Walker’s Debt Refinance Plan Will Cost Wisconsin?


I’ve seen various cost estimates being thrown around, but it appears that Governor Walker’s assertion that Wisconsin will miss a chance to save money if the Democrats don’t return to pass his debt refinance proposal is simply false. According to Wisconsin Democratic State Senator Jon Erpenbach (citing this memo from the Legislative Fiscal Bureau), Walker’s scheme will actually end up costing Wisconsin 29.5 million dollars over the next 10 years-

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“It’s The Law Of Averages” – Public Versus Private Compensation


The recent Republican talking point claiming that the average compensation of public employees exceeds that of private employees reminds me, strangely enough, of a free rock concert in 1970 at the Bandstand in Kapiolani Park, an emerald expanse of grass and ironwood trees nestled between Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head. In those days such concerts would attract not only the local teens, but also the mentally ill homeless folks who found refuge in the park. One such man, I recall, was staggering around with a wine bottle, chanting – in a hoarse, croaking voice – one phrase over and over again, for hours on end: It’s the law of averages. Lord knows what (if anything) he was referring to, but it’s equally hard to know what the Republicans are referring to. After all, averages are among the most potentially misleading statistics to cite in any debate. If Bill Gates lived in a penthouse on a city block whose only other residents resided in a homeless shelter, the average income of the folks on that block would be in the tens of millions of dollars – obviously, a misleading statistic.

I’ve been unable to find any comparison of public versus private compensation that effectively controls for such variables as education, time on the job, type of work, productivity, and so on. This is partly because the types of work you find in the public sector – police, fire, road maintenance, political – have no exact counterparts in the private sector. Of course, there are sub-sectors of the economy where there are clear counterparts, such as University-level education, and here there seems to be no doubt that private sector compensation exceeds what you typically find in the public sector. But, just for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that public sector employees do indeed earn more than their closest private sector counterparts. The Republicans seek to stir up resentment at the public sector employees for this supposed fact; after all, they say, the less-compensated folks pay the salaries of the better-compensated folks via taxes (failing to note, of course, that low-income workers, whether public or private, pay relatively little in State taxes, and that, in any case, public sector workers are also taxpayers). But such resentment would be justifiable only if private sector employees were themselves getting fairly paid, relative to the profitability of the companies that employ them; otherwise their resentment should obviously be aimed at the bosses of those companies, since they – and not public service employees – would be responsible for the inequality. And are private sector employees being fairly compensated? If they were unionized, the fairness of their compensation given their companies’ profitability might be assessable; but only 7% of private sector employees are currently unionized, and without a collective bargaining process that allows workers to access the company books, it seems impossible to know. So instead of resenting public sector employees for their higher compensation (if it is higher), perhaps private sector employees should unionize in order to determine for themselves whether they are being fairly compensated, and, if not, remedy their own situation.

While I’m ranting on this subject, it’s worth noting that States without collective bargaining are having to deal with deficits every bit as high (or even higher!) than those with collective bargaining – just look at North Carolina, a “right to work” State that faces a budget shortfall of 20% in 2011, versus Wisconsin’s 14.1%. And that is because the States’ recent financial problems are due to the Great Recession of 2007-2009, which almost no one foresaw, and not primarily public sector compensation. So now the unions are going to have to adjust to the new financial realities, as the Wisconsin public sector unions have agreed to do. Perhaps they should also adjust tenure and seniority policies for teachers and others. If necessary, laws could be passed to enforce these adjustments. Local governments no doubt will require more flexibility until the economy picks up. But none of this entails that public sector employees should permanently give up their right to collectively bargain.

Finally, if there are virtually no checks on the public unions’ bargaining power (as Republicans keep asserting), then why aren’t public sector employees all millionaires? Part of the reason is that in many states, including Wisconsin, public sector unions have always been prohibited by law from striking. So they already have much less power than private sector unions. But more importantly, politicians’ interest in keeping taxes reasonable keeps public sector compensation at least roughly under control, and will continue to do so.

The issues related to power asymmetries in the workplace are the same in the public and private sectors; employers and employees will always need to have their interests coordinated. But the best way to do that is via collective bargaining and, if necessary, enforced arbitration – not by denying employees the right to organize.

A Governor We Can Trust…


…would be nice, but if the transcripts of his recent conversation with blogger Ian Murphy (impersonating billionaire conservative David Koch) is any indication, Scott Walker isn’t that governor. It’s hard to see how even the most ardent Republicans can feel anything but embarrassed by – or even ashamed of – remarks like these (as transcribed by the Wisconsin State Journal). The first is about Walker’s plan to deceive the 14 Democratic senators who are currently denying him a quorum; the second is about deceiving the people of Wisconsin into thinking that the protesters are violent by planting troublemakers, a plan he rejects only because it might backfire on him, not because it could endanger citizens-

Walker: …an interesting idea that was brought up to me this morning by my chief of staff, we won’t do it until tomorrow, is putting out an appeal to the Democrat leader that I would be willing to sit down and talk to him, the assembly Democrat leader, plus the other two Republican leaders — talk, not negotiate — and listen to what they have to say if they will in turn — but I’ll only do it if all 14 of them come back and sit down in the state Assembly. They can recess it, to come back if we’re talking, but they all have to be back there. The reason for that is, we’re verifying it this afternoon, but legally, we believe, once they’ve gone into session, they don’t physically have to be there. If they’re actually in session for that day and they take a recess, the 19 Senate Republicans could then go into action and they’d have a quorum because they started out that way. Um, so we’re double checking that. But that would be the only, if you heard that I was going to talk to them, that would be the only reason why. We’d only do it if they came back to the capital with all 14 of them. And my sense is, hell, I’ll talk to them. If they want to yell at me for an hour, you know, I’m used to that, I can deal with that. But I’m not negotiating.

Murphy: Right, right. Well, we’ll back you any way we can. But, uh, what we were thinking about the crowds was, uh, was planting some troublemakers.

Walker: You know, the, well, the only problem with that — because we thought about that. The problem — the, my only gut reaction to that is right now the lawmakers I’ve talked to have just completely had it with them, the public is not really fond of this. The teachers union did some polling of focus groups, I think, and found out that the public turned on ’em the minute they closed school down for a couple days. The guys we’ve got left are largely from out of state, and I keep dismissing it in all my press conferences saying, ‘Eh, they’re mostly from out of state.’ My only fear would be is if there was a ruckus caused is that that would scare the public into thinking maybe the governor has gotta settle to avoid all these problems. You know, whereas, I’ve said, ‘Hey, you know, we can handle this, people can protest. This is Madison, you know, full of the ’60s liberals. Let ’em protest.’ It’s not gonna affect us. And as long as we go back to our homes and the majority of the people are telling us we’re doing the right thing, let ’em protest all they want. Um, so that’s my gut reaction, is that I think it’s actually good if they’re constant, they’re noisy, but they’re quiet, nothing happens, ’cause sooner or later the media stops finding ’em interesting.

Draw your own conclusions.

Republican Filibusters and the Wisconsin 14


A talking point that I’ve heard endlessly repeated by Republican pundits and conservative media outlets is that the Wisconsin 14 are undermining democracy by staying out of Wisconsin until Governor Walker decides to negotiate with them. What they are doing is, undoubtedly, anti-majoritarian, but are the Republicans being consistent in their criticism? Consider the degree to which the Republicans in the U.S. Senate utilized the filibuster once the Democrats took power in 2008. Here’s a chart from Ezra Klein

Filibuster Chart (Ezra Klein)

Klein goes on to note-

A few things about that graph. First, the rise in filibusters is just shocking. And this doesn’t even count all of them. It only counts those filibusters that the majority actually tried to do something about. Plenty more filibusters get threatened, but cloture doesn’t get filed because the issue isn’t important enough or the votes aren’t present.

Second, note how many filibusters get broken. It’s not all, but it’s a far cry from none (and it’s more than you see in this graph, as filibusters that get withdrawn don’t end through cloture). Some get broken by overwhelming majorities. But that doesn’t mean the filibuster failed. A dedicated filibuster takes about a week to break even if you have the votes. That’s a week of wasted time in the Senate. If your preference isn’t merely to delay one vote but to threaten the majority with the prospect of getting less done overall, then launching a lot of fruitless filibusters makes perfect sense.

Now, the Wisconsin Senate is not the U.S. Senate; it plays by a different set of rules. But the Wisconsin 14 are most definitely playing by the rules of their own institution, as are the Republicans in the U.S. Senate. So if one is undermining democracy, so is the other. But, as Socrates noted in his debate with Meletus (the politician who prosecuted him for corrupting the young with his philosophy), consistency is not a strength of politicians (nor of their rhetoricians).

Consciousness Online Conference – 2011


Well, it’s that time of year again: time for another Consciousness Online Conference, going on between 2/18 and 3/4/2011. If you’re interested in consciousness (and what conscious creature would not be?), there are 11 presentations at this year’s conference, several of them involving video presentations. I haven’t had time to read the papers yet, but here are the main dishes (invited papers) on the Consciousness smorgasbord this year-

Black and White and Color by Kathleen Akins.

Consciousness and the Introspection of Apparent Qualitative Simples by Paul Churchland.

Minds, Brains and Turing by Stevan Harnad.

On the (Dis)unity of Consciousness by Jesse Prinz.

If you’re not sure whether this is your cup of tea, I’d start with a particularly entertaining 10 minute video presentation by Philip Goff, who argues that on one popular view of the relationship between mind and matter (known as “property dualism”), if Lot’s wife is conscious, then so must be the pillar of salt that God turns her into. (In more technical terms: property dualism entails panpsychism).

Have fun, and please… try to stay conscious.

Gordon Hintz Testifies


What I mean is, he gets down, man, in the “old school”, soulful sense of the expression. This is by far his most passionate performance since he won runner-up in the West Coast Air Guitar Championship (which, by the way, you can check out in the documentary, Air Guitar Nation). And I write this without any facetiousness whatsoever: passion is laudable when the occasion so clearly calls for it (and reason, justice, or fairness is also on your side), and it’s one aspect of politics that Democrats all too readily to cede to the Republicans.

Unfortunately, the only available video of Hintz’s speech has been disappearing from YouTube due to a copyright claim by the WisconsinEye Public Affairs Network. It’s too bad that the WPAN doesn’t allow web sites to embed their videos, which have their banner plastered across it; allowing embedding would be good advertising for them. In any case, I happen to have a good quality audio recording of the speech-

You go, guy: Krye Tuff strikes again (but this time with a quite visible – and audible – instrument)!

(Thanks, Larry C.)


ADDENDUM: It appears that Gordon’s passions extend into the, uh, more mundane aspects of life as well as politics. According to a story in today’s Northwestern

State Rep. Gordon Hintz said Tuesday that he was unaware that Appleton police had cited him for sexual misconduct in connection to a prostitution sting until the information was posted on Facebook over the weekend.

Appleton police said the citation, which was issued Feb. 10, stemmed from the department’s an ongoing investigation of Heavenly Touch Massage Parlor, 342 W. Wisconsin Ave., in Appleton. Police searched the business and a nearby residence in the 1300 block of North Division Street Jan. 28, after investigators had staked out the properties for several days after receiving a tip.

The ordinance under which the 37-year-old Oshkosh Democrat was charged prohibits paying or receiving “a fee, directly or indirectly, or to offer or ask for anything of value, for touching or offering to touch the sexual parts of another.”

Confirmation That It’s All About Union-Busting


It’s really not about the money – if it were, the Republicans would have accepted the Unions’ and Democrats’ offers to agree to the increases in medical and pension contributions that Walker says are necessary to close the budget gap. According to the Associated Press

Democrats offered again Saturday to agree to the parts of Walker’s proposal [that dealt with their medical and pension contributions], so long as workers retained their rights to negotiate with the state as a union.

Fitzgerald said that’s an offer the GOP has rejected for months. The restrictions on collective bargaining rights are needed so local governments and the state will have the flexibility needed to balance budgets after cuts Walker plans to announce next month, he said.

Walker, who was spending time with his family Saturday and didn’t appear in public, also rejected the Democrats’ offer.

Something’s Malodorous in Madison


When a newspaper as middle-of-the-road as the Oshkosh Northwestern publishes the following sort of editorial, emphasizing the political dimensions of Governor Walker’s attempt to destroy public employee unions, you can be pretty sure that something is mighty malodorous in Madison – something that can be smelled all the way to Oshkosh and beyond. This gives me a (perhaps unwarranted) glimmer of hope that the bill may not pass as written-

The problem with Gov. Scott Walker’s state budget repair bill isn’t what it ends, but what it begins. If it ended at simply requiring public employees in Wisconsin to pay a higher share of health insurance and pension costs, it would be a tough, but reasonable and appropriate response to a projected $3.6 billion budget deficit.

Truth be told, the bill is the beginning of an effort to roll back the right of workers. Its lesser-known provisions set a dangerous precedent for granting the executive branch broad emergency powers where an emergency does not exist. The speed in which the bill is heading from proposal to adoption is also of concern. It is slated for a vote Thursday, just six days after it was released to the public. The fact that a national special interest group, The Club for Growth, began broadcasting ads in support of the proposal at the same time the bill was released shows that this is not a homegrown effort to fix Wisconsin’s problems, but an orchestrated, ideologically driven campaign.

The Wisconsin State Legislature needs to begin acting like an independent branch of government capable of exercising checks and balances on the executive branch. It appears the Republican legislative leadership is intent on repeating the mistakes of Democratic leaders, who were swept out of office in November, in pursuing an ideological agenda disconnected from common sense.

Read the whole thing here.

Esperanza Spalding Redux


I never pay attention to awards shows, but I found it extraordinary that this year the Grammy Award for “best new artist” finally went to a truly deserving artist – one that I happened to post about 53 weeks ago to the day here. To celebrate, here’s another couple of videos displaying Esperanza Spalding’s amazing jazz singing and upright bass playing, the first from the same Jimmy Kimmel show as the one I posted last year, the second a more recent, solo performance at an obscure little venue in Washington D.C.-

(By the way, this second one looks great in 720p, so if you have the bandwidth, click on the 360p for the menu (you may have to wait until you start playing the video to see that), then on 720p, and finally on the full-screen icon on the player’s lower-right corner).

Respect and the Right to Unionize


I was going to entitle this post “It’s not about money, it’s about respect”, but then I realized: in our culture, it largely is about the money. How much we pay people to do their jobs is a pretty good indication of how much respect we have for them and for their work, regardless of whatever lip-service may also be paid. But let’s put aside the issue of money for the moment. We can all agree, I think, that the State has to put its financial house in order, and we can also all agree that at least temporary pay cuts are necessary. Personally, I don’t think that targeted tax increases should be off the table, but let’s agree for the sake of discussion that no tax increases are feasible in the present political and economic climate. Let’s even agree, for the sake of argument, that government workers should shoulder ALL of the burden of balancing the budget. None of that entails that such workers should be stripped of their well-established right to collectively bargain! But, in addition to targeting the wages of public employees (to the tune, it appears, of at least a 10% cut in take-home pay), the newly elected Republican governor Scott Walker wants to do just that. According to the Oshkosh Northwestern

Walker wants to remove all collective bargaining rights, except for salary, for roughly 175,000 public employees starting July 1. Any requests for a salary increase higher than the consumer price index would have to be approved by referendum.

Starting April 1, Walker wants to force state employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to cover pension costs and more than double their health insurance contributions. That would generate $30 million this fiscal year. Currently, most public workers don’t contribute anything to their pensions.

Walker said Friday that he updated emergency plans and alerted the National Guard just in case they are needed to ensure state services aren’t interrupted. His plan would remove collective bargaining rights for prison guards, but it would exempt local police and firefighters and the state patrol.

Walker spoke about his plan at a Capitol news conference under the watch of a heavier than usual police presence. Walker, standing in front of seven state representatives and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, said no one should be surprised by his proposal.

“Unless you were in a coma for the last two years, it was clear where I was headed,” Walker said.

Well, most government employees I know – who have already accepted pay cut after pay cut, most recently disguised in the form of “furlough days” that, in the case of university faculty and staff, can’t affect their teaching duties – weren’t in a coma for the last two years, but these anti-union proposals have certainly awoken them to the consequences of allowing this governor to be elected. Governor Walker even wants to rescind the law, passed only last year, that allows university faculty and staff to determine for themselves whether they want to unionize. Not to actually unionize, mind you, but simply to vote on the issue. What liberty could be more American than that?

Walker says he wants public employees to be in circumstances that are more similar to those of private employees. But which private employees: those that are paid fairly, or those that aren’t? For decades, government workers have been willing to accept lower wages than those they would expect to earn in the private sector, in return for better benefits (such as employer-funded pensions and medical coverage). So it is misleading at best to say that mandating pension and health insurance contributions simply increases the parity between public and private workers. But even if this were true, accepting less monetary compensation would not be nearly as damaging to state employees (and to those they serve) if they were allowed to continue negotiating the non-monetary conditions of their employment, as teachers, nurses, and public defenders now do regarding issues like class size, patient load, and case load. If you or someone you know is an actual or potential student, patient, or defendant – in other words, if you are alive – then you should want those closest to the classroom, hospital room, or court room – the employees themselves – to have some say in the conditions of those workplaces.

It’s interesting that, although the governor’s tea-party ideology is all about personal liberty, he’s perfectly happy to the restrict the liberty of state employees to unionize and collectively bargain (bargain, not dictate) the terms of their employment. And, in the case of university faculty and staff, he’s delighted to simply prohibit them from unionizing altogether. Respect is all about recognizing rights, and the right of workers to collectively bargain in an economy where power (and money) tends to be distributed upward (that is, away from the people who actually do the productive work) is crucial to maintaining some semblance of economic justice.

On a final, unfortunately cynical note, can it be mere coincidence that the two unions that Governor Walker exempted from his plan – police and fire – just happen to be the two that supported his election?

Stay tuned, this story is likely to be with us for quite a while.

Philosophy Survives at Howard University


Along with many other members of the American Philosophical Association, I recently emailed Sidney Ribeau, President of Howard University, asking him to reject an internal commission’s recommendation to eliminate the philosophy program as an independent department. I posted that letter here. I’m happy to report that President Ribeau recently informed the APA that his university’s philosophy department will indeed survive (albeit minus its Masters degree offering). The text of that letter can be found here.

Why The Packers Are So Damn Cool


Rachel Maddow explains to the uninitiated just why the Green Bay Packers will continue to be loved by their fans, even if they don’t win the Superbowl on Sunday-

(By the way, I’m using YouTube’s new embed code for the video above. If your browser does not support it, you can watch the video here.)

UPDATE: the point is now moot, since the Packers did indeed win the Superbowl. And the cosmos is once again in balance for a couple of million Wisconsinites.