Paul Ryan for Speaker? his budget plan "a ludicrous mess of magic asterisks"

Congressional Republicans are begging Paul Ryan to be their new Speaker of the House. We assume the Wisconsin State Journal will soon join that chorus.

Paul Ryan with dumbbell

Fortunately Paul Krugman is around to remind us that Paul Ryan is a flimflam artist. [Emphasis added]

More than anyone else in his caucus, he has the reputation of being a brilliant policy wonk.

And that tells you even more about the dire state of the GOP. After all, Ryan is to policy wonkery what Carly Fiorina is to corporate management: brilliant at selling himself, hopeless at actually doing the job. Lest we forget, his much-vaunted budget plan proved, on even superficial examination, to be a ludicrous mess of magic asterisks. His big contribution to discussion of economic policy was his stern warning to Ben Bernanke that quantitative easing would “debase the dollar”, that rising commodity prices in early 2011 presaged a surge in inflation. This guy’s delusions of expertise should be considered funny.

Yet he may indeed be the best they have.

Does it matter to the State Journal that the guy’s posing as an economic policy wonk while, in fact, being routinely wrong?

The dollar hasn’t been “debased”. That’s just Glenn Beck gold-bug talk. And inflation remains below the Fed target. In practice he just wants to give tax cuts to the wealthy, like Trump, and Rubio, and Romney, and Bush II, and Walker, and on and on. It’s impossible for them to say it aloud. Ordinary Americans don’t want more tax cuts for the rich, even Republican majorities say this in polls. But if you look at the record and the continuing GOP proposals, that’s what the stars of the Republican Party continue to offer.

A functioning news media would make this all intensely clear. It doesn’t happen.

They don’t make it clear. Surely this means something.

We predict the Wisconsin State Journal will continue to be dazzled by Mr. Flimflam.

Dance with the one what brung ya Does contributing millions to Wisconsin Supreme Court judges work in your favor?

Justices Recusal HeadLn bwToday the 4 conservative members of the Wisconsin Supreme Court, who benefited from millions in contributions and campaign spending by the Wisconsin Club for Growth and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, paid that generous investment favor back!

Nine months ago, Dee J. Hall (in our opinion the State Journal’s best reporter, now working elsewhere) delivered a front-page story documenting just where the money to elect these judges had come from — Justices face questions of recusal. It poses a simple question:

Should the four-member conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court decide a case involving groups that spent more than $8 million to get them elected?

This was great work at the State Journal.

And from 900 miles away, the New York Times editorialized

If the toxic effects of outsize spending in judicial elections were not already evident, the fiasco playing out in the Wisconsin Supreme Court should erase any doubt….

…A 2013 poll by the Brennan Center for Justice found that more than 9 in 10 people believed that a judge should step aside if a party to a case had spent significant amounts to help him or her get elected. Surely, that sensible principle is something an elected judiciary should embrace.

We waited for the Wisconsin State Journal‘s editorial. It never happened. To the best of our knowledge the editorial page never said peep. During these 9 months they produced 3 editorials in support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, about which they could literally know nothing, since it was secret.

This local news organization is literally in a fight for its life. And the state of Wisconsin is experiencing its darkest days since the railroad barons of the 1800’s . The State Journal editorial page weighs in on behalf of theoretical free trade? Milfred needs to do better….

On the other hand there's this

rainbowAfter the U.S. Supreme Court okayed same-sex marriage in all 50 states, the Wisconsin State Journal editorialized, Let freedom — and wedding bells — ring.

And the sentiment was genuine. The State Journal editorial page has been good on the issue of gay marriage for a number of years.

As we have acknowledged many times, even offering it as a possible editorial page slogan:

We’re not always wrong!

Too often though, they are wrong, or inexplicably missing in action. Why, for example, aren’t they asking Governor Walker and the legislature,

“Why are we not accepting the $345 million dollars on offer in the ACA (“Obamacare”) Medicaid expansion? The budget’s a mess. We could instantly fix that damaging and foolish cut to the UW System.”

It’s simply baffling that the State Journal is so very silent on this senseless waste of our tax dollars where the only apparent motive [for refusing the money] is to help Scott Walker run for president. Do Wisconsin citizens really want to kick in $345 million of their tax dollars to help the governor campaign for higher office? Has there ever been a more stupid way to waste people’s money? Is this really going to go unremarked by the State Journal? It’s a question that should be asked again and again and again.

There was a good Phil Hands cartoon about this two weeks ago, but that’s about it! The general silence is beyond frustrating.


Oh, dear… look at this It's Milfred again

Today Mr. Milfred discusses the WEDC (Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation) which is widely known for fumbling its job-creation mission, handing out ill-considered and unrecoverable loans, and failure to operate under normal and routine business accountability standards.

Milfred acknowledges the wreckage, which has after all been featured on his own paper’s front page. But on his page — did we mention that Milfred is the editorial page editor? — surprisingly, he writes

Gov. Scott Walker wisely proposed removing the politicians — including himself… — from WEDC’s board.

Wait a minute. He “wisely proposed”?  Is that the best way to put it? Wisely???

In what sense was the Governor wise?

WEDC was his idea, his baby.

He made himself Chairman of the Board.

He presided over 4 years of failure and mismanagement, and then as the whole thing is looming as a great embarrassment to his all-important campaign for president, he flees.

Milfred credits the governor for being wise. We credit Milfred for churning out silly nonsense. Please do read the entire editorial.



Wisconsin State Journal cuts staff again The shrinking news. It's less fun for dogs to fetch.

We just learned (five days late) that the Wisconsin State Journal has once again cut its newsroom staff. Story from the invaluable Bill Lueders at Isthmus online. Were we the last to know? Could be. Look, we never said we had connections at the State Journal, or any newspaper. We just used to read the thing. Regularly. For many years.

So 7 more newsroom professionals are gone from the State Journal, although one of them, Dee J. Hall, the paper’s best reporter, had departed for a better job, managing editor of Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The State Journal won’t fill her position, so it’s a cut for the State Journal.

Our first reactions were sorrow and a peculiar narcissistic shame. We don’t want anyone to lose their job, certainly not journalists working in Madison. And the shame? We’d stopped buying the paper and now seven journalists were gone. Were we partly to blame? Maybe we should’ve hung in there despite the difficulties.

Can these cuts possibly do anything other than compound the difficulties?

I paid for a copy of the Wisconsin State Journal! First time in a long time

This week your humble scribe actually forked over a dollar for a copy of the Wisconsin State Journal (print edition). I hadn’t done that for a long time.

Over the last 15 years — buffeted by the internet, and hemorrhaging ad revenue — the State Journal, like other newspapers, laid off newsroom staff. The product went from a healthy thud landing in the driveway each morning to a light-weight tissue fluttering in on the morning breeze. Combine this shrunken ability to get to the bottom of things with a dismal editorial page that far too often works against the interests of ordinary people, and you’ve got a product that I normally do not buy.

DeFour and Hall Front PageBut then there was this. A front-page story by Matthew DeFour and Dee J. Hall, handed out free, as usual, on Sunday at Metcalfe’s Sentry.  Whoa, actual investigative journalism!?! Not just a summary of another scathing audit of the “troubled” Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC), but an investigation into one of the loans made by WEDC. And it was one highly peculiar loan.

This was the kind of story that used to make people like me buy the State Journal.

A quick summary:

Struggling business owner gives $10 thousand to the Walker campaign in 2010. It’s the day before the election; it’s the maximum donation allowed by law. Later the struggling business owner wants a loan from Wisconsin taxpayers via Scott Walker’s WEDC, which exists (supposedly) to create jobs in Wisconsin. On the loan application, business owner lies. Sez he’s not been sued lately, although he has been sued… including once, recently, by the State of Wisconsin. Nobody at WEDC checked? Hard to say. The loan file’s gone missing! The guy gets a half million dollars in an unsecured loan!!! (No collateral!!!) Who gets that kind of loan? The business fails. A half million dollars of public money vanishes. Not a single job is created. Walker, harkening back to the secret email scandal, says he knows nothing. Yes, Walker’s top staff, including campaign manager Keith Gilkes and DOA Secretary Mike Huebsch, had lobbied strongly for the loan (actually for a loan 8 times larger!!). WHY? And they did so without Walker even knowing??

In an online discussion, reporter DeFour said he’d been working on the story for two months, so this was an expensive story for the State Journal to fund.

During the rest of this week, I bought a copy of the State Journal every day, either at the Sentry or the Walgreens. It’s not subscribing, but I’m happy to have reporters DeFour and Hall at work. Tip o’ the hat to them, and to the unnamed editors and bean-counters who supported them.

The story is now playing out, even in the thinnest of news sources (the radio, the tv). It seems like there’s more to the story than what’s been reported so far. The numbers make no sense. Guy gives $10,000 and gets back $500,000 no strings attached? Did some of that $500,000 come back to the Walker recall treasure chest, but this time through an impenetrable conduit of dark money like Wisconsin Club for Growth? Maybe some reporter, someday, finds someone to talk more.

Supposedly William Randolph Hearst once remarked,

“News is something which somebody wants suppressed: all the rest is advertising.”


The Paul Ryan interview He's awesome

Paul Ryan InterviewJust for fun we dug something out of the recycle pile. It was the recent bit where the Wisconsin State Journal talked to Congressman Paul Ryan.

We hadn’t intended to say anything about this. We have things to do — plastic bags to recycle, sew on a button, important stuff.

But then Paul Krugman reminded us on his blog of what a profoundly incompetent predictor of our economic future Mr. Ryan has been. Jiminy. Read Paul Ryan’s various doomsday predictions from the year 2009 and you’ll find his every single economic prediction turned out to be worthless. Everything. All of it. Wrong, wrong wrong.

Now getting stuff wrong should not be surprising for anyone who, like Ryan, has been in thrall to the crank economic philosophies of novelist Ayn Rand. For years, Ryan passed out Rand’s books to his Congressional staff, because he thought she was so insightful. He’d read her books in his formative years and was quite carried away, still into adulthood. And then, a few years ago, someone pointed out that Ayn Rand was an atheist!  Somehow this had eluded Ryan, but ever since, in public, he’s been downplaying his schoolboy crush.

Of course, we might not care that Mr. Ryan got his misunderstanding of macroeconomics from an eccentric novelist if he were some ordinary guy, but alas, he’s chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, so he’s in precisely the spot to do real damage.

Paul Krugman, who is, um, an “actual economist” has for years been dismissing Mr. Ryan as con man and a flim-flam man, because Ryan’s “budgets” invariably have what Krugman calls “magic asterisks” where the savings are supposed to appear but are never specifically described. What’s more these “budgets” always seem to provide tax cuts for the rich, because that’s just common sense to Ryan. When pressed, Ryan will say his budgets are not really “budgets” so much as “roadmaps”, and indeed they have never been scored by the CBO. They can’t be, because of the magic asterisks.

Nonetheless, Ryan’s efforts are always well-received by the 1% and Republican lawmakers. And, we hafta say, the Wisconsin State Journal editorial page.

Back to Krugman:

So why have so many in Washington, especially in the news media, been taken in by this flimflam? It’s not just inability to do the math, although that’s part of it. There’s also the unwillingness of self-styled centrists to face up to the realities of the modern Republican Party; they want to pretend, in the teeth of overwhelming evidence, that there are still people in the G.O.P. making sense. And last but not least, there’s deference to power — the G.O.P. is a resurgent political force, so one mustn’t point out that its intellectual heroes have no clothes.

Enter, the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board, for a sit-down interview with the Congressman Ryan. What a fruitless little affair. Ryan was treated like a politician on Meet the Press — a question is posed, the politician offers some words he’s been practicing in front of a mirror for months or years, and then the conversation moves on to the next question. It’s only meaningful to people fond of rating a politician’s acting chops.

Now, did we actually expect the fellows at the State Journal to do better than the current multi-millionaire anchorman hosting Meet the Press? No, we did not. And it didn’t happen. Wide swaths of our media fail us predictably, week in and week out, so expectations are what they deserve to be. We certainly didn’t expect the State Journal executives to joust with Ryan on the economy, for the first reason Krugman mentioned above — inability. And in truth, it would’ve been hard, because Ryan has been practicing in front of the mirror for years.

But even if questioning Ryan about economics was too hard for the State Journal executives, they could certainly have asked him about the “partisan politics” they so often decry on their editorial page. There is no trope more common in State Journal editorials than the call for bipartisan cooperation in Washington, a call that Mr. Ryan and his party never bothered to answer. Ryan and party instead raised the bar for intransigent partisanship, and all at a time (think global warming) when we really cannot afford to dither. Ryan and party cannot reliably fund Homeland Security. They cannot agree to do such obvious, and (you would think) non-controversial things as repair roads and bridges.

Surely the State Journal guys know about the now famous meeting on the night of Obama’s first inauguration. Republican leaders met at a tony D.C. steakhouse where they agreed in advance, simply as a self-serving partisan strategy, to oppose whatever Obama would seek to do. In their plan Obama would have no accomplishments to run on for a 2nd term. And whatever that meant for the American people was irrelevant. Surely the State Journal guys watched this strategy — a pure partisan strategy — play out over the next 7 years. And surely they knew that Paul Ryan was one of the small group settling on that strategy that night.

Fellas, you had him right there across the table.

The trouble with tribalism It's the humans

from last week’s Public Policy Polling:

Public Policy Polling, Feb 20-22, 2015

There’s a tendency to say to oneself, “Well, that can’t be right, can it? It can’t be that 49% of Republicans don’t believe in evolution. And, wait, 57% want a national religion???”

We saw Steve Benen go through exactly the same head-slapping when he wrote:

…results like these are discouraging. There’s plenty to divide Americans, but scientific truths need not be one of them.

 But I continue to wonder how much of this is sincere and how much of this is the result of tribalism.

 It’s certainly possible that Republicans are, all of a sudden, turning against modern biology in greater numbers, but I think it’s more likely that in a time of stark polarization, partisans choose to stick to their “team.”

Sorry, Steve, we don’t think “team” and “tribe” really softens the reality of just how deeply divided the American people are. You can “continue to wonder how much of this is sincere and how much of this is the result of tribalism”, but really it’s just that the mind boggles at the polling shown above. Ours, too. But there’s no real reason to think the respondents weren’t sincere.

The fact is, we ALL belong to tribes. In fact we all belong to multiple tribes and overlapping sub-tribes. Our tribes don’t tell us to phony up our answers when a pollster calls.  Our tribes do actually guide us on whom to trust, and yes, how to think and what to believe.

Let me tell you about my tribe and what it means for me. One of my major tribal affiliations is the Tribe of Scientists. I revere the tribe of scientists. They’ve been steering me right all my life, or so I feel. When scientists largely concur on something (oh, let’s just say, anthropogenic climate change), I strongly tend to believe they’re onto something. Since I cannot and don’t investigate this sort of thing on my own — I’m incapable and unqualified — I believe what they say. I am in this way very like a member of a religious tribe who doesn’t really concoct his own theology — because, in his own estimation, he’s incapable and unqualified — and so he follows — at least for the most part– whatever orthodoxies his religious leaders provide for him.

The religious fellow and I are not that different when it comes to relying on our tribes.

Now having said that, let’s go back and look at those three questions from the poll.

The first two questions are scientific questions, and they have correct and incorrect answers. In the case of evolution it’s really an open-and-shut case, and yet a shocking number of Republican respondents got it wrong. In order to do that they had to be either unaware of or dismissive of 150 years of biological science. And that is a HUGE body of knowledge to be unaware of. It does boggle the mind.

And the case for global warming, being only 30 years in the making, is only slightly less clear than the case for evolution. Although the consequences of getting it wrong will be catastrophic for human civilization.

Whatever conglomeration of tribes is helping the Republican respondents know what to think, it’s a doing a terrible disservice.

And the third question about establishing a national religion is again a shocker. It’s not a factual or a scientific question. It really is essentially a matter of opinion. But there is only one answer grounded in the founding beliefs of our country, and that is… that we should have no official national religion. The founders were extremely unambiguous on this. Just to pick one quote out of hundreds:

History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.   –Thomas Jefferson

Do 57% of Republicans now reject a bedrock principle of the founders? Well, they say they do.


Newspaper is opposed to corruption Well, maybe that train left the station, but still... let's talk about it

train gone by

The most recent Sunday editorial in the Wisconsin State Journal earns several compliments and one brickbat. Where should we start? Compliments?

First of all, it’s about something important – corruption in the Wisconsin legislature. There’s little doubt that the State Journal has a theoretical belief in “good government” as we saw last year with their campaign against Wisconsin’s gerrymandered voting districts. Today they warn about the danger of legislators moving seamlessly, indeed instantly, overnight, into lobbying jobs.

…Wisconsin places no time restriction, which risks corruption.

That needs to change.

When the revolving door at the state Capitol spins too fast, public and private interests mix in a potentially today relationship. A lawmaker might be influenced in public duties by the promise of a lucrative lobbying job. The result could be politics that serve a private interest, rather than the public good.

That’s true. Wrong tense though.

It’s not as if there’s a danger of corruption oozing its way in at some future time. The corruption is quite fully here, and has been. That’s really our only quibble with what the State Journal is saying in this editorial. They need to pipe up. They need to say it.

When an out-of-state mining company can march in, flash its money around, and then rewrite the state’s environmental laws — in private sessions with legislators, no less — oh, then the corruption is here, baby. It’s not “on the way.” It’s here.  When much of our legislation is drafted off-site at ALEC conventions where Republicans meet directly with corporate liaisons to draft “model legislation” far from the prying eyes of the public (and the press, too), then the corruption has arrived. It’s not one of those things we better worry about “if we don’t act soon”.

That train has already left the station.

If the opinion writers of the State Journal need a good example of how to write about corruption in Wisconsin politics, they should take a look at Blue Jeans in High Places, the new book from Mike McCabe, former director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.  McCabe doesn’t hesitate to say that corruption is now fully re-established in Wisconsin politics. And he’s careful to say that neither D’s nor R’s are doing right by the people of Wisconsin – not that they’re both the same, they’re not – but neither is doing right for the people at large. This latter bit is probably a style book requirement for the State Journal editorial page where a rigid oath of both-sides-do-it is rarely violated, even when it’s all-too predictable and dilutes whatever editorial point they’re trying to make.

But let’s be generous today. This editorial included a couple of things that we really did like. It managed to refer to some actual academic research, which is always nice when so much punditry flows

…straight from the gut. That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Did you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than in your head? Now I know somebody will say I looked it up and that’s not true. That’s because you looked it up in a book. Next time look it up in your gut.  — Stephen Colbert

And also commendable, somebody at the State Journal remembered the words of Jack Abramoff, master crooked lobbyist and convicted felon. We haven’t always been impressed with the ability of State Journal editorials to remember the past. In fact, if we remember correctly (and we do), we may have used some deliberately insulting language about memory-impaired opinion writers at the State Journal. But today we actually respect the ability of the State Journal to remember Jack Abramoff. Here’s a slightly longer version of  what Abramoff said, talking to CBS 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl:

Stahl: …But the “best way” to get a congressional office to do his bidding – he says – was to offer a staffer a job that could triple his salary.

Abramoff: … I would say, “You know, when you’re done working on the Hill, we’d very much like you to consider coming to work for us.” Now the moment I said that to them…, that was it. We owned them. And what does that mean? Every request from our office, every request of our clients, everything that we want, they’re gonna do. And not only that, they’re gonna think of things we can’t think of to do.

This, of course, was entirely legal. And remains so. Political corruption is frequently — usually — perfectly legal. This is precisely what the Sunday State Journal editorial was about. See how normal and easy it can be? Imagine yourself working either side of this human interaction:

“You know, when you’re done working on the Hill, we’d very much like you to consider coming to work for us.” Now the moment I said that to them…, that was it. We owned them.


The trouble with Milfred Where to begin?

Scott MilfredWe see over the weekend that Scott Milford, State Journal chief editorialist, has set out another nice barrel of burning tires. That is to say, he has editorialized again. He apparently cannot be stopped.

He was off to a good start by observing that ramming a new, anti-union, right-to-work bill through the legislature would “distract and divide” us once again. (But wait, isn’t that kind of the idea, the intention? Distract-and-divide works as an effective, if cynical, political strategy. It always has.)

Amazingly you can read only as far as Milfred’s second sentence before seeing him go off the rails, first by glossing over the cynical beauty of distract-and-divide, and then by echoing the bad faith talking-point. Here’s the whole second sentence:

Their hasty decision is sure to distract and divide, with little benefit to the economy and jobs.

Now what is that at the end? He’s repeating the GOP spin — namely, that right-to-work is intended to boost the economy and jobs. It’s not. It’s another bad faith argument (like voting restrictions to stop “voter fraud”, or new abortion clinic rules “to protect women’s health”).

Like the first round of union-busting, this latest is really intended to knee-cap union workers for their bad habit of supporting Dems. And intended also as a payoff to their most deep-pocketed and ideologically right-wing donors.

What’s really sad here is that Milford doesn’t even acknowledge that further union-busting could (we would argue will) harm Wisconsin’s economy by putting downward pressure on wages. That question isn’t even raised, or seemingly, imagined.

But let’s move on, as Milford does… His main point being there’s no reason to rush… except that leaders in the Senate and Assembly want it done before opposition really gets organized. Which is true. OK, Milfred’s momentarily back on track.

Oh, but wait. Then there’s this

On its face, the measure is reasonable. Workers shouldn’t have to join and give money to unions if they don’t want to.

What in the world is he saying? There’s a whole family of similar arguments that just don’t stand up:

  • I have no children, so I shouldn’t have to pay for schools
  • I’m a pacifist, so I shouldn’t have to pay for the military

Of course, schools and soldiers need a broad base of funding, and frankly that funding needs to be compelled, coerced if you like, or it just won’t work. It’s the same with unions. Voluntary dues is just not going to work.  It’s why groceries stores insist on payment, not just voluntary donations.

And what does he mean, “On its face, the measure is reasonable”? Where does this come from? Imagine a lawyer showing up in court, pointing to his client, and saying, “Look at him. He’s clearly innocent,” and then resting his case. That is not professional-grade work. How does such silliness make it into print? Does Milfred have an editor, a minder? What’s the role of the State Journal “editorial board”? Do they read this stuff before it goes to publication? It’s hard to believe that all four of them would approve, “On its face, the measure is reasonable. Workers shouldn’t have to join and give money to unions if they don’t want to.”

But let’s move on, because Milford has more:

When state Republicans approved Act 10, they could point to union excess in government that made it harder to balance budgets and improve schools. Public-sector unions were strongly influencing the election of public officials who then negotiated union contracts.

Is there truth to this? A little. The public unions with many thousands of members did have some influence come election time. But it wasn’t outsized. The state workers were getting fairly skimpy raises and even reluctantly accepting work furloughs. You’d expect them to have influence, that’s fair, but they weren’t that powerful.

Still, compared with even worse-off workers, the public workers could be, and were, painted as doing too well. This was the divisive strategy employed by the gov and his party (too-often unchallenged in the general media) during the Act 10 period.

Meanwhile, you know who was really cleaning up? It was the people who are always powerful — extremely wealthy individuals, corporations, and business lobbies. It wasn’t the teachers or the prison guards. And currently it’s not the private construction and manufacturing workers. Milfred, as he does so often, has missed the big story even as it continues day after week after month after year.