In the Bluff

a blog from Wisconsin’s west coast

(the opinions expressed in this blog are the opinions of the author only, and do not represent the opinions of the company or its employees)
April 11, 2011

Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all!
By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall.

John Dickinson, “The Liberty Song” (1768)

Well, we managed to pull back from the brink of our national budget crisis the other day. I’m guessing I’m not the only one who feels we have once more simply delayed the inevitable, and that the reckoning will come soon enough, likely with the battle over the debt ceiling. The notion that we cannot find compromise in a budget as large as ours and that neither side is willing to give something for the greater good is disappointing.

Meanwhile, here in Wisconsin, the politics have gone from the ridiculous to the sublime, with upcoming recall elections and an overly politicized judicial election marked notably by the 13th hour discovery by a local official of missing votes. The Walker administration continues to forge ahead with its agenda to end collective bargaining and make severe budget cuts (but not seek to increase revenues) at a time when we should be investing in our schools and municipal infrastructure and addressing the dire situation faced by many of the have-nots in our society (for example, cuts in Badger Care, the state-run health program, will negatively impact many farmers in the state, who are already living hand-to-mouth).

I respect Governor Walker’s desire to face into our budget issue in the state; what I have a hard time swallowing is that this is being done in an uneven manner (why no taxes?), without inviting any collaboration with those who may not agree with his proposals. Not only are the state Democrats being shut out of the process, but those of us in western Wisconsin don’t even get the benefit of a public hearing on the budget in our region (there was one planned, but it was moved to another part of the state). Moreover, while municipalities across the state are facing reduced state contributions for their budgets, these cuts are very uneven. My community, for example, is facing close to a 50 percent cut, while other communities of similar demographics are seeing aid cut by 5–15 percent, without any justification for the difference. Given the state of dialogue on the budget, it appears that calls for clarification or collaborative efforts to work toward common goals will not be heard.

So what is a good old idealist like me to do? Well, for one, continue to read my history. Our nation has faced much bigger problems than those we face today, though you might not believe it if you tune in solely to the 24-hour news channels. During the forging of our great nation, differences of opinion as to the very nature of our government consumed our “best and brightest,” and yet compromise was struck. And 150 years ago this week, the first shots in the Civil War were fired and the very future of our country was at stake (reading hat-tip of the week—1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart is an excellent overview of the first year of the war). Though it took a bloody war, we as a nation persevered.

We have suffered through world wars and the Great Depression, through a cold war and battles over civil rights, and yet survived, all along continuing “to forge a more perfect union” (every time I reread the Constitution, I am struck not only by the genius of the Founders, but the literary merit of their work). We have done so because citizens of this country have ultimately put aside their individual differences to work toward our shared goals, that we have listened to others as much as spoken our opinions. It hasn’t been easy, and will not be in the future. But unless we are willing to try and find civil solutions to our problems, unless we stop the name-calling and try to truly engage the other side, and unless we recognize that, in a country that is pretty much divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans, neither side has a mandate and thus the solutions must be forged together, progress will be even harder to come by.

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In the Bluff

a blog from Wisconsin’s west coastPublisher Sam Scinta

(the opinions expressed in this blog are the opinions of the author only, and do not represent the opinions of the company or its employees)

March 10, 2010

 

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice.

Alice in Wonderland

As most of you are aware, things have taken a turn for the strange and the worse out here in Wisconsin. It definitely feels like we are tumbling down the rabbit hole and that these latest actions will most certainly have national ramifications. I will leave it to others smarter than I to weigh in on the legality of the Wisconsin State Senate’s move last evening (passing in special subcommittee, with no public notice and without a quorum, a bill that strips away collective bargaining for most public employees); upon cursorily reviewing the materials, a case can certainly be made for its legality. Suffice it to say, legal or not, what happened here in Wisconsin last evening was an affront to the democratic process. To rush something like this through without notifying the public (and giving cursory notice to the Democratic state senators), effectively making a secret backroom deal (when hints of compromise by both sides were being expressed just the day before) and twisting procedural and parliamentary rules to get your way, is not what we should expect from our government. I request that those who support actions like this halt any references to the founders and our constitution in making their arguments, for surely, this is not the sort of government our founders had in mind.

While almost all of the Republican state senators voted for the bill, a lone voice of dissent stood up yet again—Senator Dale Schultz. We should all thank Senator Schultz today for his stand on government transparency, for his continued willingness to find compromise on a complex and difficult issue, and for his sense of fair play. He is a modern-day profile in courage. I have had the good fortune to know and work with many courageous and principled politicians over the years, (including one of my political heroes, Wisconsin-native Dick Lamm, who was willing in many instances to stand up for his convictions even if it meant losing support of his party). Senator Schultz will be remembered long after this debate has passed, when all of the other names are forgotten, as the Republican who stood up for the people and for democracy.

So where do we go from here? The state legislature will move ahead with its actions and battle lines will continue to be drawn; legal challenges to the latest actions are almost a certainty; and protests and recall efforts will push ahead, as the citizens of the state engage in the democratic process. Because these issues represent a turning point not only for Wisconsin but for the nation, I am going to redouble my efforts through Fulcrum and its affiliates to continue providing a platform for intelligent and civil debate on the future of our country. This will include looking to the founders and their wisdom, for we need them now more than ever. Don’t confuse this with the recent trend of founder fetishization; men like Adams and Jefferson were not giants walking the earth, and they certainly made their share of mistakes. But in creating the American political system, they understood that this American experiment was subject to change and continued debate. As Fareed Zakaria noted in a recent article, “The founders loved America, but they also understood that it was a work in progress.” This much-needed debate can only occur by those willing to share and listen, to sometimes face uncomfortable truths, to show a willingness to compromise, and most importantly, to comport oneself with civility. In the coming weeks, through a variety of projects under way, we will be doing our small part to help restore the debate and forge a more perfect union.


In the Bluff—February 23, 2011

a blog from Wisconsin’s west coast
(the opinions expressed in this blog are the opinions of the author only, and do not represent the opinions of Fulcrum or its employees)

“We thought, because we had power, we had wisdom.”
—Stephen Vincent Benét, Litany for Dictatorships, 1936

Seven years ago, Fulcrum launched a book series called Speaker’s Corner, with the intention of increasing civil dialogue on a variety of issues facing America and the world today. In 2011, we will be launching several new initiatives in support of this endeavor, which will be discussed in a future blog. We live in a world today where civility is largely absent from our political interactions; increasingly, politicians on both sides see black and white in a world that is largely gray. It is my hope and intention that through the expansion of this series, we will contribute to building the much-needed bridges for constructive debate in the future.

The absence of constructive debate has really hit home with the continuing troubles here in Wisconsin. Last night, the governor continued to dig in his heels on his unyielding stance on benefits for public employees (which is troubling given the compromises offered by the public employee unions as well as by one brave Republican state senator, Dale Schultz). The movement has now become national, with similar efforts in Indiana and Ohio and rallies in support of the unions across the country (including 1,000 supporters in Colorado). There are many troubling underlying aspects to this issue, many of which go well beyond Wisconsin and public employee benefits. To wit:

The keeping of campaign pledges. The governor of Wisconsin has repeatedly stressed that he has given the voters in the state, who elected him as well as a Republican legislature last November, exactly what he pledged in his campaign. Unfortunately, neither the governor nor any of his supporters has of yet been able to produce any evidence that the governor campaigned on a pledge of ending collective bargaining for public employee unions. He did indicate that he would seek concessions from the unions in terms of their benefits (which the unions have offered, an offer ignored by the governor), but nowhere did he indicate that this basic right to collective bargaining would be abridged. To my mind, this gives moral force not only to the efforts of the protesters, but also the 14 democratic senators who refuse to return to the state until the governor agrees to discuss this issue. Had this issue been a part of the governor’s campaign pledge in the fall, his actions today would be reasonable, as voters would have had an opportunity to debate and process the issue. Sadly, this did not happen, and thus the voters are left with a leader taking unanticipated actions.

But the Democrats did the same thing. A lot has been made about President Obama forcing healthcare reform on the nation, and the notion that by doing this, he set a precedent that the Republicans are merely following. A few critical differences. First, while the final vote on healthcare was held using arcane parliamentary rules (something I disagree with regardless of party), the whole public debate on healthcare reform was out there for many months prior to passage. Remember all the vitriolic public forums preceding final passage? In Wisconsin, the governor has attempted to push through significant legislation not only with a lack of public debate (and no indication of compromise, which at least President Obama attempted to do), but to do so in a mere week, simply because he “had the votes.” Moreover, President Obama campaigned in part on healthcare reform; unlike the Wisconsin governor, he put the idea out there for voters to process and to vote on. Finally, there is the old-fashioned notion that two wrongs simply do not make a right. Even if a case could be made against the other two points above, does one really want to do something wrong simply because somebody else did it first?

Follow the money. More than one commentator has made the observation that what is really going on here has little to do with workers’ rights and collective bargaining, and more to do with money in politics. It seems to me this is an astute observation. For those of you who have read our book The Blueprint (Speaker’s Corner, 978-1-93621-800-4) released last year, you will see that authors Rob Witwer and Adam Schrager were on top of this bigger story well before the national media; this book, which received positive endorsements from commentators on both the left and the right, should be required reading for anyone interested in how money shapes politics today. By eliminating the power of the unions, which are the biggest contributor to Democratic Party campaigns, a significant base for candidate funding would be eliminated. Now, I am very much in favor of removing the influence of money in politics; but until we are able to create strong and fair legislation to achieve this end, it seems to me that eliminating union influence would create an uneven playing field for the near future, tilted to one party’s favor.

Unions are the enemy. The saddest outcome of this debate, in my opinion, has revolved around the status of union employees. These union members are our neighbors, our teachers, the local firefighters and police officers, the kind faces we see at city hall, the nurses and EMTs who take care of us, the state employees who diligently work to make the state a better place. They are not the enemy. Yet, the Wisconsin governor has created a situation where middle-class private sector employees are at odds with middle-class public employees. This to me is class warfare at its ugliest. I don’t want to dwell on the canard that state employees are somehow overpaid, other than to note that there are several studies that conclude that, including benefits, public employees tend to be underpaid, and I have yet to see a study that contradicts these findings. To ask these public employees to take a lion’s share of the pain in the midst of a state budget shortfall (I hesitate to use the word crisis, because Wisconsin’s problems, while significant, pale compared to those of other states), to in effect brand them as the enemy while giving tax cuts to corporations, seems unethical. The perception that unions are bad in general, that they have somehow outlived their usefulness, is also troubling. While I would agree that unions have at times taken advantage of political situations to forward their agenda (as have corporations, the wealthy, etc.), they have also provided many of the good things that benefit all workers. Think safe workplaces, healthcare, minimum wage, child labor laws, and the list goes on. In the grand scheme of things, unions have done much more good than bad. And they continue to be vital to providing a voice to workers. The basic right to collectively bargain is provided in the UN Declaration of Human Rights; I do not understand what we gain as a society by removing this right.

Why do I, a private employer, care about this situation? To put it simply, what is happening here in Wisconsin is not only a referendum on the future of public employee unions, it is a turning point where we Americans determine what sort of country we want to have in the future. Do we want to live in a nation where dialogue should precede large decisions? Or should we simply vest power in our leaders, to use at their whim? Do we want a level playing field for the free exchange of ideas and opinions? Do we want all sides to be heard? Do we want to protect and grow the middle class or do we only want to protect those with the most wealth?

The governor of Wisconsin, along with other state governments across the country, certainly has the power to decide many of these issues; they must recognize, however, that the wisdom comes from including all of the people in the debate.

To learn more about the Speaker’s Corner series and to see a list of titles, please click here.