This is what tone-deafness looks like

The essential peevishness of Madison’s most influential editorial page was on full display today in a piece called “Let’s get this thing over with.”   It’s about the recall elections. The State Journal is annoyed and impatient.

Normally we assume that daily editorials are effectively the work of editorial page editor Scott Milfred rather than the whole editorial board, but today we find the explicit language of “we”. So, disappointing as that is, we’ll take it as written. The editorial board writes

We aren’t fans of the recall process — regardless of the target. Voters elected Walker 16 months ago to a four-year term, not a trial run.

Oh, come on. No one is “fan” of the recall process. No one enjoys tramping about in the Wisconsin winter gathering signatures. People have plenty of things they’d rather be doing. Surely this is a feigned cluelessness about what has happened.

What has happened is that something went very wrong with the last election — the winning candidate forgot to mention what his plans were. That — need it be said? — is not the way our elections are supposed to work.

Of course, Scott Walker was elected with the presumption that he would serve a four-year term. But guess what? When you get elected and then start steam-rolling a divisive, demonizing, and previously undisclosed campaign against ordinary workers and citizens, you get some push-back. Add a layer of self-serving voter restrictions, secret redistricting, cuts to education, mining bills written by and for a mining company, and a too-cozy relationship with a handful of out-of-state billionaires.  What happens? The people of Wisconsin are now more divided than anyone can remember.

What is the State Journal’s problem with recalls? Has the last year been much ado about nothing? Really?

The editorial dismissively calls it “recall mania”.

For some State Journal readers, calling it a “mania” passes without notice. For others, it’s a startling bit of tone-deafness.

What are the facts?

We are confused.  Today’s Wisconsin State Journal editorial — Congress should’ve paid for ‘holiday’ — bemoans the fact that Congress just extended the payroll tax cuts through 2012, but did not find offsets or other ways to pay for it.

But is it a fact?  Rep. Ron Kind says so in a statement on his House website — Kind Votes to  Fiscal Responsibility (sic), Opposes $89 Billion Deficit Financed Payroll Tax. That was last Friday.

But on that same day, we read on the front page of the New York Times “Congress to Sell Public Airwaves to Pay Benefits“… describing a bipartisan accord to sell broadcast TV spectrum to wireless internet companies (a very GOOD thing, and needed), and use the money to offset payroll tax cut and unemployment extension.

Also on Friday, there’s this AP story at — “How parts of the $150 billion payroll tax cut, unemployment insurance package are paid for“.

We simply don’t know what’s happening here, and that’s all we can say.


Merit selection for Wisconsin Supreme Court

Regular visitors at know that we can be — and are even prone to be — harsh critics of the Wisconsin State Journal editorial page.

Not so much today.

Their editorial today argues, once again, for so-called “merit selection” of Wisconsin Supreme Court judges, eliminating our current system of electing our highest court judges. “Merit selection” would have an ‘independent’ panel of ‘non-partisan’ worthies choose a pool of, let’s say, five worthy candidates, and then the governor would pick the final Supreme Court Justice from that pool. The idea is that well-financed outside interests couldn’t buy their way to picking our top judges, and neither could governors exercise their worst instincts in picking top judges.

There’s a lot to hate about this idea. For a long time we opposed it, because money-soaked elections for Wisconsin Supreme Court are merely one example of the money-soaked elections ruining every bit of our politics, not simply the Supreme Court races. (It’s the money, Lebowski.)

Let’s clean up the whole mess, because, well, we’ve just got to. This is what we used to say.

But the Journal editorial page is right about the loss of public trust in the decisions of the high court. As it stands, our high court is being chosen by overpoweringly wealthy special interests which strongly influence, if not determine, high court election results.

If we had a smarter, more engaged electorate, and a stronger, more competent media — two halves of the same thing — we could overcome the Citizen United dominance of wealth in our elections. But we don’t.

If we can ever fix this, it won’t been soon.

So, given what we’ve got, OK, we’ll agree, albeit sadly, with the State Journal editorial today. You choose the lesser of two evils; that way, supposedly, you get less evil.

They say listening is sometimes better than talking

Today the Wisconsin State Journal‘s benighted but never bashful chief editorialist Scott Milfred struggled to say something (anything) useful about Madison school superintendent Dan Nerod’s plan for raising African-American high school graduation rates. Headlined “Narrowing gap will take more than money,”  the editorial takes up a seemingly intractable problem.

Like a sophomore at mid-term, given one hour to write something — anything — while actually knowing nothing in particular, Milfred scribbles some tentative back-and-forth and this-and-that into his blue book, and hands it in.  It seems a woeful effort.

But it’s worth a C-minus. No one in the exam room did any better. It was a trick question. It was too hard. Nobody — surely, no sophomore — could be expected to have a sure answer. Honestly admitting that would have been worth a B-plus.

Love will find a way

Like a helpful friend, the Wisconsin State Journal editorial page explained hard truths to us today, or at least tried to, about the way things work now.

Spectrum Brands, formerly Rayovac Corp., is leaving Madison, moving in with Madison’s best friend, Middleton, and getting a $4 million inducement (it was a “loan” first, then a briefly a “grant” and then finally an “award”) from the State Commerce Department [i.e., People] of Wisconsin) as a thank you for not leaving us altogether.  Time to break out the champagne on the editorial page: “Spectrum decision a win for region“!

The editorial encourages us to stay positive. It’s difficult to hear, but facts are facts. And the facts are this:

Corporations are just not that into us anymore.

Spectrum (Rayovac) had hooked up with Madison for a long time, but nowadays Spectrum is noticing some pretty attractive opportunities elsewhere. Spectrum Corporation needs to look after its own needs, they say, and, let’s be honest (or actually not so honest). Some of the other available cities and states are strutting some pretty attractive inducements. It’s not like Spectrum — or any corporation — can’t find love elsewhere. They can.

So maybe we should drop a few pounds?  Start exercising? Make more of an effort? If Spectrum wants to see other cities, states, or countries in more of an open relationship, who’s to stop them? Corporations have needs. They’re just like anyone else.

Small progress on the editorial page

We always feel obligated to comment on the excitable macroeconomic views of State Journal editorial page editor, Scott Milfred. We feel obligated because the topic is inherently important, it’s subject to a LOT of blarney, and Milfred is mostly always adding to the blarney. Today is no exception.

However, he’s showing slight improvement. Let’s try to encourage that.

Milfred’s main point is both true and small.

Apparently, in his State of the Union speech (we didn’t watch) the President made a statement to the effect that America would have more money for things like roads and bridges now that troops are home from Iraq and drawing down in Afghanistan.  Milfred pounces on that foolishness like an angry tabby cat, correctly observing that it’s not a windfall of new money; it’s a reduction in borrowing.

Why, that sounds like yet another misstatement by yet another government official. Color us dismayed. We join with Milfred in rebuking President Obama for that whole sentence or paragraph, or whatever it was.

Moving on.

What we do like in today’s editorial is that it shows evidence of actually remembering where our debt comes from. It comes, partly, from two wars, long ones, which no one was asked to bear a tax to pay for.  Although  the editorial begins with inexplicable quotation marks around the words “unpaid for,” it does go on to clearly acknowledge that the wars were, obviously, unpaid for.  No quotation marks.

Small as it is, we see this as a teensy bit of progress in the Milfred discussion of debt. It’s factual. It’s something that actually happened. We had a budget surplus 12 years ago (it can be done) — but a relentless Republican drive to cut taxes, two unfunded wars, and unfunded Medicare drug benefit, and then a mysterious financial collapse for which no one (well, no one important) is to blame all added together, almost mathematically, to increase our borrowing.

The usual line of illogic from editor Milfred proceeds directly to a call for cutbacks in Medicare, Social Security or the generalized bugaboo of “entitlements”… as opposed to a cutback in tax-cutting, wars, unfunded programs, and unregulated Wall Street excess (namely the policies that drove us directly from a surplus at the start of the Bush II presidency to big deficits by the middle of his term).

But none of the usual line was presented today. Instead there was an actual acknowledgement of one source of our federal debt.

It’s a start.

State Journal attempts to reframe recall election. Comes up empty.

When someone starts telling you that Wisconsin’s coming recall elections are ‘all about’ this, or they’re ‘not about’ that, you know it’s nonsense. Complicated events, historic events are NEVER caused by just one thing.

But today’s Wisconsin State Journal editorial, “Let recall election settle union question,” aims to frame widespread discontent as sour grapes from union members, and really, from no one else and about no other things. It’s a frame that Governor Walker would love to campaign on. They say

Everyone knows this recall election, at its core, is about Walker’s strict limits on collective bargaining for public workers. It’s about public workers across Wisconsin taking hits to their pay and benefits…

This is sheer nonsense. If there’s any single thing that most angers us (here at TDT) about Walker’s assault on the unions, it’s that he forgot to mention it when he was running for office.  He was planning it, and he just withheld it from the voters. You can run a ‘trick play’ like that on the football field, and it’s fair. But not in an election. Or if you do run that electoral play, then expect anger, not just dismay and oh-well-shucks, but real anger. That’s what Walker’s gotten.

The editorial tries to rule out Voter ID as a motive for recall:

Nor is the recall about the Republican push to require photo IDs at the polls, which Walker and his fellow Republicans have long favored…

Again, sheer nonsense. We’ve talked to scores of people who see voter ID as a despicable attempt to influence elections by making it harder for folks like African-Americans, students, the poor and elderly to vote. And the Republican campaign, now apparently successful, to convince low-information supporters that there was a voter fraud problem to solve? Also despicable.  (See voter caging over the years. See Karl Rove and U.S. Attorney scandals of  2006.)

But we digress. Others will discuss the recall eloquently. At we talk about the newspapers, and mostly about the editorial page of the Wisconsin State Journal. While frequently critical, and harshly so, we sometimes offer praise. Today though, it’s all criticism. There’s nothing to like.

People can and will have many reasons for supporting (or opposing) recall . There is nothing the State Journal can do to narrow the discussion.  They cannot and should not try to reframe this recall election. By trying to reframe it in precisely the way that best assists Gov. Walker, they poison their own pool of good will (such as it is) among readers.

Often we assume that the daily editorial is simply the output of editorial page editor Scott Milfred and only casually the work of an entire editorial board. Today, however, since it’s a Sunday, and since it’s the most important subject in Wisconsin, we assume the whole board took a longer look than usual.

It’s extremely disappointing to think this is what we get from the whole foursome on the board. There’s no realistic “firewall” between the content on the news pages (which we normally approve) and the editorial page (normally disapprove). It’s mostly the same individuals.  Will we see the reframing of today’s editorial in future news reporting?  We hope not. That would be damaging.

Today we compare the editorial page of the Wisconsin State Journal to a hill of beans

And… the editorial page does prevail.  Let’s acknowledge it — right off the bat —  the WSJ editorial page does, in fact, amount to more than a hill of beans.

Or, as our graphic seems to suggest, “bean salad”.

That said, if you publish a newspaper, any ‘hill of beans’ comparison is not one you’d actively invite your readers to think about. But they do. Or did, back before they stopped buying the paper.

Yesterday the ‘editorial’ was quite literally a re-purposed news story with a piffling bit of value-judgment tacked on, so it sounds vaguely like what readers expect of an editorial. The print edition was then padded with a commentary from Karl Garson’s online blog, an editorial cartoon, and 5 letters to the editor.

Today another small-bore editorial praises redevelopment at the old Bancroft Dairy on South Park Street (and several other redevelopments around town). Most readers probably see this as normal progress, the sort of thing we expect.  But on the editorial page it’s goose bumps, to the point where the whole narrative becomes confused. The well-worn ‘Madison-can’t-put-two-bricks-together’ insult is presented, as always:

…some progress at improving Madison’s image. Our city needs to be a place where big projects can succeed, despite elaborate bureaucracy.

Good grief. The editorial is literally celebrating redevelopment projects going on, inexplicably they would have us believe, all over the city… “despite elaborate bureaucracy.” This is just not very good work. It’s pea-shooter small, and inconsistent, to boot.

The editorials do amount to more than a hill of beans, but let’s be honest. It’s because they’re in the Wisconsin State Journal, which is [approximately] the 90th largest newspaper, by circulation, in the U.S. The editorials ride along on the coattails of the news coverage, and comics, and ads, and probably a sense among some readers that they’re just supposed to follow the local paper.

But for anyone who is genuinely interested in opinion, analysis, and how a crazy world can be better understood, the State Journal editorial page is never a useful destination. Can we really say “never”?  “Never say never,” they say, but we’re damn close to saying it here.

We read the State Journal editorials not for thoughtfulness, not for enlightenment, but to know what they might be doing to our precious information environment. This city and this region deserve much, much better. Look at today’s weird, lackadaisical choice of editorial. Look at yesterday’s. Look at the day before that. These weren’t the worst of what happens on the local editorial page — they weren’t harmful, merely tiny — inviting comparison to a hill of beans.

It would not be out of line to consider shuttering the whole editorial page operation. Save some money. Save some trees. Save credibility. Who’s going to miss it?

Chicken Little sees a global unraveling

Economics is complicated subject, so ordinary people can be forgiven (sort of) for not trying to understand it themselves, surrendering instead to stuff they heard once or maybe hear a lot.

Any tavern frequented by geezers has a well-oiled fuddy-duddy at the end of the bar blowing wind on the state of  ‘gummint’ and the economy. (Not that young men at the end of a bar are well-informed, only that they invariably have other business on their minds.)

Today no trip to the tavern was necessary (at least not for the purpose of hearing the views of some lightly informed guy at random). Scott Milfred (we presume), writing for the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board, treats us to his excitable views on the macroeconomic future. He is terrified by our national debt.

People with memories (sadly this does not include everyone, and certainly does not include Milfred) will recall that terror over the national debt began — actually erupted — approximately 12 seconds after George W. Bush left Washington, having turned his inherited federal surpluses into big federal deficits. And so now for 3 years we’ve heard people who imagine themselves ‘very serious’ people raising very serious concerns about federal debt, although it never concerned them either a jot or a tittle until 12 seconds after the political opposition took power in Washington (following a financial collapse that occurred in 2008, for some reason). Anyway, they say, that’s all in the past. It’s forgotten by those with no memories.

Here’s the truth: there are a lot of people, ranging from fuddy-duddies at the end of a bar, to million-dollar Congressmen, to multi-million-dollar Senators, to multi-million-dollar pundits, to multi-million-dollar TV anchors, who have no training or background or depth or credibility, talking about macroeconomics as if they deserve to be listened to. They’re trying to be opinion leaders. Scott Milfred may be paid more like the fuddy-duddy than the million-dollar pundit, but the whole lot of them is just repeating stuff they’ve heard rather steadily for 3 years, and now hear constantly. From one another.  Don’t buy it. DO NOT TAKE ECONOMIC ADVICE FROM GUYS WHO HAVE BEEN WRONG FOR YEARS.

Note:  Krugman has such an inconvenient history of being RIGHT, he can never appear on the State Journal editorial pages, where space is made available to such luminaries as Jonah Goldberg….