Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Throwing Employees to the Wolves

Republicans in the legislature are gearing up for an attempt at overriding some recent vetoes by Governor Doyle.

Among the bills is one to make Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) deductible from state income tax (AB 4). Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) has put out a press release urging an override of this bill, which she cosponsored. And the special interest behemoth Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce has also joined the push to override the veto and make HSAs tax-exempt in the state.

I've written before why HSAs alone are a bad idea. There are two main issues with health care: 1) cost and 2) the uninsured. HSAs concentrate on cost, but they're not about reducing cost -- they're intended to shift costs.

By making HSAs tax-exempt it allows employers to push them onto employees by claiming they're a tax-free way to save for health care. This is a problem for a couple reasons.

One, it increases the use of high-deductible, low-premium health plans because employers can argue that the HSA is intended to help the employee pay for the higher deductible. Since employers typically pay for the majority of the premium while employees pay for the deductible, HSAs serve employers well. But the actual cost of the care is not being reduced; rather, it's just being shifted to the deductible and, hence, the employee.

Two, HSAs encourage people to "shop around" for their care. The Bush administration and other Republicans tout this as a benefit because people will be able to seek out the best deal for their HSA buck. However, when you're in need of health care is not the best time to be a consumer. If consumers choose not to buy an iPod because they don't want to shell out the money, for instance, all they're out is a portable music player. People who are sick, on the other hand, don't have the option not to receive good health care, unless they want their sickness to not get any better or potentially lead to something worse. In a time when the US is already far behind on instituting proactive health care measures, adding second-guessing to the system in terms of whether to get medical aide is not desirable.

Admittedly, health care costs are becoming a significant burden for employers and if nothing is done they will simply stop providing it for employees. Yet, employees aren't in any better position to handle the rising costs of health care -- in fact, they're position is arguably much worse.

And the alternative to HSAs does not need to be nothing.

Comprehensive health care reform is the only way to effectively deal with the issue of cost. I've written before on that topic numerous times (here, here, here, here, and here), so I won't go into it much in this post. Suffice to say, the only way to effectively reduce costs is to reduce the number of payers in the system.

And once overall costs are reduced, HSAs could actually be a useful tool. Under the comprehensive health care proposal made by Sen. Russ Decker (D-Schofield) and Rep. Terry Musser (R-Black River Falls) last month, for example, recipients would be responsible for an annual deductible of $600 for families or $300 for individuals. An HSA could be set-up to allow recipients to bank money the previous year to pay for their health care deductible the subsequent year.

As long as costs are controlled and, subsequently, recipients stand a chance at being able to afford directly paying for all necessary care, HSAs can be useful tools.

Without reducing costs first, however, instituting the widespread use of HSAs amounts to nothing more than throwing employees to the wolves.

UPDATE: The override vote for AB 4 failed in the Assembly today. The vote was 61-36.

Who Owes the Veterans?

Just about everyone seems to be on board with providing free UW and state tech college tuition to veterans. There's no debating that they deserve it -- risking life and limb in war is payment enough.

A question still looms, however, over funding. A Journal-Sentinel article from today discusses that question.

Estimates put the cost of the new law at between $6-$8 million per year, although I find that to be a conservative range. After all, the cost of half-price UW and tech college tuition, which veterans are afforded under current law, runs around $4 million per year.

Simply applying the new law to existing veterans taking advantage of the plan would bring the cost up to $8 million. But since free tuition is more appealing than half-price tuition, I imagine even more veterans will jump on board under the new law starting in 2007. Plus, since we are currently in a war that appears indefinite, the number of Wisconsin veterans is only going to increase in the coming years.

Governor Doyle, who recently signed the bill, wants to allocate funding for the free tuition in the next budget cycle.

The Republican leadership, who shepherded the bill through the legislature, appears to be against any additional state funding for the new law.

To consider the question of funding is really to ask the question: Who owes the veterans?

Unless additional funding is allocated, tuition for non-veteran students will increase to pay for the new law. But are other students really the only ones who owe the veterans?

It seems to me veterans pay the price of fighting in war for all of us. Every single citizen in Wisconsin benefits from the sacrifice made by Wisconsin veterans.

Doesn't that mean we all owe them?

If so, then it's only right that we all pay for their higher education. And that means we need to find the money to pay for the tuition waiver in our state budget.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Intelligent Design II

If you can't beat'em, join'em.

That's exactly what anti-gay factions are doing in some states. Finding it too difficult to keep gay rights out of school, they are fighting to get their anti-gay message into schools.

Conservative religious groups like Exodus International are pushing to have "ex-gay therapy" taught in schools alongside discussions of homosexuality. They're convinced gay and lesbian people are choosing their sexuality and, under the right treatment, can actually renounce their attraction to the same sex.

The mental health profession disagrees. According to the American Psychological Association:


Even though most homosexuals live successful, happy lives, some homosexual or bisexual people may seek to change their sexual orientation through therapy, sometimes pressured by the influence of family members or religious groups to try and do so. The reality is that homosexuality is not an illness. It does not require treatment and is not changeable.


In fact, mental health professionals call attempts at "ex-gay therapy" not only ineffective, but also potentially harmful to the self-esteem of the patient.

But just as scientific consensus doesn't stop creationists from pushing intelligent design as a science, neither does it stop anti-gay advocates from insisting that homosexuality is a choice -- and the wrong choice.

For those who are curious what "ex-gay therapy" looks like, check out this video of a spot that aired on CNN last week.

It's pretty creepy -- especially when the ex-gay counselor suggests (and demonstrates) hitting a pillow with a tennis racket while screaming "Mom, why did you do that to me!" in an attempt to, I suppose, release the evil gay spirits.

The LA Times has more on the push to get "ex-gay therapy" into schools.

Adjuncts Serving As Replacements, Not Supplements

The Wisconsin State Journal has an article today on the growing number of academic staff members at UW-Madison. Not too long ago, I was an academic staff member at UW-Madison, although not the kind the WSJ story discusses.

According to the WSJ article, academic staff members are being brought to UW-Madison in hoards in order to take over some of the duties of research-strapped faculty. It paints a picture of a university that’s booming so much in the area of research that extra people are needed to supplement the work of professors in areas such as teaching.

That’s certainly one way to put it. Another, which is the preferred way among most graduate students in doctoral programs, is not nearly so positive. And those grad students don’t think of the positions as “academic staff,” but rather “adjunct” positions.

The word “adjunct” is not a desirable term in graduate school circles. It’s associated with relatively low pay and, if you can manage to string a few of them together, a significant teaching load. Most people who take these positions are newly minted PhDs who went to grad school with the hopes of landing an actual professorship – and, for most, that remains the goal afterwards.

But the trouble with finding a professorship as an adjunct is time. A full workload for grad students is typically considered 0.5 FTE – the rest of the time is spent either in coursework or doing research, writing, presenting papers, etc.

For adjuncts, on the other hand, a full workload is 1.0 FTE – just like the rest of us. The trouble with that is it leaves little time for research, writing, presenting papers, etc. And good luck landing a tenure-track professorship if you’re not on the cutting-edge of research in your field.

Add to that the fact that when you do apply for tenure-track faculty positions one, two, three years down the road, you’re not only competing against all the newly-minted doctorates from that individual year, but all those like yourself who have become back-logged in the adjunct world.

It’s intimidating, to say the least, and it’s the direct result of fewer and fewer tenure-track professorships being offered – not increasing levels of research, as the WSJ article makes out. And why hire adjuncts instead of professors? Quite simply, they’re cheaper for the cash-strapped university.

Follow this link to the employment page for UW-Madison under the category “Instruction.” Over in the far right-hand column -- “Appointment Percentage Range” -- you won’t find many positions listed at 100%. The majority are at 33%, a handful are at 50%, while some give a range between 33% and 50% or 75%.

When you open one of the job descriptions, a salary around $30,000-$35,000 will jump out at you – for nine months work, no less! Of course, you’ll need to multiply that number by your percentage, which in most cases brings you down to $9,900-$11,550 per academic year. But, then, many of the adjunct positions are only guaranteed for one semester, which cuts that academic year total in half.

Essentially, this allows the university to hire an instructor with a PhD for roughly $5,000 per course – and without any guarantees of returning in future terms.

Contrast that figure with the cost of a faculty-taught course on the UW-Madison campus. The average salary for an assistant professor (the lowest rung on the faculty ladder) is $63,600 (see here, page 26). You can expect most professors to teach about five courses per year, which puts the cost per course at over $12,000 – more than twice as much as the cost of an adjunct-led course.

Of course, the expectations in terms of research and committee work are more significant for professors than adjuncts (particularly assistant professors), so you are getting more for your buck with professors than just teaching. But if you ask current adjuncts which role they would prefer, the vast majority would take a professorship any day of the week – after all, it’s what they were trained to do.

The ratio of students to professors hasn’t eroded too much on the UW-Madison campus, but it is eroding (12-to-1 in 1995, 13-to-1 in 2005). The real test for the campus, and others, will come when the baby boomers start to retire in the coming decades. The question isn’t who will be hired to replace them when they retire – it’s how those people will be hired.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Memorial Day

I want to take a brief break from the blogcation to ask everyone to remember those who died on behalf of our country.

There's no greater sacrifice soldiers can make than to risk their lives in war.

And there's no more important decision our elected officials make than whether to send them there.

Friday, May 26, 2006

It's Time for a Blogcation

From my favorite inspirational poster company, Despair, Inc.
Check out the entire collection.

I'm off to be indifferent for a few days.

Since starting this blog four months ago, I've posted quite a bit during the week. In fact, I don't think I've ever missed a weekday, at least not recently.

But with the long weekend coming up, I'm going to take my first blogcation.

I'll be back at the helm on Tuesday.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Harvard's New Admission Criteria

It turns out the UW System isn't alone in revamping its admission criteria this spring.

According to The Harvard Crimson, the Harvard Business School recently admitted college dropout Blake Gottesman into its MBA program for the upcoming fall term.

Gottesman -- who will get the rare privilege of enrolling in an Ivy League graduate program without an undergraduate degree -- completed one year of college at Claremont-McKenna College in California before dropping out seven years ago.

So what are Gottesman's credentials for admission?

For the past four years, the 26-year old has been carrying around breathmints and making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for President George W. Bush.

Oh, and he used to date Jenna Bush in high school.

(Story via Talking Points Memo.)

UPDATE: I should add that I actually think Gottesman appears like a good candidate for Harvard Business School -- being the president's personal aide surely isn't a trivial task, as I made out in admittedly snarky fashion in this post.

But what makes the story stand out is timing. With all this talk of how race and class affect one's treatment, it's important to remember that nothing is as powerful as who you know.

Research Subjects Wanted

Those in the business of selling their bodies to science may want to think twice about any calls they get from UW professor John Webster.

This is from an article in the Duluth News Tribune:


It is possible that Tasers can cause a heart condition in pigs that will lead to their deaths if they are not treated with electric defibrillation, a University of Wisconsin professor says.

John Webster, a professor of biomedical engineering, said the results of his study illustrate the possibility that a Taser could kill a person given the proper conditions.

The next step of his research is to focus on how likely it is for a Taser to kill a human.


You might want to steer clear of that study.

Bishops Campaigning for Doyle

While the letter wasn't intended as such, a message from two Catholic bishops in Wisconsin to Jim Doyle regarding the use of embryonic stem cells for medical research will actually help the governor's re-election campaign.

In an attempt to assure the governor the letter wasn't political in nature, the bishops wrote: "We're not trying to influence the election in any way."

The one they should be trying to assure of this is actually Mark Green. Granted, Green agrees with the bishops on the issue -- they all don't think discarded embryos should be used for potentially life-saving medical research. But the majority of the state disagrees with this stance, which is what makes it politically threatening for Green, not Doyle.

Doyle is actually trying to keep this issue on the front-page, which is what elicited the letter from the bishops in the first place. Yet, the letter itself is a boon for the governor because it serves the purpose of keeping stem cell research at the forefront of this race.

According to a recent statewide poll, nearly 70% of Wisconsin voters support embryonic stem cell research. Even among pro-life voters, the poll showed that more support the research (46%) than oppose it (36%).

Plus, the logical line to opposing embryonic stem cell research is opposition to the fertility practice in vitro fertilization (IVF), which is an even less popular stance in Wisconsin and the rest of the country.

There are thousands of unused embryos from fertility clinics that would be simply destroyed if not used for research. If the ultimate goal in blocking embryonic stem cell research is to stop the destruction of embryos, then practices like IVF should be the real target.

Until the public decides to shut down fertility clinics employing IVF, why shouldn't the unused embryos be used in research aimed at saving millions of lives?

And, in Wisconsin, we have the added interest of being the premier spot for stem cell research. While economic development should not be the only reason to engage in embryonic stem cell research (saving lives is still the preeminent concern), it is a nice feature that comes along with the other benefits of the research.

Embryonic stem cell research is going to be a wedge issue this fall -- and Doyle is on the right side of the divide.

UPDATE: Xoff has more.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Conservatives Ignoring UW-Madison

You wouldn't think it would happen considering UW-Madison is the flagship school in the UW System and also the largest of all the campuses.

In response to the new UW System admissions criteria, some conservative bloggers are all up in arms about the harmful results that they feel will surely ensue.

Kevin at "Lakeshore Laments" laments that smart, rich, white kids shouldn't even bother applying to UW schools anymore.

Brian at "Fraley's Dailytakes" claims this move simultaneously dumbs down the UW System and shoots up the cost of the system because surely more remedial classes will be needed to accommodate all of the new unqualified students going to college in the state.

Owen at "Boots and Sabers" calls it systematic discrimination.

In all this fury, no one commented on the fact that holistic admissions already have been taking place at UW-Madison for years -- this new change is about bringing the rest of the system up to speed.

So what's been the effect of holistic admissions at UW-Madison?

Systematic discrimination? A dumber campus? No more smart, rich, white kids?

Let's see...

According to 2005 figures, UW-Madison ranks as one of the least racially diverse campuses in the Big Ten with only 10% of its student body being African-American, Hispanic, American Indian, or Asian.

In 2006, US News & World Report ranked UW-Madison as the 8th best public university in the country -- which is about where the campus has been ranked for years. In terms of admissions selectivity, UW-Madison is consistently ranked in the top 10% nationally.

And as someone who recently worked on the UW-Madison campus, I can tell you it's definitely not lacking in smart, rich, white kids.

As I said before, these new admission criteria for the rest of the UW System will have little actual impact on the fundamental student make-up at the various campuses.

But it's already being made clear that the changes will provide more ammo for critics of the system and also parents who will be convinced their children weren't accepted because some less-qualified, poor, black student supposedly took their place.

Gay & Lesbian Students: No Sex Until...Well, Ever

Governor Doyle just signed the abstinence bill authored by Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin).

The bill requires school districts across the state that offer sex education to teach abstinence as the preferred behavior until marriage.

Of course, since same-sex couples currently can't get married in Wisconsin (something the state GOP is trying to make permanent through a constitutional amendment), the message this bill sends to gay and lesbian students is that they should never have sex.

I guess that confirms all's fair in war, but just not love.

Assessing the New UW Admissions Criteria

The UW System just announced new standards for admission at campuses across the state. Rather than just considering test scores, class rank, and GPA, the new criteria will attempt to consider the entire applicant.

Some will surely focus on the fact that the new holistic admissions criteria put some weight on such factors as race and income (heck, even the Journal-Sentinel highlighted that in the subtitle of its article). Discrimination, they'll call it.

But this focus misses the overall point of the new standards -- which is that statistical measures alone are too narrow to determine an applicant's ability to succeed in college.

Plus, by taking a holistic approach it acknowledges that diversity isn't just about race or class. According to the JS article, the new criteria will grant favorable consideration for students who demonstrate "community involvement, volunteerism, foreign language study or study abroad, social involvement, diversity in its broadest sense, special talents and abilities, disability status and unique or individual circumstances."

Ultimately, the point of considering diversity in an educational setting is twofold. One, to ensure that the various segments of society have adequate access to higher education. And, two, to help increase the amount of ideas on campus, which comes from having as many unique (but also informed) perspectives as possible.

In the end, however, I think what we'll find is that these new admissions criteria will make little fundamental difference in the make-up of the student bodies on the various UW campuses. There may be some influence around the edges, but the core classes of admitted students will likely remain largely the same.

There is said to be such a thing called "the hidden curriculum" in educational settings. It's the curriculum that isn't written, but is nonetheless imbedded into the culture of a school.

Once students learn how to work the hidden curriculum -- which ranges from good relationships with teachers to engagement in the right extracurricular activities -- they can be successful regardless of their true proficiency in the actual curriculum.

The same is true for the application process. Under the new UW admission criteria, applicants will quickly learn how to diversify their appearance without necessarily diversifying their actual lives.

And those who will be the best at this likely will be the same ones who are the best at gaming the hidden curriculum -- in other words, those same students with the high class rank and GPA.

Nevertheless, holistic assessment is better than what we have now. And change around the edges is surely better than no change at all.

UPDATE: Just to clarify, the new UW admissions criteria apply to undergraduate applications only. Graduate applications are still handled mostly by the individual departments who offer the programs.

In a sense, the new undergrad admission standards are meant to make the undergraduate process more like the current graduate application process, which -- in most instances -- takes an in-depth and holistic approach to assessing applications on a case-by-case basis.

Grad programs naturally take this holistic approach because they need to consider not only who's smart enough, but also who has the overall personality to handle the rigors of grad school and who can add some "intellectual spice" to the reputation of their program. Plus, on a more practical level, there are simply fewer grad applications than undergrad applications, which affords grad programs the luxury of an in-depth review.

Forcing undergrad applications to undertake the same type of review will surely strain the Office of Admissions at our various UW campuses, but it will simultaneously provide for (again, probably just around the edges in the long run) a more diverse and capable incoming class of students.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Talk of Gore in '08 Reaches Fervent Pitch

With the release of his documentary on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," taking place tomorrow in select cities (the Milwaukee and Madison opening is June 16), Al Gore is all over the news. And talk of a Gore presidential bid in '08 is coming right along with the coverage.

The documentary has received rave reviews by every audience that's viewed it, which bodes well for Gore's popularity. As a politician, Gore was always considered thoughtful and intelligent on the issues. His one downside was always a lack of charisma.

But with this documentary, which features Gore prominently, along with some hilarious recent appearances on Saturday Night Live, Gore has largely remade his public image into someone who's both smart and vibrant. And this makeover appears likely to stick, unlike some of the hastily conceived transformations from his 2000 campaign (I think everyone remembers "the kiss").

Here's the trailer for "An Inconvenient Truth" -- pretty powerful stuff:

Many Dems see Gore as one of only two people who could topple Hillary Clinton as the nominee in 2008. The other: Barack Obama.

And for those, like me, who figured 2008 was too soon for a presidential bid by Obama, there's some evidence that suggests otherwise.

Obama recently wrote a book that's going to be published this October called The Audacity of Hope. In it he doesn't take too kindly to his current position in the US Senate. In an excerpt that can be downloaded from his website, Obama writes:


Except for the few minutes that it takes to vote, my colleagues and I don't spend much time on the Senate floor. Most of the decisions--about what bills to call and when to call them, about how amendments will be handled and how uncooperative senators will be made to cooperate--have been worked out in advance, by the Majority Leader, the relevant committee chairman, their staffs, and (depending on the degree of controversy involved and the magnanimity of the Republican handling the bill), their Democratic counterparts. By the time we reach the floor and the clerk starts calling the roll, each of the senators will have determined--in consultation with his or her staff, caucus leader, preferred lobbyists, interest groups, and ideological leanings--just how to positions themselves on the issue.

. . .

In the world's greatest deliberative body, no one is listening.


Although seemingly discontented with his current job, Obama doesn't appear to be interested in leaving public office anytime soon. Earlier this year he started the Hopefund PAC that's already distributed millions to Democratic candidates for the upcoming midterm elections.

As Jason Zengerle of The New Republic notes about these revelations: "Spreading money around to Democrats all over the country, making noises about how the Senate maybe isn't the best place for him to affect political change--sounds like a guy thinking about running for president to me!"

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Tangled Webs We Weave

The Washington Post reports today that White House strategists are viewing the upcoming midterm elections as the only possible salvation for the president's plummeting poll numbers.

According to the article: "If Republicans retain Congress in November, Bush advisers note, he could assert that for the third straight election, the party defied historical patterns and popular predictions. Bush, they said, could advance a fresh agenda in early 2007."

So the Bush strategists think their best shot at success is by not losing control of Congress.

Ironically, though, the best shot Republicans have against losing control of Congress is by distancing themselves from Bush.

Side-Note: How bad do things need to be for the best hope to become not blowing a 30 seat advantage in the House and a 10 seat advantage in the Senate?

Stem Cells, Incontinence, and Jim Sensenbrenner

At least one Republican just got another reason to dislike stem cell research -- (added for James, in the interest of blogging harmony) this time the kind on adult stem cells.

The Journal-Sentinel is reporting today that researchers have discovered stem cells can cure adult incontinence. In a recent study, patients who were injected with stem cells from their own muscle tissue no longer needed to wear protective pads one year after treatment.

This doesn't bode well for the adult diaper industry, which is dominated by the brand Depend.

Depend is manufactured by Kimberly-Clark, whose heir is our very own Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner.

Something tells me that Sensenbrenner -- who recently reported personal holdings of nearly $11 million without a penny of debt -- won't be bothered much by the news.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Scott Walker Still Running for Something

Over at the WisPolitics 2006 GOP Convention blog, there's a post up about hospitality suites scattered around the Paper Valley Hotel in Appleton tonight.

These are parties that candidates throw to hand out freebies in the hopes of courting support through their generosity...or, I guess, hospitality.

The WisPolitics blog links to a flyer listing all of the hospitality suites at this year's convention. Here's the rundown of the hosts:

Mark Green - gubernatorial candidate
Paul Bucher - AG candidate
J.B. Van Hollen - AG candidate
Jean Hundertmark - Lt. Governor candidate
Paul Ryan - US congressional candidate
Mike Huebsch - State Assembly candidate
Dale Schultz - State Senate candidate
Scott Walker - Milwaukee County Executive

For those proficient in the "Which of these things doesn't belong?" game, it's noticeable that Walker is the only one in the group who isn't currently a candidate for office.

This begs the question: Where exactly is Walker running?

UPDATE: I should note that State Treasurer Jack Voight is also hosting a hospitality suite tonight, according to WisPolitics; he is up for re-election this fall.

That still leaves Walker as the only hospitality suite host without a campaign -- at least that we know about.

A Nod to "Will & Grace"

As most know, the series finale of "Will & Grace" aired last night. My wife and I -- who both list "Will & Grace" as our favorite TV show of all-time -- weren't entirely happy with the final episode; but, as a series, we both agree the show was the best thing on television.

"Will & Grace" was in the uncomfortable position of being one of the first primetime network television shows to feature openly gay characters. The attacks from social conservatives were expected. But the show also received its fair share of knocks from the left, particularly for the character of "Jack" who led a stereotypical over-sexed gay lifestyle.

Nevertheless, the show was pathbreaking and powerful -- not to mention consistently hilarious and always entertaining.

As a high schooler, I was pretty firmly in the "don't ask, don't tell" camp of the 1990s. I certainly didn't go around berating gay and lesbian people, but I also didn't feel comfortable seeing same-sex couples in the open. They were different to me. Not necessarily bad, but most definitely different.

And I certainly didn't see myself as an advocate for gay rights; in fact, at the time I remember viewing demands for gay and lesbian rights as demands for "special" rights -- something I didn't think was justified. When I saw a gay rights march on TV once, I recall wondering why they had to be so vocal and public about their lifestyle.

Because I saw same-sex couples as fundamentally different from me socially, I viewed the political and legal rights they demanded as different than the rights I expected for myself.

This perspective took a big hit my sophomore year of college.

"Will & Grace" -- still in its first season at the time -- aired an episode that year in which Grace, along with Jack and Karen, took Will to a cabin for the weekend to help keep his mind off the fact that he would've been celebrating an anniversary with his long-time boyfriend that day had they not broken-up just months before.

Toward the end of the episode, Will recognizes the ploy and has an emotional conversation with Grace about it, expressing how much he missed Michael and felt lost without him. This scene helped make it clear to me that gay and lesbian people aren't at all different than heterosexuals when it comes to relationships. The needs and wants are the same.

In short, the episode took the important first step of humanizing and personalizing the gay and lesbian experience for me -- something I never had the opportunity to see before. Once I stopped viewing gay and lesbian people as different from me socially, it wasn't long before I started to see the rights they demanded as the same as the rights that I expected for myself.

While I don't credit all of my support for gay and lesbian rights issues to "Will & Grace," watching the show was an essential piece of the puzzle.

And, like any worthwhile comedy, it was always good for a laugh.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Advisory Referendum Awaits Certain Death

The Milwaukee County Board just approved an advisory referendum for a sales tax increase in a 10-9 vote, three short of veto-proof status.

Time: 3:43pm

Scott Walker is now on the clock. How long will he let it linger?

Mandating Abstinence: The Nanny State Strikes Again

Dave Diamond has already touched on this here, but I thought I’d add a little more.

State Senator Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) has released a statement that discusses in shock-ridden tone how many high schoolers in Wisconsin are having sex. The info Lazich uses comes from a survey of all high school students in the state taken during the 2004-2005 school year.

I was teaching Social Studies at Monona Grove High School when this survey was distributed to students. The most frequent question asked before and after they took it was, “Why are we taking this?” I told them it was so that some people could get outraged by the results and make a big fuss about how much they were having sex and drinking. They all chuckled a bit, and nodded their heads in agreement.

Kids are used to such treatment – having their lives broken down into convenient numbers so that people can easily rant about how bad and misguided they are.

But, to be quite honest, upon reading the results of the survey, I was surprised how few of our high schoolers have had sex. Lazich cites in her press statement the cumulative figure of 40%, but it’s useful to break that down by grade level.

The full results of the survey can be found here – sexual behavior findings start on page 16.

Predictably, the percentage increases significantly between 9th and 12th grades. Freshmen were at 21%, sophomores at 32%, juniors at 51%, and seniors at 59%. By far, the biggest jump in there is between 10th grade and 11th grade, which is also when most teens get a significant boost in independence through the ability to drive.

Based on the results of the survey, all-in-all, it seems to me sex education in Wisconsin is working quite well. 93% of high schoolers claim they have been taught about ways to prevent pregnancy and STDs in school (whereas only 48% recall ever discussing the issue with their parents or other adult family members). And out of the 40% who have had sex, 78% used reliable protection against pregnancy the last time they did (the survey didn’t ask about previous incidents).

That means 9% of high schoolers in the state reported having what could be considered unsafe sex -- the same percentage that reported using cocaine and half the percentage of those who reported seriously considering suicide within the last 12 months (18%).

Granted, the percentages on sexual behavior always could be better, but I think it’s clear schools in Wisconsin are on the right track with their sex education programs (the same can’t be said for all families).

Nevertheless, last August, Lazich introduced legislation that would require that abstinence is taught as the preferred method of behavior in sex education classes across the state (initially Lazich also wanted the bill to require that more instructional time was spent on abstinence than forms of safe-sex, but that provision was cut in the Senate).

Having passed both the Senate and the Assembly this legislative term, the bill is currently at the desk of Governor Doyle.

If Doyle signs it, do you think conservatives will start breathing down his neck about supporting more state mandates and furthering the reach of our dreaded Nanny State?

(Image courtesy of Fraley's Dailytakes.)

What a Difference Three Months Makes

Back on February 17, the Journal-Sentinel posted an article titled "Parks, Art Sales Tax Gains Support." It discussed how the various factions on the Milwaukee County Board were getting behind an advisory sales tax referendum that would go on the ballot this fall.

Fast-forward exactly three months to yesterday, May 17. On that day, the JS posted an article titled "Chances Wane for Sales Tax Vote." This article discusses how an inability to reach a consensus on the Milwaukee County Board will very likely kill the proposed advisory sales tax referendum.

What happened?

According to the article posted yesterday, "Conflicts and questions intensified about which programs should benefit from any new tax, the size of the tax, promises of property-tax relief, and the public's perceived anti-tax mood."

So here the County is facing a looming fiscal crisis, and the Board is quibbling over where the extra money should go, how much extra money to take, and whether the referendum would upset anti-tax factions.

This is ridiculous. We're talking about an advisory referedum here. Why does the money even need to be dedicated on the ballot question? Simply getting a question out there to voters is a step in the right direction. If they shoot it down, so be it. Just asking them will serve as an opportunity to further educate the public about the impending budget crisis.

Plus, if rejected, it could serve as a reference point for county officials when services start to wane without the extra revenue. Perhaps then the public will start to see more clearly the connection between taxes and services. If it's a "perceived anti-tax mood" that's the concern, one way to counteract it is by urging the development of a "perceived anti-crappy services mood."

Memo to County Board: Just get something passed, for goodness sake.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Leadership of the Country is Ripe for the Picking

The graphic below is from a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.

It suggests the leadership of the country is ripe for Democratic picking, but so far the Dems are still largely caught on their heels.

No surprise that health care tops the list of issues people trust to Dems more than the GOP. HSAs and medical malpractice legislation do not constitute comprehensive health care reform -- and comprehensive reform is what the people want and the economy of the country needs.

(Click image for larger view.)

Working Through Retirement

Doesn’t sound right, does it? What’s the point of retiring if you still need to work?

That was a central question from an excellent Frontline program that aired on PBS last night. The crux of the program focused on the shift from pensions to 401(k)s in the American corporate world.

But it’s not just a lesson for the private sector. Scott Walker and others are pushing hard for replacing the Milwaukee County pension plan with 401(k) plans for county employees. I’m sure there is discussion in other public sector areas of a similar move. But, as the Frontline documentary makes clear, such a transition is not necessarily in the best interest of the employees or society in general in the long-term.

To start, 401(k) plans were initially developed in the late-1970s to serve as supplemental retirement accounts for company executives, not primary retirement accounts for a mass of employees.

Essentially what a 401(k) plan does is shift the cost and risk of retirement accounts from the employer to the employee. In traditional pensions, employees were guaranteed payments of a certain level through retirement. The funds for these payments were paid by the employer as part of the contract with an employee. The employer would also control the investment of these funds for the employee, and also take the risk if those investments failed. The pension checks were supposed to be guaranteed regardless of investment success (although companies today are finding that bankruptcy allows them to conveniently dismantle those pension guarantees).

A 401(k) plan, on the other hand, is usually funded on a matching system between the employer and employee. And the control of the plan is in the hands of the employee, not the employer (although some employers do offer to make investments on behalf of the employee). The major problem with this is that most employees are in no position to wisely invest and – most critically – manage those investments over decades. And if the moneys for retirement were invested poorly under a 401(k) plan, whether by the employee directly or through the employer on the employee’s behalf, the risk lies entirely with the employee.

The shift from pensions to 401(k)s has occurred for a number of reasons, but a couple of big ones are poor management in the 1990s and cost.

In the stock market boom of the ‘90s, a number of major corporations underfunded their pension liabilities, hoping instead that the market boom would carry the retirement accounts by itself. When the market tanked at the beginning of the current decade, many companies found themselves with an enormous deficit in the area of pensions. This has led to numerous companies claiming bankruptcy to demand takebacks from retiring or just retired employees (i.e., reduce their pension checks, often by 1/3 or more) and shift from pensions to 401(k)s for existing employees.

The issue of cost cuts two ways. One, 401(k)s are flat-out cheaper for employers than traditional pensions – to the tune of billions of dollars over the coming decade for large companies. It’s no wonder many are making the switch.

And, two, as consumers we are demanding lower and lower costs for items. This is particularly true in a global marketplace where companies are finding workers in places like India and China who will work for next to nothing in salary and absolutely nothing in benefits. If companies want to lower the cost of their products to remain competitive, a useful way is to lower production costs by swapping expensive pensions for cheaper 401(k)s.

But what the Frontline documentary makes clear is that there are hidden costs to these cheaper prices and cheaper 401(k)s. And those hidden costs for the soon-to-retire baby boomers are about to be made very clear, as many people currently in their 50s and 60s will be forced to work into their 70s and 80s in order to make ends meet. And those are the lucky ones – the unlucky will face some sort of significant medical obstacle that forces them to consider a nursing home they can’t even begin to afford.

(Experts estimate you’d need to save 15-18% of your annual salary in a well-managed 401(k) each year over a roughly 30-year period to retire comfortably. Very few Americans actually do this or even can afford to do this.)

Retirement is a very real problem that’s going to hit the mainstream real soon. Legislatively we need to alter the structure of both 401(k)s by making investments safer and corporate bankruptcy by giving employees more power in Chapter 11 proceedings.

And around the edges we can make an impact as consumers. Specifically, we can start shopping at places that are known to offer responsible retirement plans to employees. While the cost of the products may be a bit higher, the long-term costs to society will be much more affordable.

For those who have the opportunity, I highly recommend the Frontline documentary on retirement. I think the re-airings in the Milwaukee area are done for now, but it’s sure to come through the schedule again at some point. Also, you can go to the website to view it online (starting tomorrow) or see other documents from the making of the program. And if none of those work for you, the program will surely be made into a DVD that’ll be available to your local library sometime in the future.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Tough Love

"Tommy Thompson used the bully pulpit to tell us how great Wisconsin was. Mayor Tom Barrett calls cheerleading for Milwaukee a key part of his job. Scott Walker’s style is to blacken the reputation of the county he runs."

This is from an op-ed by Bruce Murphy appearing in this week's Milwaukee Magazine. The whole piece is worth the read, if you haven't done so already.

I think there's some real truth to the quote above -- although it's only fair to say Walker's disdain is for the county government, not the residents.

Yet, unless we're willing to consider disbanding the county government altogether -- something I don't think the majority of residents want, nor would it be in their best interest -- simply attacking it isn't doing the residents any favors.

The Case Against Raising Revenues in Milwaukee County

[Below is a guest column by Kevin Ryan.]

In recent weeks Milwaukee County officials, notably Executive Scott Walker along with former State Secretary of Administration George Lightbourn, have been in the news for shining light on the County’s severe fiscal problems. Predictably, the County’s situation has set off a debate between those who believe the problem can be partially or entirely fixed by raising revenues versus anti-tax types who are opposed to raising revenues.

As a member of the second camp (though I am not as firmly anti-tax as many fiscal conservatives), I have been debating Seth, who is squarely in the first camp, for a few weeks now. Seth has been gracious enough to air my side of the story.

Many bloggers from the left attack Scott Walker for causing these problems because of his agenda to keep tax revenues flat. Walker’s flat-levy platform, while not realistic, has nothing to do with this problem for two main reasons: first, the Milwaukee County board has routinely overridden Walker and approved levy increases in its annual budget at a 2.9 percent clip; and, second, the main drivers of the crisis on the expenditure side are enhancements to benefits made long before Walker was elected Executive.

The County’s pension system is a significant burden and has been well covered. Due to enhancements in sick leave payouts and backdrop benefits, the County’s required contribution to its pension system is tens of millions of dollars more than anticipated when they were passed. But the pension system is not the primary benefit enhancement that has the County in trouble: it is the provision that employees who began service with the County before 1994 are eligible to retire with full medical benefits, free of charge, for life. This benefit is included in the 5-year projection of the County’s finances on both the Journal Sentinel website and Secretary Lightbourn’s report, combined with current employee health benefits.

The reason that increasing revenues cannot possibly cover the cost of this benefit is simple math. The projection assumes the following: for the years 2007 to 2011 an additional 250 county employees will retire and take advantage of the health care benefit, they will be replaced by 250 more people who also take health care benefits, and the premiums to cover those people will rise by 15 percent annually. Calculating the rate of annual growth in the estimates shows that the County’s health care costs for employees and retirees will grow by 8.5% in 2007, 19.3% in 2008, 19.4% in 2009, 19.5% in 2010 and 19.6% in 2011. Not only do health insurance costs to the County rise almost 10 times faster than inflation, the rate of growth continues to increase in the out years – an exponential effect.

This is key because there is no source of revenue that the County can tap that would grow at an exponential rate; even the most liberal of politicians know it would be politically impossible.

Much has been made by bloggers on the left that the County’s projection is worst-case. This is a fair concern but the fact is the projection is actually somewhat realistic. Reducing the number of employees that replace health insurance-eligible retirees would not reduce the growth in costs to a sustainable level. The projection already includes property tax growth at the legal limit allowed by the state. Assuming flat federal and state revenues is very much in line with recent trends and the current political climate – it would be foolish at this time to budget increases in these revenues to cover operating costs. Quite literally, Milwaukee County is the worst case scenario.

In addition to this structural problem, Milwaukee County’s culture must change. The current culture, defended by management, the unions and abetted by the majority of the County Board, seeks to benefit the employees regardless of the cost and without consideration of each manager’s or employee’s effectiveness and value to the organization or the taxpayer. Patronage, nepotism, and a “We’ve always done it that way” attitude are endemic of such dinosaur governmental organizations.

What the County needs to do, immediately, is have an open and honest debate about its role as a governmental entity. Elected officials need to make decisions on what the County is going to do and how it should do it. Feedback should come from constituents, business and civic groups, employees, unions, and academics; but at the end of the day elected officials need to exercise the leadership to make decisions about what services the County will and will not provide.

They also must understand that their allegiance lies first with the taxpayers and the people served by County programs, and with employees second. That means instead of protecting benefits to curry favor with employee unions, the County has to consider outsourcing and contracting out those services were quality and oversight would not suffer.

Increasing revenues should be on the table. But the bottom line is that there is no revenue source that can cover a shortfall of this size that is projected to grow exponentially. Nor does any revenue source exist that will continue to enable the County’s elected leadership to continue to avoid making tough decisions.

-- Kevin Ryan

Monday, May 15, 2006

Gore in '08?

There's a lot of talk about it on Andrew Sullivan's blog the past couple days (here and here).

Sullivan writes: "Gore's credibility on the environment - a growing issue - his history of foreign policy hawkishness but opposition to the Iraq war, and his general association with what has become Clinton era nostalgia, do indeed make him an interesting possibility. Then there's just the karma. If we're looking to heal the wound of 2000, who better?"

Josh Marshall also picks up on the talk, suggesting that he views Gore as a stronger competitor right now than Clinton.

Of course, this is all too early to be anything more than speculation. But I must say, a Gore-Edwards or Gore-Feingold ticket looks pretty enticing.

UPDATE: Sullivan has another post up now comparing Gore in '08 to Nixon in '68 -- not ideologically, of course, but in terms of election strategy. Interesting connection, even if it's ultimately nothing more than anecdotal.

Tracking Phone Calls in the War on Media

It seems the White House isn't just using its phone tracking powers for good.

ABC News is reporting that a number of government sources have told them (in person) the Executive branch is specifically tracking the phone records of political reporters in an attempt to root out their confidential sources.

As Josh Marshall explains:


I think part of the issue for many people on the administration's various forms of surveillance is not just that some of activities seem to be illegal or unconstitutional on their face. I think many people are probably willing to be open-minded, for better or worse, on pushing the constitutional envelope. But given the people in charge of the executive branch today, you just can't have any confidence that these tools will be restricted to targeting terrorists. Start grabbing up phone records to data-mine for terrorists and then the tools are just too tempting for your leak investigations. Once you do that, why not just keep an eye on your critics too? After all, they're the ones most likely to get the leaks, right? So, same difference. The folks around the president don't recognize any real distinctions among those they consider enemies. So we'd be foolish to think they wouldn't bring these tools to bear on all of them. Once you set aside the law as your guide for action and view the president's will as a source of legitimacy in itself, then everything becomes possible and justifiable.


It is a slippery slope, indeed.

Hope One Day, Convinced the Next

Here's Tommy last week when asked whether he thought Green could beat Doyle: "I hope he can."

Now here's Tommy yesterday in a prepared statement announcing his decision not to run for governor (emphasis mine): "I have come to this conclusion for two simple reasons: my family's unanimous opposition against another campaign and because I am convinced that Mark Green is the right candidate to lead our party and will be victorious in November."

Stage 1: Damage Control.

Tommy Out

Or, more accurately, Tommy decides not to get in.

Xoff essentially wrote the post I was going to write about the impact of Tommy's decision and the manner in which he did it. No sense in duplicating it here.

But I'll briefly echo the basic point Xoff makes: Whatever the result of Tommy's musings, they certainly didn't do Mark Green any favors.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Reading Between the Lines of an Interview with Mark Green

I just took a closer look at the excerpts from an interview a writer for the Journal-Sentinel had with Mark Green this week.

Some interesting stuff if you're willing to speculate a bit and read between the lines. Here are some key questions and answers:


JS: So why didn't he throw his support to you?

Green: Well, I fully believe that he will. When the next few weeks have gone by, I expect to be campaigning shoulder-to-shoulder with Tommy Thompson.

JS: Help me with that: Shoulder-to-shoulder with Tommy Thompson. Who's running for what here?

Green: I feel good about the way things are going.

JS: Who's going to be (running for) the lieutenant governor?

Green: I feel good about the way things are going.

JS: You won't answer my question: You're going to campaign with Tommy shoulder-to-shoulder?

Green: That's what I plan to be doing.

JS: Will you still be running for governor when this happens?

Green: I fully expect to be running for governor.

JS: So you are completely confident he's not running for governor?

Green: I am very confident about how things are going to work out.

JS: That's not answering my question.

Green: That is answering the question; it's not in the detail that you'd like. But I feel very good about it.

JS: I don't mean to be naïve here, but is there any scenario in which he would run for governor and you would run as his lieutenant governor?

Green: I don't see any scenario like that at all. Again, full speed ahead. I believe I will be the governor come January.


It seems Green thinks Tommy is preparing to run for something. But he's keeping clear of elaborating on what that might be.

The "side-by-side" comment is particularly interesting. It could just mean that Tommy is planning to campaign for Green, but Green's unwillingness to say anything else about the phrase suggests it's more than that.

As I've mentioned before, I can't imagine Tommy would take on a costly and difficult race against Kohl. Plus, if he did manage to beat Kohl, he'd be the junior Senator from Wisconsin, and towards the bottom of the US Senate totem pole. Toward the bottom is not a place Tommy likes to be -- he likes to be in charge. And there aren't any other significant races this year that could put him in charge besides the one for the governor's mansion.

As Xoff points out today, Green appears to be keeping tabs on his old job just in case. That doesn't seem to be the actions of someone who's confident that he'll be running for a new job this fall.

This makes it seem like "side-by-side" could mean Tommy for Governor and Green for Congress.

John Gard's got to be watching this with wide eyes.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Comment to Liberal Bloggers on Tommy Talk

It seems some around the left-side of the Cheddarsphere are dismissing more talk of a potential Tommy gubernatorial bid as nothing more than Thompson seeking out more of the media spotlight.

That's only part true.

Tommy certainly is a media hound, but what a Thompson bid also represents is a battle for the direction of the state GOP. The Republican Party in Wisconsin is heading in a notably different direction now than it likely would under Thompson, something I discuss in more detail here. This makes considering the implications of his possible candidacy more than just stroking his publicity-seeking ego.

Too often divisions within a political party are tagged on Dems without acknowledgement that similar divisions exist in the GOP. This provides Republicans with an inflated (and unjustified) sense of cohesiveness that, in turn, helps to feed false notions that Republicans stand for something while Dems are all over the map.

Just something to keep in mind.

UPDATE: Xoff is keeping track of the rumblings on the right over Tommy.

As I've noted before, if Tommy runs it would be a major setback for the extreme right-wingers in Wisconsin. Eventually I'll get around to putting up a post about how I see this as both a positive and a negative for Dems in the state.

Belling Hops on the Tommy Train in Staggering Fashion

The latest op-ed by Mark Belling at GM Today is both surprising and remarkable.

Belling seems to have changed his view on the likelihood of a Tommy Thompson gubernatorial bid. While before he thought the talk was just rumors and Tommy stroking his ego, Belling now seems to be believing the hype.

But what is really staggering about the piece is Belling's belief that Thompson represents the far fiscal right segment of the state GOP. Belling writes: "As a candidate, he would likely develop an aggressive tax plan and sell it with the same zeal he brought to welfare reform and school choice."

Belling even goes after Green in the op-ed: "Many in the Republican base are ambivalent about Green. He seems clueless about how to exploit voter anger over high taxes."

This is when it becomes clear what Belling's change of heart on Thompson is all about: The failure of TABOR. Green pushed hard for a constitutional limit for the entire month prior to the legislative vote, and that vote still failed miserably. And, in the eyes of Belling, Green's promise as a leader went down with it. Green lost his balance on the tightrope walk.

Toward the end of the piece, Belling makes this comment: "The death of the Taxpayer Protection Amendment in the Legislature last week demonstrates again that the real power in Wisconsin government lies in the governor's office."

Through reading all this, I kept asking myself: Who is Belling kidding? Thompson publicly opposed TABOR and anything like it. He's not going to change his mind if re-elected governor -- why should he? Tommy doesn't need talkers like Sykes and Belling to get elected or to stay in office. He has no reason to cater to them like Green did in the weeks before the TABOR vote.

Thompson is as close to a populist as a Republican can get, which is why he's well-liked across the state. What Belling hasn't figured out in his southeastern Wisconsin talk radio bubble is that writing stringent fiscal policy into the state constitution is not a populist idea.

This explains why Belling had the audacity to call outstate Republicans, who represent a majority of the state GOP, "out of touch" after they helped to vote down TABOR last week. Belling can't come to grips with the fact that the far fiscal right is a minority in the state GOP.

But here is the extreme Belling -- in a desperate attempt to back a winner -- trying to jump into bed with the moderate Thompson. This can only get more interesting if Thompson actually does announce his candidacy.

UPDATE: Sykes takes issue with the stance of his comrade-in-arms on Thompson. Like I said, this can only get more interesting if Thompson really goes through with it.

Leasing Mitchell International Airport

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has an article today about an idea being floated around by some County supervisors to lease out Mitchell International Airport.

It's actually not a bad idea, as long as real oversight is maintained by the County to protect the integrity of the surrounding neighborhood and the public employees who work at the airport.

Considering the airport is actually a money-maker for the County right now, the move would be to make more money. According to the 2006 County budget, the total airport budget had a $415,488 surplus in 2005 and there are projections for another surplus in 2006.

This surplus includes both Timmerman and Mitchell. But since it appears Timmerman is actually a bit of a drag on the budget, to the tune of $216,965 in 2005, the excess money comes entirely from Mitchell.

Leasing out Mitchell could draw in millions each year for the County, so the difference is significant. An estimate from the conservative think tank Wisconsin Policy Research Institute over a decade ago put the annual lease payments at $8 million -- undoutedly they'd be higher today. The City of Chicago currently rakes in $1.8 billion per year by leasing out the Skyway toll bridge.

As a progressive Dem, I certainly don't look to privatizing as a cure-all or even a desired outcome. But as a resident of the County, I also think it's important to be pragmatic and consider every reasonable option to maintain the solvency of the County's finances. Difficult decisons need to be made when forging public policy in tough fiscal times -- leasing Mitchell International Airport may be one of them.

Tommy Talk

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is fronting another story today on Tommy Thompson's political future. The big news in this one is that Tommy might make an announcement as early as this Sunday.

Side-Note: I imagine the thought of the big announcement coming on "Sunday Insight" makes Sykes drool. But considering it's pretty clear Sykes and the part of the state GOP he represents don't want to see Thompson run, I doubt that would happen.

The fact that Tommy doesn't like Doyle inhabiting the governor's mansion has received a lot of play in the discussions of a potential Thompson gubernatorial bid. So has Tommy's insatiable appetite for the public spotlight.

But what hasn't been discussed too much as a reason for Thompson to run is Mark Green. If Thompson was confident that Green would beat Doyle and take the state in the direction Tommy approves, it would seem to negate Thompson's concerns about Doyle as governor.

When asked by the JS whether he thinks Green can beat Doyle, Thompson responded: "I hope he can."

Compare that with Tommy's perception of a race between himself and Doyle: "I know I can win. I know without a doubt. If I run, I win. I have no doubt in my mind about that."

If Tommy's love for Wisconsin is as real as he makes out, it may be too difficult to choose hope over a sure thing.

It's unfortunate the JS didn't ask Thompson about his perceptions of Green as governor. I imagine we'd get a stock party answer, something about how he has great confidence in Green as a leader of the state, but it's still a question worth considering. Not all Republicans are alike, and based on what Green has so far made his campaign mostly about -- slashing government revenues at all costs -- it seems Green and Tommy are not in the same conservative boat.

It's doubtful that Thompson would run for either the US Senate or the presidency. He would have a tough and expensive battle with Kohl, while he would almost surely lose a presidential bid.

And if there's anything that Thompson doesn't want to do, it's lose.

UPDATE: For more Tommy talk, see here and here.

LATE UPDATE: Playground Politics offers an interesting theory that a Tommy gubernatorial run now might be intended to set-up a Tommy presidential bid later.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

How Do You Define Surveillance?

If you're Webster: "Close watch kept over someone or something."

If Webster's right, then you might be in a lot of trouble if you're Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Here is the testimony Gonzales gave while under oath about a month ago to the House Judiciary Committee:


NADLER: Number two,
can you assure us that there is no warrantless surveillance of calls between two Americans within the United States?

GONZALES: That is not what the president has authorized.

NADLER: Can you assure us that it's not being done?

GONZALES: As I indicated in response to an earlier question, no technology is perfect.


GONZALES: We do have minimization procedures in place...

NADLER: But you're not doing that deliberately?

GONZALES: That is correct.


I've already noted the USA Today story from today that claims not only has the NSA been keep track of phone calls between two Americans on domestic soil, it's been watching just about all of them.

As the USA Today explains in a Q&A section on the recently-revealed NSA tracking program:


Q: Does the NSA's domestic program mean that my calling records have been secretly collected?

A: In all likelihood, yes. The NSA collected the records of billions of domestic calls. Those include calls from home phones and wireless phones.


Something tells me that Tony Snow is going to be regretting his latest career move real soon.

Harvard Study on Medical Malpractice

Researchers at Harvard University published the results of a medical malpractice study in this week's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Here are some of the results:
  • Out of the 1452 medical malpractice claims studied, 63% involved medical error while 37% did not involve any medical error
  • Out of the 63% of claims that did involve medical error, 27% did not result in a monetary award (16% of total)
  • Out of the 37% of claims that did not involve medical error, 28% did result in a monetary award (10% of total)
  • Awards for non-medical error claims averaged 40% less in monetary compensation than claims that involved medical error
  • Claims involving medical error accounted for about 85% of the entire system cost
  • 97% of the claims studied were a result of a medical procedure that led to some injury to the patient
  • 65% of the claims studied were a result of a medical prodedure that led to significant physical injury or death
Overall, the results of the study show that the medical malpractice system in the US works well, although there is room for improvement. Too many patients who file a claim after being harmed as a result of medical error are denied compensation (16%), while too many patients who were harmed without medical error are given compensation (10%).

But it is pretty clear from the study that if a major award is given out, it's highly likely it's justified.

Qwest: The Lone Hold-Out

It's recently become known that the NSA has been secretly compiling the largest list of phone records in history.

Here's the explanation from a USA Today article: "The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans - most of whom aren't suspected of any crime."

Out of the four big telecommunications companies, three agreed to provide the caller information to the NSA: AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth. The fourth, Qwest, was the only one to refuse.

Here is what the USA Today article had to say about the refusal:


Unable to get comfortable with what NSA was proposing, Qwest's lawyers asked NSA to take its proposal to the FISA court. According to the sources, the agency refused.

The NSA's explanation did little to satisfy Qwest's lawyers. "They told (Qwest) they didn't want to do that because FISA might not agree with them," one person recalled. For similar reasons, this person said, NSA rejected Qwest's suggestion of getting a letter of authorization from the U.S. attorney general's office. A second person confirmed this version of events.


Why would the FISA court -- which has only rejected 4 out of over 20,000 applications to come before it since it was established in 1979 -- deny the NSA's request for a court order?

Just a hunch here, but maybe it's because the program is unconstitutional.

Trading Places

Apparently we can't have two former state legislative leaders in jail at the same time.

Chuck Chvala is expected to get out of jail on May 15. Scott Jensen is expected to be sentenced to jail on May 16.

This is too bad. I think putting the two in the same cell would've made a perfect reality TV show.

Shocking News: Executive Branch Won't Check Itself

Big surprise out of Washington. The Department of Justice is ending its inquiry into the secret NSA wiretapping program.

When the DOJ approached the NSA about getting access to information on the program, the NSA flat out denied the request.

Who would've thought a branch of the government couldn't be trusted to adequately check itself?

Oh, right, it was the founders of the nation.

If only another branch was actually willing to take up the task.

A Return to the Cold War?

Here's the title of an article appearing in the LA Times today: "Russia Aims to Counter U.S. With Bigger Arsenal."

The rest of the article talks about how tough talk from Putin is nothing new. Much of it is in response to US criticism of Putin's questionable record on democracy.

In his speech, Putin also addressed the declining Russian population. He talked about even giving women $10,000 to have a second child.

How completely undemocratic.

In a true democracy, you pay off everyone as a substitute for actual policy.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Health Care Biggest Issue Facing Wisconsin Businesses

Paul Soglin has a great post that dissects a poll taken by the business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC) of its members. Paul takes special note of the disconnect between what members view as the biggest problem spot for Wisconsin and what they actually view as the biggest issue for themselves.

What jumped out at me, in addition to the disconnect Paul points out, is what appears as the #1 issue facing WMC members: health care costs.

It will be interesting to see whether WMC, the biggest spending lobby group in the state, gets behind one of the health care proposals currently before the state legislature as strongly as it backed TABOR.

The one with the most promise, in my view, was proposed by Sen. Russ Decker (D-Schofield) and Rep. Terry Musser (R-Black River Falls) a couple weeks ago. It would save businesses in Wisconsin millions.

So far, though, nothing but crickets chirping out of the WMC corner on any of the comprehensive health care reform packages currently before the legislature. Talk about a disconnect.

Tax Cut for the 0.02%

Here is what Americans can expect from the tax cut plan that's being pushed through Congress this week:

Middle-Income Americans: $20 extra per year

Richest 0.02% of Americans: $42,000 extra per year

Sounds fair, right?

UPDATE: Here's a handy chart from the Washington Post that breaks down the savings per income level:

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Case for Michael Hayden as CIA Director

Everyone seems to be all over Michael Hayden for his role in the secret NSA wiretapping program and the fact that he's a military figure pegged to head a top civilian agency.

While there's no debating the charge about Hayden's troubling participation in the illegal NSA wiretapping program, foreign policy guru Steve Clemons has been making a strong case over the past couple days for why Hayden's nomination for CIA director is actually a good thing.

Clemons argues that Hayden's military credentials do not mean he's a Rumsfeld lacky. As Clemons wrote yesterday:


Hayden going to head CIA is John Negroponte's effort to wrest some of the ground back from Rumsfeld in the intelligence wars underway. Hayden directed the National Security Agency before joining Negroponte as his Deputy. Hayden will still report to Negroponte -- and Hayden's familiary and expertise with the military dimensions of intelligence will help Negroponte set Rumsfeld back a few squares.


Clemons goes on to discuss how Rummy has been making more and more headway into intelligence affairs, much to the dismay of Negroponte and other civilian officials.

And rather than further the Pentagon's influence, the well-respected Hayden -- who currently works as Negroponte's deputy -- would serve as a firm counterweight to the inroads made by Rummy and the Pentagon into the intelligence world that was previously CIA territory.

In another post today, Clemons links to an alarming article from last month that demonstrates exactly the type of headway the Department of Defense has made thus far into the intel sector.

On April 3, Rummy directed the establishment of intelligence operations centers at two different DOD locations -- one in the US and one in Korea. These centers essentially take the operational intelligence tasks out of the hands of the CIA and put them under the Pentagon's direct control.

If Hayden can indeed help to counteract this trend, then perhaps he would be a strong pick as CIA director. At the very least, he deserves serious consideration.

As Clemons concludes: "[Congress needs] to wake up, study the gaming going on, and understand that while they may not like Hayden -- something needs to be done to balance the deck between Negroponte and Rumsfeld."

We should all do the same.

Insolvency or Bust?: Starting the Case for an Even-Handed Approach in Milwaukee County

Here is a handy chart provided in the George Lightbourn piece on the Milwaukee County budget from yesterday:

(Click image for bigger view.)

It’s pretty clear there’s a big problem looming in Milwaukee County. And, according to Lightbourn, the only way out is to bring in an unelected oversight board to effectively dismantle and restructure the county government.

He writes that such a board needs to “restructure staffing, cut spending, install financial controls, manage the county’s finances until deficits are eliminated, and develop a long-term plan for fiscal solvency.”

In other words, we should do everything possible to make the cost line in the chart above as flat as the revenue line.

And county executive Scott Walker agrees with this approach. He’s prepared to announce every cutback and outsourcing proposal under the sun over the course of this summer, but he stands by his guns to do nothing to significantly raise county revenues.

To be fair, Lightbourn does consider in his article how much revenue would need to be raised in order meet the worst-case scenario budget deficit projections. These are what he calls “alternative” solutions to his unelected board proposal.

But Lightbourn greatly short-changes the alternative solutions. Specifically, he examines an increase in property taxes separate from an increase in sales taxes. Additionally, he considers all forms of increasing revenue separately from cuts.

In essence, he basically sets-up a straw-man argument. Of course raising property taxes alone, or raising sales taxes alone, or simply making more cuts alone will not be enough -- but when put them together they sure can make the looming crisis look a lot more workable.

So instead of trying to flat-line expenditures, and subsequently services, to match the flat-lining revenue, the best approach is to find a way for the two to meet somewhere in the middle.

As much as proposals to solve the budget situation in Milwaukee County follow this approach, my support is behind them. But anything that considers affecting only one of the two lines in the chart above is, in my view, dead in the water.