Monday, January 2, 2012

Three wishes (and some other stuff)

By Bill Kraus

Resolutions are unlimited, nice, personal, breakable. Wishes are bigger, better, limited (like a political agenda; no more than three) and are so hard to achieve that breakability is superfluous.

When I asked for nominations, I excluded personalities. Recall Walker or Re-elect Obama and the like were edited out.

The three that survived are headed by, no surprise here, a wish that someone, anyone running for public office would talk about the fact that our representative government is at risk, endangered. Everyone I talk to loves the reform agenda: less gerrymandering, shorter election cycles, an even playing field, less spending. Unfortunately, nobody loves the agenda passionately. A “Save Representative Government” rally would not draw flies.

It does, nonetheless, need saving. It has plenty of enemies. The U.S. Supreme Court among them. The money drive election process is wretchedly unbalanced. Candidates must follow strict rules on how much money they can collect and from whom and must report in great detail the sources of that money. Candidates are routinely outspent by outside organizations that do not have to reveal the sources of their money and are spared the candidates’ burden of declaring who they are or that they approve the message being delivered.

Under the rules of the free speech free market Supreme Court, the most that can be done to level the playing field is to make those outside organizations reveal where they get their money and do a candidate-style declaration as well.

Nobody is talking about that.

The other threat to representative government is self-serving districting of legislative seats to make as many of them safe for one party or the other. This is done to save money, of course, and to perpetuate incumbents as well. The deleterious outcome diminishes general elections and makes primary elections the main battlefield for individual candidates. Party outcomes are predetermined.

Nobody is talking about that either.

Wish number two is widespread adoption of the Ed Koch (former mayor of New York City) rule that “If you agree with me on 9 of 12 subjects, you should vote for me. If you agree with me on all 12, you should see a psychiatrist.” Too many voters are reduced to one issue: taxes, debt, guns, gays, privacy, crime, even jobs. Candidates believe that voters’ political consciousness is severely limited. So campaigns tend to simplify to this narrow view of the world where decisions are more black and white, good and evil. As the endangered political system drives choices down to the primary election level where the true believers are disproportionately powerful, candidates are increasingly judged on litmus tests on what I consider marginal issues. Competence to deal with difficult situations and interests where the decisions are more like 51-49 one way or the other is not even graded.

I would like to clutter this blog post with wishes about our crippled public communication system, about the way the fear factor is squeezing individual freedoms, about combatant civility, about the rise of politics as hockey, about the empty talent pipelines for all offices, about a lot of quibbles, but the rule is no more than three wishes.

My third, then, is to stop treating education and educators and the education system as a cookie jar and start living up to the rhetoric that the future of the country is connected to the success of the education system and the educators' ability to deliver preparation commensurate to an increasingly complicated, definitely more cerebral world of work and life.

The industrial revolution made workers into machines. The educators responded to this revolution. The technological revolution is making machines into workers. A very high priority should be preparing people for that world. Putting resources against that monumental task is going to require money, ideas, a redesigned workplace, an inspired education system staffed by inspired educators, even a redesigned society.

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Bill Kraus is the Co-Chair of Common Cause in Wisconsin's State Governing Board

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