Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Nothing ventured

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
December 22, 2009

By Bill Kraus

John Torinus and Tom Hefty have weighed in and given the state an 'F' on their economic test. They are tough graders, but it is hard to argue with their facts about lost jobs, low family incomes, shrinking wages.

So what will reverse these discouraging trends? I don’t hear anyone suggesting that the mainstays of the 20th century Wisconsin economy like paper, heavy machinery, and auto-related manufacturing are likely to return to their glory years.

The same article touts the cluster strategy that would build on still lively assets like GE’s medical equipment and Milwaukee’s hundred plus water related companies. They do not emphasize the prospects of the small, fledgling idea-driven companies being spawned by Wisconsin’s research universities and institutions in, mostly, Madison and Milwaukee but they have in the past.

Happily they do not dwell on the usual government suspects: taxes, fees, regulation, attitude. They lament instead the lack of a new economic strategy for the state and by the state.

They do view the dismal state of providing the kind of high-risk, venture capital that is mother’s milk these aforementioned start-ups and early second stage enterprises need with rightful alarm.

This, happily, is something that state government can do something about. Or can it?

The Democrats in the state Senate have put together a stimulus proposal that would put modest amounts of state money into the hands of entrepreneurs to nourish and encourage job creation.

Why not a full fledged venture capital program which would grow the state’s economy with a tiny percentage of the money (more than $70 billion at the moment) being invested by the state investment board on behalf of the thousands of people who have retired or will retire from their jobs in state and local government and education?

As it happens, I can tell you why not. This idea surfaced some 30 years ago and was immediately and vigorously opposed by the state employees’ union, the directors of local government organizations, and the state teachers union.

These risk-averse organizations preferred investments in the blue chips like, say, General Motors. So how well did that work out?

It would be foolish to pretend the safety firsters (if indeed there are any safe places) don’t have a point. Venture investing is a risky business, and the rules of venture investing make its operatives easy marks for the advocates of the more traditional AAA stocks and bonds, even though these are unhappily in some disrepute these days.

But this doesn’t make venture investing less risky or protect it from criticism.

This is why: Venture investing, not unlike baseball, is mostly about failure. Even the best of the best in baseball and in venture investing rarely bat .300. This is bad.

What is worse is that those venture investments that go bad do so quickly. So right out of the box, the most canny practitioners have to own up to and abandon--this is another unpleasant aspect of successful venture investing--the early losers.

To succeed, venture investors have to spread their money around. If they want to get three successes they have to make 10 investments, seven of which will either fail completely or simply mog along and produce little if any in the way of earnings and growth. Those that fail, what’s more, have to be jettisoned. Successful venture investors are ruthless about adhering to a “no good money after bad” strategy.

It is not hard to imagine what kind of public outcry will ensue from early failures and fast reinvestments with what is essentially public money because the public will have to replace those losses with more tax money if the three winners in this hypothetical example don’t come through.

Can any elected official stand up to this kind of criticism? These are the same people who caved in on indexing the gas tax when the talk-radio people raised the decibel level on that penny ante burden during the $4-a-gallon trauma.

If they can and will, however, the rewards are provably worth it. Those three winners and the one heroic success of those three represent the future, the next Wisconsin economy. No one knows what they will be. No one knew a century ago that a salesman and a hardware dealer in the Fox River Valley would have an idea that would become Kimberly-Clark, or that a man who built a dam in Wisconsin Rapids would find a way to use the excess power it created to make coated paper.

Wisconsin has the money. What Wisconsin needs is the will and the expertise and the guts to stand up to the inevitable criticism.

The alternative is another richly deserved 'F.'

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

The future, should you choose to accept it

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
December 13, 2009

By Bill Kraus

There was a well attended legislative hearing last week on a very large, very complicated, very important proposal. The name of the proposal is the Wisconsin C.O.R.E. Jobs Act. It deals with the next Wisconsin economy generally and what the state government could and should do to find and support what one witness called “the new normal.”

That description encapsulates the size and difficulty of what is being attempted. It dismisses the fantasy that says that, as this recession recedes, Wisconsin will return to normal.

That kind of normal in which our economy was driven by construction and automobiles is history. The new kind of normal is being visualized and invented in many mostly small ways by many people, but it is still not clear what it will look like or when it will arrive.

Part of the reason for the hearing was to get expert testimony and viewpoints from the smartest people in the room and state who are working their way through this maze.

The committees introducing C.O.R.E. are headed by Senator Julie Lassa and Representative Louis Molepske. This hearing gave the members of their committees a chance to express their views and recommendations on the concept generally and the specific ideas in it that a lot of people doing a lot of hard work have fashioned.

Those familiar with the committee-hearing process will not be surprised to learn that many legislators on these committees wandered from the subject at hand to criticize the current administration, deplore the sad state of the economy, or get a plug in for whatever is on the top of their personal agendas.

It did strike me that these side trips into ego-land indicated that a lot of legislators are still playing a hand in a game that is that is no longer being dealt. They didn’t seem to notice that there were no reporters in the room. Or that the audience for their wisdom was strictly limited, or, as another old journalistic hand once said, “If the press doesn’t cover it, it doesn’t exist.”

This is a small loss on the sideshows, but a grievous one for the future of C.O.R.E.

It would be amazing if the 14 main elements of C.O.R.E. repair the damage that has been done to our economy, but it seems to be a step in the direction of re-imagining and re-inventing our economy that is needed and of playing in particular to the enormous strengths of a 150 year investment in education and academic research.

Everyone in the hearing room who testified endorsed the effort.

Even the committee members who were critical mostly complained that it didn’t go far enough.

If all the gubernatorial wannabes don’t rush to Senator Lassa’s office for their transcript of the testimony and a personal copy of the paper prepared by David Ward’s NorthStar Economics company, they shouldn’t even go to the trouble of filing nomination papers.

This is the issue for 2010. This is the challenge for the century.

Or to steal from the less polite but more graphic way a long ago campaign advisor to a long ago president did in a previous millennium said it, “It’s about jobs, stupid.”

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Prosser's process

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
December 9, 2009

By Bill Kraus

When Justice David Prosser signed the letter from a then-unanimous Supreme Court endorsing full public funding of Supreme Court campaigns, he must have assumed that the funding would be somewhat north of the $400,000 that made it into the recently enacted law.

Prosser now says this is not enough money to run a full-blown, TV ad-driven campaign in the mold of the three most recent contests for the Supreme Court, and that it does nothing to protect a candidate from interventions of “phony issue ads.”

He is right on both counts.

The issue-ad issue was intentionally postponed for another day for fear that an impending U.S. Supreme Court decision could kill the whole bill if it was included.

The money complaint, however, is somewhat disingenuous. It is a minor miracle that the Legislature came up with even that kind of money in these desperate fiscal times.

This is a work in progress, this idea of fully funding campaigns with public money, and as, if, and when the state’s revenue streams get better more money may be available.

For the nonce, however, these are the cards that have been dealt and Justice Prosser, who is up for re-election in 2011, is, as he says, the guinea pig for the whole concept of bringing campaign spending down to earth.

This “guinea pig” campaign can develop in one of several ways.

Prosser may run unopposed, which is not unusual for a sitting Supreme Court Justice, recent campaigns to the contrary notwithstanding. A free ride is less likely now that impartial justice is in effect, because the money barrier for challengers is less daunting.

If a challenger appears and opts to take the public grant and Prosser does as well, both will have to run low media, high shoe leather campaigns consisting of face-to-face campaigning across the state to generate word of mouth support from thought leaders, lawyers, judges, and the like; visiting all the lives-at-five TV shows and other news outlets, up, or down, to and including the state’s weekly newspapers.

As an incumbent who has been on a statewide ballot and has had 10 years to make the kinds of appearances and contacts that are the essence of shoe leather politics, Prosser would have a major advantage, if indeed he has used his incumbency energetically.

If a challenger appears and opts out of the public grant which Prosser takes, the grant to Prosser will be increased to offset the challenger’s spending and the campaign will probably escalate to the media model created by Herb Kohl and emulated in whole or in part by everyone since he penetrated and blew away the dollar ceiling that tacitly but effectively restrained fund raising and spending in Wisconsin campaigns for anything and everything.

If Prosser and the challenger do take the public grant an independent campaign could be mounted by a third-party organization. WEAC comes to mind. Whichever candidate is the victim of the third-party’s attacks would get a compensating grant to offset WEAC’s spending.

If Prosser and the challenger do take the public grant they could come under attack in “phony” issue ads run by a third party of any description. WMC comes to mind. There is no provision in the impartial justice act to offset this kind of “free speech” spending by anyone.

The best and only recourse to this kind of activity is an enemies strategy which asks, “Who are these people, and why are they saying these awful things about me?”

It is possible that the Legislature will pass either SB43 or AB63, which would reveal the names of the people who put up the money for these issue ads in hopes that this will deter this kind of spending, but will surely expose the source of the money for it. This, in turn, will answer at least the first part of the enemies strategy question.

I know, I know, there is a sixth option. Prosser can take a pass on this first tiny, timid, tentative route that the Legislature has offered and opt for the status quo ante with its fundraising from unseemly sources, media-driven-deceptive advertising which has diminished the stature of the judiciary and its practitioners and made recusal a household world.

Impartial justice is what is offered. If we get more civil political campaigns and more restrained spending then so much the better. Justice Prosser will determine whether what the Legislature has wrought is worthy of the name. One can only hope.

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Anarchy in the GOP

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
November 30, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Before the behavioral huns overran the party, the biggest thorn in the side of the big-tent moderates who used to run the Republican Party were the “true” conservatives.

Or to put it another way, even if the people who run what remains of the party and the more powerful and numerous hired guns who are running the entrepreneurial conservatives’ campaigns are struck by lightning and realize that abortion, gay rights, and gun rights are not partisan issues, the activists have to cope with the anti-tax/regulation/government anarchists.

They don’t call themselves that, of course, since the name brings to mind the Fabians, Karl Marx, and other anti-government European radicals. They call themselves libertarians or, if that’s too political, simply Adam Smith free marketers even though Adam Smith would probably excommunicate them.

They are to some extent the heirs of the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party group run amok. They are consistently anti-tax. Their other basic premise is that no government body can run anything, or run anything well. The other side of this coin is that the free market private sector can run everything and run everything efficiently. An idea they hold to for dear life unaware that that it has been somewhat tarnished by missteps in several areas and places recently.

They are playing a leading role in the current health care debate as they did in the same debate in the late 1940s. They won then by stopping Harry Truman’s “socialization” proposal modeled on what Clement Attlee’s Laborites enacted in Great Britain.

My own experience with their single-mindedness dates to 1966. The Republican anarchists whose center seemed to be the Milwaukee area’s North Shore Republican Club wanted the Party Convention to condemn the party’s activist governor Warren Knowles because he raised taxes to keep the state operating after his 13,000-vote victory in 1964.

The party activists who then and now want a government that doesn’t dominate but does work rejected this idea, and the anarchists who really wanted the government to go away.

The Democrats, I am told, have their own internecine ideological battles on issues that someone from that party will have to explain to me. I think it is between their moderates and the all-government-all-the-time gang.

Political fortunes rise and fall for a lot of reasons, but one adage persisits: Partisans want issues that inflame. Most of the rest of the people want a government that works.

This is something for those who seek electoral success to keep in mind.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Get a job

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
November 24, 2009

By Bill Kraus

There is an open seat in the race for governor of Wisconsin. The Democrats have arm wrestled the mayor of Milwaukee into running for a job he really doesn’t want over the dead bodies of most of the people in Milwaukee who want him to continue in the job he has. The principal reason for wanting him to stay, incidentally, is because there is no one in the wings in Milwaukee who they consider a worthy replacement.

The Republicans are offering up a County Executive of a dysfunctional county and a former member of Congress who lost a long ago (in political terms) race for the U.S. Senate. The other candidates who have expressed an interest in running are unknowns who are being discouraged from doing so by the Republican powers who are also quietly trying to get Mark Neumann to drop his candidacy.

The Journal Sentinel has already decided it’s a two-candidate race, discounting rumblings about Tommy Thompson from D.C. and Elroy.

The stated reason that there is this remarkable paucity of candidates is that it will cost at least $12 million to win this election. This is certainly not an inconsequential barrier even if it’s only half true.

The less obvious reason for the empty pipelines is that the unintended consequences of the Watergate reforms neutered the political parties.

Before 1975 the political parties not only recruited, groomed, promoted, and slated full-fledged candidates for the top offices, they filled the slates down to county coroner to back up these selections.

When a friend of mine who was a Republican county chairman told the state chairman that he didn’t think he would be able to find a candidate to run for the Assembly, a race anyone of that persuasion would surely lose in that county, he was told, “Either find a candidate or be the candidate.” He found a candidate; so did county chairs of both parties all over the state.

This kind of activity filled the wannabe pipelines with seasoned, accomplished political leaders who would have been elbowing each other aside to run for governor in an open-seat year.

The most important problem is neither of the above, although both of the above have contributed to it.

It is careerism.

I encountered an early form of this phenomenon in the late 1970s when I discovered that many of the state legislators from Milwaukee ran for those jobs not because they were ambitious for higher office, but because they were stepping stones to what they hoped would be successful campaigns for seats on the Milwaukee City Council or the Milwaukee County Board. They were looking for lifetime careers.

At that time most legislators from other places were still hoping to rise to higher office, and indeed that Legislature produced candidates galore and several members of Congress, a U.S. Senator, a covey of governors and lieutenant governors, and even a couple of Supreme Court Justices.

No longer.

The incumbents in the state Legislature are, for the most part, in it for the job. They are settling in and careering out in what they hope will be safe seats; seats which they will not put at risk by proposing changes or ideas which endanger their chances for a long string of re-election victories.

Every once in awhile a Mike Ellis makes noises about running for governor, and a Jon Erpenbach tosses a hat towards a ring or two, but these spasms quickly pass.

The result is what used to be kind of a potentials pipeline is clogged by people who are not regarded as being upwardly mobile by either the voters or by themselves.

Is the U.S. Congress any better or any different? The lines of challengers for the redistricting-protected incumbents don’t seem to be very long. Anybody up for a run against Russ or Herb?

To paraphrase a Peter, Paul and Mary hit: Where did all the wannabes go?

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

The healthcare dance

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
November 15, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Two great political adages are at play in the prolonged, complicated, contentious attempt to put together a new health care system for this country.

The first is that no one should have to witness sausage or legislation being made.

The second is that when major, complicated legislation is in the making (which you shouldn’t have to witness) the important thing is to get Mathilda on the dance floor.

Turf wars are what the health care bill is about, and it is a virtual golf course.

For openers, health care spending is 17 percent of our gross national product. This means that people and companies who are in the health care business are getting paid that 17 percent. That is the status quo that is being protected by insurance companies that do the paperwork, doctors and their helpers who do the mostly fee-for-service healing, hospitals that house the ailing, drug and device manufacturers that provide the stuff of which medical miracles are composed, administrators and managers who orchestrate this melange, and a collection of bystanders and outsiders whose interests are improved or threatened by the health care system and practices.

My own views on this collection of sausage makers:

1.) Insurers don’t belong at the table.
2.) Fee-for-service incentives rarely if ever lead to less of either.
3.) Physical facilities need to be kept full.
4.) Drug companies produce and promote the things they invent and sell; the cost of the former is irreducible; the cost of the latter is arguable.

The outsiders are too numerous to list but a small sample is that the ideologues led by groups as diverse as the Catholic Bishops, the anti-immigrationists, and the free marketeers are weighing in on medical practice policy in ways and with demands that mostly make change almost impossible.

With the lobbying costs running in the neighborhood of $4 million a day (an amount that is added to the “cost” of health care) and with the job protecting legislators being threatened or seduced by money and votes, it is impossible to produce anything approaching an ideal sausage out of the box.

Which gets us to Mathilda.

If anything is to happen, it is going to have to be imperfect, even a half measure.

The judgment that will have to be made is whether what does come out of the box is better than the status quo ante.

It is hard to believe that it will not improve on a health care system that costs twice as much as what is available in every other first-world nation and that delivers results that are no better than average and in many categories very much worse.

So let’s take what we can get, and, over time, improve on and expand the inevitably flawed sausage that is being assembled.

We couldn’t do worse. We can get a small or even a significant step in the direction of lower costs and better results, and once on that path we can do better and better and better. We will probably never get the kind of perfection the purists insist on. As for me, I’ll settle for, at long last, getting Mathilda on the dance floor.

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

A bird in the hand

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
November 8, 2009

By Bill Kraus

The Impartial Justice legislation that was passed in the closing hours of the recent fall legislation session is the first attempt in 30+ years to clean up and contain campaign spending.

It has the virtue of being attacked from both sides. Those who like the status quo think it goes too far. The all-or-nothing reformers don’t think it goes far enough.

The latter group contend that the spending limits and public funding award are not big enough to run a statewide campaign. It is inarguable that they aren’t big enough for the kind of full-blown, TV-based campaign to which we have recently been subjected. But if both candidates conform to the limits, it is enough to run the more traditional word-of-mouth, face-to-face judicial contest and spare us all a repeat of the recent atrocities.

The more serious criticism of the bill is that it doesn't deal with the issue ads that have recently become prominent in Supreme Court elections.

The authors of the bill took a pass on putting an issue ad disincentive into it to accompany the millionaire and parallel campaign disincentives that were included is the U.S. Supreme Court. The court is pondering a decision which could make issue ad inhibition unconstitutional.

If they rule the way they seem to be leaning, the whole Impartial Justice bill would be voided. This is not a risk the reformers are willing to take after decades of no action.

They point out that if the Supreme Court surprises us there is a full disclosure bill in the wings which could be enacted quickly to expose and discourage the people who are paying for issue ads.

The other thing that makes this shortcoming less threatening is that WMC, one of the issue-ad wielders in recent years has already backed away from participation in supreme court races. And WEAC has said they would if WMC would. That does leave the semi-anonymous organizations with secret funders and apple pie and motherhood names free to perpetrate their mischief.

Any campaigner worth his or her salt would love to be attacked by these kinds of organizations. It gives the “victimized” candidate the opportunity to ask, “Who are these people and why are they saying these nasty things about me?” and to suggest that something unseemly is being bought here.

The side effect of over-the-top issue ads is the opportunity they present to make a low-profile beauty contest into an issue campaign with the campaign itself and its questionable interlopers being the issue.

And, finally, the Impartial Justice proposal, if it works as hoped, can be a good example for the partisans who are addicted to the egregious campaign system which they hate and believe they can't live without.

If public funding and spending limits work here, they can work anywhere.

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Sunday, November 1, 2009

Death by wedgie

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
November 1, 2009

By Bill Kraus

The Republican death spiral started with the unintended consequences of the Watergate reforms. The party went from the main slater and funder of the campaigns of Republican candidates to a sideshow. The money got loose from what Ody Fish described as “the kinder mistress” and campaigns became entrepreneurial. The new sources of money came with strings and went directly to the more beholden candidates and the professionals who ran their campaigns.

The game of keeping the party centrist and fighting off the anarchists and one-issue people who were always there but were kept on the margin by the moderate, mostly business people, who were in charge, was no longer worth the candle.

The spin accelerated when the professionals who replaced the moderate, volunteer, amateurs (in quotes) introduced a segmentation-marketing strategy: the wedges.

They started with the anarchists who had always been there, had always had an insatiable appetite for reducing the size and power of the public sector, and had been barking up a tree that had long ago grown to Sequoia size in this country.

The professionals added the one-issue zealots to this base and partisanized the goals of repealing Roe v Wade, protecting a religious rite, and putting AK47 weapons in every closet.

These objectives wholly contradicted the anarchists’ view of the world and should have been anathema to them. But they accepted these strange bedfellows as co-conspirators for reasons to which I am not privy.

What was soon evident is that this new coalition was composed of people who dominate instead of assimilating. The moderates who didn’t leave of their own volition because of their distaste for this distortion of the party’s agenda were pushed out because they didn’t conform. True believers do this.

This coalition, which is more notable for its volubility than its volume, starting losing elections.

But they persist. As recently as last week the unholy combination got rid of a moderate who was running for an open congressional seat because she would split the Republican vote in this once-safe district and cost the coalition’s troglodytic candidate a special election.

Will this radical revisionist lose this safe seat?

Will that register on the wedgers if he does?

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Partial for nonpartisanship

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
October 25, 2009

By Bill Kraus

In my positions of more or less importance in over 30 political campaigns of more or less importance I have learned many things. One of the most important is that judicial campaigns are and should be different from campaigns for partisan offices.

Both campaigns are about the candidates, their character and their credentials.

Partisan campaigns are also about positions and promises and proposals as well.

Judicial campaigns are not and should not be.

The only issue in judicial campaigns should be solely about the candidates’ ability to at the very least aspire to dispassion, disinterest, open-mindedness on the people and the questions that are in the courtroom.

The answer I want to hear from a judicial candidate who is asked how he or she would rule on any matter brought before the court is, “I don’t know, and I won’t know until I see the facts and read the law.”

I know the press hates this. The special interests hate it even more.

Too bad.

Another major difference between these campaigns is that the judicial candidates are elected in “nonpartisan” elections and strive to be perceived as having achieved that state or a close approximation.

If not all, certainly a great majority of candidates for judicial office come with a political history. Those who have been appointed were picked by a partisan politician for political reasons. Even those who run for open seats bring, with rare exceptions, some political baggage with them. Some bring steamer trunks.

Nonpartisanship is elusive but bipartisanship or departisanizating is possible.

Historically judicial candidates have asked partisans from both parties to serve in their campaigns as antidotes to accusations of partisanship. Former Democratic governor Pat Lucey and former Republican Governor Lee Dreyfus served as campaign co-chairs for a long series of worthy Supreme Court candidates who expected nothing more from them than the de-toxification that their presence implied. The desirable side effect of putting these names on the campaign letterheads is that it affected the candidates behavior and the kinds of campaigns they ran.

This remedy disappeared for a couple of recent Supreme Court campaigns. It can and should be reapplied. It works.

The need for money to run for office is a bone in the throat of candidates’ attempts to establish that they will be even-handed, fair, and not beholden to those who fund their increasingly expensive campaigns.

Most judicial campaign contributions come from lawyers. A bad idea. Lately, money from interest groups or activists with an issue or an agenda has been flowing into judicial elections. An even worse idea.

There is a way to fund these campaigns without giving the impression that the candidates are in the pockets of someone who practices before them or who wants a specific ruling on an issue that might be adjudicated.

It’s called public money. It’s what the Impartial Justice Bill is all about.

It is a small price to pay for an unfettered, unbiased, independent judiciary.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

Don't I know it

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
October 18, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Always something to be wary about. The charge is that I, as a reformer, think it’s still 1978. The fact is that a lot of the trouble that I see with politics and political campaigning is that I know it isn’t 1978.

In 1978 the the two statewide papers and regional counterparts were politically powerful. Reporters validated candidacies. Editors accepted those validations by what they put in the papers and where they put the coverage of campaigns and candidates. Editorial endorsements from the two statewide papers (one of which has been merged out of existence, the other of which has become a regional) were always important and often crucial to political success.

This absence is irreversible as, alas, is the decline of local papers everywhere.

We thought the parties were still important in 1978 until we discovered that the GOP which used to almost fully fund all statewide races and filled the coffers of legislative races as well had a bank account of $5,000. The important money flow had shifted to candidates or to independent expenditures.

This is reformable only in theory. The fact that the beneficiaries of the present system would have to do the reforming makes revival of parties to their pre-Watergate powers somewhere between unlikely and impossible.

The special interests have always been with us, but the powerful ones in 1978 were labor and business, whose agendas were more broad than specific. What they got for their money and votes was a friendly bias not a vote on a specific issue or idea. The special interests have become more numerous, more zealous and more focused. Their issues are things like abortion, gay marriage, guns. They run litmus tests. They want promises on votes on their issues.

This genie seems to be out of the bottle and its continued existence as a major force in political campaigns is assured by a Supreme Court that rightly worships the 1st amendment and less rightly is blind to collateral damage.

Talk radio, which is show business but poses as faux journalism, was not as widespread or as virulent in 1978 and hadn’t gotten to the point where it terrified increasingly pusillanimous candidates.

The only hope of change here is that those practitioners of the trade who have already gone too far will go even farther and their audiences will shrink and their advertisers will disappear.

And the most important change of all is that in 1978 the parties were managed by citizen politicians who provided from their ranks other citizen politicians to run the campaigns themselves. They hired advertising agencies, pollsters, organizers, professional advisers.

They are all gone. The citizens write checks and lend their names to letterheads. Campaign management is a business which has become very profitable as these professional campaign managers have shifted the emphasis to money and media, polling and focus groups, to marketing.

Politics by money and mercenary will persist until and unless the citizen pols decide the game is worth the candle and put in the time and effort to take over again. This will happen only if we decide to starve the beast. The motivations of the missing citizens were no better than mixed, but it can be said that they were not in it for the money, which the mercenaries are by definition.

So 1978 was not perfect. And 2009 is a train wreck.

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Taking care of Business

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
October 12, 2009

By Bill Kraus

The business community is paying the price of outsourcing politics everywhere, and nowhere more importantly than in the faltering effort to get the escalating cost of health care under control and off their backs.

It is widely known and accepted that health care in this country costs twice as much as it does anywhere else in the industrialized world. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce conned American business into making this benefit a cost of doing business in the late 1940s to protect us all from socialism. This is not the only reason we are having trouble competing in the Tom Friedman’s flat world, but it is surely not an inconsequential one.

Although the insurance business has a seat at the health care payment table in other places, it is unlikely that any reforms elsewhere would revolve around not hurting the prospects of the local insurance business.

As former Wisconsin governor Pat Lucey suggested recently, “What’s wrong with simply extending the medicare system?” What would seem to be wrong with it is that the insurance business wouldn’t like it.

Because of this focus on the insurance part of the health care equation, a lot of items of a lot more importance don’t make the short agenda.

For example, there are reliable people telling us that our health care system is at least 30 percent inefficient, maybe 50 percent.

People who track this sort of minutia say that there is no medical justification for 50 percent of the MRIs taken in this country. The contention that this can be attributed to defensive medicine, to protecting doctors against frivolous malpractice suits, is disputed by pretty solid evidence that a better explanation is that excessive MRIs are a money machine for those who invest in them.

This brings up another subject that isn’t well known or very high on the health care discussion agenda: over-utilization driven by over-capacity. It’s reminiscent of the line in the old baseball fantasy movie, “If you build it, they will come.”

The per-capita medical costs in Miami are 10 times higher than those in La Crosse for sure and probably a lot of other places as well. The proportion of older citizens in Miami is assuredly higher, but 10 times higher? Not likely. The fact that there are so many medical facilities, places, and practitioners in Miami and other high-cost places have a lot to do with these kinds of disparities in our present system.

A closer-to-home example is that health care costs in Milwaukee are significantly higher than those in Madison. Over capacity is a factor. And so is competition, which is significant in Madison unlike Milwaukee, a market where there is a dominant provider.

And then there are the lobbyists. A man named Robert Kraig, who analyzes these things, estimates that the cost of lobbying on the health care legislation in Washington is running $4 million a day by the people who are protecting the present system from within. Add to this an estimated daily expenditure of more than $600,00 by the insurance industry, and you have the reason the status quo is a solid four-touchdown favorite in this country.

Oh, yes, lobbying costs are part of what we pay for in this country for our health care.

Feeling left out? Me too.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009


isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
October 4, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Bill Safire died last week. He is remembered for many things by many people. My favorite and fondest recollection is based on a column he wrote on Election Day in the fall of 1978.

He wrote, “The wrong-headed rejection of political labels--the glorification of non-participation--is at the root of the rise of single issue voting which bids fair to make this year’s election more of a battle between local extremist groups than a referendum on the nation’s case of hardening of the arteries.”

This remarkable foresight was based on the fact that he saw the collateral damage that the congressional response to the Watergate excesses and the Supreme Court’s dictum which said in effect, “Money is speech and has the same freedoms and protections under the 1st amendment to the Constitution” would do to the election process in this country.

What it would do, of course, is bureaucratize us.

The surest sign of bureaucratization is that we become more concerned with the process than with the problem. We become prisoners of the status quo.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more evident than in the raging debate in Washington and in the country at large about health care.

The problem is that health care in this country costs twice as much as it does in the countries our businesses must compete with in what has become a global marketplace without, incidentally, producing better health, longevity, or anything else on the indices we use to evaluate the outcomes.

Is anybody talking about that?

It doesn’t seem so.

Instead we are rallying around the system, the process. Saving the insurance companies, the doctors, the hospitals, the drug companies who would seem to be the fiscal beneficiaries of the problem no one is talking about.

The hardening of the nation’s arteries that Safire predicted 31 years ago is now in full flower.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

A campaign finance reform refresher course

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
September 27, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Okay, class, let’s go over this again. I know it’s easy to forget. But it’s important.

The main objective of all the campaign reform ideas is to set spending limits.

These should be high enough so candidates, particularly less well known and new candidates, will be able to raise enough money to become well enough known to attract enough votes to run competitive races.

The basic reform proposal is an incentive for candidates to accept a spending limit. If a candidate agrees to abide by the spending limit the government will wholly or partially fund his or her campaign.

The dangers of agreeing to a spending limit are not inconsequential in an era where money is perceived as crucial to political success.

The first is that one of the candidates may be wealthy or well funded enough to not agree to limit spending. The reforms handle this by agreeing to add more public money to offset what the so-called “millionaires” spend.

Anyone agreeing to a spending limit is also exposed to the risks that come from third parties that decide to participate in the campaign.

Some third-party participants are overt. They run separate, parallel campaigns with unlimited amounts of money which they raise from unidentified sources to outspend the spending-limited candidate.

Other third-party campaigns are more subtle. They spend their money in favor of or against an issue or idea and ask voters to “contact” not “vote for or against” the candidate who doesn’t share their opinion on this issue or idea.

The comprehensive reform measures provide public funds to offset the spending in the campaign by both kinds of third parties.

The theory and hope is that because additional public money will be available to spending-limited candidates, the millionaires and third parties will decide that it is not in their interest to participate, because by doing so they will actually be putting money into the campaigns of candidates they dislike.

The reform legislation is complex. The idea is simple. One incentive. Three disincentives.

Class dismissed.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Appoint, counterpoint

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
September 20, 2009

By Bill Kraus

The rules for judges running for election fill several arcane pages and boil down to three simple directives:

1.Judges cannot take money for judicial favors.
2.Judges cannot lie.
3.Judges cannot promise to rule one way or another on any subject.

A lot of discussion about applying these simple rules focused on whether the ad Justice Gabelman ran was a lie or not. The devil is in the interpretation.


The objective is to have judges who are disinterested and fair. Recent trends, however, would make this impossible dream even more so. Two cases have been decided at the highest level which indicate that judges can have a partisan bias and can run on it, which seems to come very close to breaking rule 3 above.

Another case has said that the remedy for partisanship and predictability is recusal. The application of this ruling is widely believed to lead to judicial paralysis. Most experts agree that the best a supplicant is going to get is judicial aspiration to open-mindedness leading to fairness.


Should judges be elected or appointed?

Those in favor of appointment contend that this is what we have already in most cases in Wisconsin. Although 5 of the present 7 justices on the Supreme Court won open seats, over time the odds that a Justice will get the job by appointment first are very high. So, they say, why not change the Constitution and face up to reality.

They also say that this mixed system flirts with cronyism which may suborn mediocrity. An appointive system where the governor must select from a list of candidates selected and vetted by dispassionate, experienced, public spirited people who want only the best for the Wisconsin judiciary guards against those kinds of missteps.

Those who favor election over appointment offer two arguments. The first is that in a state like Wisconsin where we elect coroners and people to statewide offices which have no responsibilities there is no chance to pass the necessary constitutional change to get to an appointive system. Get real, they say.

The more persuasive argument is that despite recent nastiness, low voter turnouts, and high campaign costs it is important that judges engage with the people, walk the streets, campaign. An ivory tower judiciary can develop an insularity, a distance that blinds its members to collateral damage and produces such absurdities as “money is speech” and “corporations are people.”

A middle ground was not suggested, but there is a way to get one of the virtues of an appointive option for the elected system. It is possible to enact the selection of candidates procedure by statute which would be part of the appointive system and not have to change the constitution. Governors would be required to pick a candidate from a pool created by the aforementioned dispassionate, experienced, public spirited committee members. We would elect first time justices to open seats. Those appointed to fill unfinished terms would have to go through the rigorous hoops that an appointive system would prescribe if we had an appointive system.

And, of course, we can make the elective system itself better and more civil and less expensive by offering full public funding and spending limits, by maintaining the Judicial Commission standards, and by enacting monetary disincentives which would seriously discourage third-party campaigns and phony issue ads.

Maybe Caesar’s wife isn’t dead after all.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Citizen politicians

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
September 13, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Several decades ago the Republican Party leaders came mostly from business and the professionals who represented businesses. And to a significant extent, although I am less familiar with their history, the Democratic citizen pols came from labor unions or their allies.

The corporations and the unions were not the district and county chairs and campaign managers, but their people were.

The desirable side effect of this activity was that these political operatives knew the issues, the people, the ideas, the system.

Sometime in the last 40 years or so, business leaders decided to outsource political action instead of participate in it.

The mercenaries took over and the results have been rewarding for them and disastrous for the rest of us.

The mercenaries treated politics as a marketing problem and solved it by segmenting the market and escalating the rhetoric.

The candidates became creatures of the extremist groups and whoever had enough money to finance increasingly costly media-driven campaigns.

Worse yet, the business activists went back to the office or the plant and turned political activity over to friendly associations or simply abandoned it altogether.

Politics may still have been in their budgets, but it no longer was on their schedules. Inevitably, business and its needs took second place to what the mercenaries decided they needed to win elections: lots of money, the full participation of the zealots, and campaigns that played to the so-called base, whose interests were social not economic.

So we come to the place where business people are largely disengaged as well as not particularly well informed on anything that doesn’t have a direct impact on their particular businesses.

We come to a place where it takes someone like Thomas Friedman to point out that business needs the burden of health insurance off their backs, needs an immigration policy that makes the best brains in the world, because there are no business leaders who are citizen politicians to make these assertions off a prominent platform.

Business leaders can’t buy their way back into the game. They have to suit up and start playing again the way they did in the 1960s. They have to take politics back from the mercenaries so that the hired guns are working for the citizen pols instead of vice versa.

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Monday, September 7, 2009

The economy's known unknowns

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
September 7, 2009

By Bill Kraus


Cars: It seems we don’t need a new car after all. Styles don’t change. New models' improvements are minimal. The one we own was built to last. We’ll keep it.

Houses: The McMansion era may be history. Those who own them would move to something smaller and less bucolic in a New York minute if they could sell the one they own. But there’s a big inventory of unsold monsters that has to be whittled down first.

Anything that’s fashion driven: Sort of the antipathy of anything we need.

Art: A lot of art sales are driven by housing, which is going nowhere. Most of the rest is discretionary.

Sports: We love our Packers and Badgers so they’re safe, but other fans are less smitten. There are going to be TV blackouts where NFL games aren’t sold out. Golf tournaments are looking in vain for sponsors. Golf courses are looking in vain for players.

Advertising-driven media: We all know that newspapers are either dead or dying. If part of health care reform is a ban on advertising prescription drugs to incipient hypochondriacs, TV will follow suit. How many network shows can lite beer carry after all?

Charities, do-good, and trade organizations: All hurting. Some more than others. People with weak cash flows and their own structural deficits to worry about are understandably reluctant to borrow money to give away. Even dutiful tithers are tithing against a smaller base number.


It’s hard to think of many things that are booming. Maybe mattresses. A country that was characterized by zero savings has suddenly started putting money away (in mattresses?) at a ferocious pace. This may be propelled by a fear of rainy days ahead. Since it’s already raining, the move to the mattresses is hardly misguided.


What about politics? If the health care proposal is an indicator, the forces of the status quo are still digging deep when threatened with change.

What has yet to be determined is whether this kind of generosity will extend to candidates for major offices like governor and Congress. It is possible that, like charities and other organizations, these candidates may be asked to get by with less. Since the spending on these races in this century has been somewhere between excessive and outrageous, it is not unreasonable to expect a return to what we used to regard as normal here.

Maybe a tougher test will be the multi-million dollar races for legislative seats that will determine majorities in the statehouse.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the big and small political contributors may have started to wonder if they have done anything beyond making a few mercenaries and some TV station owners rich and whether this is a particularly good idea.

There is even a possibility that the people who are assaulted and demeaned by TV-dominated negative political campaigns might respond to a poor boy campaign if any candidate had the guts to try one. It’s even possible that many candidates will have no choice.

The recession as an unintended but welcome campaign finance reformer? What an idea!

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Rove's World

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
August 30, 2009

By Bill Kraus

The people in charge of what remains of the Republican Party insist that they realize that as long as the party’s agenda is dominated and characterized by social issues it will not win elections. The misguided wedge era is at an end. It is time to get back to the basics of frugality, competence, and regulation-lite. Or so they say.

Their entrepreneurial candidates have not all seen the light, however.

Scott Walker, who has the most money and a head start on the GOP nomination for governor, has sent out a mailing insisting that he is the MOST pro-life candidate.

Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has decided that his re-election candidacy will be enhanced by not doing what he was elected to do and instead is flirting with being afflicted by the kind of homophobia that is being rejected in "radical" states like Iowa and by "left wing" Republicans like Ted Olson.

And no incumbent in Congress from our state has picked up where Tommy left off on trying to get a handle on the economy/job-killing cost of our employer-based health care system. To elaborate: At one time when he was serving as Secretary of the Health and Human Services in the Bush administration, Tommy proposed a crash program to computerize the health care records of everyone in the country in 18 months. Karl Rove, the illegitimate father of wedge politics, nixed the plan. The Republican’s willingness to fix high-cost-mediocre-results health care has gone downhill from there.

The free-market ideologues in our state Legislature do not hear the GOP state chairman when he tells them that the party is losing the campaign funding battle because too many Republicans are afraid to support the kind of modest public funding that would level the fiscal playing field. Stupid.

Until and unless the Republican Party rejects the partisanization of abortion rights, civil unions, and even gun control in urban areas, and gets back to frugal fixing of the public sector operations its main contribution to elective politics will be to enhance the candidacy of unpopular Democrats who will keep the Republican radicals at bay.

The thing that made Jim Doyle unbeatable was his veto pen not his programs or his personal charm.

So the only hope for the Republicans seems to be the Democrats’ likely hubris.

One of the truest truisms of politics is that we know how to handle defeat better than victory.

I would much prefer to see the Republicans base their campaign to regain power on a return to their traditional strengths instead of waiting for their opponents to go too far with theirs.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

The status quo and the people who love it

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
August 24, 2009

By Bill Kraus

Thirty one years ago Bill Safire of the NY Times wrote an Election Day column in which he said, “[The] wrong-headed rejection of political labels--the glorification of non-participation--is at the root of the rise of single-issue voting which bids fair to make this year’s election more of a battle between local extremist groups than a referendum on the nation’s case of hardening arteries.”

At the time, the forces of the status quo were re-directing the money, which was and still is the mother’s milk of politics, from the political parties to the proliferating and rapidly rising single-issue groups.

Without money the parties lost their power to recruit and slate candidates, and a diverse collection of entrepreneurial candidates picked up a party banner that most suited them and we entered the abominable era of wedge politics.

As we quickly learned, money that once went to the parties’ coffers began to flow disproportionately to protecting the status quo. This should have been expected inasmuch as those with money usually got it from the existing conditions and situation, which is the definition of "status quo."

Instead of representatives legislating for the benefit of the people they represent and the nation, state or districts from which they came, they became more and more beholden to the money and the issues and the interests and the causes that they believe got them there in the first place and whose money and votes they needed to stay in office.

Among the unfortunate events that beset our current president, the full flowering of the Safire prediction may be the most intractable.

It is on full display in the battle by the interests and their money to NOT change the way health care is delivered and paid for in this country.

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Sunday, August 16, 2009

Talking around the problem

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
August 16, 2009

By Bill Kraus

A recent e-mail message from a long time liberal Republican whose campaign for a U.S. Senate seat was derailed in the primary by someone who was passionately anti-abortion reminded me of the dangers of over-simplifying complex issues.

It wasn't that long ago that no one would have heard of my friend’s contention that this wasn’t about people who were pro-life versus those who were--what?--pro-death. This was about who would get to choose a hateful procedure, whether that procedure would be lawful, and, if not, what the punishment would be for those who provided and requested it.

The current e-mail was also about another even more complex question and, unconscionably, included a joke about an "Obama Sandwich"--the person who orders it gets to eat it and someone else pays for it--which is this political season’s victim of an attempt to over-simplify to a slogan, phrase, joke.

To some extent I fault the administration for letting the discussion about reform be about medical welfare for the over-publicized 40 million instead of about high medical costs and mediocre medical results.

The fact that my correspondent devoted most of his e-mail to railing against the young, cavalier, cheap, or maybe just stupid part of the 40 million who will unjustifiably benefit from the proposed reform indicates that Obama’s attempt to change the subject and the debate has not yet registered.

The 40 million are a small part of the problem. Bringing them into the mainstream may even be a part of the cost solution.

The main reason for reform is that the U.S. cannot compete in a flat world economy until and unless our grossly inefficient and relatively ineffective way of delivering health care is brought into line. The old saw about GM--”Their Blue Cross bill is higher than their steel bill”--afflicts everyone and everything everyone makes.

The insurance/employer-based system is, in effect, killing our ability to compete.

That’s the problem.

It’s not who will benefit from the fix.

It’s not who will decide how much to pay for what procedure for which patient.

It’s not about denying treatment or downgrading a not-that-great health care delivery system.

It’s about surviving in a world economy where our competitors are getting better health care results for half the money.

Let’s figure out how to do that.

Let’s quit with the slogans, the one liners, the jokes, and the shouting, and get to work on the problem.

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Saturday, August 8, 2009

Gaming the system: a short history

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
August 8, 2009

By Bill Kraus

In 1972 Nixon was worried about having enough money to win re-election against the lovable but self-destructive George McGovern. The prospect of Nixon losing was right up there with Lyndon Johnson’s fear of losing to the less lovable but equally self-destructive Barry Goldwater in 1964.

In both cases paranoia trumped reality. Johnson seriously considered pulling out of a race that he won in a landslide. Nixon turned the Republican Party’s very efficient fund raising into something approaching extortion.

Watergate ensued.

The reforms that followed the excesses of 1972 removed the parties from the front line of fundraising, which was the most important reason for their existence and the only reason that candidates tolerated them.

Political Action Committees’ money replaced the parties’ and the era of special interest money driven campaigning was born.

It was quickly apparent to the elected executives and legislative leaders that this put way too much power in the hands of the Political Action Committees and their money.

Toll booth politics and legislative caucus fund raising were invented to contain them. The Political Action Committees had to divert their contributions to the leaders who controlled the flow of legislation, and a new kind of order was restored to the process.

Corralling was not enough, however. The need for money for campaigns had escalated to the point that the legislative leaders and executive officers couldn’t squeeze enough out of the interests to run competitive races everywhere.

This problem was ameliorated by yellow dog redistricting. The legislators conspired to redistrict the states in ways that would drastically reduce the numbers of truly competitive, high cost campaigns. This safe-seat initiative has reached a kind of zenith in Massachusetts, where it is alleged that there are no competitive races for that state’s legislature.

All of this has led to a political system where three people run the state. The governor, the Majority Leader of the State Senate, and the Speaker of the Assembly.

How do you like it?

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Sunday, August 2, 2009

Cynical about nostalgia

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
August 2, 2009

By Bill Kraus

The movement to return to the 1960s has surfaced recently in the shape of a proposal to de-cabinetize the DNR.

There are several groups and organizations supporting this idea.

There are the nostalgics. They believe that the commission form of government that dominated Wisconsin state government for our first 100-plus years was better in every way. Each major unit was run by a bureau chief. The bureau chiefs were appointed by and reported to a citizen board. These boards had staggered terms so that it was unlikely that any governor would have named all or a majority of the members.

In practice this was not anything any governor-phobe had to worry about. The appointees with rare exceptions were quickly captured by the bureau chiefs and their staffs. Their loyalty to the appointing governors faded, and the state had a government by bureaucrats not the anticipated government by commissions.

These were dedicated, responsible, service-oriented, incorruptible executives. The system was anti-democratic. It worked.

Another, better-organized source of support for de-cabinetizing is the interests that are subject to the DNR’s regulatory whims and want to set the priorities for this major state department. The DNR commission was, until the mid-1960s, pretty much a creature or a captive of the hunting and fishing lobbies and their conservation allies' organizations. They pretty much ran things as long as they ran them the way their bureau chief thought best, which was usually what they thought was best as well.

This system was also anti-democratic. It, too, worked.

More recently, an unorganized but growing constituency best described as political cynics has decided that elected officials are too powerful, too beholden to their campaign contributors, and too invincible. This group will support any idea that curtails the power of the people who have been elected to run the place.

Among the power centers weighing in with the cynicals is the members of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board. Their motives are not revealed, but probably are partially biased in favor of the “experts know best” tilt of the nostalgics and the interest blocs.

The main opposition to the de-cabinetizing of the DNR is coming from anyone who has, had, or wants to have the job of governing the state. What these CEO types know is that the governor is held responsible for everything that happens on his or her watch. This is why governors want authority commensurate with their responsibility, including particularly the authority to select those subordinates who will be in charge of the major departments of the government.

This outnumbered group can and should ask a couple of questions:

Someone should ask the members of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board if they also think Journal Communications company executives should delegate their authority to hire and fire the members of the editorial board to a group of appointed citizens.

They and everyone else in favor of non-cabinet government should also be asked, “If this is such a great idea, shouldn’t it be adopted by the federal government as well?”

Unless on second thought it would not have been a good idea for leftover Clinton commissioners and leftover Bush commissioners to be running the Bush and Obama programs until and unless those commissioners were ultimately replaced.

In short. If you don’t like the governor, elect a new one. Don’t hobble the one you have elected.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Three questions (in no particular order)

isconsin Political Fix
not just another blog
July 26, 2009

By Bill Kraus

1. It is pretty clear to almost everyone that we have a Rube Goldberg version of universal health care in this country. No one is left to die on the steps of a doctors office, a clinic, a hospital. Everyone gets treated. Late and inefficiently and expensively perhaps, but everyone who gets to a provider gets treated.

It is obvious that the people and institutions are well paid for treating all of us, insured or not.

The fact that this system is very expensive, more than twice as much per capita than health care costs in other industrialized countries, is well documented.

So if we were to change our system in ways that would reduce our costs even if what we changed to was socialized it would be rationalized as well and would cost less than what we have now.

So what are the extra trillions for?

If they are for keeping the insurance companies in the mix, my next question would be, Why would we do that? What is it that insurance companies bring to the table that has anything to do with delivering health care?

2. A lot of people seem to have noticed that a lot of stimulus money is going to governments and to the infrastructure maintenance for which governments at every level are responsible. Many of the people who have noticed this are not happy about it. My question is, “Have these people noticed that the private sector businesses and the people who lend them money and invest in their businesses are very reluctant to put money into what seems to be a dead market?”

Advertisers are not advertising. The only businesses that are still promoting their wares are pretty much in the fast food, virility, and Facebook sectors. Everyone else is looking at the wreckage of a consumer-driven, automobile-obsessed, housing-bubble market and trying to figure out where we go from here. Manufacturing? Manufacturing what? For sale to whom? Services? Services are pretty much taking in each others’ laundry.

The economists got what they wished for. They got people to start saving more and spending less. Another answered prayer gone awry.

Has anybody anywhere, not just anybody in the government who is throwing money around, figured out what the next American economy is going to look like and when it is likely to arrive?

3. Do those who talk about “recovery” think we are going back to status quo ante? Are they deluded?

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