and it's going straight back into the economy.

Stuff Wisconsin Could Buy for the Money it Paid Out in Film Tax Credits Last Year (Vol. I)

6 substandard Government Accountability Board websites from a Connecticut-based IT firm.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How the Commerce Department is Killing the Film Tax Credits

There's an epic irony in the fact that "Public Enemies," a movie about a folk hero who tapped into the populist sentiment of the Depression era by robbing banks, is now posed to be the target of that same populist rage here in Wisconsin. I assume the producers weren't planning on this happening when they decided to film in the state, but since the film, which is still months from even being released, has become a pivotal player of sorts in the debate over the film tax credits it's probably worthwhile to take a closer look at the plot of this drama.

Gov. Doyle is nothing if not an extremely shrewd politician. Reasonable people can argue over his skills as a leader, but there is little doubt he is in possession of an adroit political mind. Doyle sent out a trial balloon about repealing (or altering) the tax credits a little over a month ago. Since then he's stayed the hell away from the issue himself and cast someone else in the role of the bill's executioner.

Enter Zach Brandon.

Here's Brandon is in yesterday's Chicago Trib:
State Commerce Department executive assistant Zach Brandon replied on Doyle's behalf, saying the letters amounted to hype and hyperbole. The real issues are whether the state can afford the program, it's structured in a responsible way and taxpayers get a maximum value, he said.
Hype and hyperbole ... Brandon may have been speaking on background here, but reporters don't just drop poll-tested catch phrases like that into their stories without some prompting.

Brandon, who's title is really awkward, has apparently won the honor of killing the film tax credits ... or at least being the public face of Governor Doyle's desire to do so. He's been in the press a lot lately and usually as the voice of opposition when it comes to the tax credits. Here's my personal favorite, from a story that ran in a number of Gannett papers about a week before Doyle initially proposed ending the program:
MADISON — Wisconsin taxpayers contributed $450,000 toward Hollywood director Michael Mann's salary when he came to the state last year to film the big-budget Johnny Depp movie "Public Enemies."

Records obtained by The Associated Press show the state's film tax credits not only covered a quarter of Mann's $1.8 million salary, they paid for a portion of his assistants' salaries, entertainment, meals and stuntmen's living expenses.

The state's tax credits even covered about $100,000 of the cost of Depp's entourage of chauffeurs, hair stylists and assistants, said Zach Brandon, executive assistant at the Wisconsin Commerce Department.

My favorite part of those three grafs is the word "acquired," as if the records just fell out of the sky and, my, what a coincidence! There just happens to be this appointed official from the Commerce Department right here ready and authorized to comment on the matter. And, wouldn't you know it, but it happens to be the same guy who was hating on the credits two months earlier and will turn out to be the consistent voice of opposition to the credits in just about every succeeding article on the issue that will run in the state for the next month! What marvelous fortune!

In case anyone didn't pick up on the subtext above, I'm insinuating that Commerce gave the report to the AP to foment populist sentiment against the tax credits. Only insinuating, mind you. Not outright saying. To outright say anything, I would need evidence, which I don't have.

Far be it for me to ascribe any nefarious motives to Brandon -- who is pretty clearly taking one for the team here by being the barer of bad news to the public -- but the fact that the Wisconsin "Commerce Department executive assistant" is the point man on this issue means the tax credits as we know them today are as good as dead. The credits have bipartisan support and are pretty popular (at least anecdotaly, I don't think there's been any polling on the issue). Even if Mark Pocan is able to revive them, they are as good as buried under the ink of Doyle's veto pen. Sure, Doyle may actually be the guy who does the killing, but there's no reason he has to be the face of the execution. So he gives that job to a guy with a really long title to further distance himself from the act.

And that sucks for so many reasons.

The first is that the credits are not losing the state any money. Regardless of how the numbers are spun there's just no way of saying this program is in the red. The lowest numbers that have come out on the economic impact of "Public Enemies" are, not surprisingly, from the Commerce Department. They estimate that the film created $5 million in economic activity while being made here in Wisconsin and received $4.6 million in tax credits. Lets look at those numbers for just a moment. Here's the AP summarizing the law:
Under the film incentives law, a production company qualifies for a tax credit of 25 percent of the wages paid to employees to produce a film, video, electronic game, broadcast advertisement, or television program in the state. Credits for sales tax, construction, wardrobes, clothing and visual effects also are included in the law.
So by that measure, $4.6 million is actually 25% of the total the film company spent here in Wisconsin, which means that company spent an additional $13.8 million on production-related costs here in Wisconsin that they did not receive a tax credit for. What this $5 million dollar figure represents has never fully been explained by any press accounts. The law says production companies get 25% back, not 94% back. If the Commerce Department did end up reimbursing the film almost 1:1, then it's a massive fail on their part.

I can only assume the $5 million figure is economic activity that was created around the production from out-of-towners who took the day off to go watch a movie being made and maybe bought a soda and a hot dog from a vendor on the corner -- something like that. If that's the case, then the actual monetary contribution by the film to the state is $13.8 million + $5 million = $18.8 million. And that's before we even start adding in things like the value of publicity from the films and future production deals.

Making matters worse is how disparate the numbers from the Commerce Department seem to be with figures generated by local business bureaus. We've mentioned before here that locally, "Public Enemies" generated an estimated $4 million dollars just here in Oshkosh, which almost covers the Commerce Department's total. If the production company spent money elsewhere like they did here, then the sum economic activity for the state is going to be much greater than what Commerce is copping to.

So the numbers coming out of Commerce don't seem to be all that trustworthy. Either they've intentionally lowballed the figure for whatever reason or they were grossly incompetent in reimbursing the film. Commerce needs to explain how they arrived at there numbers or explain how the film got it's hands on $3.35 million dollars it wasn't supposed to. (Quick math interlude: 25% of $5 million in total economic impact = $1.25 million. $4.6 million in tax credits distributed - $1.25 million = $3.35 million.)

If all of these numbers make little sense to you, I'm just as lost. If there's anyone out there that can tell me what I'm missing/getting wrong, by all means set me straight in the comments. The larger issue, however, is that whatever way Commerce's numbers are manipulated, they never seem to add up correctly. Either Commerce screwed up royally by giving "Public Enemies" way too much money or they are grossly underestimating the actual financial impact of the film on the state.

But let's put aside for a moment the fact that Commerce's numbers are dodgy at best and actually use them. Here's Brandon taking out the trash in the Journal Sentinel:
Zach Brandon, executive assistant for the department, said the state calculated the economic impact of "Public Enemies" in terms of dollars that landed in the hands of local businesses. Even if taxpayers accept Film Wisconsin's figure, the program still provided "a horrible return on investment," Brandon said.
By Commerce's own reckoning, the state put up $4.6 million and got $5 million in return. That means the "horrible return on investment" Brandon is talking about is actually a net gain of $400,000 or roughly 8.7%. For one film. In the first year of the program. There are tons of small business owners who would kill to make any kind of profit their first year in business, to say nothing of almost 9% on their initial investment. Making matters worse is that Brandon is completely ignoring the potential for growth and continued returns on the state's investment from future productions.

But let's take Brandon's advice and use Film Wisconsin's figures of $7.4 million. That means the $2.8 million dollars got pumped back into the economy ... that's a 60+% profit in just a year from one single movie. That's a "horrible return"?

And that's what's so frustrating about this whole charade: Commerce's numbers are so questionable and it's arguments for augmenting the program are so objectionable that they could just as easily be turned around to advocate that the film tax credits are a huge success with limitless potential. Instead, the Governor is taking the other tack.

Why? I don't know for sure, but I have two guesses.

The first reason is bureaucratic. Of the eight films that received credits in Wisconsin last year "Public Enemies" was far and away the highest profile with the highest budget and yet it was the only film that the Commerce Department claims received a 1:1 reimbursement. Here's just a quick look at ahow a few of the smaller films fared:
The Appleton native has already completed on project under the existing tax credit program. Her $750,000 psychological thriller called "Project Solitude" is due out in the fall. The film was shot in Green Bay in December and received about $120,000 in state tax incentives, she said.
That means "Project Solitude" recouped about 16% of it's budget from the state.
"Nephilim," a science fiction thriller based on a comic book about a priest and a detective searching for fallen angels during the end of the world was to shoot for about five weeks in Milwaukee and Green Bay starting in May, she said. It was slated to get about $750,000 in tax breaks, Moses said.
We've noted earlier that "Nephilim" has a budget of about $6 million, which means it would be getting 12.5% back from the state.

So how in God's name did "Public Enemies" get back 94% of it's costs from the Commerce Department (again, this is using the Dept.'s own disputed numbers here)?

My guess is that the accountants and financiers of "Public Enemies" have done this before; in fact, they do it for a living and simply ran circles around the Commerce Department who has little experience, if any, auditing films. If a film can assemble A-list talent in front of the camera and behind it, I'm going to guess that they can get some ninja accountants with black belts in expenditure voodoo as well. Instead of looking at the reimbursement request carefully, they cut a check before they could say "What was that for, again?" If Commerce doesn't seem capable of presenting the public with numbers that make sense now, what are the chances that they were able to use them correctly back when it came time to pay the piper?

Instead of admitting that there's going to be something of a learning curve to these credits, Commerce is covering itself during a time when the state has a $5 billion budget deficit by holding "Public Enemies" up and saying "All films are going to be like this, so it's just not worth it."

Again, that's just speculation based on what's available in the public record. I sincerely hope this is not the case.

The second reason is political. Sticking it to those rich fat cats in Wall Street/Washington/Hollywood seems to be all the rage these days -- and there's no one better for politicians to pick on than folks who don't vote here. That makes the "Public Enemies" producers easy targets. I'm worried that this might be a classic example of someone seeing an angry mob roaming the streets and saying to himself "I must follow them, for surely they will need a leader!"

Doyle's probably running for re-election next year and you can probably bet the house that a phrase you're going to hear over and over again is "$5 billion budget deficit." (Hell, it might even be $6 billion by then.) So now would probably be a good time to start flexing some fiscal muscles. While not exactly loved by the Left, Doyle's got some capital to burn and this is a convenient way of riding the current wave of populism in an attempt to poach moderate voters. I have to admit, from a political perspective, it's not a dumb idea.

Again, this is all just idle speculation.

The Governor's handled the tax credits issue just like a politician. He's set the credits' death to a slow burn and got a proxy to do the dirty work. The problem is that it's not necessary. Barring some calamity, Doyle will probably win re-election handily.

Doyle is at his best when he takes the long view, like with his biotech proposal. A vibrant film industry in Wisconsin will not just provide folks with a few hours of entertainment, but will help change the image of the state (more so than any fancy new logo will ever do). There is a solid and sound economic argument for continuing the tax credits. There is an even better argument for keeping the credits for the next few years just to see what happens, and it would be a shame to see a fledgling industry with a lot of potential strangled in its crib for the sake of scoring a few cheap populist points.

Regardless of its motives, it's clear that the Doyle Administration wants nothing to do with these tax credits. I imagine there's some urgency to kill the tax credits before "Public Enemies" is released on July 1st. If the movie is released and is a huge hit (and there's some indication that might be the case), it's going to be harder to get rid of them -- and let's face it, the alternative offered in the budget will effectively do just that. I just hope that when they do go we don't see someone from the Doyle Administration standing in front of a movie theater praising all the hard work that folks from Wisconsin did to make this movie happen.

The MacIver Institute of Teh Funny

Finally, a "think tank" devoted to sharing e-mail forwards so all the world can cringe at the lame jokes Uncle Frank somehow finds funny.

It's only a matter of time before we start seeing LOLcats or the mentos-in-Diet Coke guys.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Why the Film Tax Credits are Good for Wisconsin

[For some reason this post wound up in the form of a catechism, so with apologies to Thomas Aquinas, here are a few:]

Objection: The tax credits "are a wash."

Contra Objection: The numbers just aren't in yet. Right now the only figures that get thrown around in the debate over the film credits are these:
A Commerce Department review of the "Public Enemies" film showed that while it brought about $5 million in economic activity to the state, it collected $4.6 million in tax breaks.
But according to the "head of the state film office" (whatever that means, presumably Film Wisconsin) "Public Enemies" will have added $18 million to the state when all is said and done. One can argue the merits and flaws of both numbers, but here's a third figure to digest: just in the week or so the movie filmed here in Oshkosh the City Manager estimates that it brought in $4 million to city businesses. Considering the movie filmed in a half dozen other locations around the state, that estimate seems to suggest that the movie dropped a little more than the Commerce Department is giving it credit for.

Objection: The money went to out of state interests.

Contra Objection: I'm sorry, do you know where to find an experienced key grip in Wisconsin? What about a sound editor? A make-up artist with experience in film? I could go on and on -- there are hundreds of extremely technical jobs that go into making a movie, jobs that require experience and expertise and that experience and expertise does not yet exist here in Wisconsin because, to date, there is not much of a film industry here. As more movies begin to film here production companies will start to spring up that employ these people on an almost full time basis.

Right now we've had exactly one big Hollywood movie film in state, but as the volume of movies filmed here increases so too will the demand for these kinds of jobs. Eventually there will be enough film work in state for those so employed to actually live and work here full time. Until that becomes a reality don't expect directors to hire the first barber they find in the local phone book to touch the talents' hair.

But in the case of "Public Enemies" there were also tangible employment benefits to locals. Here's a local Oshkosh union organizer:

Commerce has stated repeatedly that most of the Wisconsin 'jobs' created by the film 'were of extras and stand-ins hired at a low wage for a very short period of time with no benefits'. Our local union, International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees No. 470, supplied more than 100 Wisconsin workers for this project. The rates ran from $20.07 to $27.17 an hour.

The average gross pay per worker was more than $7,000 for the six-week project. The wages for 'Public Enemies' in Oshkosh, Manitowish Waters and Beaver Dam totaled $615,097with additional benefits totaling $126,425. Bringing overall wage/benefit totals to $741,522 for the project from our end. These figures are just for us, there are two other local IATSE stagehand locals in Wisconsin and they have had similar financial experiences by working for Public Enemies.

That's money that's going to Wisconsin workers and staying here in Wisconsin.

Objection: The money goes to frivolous things.

Contra Objection: Hollywood budgets are notoriously crazy. Films that are made abroad in countries with governments of dubious integrity will set aside money to bribe local officials. "Flowers and candy" is an infamous euphemism for "hookers and coke." (For a great look into just how crazy these things can be, go here -- it should be mandatory reading for any film student.) Stuff like this obviously shouldn't be reimbursed (or even reported in the first place), but any outrage over the reimbursement of things like salaries is disingenuous.

Last month the Commerce Department made a big deal about the state footing the bill for $450,000 of "Public Enemies" director Michael Mann's salary. The tax credit law says the state will refund 25% of the "salary in Wisconsin for out of state residents, excluding Depp and other actors." Obviously, the director falls in that category. Now since the director is one of the biggest brand names in Hollywood, he collected a big fee, and what do you know? 25% of Mann's $1.8 million is $450,000.

As for the "outrage" over Depp's entourage, see the last argument. It's not like the state was forking over a few grand to get Drama and Turtle stoned before a day of hooking up with co-eds on Langdon Street. A hair stylist is an actual job, and an expensive one at that in Hollywood; and I've been on enough really awkward cab rides to imagine that a familiar driver is probably worth the expense for someone who is recognizable to just about everyone on the face of the earth.

No, these are not jobs that people in Wisconsin can relate to or very frequently understand, but often times there is a good economic reason for them.

Objection: If a big budget, Hollywood movie like "Public Enemies" can't prove the film tax credit is worth it, than nothing will.

Contra Objection: In fact, it's just the opposite. It was something of a coup to have "Public Enemies" be the first film to get a shot at the tax credits because most of the movies that will be made in Wisconsin will be small independent movies that are looking to take advantage of cheap stage labor. In many ways having such a high profile project like "Public Enemies" being the test case for the credits was harmful because it feeds into the kind of populist rage so prevalent these days that "rich Hollywood types" are getting a "bailout" or "handout," so evident in this asinine editorial in the State Journal. That argument ignores the smaller films that will be the backbone of a budding Wisconsin film industry

A much better case study for the film credits will be the significantly lower budget, less than $1 million, "Feed the Fish." The movie is being produced by local Wisconsinites, starring Wisconsinites (they even took out a casting call in the Green Bay Press Gazette), being filmed in Wisconsin and features a respected Wisconsin-native. "Project Solitude" also just finished filming recently in Green Bay and "Nephilim" (which has the biggest budget of the bunch with a whopping $6 million) is set to start shooting in a few months. All three of these are much better examples of films that will be attracted by the incentives, but are almost never discussed when it comes to the tax credits.

Stagehands and other production employees -- the guys who will be the bedrock of Wisconsin's film industry -- get paid the same rate regardless of how much the director makes or the size of the star's entourage. Of course, the more films that come here, the higher the demand for their services will be which will either increase the need for more film industry jobs or raise the wages of those already working in it. That's a dilemma I'm sure most public officials would love to find themselves in.

Objection: The tax credits would only help a hypothetical state film industry.

Contra Objection: In recent years the state of Wisconsin has tried desperately to hold on to the manufacturing base of its economy with a certain degree of success in some places and failure in others. At the same time Wisconsin has wisely invested in biotech as a means of developing an industry that will bridge the state's economy to the future. At the same time, however, the state continues to suffer from brain drain. "Why," politicians seem to always ask, "are these smart kids with great ideas and who play in bands on the weekends not sticking around and getting a job at Manitowoc Crane?"

Simple: there has been absolutely no development of Wisconsin's creative class. Smart young people go where the culture is or where it's made and there is not much to speak of in Wisconsin. Communities with vibrant arts attract young, educated people -- just ask Minneapolis and Chicago or any of the thousands of young Wisconsin expats now living in these places. Furthermore, a burgeoning film industry will actually attract educated young people to the state. Richard Florida has spent most of his career examining this phenomenon and if anyone is interested in a more comprehensive look at how creative industries transform communities, go check out his work.

Objection: Wisconsin just doesn't "get" the film industry.

Contra Objection: Historically speaking this couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, there have been monumental contributions to film by Wisconsinites. Carl Laemmle founded Universal Studios and essentially invented the Hollywood studio system. His previous business experience consisted of managing a clothing store in Oshkosh for over a decade. Orson Welles transformed cinema forever with Citizen Cane. He was from Kenosha. A kid from Milwaukee wound up winning a couple of best actor Oscars and is one of the greatest leading men of all time. His name was Spencer Tracey. Another two-time Academy Award winner was some guy from Racine who went by the name Frederich March. Zach Snyder, the director of Watchmen, is from Green Bay.

Film making is in Wisconsin's blood. It's just too bad we have to go elsewhere to do it.

Want Your Own TV Show? Just be an Asshole

Already in a pissy mood today, this did not help.

"I'm Just Saying"

So, no matter what the Dow Jones does the economy is still all Obama's fault?

Pick an argument and stick with it, for Christ's sake. If you're going to blame any falls in the Dow on Obama, then you're going to have to attribute any rises to him as well.

Don't just say, do. I know that's hard for a radio blowhard to comprehend, but some effort would be appreciated.

"Free Market" "Think Tank" Shockingly Discovers Populism in Tough Economic Times, Says "Fuck Tax Cuts!"

Policy Fail.

Monday, March 23, 2009

"This is useful if all you want is a meaningless, self-indulgent symbolic act that accomplishes nothing"

Funny, I could have sworn Sykes was talking about one of these ...

Hey, they both last about an hour...

Right Wing Blogger Approves of Right Wing Poll Taken by Right Wing Think Tank

And so the Circle Jerk of Life continues ...

Great Moments in Predatory Infotainment

Cause it sure as hell ain't journalism, that's for sure.

If you need something to make yourself feel better about life after reading that link, go here ... it kinda worked for me.

Jesus, just what about stalking a woman who was standing up for rape victims only to accuse her of slandering the victims screams "good idea" to these people?

School Choice, Change and Taxes

Aaron Rodriguez has an odd admission in the place usually reserved for the thesis statement of most essays in his post on school choice today:
Fernandez, an agent of change, comes from a tradition of being “outside” the education bureaucracy. And if there is anything that November has taught America, it's that a bold reformist candidate can allure a frustrated and embittered people into voting for change. With 30 years of failed MPS policies and wasteful spending, Rose Fernandez's message of "shaking things up" is gaining momentum and starting to draw attention in the Milwaukee area.

(emphasis added)
The problem with this argument is that for the last 20 years or so the status quo in Milwaukee Public Schools has been "school choice," or, to speak more specifically, a variety of school choice that has by the admission of the very people who long advocated for it underwhelmed.

Here's a recent article from the American, the online magazine of the American Enterprise Institute, an organization that can hardly be accused of being held in the thrall of teachers unions:
Even staunch proponents of school choice are conceding disappointment. Earlier this year, Weekly Standard contributor Daniel Casse reported, “The two most recent studies show that, since the implementation of the voucher program, reading scores across all Milwaukee schools are falling.” Howard Fuller, patron saint of the voucher program, has wryly acknowledged, “I think that any honest assessment would have to say that there hasn’t been the deep, wholesale improvement in MPS [Milwaukee Public Schools] that we would have thought.” Manhattan Institute scholar Sol Stern, one-time choice enthusiast and author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice, brought the concerns to a boiling point earlier this year when he declared, “Fifteen years into the most expansive school choice program tried in any urban school district [there is] . . . no ‘Milwaukee miracle,’ no transformation of the public schools has taken place.”
In fact, far from being an "agent of change," when it comes to school choice Fernandez wants expand the current program, the very one long time proponents are now saying has not worked. Here's a policy statement from her website:
The school choice program works. Thousands of Milwaukee families have benefited from this voucher program over the years. The choice program was not intended to replace MPS or to turn our attention away from fixing its many problems. It was designed to give parents the choice afforded wealthier individuals who can move to areas with better public schools. I was pleased to see the legislature raise the cap on participation in the program a few years ago, but I’d like to see the cap removed altogether.

(emphasis added)
Expanding the program means higher taxes. There's no other way around it. The voucher program now costs over $100 million, yet there's no word on Fernandez's web site as to where the money for a program increase is going to come from. One would imagine it might not be from the federal stimulus money, since Fernandez has apparently not decided on whether she will use it or not yet.

I digress, but only slightly. Throwing more money at a problem isn't going to solve it, right? That's what teachers unions want -- more money to build more schools and put more teachers on the public dime (all of which has the effect of making WEAC more powerful, of course). That used to be popular argument given by conservatives who used to scoff at giving more money to failing school districts. And they had a point, only now they're using that exact same argument to defend a program that's done little because they want to expand it.

But expansion is part of, if not the most significant part of, the problem. Again, from the American:
Milwaukee illustrates the uneven quality of new providers and reminds us that high performing schools are (like so many nonprofits) ill-equipped to expand in response to demand. Indeed, it has taken the celebrated KIPP schools—operated by an organization lauded for its aggressive expansion—14 years to grow to 65 schools enrolling 16,000 students in a nation where 95,000 K–12 district schools enroll 50 million students. Even today, the national KIPP network serves just one-sixth as many students as the Milwaukee public school system. The struggle to find capital and talent, overcome regulatory obstacles, and maintain quality has forced even growth-minded KIPP to move at a pace that would be considered maddeningly slow in almost any other sector (14 years, after all, was more than enough time for ventures like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon to grow from boutique firms to omnipresent brands serving millions of customers).

Personally, I think its inherently absurd to compare the progress of a middle school -- any middle school -- with Google, but since much of the intellectual heavy lifting for the voucher program was done on a "free market" weight machine, such is the gymnasium the "school choice" movement selected as its home court: if the choice movement wants to be serious about setting high standards for schools, both public and private, they first have to adhere to their own.

And that hasn't happened. Here's a more "liberal" slant on "school choice:"
For a long time, it was absurdly difficult to find out whether this was true in the one place where vouchers had been tried over an extended period: Milwaukee. After that city's initial small-scale initiative produced ambiguous, but generally unimpressive, results (and a lot of fighting over that data), the Wisconsin legislature chose to omit testing requirements altogether when the program was significantly expanded in 1998. This February, however, a group of researchers led by professors Patrick J. Wolf and John F. Witte produced the first installment of a study intended to follow how comparable groups of students in the public and private voucher schools perform over time. At least at the outset, they found no statistically significant differences in the test scores between the public and private school fourth and eighth graders for the 2006-07 school year. For the private as well as the public school students, the scores generally hovered around the 33rd percentile—in other words, a typically low performance for schools with high concentrations of poverty.
The bottom line: we were promised transformation and the choice program has been a wash, and by those standards it's failed. That's the actual reason for the "liberal" opposition to the program -- it just hasn't worked. If it had, educators, administrators and think tankers would be crawling out of the wood work to sing its praises, but it turns out institutional education is a difficult thing to master and an even harder thing to replicate when it's created out of the blue.

There are a lot of struggling inner city school systems around the country and the argument can be put forth that an obstacle to those school systems succeeding has been the reluctance of teachers and administrators to experiment with much more than asking communities for more money. Not Milwaukee. Milwaukee's one of the few places where school choice advocates have gotten their way. They've had their way for almost two decades now and have little to show for it. Fernandez may be the "outsider" candidate running to administer the DPI, but she's certainly not planning on changing anything when it comes to a program that has, by the very admission of the people who so passionately fought for it, underperformed.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday Morning Link Orgy

* Is Eau Claire is next Chapel Hill?

* A time line of the AIG Financial Products Unit's rise and fall.

* The most valuable college basketball teams in the country.

* Edmund Burke

* Pirates!

* And this one's the most interesting: is rooting for the home team an irrational activity? [via Monkey Cage]

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ayn Rand

Charlie Sykes is re-reading "Atlas Shrugged" ... Here's John Rogers:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.
[via Balloon Juice]

Friday, March 20, 2009

This is Little More than an Excuse to Post an Amusing (Albeit Not Timely, but Perhaps Timeless) Photograph

Is it just me or is the second day of the tournament usually the day when thing get absolutely out of control?

North basketball, big up yourself.

[via Deadspin]

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Mary Lazich Endorses a Fringe Crackpot Economic Theory

Lazich is now adopting a talking point currently en vogue among conservative NeoHooverites like Amity Shlaes that "the New Deal, military spending during World War II, eight Japanese stimulus packages during the 1990’s, and the 2008 federal rebate checks, all crafted to rejuvenate slumping economies failed to have the intended results."

Here are two talking men from the television that say otherwise.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Awesome Pirate Pictures!!!


This is the Guy You Want Leading Your Angry Mob?

Are Todd Lohenry and Silent E endorsing Santelli's "What's a few million here, a few million there" attitude over the AIG bonus? Does this mean they're cool with tax-payer money going to reward the folks who got AIG in the mess in the first place? Or are they just foaming at the mouth because Santelli blew his dog whistle?

Even Santelli's CNBC co-hosts can't listen to this poor defense of the bonuses without wincing in pain, but since this is the guy who started the Tea Party movement is whatever he's saying it's gotta be pro-market, pro-capitalism blah blah blah ...

MORE: Cavuto's apparently making the same argument and GOPgal's lapping it up as well.

Here's a Gallup poll explaining the extent to which these bonuses piss people off:

The Man Who Can Save the GOP

A great post over at New Majority on how the life of former Congressman (and Oshkosh native) William Steiger can offer a blueprint for GOP success:

Steiger considered himself a conservative. He had started out in politics as a supporter of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, the anti-Communist crusader who divided the GOP as well as the nation. Over time, however, he came to believe that Republicans had to do more to respond to the real needs of most Americans, and that programs had to be judged on their efficacy rather than on ideological criteria. As a state legislator, he sponsored Wisconsin’s first open-housing law and provided summer schools for the children of migrant laborers. As a Congressman, he responded to the widespread youthful unrest of the late ‘60s by gathering a group of other young Republican members of the House and visiting college campuses, without fanfare, to talk with discontented undergraduates....

Steiger felt that Americans were better served by the Republicans’ emphasis on free enterprise and small, effective government than by the Democrats’ emphasis on welfarism and expanding bureaucracy. However, he also lived by Abraham Lincoln’s admonition that government was needed to accomplish the “desirable things which the individuals of a people cannot do, or cannot well do, for themselves.” Steiger sponsored the 1970 legislation that created the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), though this was bitterly resented by many conservatives, because he believed that business and industry had failed to protect their workers; by the early ‘70s, some 14,000 Americans were killed annually in on-the-job accidents, another 400,000 succumbed to work-incurred illnesses, and over 2 million were injured. He insisted that OSHA was not created to harass employers but to save them money by ending the carnage.


Steiger’s sudden decease was widely mourned, not just on account of his youth but also because his career seemed to promise that politics could be improved. He was a solid party man, but worked to restructure the Republican convention delegate selection procedures to make the GOP more open, particularly to women and minorities and young people. He was skeptical of liberals’ grandiose claims for government, but never pretended that government was unnecessary, and he fought hard to get Republicans to modernize government at all levels and to enlist the brainpower of the academic community. He brought a certain youthful exuberance to even the unglamorous, everyday operations of public service, and his willingness to work with Democrats allowed him to amass a significant record of achievement. As the Washington Post editorialized, “His death was untimely, a blow to his party and a loss to civility and seriousness of purpose in the House.”

There are a lot of hardcore Democrats around these parts who will proudly say that the only Republican they ever voted for was Bill Steiger.

The Boston Red Sox are a Communist Front Organization

According to the logic of On the Borderline ... clearly Fenway Park's giant Citgo sign is a testament to the acquiescence of the organization to the will of Hugo Chavez.

Then again, conservatives just can't seem to get enough conspiracy theories these days...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Is That Even Possible?

This caught me by surprise:
Since 1992, the Friends of the NRA has raised and invested more than $100 million in local projects to further shooting sports.
So in the last 17 years a hunting club pulls in over $5.8 million every year -- and just in the Green Bay area alone -- and it puts all of it back into the area?

To give you an idea of how odd this seems, in 2007 the Brown County United Way received $3,471,090 in pledges or a little more than half what the local branch of the NRA is claiming.

That disparity seems curiously odd to me and begs a few questions, like: How does the local NRA accomplish this amazing fundraising feat and what exactly qualifies as "local projects to further hunting sports"?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Finally, Something Cool on an Otherwise Horribly Boring Day

Is that Vladimir Putin -- the dorky looking tourist in the striped shirt and camera on the far left?

Is it Possible to Write a Story About Prostitution in a Bad Economy without Using Double Entendres?

Apparently not for Der Spiegel -- though perhaps something got lost in translation.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

An Ayn Rand Primer

And why do conservatives dig this chick again?

Fault Free

Will Republicans make excuses for everything one of them does?

Kevin Fischer's Whack Job Conspiracy of the Week

In a moment of sublime lucidity last week I must have missed Kevin Fischer's asinine assertion that there was some conspiracy engineered by the WIAA to keep schools from southeastern Wisconsin out of the state basketball tournament. You see, because the WIAA is headquartered in Stevens Point, they clearly have an anti-Milwaukee bias.

The only evidence for this Fischer can conjure are supposed conversations he's had over decades of involvement with high school sports. No names, no titles, no locations -- just hearsay.

Fischer's engaging in the laziest form of sports commentary -- it's all the ref's fault! Given the shallow depths Fischer treads in the rest of his opining, this should probably come as no surprise -- but it doesn't make it any less wrong.

If the quality of basketball in southeastern Wisconsin was as good a Fischer claims it is, then the the sectionals in that area would be an annual Thunderdome-esque Royal Rumble from which a victor would emerge that would simply breeze through the rest of the podunk, hill-billy "out state" competition -- the Wausau's, the Green Bay's, the LaCrosse's and, yes, the Oshkosh's of the world.

But none of this is what Fischer's really steamed about.

Milwaukee basketball isn't as dominate now as it was has been in decades past. That's not to say the quality has diminished in Milwaukee, it just means that good basketball is being played all over the state now. There's simply more parity and it has been that way for while now. Oshkosh didn't become a hotbed for basketball -- don't forget the West girl's team won a few championships not too long ago -- in the last decade overnight: the coaches at both schools took years to build their programs. It's probably a good bet that something similar is happening at other schools around the state.

Now that seems like the far more reasonable and likely explanation. Granted, it certainly isn't as sexy as "The WIAA hates Milwaukee," but Fischer tends to operate on the "Why say something reasonable when you can say something loudly?" principle, so ... there you go.

Oshkosh North will be going down to Madison for the tournament next week -- and anyone who suggests their path to state was paved with anything other than their ability to hit clutch shots and play strong D down the stretch, well -- we already went over that earlier this weekend.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe good coaching, supportive parents and the hard work of kids all over Wisconsin isn't the reason that some teams make it to state and some teams don't. May it is an elaborate scheme concocted in a windowless black tower in Stevens Point where the evil WIAA plots to keep Milwaukee and environs down. If that's the case, then why doesn't Fischer use his influence in the state legislature to call for an investigation. Put your money where your mouth is and use up some of your employer's political capital to uncover this vast rural conspiracy to rob suburban Milwaukee of their birthright.

That would require a little bit of leg work on Fischer's part, however, and it's far easier to talk a big game than lace up the old sneakers and break a sweat.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Mutual Appreciation Societies

There are a few new examples of a phenomenon among conservatives in Wisconsin that are worth pointing out because both are indicative of a perceived "solution" to the problem of regaining power in Wisconsin.

The first is the creation of the MacIver Institute, a think tank in New Berlin. Any time I hear something described as a think tank I immediately ask myself "why?" Normally the answer is readily apparent, if not self-evident, but I'm not convinced that's the case with MacIver.

For starters, there is a reasonably successful think tank in the area, the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, that is already responsible for producing much of the intellectual capital that comes from the state's conservatives. One would assume that if business is that good the WPRI would just mosey on over to the Bradley Foundation and ask for more money to expand ... instead we have the creation of an entirely new entitity independent of the old one.

Which is not unimportant beacuae it will be interesting to see how the organizations work with each other. Will they be competing for funding and staff or will they collude? Don't get wrong, I'm extremely appreciative of think tanks, but there's really no getting around the fact that they are vanity projects and notorious money pits -- and now really isn't a great time for someone to sink a ton of cash into something that's not going to returning any dividends.

I'm sure that as the MI matures it will evolve an identity of its own seperate from WPRI's -- an if the early signs are indication MacIver will be an unapologeticly conservative organization with little pretense to "non-partisanship." The place is named after an influential Republican operative. The man tapped to helm the ship is an old GOP aide from the capital that was most recently lobbying for the state's premier school choice org. They tapped Fred Dooley to run the company blog. These are folks with resumes long on activism and short on academics.

That doesn't mean they are incapable of coming up with new and original ideas, but one has to wonder how original ideas can be when they come from the guys who have been out selling the old one for most of their careers. Take the results of the first poll they commissioned: Wisconsinites don't like taxes. Dude, you just blew my mind ...

So until there's evidence to the contrary, it's probably a safe bet to assume that MacIver is just another way of banging the hyper-conservative drum that prevents the GOP from moderating itself. That may seem like an obvious assumption, but it's not just about promoting an agenda that is being rejected at the polls, its also about resisting reform efforts from within. If a reform-minded GOPer thinks that P is a good idea, but the institutional authority of the MacIver Institute says ~P is true, it doesn't take a genius to figure out which idea is going to fly and which one isn't. In this sense the mission of the MacIver Institute isn't to generate new ideas, its to stand like a praetorian guard over the old ones.

A far cruder example of this behavior is the Northeastern Wisconsin chapter of "Club Gitmo," which no one will be confusing for a think tank any time soon. Apparently this proposed group has something to do with Rush Limbaugh:
This is a call to arms to join the resistance to take back our government. We agree with the teachings, values and philosophy from our leader from the EIB southern command in Florida.
[I do find it amusing that when some people here the words "Palm Beach" they have a vision of NORAD rattling around in thier mind's eye.]

While Club Gitmo may be a far less organized "grassroots" effort (that apparently consists of little more than a bunch of guys, who can apparently join psuedononymously, wearing the same shirt at upcoming "Tea Parties") it essentially serves the same purpose: defend the old ideas. Presumably this is what Lance Burri meant when he observed that "conservatives were coming out of the woodwork" recently.

Which brings us to the Tea Parties themselves. It was kinda difficult to listen to conservatives go on about how successful they were. How many people who attended these events voted for Obama last fall? I haven't heard of one such person.

Right now, according to the only measure that really matters, last fall's election, conservatives are in the minority. That means they have to change minds if they want to win back the levers of government. Getting together with a bunch of like-minded folks is certainly fun, but unless the GOP starts reaching out to others it will continue to be in the minority. Republicans can create a think tank for every card-carrying member, establish a million Limbaugh fan clubs and start having high tea in front of every courthouse in America -- they're just going to be talking to themselves.