Posts for August, 2011
Threee years ago I was asked to join a group of community bloggers by Lake Country Publications (LCP). The purpose was to create a forum for the exchange of opinions and ideas which would be an asset to the community newspapers published by LCP. I thought this was a great idea and gladly joined. Initially, things went very well. I wrote some blog posts and got a limited number of generally responsible comments. Some were supportive and many were in disagreement, but all were civil, articulate and thoughtful. Even the notorious Picard brothers were civil while casting aspersions on my intelligence and knowledge. That was O.K., because my ego is secure and hide nearly impenetrable. It was fun.
Then things began to deteriorate. Comments from a very few commenters became insulting and abusive towards me. I didn't much like this, because comments like these are generally devoid of any useful intelligence, hence dull and boring. However, I tolerated it because I promised an open forum so, although we had the power in those days, did not block or edit any comments except for asterisking an occasional profanity. Times have changed
Now there are many more comments, often upwards of 100, relatively few of which address the subject matter of the blog post and instead engage in a war of words among commenters. Personal commentary, insults and sarcasm abound with no useful content. Many are a mystery to me because they involve other blogs which I do not have the time to read. It seems that lots of folks want to take out pent up anger on others. Most of the more vociferous hide behind pseudonyms, apparently inducing some sort of mob mentality. You know, the folks who yell "Jump!" at some poor soul on a ledge.
The result of all this toxic nastiness, which apparently is pervasive and much worse on other blogs than mine, has been the loss of some bloggers and the driving away of commenters and potential commenters who do not want to put up with the nastiness and abuse. This pains me as it limits the discourse to a few voluble commenters who engage in long, inscrutable wars of words with each other and sometimes me. I understand that on other blogs the battle has degenerated into personal threats. The response of LCP and Journal Intreractive, the administrator of the blog site, is to ban certain commenters and re-institute an after-the-fact ability to take down objectionable comments. The net result is a confusing mess.
All this is, in my opinion, symptomatic of a much larger societal problem. There has been an almost complete loss of decorum and civility in public discourse, particularly in the political arena but also in the business world and personal relations. No-one can disagree calmly and rationally any more. Disagreements degenerate into vicious arguments and invective is flung back and forth like bricks. Political discourse is a sick joke, fraught with lies and insults. Campaign rhetoric has degenerated from simple misrepresentation into vicious lies and personal attacks with no regard for the truth. The guiding principle has become to win at any cost and by any means, tactics formerly restricted to world wars.
The danger of this "end justifies the means" mentality is a total disregard of the harm those "means" may create. In both political and corporate worlds, and sometimes the personal, the goal obscures the harm done to the innocent bystanders. This "blinder action" is evidenced by many professional politicians obsessed with power and the mania for re-election, as well as corporate leaders who are obsessed by becoming richer than the other guy to often the detriment of their companies. There certainly are exceptions, perhaps many, but there are enough self-motivated opportunists to create a lnasty societal crisis.
Just one example of political obfuscation and chicanery. We have heard unending warnings about the coming insolvency of the Social Security System. It will presumably go broke in 30 or so years. Yet, what is never mentioned is the fact that the Treasury owes the Social Security Administration about $3 trillion--that's trillion, 12 zeros--which should go a long way toward fostering solvency for the forseeable future. Unfortunately, Treasury is overdrawn on its credit card and can't afford to pay off those pesky l.O.U.'s. Hence the crisis.
Great use is made of oft-repeated generalities, like Republicans hate old people and children, and love rich corporate fat-cats and oil companies. Democrats are lap dogs of the unions, and pander to illegal immigrants and the homeless to buy votes. Both of these simplistic misrepresentations are repeated so often that a regrettable number of folks believe them. The word "hate" is used with disturbing frequency, a pejorative that should be reserved for the likes of Adolf Hitler.
The result of all this is a toxic atmosphere that threatens to choke off civility, decorum and basic morality, replacing them with a menacing coarseness that turns us all inward and selfish. The reasons may be complex but generally revolve around the de-emphasis on Judeo-Christian morality and rules of conduct. If you object to the religious reference, use your own source of civil conduct. In any event, there is precious little of it in the public or private arenas.
The implication is the end of communication and with the end of communication, the demise of rationality. A society taken over by the irrational cannot function for long. If we cannot communicate with each other, the result is incomprehensible babble or, worse, red-eyed anger. Ask yourselves, are we not frighteningly close to this today? Our poor little blog is a microcosm of our very ill society. A toxic atmosphere will eventually destroy those who breathe it in.
Is it too late for us? I'm not sure. I have had some success in encouraging a degree of civility on my blog. The unfortunate consequence frequently has been a descent into incomprehensibility and confusion, at least for me. I don't know how to revive morality in a society. It must of needs start with the young, but that means the public schools, largely a lost cause. We need something to blast us out of our uncivil rut, and I don't know what that might be.
I do sense an increasing number of folks are uncomfortable with the situation. Perhaps that's a glimmer of hope. I hope so.
Now that most of the recall dust has settled and the Democrats got their two ounces of flesh, perhaps it is time to try to cut through all the apoplectic rhetoric and take an objective look at the whole mess. It all started with Governor Walker's widely scoffed-at campaign promise to get rid of the state's $3 billion structural deficit and balance the budget. Past governors had promised to do so and failed, balancing the budget as constitutionally required using accounting tricks in violation of generally accepted accounting practices (GAAP) and/or one-time transfers of funds, leaving a structural shortfall for future administrations to deal with.
Walker apparently had worked out a plan prior to the election which he promptly implemented upon taking office. This plan attacked the major expense of salaries and benefits, especially of teachers, by cutting benefits, requiring greater employee contributions and limiting the bargaining power of the public service unions, especially again the teachers. Despite hyperventilating screeches to the contrary, I don't believe his purpose was union busting, rather it was merely to clip their wings so they could not block salary and benefit limitations and reductions.
Some may disagree, but union-busting per se would seem to be of little benefit to Walker or the Republicans in general. Most public service unions have an unfair bargaining advantage in that their bargaining counterparts are political entities subject to lobbying and campaign contribution pressures. The police and fire unions may be an exception by virtue of the Police and Fire Commission which is not elected. (As a matter of fairness, I disagree with Governor Walker's excepting them from the budget reconciliation process.)
Aid to education has in the past been the 800 pound political sacred cow. Because of the amount of state school aids, any realistic major budget adjustment would of necessity involve goring this sacred cow. Since 75% of education cost is salaries and benefits, these would have to be addressed in any attempt to balance the state's budget. Hence the need to curtail the power of the teachers' unions who would have violently objected to, and blocked, any attempt at salary and benefit reductions and/or contribution increases.
Walker's budget cuts school aids $800 million, a major chunk out of the deficit. In order to avoid significant damage to educational areas, Walker came up with the budget reconciliation act, which established methods whereby school administrations could reduce payroll costs to compensate for the school aid reductions.
Of course, the sacred cow bellowed long and loud. The public service unions, teachers' especially, reacted violently with a ludicrous display of raucous and obstructive protests in Madison, and 14 brave Democrat Senators ran and hid in Illinois to block passage of this legislation. After some admittedly questionable legislative maneuvering, the budget reconciliation act was passed, as it must if Walker's budget-balancing effort were to succeed.
Predictions of doom were predictable and immediately forthcoming. Education was being "gutted" at the expense of "the children." State aid cuts to municipalities, especially Milwaukee, were "a catastrophe" that would require massive layoffs, park closings and service cuts. The sky was falling and there was no king to run and tell.
Very quietly and with little media coverage, nothing fell from the sky. School districts who had not been so foolish as to sign union contracts before the reconciliation act was in force actually came out pretty well. Many came out ahead on the deal. Unfortunately, MPS was not one of them, having signed prior contracts with their teachers' union. I find this mystifying as I cannot figure out the advantage of having done this. In fact, in several school districts, teachers are finding a closer and more cooperative atmosphere with their districts as a result of the union being out of the picture. Fancy that.
Even the City of Milwaukee's staunchly Democratic Mayor Barrett has discovered, much to his political consternation, that the city will come out $11 million to the good as a result of budget reconciliation savings. Hizzoner, when asked if Governor Walker deserved credit for this "windfall", replied that was a "false question." Anybody know what that means?
The net result of all this is the $3 billion structural budget deficit has been eliminated. Even the very conservative (small "c") Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance is impressed with this accomplishment. The sacred cows are still bellowing, the unions are still fighting Walker with their dues money and the Democrats are still seething. However, the fact remains, the Wisconsin state budget is balanced without a structural deficit (costs put off until the next biennium), in accordance with GAAP and no increase in taxes. To be fair, there are some modest fee increases and tax "adjustments", but the average Wisconsin taxpayer will see no increase in his taxes. Walker has done what several previous governors failed to do. So far, he is getting no credit. But then, that's politics, Wisconsin style.
But the sky isn't falling.
A friend recently jumped on me with the question, "Why are we sending foreign aid to China?" She had apparently seen a report on FoxNews about this and was understandably indignant. (I don't as a rule watch the FNC due both to lack of time and interest.) I responded to her with skepticism, suggesting the report must be incorrect based on my long-standing plausibility criteria concerning news reports. It made no sense for us to send monetary aid to a nation to whom we owe trillions of dollars. I said I would check it out and get back to her.
Well, I did, and lo and behold, the report is true. According to Wikipedia, we supplied $1.2 billion in direct and indirect aid to the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 2003. The numbers are a bit confusing because some of that "indirect" aid involves contributions to UN programs that aid China and support for a Peace Corps operation there. (What are they doing, teaching them to grow rice?) Direct monetary aid is considerably less, with $275 million sent since 2001, $65 million in 2009. Some of this money goes to expanding Internet coverage. That's right, that's the thing the PRC government shuts down every time something embarrassing happens.
While this is not much in comparison to President Obama's budget deficit, one has to question why we are doing this at all. It's not as though they're a third world nation in need of sustenance. Our esteemed secretary of State, Mrs. Bill Clinton, aka Hillary Rodham, justifies this expenditure of scarce U.S. money as providing us with "influence". Oh good! That explains our great success in influencing the Chinese government to improve its human rights performance.
Other government spokespersons have claimed this is a holdover from previous government policy. O.K., then I wonder how many more of these "holdovers" are sitting out there fleecing the American taxpayer?
Perhaps in the interest of fairness. I should put this in context. Apparently, total foreign aid to China from all countries, specifically Japan, England, France and Germany plus us, was $2.65 billion. I guess we're getting off cheap. Apparently we have no corner on stupidity.
I called the dear lady and apologized for my skepticism. It made her day.
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