Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Man Who Allowed It To Happen

Everyone who covers news for a living is in mourning today after the passing of former Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee.  While Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein get most of the credit for uncovering the Watergate break-in and the attempts by those in the Richard Nixon White House to cover up their connection to the crime--and Nixon's knowledge of the cover up--those two would never have had their investigative work published without Ben Bradlee.

It was Bradlee that weathered the constant pressure from the White House and from within his own organization to give up on the Watergate story.  No other news service in the country was dedicating any air time or print space after the initial break in and the arrest of G Gordon Liddy and his "plumbers".  But Bradlee had trust and faith in his two relatively-young reporters that there was something more there--and he gave them the time and the space to do their work.  He allowed the two to use anonymous sources to further their reporting--a practice not that common at the time--but the only way to tell the story, since those who wanted the truth to be known had far too much to lose to go on the record.

Bradlee also stood by "Wood-stein" when the occasionally got things wrong and when sources fed them incorrect information to throw them off the trail.  That is probably the most courageous act in that entire drama--because of the high stakes involved.  If you've seen the movie adaptation of the book All The President's Men you may recall Jason Robard's classic line "We stand by the boys".

Ben Bradlee is still why many journalists do what they do for living.  It's why we file the open records requests.  It's why we sit through the interminably long meetings.  It's why we leave the 23-messages for comment.  And it's why we deal with the stream of emails, Facebook messages and phone calls accusing us of "twisting the truth" and being unfair to one side or the other.  Because when we expose a District Attorney that takes bribes, or we find that an elected body violated Open Meetings laws and when we uncover abuse of power by those we elect to any public office--we are honoring the legacy of Ben Bradlee.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Not So Tough On Crime

One of the most disingenuous arguments that are made in the race for Attorney General (and occasionally in the State Supreme Court elections) is that candidates are "soft on crime".  The talking point is usually followed by an example of a criminal that saw charges greatly reduced, a light sentence or perhaps even charges dismissed altogether.  And then the opponents conviction and long sentence for one criminal is touted as that prosecutor being "tough on crime".

As someone who observes the justice system on a regular basis, I can tell you that if the "standard" is to fully charge, convict and sentence every criminal to the maximum allowable punishment to be considered "tough on crime"--then there is not a single prosecutor, District Attorney or Judge that is "tough on crime" in Wisconsin.  Reduced charges, plea bargains, lenient sentences and "second chances" are common--and pretty much necessary--in today's legal system.

In filing charges, prosecutors must know that they have at least enough evidence to warrant a trial on each and every count.  Sometimes police mess up evidence.  Sometimes witnesses contradict themselves in describing what they saw.  Sometimes, there is no physical evidence at all.  It doesn't look good when judges throw out cases at the preliminary hearing stage for lack of probable cause.  And when jurors acquit on one charge, they are more likely to have doubts about other charges that may have more evidence.

And just because there is a plea deal in a case, doesn't mean that a defendant "beat the system".  If every case went to trial because plea deals weren't offered to criminals, we would have to have 50 Circuit Court branches here in Winnebago County alone--and about a thousand people called for jury duty every day.  And remember, all it takes is one person with reasonable doubt to prevent a conviction--so a plea deal is often a guaranteed conviction.  You might also want to consider that the child molester who cops a plea to a reduced charge is also keeping a child from having to get up in front of dozens of strangers and recount on the witness stand what happened to them.  How "tough" do you look making a traumatized child go through that at both a preliminary hearing and again at a trial?

Light sentences are also required today--unless of course you believe that every city should look like Waupun--where directions could literally have you "turn left" at three prison facilities.  Judges and prosecutors need to keep in mind that there is not enough space to lock up every single person that violates the law--so they have to decide who are the "worst of the worst" to lock up--and who can be reasonably kept under control on probation and parole.

So when you hear that next ad saying So-and-So is "soft on crime"--and What's-his-Name is "tough on crime" keep in mind all of those arguments are meaningless.

Monday, October 20, 2014

9+6=Mass Confusion

When you hear complaints about Common Core Standards in schools, a lot of the complaints are not about the actual standards that need to be met by students.  Instead, it is the "new way" that children are taught even the most basic of concepts in complicated, non-linear form that frustrates most people and leads to calls to throw out Common Core.

There have been plenty of social media posts by parents--many with college and advanced degrees--who cannot even help their elementary school students because answers really aren't that clear anymore.  But posts like that can be faked to make Common Core even dumber than it is--so I've been reluctant to use any of them here.  But a Houston TV station is doing a series of "Homework Helper" segments--in an effort to assist parents in understanding this "new way to learn":


Now I consider myself pretty lucky--I'm able to do math in my head.  A lot of people aren't able to do that--they are called caluculator users.  And I always hated "showing my work" on homework or math tests.  The teachers would always say "Jonathan, the answer is correct, but you have to show your work."  And I would always try to argue that I just "know" that 238 plus 498 equals 736--because I could "see it in my mind"--so no need to do the old "carry the one...." and so forth.

But this "Make everything equal ten" because "10 is a friendly number" stuff is assinine.  I'm trying to imagine every employer watching that video thinking about all of the future employees who can't figure out basic addition and subtraction in the work setting because the "numbers aren't friendly enough".  

So when you hear people talking about how much they hate Common Core--they aren't racists--they probably just know how to do math.

Friday, October 17, 2014

That Moment

So this happened last night:

Don't you wish all of us could have that kind of moment in our lives?  That one time when everything came together and you did something so spectacular--so perfect--and that brought joy to so many people?

That's what makes sports so special--there are opportunities like that every season in every sport.  But wouldn't it be awesome if you could have a "walkoff" in your job too?  You finish a perfect weld, or everything in your spreadsheet totals up perfectly, or the sick patient gets better and everyone in the plant or the office or the clinic is there to celebrate with you--while thousands of people from the community are going nuts and cheering for you.  And then everyone starts dousing each other with champagne.  That would be awesome.  

By the way, Travis Ishikawa joining the likes of Bobby Thomson, Kirk Gibson and Joe Carter in the annals of baseball history as walkoff winners is a great story in and of itself.  He was a man without a team at the start of the year.  He didn't make the majors until he was in his 30's--bouncing around from organization to organization--from minor league to minor league--from small town to small town--riding the bus and giving serious thought to quitting the game.  But finally he got a chance--found new teams in the majors to latch on to--and thanks to an injury to Giants outfielder Angel Pagan, he gets to start in the National Championship Series and experience the greatest thrill in sports.

Boom.  Walkoff.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Politics of Ebola

One of the interesting things about the Ebola outbreak this year is that it is purely political in nature.  The country believed to be the main source of this outbreak--Liberia--has been in political turmoil for decades.  That has left country with little to no public infrastructure.  And in that environment, social diseases like Ebola can run rampant as hospitals and clinics don't have the staff nor the medicines to treat people early in the outbreak.  And there is basically no governmental presence to head up and oversee any response.  So it has fallen upon the the rest of the world to come in and do the best it can to work in very difficult conditions.

The spread of Ebola to the US is political in nature as well.  More than seven-thousand cases concentrated in a few West African countries should have led to a moratorium on flights and travel from those countries to the US.  But the face of Ebola is obviously a Black face--and President Obama stood to face criticism from those on the left as bowing to "racial discrimination" by keeping people from that area out of the country.  There is already plenty of criticism on the internet from liberals who question if the world response to the outbreak would have been different if Ebola started in Scandanavia instead of West Africa.  As of this morning, there is still no indication from the White House if travel restrictions will be placed on anyone arriving from the Hot Zone.

And the concern over the arrival of Ebola here in the US is highlighting the fact that we do not have a Surgeon General.  President Obama's nominee is being held up in the Senate because of his plan to list gun violence as a "public health crisis".  That has Republicans staunchly opposed to that nomination, because they see it as a potential backdoor route to additional gun control.  That leaves us--the most advanced medical nation on the planet--without a point person to direct the overall response to the Ebola threat.  Yes, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control has become the face of our containment efforts--but that is not a Cabinet-level position that can bring the forces of multiple agencies and departments to bear on fighting the disease. 

So if this gets any worse--and if fear starts to grip the nation--don't blame the patients, or the doctors and nurses or even the media.  Blame the politicians that put into place the conditions that are really allowing this situation to exist.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Going Up the Country

Someday historians are going to look back at this period of history and wonder why a country that had large populations of unemployed citizens needed to have other people sneak into the country in order to meet its labor demands.  I've been thinking about that since hearing representatives from the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation calling for faster action on immigration reform to help stabilize their workforce.  You have to ask why Wisconsin farms rely so heavily on new-to-the country workers when more than half of the African-American men in the city of Milwaukee are unemployed.

We see plenty of efforts to "bring the farm to the city"--with fresh food programs in public schools, farmers markets in every downtown across the state--and the State Fair beingl held in the largest metropolitan area in Wisconsin.  But where is the effort to bring the city to the farm?  I checked the on-line editions of the Milwaukee County Farm Bureau newsletters and I don't see anything about recruitment efforts for farm labor in any of them.  There's nothing about posting jobs available in the industry or any training seminars for potential jobseekers.  I don't see any Blacks in any of the pictures either (unless you count Rickie Weeks in the photo of the players on the field at Miller Park at the Young Farmers Association Brewers game).  So why go through all of the hassle of worrying about if the guys you hired from Mexico and Central America are going to get picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at any time--when you can know that your staff was born here and are legal to work?

Of course, this has to be a two-way street.  All of those unemployed African-American men have to be willing to do the work.  Yes, it would require relocation, but consider that the immigrant worker already working on that farm came thousands of miles to work there--in a climate in which he is unfamiliar and where everyone else speaks a different language.  And he can't "go home" on the weekend--because there is no guarantee he'll be able to get back in.  Plus, we hear all the time about how the "culture" of the inner city is what "captures" these young men and turns them to lives of crime and drug abuse.  Well, you can't get any further away from gangs, guns and drugs than to work on a farm in Potosi, Wisconsin.

Every time I head to Madison, I drive past the Wisconsin State Prison Farm along highway 151.  Given the demographics of our prison population, you have to figure that many African-Americans are learning the skills of modern farming.  Are they actually employing those skills upon their release?  And are they spreading the word about the opportunities that exist in the field?  Those immigrant workers don't just drive around the country looking for a farmer to hire them.  They learn of job opportunities from relatives and friends--who heard about their jobs from relatives or friends.

If we are going to change the fortunes and the futures of the African-American communities not just in Wisconsin but in every other state, we need to make sure they have access to the jobs that are available in all segments of the market--the rest will have to be up to them.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


'Tis the season for bad horror movies, and the latest one is the Return of the Debt-Forgivers.  It stars in the role of Dr Frankenstein (that's Frahn-ken-shteen) everyone's favorite evil economist Paul Krugman--who is back demanding that trillions of dollars in debt just be written off to "free up" the economy.  In building his army of deadbeat zombies, Krugman argues in the New York Times that holding people accountable for their debts and financial decisions is nothing more than mean-spirited "righteousness"--and that what the US and the world needs is more deficit spending--both at the governmental and the consumer level to get things "back to normal".

But instead of tasty brains, what Krugman's zombie forces are looking to eat up are the savings of those who actually survived the financial apocolypse (which was caused by way too much consumer and government debt--in case you forgot that) by practicing sound financial strategy.  The Evil Economist has formulated a standard Keynsian plan to just make debt "disappear" by having the Government write off student loans and mortgages for those who chose to get in over their heads.  And since the Government is already 18-trillion in the hole itself, to whom will it have to turn to come up with the money?  Why the people who saved their money before the Great Recession, of course!

Part 2 of the Evil Plan calls for further increases in the monetary supply, continued artificial suppression of interest rates, relaxed borrowing standards in order to increase spending (debt spending in most cases) and to raise the inflation rate.  You see, in Keynsian Economics you never actually pay back your debts.  Instead, you use inflation to de-value the money you owe to the point where whomever lent it to you gets screwed.  Nevermind that inflation also eats away at the average person's buying power as well--we'll just use the power of the government to raise the minimum wage to make it "seem" like you are making more money.  And nevermind that inflation also eats away at any savings that the average person tries to maintain--because we'll just keep adding to Government entitlement programs to provide you with all the "financial security" you need.

One thing that Evil Dr Krugman is right about, is that demanding people pay back their debts is slowing economic recovery.  But an America that lives within its means will mean less likelihood of the financial "bubbles" and "crises" that got us into our current mess.  We can either be patient and get this thing right now--or we can look forward to Return of the Debt-Forgivers Part II in another generation.