The moral universe of ALEC and the Wisconsin State Journal

Today, the Wisconsin State Journal editorial board, after a long silence, dipped a teensy-weeny toe into the discussion of ALEC:

The American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC, is either a scandalous, deceptive, dark force in state politics or a helpful, efficient, font of ideas and information for state legislators across the country.

Depending, of course, on one’s point of view.

Really? ALEC might be a “helpful, efficient, font of ideas and information for state legislators across the country”?   Seriously?

Here the State Journal is famously, in the words of James Thurber, “turning cartwheels in the house, kicking over the umbrella stand, knocking down the bridge lamps, and ramming elbows through the windows”, trying to pose neutral.

It doesn’t work.

Like the teetotalling bear in the Thurber story, they’re bending over way too far backwards.

They do want one small obvious thing. They want the Government Accountability Board to review the legality of free trips, prepaid hotels, and lavish entertainment provided to legislators (and families). Is this not corrupt, on its very face? A simple call?

But then, critically, that’s the end of the editorial board’s ethical thinking.

They do have a moral universe, but its measuring stick is very small. If it’s not strictly speaking illegal, then, well, hell….

We have recently seen a candidate for governor conceal his agenda from voters during the campaign. Not a problem for the State Journal. It was, after all, not “illegal”.

Once elected, he moved to defund the political opposition. That might be an assault on fair play, a betrayal of people he’s actually supposed to represent, and a perversion of democracy. But it’s not, strictly speaking, illegal.

A party can move against the broad right of citizens to vote. Again, helpful to them, damaging to the opposition, and not necessarily illegal.

With the necessary votes finally there in the U.S. Supreme Court, we can all enjoy overnight rivers of money washing over our elections, and it’s suddenly, literally, all completely legal, all strictly yes-sir, no-sir, officially legal.

This, as best we can tell, is the blinkered moral universe of the State Journal editorial board — “Not convicted? Not a problem.”

Remember their “rules for recall”? If the elected official hasn’t been convicted of a crime…. what’s all the fuss?

There is then — in their particular moral universe — nothing wrong with the world’s most powerful corporations gathering together and meeting in private to draft legislation with a bunch of over-awed, small town Republican state legislators. It’s not, after all, illegal to do this.

Sure, it’s the very essence of everyday “normal” political corruption, and there are always those who earn a living being paid not to notice.


Oh, by all means, let’s do have more crazy.

Here at The Daily Tissue we knew that when we anted up $4.95 for a month-long pass-thru at the new Madison.com paywall, soon enough something would happen to make us feel very ambivalent about the whole arrangement. Who knew it would only take four days? And no, it’s not that Don Miller Subaru ad popping up intermittently to cover today’s editorial. It’s of course (warning: paywallthe editorial itself.

The State Journal is happy, almost giddy. How come?

It’s great to be a swing state again.

A competitive race for president in Wisconsin [sic] this year should bring lots of attention and visits from the major candidates and their surrogates.

And so on.

It’s a deliriously out-of-touch editorial welcoming the thought that a Republican presidential candidate might carry Wisconsin for the first time since 1980. The only problem here is that the Republican Party has become a horror show (and not the good kind at the movies). 

It’s a feat, sort of, but the State Journal editorial board seems to have slept through 10 to 30 years of Republican party — pardon the term — evolution. Are they pretending not to notice, or have they really not noticed? Loony extremism — remember the Republican primaries? — is now not only tolerated, not only helpful with the base, but frequently required.

We’ve said in the past that the editorial board is “not from the Crazy Wing” of the party, but now we need to ask, does it matter? They’re still rooting for a horror show. They’re still on board, partnered with some imaginary, responsible or prudent GOP of the past, even though the real GOP of today is simply shot through with craziness. The GOP is the party of Limbaugh, O’Reilly and Beck. It’s the party of climate-denialism, racism, birtherism, and an endless series of loony conspiracy theories passed around in emails.

None of this — we contend — could be thriving without a failing media and press.

78% of Republicans confused about where Obama was born

new poll (long but interesting) released by Dartmouth government professor Benjamin Valentino finds that 63 percent of Republicans believe that Iraq had WMD’s (Question 63).  And (Question 64) where was President Obama born? Over 63% of Republicans believe Obama was born in a foreign country. 15% of the rest say they don’t know. That’s a whopping 78% of Republicans.

Does John Boehner challenge any of this nonsense? Does Mitch McConnell? Mitt Romney? Do we have anything other than a supine press that has, long ago, abandoned the intent of getting at the truth from and about our political “leaders”?

Here’s this important graph again.

The same trendlines are, of course, continuing. Why doesn’t this graph appear — and, for that matter, appear over and over and over — in the Wisconsin State Journal?  We suppose it’s because they don’t like to talk about it. It’s off-message. Well, it’s off their message, despite being entirely central to the economic lives of most of their readers.

The State Journal editorial board — and we can’t quite imagine why, for any of them other than possibly the publisher — is apparently eager to see these trends grow worse.

Headline of the day at BusinessInsider.com:

Corporate Profits Just Hit An All-Time High, Wages Just Hit An All-Time Low

Great, huh? And the Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan plan, so exciting for the State Journal editorial writers, is this:

Got it? If your annual income is $50-70,000, plan on a 6% tax increase. If your annual income is a million or more… a 16% decrease. Just exactly what we need, don’t you agree?

Well, that’s what the State Journal is pumping today, and for this kind of guidance we are now paying $4.95 a month. Like we said, we anticipated certain difficulties with the paywall, and they appear to be significant.


The lies we tell ourselves

We continue to puzzle (yes, probably way too much) at the recent editorial in which the Wisconsin State Journal tries to assure readers that the recall election was not determined –at least not exclusively — by money. They sum it up like this:

Money, of course, matters. But so does everything else.

Alright then. Doubtlessly true, in some sense. But how much does money matter? Could it be 80% of the story? 90%? And after accounting for the money, what exactly is left over in the remainder barrel labeled “everything else”?

For quite some time, the savvy insider understanding has been that money does matter very, very, VERY much, and in fact, in each new election cycle, the spending just grows and grows. Political consultants try to raise lots and lots of money. Lobbyists gain access by raising money. Outside groups deliver truckloads of money. News organizations report on just how much money each candidate has raised, and they treat it as an early proxy for how voters are going to wind up thinking. For several decades there has been no single indicator predicting who will win a federal or statewide election that’s more predictive than money. The State Journal reports candidate fund-raising on its front page. And on its editorial page, on days when it suits them, they grump about Wisconsin’s “money-soaked” elections.

But wait! All of a sudden the Wisconsin State Journal turns this narrative sideways, first in this (misleading) front-page news analysis (R’s and D’s both raise equivalent money?), and now again in this (bungled) editorial (Sure there’s money, but other factors matter, too?).

Is it somehow useful to avoid this elephant in the room?

Yes, it is.

  • For one thing, it’s boring for readers to see this same sad fact over and over. There’s a reason that news sellers will stop covering a war after the 3rd and 4th and 5th year. It’s depressing. It’s the same old story over and over. It’s not new and it doesn’t sell.
  • It’s useful to somebody’s interests to have elections controlled by money. Newspapers that identify with and support those interests may think it’s clever to tell the rubes, “Oh, money matters, but it’s not the only thing, you know.” (And technically it’s not the only thing See how clever that is?) You can judge for yourself whether that’s pertinent in the present case.
  • Maybe, at some level, they are lying to themselves. The State Journal editorial board, while strongly partnered with moneyed Republican interests, is not from the Crazy Wing of the party. See any editorial from category 2 — “The Surprisingly Correct”. They do worry on occasion about “good government”. It can’t really be lost on them that democracy at the federal level has been thoroughly captured by money, and that the same is now well-advanced in the states. And that their team (and it is a team) has been all for it. Maybe it’s useful — psychologically speaking — to tell oneself it’s not really that bad yet.

Wisconsin State Journal bungles another editorial

On Thursday the Wisconsin State Journal editorial page explained election advertising for unsophisticates:

They acknowledged that money might play a role in elections, sure. But not a critical role. Yes, maybe a pretty big role, but not a decisive role. That’s the important thing to remember. Other factors come into play, and just because a candidate (let’s say, a governor) devotes nearly full-time to raising money, beginning at the very moment he knows he’s facing a recall election, that doesn’t mean that lots of money and self-serving distortion are necessarily important. Well, OK, maybe “important”, but it’s not the ONLY determinant. That’s all the State Journal is saying.

Karl Rove, political consultants, everywhere: You’ve got it all wrong. Money, advertising? Not really THAT important in the judgment of the local editorial board.


Wisconsin State Journal now offering charm school assessments?

We were amused to read Thursday’s State Journal editorial which has this to say about departing Madison School Superintendent Dan Nerad:

Nerad has been a measured and thoughtful leader. What he lacked in charm he sometimes made up for in knowledge and diplomacy.

What he lacked in charm”?!?

Nerad had insufficient “charm”?  But then he also “sometimes made up for it”?  using “knowledge”? and “diplomacy”?

Is this the work of a confused insult comic?

Look, we have no idea what Superintendent Nerad is like personally. But the Wisconsin State Journal — or presumably, the often prickly editorial page editor, Scott Milfred — thinks that he DOES. We find it side-splitting that our favorite malfunctioning opinion page editor is now doing Charm School assessments. Is he really qualified for this kind of work?

But the editorial, of course, must have intended to be more than a confused swipe at Nerad. And what was that intended point? Ah, there it is in the headline — “Madison School Board responsible, too“. Yes, the school board IS responsible for schools, and needs to keep working, although that seems to be a ludicrously obvious point.

Maybe it would be helpful if someone would just call for “decisive action”? Yes, good, there it is in the editorial. That’ll certainly help.

When we see a hundred men show up with orange barrels and heavy equipment to start tearing up a roadway, we have every confidence they know what they’re doing. When we see the State Journal editorial page undertake a normal day’s work, we have no such confidence.


What IS this?

Again this morning we sped thru the State Journal editorial only to ask ourselves “What WAS that?” and “Really?”

Why go to all the trouble and EXPENSE of having an editorial page editor if this (“Goofy aircraft ticket doesn’t fly“) is what we get?

In case you missed it, here’s the original story from the Fond du Lac Reporter, a Gannet newspaper.  We were first alerted to it yesterday in Jim Rowan’s The Political Environment, an indispensable Wisconsin blog.  The story’s been picked up and re-reported all over, and today’s State Journal “editorial” is, in fact, mostly another drastically shortened rewrite.

Of necessity, in order to justify the news story’s retelling as an “editorial”, editor Scott Milfred needs to draw at least some small lesson in public policy or morality. His lesson? Wisconsin is too lenient in its DUI laws and needs harsher penalties.

Maybe, but that was actually NOT what the story was about!

The story, as most readers would quickly understand — at least from the original reporting if not the State Journal editorial — was about a very important person getting special treatment from our justice system.

Milfred’s conclusion would only follow from the story if the story had shown numerous drunks pleading guilty to flying airplanes when actually they’d been driving cars. (Ergo, we need to change the law.) Needless to say, that’s not been happening. This bizarre handling happened only once that we know of, and surprise, surprise, it involved a very rich and prominent business person.

The editorial missed the news story.

We’d love it if the State Journal editorial page became more interested in the fertile topic of two-tiered justice. Most reality-based readers know it’s a problem. It seems absent from the local editorials, however. We’ll even suggest an excellent book, With Liberty and Justice for Some, by the indispensable Glenn Greenwald, who blogs famously at Salon.com.

an excerpt from With Liberty and Justice for Some:

When ordinary Americans come in contact with the justice system, everything changes. The world we have been examining reverses. In the United States, the lack of accountability for elites goes hand-in-hand with a lack of mercy for everyone else. As our politicians increasingly claim the right to commit crimes with impunity, they simultaneously escalate the severity of punishments imposed on ordinary Americans who have broken even minor laws.

As a result, precisely what the founders most feared has come to exist: a two-tiered system of justice in which outcomes are determined not by the law itself but by the status, wealth, and power of the lawbreaker.


State Journal gets angry, fumbles

The Figure 5 in Gold

Charles Demuth, The Figure 5 in Gold (1928), Museum of Modern Art, New York

Time once again to haul out the big Number 5 graphic… as the State Journal has produced another example of what we call the “Type 5 Editorial – the Unintentionally Hilarious (or Just Plain Sad).

They are sputtering mad that the high school basketball championships are leaving Madison. Are they mad at everyone? Mad mostly at the UW? Barry Alvarez? It’s hard to tell.

The editorial promises to “connect the dots”  but then fails to do so. Really, really fails. By the end, we were left wondering if they even know what “connecting the dots” means. It means, of course, to associate two or more things in order to reveal something that was hidden, or at least not obvious.  Detectives connect the dots. Scientists, researchers…. Actually we all do. Or should.

Here, however, is a close analog of today’s WSJ editorial:

There’s a salt shaker and a banana on the counter. We announce that we shall “connect the dots” between the two, and then we bellow: Bananas, in our opinion, are so delicious that it just makes you wonder why anyone who has a banana would also own a salt shaker. It’s mind-boggling! Really!

That is definitely not dot-connecting. Simply mentioning two things within a single rant does not mean the things are really in any way related. It’s just silly. Somebody needs to check over these editorials before they get published.

We must be exaggerating, right? Please examine the editorial yourself, and decide if the seemingly ludicrous analogy above does or does not apply.


Struggling musician shows fix for Wisconsin State Journal editorial page

The business section of Friday’s New York Times offers this story of Canadian singer-songwriter Drew Smith, and how he bought himself a pretty decent music video by outsourcing the work to Bangalore, India. For $2500 he got himself a 3-minute YouTube video, featuring his song with a bunch of — unrelated as far as we could tell, but still sort of interesting — Bollywood dancing.

As we watched the video, we thought, well, this makes  as much sense as today’s State Journal editorial, PLUS it’s a 100 times more interesting.

We read the editorial 3 times. That’s our job. We slog through no matter what. Certainly no one else in the whole world read that editorial as thoroughly as we did. We tried repeatedly to determine whether it had any particular subject. It does not. It’s a general laundry list of drearily familiar Republican talking points.

That’s when we said to ourselves, “Couldn’t this sort of thing be outsourced?

The unfortunate editorial starts with Obama in Milwaukee, and by the 3rd paragraph, believe it or not, it’s praising Governor Walker and the Legislature.  It moves from celebrating corporate tax cuts, to pumping free trade, to saluting automation (yes, that new-fangled “automation” you may have heard about anytime in the last century), and entrepreneurs, and new ventures, with certainty in taxes and simplicity of regulation, and encouragement for the private sector.  It’s an actual Republican word salad.

Couldn’t this sort of thing be outsourced?”  Of course, it could. The job of writing these editorials could be accomplished at a much lower cost by outsourcing to India. Why not put the money saved into hiring a new reporter?

Naturally, if the State Journal outsources its editorial writing, we will outsource our criticism at TheDailyTissue.com. This excellent idea occurred to us as we watched this YouTube reply to Smith’s outsourced-to-India music video. Here’s TheReplyGirl who’s new to us, but turns out to be something of a media conglomerate in the [self-]making.  We’re confused by her accent, but we love that the top of her head is always out of frame while her other assets are ready for their close-up.

She’ll go far.

How are witless editorials at the State Journal and incisive commentary at thedailytissue supposed to keep up with this?


Was the State Journal trying to ruin Super Bowl Sunday? Mr. Milfred's unique and humorless skill

On a day reserved to all Americans as a day of solemn observance — and we mean, of course — watching the Super Bowl while downing mass quantities — some from the solid group, some from the liquid group — the State Journal editorial page set out to ruin the mood.

In a piece called, “The sorry state of our neighbors to the south,” Scott Milfred, self-described “political guru”, who can actually get more wrong in 140 characters than most people can get wrong in a month, sets out to praise the budget work of Governor Walker, but inadvertently, and for the umpteenth time, demonstrates that the editorial page slogan (“Wisconsin’s independent voice”) is no more accurate than another operation’s more famous slogan (“Fair and Balanced”).

Sorry about writing such a long sentence, but we are worked up. We’re ready fo’ some footbawl [super-commercials], darn it, and Milfred comes along with “this”. And what exactly is it? Half the piece — read it and weep — is gloating over how Wisconsin isn’t Illinois.  Well, no, Wisconsin isn’t Illinois. Who cares? Wisconsin also isn’t Wyoming, or Vermont, or Costa Rica.

Then the real sermon begins. It says, we’re closer to a balanced state budget.

OK, yes. That’s actually true.

It says “Walker and the Republicans… made a lot of difficult decisions.”

Really? Difficult for whom? Certainly not themselves.

Ultimately it asks, “Did Walker have to do that to fix the state’s chronic budget mess?”

[We’re pretty sure there’s a common saying among lawyers to the effect of “Never ask yourself a rhetorical question for which you intend to answer with a big, fat lie.”  Nonetheless…]

The editorial says

“Maybe not.”

But the honest answer is “no.”  Walker and company did not need to do what they did. State workers did not need to bear all the burdens of balancing the state budget. Unions did not need to be busted. The wealthy did not need to be unaffected. Hundreds of things could have been considered, debated and implemented.

It is not, after all, the case that Walker and company had made a campaign promise that unions would be destroyed once Republicans were elected. It was all deceit. Not a peep before the election.

This governor looks dirtier and dirtier as the Friday afternoon ‘Walkergate’ news accumulates, but here’s “Wisconsin’s independent voice” doing its best on its editorial page to burnish the Walker image.  And on a Sacred Day. It leaves a bitter taste.

Bring on the game. Where’s the bottle opener?

Never mind, we’ll bite the top off.


Ring the bell, school’s in session

Self-described “political guru” Scott Milfred offers us “a quick lesson” today on the  Wisconsin State Journal editorial page. It’s a lesson about political partisanship, which he flogs approximately once a month, and which he always, always, always measures as equal within the Dems and the Repubs.

Worthless punditry regularly opens up this same can of dogfood, and apparently there’s some audience for it, since it does get served regularly.

Dogs’ll eat some nasty stuff — we’ve got the pictures to prove it — but so will low-information readers and voters. If they hear it enough, they’ll start repeating it.  Politics is worthless, the gummint can’t do anything right, and politicians are all the same.

This will be their entire understanding of how the public sphere works, and then they will be well qualified to stand at the end of some geezer bar, repeating their one-paragraph of worthless cynicism to anyone who will listen.

Or, if stars mis-align, they might become a columnist at the local newspaper.

But back to Milfred’s “quick lesson”.  Please read the editorial if you have time to burn, but it boils down to this breathless discovery — both D’s and R’s, have, at various times, spoken both in favor of and against certain tax credits which are somewhat different but at least sound kind of similar. Boy howdy, that’s an insight!  What’s more — you’re not gonna believe this — the R’s and D’s favor the idea more when their own party is proposing it, but oppose it more when the other party offers it.

Now that is a lesson for us neophytes. Could anyone other than the WSJ’s own “political guru” have schooled us better?

Answer: Oh, fer cryin’ out loud…. First of all, the editorial’s examples are about political speech. In societies that enjoy any form of democracy, opposing parties will talk this way.  One says, “there’s cause for optimism,” and the other says, “we believe that’s over-optimistic.”  It’s talk. It’s normal. It’s predictable. It’s OK. Yes, it might be hypocritical claptrap. Human beings — all of us, not just the pols — are masters of hypocrisy, often crippled by our own self-interests.  Good observers try to point out the claptrap.

What matters is doing things. Passing laws, eliminating laws, changing them.  In this, our D’s and R’s want to do different things. They want to serve different constituencies — yes, often insufficiently different constituencies; yes, often hand-in-hand with lobbyists pushing wheelbarrows of money — but there are differences that affect almost everything from infant mortality to childhood poverty to education to health and well-being for oldsters. R’s and D’s do propose to do different things.

They do oppose each other’s efforts. Folks back home want that. They demand it. Describing this as “partisanship” is not helpful.

Voters oppose other voters. Industries oppose other industries. It’s a real contest with winners and losers. Even when a change is blocked, when something does not change, someone wanted that no-change outcome, and someone has won as someone else lost.

To grump, as this editorial does, that “politics trumps progress again” is a childish misunderstanding of what’s going on in our politics. What “progress” do we agree upon? There’s deep division in America.

A functioning editorial page would help readers understand what opposing political parties want to do, who would benefit, who would lose.  Indeed — for ordinary people — this is (or would be) the benefit of reading the thoughts and analyses of a good editorial page.

The world will always have geezers standing at the end of geezer bars, griping about the imaginary ‘old days’, and ‘partisan wrangling’, and ‘nothin’ gettin’ done’. It’s bar talk. It’s not exactly enlightened, or enlightening, but it’s OK.

It would be swell if our public information systems were much better at counteracting this chatter, but it’s never been job #1. They’re corporations trying to profit and survive. Selling ads is far more critical to their existence than delivering thoughtful analysis applied to complicated issues.

Do  we have huge swaths of the public, almost whole regions of the country, where people seem to know nothing in specific, trading only in no-nothing cynicism and empty memes, of which “partisanship” is a constantly recycled golden oldie? Seems like! Is the cure for that found on the Wisconsin State Journal editorial page? Sadly, no, it is not.