Friday, June 30, 2006

Rediscovering Liberalism in What's Really Important

The following chart comes from a recent survey completed by the Pew Research Center:

Democrat Top Three
1. Health Care
2. Education
3. Economy

Democrat Bottom Three
1. Gay marriage
2. Ending inheritance tax
3. Abortion


Republican Top Three
1. Terrorism
2. Economy
3. Education

Republican Bottom Three
1. Global warming
2. Environment
3. Government surveillance programs


Independent Top Three
1. Education
2. Health Care
3. Economy

Independent Bottom Three
1. Gay marriage
2. Abortion
3. Flag burning amendment

With the exception of terrorism, the other issues of high importance to voters this fall are hardly getting any meaningful coverage in the media and mainstream public discourse.

Conversely, lots of talk time is going to issues like flag burning, gay marriage, and ending the inheritance tax, which appear on the bottom of the importance list for most voters.

Part of this can be explained by the fact that Republicans control the federal government and merely raising issues in the form of constitutional amendments or legislative bills can set off a media firestorm on them. It's an all-out effort aimed at distraction in an election year where approval numbers for the top Republican in the country are at horribly low levels and the public is becoming increasingly aware of what little has been done on the domestic front to help the middle and lower classes over the past six years.

But it can't all be blamed on the GOP. After all, Dems have been doing backflips trying to find a position on Iraq that appeals to both each other and the public at large. Granted, formulating a position is necessary, but in doing so they have essentially handed the terms of the election year debate over to Republicans (in essence, the issue over Iraq is simple: Dems are for change, Repubs are for more of the same).

As long as the Dems are simply reacting to news rather than creating it they will continue to have no meaningful agenda.

And while it's tough to step out of the wave of pointless legislation coming out of the GOP distraction machine recently, the sooner the Dems start tackling the issues that are actually important to voters -- health care, education, and the economy -- the sooner they will be able to re-discover what liberalism is all about.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

High Cost of US Health Care is Even Higher in Milwaukee

For those who want to see hard cold evidence that points to why health care costs so much, the Greater Milwaukee Business Foundation on Health has released a report that details a number of factors -- highlighted most prominently, though, is the lack of payer purchasing power in the current market.

For those who like their evidence more distilled and anecdotal, there's this line spoken by a rep for the biggest provider in Wisconsin, Aurora Health Care, to a rep for one of the biggest payers in the state, WPS: "You need us more than we need you."

Traditional market theory tells us that as long as there's a choice of providers in an area, costs will be controlled for consumers because they will naturally choose the providers who are most cost effective for their needs.

It isn't quite so simple, however, for the health care market. People usually aren't able or willing to "shop around" for care, partly because of the geographic disbursement of providers and partly because those lucky enough to be in insurance plans are often locked into specific provider systems.

Plus, the health care system works on a highly uneven cost scale. People who have insurance are granted discounted rates of care (usually around 23% for private insurance) because they have the means to negotiate collectively while those without coverage get "regular" rates that are often through the roof in terms of cost.

And as an individual faced with a need for care, what is someone supposed to do when told by a health care provider that this is the cost of care -- say, "Ah, I hear the hospital down the street is having a sale. Are you willing to honor a competitor's coupon? If not, you can take that IV out now because I'm not staying."

The key to controlling costs in the health care market is to pool people into plans, and the more people in a particular insurance plan, the more negotiating power they possess. Just look at the success the state health insurance plan had in negotiating discounted prescription drug rates with pharmaceutical companies because of the massive purchasing power it brought to the table. The state health insurance plan is now being touted as a model for the rest of the country because of its ability to lower costs.

The report by the Greater Milwaukee Business Foundation on Health asserts that this is a complex problem that doesn't afford a simple solution. Agreed. But it seems a great place to start is by consolidating the number of payers in the system.

Such a move would have two big benefits.

One, it would increase the purchasing power of those participating in the payer's system by increasing the number of people who are a part of it. Right now in the Milwaukee market the providers hold all the cards because there are a few of them and lots of payers. If the payers don't bend to the provider's demands in discount negotiations, they've got nothing. Consolidating the number of available payers would effectively even the playing field by not making it so easy for providers to dismiss payer requests.

Two, reducing the number of payers in the system would decrease the administrative overhead associated with handling paperwork for the hundreds of plans that currently saturate the market. I've written before about a doctor who runs a private practice in Illinois (and also writes for the Wall Street Journal) who needs to employ four administrative assistants just to deal with the over 300 insurance plans patients bring to the table. That's cost that is being transferred directly into the price of care. In fact, estimates put administrative costs in the US at nearly 1/3 of the total cost for health care in the US. Under a consolidated payer system, those costs could be turned into savings.

Something needs to be done about the cost of health care in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the US as a whole. Costs are a burden for private business and government alike.

Without question, the rising cost of care is a significant contributing factor to the fiscal crisis facing Milwaukee County. It also helps explain why the number of uninsured in Wisconsin is increasing to the tune of 50,000 people each year as employers can no longer afford coverage for their employees, and many more people are forced to go underinsured in light of the increasing costs.

There are options for reform. I've discussed before the three proposals currently before the state legislature (see here, here, and here for more info on them). But there isn't a need to wait for the entire state to take action. The Milwaukee area can start to initiate changes in the area's health care system by itself, following the lead of San Francisco, which is moving toward universal access to care for all residents within the city limits.

And the public wants it, too. A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that health care reform is personally important to 95% of the country (79% responded that it's "very" important and 16% listed it as "somewhat" important).

The need is there, the desire is there, and the ability is there. So what's the hold up?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Pentagon Apologizes for Classifying Homosexuality as a Mental Disorder

It's a good first step.

Now on to reversing and apologizing for a discriminatory policy that has kept over 11,000 willing Americans from serving their country in the military over the past 12 years.


Side-Note: I wrote more about the Pentagon's classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder here.

Missing the Mark on Reciprocity

Rep. Frank Lasee (R-Bellevue) has an op-ed up today at WisOpinion on the Wisconsin-Minnesota reciprocity agreement that allows Wisconsin students to attend Minnesota public universities at a pre-approved tuition rate and vice versa.

Lasee takes issue with the agreement on a couple of fronts.

First, he argues that Wisconsin does a good job of keeping our native UW grads, but 90% of the Minnesota reciprocity students leave the state after graduation.

Most people would probably expect this, but then here comes Lasee's intuition into the mix: "I am guessing that Wisconsin reciprocity kids are more likely to stay in Minnesota after graduating or go to another state. Wisconsin is getting the short end of the stick."

Huh? Nothing like a firm conclusion constructed on a complete guess.

Since Lasee admits UW students in general are as likely to remain in Wisconsin after graduation as Minnesota grads are to remain in Minnesota, I can't imagine what would give him the impression that Minnesota has a better hold on grad retention when it comes to reciprocity students than Wisconsin.

(As it happens, it's really tough for universities to keep accurate track of their graduates in general, let alone those from a specific program. Newly-minted grads often don't leave forwarding addresses after they turn their tassel -- and a good number bounce around between locales quite a bit in the initial years out of college.)

On the second front, Lasee argues that reciprocity should be limited or even ended because Wisconsin gets about 3,000 more students each year in the deal than it sends out, which means spots are being taken from in-state students who are more deserving or out-of-state students who pay more in tuition. (The 3,000 more also speaks to the high quality of a UW education.)

What Lasee ignores is that reciprocity students face the same admission requirements as in-state and out-of-state students -- in fact, for the purposes of admission, they're considered out-of-state students. Preferential treatment is not given to out-of-state students whether they participate in the reciprocity agreement or not, and the same is true for the thousands of Wisconsin students who head to college in Minnesota each year under the agreement.

Also, any qualified Wisconsin student who wants to attend a UW campus can find a spot in the system. Sometimes students don't get admitted to their first or even second choice -- although the reason for this can hardly be tagged on 3,000 reciprocity students who make up 2% of the total system population -- but there is always something available. In short, reciprocity students are not keeping any Wisconsin students out of the UW System.

And, what's more, those 3,000 "extra" reciprocity students pay between $400 and $1500 more per academic year (depending on the campus) in full-time tuition than in-state students, which translates into over $2 million extra for the UW System each year. In all, the reciprocity agreement adds over $9 million annually to the UW coffers.

Granted, out-of-state students pay even more, but the likelihood is slim that the number of Minnesota students at UW campuses would remain even close to what it is now if the reciprocity agreement was ended.

Since out-of-state tuition at UW campuses is currently higher than the vast majority of peer universities in neighboring states (see here, pages 22-24), there's little financial motive for non-residents to attend college in Wisconsin. To be sure, the UW System attracts around 2,000 more Minnesota students through the reciprocity agreement each year than it does from all of the other 48 states combined.

Perhaps worst of all, if reciprocity was eliminated it would limit the affordable university options for Wisconsin students, over 9,000 of whom attend Minnesota universities under the current reciprocity agreement each year.

A Democratic Revolution in 2006?

The pundits seem to think the Dems will pick up congressional seats during the mid-term elections this fall, but most don't feel there will be a major changing of the guard in the House or Senate.

Interestingly, though, they said the same thing about the Republicans in 1994.

While it was commonly thought the GOP would pick up some seats in light of ethics charges waged against some Democratic House members and low approval numbers for President Clinton (averaging in the mid-40s, which seems astronomical compared to Bush), few predicted the 8-seat swing in the Senate and the 54-seat swing in the House that occurred that year.

But the similarities between 1994 and 2006 don't stop there.

The Pew Research Center recently completed a survey that showed 46% of Democrats are more enthusiastic about voting this year than usual, while only 30% of Republicans feel the same. When Pew asked voters that same question prior to the election in 1994, the results were 30% for Democrats and 45% for Republicans.

And when asked in 1994 whether they would like to see most congressional members reelected that year, 56% of respondents said "no." That number dropped to 30% in 1998 and 37% in 2002, but this year it's back up to 57%.

The big question remains, however, whether the Dems will be able to forge an agenda that has the rhetorical power of Newt's "Contract with America" (which fell flat legislatively).

Right now, based on the results of the Pew survey, the Dems are only exciting their ranks against Bush and the GOP rather than for a Democratic agenda. Notably, only 50% of Democrats responding to the survey approved of their party's leadership while the GOP leadership garnered a 58% approval rating from its ranks.

If the Dem leadership is looking for a hint about what voters view as important this election year, the Pew survey provides them some answers. The top three responses for what issues are personally "very important" to respondents were, in order, education (82%), the economy (80%), and health care (79%). Gay marriage, conversely, was dead last at 34%.

So there you have it, Dems -- it's time to get to it.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Surgeon General Backs Smoke-Free Workplaces

In a long-awaited report released today, the top doc in the country firmly concluded that there are no safe levels of secondhand smoke.

Other important findings in the report:
  • Around 3,400 nonsmoking Americans die from secondhand smoke-related ailments each year
  • Children exposed to secondhand smoke are at an increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome, acute respiratory infections, ear problems, and more severe asthma
  • More than 50 carcinogens exist in secondhand smoke
  • Simply designating smoking rooms and/or installing ventilation systems do not prevent exposure to secondhand smoke
  • There's strong evidence that comprehensive smoking bans don't have any negative economic impact
  • Even a brief walk through some else's smoke can increase the risk of ailments such as heart disease
  • Living with a smoker increases a nonsmoker's risk of heart disease and lung cancer by 30%
  • Evidence suggests a link between secondhand smoke and breast cancer
A handful of Wisconsin communities have some form of a smoking ban, including Madison, Appleton, La Crosse, River Falls, Eau Claire, Neenah, Fond du Lac, Middleton, Janesville, and Kenosha. Other communities such as Wauwatosa have followed suit in recent years. The Tosa ban -- which provides exemptions for establishments with at least 51% in alcohol sales, as do others -- starts this Saturday and is the first of its kind in Milwaukee County.

Many of these community bans, unfortunately, aren't comprehensive enough to meet the standards laid out in the Surgeon General report that was made public today.

The state of Wisconsin puts some restrictions on smoking in places such as medical facilities and movie theaters, as do other states, but no comprehensive ban exists (14 states currently have a comprehensive ban in place). This past state legislative session saw two different smoking ban proposals, one from the Dems and one from the GOP.

The GOP proposal allowed establishments to allow smoking in the bar area while prohibiting it in dining areas, which runs contrary to the Surgeon General's findings that such separation doesn't work.

Even more ominous in the GOP bill, championed by Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), was the requirement that local ordinances could not run contrary to the guidelines in the state bill. In other words, the bill would've effectively ended the bans in Madison, Appleton, Tosa and other Wisconsin communities.

While that bill passed the Assembly this past session, it failed in the Senate.

The Dem proposal, made by Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison), bans smoking in every location determined to be "a place of employment," with a few exceptions. Despite support from a couple Republican state senators and one Republican member of the Assembly, this bill went nowhere in the GOP-controlled legislature this past session.

Hopefully the long anticipated report from the Surgeon General will reinvigorate the debate in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

CNN covers the release of the Surgeon General report here.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Role Reversal

"Everyone's complaining about people moving out of Milwaukee County. Duh. If you keep cutting back programs, how long do you think people are going to stay?"

- County resident Darlene Guehlstorf, commenting on Scott Walker's plan to cut aide to the paramedic program

In a time when the reverse (i.e., program costs are driving residents out) seems to be held by many as an undeniable truth, Guehlstorf's words are all that much more needed and prescient.

Green Weak on Signature Issue

A Journal-Sentinel article today demonstrates clearly just how wanting Mark Green's campaign is in the message department.

The whole article centers on how vague Green is regarding the state budget, which is at the heart of his campaign's focus on public revenue in Wisconsin. The only aspect of Green's plan that is defined, the article notes, is his pledge to not recommend any increase in taxes.


Of course, Green is still pushing for a constitutional amendment to restrict public revenue in the state, but -- as the article points out -- that measure couldn't even pass the Republican-controlled legislature this year. And while the governor can provide leadership and arm-twisting on such an issue, actually passing it is completely up to the state legislature.

Another undefined idea out of the Green camp includes further usurping local control by mandating that property tax levy increases don't surpass the rate of inflation plus population growth. A property tax cap was already signed into law by Doyle, but it seems likely Green's plan would be harsher for local communities by forcing them to include debt payments in the levy limits and not exempting the state technical colleges (these were the two major differences between Doyle's freeze and the one pushed by the GOP-controlled state legislature last summer).

Green and the state's Republican Party have been doing everything in their power to keep the conviction of Georgia Thompson on the front page, but that now desperate campaign is loosing steam as the prosecution chooses not to charge anyone else in the case.

What Green has been unable to do thus far is criticize Doyle and simultaneously demonstrate how choosing him as governor would better the state.

Meanwhile, press coverage around the state for Doyle over the past week has included positive columns and editorials on his health care initiative, BadgerCare Plus, (see here, here, and here) and embryonic stem cell research (see here).

And now today we have the biggest newspaper in the state opting to do an article on Green's signature issue and he comes up with vagueness and recycled (and rejected) proposals. This article in the JS was the definition of a media softball lob, and the Green Team swung and missed (and it's not the first strike).

It appears Green is still struggling with his message less than one week after the right-wing Wisconsin Policy Research Institute released the results of a survey that left much to be desired in the area of name recognition (only 45% knew him) and voter approval (only 26% support him).

And all this with the election clock ticking down at just over four months.

UPDATE: Xoff has more on the JS story.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Milwaukee Ramblings

While I'm highlighting new initiatives today, I thought I'd also point out a new blog by Kevin Ryan called Milwaukee Ramblings.

The name Kevin Ryan is actually a pseudonym. The person who writes the blog has firsthand experience with the Milwaukee County budget and prefers his opinions remain anonymous.

I should also note that the writing at Milwaukee Ramblings has a conservative slant to it, which is different -- of course -- than this blog. I've had numerous discussions with Kevin about the Milwaukee County budget situation in the comments section on this blog (see here and here for two examples) and over email. I also posted an op-ed he wrote on the topic last month (see here).

In spite of our ideological differences, we've been able to find common ground on some issues facing the budget. My hope by directing readers to his blog is that others will similarly be able to see that common ground does exist on the Milwaukee County budget situation. While there are certainly partisan concerns imbedded in the debate, a solution is in the best interest of both sides of the ideological aisle.

Kevin only has a couple of posts up at this point due to a busy schedule. But I anticipate he'll have commentary out whenever something significant happens in the Milwaukee County budget debate, so be sure to check out Milwaukee Ramblings on occasion to see what he has to say about it.

The Broad and Worthy Aim of One Wisconsin Now

I want to draw attention to a new Wisconsin organization called One Wisconsin Now (OWN), which is aimed at serving as a grassroots advocacy group and clearinghouse for progressive ideas in the state.

The group’s website can be found here and its blog – penned by our friend from Eye on Wisconsin, Cory Liebmann – is here.

In the front page article on OWN in the Journal-Sentinel today, one quote in particular jumped out at me. According to conservative activist Mike Theo: “If the public truly isn’t as liberal as these organizations are, they can try ‘til hell freezes over to craft a message... but if the public's not there, they’ll always lose.”

This is wrong on a couple of levels.

On a practical level, Wisconsin is not a conservative state. While the GOP currently controls the state legislature, Dems have a hold on the governor’s mansion, the attorney general’s office, both US Senate seats, and 50% of the House delegation. Plus, no Republican presidential candidate has taken Wisconsin since Reagan defeated Mondale over 20 years ago.

More importantly, though, on a theoretical level the political culture in the US has been anything but stagnate over time. Public perceptions are malleable, and I don’t just mean people’s minds can change on a specific issue or candidate – I mean the way the public perceives society and the world as a whole does change over time.

Historians have long held that the power of language and perception is at least on par with the power of physical force. And since the US is not a military state, language and perception take on even greater significance in our political culture.

In his book The Story of American Freedom, historian Eric Foner discusses the various ways the idea of freedom has been conceptualized and re-conceptualized over time in the US, often – but not always – for explicitly political purposes. As the public perception of the idea of freedom changed, so too did the political culture of the country.

And it’s not just specific stump-speech phrases and words like freedom that change over time – more subtle ideas like fairness also have shifted throughout American history. Alice Kessler-Harris, for instance, wrote an award-winning book called In Pursuit of Equity that discusses this very idea. Kessler-Harris traces how public perception of what was considered “fair” shifted over the course of the twentieth century and subsequently helped to create opportunities for women to participate in what the author terms “economic citizenship.”

All of this is my long-winded way of saying that the purpose of One Wisconsin Now is not to simply convince voters to pull the lever for the Dems, but, more broadly than that, to infuse the public with a vision of the world that is decidedly progressive. In other words, the notion that the public might not be “as liberal as these organizations are,” in the words of Mike Theo, is tangential to the overall task at hand (although, as it happens, a public that consistently votes in favor of Russ Feingold is plenty progressive).

And this is hardly an insidious endeavor – just ask the Republican establishment, which has been chasing this same goal for decades with a host of think tanks and advocacy groups (which have really become one-in-the-same in recent decades) along with a handle on various strands of the media. The goal of the movement wasn’t to necessarily elect a candidate that year, but rather to alter the perception of the public to a view of the world that was decidedly conservative.

Indeed, what better state to lead a similar charge for instilling progressive ideas into the public mindset than Wisconsin.

UPDATE: Xoff has more on the formation of One Wisconsin Now.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Insurance Coverage for Raising Christ

This one takes the cake -- it doesn't matter which cake, it takes it.

A report at BBC News today discusses a request made by three women in the UK to have insurance to cover expenses in the event that one of them immaculately conceives the second coming of Christ.

As the director of the insurance company explained: "The people were concerned about having sufficient funds if they immaculately conceived. It was for caring and bringing up the Christ."

Yes, you read that right.

But what's really amazing is that back in 2000, their request was actually approved by the insurance company, which in turn took a policy out on them. Recently, though, amidst outrage from some people, including officials from the Catholic Church, the insurance company removed the policy.

How do you like that? You come back to save the world from eternal damnation and your virgin mom can't even get insurance to cover the expenses.

(Story via Andrew Sullivan.)

Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Opposes Marriage Ban

The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC), a nonpartisan group focused on strengthening democracy in the state, has come out in strong opposition to the proposed constitutional ban on marriage and civil unions.

According to a WDC statement: "The effort to ban gay marriage and civil unions by amending the state Constitution does serious harm to the principles and institutions of democracy in Wisconsin, disrespects and disregards essential checks and balances in the policymaking process, and misuses the Constitution for purposes that are neither legitimate nor in keeping with the intentions of the Constitution’s framers."

This is an important statement because it adds an element to the debate that isn't getting much focus -- the democratic ethics of the state. Much of the emphasis thus far has been on how the ban is personally discriminatory toward non-married couples, which is certainly a justifiable concern.

But as the WDC points out, there are also consequences of institutionalizing discrimination that tear at the very fabric of our civic nature. Regardless of your personal sexual orientation, politics, or belief system, that is something that should concern all members of our society.

To show your support for defeating the ban, consider donating $30 to Fair Wisconsin by the end of this month as part of the group's "$30 by June 30th" drive (explained here).

If you don't have any funds to contribute, simply taking the time to talk to others about the negative impact of the ban between now and November is a significant and welcome sign of support.

And, of course, voting against the ban when the time comes also helps.

Where Does Mark Green Stand on Health Care?

Governor Doyle is criss-crossing the state to talk up his BadgerCare Plus proposal that would provide health care coverage to all children and many others in Wisconsin and also reduce administrative costs of state-sponsored health care programs to the tune of $20 million per year.

But where is Mark Green on the issue of health care reform in Wisconsin?

While Wisconsin is one of the better states in the country in terms of ensuring residents have access to health care, there are still cracks in the system that will only get bigger if they're not handled soon.

A recent Department of Health and Family Services (DHFS) report (see page 10) showed that at the end of 2004, approximately 377,000 Wisconsinites had no health care coverage, including around 55,000 children. And perhaps more alarming is that the number is increasing from year to year. For instance, the number of people uninsured for the entire year increased by around 50,000 between 2003 and 2004 alone.

The DHFS report also found (see page 15) that a significant number of people are under-insured in Wisconsin. Out of those people who had employer-sponsored insurance in 2004, for example, 19% had only some of their preventive care services covered while 3% had none of those services covered.

Businesses in Wisconsin are also looking for health care relief. According to a recent Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce survey, health care costs were tagged as the number one concern of member companies, receiving 82% more votes than taxes.

According to an article in the Racine Journal Times today, Mark Green supports "private sector solutions" for health care in Wisconsin.

That really doesn't give us much information, and neither does a search of other newspaper sources. A LexisNexis search for "Mark Green" and "health care" in Wisconsin newspapers over the past year turns up 18 unique articles and not one of them discusses a plan for health care that Green has proposed or even discussed.

His campaign's "Green Sheet" is equally unhelpful. In all of the issues on his campaign website, which date back to May 10, 2005, health care is rarely mentioned and not once is an actual proposal outlined or even remotely discussed.

That leaves us with Green's campaign website, which features a section on health care.

Outlined on the site are traditional GOP responses to health care, featuring Health Savings Accounts and caps on medical malpractice awards. HSAs essentially shift health costs from employers to employees (see here and here), and the most that can be done with them in Wisconsin is allow people to use the funds as a state tax write off -- hardly the makings of significant reform.

Regarding medical liability, Wisconsin already has a law capping malpractice awards, which -- considering the health care issues currently facing the state -- demonstrates they do nothing to help the uninsured or keep overall health care costs down (see here and here for more).

Two other topics discussed on the site are a Co-op Care Program and Association Health Plans. Interestingly, the Co-op Care Program in Wisconsin was signed into law in March by Governor Doyle. And Association Health Plans are part of a federal bill (which Green didn't cosponsor but did vote for) that's currently making its way through Congress -- a bill that, unfortunately, reduces health benefits and coverage for employees and has the added effect of actually increasing costs, according to Congressional Budget Office and actuarial reports.

All in all, the little that can be found pertaining to Green's stance on health care reform is mostly in existence and the rest is narrow or undefined.

So what exactly does Mark Green propose for Wisconsin's health care system?

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Embryonic Stem Cell Breakthrough

Using embryonic stem cells, researchers at Johns Hopkins University were able to re-grow the circuitry necessary to move a muscle.

The breakthrough involved injecting treated embryonic stem cells into adult rats suffering from paralysis, allowing the rats to gain significant movement in their previously paralyzed limbs.

As Dr. Naomi Keitman of the National Institute of Health notes, "They did something that people have been trying to do for at least 30 years and literally hit a brick wall until now."

The next step is to move the research on to pigs. It will take years before the treatments can be used on humans, but with the help of embryonic stem cells the process has begun.

When applied to humans, it's expected the research will tackle host of impairments including ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injuries, and may even help patients with Parkinson's or Huntington's disease.

Embryonic stem cell research, of course, is heating up to be a major issue this election year in Wisconsin with Governor Doyle strongly in support of it and Mark Green opposed. News like this is surely not good for the Republican side of the ticket.

Walker Has Change of Heart on Fully Funding Pensions

In 2006, the Milwaukee County pension system needed $46 million and it got $27 million.

In 2007, the Milwaukee County pension system needs $59 million and it looks like it'll get it all.

What's changed?

Last year it seemed to be no problem to underfund the pension system by a cool $19 million. And, what's more, County Executive Scott Walker's initial budget proposal last year actually suggested underfunding the system by $27 million, bringing the total funding down to $19 million, but the County Board added $8 million to the allocation.

In the end, the final county budget allocated $8 million more for pensions in 2005 ($35 million) than it did in 2006 ($27 million) -- so not only was the system underfunded last year, it was allocated 23% less funding than the previous year.

Of course, by underfunding the pension system Walker was just increasing the size of the liability in the long run, but it was evidently necessary at the time -- as the budget explains -- "to facilitate a debate within the county over the future of the [Employee Retirement System]."

A more logical explanation for Walker's underfunding last year was that he was a candidate for governor at the time and it was imperative for his campaign pitch that he propose budgets that included no increase in revenue. It was a major selling point of the campaign, and something he didn't hesitate to highlight at every opportunity.

Of course, Walker could've bit the bullet last year and either increased revenues or demanded major service cuts -- the latter is what he's doing this year -- in order to fully fund the pension system. And while he certainly did advocate for some cuts, it wasn't nearly on the level that he's pushing this year.

Indeed, just as increased taxes don't look good for a candidate for higher office, neither does slashing public services.

But since Walker is not a candidate this year, he evidently doesn't feel compelled to hold back on his quest for major cuts. Fully funding the $59 million request for the pension system this year no longer seems to be an option; as Walker notes, "I think this just shows how serious our financial situation is. I don't have a choice but to fully fund this."

Apparently last year, though, the financial situation of the county wasn't serious enough in Walker's eyes to fully fund the $46 million that was requested for the pension system. In fact, it was comical enough at the time to underfund it by 41% (and initially propose underfunding it by nearly 60%).

As it turns out, fully funding the pension liability this year is the right thing to do -- but it was also the right thing to do last year. In other words, this is a debate we should've been having last year and probably even earlier than that, but it didn't take place.

And underfunding the system last year was not a move to start the debate -- it was a move to delay it.

The Dark Side Recap

For those who didn't see it, the Frontline documentary on the trajectory of the war on terrorism that aired last night was excellent.

There really wasn't any new information presented, but synthesizing everything like they did and allowing the events to be told by the key players from those events was still eye-opening.

The first part of the documentary -- the strategic decisions in the War in Afghanistan -- was definitely the most insightful, perhaps because the focus of the second half -- the escalation to the War in Iraq (which really began on the afternoon of September 11) -- has been run over dozens of times before (something, however, that doesn't make it any less important).

Most powerful was the point that there was a different path than Iraq that was recommended to the president for the war on terror. Essentially this path was to maintain a war on al-Qaeda and not be sidetracked by wars with particular nation-states that had no influence on the terrorist activities of September 11.

And, ironically, the alternative was a path that was championed by the same person who became the willing patsy for the decision to invade Iraq -- George Tenet.

Overall, a highly recommended documentary. It's done re-airing for now, but Frontline will be putting the entire program online starting tomorrow. You can see that here.

If nothing else, just take the time to watch some of the first segments.

To see and hear the CIA operatives who were on the ground in Afghanistan less than a month after September 11 tell their story about Rumsfeld's unwillingness to put troops on the ground until he was in charge and his refusal to provide the troops necessary to seal off escape routes for al-Qaeda forces (including Osama bin Laden) at Tora Bora is both astonishing and tragic.

Since that decision was made in the eastern mountains of Afghanistan back in December 2001, it seems to have been all downhill for the war on terror.

UPDATE: YouTube also has the entire Frontline program (in segments) posted here.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Dark Side

This is the title of a Frontline documentary that's airing on PBS tonight at 8:00pm.

I bet if you think about it enough, you'll figure out the main character.

Not the Darth Vader. Not even the Evil Emperor. Nope, he's far darker than those two.

Yep, you guessed it, Vice President Dick Cheney.

The documentary chronicles the debate in the Bush Administration after September 11 regarding how to execute the war on terror, including the push to invade Iraq. Cheney was leading one side of the debate, while former CIA Director George Tenet was at the forefront of the other.

Now, five years later, can you guess which side won out?

Check out the documentary tonight. Frontline rarely disappoints.

Wisconsin Party Platforms for 2006

I imagine most people who visit this blog already know where they stand on the ideological spectrum.

But, nonetheless, I thought I'd draw some attention to the platforms of the various state parties this election year:

Democratic Party of Wisconsin

Republican Party of Wisconsin

Wisconsin Green Party

Libertarian Party of Wisconsin

Constitution Party of Wisconsin

For the most part, these platforms are clouded in broad, flowery language and don't discuss actual policies (although the Dem and Repub ones do get more specific at times).

Nevertheless, they're still worth the read for those who don't already know where they stand and want to get to the heart of what all the hub-bub is about this election year.

And for those who want to make sure they're on the correct side of the ideological divide.

What Do Mental Disorders and Homosexuality Have in Common?

Absolutely nothing, if you ask mental health experts -- and they came to that conclusion decades ago. The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973, to be exact.

But evidently the military is a little behind the times. As a recent Pentagon memo explained, the Department of Defense considers homosexuality to be a psychological disability alongside personality disorders and other mental impairments, all of which are deserving of discharge.

Of course, the military has a well-known "don't ask, don't tell" policy that has governed its actions against gay and lesbian soldiers since 1993. And it's a policy that doesn't go to waste. In the past 12 years, over 11,000 soldiers have been discharged under "don't ask, don't tell" -- nearly 1/3 of those have taken place after September 11.

Side-Note: For those scholarly minds out there, Margot Canaday wrote an excellent article in the Journal of American History a few years ago on the impact of preventing gay soldiers from accessing G.I. Bill benefits in the wake of World War II. It's a timely analysis for Wisconsin, which just agreed to grant free UW and state technical college tuition to all state veterans.

The recent Pentagon memo has provided even more proof for critics of "don't ask, don't tell" that the military stance on homosexuality is outdated, baseless, and downright discriminatory.

A typical reaction of the left to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy is to shun it and, subsequently, the military administration that embodies it (not to be confused with the soldiers in the military). This has translated into movements to exclude military recruiters and ROTC offices from university campuses and other areas.

I thought this was a reasonable response to the discriminatory policies of the military -- that is, until I read an article (sub. req.) by Peter Beinart in The New Republic earlier this year. In it Beinart argues convincingly that the best way to infuse the military with more just and fair policies is to reform it from within.

Beinart writes:


Today, ROTC's opponents are no longer politically radical. They're not antimilitary, they insist, they just oppose its "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays and lesbians. They're simply treating the military the same way they treat every other organization that discriminates.

But that's exactly the problem. The military isn't like every other organization: Its members risk their lives to defend the United States. When such an institution discriminates, you can--and should--try to reform it from within. That's what ROTC was designed for. But, when you treat it like a pariah--while still insisting that it protect you--you have broken the contract that binds a democratic military and a democratic people.


It's a good piece of advice.

But, nevertheless, to read that the Pentagon still considers gay and lesbian people to be suffering under a psychological disorder leaves me to shake my head in simultaneous disbelief and disgust.

Change from within definitely needs to come, and it needs to come quickly.

Whether in a time of war or peace -- although, for practical purposes, particularly in a time of war -- people who want to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country should not be denied the opportunity simply because they're unwilling to hide something that should never need to be hidden.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Focus on Doyle Suggests Lack of Message for Green

The blogs at the Journal-Sentinel can be interesting in the way they often provide a glimpse into the politics of reporters who otherwise fashion themselves as "objective" sources (as if such a thing was possible).

This was certainly the case on Friday with a post on the "All Politics" blog by Steven Walters. The post deals with a fundraiser Governor Doyle is evidently holding today at the University Ridge golf course.

Walters starts the post by writing: "From the timing-is-everything department." As it turns out, this isn't correct. It was really from the something-out-of-nothing department.

Walters apparently finds it troubling that Doyle is still trying to raise funds for his campaign one week after a lone civil servant was convicted of manipulating the bidding process for a state contract.

Walters writes: "Sure, the University Ridge golf outing -- a major source of funds for Doyle's re-election campaign -- was organized a long, long time ago. And governors usually turn their birthday parties and similar events into opportunies [sic] to raise huge amounts off cash."

But Walters isn't buying that logical explanation. Apparently the conviction of Georgia Thompson should, in his view, keep Doyle from taking any steps to raise money for his campaign. What's next -- concede the election to Mark Green, perhaps?

As it turns out, many Republicans do seem to be hoping that the Thompson conviction is enough to propel Doyle out of the governor's mansion. Conspicuously absent from the discussion, however, is any talk of their own candidate, Mark Green.

Evidently unable to find suitable talking points that feature any potential upsides of Green, the GOP is trying to level weakly-backed charges against Doyle as their primary election strategy. Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post noted recently that "fundamentally this race will be a referendum on Doyle," and that seems to be a fact the Republicans are trying to nurture.

As Democrats, we know quite well the results of making a major election merely a referendum on the incumbent:

Eventually the GOP is going to need to start talking more about Mark Green if they hope to win the election this fall -- this is especially true considering the relatively low name recognition Green currently has across the state. Just two months ago a WPR/St. Norbert College poll showed that 40% of the state doesn't know Mark Green.

Talking more about Green would mean talking about the actual issues facing Wisconsin and, most importantly, what Green proposes to do about them.

So far the primary issue to come out of the Green camp has been taxes, which by itself is a difficult issue to push because Doyle has held the line on taxes and cut the long-term state deficit in half since being elected four years ago.

Of course, Green could always try to take things a step further with taxes and promise a reduction. And, as it turns out, he did this very thing with his fervent support for the so-called "Taxpayer Protection Amendment" that came up for a legislative vote last month.

Green criss-crossed the state in the weeks leading up to the vote in the hopes of drumming up support for the amendment. Charlie Sykes even went so far as to say Green's support would be enough to turn the tide of the amendment.

Unfortunately for Green, two out of every three legislators in the Republican-controlled Assembly and Senate voted against the amendment, which suggests a good portion of the state isn't on board with writing restrictive fiscal policy into the state constitution.

And the failure of the TPA prompted another radio talker, Mark Belling, to toss Green to the side and throw his support behind the hope that Tommy would make a run for the governor's mansion this fall.

As Belling explained just one month ago: "Many in the Republican base are ambivalent about Green. He seems clueless about how to exploit voter anger over high taxes. His record in Congress included a lot of votes for a lot of spending."

It seems Green better find a message -- and with the election less than five months away, he better find it quick.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Mellowing of Evangelical Christianity

In an op-ed at the Washington Post today, E.J. Dionne discusses the significance of the election of moderate Rev. Frank Page as president of the Southern Baptist Convention earlier this week.

Page defeated two other candidates who were well-known to have close ties to the convention's conservative leadership, which has been dominating the group's direction over the past two decades.

Dionne is quick to point out that this isn't a shift toward liberalism for this group of evangelical Christians, but rather a mellowing of its recent radicalism. As Page points out about his philosophy: "I believe in the word of God. I'm just not mad about it."

But it's the anger that has been largely driving the evangelical movement in the political world since the 1970s. While some evangelicals may take issue with the characterization of the movement as mad, there's no doubting the political side of it has had an "us against them" edge to it (hence, the successful use of that same frame by President Bush on numerous occasions).

Unlike some, I think the evangelical vote had a profound impact on recent electoral politics, particularly the last couple presidential elections. While the majority of Bush voters did not cite social issues as a predominant concern when pulling the lever in '04, it was the segment that did that made the difference. In my view, this was largely a group that wasn't politicized -- or at least not politicized as much -- prior to the growth of groups like the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority.

And mobilizing apathy is the real trick for political movements. Actually changing minds is often a hopeless task, at least in the short-term game of electoral politics. If you can excite the group who already tends to agree with you (at least on certain hot button issues) but doesn't normally care enough to show it, then you've really got something.

That said, it wouldn't take a liberal shift in the evangelical movement in order to defuse the edge the movement has given the GOP in recent years. A mellowing might do the trick.

However you slice the election of the moderate Page, it very well could be a sign of changes to come. The next couple of elections will tell for sure.

Shop Crawl

Pretty soon people will be able to shop their way from Milwaukee to Madison.

If you start in downtown Milwaukee, after taking in the Shops of Grand Avenue, you could head west, taking a brief detour north on Hwy 45 to Mayfair Mall in Wauwatosa.

After experiencing the biggest mall in the state at Mayfair, you'll return to 94 west and hit up Brookfield Square Mall about five miles away.

From there it's on to the shops in Delafield off the Hwy 83 exit near the Amish Barn (formerly of smiley barn fame).

Then it's just a short ride to the newly proposed lifestyle shopping center, also in Delafield -- not to be confused with the newly proposed Pabst Farms Towne Center four miles further west on the interstate in Oconomowoc, which will be your next stop.

Feeling broke, yet? Well, don't fear, your next stop is at the outlet mall in Johnson Creek.

So far you've taken in 7 shopping centers over a 45 mile stretch, which is why it's probably a good thing you have a bit of a drive -- about 30 miles -- to the next full-fledged mall at East Towne in Madison.

But for those who can't just wait, there are plans to build a handful of shops off the Hwy N exit in Cottage Grove. And I bet Lake Mills won't be far behind.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

A Tale of Two Jurors

The GOP is all over the report that two jurors from the Georgia Thompson trial have asserted they think Thompson's actions were based on pressure she received from her superiors.

In an attempt to bolster the legitimacy of the two, the Republican Party keeps asserting that they are in a unique position to pass judgment on the "Why did she do it?" question because they sat through hours of testimony during the trial (as if no one else was in the courtroom).

Yet, interestingly, the "Why did she do it?" question wasn't central to the trial -- even the prosecuting attorney has said that. The trial was about the "Did she do it?" question and that's all. In fact, no direct evidence was presented at trial that demonstrated Thompson was acting under the explicit will of her superiors.

So to say these jurors are uniquely qualified to judge why Thompson did what she did is ridiculous. And to claim they are uniquely qualified because they sat through all of the testimony is even more ridiculous because the testimony they heard wasn't directly aimed at answering the "Why did she do it?" question.

Answering the "why" question wasn't a necessary component of convicting Thompson -- the testimony they heard put them in a unique position to answer the "did" question and that's it.

If other people were involved in wrongdoing, then prosecute them. If not, then let's get on with discussing the numerous substantive issues that are facing Wisconsin this election season.

Can You Tell It's an Election Year?

State Senators Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) and Rob Cowles (R-Allouez) recently asked the Legislative Fiscal Bureau to estimate the state budget picture over the next biennium taking into consideration the projected cost of appropriation commitments under current law and assuming stagnated revenue.

This is actually something the LFB does prior to every biennial budget process to determine how much added revenue is needed to balance the budget in upcoming years.

The requested LFB analysis confirms that such a scenario would result in a state budget deficit -- it always does. What else should be expected when expenditures increase while revenues remain stagnate?

Of course, there's nothing wrong with the LFB engaging in this type of analysis. After all, it's useful to know how much revenue is necessary to satisfy the commitments made in state law prior to starting the budget process.

But this isn't just any year -- it's an election year.

So, not surprisingly, the Green Team has picked up on the news, twisted it, and released a statement decrying Doyle's "shell game" that has supposedly led to a deficit of "nearly $2.6 billion heading into the next budget biennium" -- almost as if the 2007-09 budget process had already taken place.

And the figure Green quotes, $2.6 billion, doesn't even come from the LFB analysis -- it comes from Ellis and Cowles adding on tax breaks for businesses, a rise in public school and health care program aide, and pay raises for state workers (none of which are existing commitments).

Talk about a shell game.

As it turns out, over the next biennium, revenues are expected to increase a total of $1.45 billion -- that's without raising tax rates at all. The long-term deficit predicted by the LFB was actually $1.54 billion, which amounts to a difference of $90 million.

Considering that over the past decade most long-term budget deficits, minus revenue increases, have ranged between $1 billion and $2 billion, projecting the next one right in the middle of those figures at $1.54 billion is standard.

In fact, the real aberration in the recent long-term budget deficit pattern was prior to the last gubernatorial election.

When Doyle came into office in 2003 following 16 years of Republican governors, the long-term biennial deficit without revenue increases was pegged at $2.9 billion -- almost twice what it is now (see here, page 5).

Doyle Wisely Pushing Health Care Reform

While Governor Doyle initially proposed the BadgerCare Plus program at his State of the State address back in January, health care reform hasn't taken center stage in his election campaign. That appears to be changing.

The Wausau Daily Herald has an article today about a speaking engagement Doyle had with health care providers and officials yesterday in Wausau. At the forum, Doyle pushed BadgerCare Plus as a way to ensure broader health coverage for children and families in the state and simultaneously reduce administrative costs.

The BadgerCare Plus plan would merge the existing state-run health care programs Medicaid, BadgerCare, and Healthy Start into a single program. The total savings from the merger are estimated at $20 million annually and the single program is expected to serve 500,000 Wisconsin residents, many of whom are children.

The state is planning to seek a waiver from the federal government next month to merge the programs (which receive some federal funding). The waiver is expected to be approved in time for the governor's 2007-09 budget proposal next February, giving the Doyle Team a strong talking point this election season. After all, would Green support the merger if the waiver is approved?

The premise behind reducing costs and broadening access under BadgerCare Plus is the same that fuels the arguments for universal health care across the country, which center on reduced administrative costs in a centralized insurance system.

I wish Doyle would put his support behind one of the three universal health care reform proposals currently before the state legislature, or some combination of them, but pushing the BadgerCare Plus program is a significant step in the right direction.

And, equally as significant, it's nice to see the Doyle Team putting health care reform at the forefront of this campaign. It's an excellent compliment to embryonic stem cell research not only because of the medical connection, but also because the two are both popular issues on which the Green Team has no comparable alternative to offer.


Side-Note: There's no question Doyle's talk in Wausau yesterday had absolutely nothing to do with my post from yesterday on the need to make health care reform a premier issue in the current campaign -- but, hey, a guy can still dream.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

AMA Takes Step Toward Backing Universal Health Care

The American Medical Association (AMA) -- which has fought universal health care tooth and nail for the better part of the last century -- ratified a proposal endorsing mandatory health insurance for individuals at its annual meeting yesterday.

The AMA is a group that represents physicians across the country, although it is less powerful today than 50 years ago due to the rise in medical specialties. Many docs today are opting to participate in groups that focus on their area of expertise rather than the more general AMA.

Nevertheless, the AMA support for the expansion of health care insurance is a significant boon for advocates of universal care.

In the words of Dr. Jack Lewin, who is the executive VP for the California chapter of the AMA: "The AMA just took a huge step toward supporting universal health care for all Americans. Historically, the AMA has supported voluntary approaches, but never a mandate."

The details of the proposal are to require individuals making at least $49,000 or families making at least $100,000 to have health insurance either through an employer or privately -- if they don't, they would face tax penalties. Any person or family making less than those amounts would qualify for tax credits and subsidies that would help them pay for health insurance if they don't get it through another means such as employment.

I actually don't support a plan such as this (which is similar to what was done in Massachusetts) because it mandates health coverage while doing nothing to decrease the actual cost of health care. My fear is that under a system like this -- similar to the use of stand-alone Health Savings Accounts -- the end result will amount to little more than shifting costs from employers to employees. As I've said before, employees are in no better position (and arguably a worse one) than employers to handle the rising costs of health care.

In spite of my opposition to the specific proposal, it's still a major step in the right direction to have the AMA start down a path toward supporting universal health care.

Public Service Proponents Dominate Another Public Hearing

It was such a common occurrence at the public hearings held on the so-called "Taxpayer Protection Amendment" that the authors began to convene largely secretive hearings to keep the media and the public out. People who support vibrant public services in Wisconsin showed up in droves this past winter and spring to oppose constitutionally restricting public revenue under the guise of tax cut gimmicks -- and they're back at it this summer.

The Journal-Sentinel reports today that there was unanimous support for the proposed 2006-2007 Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) budget at a public hearing held yesterday. This is the budget that drew the ire of conservative radio talkers and some state legislators from the Milwaukee area just weeks ago because it includes a tax levy increase of 5% (although total expenditures will only increase 1.29% from the previous budget).

The people who showed up at the hearing to support the budget included former MATC students, former teachers, and businesses from around the area who have recently reported a shortage of skilled workers in the Milwaukee area. All of the supporters acknowledged the key role MATC plays in providing an affordable education to students and a host of skilled graduates for area businesses.

According to the JS article: "Board Chairman Jeannette Bell found it gratifying to hear the testimonials from people who benefited from their MATC education but disappointing that none of the people who have been criticizing the college took the opportunity to do so in the public forum."

Disappointed, perhaps, but I'm sure she wasn't too surprised. It's not as easy to create outrage, and subsequently political capital, at a hearing that privileges civil and substantiated discussion.

The MATC budget is expected to be passed by the tech college board later this month.

Anticipating the comments of people who will likely accuse me of not ever seeing a tax increase I didn't like, I should note that I wish the modest 1.29% spending increase didn't need to come on the back of a property tax increase.

But with declining state aid and stagnating federal aid for the state technical colleges in recent years, little room is left to do much else -- unless, that is, we want to sacrifice low tuition.

And while salaries for MATC instructors should be investigated more thoroughly, the budget process is not the place to do it. That's a policy issue that needs to be fleshed out separately. Simply underfunding instructor salaries without changing the actual instructor pay scale is not a fiscally sound route to go.

Plus, just capping instructor salaries isn't even a cure-all for expenditure increases. While the cost of instruction (which incorporates instructor salaries) increased 10% between 2003-2004 and 2005-2006 at MATC, the physical plant costs (which includes building maintenance, utility costs, etc.) increased at a far higher rate of nearly 33% over the same time span.

To put it differently, increased physical plant costs have accounted for 43% of the total increase in expenditures at MATC over the last three years, while increased instructional costs have only accounted for 25% of the total expenditure increase (see here, page 27).

Increases in physical plant expenditures are unavoidable costs that require additional revenue. When that revenue is not coming from inter-governmental aid, which has actually decreased in recent years, it's going to come from the revenue sources that the technical colleges do control -- tuition and property taxes.

Ethics & the Wisconsin Gubernatorial Race

While the focus of the gubernatorial debate in Wisconsin the past couple of days has been the conviction of a lone civil servant, the race for the governor's mansion in California is emphasizing comprehensive health care reform.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has promised to make 2007 "the year of health care" for California if re-elected (those in need of care in 2006 will just need to sit tight, Arnold has a campaign to run). Democratic challenger Phil Angelides, for his part, is promising to provide universal health care for all children in the state if elected this fall.

The focus on comprehensive health care reform in California is not shocking. Just last week a bipartisan committee led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) released a report that concludes the government should work toward guaranteeing health care for all Americans.

Of course, that's the easy part -- the tough part is agreeing how to do so. And since the federal government seems years away from formulating any sort of actual comprehensive health care policy (at least until after 2008), the duty is falling on individual states to pick up the slack.

Currently there are three comprehensive health care reform proposals sitting at the state legislature in Wisconsin. One pushes for universal coverage with comprehensive care through a publicly funded program; another proposes universal coverage with basic care through an employer/employee funded program; and the other would establish near universal coverage with comprehensive care through an employer/employee funded program.

So the framework for reform is out there -- and so is the need.

Although considered one of the top states in the country in terms of health care coverage, a recent Wisconsin Department of Health & Family Services (DHFS) report estimated that over half a million Wisconsin residents went without health insurance for all or part of 2004, while many more went underinsured. The study also found that the number of uninsured in the state is increasing significantly, which fits with the findings that young adults (18-44) are uninsured at a notably higher rate than older adults.

And the connection between insurance status and health status is stark, to say the least. Another DHFS report from 2004 found that the uninsured in Wisconsin are significantly more likely to be in poor or fair health than those who have health insurance. This is in spite of the fact that young adults, who are insured less than older adults in Wisconsin, tend to be in better health than older adults.

That's over 500,000 Wisconsin residents and counting-- many of whom are employed -- who are faced with a higher rate of health problems because they lack adequate access to necessary care.

Talk about an ethics issue.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Milwaukee 43rd Smartest Big City in the US

That's just ahead of St. Louis and just behind Fresno for those keeping track.

This comes from an analysis of US Census data conducted by, which focuses exclusively on the degree status of residents who were 25 or older as of 2000. The municipalities analyzed were broken up into three categories: large (200,000+ residents), medium (100,000 to 200,000 residents), and small (50,000 to 100,000 residents).

Milwaukee gets its ranking of 43rd smartest large city based upon the following breakdown:

No HS diploma: 25.18%
HS diploma only: 30.17%
Some college: 20.67%
Associate degree: 5.67%
Bachelor's degree: 12.32%
Grad/Professional degree: 6.01%

The smartest big city in the country, based on this analysis, turned out to be Seattle, which has nearly as many Bachelor's degrees (29.89%) as Milwaukee does HS diplomas (30.17%).

The dumbest big city in the country -- again, based on this analysis -- was Miami (ranked 50th), where 2/3 of the population studied didn't go beyond a HS diploma.

The only other Wisconsin city to appear in the rankings is Madison, which ranked 4th among medium-sized cities. Notably, however, the article only lists the top 10 for medium and small cities -- there would likely be more Wisconsin representation with a broader listing.

Of course, degrees only tell you so much about how smart a person (or city) is -- in fact, it's probably more accurate to say they merely dictate how "schooled" a person (or city) is, as opposed to actual intelligence.

Nevertheless, Americans (myself included) seem to be captivated by lists and rankings, which is why they always draw attention regardless of potentially flawed methodology, findings, or interpretations.

I wonder what that says about how smart we are?

Doyle Administration is 45,000 Strong

That sounds high, but it's what you'd need to believe if you're going to buy the latest spin from the right that Georgia Thompson is -- in the words of one prominent conservative blogger -- "a relatively high-ranking member of the Doyle Administration."

It seems the GOP charges against Doyle have come full circle. When Thompson was initially indicted, she was accused by the right of being a high ranking member of Doyle's administration. That accusation was largely put on hold during the trial, perhaps because there was hope that actual evidence would be found linking Thompson to Doyle. Since nothing came to light at trial, some conservatives are choosing to return to the false accusation that Thompson is a part of Doyle's administration and, therefore, at least implicitly connected to the governor.

The fact is Thompson and the 45,000 other civil servants who currently work in the state government are not officials who are part of a particular administration. Civil servants remain a part of the state government regardless of who occupies the governor's mansion. And, as it happens, Thompson began her tenure in state government while Republican Scott McCallum was in office.

What's more, even the prosecuting attorney in the case, Steven Biskupic, said the case was about "Georgia Thompson and Georgia Thompson alone." And that highlights the really interesting facet of the conviction -- no known motive. Biskupic himself called the case "unique" and "difficult" because of this fact. I think that's putting it delicately.

In the end, the conviction proved Marquette law professor Michael O'Hear right. On the eve of the trial, O'Hear said: "The fact is, the sentences are so tough in the federal system, the best way to get any sort of a break on the sentence is to plead guilty and cooperate. Very few defendants are willing to roll the dice. Even some with very excellent defenses are just not willing to take a chance, because trials are kind of random."

Random is certainly how it appeared. Late last week even conservative commentators thought, based upon the case the prosecution presented, that Thompson would be acquitted.

And the fact that Thompson now faces up to 20 years in prison (although she'll likely get much less), the loss of her job, and a permanent felony record shows pretty clearly that if there were any other names to name, it's highly likely they would've been named by now. It's this point that some people still need to accept.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Edwards Leads the Presidential Pack in Iowa

At this point, talk of the 2008 presidential election is speculative at best. But, for the political junkie, it's compelling speculation.

Although normally a not-so-significant state, Iowa holds great importance during the primary season since it has the first presidential caucus in the country. The next one is scheduled for January 2008, which is 18 months from now.

In an effort to ramp-up excitement early, the Des Moines Register recently conducted a poll of likely caucus voters. Who came out on top was surely a surprise to many pundits: John Edwards.

The vice presidential nominee from 2004 brought in 30% of the vote, topping second place winner and early primary favorite Hillary Clinton by four percentage points. John Kerry (12%) and Iowa governor Tom Vilsack (10%) rounded out the top vote getters, while the rest of the bunch got 3% or less of the vote (including Russ Feingold, who pulled in 3%).

What stands out even more, however, is the favorability of Edwards compared to the other potential Democratic contenders. When asked how they felt about Edwards, 83% responded that they either have a "very favorable" (42%) or "mostly favorable" (41%) impression of him. That’s a lot of love.

In contrast, Clinton and Vilsack were only at 71% on the favorability scale, while Kerry was at 69%. No one else even topped 40%, although the number of "unsure" responses surpassed 50% for Russ Feingold, Evan Bayh, and Mark Warner, which suggests familiarity is still an issue with those candidates at this point.

Overall it was a very strong showing for John Edwards, who was my favorite candidate from the 2004 Democratic primary race (yes, even more than Howard Dean...although I appreciate the issues and grassroots enthusiasm Dean brought to the race).

Edwards has a strong, focused, and consistent message that resonates with many people. His "One America Committee," which he has been pushing ever since the '04 election, has hit that message over and over again, as well. It's the economy, stupid.

But even more specific than that, Edwards' message focuses on poverty. And he tackles the issue in a way that flips the red state-blue state dichotomy used so well by Republicans on its head. The conservative ascendancy of the last 30 years worked hard to provide the public with a perception that Democrats were elitist and Republicans were with the masses (how else can the New England reared, Ivy League educated, rich beyond belief current president play it off like he's in touch with "common folk"?).

In essence, the goal of the conservative movement was to make class a cultural entity. This is the basic point of Thomas Frank's popular book, What's the Matter with Kansas?

What Edwards does is strive to re-affirm the economic core of class. He puts it on his website like he did numerous times on the stump in 2004: "There are two different Americas in our country today -- one for those at the top who get everything they want, and another for everybody else who struggles just to get by." In other words, the divisions that exist in America are defined by income level, not by cultural or social interests.

He's got the message, the heritage, and the looks. The question remains, however, whether Edwards -- who has been out of the Senate for two years now -- can muster enough broad support (specifically financial) to win the nomination. Although, as Chris Cillizza of "The Fix" points out: "Edwards's strong showing in the poll should silence some critics who believe his lack of fundraising so far this cycle is a sign of a lack of energy for his candidacy."

These polls, although early and speculative, can have an impact on the more tangible side of running a campaign such as donations. Just ask Tom Vilsack, who after this mediocre performance in his own state can expect Democratic donors to probably think twice before cutting him a check any time soon.

And although I always support Russ Feingold, my favorite Dem in '08 remains my favorite from '04 -- John Edwards.

Friday, June 09, 2006

UWM Research Initiative Gets the Nod

The UW Board of Regents and business leaders are lending their support to UW-Milwaukee Chancellor Carlos Santiago in his effort to simultaneously revamp research on the UWM campus and revitalize the economy in the Milwaukee area.

The latter of the two goals is what is really driving this initiative in terms of public acceptance. And it certainly is a worthy aim. A booming biotechnology sector, for instance, would be a major plus for the metropolitan area and the state as a whole.

The return for UWM on the deal is funding in an era where state aide to public higher education in the state has been stagnating at best and declining at worst. No one is quite sure what the '07-'09 biennial budget will bring the UW System, so campuses like UWM are striving for ways to become more self-sufficient in case the trend of the last two budgets continues into the future.

But as I have said before on this blog (here and here), there are consequences for this self-sufficiency. These consequences may not appear immediately, but over time they will likely have an indelible impact on the teaching and learning that takes place on the UWM campus.

The thrust of the new self-sufficiency movement is centered on the sciences and business. The sciences are important because their research has the ability to create products that are marketable, and business is important because it has the tools, expertise, and connections necessary to do the marketing and reap profits from it.

So where does that leave the other disciplines on campus?

Clearly the fields with the least amount of opportunity for marketable research are in the arts and humanities. These areas are more about driving thought than driving tangible outcomes like the sciences. And while unquestionably useful to a society, thought isn't the easiest thing to market.

The push toward self-sufficiency is already taking place at UWM.

I wrote last month about the results of the Research Growth Initiative (RGI) awards on the UWM campus. Whereas in the past public research dollars were doled out evenly to the various interested research projects across campus, this year the proposals were put in competition with each other for the funds. A significant determining factor in the the awarding process was profitability of the research -- in other words, how the research could generate money on its own.

This process largely left arts and humanities behind in its first year of implementation. Out of the 45 RGI awards granted a month ago, only 4 (9%) went to arts and humanities proposals, while the remaining 41 went to proposals from the various sciences (91%).

In time, what this impacts is who UWM is able to attract to campus in terms of faculty and, subsequently, students.

As word gets out that arts and humanities research isn't as well funded on the UWM campus as other disciplines, it could hurt faculty recruitment in the liberal arts. And since arts and humanities house among the most popular programs on campus for students, their quality is of great importance. (Although the intense competition for professorships in most liberal arts disciplines, which I wrote about here, may keep recruitment strong at least into the near future -- although not in the most just and fair way.)

But how much consideration is that concern being given in this rush to self-sufficiency?

Unfortunately, in the current era of public funding for higher education in Wisconsin, time for consideration is not at a premium.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Bucher's Immigration Plan: What's the Point?

In light of his discovery that 77 undocumented immigrants have been paroled in Wisconsin since 2003, Paul Bucher has announced a new “illegal immigrant violent crime plan.”

Bucher asserts that by asking federal authorities for a memorandum of understanding (MOU), state agents can begin to enforce federal immigration laws alongside federal agents. Bucher points to three other states who have agreements like this with the federal government: Florida, Alabama, and Arizona (Georgia plans to submit a MOU by 2007). One county in North Carolina and several jails in California also have MOU agreements.

Bucher calls his plan “very unusual,” and on that much we agree.

In the Florida and Alabama agreements, the MOU is aimed at training state agents to identify undocumented immigrants in their daily operations. For example, providing a state trooper with training to figure out if a driver or passenger is an undocumented immigrant in a routine traffic stop. Immigrant groups have shown alarm at these arrangements because of concern that profiling will ensue. As one Latino leader put it: “We are definitely afraid that people out there will be pulled over or stopped for driving while Latino.”

In Arizona, the MOU agreement is to train prison employees on how to determine whether foreign national inmates have committed any immigration violations, which are duties that are usually handled by federal immigration officers in state prisons. This is the same type of agreement that has been made with Mecklenburg County in North Carolina and a few jails in California.

Bucher’s plan is sort of a hybrid of these two types of agreements that currently exist -- it doesn't focus on the general public like the agreements in Florida and Alabama, yet it doesn't conduct its operations inside of corrections facilities like the Arizona, Mecklenburg County, and California jails agreements.

By combining the two, Bucher has made the scope so narrow it really seems pointless.

The aim of the Bucher plan is to train state agents to “micro-target” undocumented immigrants who have been paroled after committing violent crimes. Bucher insists that the targeting would not go after all undocumented immigrants, which is the intent of the Florida and Alabama agreements, but rather just those who are on parole.

Yet, if on parole, it means these people have already been in the corrections system for some time. The goal of the Arizona, Mecklenburg County, and California jails agreements are to identify inmates who are undocumented immigrants, which seems like the best time to engage in such identification because the targets are locked up.

Plus, if we already know these parolees are undocumented immigrants – something that was probably discovered when they were in prison – what exactly is the point of tracking them down once they are on parole?

As I mentioned in a post earlier, federal agents already investigate every single case of an undocumented immigrant in prison to determine if deportation is an option. In many cases it is, in some cases it is not. Every undocumented immigrant inmate the feds want, they get. Out of the 77 undocumented parolees Bucher identified, 42 were turned over to federal authorities, which means the other 35 either couldn’t be deported or otherwise weren’t of interest to federal authorities.

So what exactly is the purpose of Bucher’s new plan?

Bucher claims: “We need to give the feds assistance and some of our resources to perform this function that is so necessary to our public safety as a state.”

But if all of the people we are going to go after have already been identified as undocumented immigrants and, subsequently, reviewed by federal authorities, what possible assistance could the state provide to federal immigration authorities once the undocumented immigrants are paroled that it couldn’t when they were in prison?

Is deportation all of a sudden going to become an option when these people are on parole? If so, then this plan amounts to tracking around 15-20 new parolees per year to see if they slip up in such a way that allows the feds to deport them (and wouldn’t it then make the most sense to train parole officers, not separate state agents?).

All of the other MOU agreements are about identifying undocumented immigrants who have not already been identified as such, whether in prison or not. The Bucher plan, however, seems to be about tracking down parolees who have already been identified as undocumented immigrants and reviewed by federal immigration officials for possible deportation.

Does that make any sense?

The more Bucher describes his plan, the more it becomes clear it’s nothing more than a campaign stunt that plays off public concern about undocumented immigration.