Marathon Speeches

Those silly Communists and their loooooong speeches.

Some call Xi Jinping a Chinese Putin. Others a 21st-century Mao.

On Wednesday morning he was China’s Hugo Chávez, testing his comrades’ eyelids – and their bladders – with a three-and-a-half hour, 65-page sermon in which he outlined his brave new vision for the Communist party, and the world.

“The Chinese dream is a dream about history, the present and the future,” Xi declared towards the end of his unexpectedly long-winded address to the opening of China’s 19th party congress. By the conclusion of this eastern answer to Aló Presidente! more than a few of Xi’s audience appeared to have entered a dreamlike state.

Communist Party Determines Future of China

Yes, China is still a totalitarian regime where one party controls the lives of over a billion people. What will the next 5 years hold?

China’s biggest political event, the Communist Party congress, has begun in Beijing under tight security.

Party leader and Chinese president Xi Jinping is addressing more than 2,000 delegates in the capital.

The closed-door summit, which takes place once every five years, determines who rules China and the country’s direction for the next term.

Mr Xi, who became the leader in 2012, has been consolidating power and is expected to remain as party chief.

Wisconsin Finishes With $579 Million Surplus

Fantastic. Let’s return it to the taxpayers. That would be about $100 for every man, woman, and child in the state. I’m sure a family of 4 would appreciate a $400 check before Christmas.

The state finished 2016-17 with a surplus of $579 million, a better ending balance than what the Legislative Fiscal Bureau had previously projected.

The last LFB estimate of a $467 million ending balance, though, did not include a final look at expenditures over the fiscal year. The Department of Administration wrote in its annual fiscal report expenses came in about $41 million less than had been expected, while revenues were up.

Gov. Scott Walker’s office touted it as the second largest closing balance for a fiscal year since 2000. The guv did not call for any new spending, though a spokesman noted Walker has previously urged lawmakers to use money saved through his budget vetoes to cover a $9.7 million boost in aid for small, rural districts in 2018-19.

Trump acts on Obamacare

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. Here you go:

President Trump, frustrated with Congress’ failure to repeal Obamacare, has begun to take unilateral action to reintroduce market forces into the health insurance market and pick at the pillars of Obamacare. His actions are a great first step.

Before getting into the specifics of Trump’s actions, we must note that the continued concentration of power in the presidency is abhorrent and an existential threat to liberty. That concentration has been progressing for decades, but greatly accelerated during the President Obama’s terms. Whereby Obama bragged about governing with a “phone and a pen,” Trump is exercising that same arbitrary authority. And while Trump’s most recent orders are good policy, the same power can and will be used for bad policy and worse. The fact remains that so much arbitrary power — the power over the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans and trillions of dollars — should never be concentrated in the pen of one person.

Obama used that arbitrary authority to implement Obamacare and make changes to our health care insurance market — sometimes in ways not legal. Trump is using that same arbitrary authority to make different changes to our health care insurance market.

Trump’s first executive order was a series of directives to various cabinet agencies and tweaks to find ways to allow more health insurance options and more flexibility in the health insurance market. The first directive was to the Labor Department to find ways to allow small businesses and individuals to collectively buy insurance through association health plans.

Allowing small businesses and individuals to group together — particularly if they are allowed to do so across state lines — would allow them to gain more purchasing power, better rates and in some circumstances, alleviate them of many of Obamacare’s regulations by shifting their plans under federal regulation instead of state regulations.

The second thing Trump’s order did was to allow people to buy more kinds of short-term health insurance plans. Obama limited these plans to 90 days, but allowing people to by plans for up to a year provides much more flexibility to people between jobs or open enrollment periods.

The third thing Trump’s order did was allow employers more ways to give employees tax-free money to pay for health care expenses elsewhere. In the past, some employers that did not provide health insurance could instead give their employees money to buy insurance on the individual market through a Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA). Obamacare forbade this accommodation and Trump’s order allows it again.

These series of changes are all positive and allow for more flexibility and competition in the health insurance market. It was Trump’s second action, however, that really undercut Obamacare. When the Obamacare law was written, the lawmakers knew that it would dramatically increase the cost of health care insurance. It sought to address that by shifting costs to the taxpayers in two primary ways. The first way was to give subsidies to people buying Obamacare policies if they couldn’t afford it through a tax credit.

The second way was to mandate that the insurance companies providing Obamacare policies cut what they charge health care providers — even if those cuts results in a loss to the insurance company. This was done with the understanding that the taxpayers would pick up the losses of the health insurance companies, but the Obamacare law never appropriated any money for such subsidies. Lawmakers at the time were justifiably fearful of being accused of subsidizing the profits of big health insurance companies, so they did not appropriate the money. President Obama picked up the ball and began illegally giving the health insurance companies subsidies to prop up their profits beginning in 2014.

Trump is ending this illegal practice. Ironically, all Trump is doing is following the law as written. The result is that the insurance companies are still required by law to keep their billings lower — sometimes below costs — but they will not get a check from the taxpayers to cover those losses. They will be forced to either pass those costs on to policy holders through massive premium increases, or exit the Obamacare exchanges. The structural flaws of Obamacare will no longer be covered up with billions of taxpayer dollars illegally funneled to insurance companies.

Obamacare has already failed America. Trump is just trying to mitigate and hopefully reverse some of the damage.

Iraqi Forces Move into Kirkuk

Self-determination for me, but not for thee.

Iraqi government forces have entered central Kirkuk, residents say, after taking key installations outside the disputed city from Kurdish fighters.

Witnesses told the BBC they saw federal forces entering the provincial government building.

Clashes were reported south of Kirkuk earlier in the day, while thousands of residents fled the city.

It comes three weeks after the Kurdistan region held a controversial independence referendum.

While Kirkuk is not inside Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish voters inside the city were allowed to take part.

Iraq’s prime minister has said the vote – in which residents of Kurdish-controlled areas, including Kirkuk, overwhelmingly backed secession – was unconstitutional.

We’re seeing this elsewhere in the world and it is the normal response. When Catalans want to break off and form their own nation, the Spanish authorities move in with force. When Kurds want to break off and form their own nation, the Iraqi authorities move in with force. Come to think of it, when South Carolinians wanted to break off and form their own nation, the American authorities moved in with force. The truth is that while the international community talks a good game about self-determination, they only ever really support it when it’s convenient.

City of West Bend Considers Transportation Advisory Referendum Tonight

The Washington County Insider has more details.

Oct. 4, 2017 – West Bend, WI – The Long Range Transportation Planning Committee (LRTPC) will make a recommendation to the Common Council tonight for an advisory referendum to gauge whether neighbors want city leaders to spend more on road repair.

In 2015 the city put together the LRTC to specifically look at issues dealing with road maintenance and repair. Aldermen said roads were the No. 1 complaint of taxpayers.

In September 2015 the city posted a Transportation Survey

Dist. 5 alderman Rich Kasten, who heads up the LRTPC, said the survey was “not to advocate for any potential solution but garner true and valuable feedback on the appetite of the citizens when it comes to road maintenance.”

Some of the options to fund road repair are below:

  1. Continue to spend 4 percent more per year on road maintenance
  2. Enact a wheel tax of $20 per registered passenger vehicle / car or light truck. That could generate about $600,000 annually to be spent on roads.
  3. Increase property taxes specifically for road projects.

[…]

Tonight’s Common Council meeting gets underway at 6:30 p.m. at West Bend City Hall, 1115 S. Main Street.

On Merchants

“The parson lives on the sins of the people, the doctor on their diseases, and the lawyer on their disputes and quarrels. But the merchant lives on the wealth of the people. He never wishes for a poor customer or a poor country… the merchant has every inducement to seek and support the wealth of the state.”

– Pelatiah Webster

Lopez Booed off Stage

Time and a place

Comic George Lopez was booed off stage at a gala for juvenile diabetes in Denver last week, over an anti-Donald Trump routine that fell flat with the crowd.

[…]

We’re told that Lopez responded to Maffei, “Thank you for changing my opinion on old white men, but it doesn’t change the way I feel about orange men.”

Trying to recover and sensing the audience turn, Lopez said, “Listen, it’s about the kids . . . I apologize for bringing politics to an event. This is America — it still is. So I apologize to your white privilege.”

We’re told Lopez also told a joke about Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico, saying, “I guess you can get some Mexicans to do it cheaper and they wouldn’t crush the tunnels ­underneath.”

When the audience did not respond well, he quipped, “Are you El Chapo people?” in reference to the drug kingpin who has used tunnels to evade authorities.

Lopez is a funny guy and has been able to make make poignant social commentaries through his comedy – particularly regarding cultural differences and immigration. The problem with him, and too many like him, is that he has let his hatred of Trump seep into everything. He can’t help himself. So while he is supposed to be just a funny MC for an event to raise money to fight juvenile diabetes, he uses it as an opportunity to just vent about Trump. It isn’t even funny. It’s just hate. Which is why people were turning on him. Americans have a long history of enjoying political comedy and satire and can generally roll with the punches. But when it is just an un-funny political hate rant, nobody wants to hear it.

Meanwhile, Lopez put his own political hatred above the kids with diabetes. He couldn’t help himself even for a few minutes on behalf of kids. That’s a lot of hatred to contend with.

To NFL or Not to NFL

I’ll just say it. I love football. As a child of Texas, football was a way of life. From the JV games on Thursday, to Friday Night Lights, to college football Saturdays, to the NFL on Sunday and Monday, I love it all.

After the NFL protests started, I found my habits changing. Sundays used go church, brunch, and then sit down to watch pre-game and NFL football for 10 or 11 straight hours. But the NFL protests have changed that for me. I’ll still watch my Cowboys play when it’s convenient. The same is true for the Packers. But that’s about it. I’m just not interested in the rest anymore. I’m not interested in spending time patronizing a business that clearly doesn’t value me as a customer. I still love the game, but I’m finding it easier and easier to do without the NFL. There is lot of football to enjoy without the NFL.

I’m not boycotting. It wasn’t really even a conscious decision. The NFL just turned me off… so I turned them off.

Layoffs at Tesla

That stinks.

Tesla has fired at least 400 employees this week, including associates, team leaders and supervisors, a former employee told Reuters on Friday.

The dismissals were a result of a company-wide annual review, Tesla said in an emailed statement, without confirming the number of employees leaving the company.

‘It’s about 400 people ranging from associates to team leaders to supervisors. We don’t know how high up it went,’ said the former employee, who worked on the assembly line and did not want to be identified.

Tesla Inc fired about 400 employees this week, including associates, team leaders and supervisors, a former employee told Reuters on Friday

Though Tesla cited performance as the reason for the firings, the source told Reuters he was fired in spite of never having been given a bad review.

Tesla is an innovative company that is pushing the boundaries of culture and technology. It is also a company that consistently fails to meet expectations, is propped up by taxpayers, and is apparently very poorly managed. It would be nice to see a better managed company acquire them, their patents, and move it forward.

Identifying the Slaves

Jinkees.

slave

So now standing and respecting our nation during the anthem is a signal that you are a slave? Call me a slave then.

“We shouldn’t let any small dollar amount go un-scrutinized,”

I want more of this mindset in Madison (and Washington, for that matter).

That’s hardly a blip in the state’s $76 billion budget. But Allen, among a group of conservative lawmakers who are particularly focused on DOT spending, said no sum is too meager to consider.

“We shouldn’t let any small dollar amount go un-scrutinized,” Allen said.

Here’s what he’s talking about it.

State law says the department shall give 500 highway maps — the folded paper kind — to the office of all 132 state lawmakers each time they’re published. Another 300 must be given to the Legislature’s nonpartisan reference bureau. Each lawmaker also must get 50 copies of large laminated wall maps of the state highway system.

Allen has asked fellow lawmakers to sign on to a prospective bill to end those requirements.

We need more lawmakers to look around government and say, “well, that’s stupid and wasteful… let’s do something about it.”

We’re Listening

And this is why, despite the fact that I love technology and am a certified geek, I will not have one of these kinds of devices in my home.

A major flaw has been detected in the newly-unveiled Google Home Mini speaker that allows it to secretly record conversations without users knowing.

Last week, Google showed off its next-generation smart speakers at an event in San Francisco. Following the event, it sent members of the press home with a review unit of the Google Home Mini, expected to launch on October 19.

Android Police tech blogger and founder Artem Russakovskii was the first to discover a bug in the software used by those devices. After using the gadget, he went to his Google (GOOG)activity account page and noticed it was populated with audio clips recorded in his home.

The Google Home Mini saved recordings at times when the wake word “OK Google” wasn’t used. (A wake word typically triggers smart devices like Google Home and the Amazon Echo to start listening to your verbal commands).

AP Obtains Recording of Embassy Audio Attack

Wow. It seems clear that it was a deliberate attack.

Washington (CNN)A new audio recording said to capture what was heard by some US embassy workers amid a series of attacks on American diplomats in Cuba is adding another layer of intrigue around the mysterious incidents that sickened at least 22 US diplomats and family members.

The recording — obtained by The Associated Press and released on Thursday — is the first publicly reported audio sample said to be related to attacks that, according to a US official, may have involved the use of an acoustic device.
The device was so sophisticated, it was outside the range of audible sound, the official said. And it was so damaging, the source said, that one US diplomat now needs to use a hearing aid.
But what remains unknown is what kind of device may have been used, where exactly it was placed, and who put it there.

Trump Pushes Back on Iran Deal

Good. Now it’s up to Congress.

US President Donald Trump has condemned Iran as a “fanatical regime” and refused to continue signing off on a landmark international nuclear deal.

In a combative speech on Friday, Mr Trump accused Iran of sponsoring terrorism and proposed new sanctions.

He said Iran had already violated the 2015 deal, which imposed curbs on Iran’s nuclear capability in return for easing international embargoes.

International observers say Iran has been in full compliance with the deal.

Speaking at the White House, Mr Trump said he was acting in order to deny Iran “all paths to a nuclear weapon”.

“We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror, and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout,” he said.

ISIS Almost Dead

Excellent. It’s good to see success in the field.

ISIS’s reign of terror is rapidly coming to an end. Within a matter of days, the jihadist menace that shocked the world for years with its pathological sadism will lose its final strongholds within the Syrian city of Raqqa. It has taken 5 months of bloody struggle but the de facto capital of the Islamic State will soon be entirely in the hands of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Across the border in Iraq, the process of rebuilding the devastated city of Mosul is underway after its liberation from the so-called caliphate in July. There are still areas of ISIS control in both Iraq and Syria, but the jihadists have lost over 60 percent of the territory they once held. Their sources of funding are drying up, hostile forces surround them, and ISIS can no longer count on tens of thousands of recruits to flood into Syria to replenish their ranks.

If the Islamic State’s fanatics were running an actual state instead of a glorified death cult, they would be negotiating terms for surrender and laying down their arms already.

The U.S. and its allies have effectively beaten the Islamic State. While the process has been slow and riddled with setbacks and restarts, this is a substantial accomplishment. In 2014, ISIS seized Mosul in a blitzkrieg and was threatening to march on the Kurdish city of Erbil.

West Bend School District Considers Facilities Needs

I had the opportunity to attend the West Bend School District’s Citizens Facility Advisory Committee (CFAC) meeting a couple of nights ago. If you would like to see the raw videos of what happened, please check our Judy Steffes’ YouTube channel and look for the CFAC videos. Steffes is a member of the committee in her role as a citizen and taxpayer, but she was also the only member of a media outlet to attend. Thankfully, she recorded most of the meeting so people can be involved even if they can’t attend.

Before commenting further, let me remind you of my bias going into the meeting. I believe that the school board really wants to push a referendum to get money to replace Jackson Elementary and make substantial expenditures on the High School. To that end, they hired a firm, Bray Architects, that specializes in running a biased process to end at that result. I can’t say that my beliefs were disproved by participating in the meeting.

The flow of the meeting was relatively simple. The first half of the meeting was just a recap of the previous meeting and some additional information. Then we took about an hour to tour some of the key infrastructure elements in the building. The focus this meeting was on “behind the scenes” items like the boiler room, server room, etc. The next meeting will tour classrooms and learning areas. After the tour, the CFAC members broke into small groups to discuss and respond to specific questions from the facilitators.

Here are of my observations in no particular order of priority or importance:

  • I am incredibly thankful for the members of the community who participate in these things. They are long, often boring, and require a lot of personal time and effort to participate. Same goes to school board members. Two of them, Joel Ongert and Tonnie Schmidt, attended the first half of the CFAC meeting and ducked out during the tour.
  • The above nature of these kinds of process also skews the participation. People with a direct interest in the outcome – like district employees, relatives, etc. – are more likely to make the personal sacrifice to participate. The membership of the committee reflects this systemic bias.
  • That being said, there were some excellent questions and excellent discussions. For example, in discussing buildings, one of the CFAC members mentioned that the test results disclosed at the School Board meeting earlier this week did not seem to correlate with the age of the buildings. In other words, some of the best results came out of the oldest buildings. She asked if there was a general correlation between building age, etc. and educational outcomes? The answer, by the way, is no. Once basic thresholds of space and safety are met, the rest has little impact on outcomes.
  • The entire process reminded me of a maxim that Mark Belling frequently touts. Namely, you can only react to the news you know. Let me explain… the tour took us to the server room which serves as the hub in a hub-and-spoke network for the district. I’ve seen a lot of server rooms and this one wasn’t great, but there wasn’t anything surprising. Clearly it was located in a less-than-ideal location years ago without much thought. It lacks a raised floor and industry-standard cooling, but it’s fine and I’ve seen a lot worse in private companies.The tour guide explained that there is a large hot water unit above the room that would essentially shut down the district if it leaked into the server room. OK, good to know. At the end of the meeting, the CFAC small groups were asked to list the “items in most need of improvement?” What made the top of the list? The risk of the server room being flooded, of course. The small groups largely just parroted the concerns and perceived risks from the district employees back to the Bray people running the meeting. But as you can see, now those concerns and risks have been laundered from employees’ concerns to citizens’ concerns. When presented to the public, these concerns will be labeled as coming from the CFAC.
  • Going to the point above, some of the great questions from some of the committee members highlighted the difference between theoretical risks and real risks. For example, when asked during the tour of the server room if the server room had ever actually flooded, the answer was that it had almost flooded once in the last five years. Watch this video about 2:15 in. And then later in the meeting, an audience member went into great detail about other mitigation techniques that could be used to prevent flooding. Watch this video about 1:45 in. In short, while there is a theoretical threat of the server room flooding, it hasn’t ever happened in anyone’s memory and there are some simple things that can be done to prevent it.
  • Going back to the way the meeting is designed to get a specific result, once the tour was complete and the CFAC members broke into small groups, the two questions they were asked to respond to were, “What surprised you the most?” and “What items were in most need of improvement?” As expected, the responses were a reflection of what district employees told them during the tour.
  • At least at the high school, the district facilities staff seems to do an excellent job. All of the equipment look well maintained and on a regular maintenance/replacement schedule.

The process continues in a couple of weeks. The next meeting on the 25th, the CFAC members will get a briefing on the latest trends in school design, a lesson in School Funding 101, and a tour of the educational areas of the building. The design of the meeting is intended to show CFAC members how neat new schools look, compare that to our “old crappy” schools, and show how there isn’t any way to build new cool stuff within the confines of the existing budget.

I encourage the committee members to continue to ask tough questions. When presented with a theoretical risk, they should ask questions like, “has that ever happened?” and “what can be done to mitigate the risk?” That way, they can discern if it is a serious concern or not. Also, I encourage committee members to figure out if and how any suggested proposals tie into improving educational outcomes. As I said, once the basic standards of safety and space are met, how do buildings correlate to better education? Frankly, I’d rather hire and pay for great teachers than build different-looking buildings.

What’s in Trump’s Executive Order?

While I continue to lament the fact that our federal government now operates largely by executive fiat instead of legislative action, these are all very positive changes.

Let more small businesses join together to buy coverage. Trump is directing the Labor Department to study how to make it easier for small businesses, and possibly individuals, to collectively buy health insurance through association health plans. Small employers may expand their ability to offer group coverage across state lines, providing them with a broader range of policies at lower rates.

[…]

Extend short-term coverage policies.The order would allow more consumers to purchase short-term health insurance plans. It directs agencies to lengthen the coverage of these policies and permit renewals.

[…]

Expand employers’ ability to give workers cash to buy coverage elsewhere.Health reimbursement arrangements are not well-known, but they figure into Trump’s executive order. Employers use them to provide workers with tax-free funds to pay for health care costs, mainly deductibles and co-pays.

Brexit Deadlock

This was entirely predictable.

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier says there has not been enough progress to move to the next stage of Brexit talks as the UK wants.

He said there was “new momentum” in the process but there was still “deadlock” over the so-called divorce bill, which he said was “disturbing”.

“Decisive progress is in our grasp within the next two months”, he added.

This week’s fifth round of talks are the final discussions before a crucial EU summit on 19 and 20 October.

What you have here is a divorce where one party, the EU, that doesn’t want to split. They aren’t going to agree to anything short of Britain staying in the abusive marriage. The only way this ends is when Britain takes her stuff, moves out, and stops returning the EU’s calls and snaps. Only then will the EU come to appreciate Britain’s value and they can reestablish a more platonic relationship on mutually-favorable terms.

Cross Floats Merging UW Colleges with Universities

I didn’t realize that demand had shrunk that much.

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The University of Wisconsin System’s two-year schools would merge with its four-year campuses under a plan system President Ray Cross announced Wednesday in hopes of boosting flagging enrollment.

The plan calls for making the system’s 13 two-year schools open regional branches of the 13 four-year schools. Students would still be able to earn associate degrees but they would bear the name of the four-year school. Students would get a wider range of courses to choose from and be able to take third- and fourth-year courses at the branch campus.

For example, two-year school UW-Barron County would cease to exist. Its buildings, faculty and staff would become a branch of UW-Eau Claire. Students who attend the branch campus would earn associate degrees from UW-Eau Claire and could complete four-year degrees through UW-Eau Claire.

The plan is designed to combat declining enrollment at the two-year schools and keep them open. According to a news release from the university system announcing the plan, enrollment at the schools has dropped 32 percent since 2010, costing the schools tuition and fees.

What’s more, system officials fear the number of college-age students will shrink over the next 20 years as Wisconsin’s population ages. The number of people in the state ages 65 to 84 is expected to increase by more than 90 percent by 2040, according to projections from UW-Milwaukee.

[…]

“The dramatic demographic declines in this state are undeniable and we have been working hard to ensure the future viability and sustainability of our small campuses,” Cathy Sandeen, UW Colleges and Extension chancellor, said in the news release.

As a taxpayer-funded public institution, that seems like exactly the wrong focus. If demand is shrinking and the public is moving away from the colleges, then close them down and rein in spending. Especially in this age, it seems that fewer campuses and more online and “branch” style educational offerings would be more appropriate than looking for ways to prop up underused campuses.