Saturday, January 31, 2009

Conservatives and neo-cons not always birds of a feather

Hi everyone,

Actually, this was written about 2 weeks before Glenn had his little fit in the paper about my being too lazy to look up what "neoconservative" meant. I don't mind him calling me a materialist who believes in infanticide (which I took to be lawyer-speak for atheistic baby-killer), but nobody calls me lazy without getting a response.

Saturday's column.

Someone e-mailed me a great question a few weeks ago about my use of the term “neo-conservative” and then, better yet, a recent letter to the editor complained that tagging state Sen. Glenn Grothman (RWest Bend) as a neocon was mean-spirited name calling and, finally, Sen. Grothman himself complained that I didn’t know what the term meant when I used it.

So, let’s start here. My e-mail correspondent wrote: “I see liberals throw this term (neoconservative) around frequently — usually as a pejorative — but yet few people use it in any similar or uniform fashion. Does it have genuine significance or do liberals just use it to try to delegitimize conservatism?”

I’m afraid I’m not able to speak for “liberals” anymore. Ever since the trickle-down supply-siders took charge of the U.S. in 1980, I haven’t fit into any of the usual political categories. Nowadays I simply follow the money to figure out what’s really going on; whether it flows into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hidden earmarks or into the bank accounts of Dick Cheney’s buddies at Halliburton.

“Neoconservative” is not pejorative, but has a precise provenance. Sen. Grothman’s version is a popularization, but the neoconservative movement actually got its start with people like the late Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie who, after Goldwater's defeat in ’64, legend has it, went to the Library of Congress and hand-copied 12,000 names from Goldwater's contributor list.

Adding “neo-” as a prefix indicates that these later conservatives are different from Sen. Barry Goldwater, who’s “Conscience of a Conservative” is the gold standard for post-World War II American conservative thought. The best treatment of this distinction is, perhaps, in John Dean's book “Conservatives without Conscience.” Dean, a Goldwater acolyte, has wondered publicly whatever happened to the fiscal conservatism of his mentor and, it should be noted, the Republican Party. Like any number of other pre-Reagan-era Republicans, I’ve wondered exactly the same thing.

We’ll be seeing this division flare up in the blood letting the Republican Party is about to undergo as the more fiscally conservative Eisenhower Republicans and the more socially active neoconservative Bush Republicans realize their interests are not the same.

Traditional conservatives are characterized by the belief that government works best when it stays out of the people’s personal and business lives. Language like “privatizing this or that aspect of government would be more efficient for the taxpayer” is a good example of old-time fiscal conservatism.

Social conservatives, by contrast, have a social agenda motivated by religious convictions. They oppose abortion and teaching evolution and, in a resurgent Calvinism that treats wealth as a symptom of God’s grace, oppose taxation on the often unexamined ground that it takes money away from the chosen people and gives it to sinful, slothful ones.

A simpler example of the classic difference between fiscal and social conservatives is probably found in Sen. Goldwater himself. A strong fiscal conservative, Sen. Goldwater was opposed to abortion but remained pro-choice because he believed, as a traditional conservative, that the government has no business interfering in the economic, spiritual or medical lives of We The People.

So, to answer my correspondents, the term “neoconservative” (as I’ve understood it from reading Goldwater, Dean and Irving Kristol) doesn’t de-legitimize or demonize conservatism in the least. On the contrary, calling the current crop of conservatives “neoconservatives” calls attention to the fact that traditional conservatism has not simply been reborn, but has also been co-opted by a selfish ideology which appropriated religious themes in order to get and keep power.

Don’t believe me? Consider the Bush administration’s handling of faith-based initiatives. As is now clear from published reports and David Kuo’s book “Tempting Faith,” the Bush administration never cared about the moral imperatives they preached to get elected – it was a sham to convince people at the bottom of the economic ladder to vote against their economic self-interests by appealing to their religious convictions.

If you still think “neoconservatives” are simply a new kind of traditional conservative, then here’s something to wonder about: If he were alive today, would neoconservative Republicans welcome Abraham Lincoln back into his own party or even those Radical Republicans of the Reconstruction Era with their “40 acres and a mule” giveaways?

Sen. Grothman argues that Teddy Roosevelt would be among them, but TR was the first president to argue that government needs to be big enough to protect the least powerful citizen from the most powerful corporation. I never heard anything like that from any of the “neoconservatives” Sen. Grothman mentions or, let’s be honest, from Sen. Grothman himself.

Every once in a while, more often than I like, I find myself agreeing with something Pat Buchanan says. In a recent New Yorker article about the trials of contemporary conservatism he paraphrased social critic Eric Hoffer and noted: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

Is that where we are now?

I guess we're going to find out.


Monday, January 26, 2009

Fair Park financial troubles? There’s one good option

Hi everyone,

As Pooh says, "Curiouser and curiouser."

Saturday's column:

Fair Park: There’s one good option

My favorite part of the County Fair is the livestock, especially the 4-H exhibits – and watching tourists from Milwaukee come out to see what real cows look like. A few years ago a lady from Chicago asked me to take a picture of her standing beside a calf.

Washington County has a beautiful facility, but a series of cost overruns have put Fair Park, and the county budget, in financial jeopardy. We’re told the county has four options. That’s not true. There’s only one option.

The financial troubles are mainly the result of two recent, overly enthusiastic building projects: the Ziegler Family Exposition Center and an RV park. Why would the Agriculture and Industrial Society (AIS, the nonprofit the runs Fair Park for the county) spend money on two additions they can’t pay for?

Bootstrapping potential markets always raises the question of whether you 1) boost attendance first – bring out the crowds – to justify putting up new buildings or 2) build new buildings first to draw attendance and, then, hopefully, the profits to pay for them. AIS gambled on No. 2 and lost.

None of this happened overnight.

The Education Committee minutes, starting on March 31, begin to tell the story. Nancy Justman, chairwoman of AIS, “presented a draft master plan for Fair Park dated February 11, 2008, and reviewed the 32 items identified in the plan. It was noted the items have not been prioritized and there are no cost figures associated with the items.” The Education Committee members approved the draft – apparently on the basis of trust, since they accepted a “master plan” that had no cost figures and no spending priorities. In the months that followed, no plan beyond this draft was approved by the County Board.

After March 10, new supervisors were elected, summer passed and, by early November, the Finance Committee had hammered out and approved a solid county budget.

Then something odd happened: a few weeks after the budget was finished AIS asked for the extra $410,000 to cover its overruns. AIS had to know about the additional $130,000 worth of improvements, apparently approved on the fly as construction was underway. Moreover, since the summer’s main events had failed to produce the anticipated profits, someone at AIS had to have known, well before the budget was finished, that they needed an additional $410,000. So why would AIS bring it up after the budget was passed? I’d like to know.

More alarming, when the request was finally presented in December, it was still missing the dollar amounts any competent County Board needs to make a good decision. The minutes from the County Board proceedings on Dec. 9 indicate that, as they’d done nearly seven months earlier, members of the Board asked for an updated business plan, this time to be submitted no later than Jan. 15.

On Jan. 7 the Education Committee met to hear Doug Johnson present this updated “business plan.” Twenty-four supervisors showed up (at a meeting they weren’t all required attend) to make sure this was handled properly. One of them went to the trouble to write a letter to the Daily News alerting county residents to how much attention this issue had drawn from the entire board.

The “business plan” the committee, and the entire board, had asked for, the plan that would supposedly give them enough information to form a good judgment, included only a single year of planning and – once again – contained no dollar amounts: no indications of how much the particulars were going to cost. That’s not a plan, that’s an outline of a plan.

We don’t like federal or state governments giving away our money without accountability, so why would we settle for it at the county level? Fortunately, from the sounds of it, we have supervisors in place to make sure we get accountability.

Washington County has to have a county fair. It’s an important part of our heritage – plus its fun; but in the absence of good information nobody can make good decisions, only hasty ones.

There aren’t four options, there’s only one: make sure the County Board has enough information to make a good decision. Without accurate numbers, a complete and competent business plan that includes specific costs and spending priorities, the County Board should refuse to give away any of our tax dollars to anyone.



Friday, January 23, 2009

Creationism pops up In Texas

Hi everyone,

This matters because the same nonsense happened in West Bend back in the 80's and is still percolating up in Grantsburg, WI.

In Texas, a Line in the Curriculum Revives Evolution Debate:
Even as federal courts have banned the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in biology courses, social conservatives have gained 7 of 15 seats on the Texas board in recent years, and they enjoy the strong support of Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican.

What kind of sense does it make for a Governor to back a curriculum change that 25 years of unambiguous federal court decisions (the last in Dover PA by a conservative Bush appointee) have categorized as unconstitutional and illegal?

Apparently it makes political sense.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Is this land made for you and me?

Hi everyone,

Saturday's column.

It’s your inauguration, too

Observe it by helping your community

If Woody Guthrie was right and this land is our land, then this inauguration is our inauguration, too. President-elect Obama is asking that all of us take part in the inauguration this year by getting involved at home, in our own neighborhoods. A series of events have been scheduled, from Washington, D.C., to Washington County, that begin today and culminate in a national day of service on Monday.

Obama got elected mainly because he asked Americans to take their citizenship personally and, as a community organizer, he knew how to empower people so they could. This isn’t always easy.

Given the magnitude of today’s problems it’s easy to feel completely incapable of making a difference. But if you’ve felt overwhelmed by the national economic crisis, or the state’s economic crisis, or the threat of losing your job, or losing your health insurance or the million other locusts in the swarm of bad news, here’s a reason to have hope: her name is Edith Childs.

Ms. Childs is the centerpiece in the best story to come out of Obama’s campaign.

The story goes like this: Obama had to make an early morning visit to Greenwood, S.C. He’d promised to give a speech in return for a council member’s support, so he gets up at 6 a.m. after a long day.

He’s more tired than when he went to bed. He reads a unflattering column about himself in the New York Times. It’s raining. His umbrella breaks. He gets soaked getting into the car. The ride to Greenwood, out in the middle of nowhere, takes forever.

When they finally arrive, only 20 people are gathered in the room and everyone was wet from the rain. Nobody looks happy to see him. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, an older lady in a church hat starts chanting “fired up, ready to go, fired up, ready to go.” It is not a great chant, but there was something about it that seemed right. People start to grin. One by one, members of the crowd start to chant along with her. After a few minutes everyone feels better. A few more minutes and everyone, candidate Obama included, are actually feeling “fired up and ready to go.”

Obama said this taught him an important lesson: If one person can change the mood of a room, then the people in one room can change a town, a town can change a state and a state can change a nation.

Edith Childs didn’t need to do anything on the national stage to affect the nation. She lifted the spirits of a few people standing around her on a rainy morning in the middle of nowhere. It turns out that’s all any of us have to do to make Washington County an even better place to live. You can start this weekend by creating your own event or participating in one that’s already set up.

Here are three:

Habitat for Humanity: Tool, Materials, & Home Goods Drive, today and Sunday.

Items can be dropped off at 325 Chestnut St., near Main Street, in West Bend, this weekend, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., or anytime during regular hours, which are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday. Phone: 334-1801.

Food Pantry Drives in:

West Bend — Hosted by Candy Shoop at the Volunteer Center of Washington County. Drop off non-perishable items on Monday between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. at 237 N. Main St.

Slinger — Hosted by the Rev. Matt Short and St. Luke’s Lutheran Church, 4680 Arthur Road. Leave non-perishable food items in the main entrance near the Information Desk on Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and Monday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Phone: 644-6003.

For more listings around Washington County, check the Presidential Inaugural Committee Web site. You can find them at:

But I keep hearing Woody Guthrie in my head singing that song. I wonder if it’s still true: Is this land made for you and me? If it is, we’re the ones who have to make it.

So, this weekend, remember the civics lesson we learned in kindergarten: It’s your country, take it personally. Get involved in the place you live. As Wisconsinites, with a long tradition of civic responsibility, we’re good at this. Stake out your piece of this year’s inauguration – lift your neighbor’s spirits.

A bit kumbayah, I know -- but I left the campaign with an overwhelming and adamantine impression: if we could just sit down and have coffee together we could figure out any of the challenges facing us.

To my neo-conservative brothers and sisters: you don't have to do this on your own and you don't have to be afraid of the rest of us -- even if you think we're just monkeys. Neither of us have all of the answers.

Coffee's on. Your move.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Time to stop fighting the un-Civil War

Hi everyone,

Saturday's column:

Culture warriors need neo-Reconstruction

The upcoming presidential inauguration is an opportunity to bring Americans back together. Over the last few weeks I’ve seen more than a bit of neo-conservative media covering the so-called “war on Christmas.” In fact, on Oct. 6, neo-con state Sen. Glenn Grothman gave a public address “It’s time to get off the bench and into the cultural battle.” With the advent and hope of a new, post-partisan, political culture we need to move past the “war on Christmas,” and all the other divisive culture wars, and back toward that more perfect union, an America that works for everyone.

Yet, like Civil War re-enactors, these culture warriors stay employed by marching around in eye-catching uniforms and firing weapons that create an exciting spectacle – even though they’re only shooting blanks. They keep fighting battles long since lost, reviving hopes long since rendered obsolete. Here’s what I mean.

When I was a university student one of the fraternities held an annual ball at which members dressed up as Confederate officers. It was charming, and culturally interesting, and I understood why boys whose great-great-grandfathers died during the Civil War would want to pay their respects by getting smashed on whopatooli punch and waving swords, but the Old South also embodied toxic ideas superseded by the inevitable Union victory.

Those boys never liked to be reminded that the Civil War ended in 1865. Today’s culture warriors don’t like to be reminded that the socalled war on Christmas ended in 1791 when the First Amendment was ratified, guaranteeing that the government could no more subsidize Christmas then it could Ramadan or Wiccan equinox dances.

Christmas is only one example of a mock battle fought for distraction. Abortion is another one.

Abortion is still protected under Roe v. Wade. Even if the Supreme Court reverses itself, a significant majority of Americans believe abortions should remain safe, legal and rare – and will vote that way. We can keep fighting this battle, but it would be better if we get to work preventing the unwanted pregnancies that lead to abortion in the first place.

The unplanned pregnancy rate among American teenagers is twice as high as Canada’s and five times higher than the rate in France. We need to do something about this now, not wait for a Supreme Court decision the ballot box will overturn. We can only do something by working together to find common ground.

The culture warrior’s favorite target, of course, is taxation. Taxation, in their playbill, is always cast as the wicked carpetbagger. The children all shout “boo!” but the adults in the crowd know that Ben Franklin was right. Taxes are inevitable. The question is not whether there should be taxes, but whether our taxes are being wasted. Nobody in their right mind wants the government that wastes money.

The late U.S. Sen. William Proxmire, a liberal Democrat in the best tradition of Wisconsin progressivism, was famous for rooting out waste with his “Golden Fleece Awards.” Conservatives and liberals alike are responsible for building Bridges To Nowhere. Fighting about whether there ought to be taxes is simply another way to divide us and keep us from moving forward. State Rep. Pat Strachota’s call to make the state budget transparent by putting it online is a step in the right direction – a step that did not depend on her political ideology, but on her good sense.

The Union prevailed in the Civil War and it can prevail in these un-civil “culture” wars as well. So, let’s put down the Enfield rifles and cavalry sabers and get to work reclaiming our government. The story of America, our story, is the story of a people struggling toward a more perfect union – not away from it.

In a post-partisan Wisconsin we must work together rather than fire off our muzzle loaders over anything that makes us different. Every one of us wants tax reforms, educational reforms, and smarter ways to make the state attractive to the next generation of businesses – regardless of which side of the fence we say we’re on during an election.

As Americans, we will never agree about everything, but divided by labels and side issues we won’t get much done. Setting aside differences to find common ground is just common sense.

That’s the message of this new president, but it’s a message as old as the Republic: the struggle for a more perfect Union. E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one. Let’s get to work.

I'm going to give them a couple of weeks after the Inauguration and then it's, sigh, back to Gettysburg.


Friday, January 09, 2009

Fare thee well, President Bush -- and the horse you rode in on.

Hi everyone,

More reminders about why the election was a good thing:

With President Bush set to leave the White House less than two weeks from now, here's a "Then and Now" to show what the United States looked like when Bush was entering office and what it looks like now as he's leaving. The "Then" is the best-available figure as Bush was taking office in 2001. The "Now" is the most recent figure.

Then: 4.2% (Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 2001)
Now: 6.7% (Bureau of Labor Statistics, November 2008)

Then: 10,587 (close of Friday, Jan. 19, 2001)
Now: 9,015 (close of Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009)

Then: 50% (1/01 NBC/WSJ poll)
Now: 31% (12/08 NBC/WSJ poll)

Then: 49% (1/01 NBC/WSJ poll)
Now: 21% (12/08 NBC/WSJ poll)

Then: 48% (1/01 NBC/WSJ poll)
Now: 21% (12/08 NBC/WSJ poll)

Then: 45% (1/01 NBC/WSJ poll)
Now: 26% (12/08 NBC/WSJ poll)

Then: 115.7 (Conference Board, January 2001)
Now: 38.0, which is an all-time low (Conference Board, December 2008)

Then: 6.4 million (Census numbers for 2000)
Now: 7.6 million (Census numbers for 2007 -- most recent numbers available)

Then: 39.8 million (Census numbers for 2000)
Now: 45.7 million (Census numbers for 2007 -- most recent available)

Then: +236.2 billion (2000, Congressional Budget Office)
Now: -$1.2 trillion (projected figure for 2009, Congressional Budget Office)

We can do better. We can.


Saturday, January 03, 2009

Bring back the sabbath.

Hi everyone,

Saturday's column.

Bring back the Sabbath

Tired students and shredded wheat don’t lie

On the heels of my diatribe against video games, I want to suggest one more bit of old-fashioned political incorrectness. We need to bring back the Sabbath.

I just finished torturing my students with their end-of-semester final exams and I’ve noticed that more and more of them are working 40-hour weeks, some with mandatory overtime, in order to pay for their classes. Some of them are so tired that their grades are affected. It’s ironic that the work they do to pay for school often interferes with their ability to do well. And when they try to scale back their hours in order to study for finals, they get in trouble with their employers who want them to work extra hours as the holiday approaches. It looks like a no-win situation.

This isn’t easy for students, many of whom, nowadays, are working parents trying to earn a degree to get a better job to improve the lives of their kids. I started thinking, what if we made sure, somehow, that these people could take off at least one day a week to spend with their families, maybe study and, most of all, to rest?

“What would we call a weekly Day of Rest?” I asked myself.

We’d call it a Sabbath and I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a good idea. On March 2, a New York Times article suggesting America should reintroduce a “secular sabbath” made their most e-mailed list within hours of its appearance.

Technically, America can’t impose a religious Sabbath. The government can’t legislate anything that has to do with religion, but what if we had data available that justified a secular Sabbath on, say, economic grounds? Where would we look for such data? Funny you should ask.

Blue laws, laws designed to enforce moral codes – including a weekly Day of Rest – something the government is no longer in the business of doing, were first introduced into Connecticut in 1655 by Gov. Theophilus Eaton. I’ve lived places that had blue laws and they are restful. On Sundays, only the restaurants and grocery stores were open. Business people said these laws were nothing but a quaint leftover from simpler times and that Sunday shopping was too economically vital to ignore. Blue laws eventually went the way of the dodo.

But look what happened: Everyone works on Sunday now and no one is any happier. It turns out that money can’t compensate a person for time away from friends, family and the kind of rest you need to stay human.

Incidentally, things have gotten a lot worse over the years and here’s how much: Between 1969 and 1991 Americans increased their work hours by nearly a full month each year, 100 hours more per year for men and nearly 300 hours more per year for women. Today we work about 2,000 hours a year, or about 300 hours more than Europeans, six hours more per week on average. We even work longer hours than the Japanese. And for what?

More working hours means better productivity, right? More money and more jobs, right?

Not necessarily.

The classic counter example to the “more hours equals more productivity” argument is what happened at the Kellogg’s Company during the Depression. In order to help keep workers employed, the company cut everyone back to a 30 hour week. Contrary to expectations, productivity spiked, crime went down and kids learned more at school. People’s lives improved. Bickley Townsend at Cornell’s Employment and Family Career’s Institute reports it this way: “Five years into their experiment Kellogg’s overhead costs were down 25%, labor costs down 10%, accidents were down 41%, and 39% more people were working at the company. Workers in 1931 were packing 96 cases of shredded wheat biscuits per hour compared to 83 cases under the eight-hour day, a 15% increase in productivity over four six-hour shifts.”

Shredded wheat doesn’t lie. When people are rested, their productivity improves – not to mention their lives, their kids’ lives, and the life of their community. Why couldn’t we do something like this, especially now that companies are laying off workers left and right? Cutting back on hours would produce better economic results, happier workers and, most of all, a Day of Rest.

I always wonder how neoconservatives, who believe the market should regulate working hours (and, thus, chew up the working poor), overcome their religious conviction that everyone needs a day off? Maybe by characterizing society as a secular wasteland that deserves what it gets, while they sing happy psalms to themselves? Hmm.


Happy New Year, part 1.

In case you forgot why this last election turned out best for everyone and in case you hadn't seen it: