Thursday, December 29, 2011

What's with Libertarians and Conspiracy Theories?

Now that people are finally paying attention to some of the really weird things Ron Paul believes, let's ask what the hell is up with Libertarians?

You'd be astonished by the sheer volume of the conspiracy theories that fall under the Libertarian banner. Here's just a quick primer: Agenda 21, FEMA camps, the North American Union (the "Amero" and the "trans-American Superhighway), the Trilateral Commission and Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberger Group, the Moon-landing "hoax," Barack Obama wasn't born in American, 9/11 was an inside job, the Federal Reserve will eventually turn over America's wealth to the New World Order and on and on. If you'd like to hear them all just listen to the lunatic Alex Jones or join the John Birch Society.

Just about every Libertarian I have ever met has had a very personal and very visceral problem with authority that pre-dates their adoption of Libertarianism. In fact, it often seems that Libertarianism was constructed to provide an intellectual framework to what is essentially a gut feeling that starts at an early age. Unfortunately, Libertarianism doesn't really make much sense outside of a sophomore poli sci seminar.

But instead of abandoning or correcting their flawed philosophy, Libertarians find scape goats among the authorities because it serves two purposes: 1.) it validates their distrust of the powers that be and 2.) it allows them maintain a philosophy that vindicate the idea that they can pretty much do whatever they want. That's the generic psychological answer, one that can be grafted on to any that espouses conspiracy theories. There are also historic influences, chief among them is Joseph McCarthy.

It goes without saying that McCarthy was anti-communist, but his heyday happened to coincide with the beginning of the contemporary Libertarian intellectual roots. One of McCarthy's biggest fans was Murray Rothbard, the economist who would serve as something of an intellectual mentor to Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell. McCarthy, the original conspiracy theorist, only we don't call what he believed about communist infiltration of the government a conspiracy theory today -- we say he was lying, exaggerating, ginning up an issue for political purposes, engaging in demagoguery, or was drunk. The Birchers, of course, adopted McCarthy's vociferous hatred for anything that resembled communism and did what they could to defend their patron saint, who had died the year before the group was founded in 1958. This also meant adopting McCarthy's conspiracy theorizing. 

Rothbard backed up some of the nuttier Bircher conspiracy theories, albeit for different reasons. When lead Bircher Robert Welch began the fluoride-in-the-drinking-water panic, he said it was a socialist plot to dull the minds of Americans into submitting to a further expansion of government. Rothbard, on the other hand, just cut out the brainwashing talk and argued that said that fluoride was just creeping socialism.

Why did he do this? It's hard to say. Rothbard's view likely kept him out of the elite academic jobs and without much political influence, so it's entirely possible that he was a true believer. There's also reason to believe that he was courting conspiracists as part of a strategy to build a broader Libertarian movement (Rothbard was obsessed with this kind of political activity, which shows up frequently in his writings).

Libertarian conspiracies all follow the same formula: they start with the expansion of the state, end with the loss of individual rights and portend a future of Communist domination -- just like Joseph McCarthy's "infiltration" of the State Department. Conspiracy theories are rooted in Libertarianism's DNA. It appeals to radical individualists who are apt to see any kind of association as a plot to infringe on a man's desire to be left alone. These are folks who think they're entitled to do whatever they want to do without being subject to burdensome restrictions, even creating their own realities.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What the War on Crime can Teach us about Winning the War on Unemployment

Charles Lane has an interesting piece in the Washington Post about the decrease in crime rates in America in the last 20+ years. His general point is that we have yet to identity the reason for the precipitous drop and to the best of my knowledge, he's correct: there really is no consensus on just why crime is down. There are likely many reasons, and Lane mentions a few of the them, but I'd like to put forth three ideas -- one that Lane touches briefly upon and two others that he doesn't even mention -- as possible parts to a greater answer:

3.) Better Policing: When New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton implemented the CompStat, police departments all over the country finally discovered a tool that could help them almost predict where and when crime was going to happen. That created a fundamental change in emphasis from ex post facto enforcement to prevention. Comparing this story to a Moneyball-esque shift in thinking is only out of line because life and death was actually at stake during the early days of CompStat.

Police departments all over the country have become more professionalize and trained in the last 20 years. Being a cop once was considered a blue-collar, working class job. It's now one that requires a college degree. This has led to less (or, at least, cyclical) corruption and a better working relationship with the people the police serve. The public's attitudes about cops have also changed. Some of this has to do with 9/11 when much of the country was vividly reminded just how heroic some of these guys have to be at times.

2.) Gentrification/Suburban Ennui: It took us most of the 20th century, but Americans only started learning how to care for our urban areas once we realized how painfully dull suburban life is. In the early and mid-1990s, most major cities in the country began to revitalize themselves -- renovating waterfront, building ballparks, turning warehouse space into loft apartments, etc. People, and younger ones in particular, had grown up in the suburbs and were so dead set against living there as adults that they were willing to spend money and risk some degree of their safety to not do so again. The fact that cities were beginning to clean themselves up made urban life seem all the more attractive.

1.) Globalization: Americans have literally outsourced our gang violence across the border to Mexico. The decrease in crime and violence in America cannot be seen as unrelated to the drastic upturn in violence in Mexico, where a war is being waged by various drug cartels over access to the American market. This is not unlike the gang crime we saw in urban areas in the 1980s, only now it's far more sophisticated, better funded and taking place in a country with far fewer law enforcement and economic resources to fight back.

All three of these reasons are inter-related, and perhaps it's unfair to rank them in order of importance, but I did so because they each represent essential ways of looking at the problem: #1 is the global or mega-economic outlook; #2 is the macro-economic outlook; and #3 is the micro-economic outlook, or how crime-fighting occurs street to street, house to house in America.

The great lesson to be learned here is that Americans tackled all three of these levels simultaneously beginning in the early 1990s: we changed the way we policed our cities, we changed the way we lived in our cities and we went after the supply with an aggressive counter-narcotics strategy that targeted the over-seas source. We now have less influence over level #1 then we did 20 years ago, but have made such huge strides with levels #2 and #3 that we've been able to mitigate this lack of control.

The War on Crime has largely been a success where two other domestic struggles -- the Wars on Drugs and Poverty -- have been failures. Given the current economic climate, it's probably time to look at the methods used during the War on Crime and see if they can be applied to the War on Poverty, or at least the War on Unemployment. If we look closely we can find a good deal of crossover.

There is already a great deal of intervention and activity by the state in levels #1 and #2, but it's important to recognize that level #3 is fairly under-served and this should be a problem because, according to every politician every, small business are the real job creators. Unfortunately, they are also responsible for most job losses, as well. Given that so much job loss and production occurs on the micro level, or the level of each individual small business, it's astonishing that there isn't more attention paid to it.

There's really no reason why we can't use statistical modeling to anticipate where unemployment will occur next. For example, if you're in a paper-making industry job in the state of Wisconsin, you're job isn't safe. Period. Now the last thing a struggling business in a dying industry wants to see is a government official stopping by and asking "So, how are you going to wind this down?" and this should in no way happen, but perhaps some kind of program can be created that slowly (and confidentially, so as not to frighten customers) transitions workers into new fields before jobs just suddenly evaporate.

These type of models have existed forever on Wall Street and investors use them all the time to evaluate industries and specific firms. "The Market" will always know who is dying well before the state, or anyone else for that matter, does. If we can "predict crime" then we should also be able to do the same with unemployment. I know there is a significant difference between the volume of data in each category, but I still think it can be done. If a mom and pop restaurant files three consecutive years worth of loses to the state DOR, it's probably not long for this world.

One of the ways police were able to curb murder rates in the 1990s was to anticipate retaliatory violence. They beefed up patrols in neighborhoods and even knocked on the doors of potential retaliators just to inform them they were being watched a little more carefully. (Some of the first criminological work into social networks helped develop this strategy). Civil libertarians blew a gasket from every quarter: everything from "racial profiling" on the left, to "big brother police state" on the right. Perhaps they were right, but those concerns are almost completely forgotten today. (Much of which had to do with the beat cops in rough neighborhoods spending years developing personal connections and goodwill in those communities. It was painstaking work that was literally conducted street by street, block by block and house by house.)

There will, of course, be fierce objections to this kind of anticipatory action. The civil libertarians of yesterday will be replaced by the economic libertarians of today, and this group has always enjoyed significantly more political power. These folks will cry "socialism" and worse. They also will have a point: when businesses fail, someone gains from the decrease in competition. It's important to understand that this is not a proposal to prop up failing businesses with state funds, but with help them wind down with "optional transitional support" to another line of work.

This is about moving people from one job to another before unemployment ever happens or an unemployment check is ever sent. One sentiment you'll hear often from the unemployed is that they don't need "job training" so much as they need "unemployment training," that is, instruction on how and where to look for work and fill down time productively. There are few things worse then looking for a job: it's a daunting, frightening and humiliating task, and when people are left to themselves they can easily be overwhelmed.

Again, this is going to require a sea change in how we view unemployment. Currently, the left sees the unemployed as victims of social and business circumstances, while the right sees them as either lazy or failures. Neither view is correct.

It's time we look at unemployment the same way we look at crime and to attack it like we attack crime. For this to work, any kind of municipal agency devoted to this task has to adopt the same principle police used in the roughest cities in America:
  • Developing close relationships with business owners in specific neighborhoods or communities so that they can understand their shifting employment needs, just as beat cops earned the trust of locals in rough neighborhoods.
  • Intervene at the early signs of trouble.
  • Demonstrate results professionally and consistently.
Essentially, what I'm recommending is the creation of a highly-trained force of economic "social workers" or better yet "agents" -- yes, in the Hollywood sense of the word -- for the unemployed. These would be people struggling business owners can turn to to help re-locate employees in the event of a closure with actual jobs. Think of these folks as Human Resources ninjas.

This wouldn't even necessarily have to be a government-run organization. It cold just as easily be a philanthropic organization in the same vein as, say, Teach for America. This organization could recruit from recent college graduates, drop them into cities and give them a plan to follow. A program like this would be almost ideal for future MBA students since the skill set required to be successful in this kind of occupation are immediately relevant to a future in business. (Plus, they would be observing, first hand, how businesses fail.) Ideally, this program would be a stepping stone to a much more lucrative job with one of the connections any given "agent" made in the private sector. This could create an incentive that will attract the best and brightest.

For centuries Americans viewed crime in almost strictly punitive terms: you do the crime, you get what's coming to you. Unfortunately, we've also viewed unemployment in similar terms. American started to tackle crime comprehensively in the 1990s. We threw the kitchen sink at the problem: We banned assault weapons and yet simultaneously passed concealed carry laws. We put 75,000 new cops on the streets (far more than was actually needed, but still 25% less than the 100,000 in the original plan). We started midnight basketball leagues and community watch organizations. We imprisoned scores of thousands of young people and yet finally started focusing on treatment for drug abusers.

Lane calls the drop in crime "the most important social trend of the past 20 years" in America. I actually think he's under-selling the accomplishment: it's nothing short of a contemporary Apollo project. Lane goes on to say:
Plunging crime rates also debunk conventional wisdom, left and right. Crime’s continued decline during the Great Recession undercuts the liberal myth that hard times force people into illegal activity — that, like the Jets in “West Side Story,” crooks are depraved on account of being deprived. Yet recent history also refutes conservatives who predicted in the early 1990s that minority teenage “superpredators” would unleash a new crime wave.

Government, through targeted social interventions and smarter policing, has helped bring down crime rates, confirming the liberal worldview. Yet solutions bubbled up from the states and municipalities, consistent with conservative theory. Contrary to liberal belief, incarcerating more criminals for longer periods probably helped reduce crime. Contrary to conservative doctrine, crime rates fell while Miranda warnings and other legal protections for defendants remained in place.

On the whole, though, what’s most striking about the crime decline is how little we know about its precise causes. Take the increase in state incarceration, which peaked at a national total of 1.4 million on Dec. 31, 2008. This phenomenon is probably a source of success in the war on crime — and its most troubling byproduct. But increased imprisonment cannot explain all, or most, of the decline: Crime rates kept going down the past two years, even as the prison population started to shrink. Crime fell in New York faster than in any other U.S. city over the past two decades — but New York locked up offenders at a below-average rate, according to Zimring’s new book, “The City That Became Safe.”
Looking for causes of the decline is, indeed, important, but I think the real take-away lesson is that we tried everything, regardless of ideological origin. This is not how we're attacking unemployment. We're neglecting the micro-economic level and it would not surprise me if we achieved the same decline in unemployment that we saw in crime if we adopted the same hands-on, house by house, person to person, go-to-the-unemployed-don't-wait-for-the-unemployed-to-come-to-you tactics.

Ron Johnson's Disastrous First Year in Office

Toward the end of his campaign for the U.S. Senate, Ron Johnson eschewed his hide-and-seek media strategy and met with the editorial board of the Green Bay Press Gazette, universally considered to be one of the most conservative (and therefore, sympathetic) boards in Wisconsin. During the meeting Johnson was asked a fairly straight forward question that created a moment of uncomfortable awkwardness that rivaled anything we've recently seen from Republican Presidential candidates Rick Perry and Herman Cain. In case you've forgotten, here it is:
Within hours the Press Gazette announced on it's web site that it was endorsing Johnson's opponent, Russ Feingold. The incident proved to be portentous.

Johnson has largely flown under the radar, thanks to the polarizing policies of Scott Walker, and he's escaped a great deal of the scrutiny and criticism that come with his office, both from the media and the state Dems, who have devoted all of their energy to Walker. In the absence of that kind of attention, it's easy to appreciate just how poorly Johnson's first year in office has gone.

Johnson's approval ratings as of November are a dismal 36% or 37%. What should trouble Johnson more is the fact that between 30-40% of respondents don't know who he is or aren't sure what to make of him yet. These are people who will learn about Johnson from his performance in office, and to date performance has been awful.  

Here's a quick look back on Johnson's first year in office:
  • In January Johnson took to the pages of the Journal-Sentinel to write an open letter to President Obama sarcastically welcoming him to Wisconsin ahead of a visit. It was an uncomfortable moment for someone who was still unknown to many in the state and held very few public events during his campaign for office.
  • In April, shortly after Rep. Paul Ryan released his controversial budget plan, a plan that was so toxic that the GOP leadership wouldn't even touch it, Johnson said it didn't go far enough.
  • In late June FEC reports revealed that Johnson gave himself a $10 million severance package when he left PACUR, a sum that seemed suspiciously close to the $9 million Johnson spent on his own campaign for Senate. Johnson did not answer questions regarding the matter very convincingly and the only reason the issue hasn't been a bigger deal is because the FEC is essentially a toothless enforcement agency. 
  • A few days later, Johnson tried to take ownership of budget deficit issue and failed miserably. First he published an incoherent op-ed (seriously, just look at the chart) at the Daily Caller that, far from suggesting a solution to the budget problem, seriously called into question his own understanding of the deficit.
  • A week later he tried to bring the business of the Senate to a screeching halt over raising the debt ceiling and was rebuked by the GOP Senate leadership in a private conference on the Senate floor. Johnson's temper tantrum seemed to personify the recklessness of the GOP's game-of-chicken strategy which caused the public to blow a gasket.
  • Two weeks later, Johnson flip-flopped and began a full-throated advocacy of a budget proposal he earlier dismissed as draconian.
  • In August, Johnson laid out 12 economic policies that he called "necessary components" to "get our economy moving again." To date Johnson has shown barely any progress on any of these policies.
In the interview, Johnson insisted that he’s open to working with Democrats and “that if you want to accomplish things in this country, … you have to work with the other side.”
But even on the select occasions McConnell has been forced to work with the other side to keep the government running and raise the national debt ceiling, Johnson objected.
“Johnson is always a big critic of how things are being run, but he has yet to show that he understands how to get things done in Congress,” a senior Republican Senate aide said. “Just being a vocal critic may not be enough of a selling point to a caucus that wants to see real results on some very tough issues.”
  • In October Johnson teamed up with a former banking CEO and fellow Ayn Rand fan-boy to write a brazen op-ed that announces in no uncertain terms that Johnson represents the interests of the banking industry
  • Later that month the Journal-Sentinel revealed that Johnson had purchased a $1 million house near Capitol Hill.
  • If that wasn't enough, Johnson capped off a busy October by writing an op-ed in the Washington Post arguing for a "return" to super-majority rule in the Senate, a position that will surely come back to haunt him if the GOP takes over the Senate (as some people believe they will) next year.
The most important year of any Senator's time in office is his or her first. The above are not examples of a successful Senator. Time and time again Johnson's come out of Washington looking like he's completely out of his league, at best, or like a bought-and-paid for shill for wealthy interests (at worse). Whichever scenario you prefer it's next to impossible to not paint Johnson as an out-of-touch elitist with no regard for those below his own economic station. To this day he has not answered the question asked by the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Yes, Johnson has solutions for economic recovery, but these involve giving rich people more money through tax breaks and telling working class folks to work harder.

Most importantly, Johnson has been on the losing end of the three biggest GOP legislative disasters of the last year: The Paul Ryan budget, which Johnson claimed didn't go far enough; the debt ceiling debacle, which Johnson behaved petulantly during; and now the payroll tax imbroglio, which Johnson voted against. Each of these incidents brought measurable and immediate declines in GOP congressional approval ratings. Don't think for a second this stink hasn't already rubbed off on Johnson, who enjoyed an approval rating of 44% as late as July.

Even one of Johnson's two most visible legislative successes -- the bipartisan expansion of the APEC travel card program -- is essentially a program that allows frequent business travelers to circumvent long security lines in airports when flying to participating countries. It's a perfectly legitimate program that's just smart policy, as anyone who's traveled overseas lately can attest, but at the same time it is a program that literally lets the rich folks cut in line ahead of the rest of the hoi polloi.

And that's a perfect metaphor for what appears to be Johnson's governing principle.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Johnson's first year is his utter and complete lack of patience and rather pronounced desire to have things done his way. These are not good qualities to have in a legislative body designed to be lumbering and deliberative. Johnson remains a very sarcastic voice with a conspicuous contempt for those who disagree with him, combining those qualities with a questionable competence and deeply unpopular policies is a recipe for a one-term career filled with irrelevance.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Story of the Real Ebenezer Scrooge

Really just too wonderful not to pass along [via Brainiac]:
The story goes that Charles Dickens was visiting Edinburgh to give a public reading of his work in 1842, and spent some time looking around the Canongate church graveyard. He saw one grave that made him shudder. The name on the grave was Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie--mean man." According to Peter Clark, a British political economist who seems the starting point for this story, Dickens misread the inscription. It actually said "Meal man," because Scroggie was a corn merchant.

But Dickens was shocked by the inscription, and apparently noted it in  his diary. A geneology website reported Dickens's comment this way in 2010: "[T]o be remembered through eternity only for being mean seemed the greatest testament to a life wasted." In a 1996 telling, Clark reported the comment from Dickens diary in this way: "How bleak to have one's shrivelled soul advertised forever. It made me shudder. It made me feel for the flesh corrupting beneath me." Shortly afterwards, Charles Dickens published "A Christmas Carol," with a main character named Ebenezer Scrooge, and the plot revolving around what it would be like to be forever stamped as a "mean man," when there was still time to change your ways.

Apparently Ebenezer Scroggie was about as far from his fictional namesake as one can get. A "History of Leith, Edinburgh" website reported in 2010: "In life, Scroggie was apparently a rambunctious, generous and licentious man who gave wild parties, impregnated the odd serving wench and once wonderfully interrupted the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland by grabbing the buttocks of a hapless countess." However, for those seeking to link Ebenezer Scrooge more tightly to the heartlessness of economics, it may be comforting to know that Scroggie was apparently a cousin of Adam Smith. A 2004 article in the Scotsman newspaper reports: "Scroggie was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife; his mother was the niece of Adam Smith, the 18th century political economist and philosopher." There is now some talk in Edinburgh of erecting a monument to Scroggie, although his actual gravesite was apparently removed for redevelopment of the port back in the early 1930s.
Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Why is the "Christian Civil Liberties Union" (No, Seriously) Shilling for Mining Interests by Engaging in Quasi-Election Fraid?

Jim and Ginny Maziarka are a lunatic couple of Christian fanatics from West Bend who advocate book-burning. They are the kind of psychotic dipshits who think the Harry Potter books promote witchcraft. I can only imagine how terribly wretched and shallow their lives must be to invent new things to be outraged about to compensate for whatever ongoing series of failures have crippled their intellects.

Here's Ginny's blog. It's hilarious.

Ginny's claim to fame is a little scuffle she started a few years back regarding books she believed to be "inappropriate" at the West Bend Public Library. The whole incident turned the city of West Bend into something of a national laughing stock, instead of just the regional laughing stock it normally is. There's actually no end to the accounts of her antics available on the web and they would all be just as hilarious if somewhat important people didn't take her and her ongoing effort to return the world to the dark ages seriously. Here's an interview she conducted with Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, prominently displayed on the then-candidate's web site.

Anyway, it was during the Library fiasco that Maziarka was joined  by an organization called the Christian Civil Liberties Union who helped her pursue her latter day Bonfire of the Vanities. The CCLU has its "headquarters" in Milwaukee ... at 2634 W. Vliet Street. Normally that's neither here nor there, but I couldn't help but notice that it's the same address being used for an ad hoc organization called Mines for Wisconsin in this photo of a flyer  found in West Bend currently making the rounds.
The "Bob" listed as a point of contact is most likely Robert Braun, the, um, head of the CCLU.

I seriously doubt this is a very productive way of hatching a less than sophisticated plot to sway an election, but the multiple angles this flyer appears to encapsulate -- evangelical nutcases shilling for big business by attempting to engage in election fraud -- really just sums up the contemporary state of the Republican "grassroots" quite nicely. If activists like Ginny here didn't have AFP or the Eagle Forum, of which she and her organization claims to be affiliated, this would be the best they could do.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Ryan-Wyden Meicare Plan

Here it is. Comments below.

The document above is fairly short of numbers, projections and other important data, so I'll have to reserve final judgment on the plan until an independent analyses start coming out.

So far, there's a broad consensus developing that Wyden's participation with Ryan in this new Medicare plan is a gift to the GOP. That might be true, but I think that it misses an important point: Ryan didn't need Wyden to amend his own plan. He could have done it all by himself and Dems would have been forced to adjust their attacks according to the new scheme.

Avik Roy describes the "competitive bidding" aspect of the plan:
The basic idea behind competitive bidding is that, say, on a county-by-county basis, you let private plans and traditional Medicare offer plans with the same actuarial value compete, to see who can offer the same package of benefits the most efficiently. Each plan in a given county will name a price for which they are willing to offer these services, and seniors are free to pick whichever plan they want. However, the government will only subsidize an amount equal to the bid proposed by the second-cheapest plan. If you want a more expensive plan, you have to pay the difference yourself.
Fair enough, but I'm not convinced competitive bidding alone will be enough to keep costs down (Roy notes that the cost containment measures are basically meaningless and I tend to agree). 

Johnathan Cohn discusses the key conservative ingredient of the plan, "premium support:"
The Ryan-Wyden plan is the latest twist on an idea called that wonks call “premium support.” Today, most seniors enroll in the traditional government insurance program. Those who want other options are free to shop around for alternatives through what’s known as the “Medicare Advantage” program, in which private insurers make available regulated insurance policies. Under a premium support system, all seniors would shop around. The government would simply issue every person over 65 a voucher (at least in the figurative sense). In most schemes, seniors would pay extra for joining plans that cost more than the vouchers and receive rebates for joining plans that cost less than the vouchers. 
Cohn later goes on to point to a report that argues premium care will lead to a tiered system of care. I'm not sure that's such a bad thing, so long as the lowest tier is of a high quality.

This is where we need more information. What percentage of senior does the plan expect to take advantage of premium support over the traditional Medicare model? What kind of projected savings are we looking at from this group? Can they create a model that doesn't increase overhead costs (not likely, but we'll see)?  Joe Klein notices, just as we did last night, that the plan lacks any medical cost control measures, which will makes these questions among the more important.

All in all, I think Kevin Drum has a pretty good take on the scheme:
Bottom line: this isn't necessarily a bad plan. Unfortunately, it's also not clear if it's really a very effective plan either. But I'd certainly put it into the broad bucket of plans that are reasonable starting points for conversation. Given Paul Ryan's immense credibility with the tea party wing of the Republican Party, it's significant that he's put his name to this. It's worth a conversation.

And that's ultimately the most intriguing aspect of the plan: it's very obviously a starting point and not a destination. This is probably as good a place as there is to start having a Medicare reform conversation.

Ron Johnson's Very Bad Week

Ron Johnson is having a very bad week.

First, he lost his party leadership bid.

Then he made an unfortunate statement regarding workers on minimum wage that probably runs contrary to many employees experience (especially mine and, apparently, even Johnson's own).

In same meeting he declared his opposition to unemployment benefits.

Lastly, Johnson voted against a bill that would restrict insider trading among congressmen then vowed to filibuster.

On the bright side, Johnson did get to kick back with a few colleagues at a lobbyist-infested fundraiser at a swanky DC hotel.

Usually these kinds of setbacks take place over the course of a few weeks if not months. When they happen in the course of just a few days they reinforce a narrative of someone who is working to protect the status quo for both politicians in Washington and money-interests everywhere.

This was a pretty shitty day in general for state Republicans. Other highlights include:
  • Walker's policies are killing jobs in a variety of ways: one report from a liberal think tank outlines how Walker has cost the state 18,000 jobs this year. Another describes how Walker's anti-wind energy policies have cost 1,000 jobs. Yet another plant closed, this time in Two Rivers, costing the state another 190 jobs.
  • Wisconsin lost 14,600 jobs in November, the fifth month in a row that job numbers have been down on Walker's watch.
  • It became clear that Walker's rejection of rail funds is now costing tax-payers more than what the state would have needed to contribute had Walker accepted them.
  • Walker's education cuts are reeking havoc on the state's school districts and his claims to the contrary are proving too hard to believe for most fact-checkers.
  • Thanks to revised federal labor figures, it turns out Wisconsin only lost 2,400 jobs in October. Better than initially thought but still moving in the wrong direction.
  • Dems announced that have collected over 500,000 signatures in their drive to recall Scott Walker.
  • Jeff Fitzgerald decided to kick off his campaign for U.S. Senate by trying to revamp the GAB, a move that's impossible to see as anything other than petty and changing the rules in the middle of the game.
  • Paul Ryan significantly revised his Medicare reform plan and crafted a plan that looks more like Obamacare (at least to Ezra Klein) than it does Ayn Rand.
  • A prominent Madison Dem pollster shows Paul Ryan's popularity slipping in his district and a path to victory for his opponent.
  • Noted Wisco GOP mouthpiece Christian Schneider when he compared unreported rapes to juiced up major league baseball players during the pre-steroids testing era ... for some reason.
So, yeah, it's been a busy week.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Paul Ryan is Born Again!!!

We may have been a bit too harsh on Paul Ryan.

Ryan is apparently getting together with Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, to put together a new Medicare proposal and it actually looks ... reasonable! Or at least far more so than Ryan's earlier package. Some details:
Like the Ryan plan adopted in April, it would shift the fundamental structure of Medicare from a "defined benefit" program to a "defined contribution" program, in which the government would subsidize health care premiums for seniors, and those seniors would use the subsidy to purchase health insurance from a menu of government-approved private plans. But a traditional Medicare fee-for-service plan would be among the options seniors can choose from. Private plans would be competing with traditional Medicare to cover seniors, according to the plan.
That basically makes Medicare a "public option" among many others.

More importantly:

Compared to the earlier Ryan plan, the new proposal also takes a different approach in how it sets the premium subsidies for seniors, and the rate at which those subsidies could grow over time, as medical costs rise.

One of the chief criticisms of the Ryan plan passed by the House is that with increases in premium subsidies indexed to overall inflation, and health costs rising much faster than inflation, beneficiaries over time would be forced to pay the difference. In other words, the buying power of the premium subsidy would steadily erode.
That's good ... or at least much, much better. Our preference would be to put in cost controls for medical costs, but being realists we know that's probably never going to happen.I know there will be more than a few Dems who call this kind of Medicare reform health care apostasy, but they should at least take a look at the projected numbers: it could -- and let me stress that again -- could have the effect of diverting funds that would go to wealthier seniors who could pay for their own health care to senior who retired with lesser wealth (or just used to pay down the debt). My suspicion is that private health insurance companies will not be as anxious to insure seniors as most law-makers anticipate, so I guess we'll have to see how that shakes out.

This is, of course, just a quick snap shot of the proposal. We'll have more to say when we look at the details.

But this development obliges us say that this is a good sign from Ryan. It shows a willingness to amend policy according to both economic and political reality. There is likely no way that something as contentious as Medicare reform is going to be passed along a party-line vote.

If this is the sign of a New Paul Ryan, we welcome it with open arms.

Europe: Armageddon's Powder Keg

Jonathan Krause has a silly little piece up today forecasting the imminent, and literal mind you, "debt wars" or a series of armed conflicts started by sovereign debt crises. If this does happen it will be the first time in human history nations have gone to war over something like one country owing another a great deal of money. Usually nations default and essentially liquidate themselves before armed aggression ever becomes possible.

Here's Krause's ridiculous doom and gloom prophesy:
[I]t's beginning to look like the new source of international tension will be debt.  More specifically, sovereign debt owed between countries.  Like World Wars I and II, the seeds of this battle have already been sown in Europe.  Nations freed from the burden of self-defense by NATO and the US, embarked on unsustainable financial policies funded during the economic growth of the last three decades by borrowing money from their neighbors.  
What Krause is forgetting is that recovering huge debts from the Weimar Republic in the form of war reparations is what eventually lead to the rise of the Third Reich. This lesson was so acutely learned by the victors of WWII that the United States did the exact opposite following the war when it instituted the Marshall Plan. Just a reminder, under the Plan the U.S. gave -- let me reiterate that, gave -- Europe a little over 1% of it's GDP every year for four years. In 2010, total U.S. foreign aide was 0.19% of GDP.

Nations know that letting one country fall into economic collapse in bad for their own economies, especially in an interconnected, globalized world. Most governments understand this is the price of globalization. Shortly after NAFTA was codified, the U.S. bailed out Mexico in a move that was tremendously unpopular north of the border, but eventually made the U.S. a tidy $500 million profit once the loans were repaid. Countries just don't go to war over debt. I can't find one historical example of a conflict where debt was a direct casus belli (granted, there have been a lot of wars and I'm likely to have missed a few).

I also want to point out that the current crises in Europe is taking place among countries that Krause himself says are "freed from the burden of self-defense by NATO and the US." Most of Europe does not maintain an aggressive war machine. Germany's constitution is fairly constrictive as to where the Bundeswher is allowed to fight and the armed forces has had it's own readiness issues in the recent past. The story isn't much different in other European countries who have largely let defense spending slide since the end of the Cold War. Now Krause thinks these countries are going to wake from their years of relative peace and start fighting each other? The idea is laughable.
The seeds of that discontent are about to get watered and fertilized by the measures agreed to in the Eurozone summit last week--as those profligate nations agreed to the debtor nations' demands to get their financial houses in order--even if that means budgetary oversight from outside agencies.  If there is one thing we have learned over the centuries, people don't like having other nations telling them what to do--especially when those demands mean they might have to work harder and longer.  The public unrest aimed at the debtor governments will soon turn against the lenders--and the drums of war will begin to beat.
There is a degree of truth to this, a very small one, but one that ignores the fact that the debtor relationships between countries were codified by treaties almost a decade ago. There are many legal obstacles preventing war. Besides, the typical Greek is not going to be so angry at Germany because they no longer enjoy some pretty sweet retirement benefits, he's going to get angry at his own government first. 
Just like in the 1900's the dominoes are lined up to take the regional conflict global.  
One assumes that Krause is referring to the World Wars here but the most recent example of armed conflict in Europe, the Balkin Wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s seem to refute that premise. There were many people in the foreign policy establishment that worried those wars would ignite an entire continent wide conflict, but that never happened. Indeed, depending on how you look at beginning of hostilities of WWII, one could argue that there was no "domino effect"that plunged the continent into war, but rather an aggressive push made by a single actor.

Since WWII, regional conflicts have stayed regional, even when they were essentially proxy fights conducts by Superpowers. The only organizations that have taken their wars globally have been terrorist groups, whose asymmetrical allow them to move freely and with flexibility, especially through open societies, but whose ability to wage war if frequently hindered by the success of a few notable actions. (This is a huge problem in the "business model" of terrorism. In conventional war, success on the battlefield gives the victor more ability to conduct further operations because of new strategic positioning and diminished capacities of the opponent. In the case of terrorism, it's just the opposite.)
The oil producing nations of the Middle East will have to choose sides--likely joining the countries that actually have money to pay for that precious crude.  And then there is China--who has become the 21st Century superpower by buying up everyone's debt.  Who do they align with in the Debt Wars?  And will it be on the same side as the United States?  I tend to doubt they are going to keep loaning us money to do battle against them.

The one positive thing is that barren, radioactive wastelands tend not to repay their debts--so we probably won't have to worry about WW3 being a nuclear conflict.  Now we can just concern ourselves with learning the Mandarin language of our future masters. 
Krause is promoting a misconception about Chinese ownership of US debt that does little good for the conversation. Here's a quick look at just whom holds U.S. debt:
China owns about 10%. That's nothing to scoff at, to be sure, but it's hardly reason to begin stockpiling Rosetta Stone CDs, as Krause suggests. Japan owes almost as much debt as China does, but we never hear much about them. That's largely because China's big, scary and ascendant and Japan's, well, not.

These days, wars create debt, debt that is almost never repaid in an economically beneficial way to the aggressor. That has a lot to do with the much smaller scale on which war is presently conducted when compared to WWII. Lots of debt is less preferable to no debt at all, but Krause's apocalyptic fever dream has little grounding in any understanding of the global economy or the reasons why international conflicts begin.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

What does Ron Johnson's Loss for the Senate Republican Caucus Vice Chairmanship Mean?

Well, isn't this an absurd thing to speculate about?

Yes, of course it is, but that's not going to stop us from doing so.

Johnson lost his race to become the Senate GOP's fifth ranking member today. No, seriously, we're actually talking about this. So what does it all mean? Here are a few interpretations.

1.) The Tea Party has been marginalized. Johnson received the backing of several prominent conservatives yesterday, including Erik Erikson of, who hilariously called the race the "conservative fight of the year," and a positive write-up at National Review. Even FreedomWorks got into the act on behalf of Johnson. None of that was apparently enough to sway enough GOP Senators.

2.) The vote was close. 25-22 is pretty close, but given the size of the electorate a close vote was likely. The vote does suggest a narrowly divided GOP, but one in which the Tea Party is still a minority.

3.) Alternatively, the Tea Party could be growing in power. The press are playing this thing off as a rebuke to the Tea Party, but there's just as likely a chance that it's actually a demonstration of the Tea Party's growing influence. If the GOP takes over the Senate next year, as many folks project, one would imagine that they will do so with Tea Party folk. If this happens a leadership vote this time next year will likely have a very different result with much higher stakes.

4.) Johnson has yet to win over many of his colleagues. Every last one of the Senators who publicly supported Johnson's bid had a very clear reason for doing so: all of them would have endorsed the "Tea Party candidate" no matter who it was.

5.) Johnson's loss may prevent him from pursuing future party leadership positions or leadership opportunities in the Tea Party. Losing never looks good on a resume.

6.) Johnson's statement following the loss was not very gracious. In fact, it rather obviously oozed with bitterness and resentment. If he hasn't yet mastered how to cajole and work his colleagues, this is not a good sign that he will be able to do so in the future.

7.) FreedomWorks may not have been supported Johnson so much as it was campaigning against Blunt. Why? Blunt was an ally of Tom DeLay during the latter's time a majority leader in the House. FreedomWorks is run by Dick Armey, one of DeLay's principle rivals.

8.) Paul Ryan really doesn't have much influence in the Senate. Ryan made an unprecedented endorsement that didn't seem to make any difference. There have been whispers about Johnson being little more than a mouthpiece for Ryan in the Senate. The endorsement probably did little to quell those rumors.

9.) It was foolish for Johnson to go up against Blunt. Roy Blunt is now in his third decade on Capitol Hill. His family is political royalty in an important swing state, he's connecting to K Street up the wazzou, and actually has legislative leadership experience. These were all supposed to be reasons against Blunt's candidacy, but in the end they seemed to have served him pretty well. Some folks are calling Blunt's win  "inevitable."

11.) The loss weakens Johnson's already weak position. Unless Blunt is an incredibly magnanimous human being, he'll likely punish Johnson in small ways for challenging him (not inviting Johnson to leadership meetings, etc.).

12.) If Johnson does find himself in the doghouse, he'll have a hard time getting out. Johnson is not known as a fundraising dynamo nor has he demonstrated any policy expertise that would make him a go-to guy on any particular issue. Finding friends will be pretty tough when you can't offer them anything.

13.) Johnson's image as a "citizen-legislator" is over. Johnson has always portrayed himself as an outsider, but he made a play to be an insider. The price of making that play was Johnson's status as an outsider. Now he's lost both his outsider status and his position in the Senate GOP leadership.

14.) Johnson may have positioned himself to win a leadership position after the 2012 elections. Of the five leadership positions in the GOP Senate caucus, one is being vacated by Sen. John Kyl when he retires following this term. That means the three members behind him could all move up a position, freeing up the vice chairmanship for yet another election. Having done it before, and gotten a little more seniority under his belt, Johnson might be in a better position to win the leadership pot next year.

15.) Don't bet on #12. Many of the Senate candidate that did endorse Johnson are considered "long-shots."

16.) That being said, Johnson just missed a golden opportunity to win the #5 leadership position today and turn it into the #4 leadership position a year from now doing nothing but keeping out of trouble.

17.) The loss calls into question Johnson's ability to get things done in Washington. To date Johnson has sponsored a grand total of three bills and one resolution since taking office. Only his resolution "supporting the goals and ideals of National Cybersecurity Awareness Month and raising awareness and enhancing the state of cybersecurity in the United States" has gotten anywhere. There have been at least 1944 bills introduced in the Senate alone this year: that's an average of 19.44 per Senator. Johnson's work product is well behind the rest of his colleagues.

18.) The run calls into question Johnson's priorities. Johnson announced his bid on September 21st of this year. The three bills he introduced were all submitted after his announcement. One wonders if is effectiveness in passing his legislative agenda was hampered by his leadership ambitions.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Scott Walker Confuses Magazine Rankings with New Jobs Figures

This is the text of an actual press release from the Walker administration:
Gov. Walker: A year of progress for Wis.' job climate

Madison—Today Governor Walker released a statement on Wisconsin’s year of progress in improving its economic environment.

“We’ve worked hard this year to create a business environment that encourages job creation,” said Governor Walker. “Business rankings are one way to show the progress we’ve made in moving Wisconsin in the right direction. They also remind us that we must keep working to encourage job creation in our state. Our most important goal remains helping Wisconsin families prosper; these rankings show we are laying the right foundation.”

Earlier this month, the new Forbes 2011 Best States for Business ranking was released. Wisconsin improved to 40th, moving up from 43rd in 2010 and 48th in 2009. Illinois fell behind Wisconsin for the first time in 3 years, falling to 41st. Illinois was 37th in 2010 and 24th in 2009.

Earlier this year, CNBC ranked Wisconsin 25th---up from 29th in 2010.

The Chief Executive Magazine ranking placed Wisconsin at 24th, up from 41st in 2010. Wisconsin’s improvement was the biggest jump in the nation and in the history of the magazine.

All three business rankings improved in 2011---after falling under the previous administration.

Wisconsin also recently ranked 24th in the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council’s Small Business Survival Rankings. Wisconsin moved up from 31st in the previous year.
Magazine rankings -- on any subject -- are notoriously subjective. Just using the examples that Walker cites above, Wisconsin is either in the top half or bottom ten of "states for business," whatever the hell that means. The most striking thing about this press release is the complete and utter lack of jobs numbers.

It seems particularly nonsensical to release this kind of statement a week after nearly 1000 jobs vanished from the Wausau area.

The fact is that Wisconsin's job creation figures in the last three months are abysmal:

Jake at the Economic TA Funhouse has more.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Wisconsin Dem Bloggers Need to Knock this Bullshit Off Immediately

This type of idiocy needs to end now:
Expect the famous prank call to Scott Walker from "David Koch" to be back in the spotlight, as State Sen. Tim Cullen says he's launching a campaign for governor.

Walker, in the end, says Cullen's "not one of us," and is "just a pragmatist," but Cullen, the state senator who says he's going to run against Walker in a recall, might get a few questions from Democrats about this.


It was Cullen and State Sen. Bob Jauch who conducted their own negotiations with Walker's office when the 14 Democrats were in Illinois to prevent passage of a union-busting bill.

From the outside, Cullen certainly looked like the one trying to cut a backdoor deal.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course -- except the backdoor part, and the fact that the Democratic base now wants Walker's scalp, smells blood, and is not likely to unite behind a pragmatic compromiser who Walker says good things about.
Honestly, I felt embarrassed for xoff when I read this. Then I cringed when I read that this nonsense left Steve Carlson "speechless."

For starters, using Walker's prank call against a Democratic candidate makes no logical sense whatsoever. Many bloggers on the left, xoff among them, have spent years, and this last one in particular, calling Scott Walker a liar. Why any of his opponents should start parsing his words for the appearance of someone trying to make a "backdoor deal" now makes no sense and reeks of opportunism. If you don't like Cullen, come out and say it. Don't pussy-foot around it. These types of insinuations and leading conjectures are what conspiracy theorists do.

Next, the whole argument against Cullen is that Walker may kinda sorta like him, which is at best a stretch given the transcript's text. But let's posit for a moment that it's true. Is having a functional working relationship with a member of the opposite party a bad thing? It sure as hell shouldn't be and in xoff's case it isn't ... at least when its a Republican siding the Dems. Consistency and intellectual honesty are good things and without them we may as well oppose Cullen because he shares a surname with a character in those fucking Twilight books.

Lastly, this is pretty bush league stuff, and I mean lower than ticky tack. One of the most potent arguments the Democrats have in recalling Walker is that they are the adults in the room, but when Dems start attacking each other with horseshit like this that argument evaporates like a proverbial fart in the wind. And that's really what this Walker prank call business is: a phantasm created out of thin air that's really nothing. Wisconsin will not use a recall to exchange one extremist for another and that's a very important point that I see quickly escaping many of the more voluminous voices on the Left. If this recall is strictly about claiming scalps and inflicting revenge it will be a waste.

Right now the Dem base is whipped up into a berserker frenzy. That might be a great way to get people to the polls, but it's a shitty way to govern. Just ask Scott Walker. When Dems start playing these trite opposition research gotcha! games they're signaling to voters that they're not interested in doing the hard work it takes to govern.

So, if I haven't made myself perfectly clear, then let me do so: anyone candidate who uses Walker Prank Call tape as any kind of evidence against any candidate isn't worthy of anyone's vote and anyone who suggests as much shouldn't be taken seriously. I know emotions are high right now (and this post is a perfect example of just how high they really are), but Dems need to hold themselves to a higher standard, especially when it comes to internal affairs.

It's OK to oppose Tim Cullen, but do it on legitimate grounds. Use Cullen's words and actions, not Scott Walker's. Don't create controversy where there isn't any. Don't strain to create a quasi-Walker endorsement of Tim Cullen -- which is exactly what xoff is trying to do in his post -- out of thin air. If these are the kind of bush league antics we can expect during the rest of the recall then the Dems will have already lost before the contest even begins.

The Futile Attempt to De-legitimize the Wisconsin Recall Process

Since the Recall Walker effort announce that they collected 300,000 signatures in the first 12 days of the collection period Scott (on Nov. 28th), Walker's allies have gone on the offense to try and discredit the signature drive. There's a graph in yesterday's Christian Schneider piece in NRO that summarizes the principle point:

[I]f someone signs a petition 30 times, 29 will be invalid — but only if Scott Walker’s campaign can manually enter all 540,000 signatures into a database and weed out the duplicates in the 10 days in which they have to challenge.  Fabricated names and addresses will all be considered legal unless Walker’s volunteers can pick through hundreds of thousands of signatures and weed them out in the allotted time period.  (In Ohio recently, 351,000 — or over 25% — of union-submitted signatures were found to be invalid.)
Fair enough, but that's Ohio and there's little reason to use another state as a reference point when when we have recent data right here in Wisconsin (unless, of course, you're more interested in taking a pot-shot at unions, which is clearly Schneider's intention here).

Let's look at the numbers from last spring's senate recalls:

Of the six districts that eventually held elections a total of 97,997 signatures were required to initiate those recalls. By the end of the collection period approximately 148,700 signatures had been collected (according to media reports, the GAB never released the number of signatures submitted). That's 51.7% more than were required. The GAB validated 136,823 of those signatures (or 39.6% more than were required), which gave the recall effort a 92% validation rate.

There are other ways in which Walker allies are trying to de-legitimatize the process. Scott Walker himself has repeatedly portrayed the collection effort has being "paid" for by someone of something, despite a lack of evidence. Then there's the the Verify the Recall effort being organized by a pair of Tea Party groups, which seems like it plans to conduct its own verification project. The folks at the McIver PR firm are trying to de-legitimize the GAB itself.

The fact of the matter is,according to the GAB itself, is that the "step-by-step processes are still be[ing] finalized." Given the delay and logistics problems that arose last spring during the senate recall validation process, one would assume those processes aren't going to be resolved until the signatures are delivered. [MORE: Wouldn't you know it, the GAB just came out with a pretty detailed memo on how the recall signatures will be verified this evening.]

If the only thing the GOP has going for it at the moment is a desperate attempt to de-legitimize a process that continues to move forward, then they are in effect whistle past the graveyard. I certainly had my doubts, but as the recalls proceed it becomes more and more evident that the Dems developed a very intricate long term plan and have generally kept to it. I don't get that impression from the state GOP. IN fact if the Dems dropped a truckload of signatures off at the GAB this afternoon, I'm pretty sure Walker et al. would be caught flat-footed.

Now that Albert Pujols is no Longer in the National League, why not go for Broke and Pay Prince Fielder?

There are so many reasons for the Brewers just to kick the dirt and watch Fielder sign a fat contract elsewhere, believing there is nothing they can do about it, but now that Albert Pujols has left St. Louis it's time to consider the reasons to go for it and sign Prince to a huge contract that might even seriously jeopardize the Brewer's bottom line.
  • The NL Central is a weak division and likely to stay that way for a while. St Louis was the only remotely competitive team last year and with both Pujols and LaRussa gone, they'll likely spend the next few seasons rebuilding. The Brewers could be playoff contenders for the better part of the next decade if they manage to keep their core line-up intact.
  • Even though they're a small market team, the Brewers have much more money to play around with when they winning and filling seats at Miller Park. I don't know what kind of return Fielder was on the club's investment last season, but a bold and gutsy gamble would drive fans wild and they'd likely see more returns.
  • Anyone who watched Fielder play last year knows just how hungry this guy is. The odds of this guy shirking after signing a big contract are pretty slim.
I case there's any doubt I am indeed recommending that the Brewers float Fielder a 7-8 year contract somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 million, which would be only about $25 million less than the entire team was bought for in 20034 and that if the deal didn't pan out it would financially ruin the team, but who cares? Financial ruin isn't the end of the world. The Texas Rangers went bankrupt a few years back and they've only been the World Series each year since.

Don't get me wrong, I know exactly how enormous this gamble would be, but sometimes you have to just say "Screw it! Let's go for it!" If every there was one of those time in the history of the Brewers, it's now.

MORE: I'm watching SportsCenter's special coverage of the Winter MLB meetings and John Kruk and Terry Francona were suggesting the same thing. Interestingly enough, neither of them mention the Yankees or the Red Sox as a possible destination.

A quick addendum: The Cards thought they were safe floating Pujols a $210 offer, thinking that would clear the projected $200 million other teams were going to pony up. The Angles blew those figures out of the water. There's a good chance that the Brewers will now have to contend with some other team upping the ante by an equally ridiculous degree. Do we still think the Brewers should try to top it? Damn straight we do. Even if that means "over-paying" him? Yup. Even if it means putting the team in debt that no amount of winning could possibly pull them out of? A thousand times yes.

Just looking at these figures from after the losing 2010 season seems to suggest that the Brewers can come up with an additional $10-15 million for Prince.

The Chief's 2011 People of the Year: The Wisconsin Republican Rogue's Gallery

During one of his more memorable stand-up acts, Bill Cosby told his audience the words his father told him when the comedian was just seven years old: "You know, I brought you in this world, and I can take you out."

Those words should be etched in stone above the entrance to the Wisconsin Republican Party headquarters.

As everyone knows, the Grand Ole Party was given life right here in a tiny, white school house in bucolic Ripon, Wisconsin. It is now currently run by individuals who seem hell-bent on destroying that party. Many of these Wisconsin Republicans hold powerful positions within the national party and the ones who don't seem to personify some of the worst traits of the 21st Century GOP.

These folks are The Chief's 2011 People of the Year.

* * *
Scott Walker

With the state of Wisconsin as polarized as it is, it seemed something of a miracle that Walker came into office with most of the levers of government firmly controlled by Republican hand. Both house of the legislature had comfortable GOP majorities, the Supreme Court tilts conservative, the Attorney General is a Republican, etc. Despite few obstacles standing in the way of his agenda, Walker arrogantly pulled a bait and switch that cost him a compliant state Senate and may soon cost him job in a few months. His administration has acted like little more than a PR machine that has no interest in actual governing.

For those of us that have followed Walker's career, this comes as no surprise. Walker has never been about getting results, but has always been about the making moves necessary to move to the next job. His supposed emphasis on jobs is floundering behind negative job grow during his administration; a Department of Workforce Development now on its third Secretary in ten months; not one, but two, emergency legislative sessions designed to focus on job creation that instead revolved around pushing through the conservative social agenda, an ultimately embarrassing spat with the state of Illinois.

And all of this while being under investigation for abusing his previous office and possibly breaking campaign finance laws during his campaign for the governor's mansion.

But Walker's really contributions to posterity will live on in two ways, one nationally, the other here in Wisconsin. Locally, Scott Walker is the architect of the single most polarized and vitriolic political period in living memory. In an environment this toxic most leaders would have at least made small public efforts to mend fences, if for no other reason than to appear to be the bigger man. Not Scott Walker, who has continued to poison the well with nearly act. It's clearly an intentional strategy designed to provoke the opposition into doing something stupid (thus winning his side sympathy from independents) and to keep his base in a constant state of alert.

Nationally, Walker's war against public unions may cost the GOP the White House. When Walker's attempt to gut public unions was attempted in Ohio, a key swing state, the plan was rebuked in a referendum and galvanized labor just in time for campaign season. If Ohio stays blue, the commentariat will look back and point fingers at Walker, justifiably or not. One can even make the case that Walker is the father of the "Occupy" movement.

Scott Walker has been running for Governor of Wisconsin all of his life. The most hard core conservatives in the state began rallying around him as long a eight years before he won the office. Just about every Republican in the state, save only a handful, made a loud public display of support for Walker earlier this year and it's all but certain that those displays are going to come back to haunt them in the future. If Walker is recalled, it won't just be a rebuke against his agenda, but he will have poisoned the Republican well for the next decade.

Justice David Proesser

Normally Supreme Court races are slam dunks for incumbents, but Prosser decided to shake things up a bit by creating a perfect storm that almost changed the entire slant of the court. While the state was still in an uproar over Scott Walker's efforts to neuter public unions, Prosser ran an incompetent re-election campaign in which it was revealed he called Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson "bitch" then threatened to destroy her late in 2009. A hot head dating back to his days as the speaker of the state assembly, Prosser actually sad the following when asked about the incident by the MJS:
"In the context of this, I said, 'You are a total bitch,' " Prosser said.
No, no, no: you got it all wrong! I didn't call her a "bitch," I called her a "total bitch"!

This was on top of having openly admitting to participating in the Caucus Scandal, from which he received immunity. It's no wonder he narrowly ekked out a victory after a contentious recount (see below).

But was most astonishing was Prosser's behavior when he resumed his office following the election when he was accused of chocking Justice Ann Bradley. The accusation led a local Madison reporter to file this single most stunning interview I've ever seen on local Wisconsin TV:

It's also the most awkward elevator ride in the history of the state.

Today the Wisconsin Supreme Court is so dysfunctional that it's legitimacy is in serious question and Prosser is largely the reason.

Paul Ryan

Forget being named "policy-maker of the year" or one of "100 global thinkers" -- Ryan is proof that in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

Paul Ryan's cult in the GOP is largely the result of being the only Republican who is not a frothing-at-the-mouth anti-intellectual, but Ryan is little more than a supply side ideological apologist: he starts with the solution (tax cuts) and works backwards from their until the problem (the budget deficit) has been solved, even if that means creating fantastical hypothetical world in which only his solution can exist (grossly exaggerated revenue streams). This is not how effective policy is made.

Ryan's budget and proposal to scrap Medicare in exchange for weak voucher program are just the kind of ideas that win praise from Beltway commentators for being "bold" and "outside the box" thinking, but they're also the kinds of policies that cause voter revolts once the details of are fully explained. Ryan may think his plan balances the budget -- 75 years from now! -- but even if the plan is graded solely on it's ability to level the nation's balance sheets it's a disaster that created a larger deficit of potentially $62 trillion by 2080, and all while gutting the social safety net.

We've discussed Ryan's intellectual dishonesty ad nauseum at this blog. We've noted how his rhetoric runs completely contrary to his voting record, so instead of rehashing old arguments, let's just point out the most recent example.

Before Congress left for Thanksgiving the House voted on a Blanaced Budget Amdentment to the Constitution, something Paul Ryan has been adamant in supporting over the years. The Amendment had little chance of passing , but Ryan was still one of only four Republicans who voted against it. Why? I'll let him explain:
“I’m concerned that this version will lead to a much bigger government fueled by more taxes." said Paul Ryan in a statement to the Washington Examiner, "Spending is the problem, yet this version of the Balanced Budget Amendment makes it more likely taxes will be raised, government will grow, and economic freedom will be diminished. Without a limit on government spending, I cannot support this Amendment.”
That's fine and we can even sympathize with the sentiment, but given Ryan's stature as the most "serious" member of the Republican caucus in the House and that his pet issue is the budget, how in God's name did a Balanced Budget Amendment get to a full floor vote without him approving the language of the bill? It is just another example of how Republicans are far more content to talk about the issues than they are about actually doing anything about them.

Ryan is the only Republican proposing new policies these days. The only one. The rest of actual Republican policy is constructed in "think tanks" that are rapidly devolving into PR machines for donors. Ryan's policies are really no different: it's a pseudo-intellectual sheen on a extremist ideology.

Mark Block

Block was given something that most people in politics only dream of: national attention. It's hard enough being a well-qualified candidate with stellar credentials running for President (just as John Huntsman), but Block helmed a campaign built around his candidate's promise to surround himself with the best and the brightest and then promptly became Exhibit A among the evidence that Herman Cain couldn't identify talent if it fell on him from the sky.

Here's Jonathan Martin's assessment of the campaign:
Herman Cain is in the midst of “reassessing” whether to continue his 2012 bid, but its legacy is already settled: His campaign will go down as one of the most hapless and bumbling operations in modern presidential politics, setting a new standard for how to turn damaging press coverage into something far worse.
The botched responses to allegations of marital infidelity, sexual impropriety and his own gaffes — not to mention the puzzling strategic decisions — have, in the eyes of many veteran strategists, reached record levels of ineptitude.
Perhaps the nadir of Block's time in the national spotlight was when he outright lied about a reporter being a relative of a woman accusing Cain of harassment.

But don't think this is going to turn the Herman Cain Experience into an object lesson in how not to run a Presidential campaign. Cain did manage to break away from the pack based on what Republican flavor-of-the-month voters largely based on on perceived charm, outsider status and a marketing gimmick wrapped in the trappings of actual policy (the "9-9-9 Plan"). Don't be surprised if future GOP fields are cluttered with charlatans looking to sell books or get their own late light talk show on FOX following that same formula. Right behind them will be hack campaign managers more interested in selling themselves than their candidates that owe a debt of gratitude to Mark Block for blazing that trail.

Reince Priebus

Largely quiet for most of this year, Priebus (the white one above) kicked off 2011 with one of the more shameless acts of backstabbing when he ran against then-RNC chairman Michael Steele, the very man whose campaign he managed two years earlier ... and who was a close adviser for much of Steele's term. Granted, Steele's tenure was something of a disaster, but instead of that reflecting of Priebus' judgment among his peers at the RNC, it won him his boss' job. Go figure.

Priebus has spent much of the year trying to rebuild the RNC coffers, with varying degrees of success, which is not saying much given the fundraising revolt caused by Steele. This year, Priebus may have to preside over a party with a Presidential nominee no one likes or, in the worst case, a brokered convention. For as unlikely as the latter possibility is, the former could further lead to the ongoing radicalization of the party as donors look to outside organizations to speak for them.

Ron Johnson

In Johnson's first year in office he's done little to disprove he's anything more than an empty suit. The only piece of legislation he has authored is an embarrassing work of bush league policy masquerading as policy. He's barely made any public appearances (the only two -- that's right, two -- that we know of were at tea parties sponsored by AFP) and the only time he bothered to sit down with a newspaper's editorial board was shortly after hiring a member of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's editorial board to his staff (if memory serves us correctly).

When he has stuck his neck out, usually in the form of the periodic op-ed piece, Johnson has shilled for the deregulating the banking system. Johnson has completely bought into what Barry Ritholz calls "the Big Lie," the absurd premise that the financial crisis was caused by a bill designed to curb relining in urban areas in the 1990s, largely because his blind faith in the so-called Objectivism of Ayn Rand tells him that it's always government's fault. In other words, Johnson has made clear that he has no interest in facts and that he will legislate on ideology alone.

Not that he's alone. To his credit, Johnson seems to understand that he's not a policy wonk and has kept his authorship of bill to a minimum. The flip side of that coin is that Johnson still needed to find a way to remain relevant in the Senate and he discovered that way in being a political player and running for the vice chairmanship of the Senate Republican Caucus, the third most powerful position in the party in that chamber.

So much for being a "citizen legislator." Johnson's opinion pieces and moves in Washington have revealed that he's more interested in power than in solutions.

Kathy Nicholaus

The poster woman for Republican bureaucratic incompetence that borderlines on corruption, Nichalaus is Wisocnsin's Michael "Brownie" Brown. After monumentally fucking up a contentious Supreme Court race in April, Nicholaus did little to resotre confidence in her ability to carry out her duty during the Alberta Darling recall election later in 2011 when, once again, Waukesha County's ballots were the last to be certified. Although she couldn't have been guilty of ballot tampering, it should as hell looked sketchy and for a party that's spent the last decade waging a jihad against the imaginary scourge of voter fraud, one would imagine they would be more sensitive to the mere appearance of wrong-doing. Not so much, it turns out. The fact that she was almost incapable of initially explaining her inability to account for all the ballots on election night was dumbfounding.

Nicholaus also demonstrates that competence pales in importance to ideological purity. Despite being admonished for using shoddy methods in the past, Nicholaus' connections and track record as a team player proved to be enough for Republican stalwarts to back her, even though she would have been canned for similar incompetence in the private sector, a well worn argument among the GOP. 

Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald started the year as the man with the job of shepherding Scott Walker's agenda through the legislature. He made arguably the single biggest tactical error in state legislative history when he tried to ram Walker's union-busting while being one vote short of the qourum needed to bring the bill to a vote. Fitzgerald, by then clearly acting on the instructions of the Governor, compounded his mistake with a series of heavy-handed tactics that made a bad situation worse.

When the union-busting business had been settled, Walker again looked to Fitzgerald to pass jobs creation legislation during two special sessions supposedly devoted to that activity, neither of which produced anything close to legislation that could be called significant jobs-producing laws.

Since two senate seats flipped following the recalls in August, Fitzgerald has appeared as quiet as his seems clueless about what to do with the new political reality in his chamber. That should come as little surprise given how servile he appeared during the craziness of last spring.

Also, appointing Fitzgerald's father to be the head of the state patrol did little to help the GOP's advancement of a meritocractic world.

Jim Sensenbrenner

This is probably something of a lifetime achievement award since Old Sensenbrenner is on the downhill run of his career, but it's worth pointing out his two most notable contributions to public life in America during his over thirty years in Congress.

The first was his role in Bill Clinton's impeachment, for which he was a "manager" largely because of his position on the House Judiciary committee.

But it's Sensenbrenner's legacy as one of the chief architects of the GOP draconian immigration tendencies that will have the most lasting effect on the party. Sensenbrenner's anti-immigrant crusade may have won him applause from the right wing base -- it did win him the Human Events magazine Man of the Year award in 2006 -- but it negated all the work the outreach work the GOP had previously done to the Latino community and brought out the worst nativist tendencies in the party which, five years on, shows no sign of relenting. Given the demographic shift expected to take place in the next generation, this could have a devastating effect on the GOP in the long run.

As proof of that, Sensenbrenner's bill inspired the single largest series of mass demonstrations in this country in decades. 500,000 people marched in Los Angeles alone. Their numbers dwarfed anything put together by either the Tea Party or the Occupy folks and the protests went on for weeks.

Think of it this way: In 2008 John McCain won Texas with 4.5 million votes to Barack Obama's 3.5 million. That may seem like a huge gap, but it gets a lot smaller when you consider that there are over 2 million Latinos who are eligible to vote in Texas, but just aren't registered. Latinos already make up 33% of the voters in the state where they already compose a larger voting bloc than in California. Between 2000-2009, Latinos represented 63% of the population growth in Texas. By the end of this decade, the will be as many Latinos as Anglos in Texas:
That means that Texas, the quintessential Red State during the last decade will probably be a Blue State by 2030, if not sooner. That development will severely impair the GOP's electoral math.

Sean Duffy

The first reality TV star to be elected is damn near close to the epitome of style over substance. Watch Duffy during the first few seconds of any time he speaks on the floor or does an interview on television: a strange smile emerges emerges from his mouth that might look strikingly familiar to anyone who has lived with loved ones suffering from substance abuse issues. It's almost as if Duffy gets his fix by getting in front of a camera.

To be fair, there's little that can be expected from a freshman member of the House, but consistency is not too much to ask for. In October Duffy sponsored a "jobs fair" of the kind that he had previously voted to defund earlier in the year. No one's ever accused Duffy of being a mental sequoia and now we know why: he far more comfortable being seen than heard.

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We haven't even gotten to the perennial asshats like Glenn Grothman and Frank Lasee or the flock of freshman tea partiers now roaming the halls of the Capitol in Madison.

If any Republican readers have made it this far, I'm sure they're saying to themselves Yeah, but elections have consequences! This is precisely the problem. This is a leadership cadre that is hellbent on petrifying the GOP to the point of inflexibility. They can get away with it here in Wisconsin, where the polarized political environment and the demographics are not likely to change for the foreseeable future, but this isn't the case elsewhere.

During his time as Governor, Tommy Thompson changed welfare in the state, created Badgercare and  promoted mass transit and Amtrak. In the 1980s Lee Dreyfus signed the first bill banning housing discrimination against gays. In the 1970s William Steiger was instrumental in the creation of OSHA.

It's disappointing to look back and see how the last generation of Republicans had almost no influence on the current one, which seems to have been glued to talk radio and FOX in lieu of any sort of real apprenticeship with party elders. This can't bode well for the next generation of Republicans. If this crew is their leadership model the situation in Wisconsin, and likely nationally, will only get worse.