Tag Archives: Column

Ceding the grand debate

My column for the Washington County Daily News is online. I should note that while I lament the fact that we Americans have by and large ceded this debate, I do want the Congress to pass a healthcare reform bill that mitigates the damage as much as possible. I’d rather take a partial win than no win at all. Here it is:

As the U.S. Senate appears to be in the final throes of a bill to significantly change some of the worst aspects of Obamacare, it is appropriate to return to some fundamental truths that have been lost in the debate.

Health care is not a right. One of the philosophical underpinnings of Obamacare is the Marxist assertion that health care is a right, and as a right, should be protected and managed by the central government. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The greatest single definition of rights can be found in our own nation’s Declaration of Independence which states in part, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights … .” Rights are universal, unalienable, inviolable, equal and are the sole birthright of each individual. Since rights rest in the soul of each individual, every right can be exercised by every individual even if they were the last person on earth.

For example, everyone has a natural right to speak their conscience. The exercise of that right requires neither license from a government nor assistance from another person. The right to keep and bear arms is also a right. It is also a right inherent in the individual that can be exercised without any outside interference or assistance.

Health care is not a right. One certainly has the right to practice health care on oneself, as that right rests in the right to own one’s own body, but at the point that one’s health care requires the assistance of another individual, it ceases to be a right. No right can impose an obligation or duty on another individual.

One has a right to speak one’s conscience, but that does not obligate anyone to listen. One has a right to keep andbear arms, but that does not impose a duty on others to manufacture and supply one a gun. One has a right to control one’s own body, but that does not entitle one to the time, knowledge and skills of a doctor. An individual can always exercise a right, but at the point that such exercise imposes upon another person, it ceases to be a right and instead slips into the realms of commerce or coercion.

It is an important distinction because if we extend the definition of rights to include obligations on others, we are sanctioning slavery. When someone says that they are entitled to free universal health care, what they are really saying is that they want our government to use the threat of violence and imprisonment to force another person to surrender the fruits of their education, training, knowledge, time, materials and skills. The assertion that health care is a right is an inherently violent call to enslave others for the service of the collective.

Until the recent past, Americans had accepted that that the delivery of health care was a matter of commerce where free people would engage in an exchange of goods and services to obtain health care services. As a people, we had confidence in the capitalist economic principles that had led to the most efficient and productive allocation of scarce resources in all areas of commerce — including health care. It is upon these principles that America has been built and has become the most prosperous people in the history of human existence.

Yet in a pique of frustration and stupidity, we have abandoned those proven economic principles and embraced an ideology of serfdom by allowing our federal government to dictate the terms of our health care system. The debate occurring in Congress right now is simply over the details and costs of those terms. As a people, we have ceded the grand debate and are now fighting over the scraps of a squandered American legacy.

Recalling Barrett

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

It is easy for most people in Wisconsin to look upon the troubles in Milwaukee from a distance, lament the immense waste of money and opportunity, pity the victims of crime, cluck our tongues in disapproval and hope their troubles remain confined by the city’s borders. Yet while Wisconsin’s direction is increasingly divergent from Milwaukee’s trajectory with the blossoming of other communities, Milwaukee remains Wisconsin’s largest city. Its gravity still tugs the rest of the state.

Milwaukee’s problems are not new. Like many other Rust Belt cities, the shifting economy coupled with dreadful local leadership has drained the city of much of its vitality. Since 2004, Milwaukee has been led my Mayor Tom Barrett, and under Barrett’s leadership, Milwaukee has suffered.

It is gloomy to recount the statistics, but recount them we must. Between 2004, when Barrett was sworn in, and 2014, the last year for which the FBI has tabulated statistics, the overall violent crime rate in Milwaukee has increased almost 90 percent. The aggravated assault rate is up 263 percent. Robberies are up; burglaries are up; motor vehicle thefts are up.

While Milwaukee has benefitted from a resurgence in downtown development, the majority of the city is languishing under an economic malaise that rivals that of Detroit. This is especially true for Milwaukee’s black citizens. In 2015, the most recent year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has data, the unemployment rate for black Milwaukeeans was 17.3 percent compared to 4.3 percent for white Milwaukeeans. The income gap is one of the largest in the nation with the median household income for black families being $25,600 compared to $62,600 for white families. Milwaukee is considered one of the worst cities in America for black people for good reason.

While Barrett has been referred to as a “caretaker” mayor due to his lack of robust leadership, his caretaking certainly seems inadequate given Milwaukee’s decline. And yet, the people of Milwaukee have elected and reelected Barrett four times. In the most recent election in 2016, he was reelected with 70 percent of the vote. Despite the fact that Barrett has been desperately trying to get out of the city by running for governor three times, Milwaukeeans seem satisfied with his governance. One can forgive those of us who live outside of Milwaukee for having difficulty mustering compassion for Milwaukee’s wellbeing when Milwaukee’s voters appear to have so little regard for it.

However there is a growing, diverse, and energetic group of Milwaukeeans who have had enough. A group calling themselves “Save Our City. Milwaukeeans Can’t Wait” — a descriptive if unwieldly moniker — has announced plans to launch a recall effort against Barrett. The group is headed by Allen Jansen, a resident of the city’s south side who has supported the mayoral campaigns of Joe Davis and Bob Donovan. The group’s treasurer is Darryl Farmer, a member of the Black Panthers Party and controversial resident of the city’s north side.

Although newly announced, the group is already garnering wide support from a varied range of Milwaukeeans who are dissatisfied with Barrett for everything from lead pipes to crime. The groups lists four reasons for their effort to recall Barrett.

First, they allege that Barrett’s misplaced priorities of using tax dollars for the construction of a downtown trolley instead of focusing on health, public safety, education, etc. constitutes malfeasance in public office.

Second, they allege official misconduct on the part of Barrett in that he pursued an agenda that personally benefitted his campaign donors.

Third, they allege dereliction of duty because Barrett failed to fulfill his obligation to sufficiently protect Milwaukeeans from crime.

Fourth, they allege that Barrett endangered public health by not acting to replace Milwaukee’s lead lateral pipes.

Of course, none of these allegations are new. Milwaukeeans knew of these failures before they reelected Barrett last year by an overwhelming margin. Yet perhaps the fact that such a coalition of Milwaukeeans has coalesced for change is a ray of hope for a city desperately in need of competent leadership.

Barrett has responded to the recall effort by saying that he welcomes a conversation about Milwaukee’s future. Well, then. Let us have that conversation.

Taxing with the Lights On

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

There are very few things less exciting to write or read about than property tax assessments. It is a subject as dull and boring as the dry dusty parking lot of an abandoned Circuit City. Yet, we must walk through that parking lot because there is a movement going on across the country that seeks to push even more of the property tax burden onto Wisconsin’s homeowners.

At issue is the ominous-sounding “dark store” theory of property tax assessment. It is by this theory that many big box retailers are prevailing on the courts to cut their property tax bills by as much as 70 percent. The dark store theory is, in and of itself, not evil or ominous at all. It is simply an alternative theory of how to place a value on property, and in the abstract, it is quite rational.

There are always two variables in the calculation of a property tax bill. The first variable is the tax rate, which is set by each of the myriad of taxing authorities. The second variable is the value of the property. It is in this second variable where this controversy rests. In a pure economic sense, the fair market value of any property is whatever price a willing buyer is willing to give a willing seller for the property. Unless a property had just been sold, however, the true value of a property is subject to debate. While municipalities employ trained assessors to estimate the value of properties for the purpose of taxation with complicated formulations combining square footage, improvements, comparisons to comparable properties, etc., even the most reasonable assessment is, at best, an informed opinion that is subject to debate.

Recently, some very large retailers like Walgreens,WalMart, Shopko, Menards and others, have beenchallenging their property assessments in court, and winning, under the dark store theory. The retailers are arguing that their properties should not be valued basedon how they are being used today, but by how much they would be worth if they were empty and dark. We have all seen empty big box stores sit vacant and unsold for years because there are very few buyers for properties that were purpose-built for a specific retailer.

The consequences are real and the money is big. West Bend Mayor Kraig Sadownikow recently shared a stark example in his testimony for the Committee on Ways and Means. West Bend’s two Walgreens stores were taxed at a combined value of $14 million. Walgreens sued under the dark store theory and had the combined valuation reduced to $4.8 million — a reduction of nearly 66 percent. This cut their property taxes by about $180,000 per year. That is $180,000 for the city, county, and schools that the rest of the taxpayers of West Bend have to cover.

While the dark store theory of taxation is not entirely irrational in that it is trying to set the property value on the possible selling price that the retailer could actually get for the property is they leave it, it is entirely irrational considering the actual value of that property to a retailer that is using the property to earn profits from local consumers. A better way to value commercial properties is to factor in the actual use of the property. Assembly Bill 386, which is supported by all of Washington County’s elected state representatives, seeks to do just that.

Wisconsin’s property taxes are far too high, but we can all agree that the burden should be shared as fairly as possible. The big retailers can be forgiven for wanting to take advantage of every means the law allows to reduce their property tax burden, but Wisconsin’s lawmakers need to end this particular means by passing AB 386.

Stores with the lights on should be taxed as such.

SCOTUS protects free speech

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

With the rush of news lately about Obamacare, Brexit, Trump and everything else happening in our world, one can be forgiven for missing that the Supreme Court of the United States rendered what may prove to be one of its most important decisions protecting the free speech rights of Americans. The background of the case stretches back into decades of American progressive culture.

For decades, many American liberals who preach fidelity to the 1st Amendment and free speech have been carving out more and more speech as unworthy of such protection. In the past, the answer to offensive speech was more speech. Americans were certainly free to say nasty things and express abhorrent thoughts, and other Americans would respond with contrary speech. Such debate is an underpinning of a free society.

Liberals in America have been slowly eroding that robust intellectual ethos by decreeing that some speech is so offensive that the speaker must not be allowed to say it or face severe penalties if they do. This anti-free speech attitude has manifested in our American culture in the form of safe spaces, trigger words, speech codes and the like. On many college campuses and other liberal institutions, the price for saying something that does not please the ruling regime — from Marquette University to ESPN — is ostracism, reprimand, and expulsion.

It was in this intolerant culture that Barack Obama and many his fellow travelers were incubated and they brought it with them when Obama became our president. It was just that sort of intolerance that seeped into the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

The USPTO has a very simple purpose. It to register the unique intellectual property of individual Americans. The USPTO is not responsible for enforcing trademarks or copyrights. It is merely an office that evaluates a trademark or invention to determine if it is unique, and if it is, to register it in an official government record. If a person has a trademark or copyright that they think is being violated, then that person must file a civil suit in federal or state court to have the court enforce it.

Under the Obama Administration, the USPTO tried to stretch its mission to not just register unique trademarks,but to enforce a liberal speech code on them and prohibit trademarks that they did not like. Under the auspices of a “disparagement clause,” the USPTO had taken to denying trademarks that would normally qualify, but were deemed “offensive” to some real or mythical constituency.

Such were the rubrics that a band called “The Slants” confronted when trying to register the name of their band. The USPTO denied their application for a trademark because the word “slant” is considered a derogatory term for Asians. The Slants are a group of Asian-Americans who are determined to reclaim anti-Asian stereotypes, so they filed suit against the USPTO to have their name protected. The end result was the Supreme Court ruling of last week in the case of Matal v. Tam.

In a unanimous 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court utterly repudiated the USPTOs position. In a clear, uncompromising ruling supported by the entire spectrum of judicial philosophies on the court, Justice Alito said that “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’” Indeed. There was a time when all Americans believed that.

The Supreme Court’s ruling has drawn a line across which government entities may not cross. This has implications across our nation in government offices, public universities, and every other area where our government has been firmly pushing the 1st Amendment into a small, controlled, “safe space.” Moving forward, every effort by public institutions to restrict and control speech must be measured against this ruling. Many of them will find themselves failing to meet its standard and Americans must hold them to account.

Article V convention

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

The Constitution of the United States has stood for more than 200 years as the most perfect political document ever crafted by the hands of men. While other nations have crumbled under tyranny or burned in revolutions, the United States has persevered thanks to the unique strength and flexibility of its foundational document. The Wisconsin legislature is advancing an effort that could replace the Constitution with a newer version.

Article V of the Constitution is the article that allows the document to be revised and updated over time. It is under Article V that the Bill of Rights was passed, slaves were freed, women were granted the right to vote, alcohol was banned and then permitted again, and the federal government was given the power to tax our incomes. All of those amendments were enacted under the part of Article V that allows the federal legislature to initiate specific Constitutional amendments by passing them with a two-thirds majority of both houses of the Congress. Then three-fourths of the states must ratify the amendments.

But Article V allows another procedure to amend the Constitution that has never been followed whereby the states initiate the amendment process. The Constitution allows for two-thirds of the states to call a full Constitutional Convention which can then draft and pass one or several amendments to the Constitution. Whatever amendments the convention passes must then be ratified by three-fourths of the states in order to take effect. It is this second amendment procedure that the Wisconsin Assembly have harkened to when they advanced a resolution calling for a Constitutional Convention. If the Senate and governor agree, Wisconsin will become the 28th state to call for a convention. Thirty-four states are required for a convention to be convened.

The push for a Constitutional Convention is born out of frustration. The federal government has accumulated a staggering national debt and shows no sign of addressing it any time soon. As the national debt approaches $20 trillion — which is greater than the annual gross domestic product of the nation — it has robbed future generations of their wealth and threatens to destabilize our nation. Such enormous debt has spurred revolutions and totalitarianism in other nations. Americans should not have such hubris to think us immune from such consequences.

For generations, politicians in the federal government have demonstrated a collective fiscal restraint that would make drunken sailors seem circumspect, so many folks in the states think it is time to call a Constitutional Convention to pass a Balanced Budget Amendment that would require that the federal government always have a balanced budget like the state of Wisconsin.

While it sounds like a good idea, forcing the federal government to have a balanced budget would be lunacy. In times of war or deep recession, deficit spending is often sound fiscal policy. The problem with the federal government is that in times of peace and economic expansion, when they should be taking advantage of natural surpluses to reduce the debt, they continue to spend and run deficits. The politicians in Washington need to be checked on their spending, but a Balanced Budget Amendment is not the way to do it.

But the debate over a Constitutional Convention has little to do with the actual justification for it. Opponents cite the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the convention that created our Constitution, as the reason to avoid another one. The delegates of the Convention of 1787 were convened with a limited charter to make slight adjustments to some perceived malformations of the Articles of Confederation. Instead, the delegates almost immediately jettisoned their original charter and decided to write a new constitution from scratch. Opponents of a new Constitutional Convention fear that modern delegates may follow their forbearers’ example.

Would that be a bad thing? Opponents are fearmongering that modern constitutional delegates would strip the Constitution of protections for minorities and disenfranchise people. Such fears are utter rubbish spouted by cynical hacks. What many of them really fear is that many of the courtimposed corruptions of the Constitution, like federal power to force people to purchase health insurance, will be annulled by a redrafting of our nation’s fundamental document.

There is a fallacy in historical study that forgets that while a few of the delegates to the convention that created our remarkable Constitution were brilliant, most were fairly average intellects. And all of them were subject to the human faults of vanity, envy, greed, selfishness, bigotry and all of the other sins that comprise the human condition. The divine spark in our Constitution is that it managed to acknowledge and balance many of these human failures to create a framework that has been responsible for the greatest expansion of liberty and prosperity in the history of the world.

A modern Constitutional Convention may stick to its stated charter to create a Balanced Budget Amendment, but it may also completely cast aside our venerated Constitution and try to write a new one. Perhaps that divine spark will once again manifest itself is something even greater than the sum of the delegates’ abilities. Perhaps not.

In either case it would take ratification by three-fourths of the states, which is a high standard that would represent a remarkably broad consensus by We the People. Such a high, but not impossible, threshold for Constitutional reform is yet another example of the brilliance of our 1787 Constitution and an affirmation of our founders’ wisdom. They wrote Article V with the humility that they were not perfect and the forethought that future Americans may wish to create a new Constitution. Perhaps it is time to see if we can do it any better.

 

Ask not for whom the politicians toll

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

As one drives around these great United States, one is bound to find oneself on a toll road at some point. Thirty-five states require drivers to pay tolls on some 5,000 miles of roads as a way to raise money to pay for their transportation infrastructure. Is Wisconsin set to become the 36th?

Toll roads are nothing new. In fact, toll roads predate our nation. The first toll roads in the United States were constructed in the years immediately after the signing of the Constitution. The 1790s saw the construction of the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike and the Great Western Turnpike in New York.

For many of us who grew up in the previous century, our memories of toll roads are long lines of cars jostling for position at a row of toll booths while digging for the correct change. Toll roads have come a long way since then. We have David Cook to thank for revolutionizing toll roads in 1989. David Cook is the Dallas entrepreneur who founded Blockbuster. Before 1985, video rental stores existed as small, independent, unremarkable enterprises. Cook’s innovation was to utilize barcode scanning and database-driven inventory management to rent videos on a large scale. He then used a centralized distribution system and leveraged the behavioral and demographic information his databases held to get the movies people wanted into their local stores. Until the next wave of digital transformation obliterated its business model, Blockbuster was a remarkable business.

While still at Blockbuster, Cook invested in Amtech, a company that was tinkering with technology that used radio frequencies to identify moving objects. They hoped to use the technology for railroads. Cook envisioned another use for the technology to make toll roads faster by removing the need to collect cash. Cook installed the technology for free in Dallas in 1989 with tremendous results. Other companies and toll road authorities quickly followed suit.

Most toll roads in the U.S. still use a variation of Cook’s transponder technology, but it has been improved to where vehicles can travel at full speed. Newer technologies are also being developed. For example, in Colorado, a sophisticated camera system eliminates the need for a transponder by taking a picture of each car’s license plates and sending the bill to the owner.

But while the technology of separating drivers from their money has become remarkably convenient and easy, that does not resolve the essential economic and political problems associated with tolling.

One of the core responsibilities with which we have tasked our governments is to construct and maintain an adequate transportation infrastructure. This is necessary primarily for economic reasons since the movement of goods and labor is vital for economic prosperity. But it is also for the pleasure and enjoyment of citizens to be able to move around our great nation with relative ease.

A good transportation infrastructure is not inexpensive and there are a variety of philosophies on how to pay for it. One way is to just use general taxes under the notion that every taxpayer benefits from the transportation system either directly or indirectly. This spreads the cost over the greatest number of taxpayers and our political leaders must balance transportation priorities against all of the other demands on general funds like education, law enforcement, etc.

Another way to fund transportation is to levy taxes and fees from the direct users of the transportation system. This is largely how the state of Wisconsin does it by using the vehicle registration fee and gas tax as proxies for users. In Wisconsin, if you register several or larger vehicles, or buy a lot of gas, you pay more transportation taxes because you are presumably using the transportation infrastructure more. In the age of electric cars, however, the proxy of the gas tax is less valid than it once was.

Toll roads are merely an extension of the latter philosophy for transportation funding. It is a direct tax on the people using a specific road at a specific time. There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept, but it must be put into perspective.

The reason that Wisconsin Republican politicians are talking about toll roads is because they want to spend more money on transportation and they cannot find the money elsewhere. Wisconsin’s gas tax and registration fee are already well above the national average and the public has no appetite to raise our ranking any higher. State lawmakers could tap the state’s general fund for more money or borrow more, but there is also stiff opposition to those ideas. The idea of toll roads are being floated as another possible option to get more money from taxpayers.

The intractable problem with the transportation budget in Wisconsin is not that there is too little money for our needs. The problem is that politicians want to spend far more than Wisconsinites can afford. Toll roads will not fix that problem. Fiscal restraint and leadership will. Are Wisconsin’s Republicans capable of that anymore?

Golf and Climate Change

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

Next week the U.S. Open Championship, one of the world’s marquee golf events, will come to Wisconsin for the first time in history at the Erin Hills golf course in scenic Washington County. The weeklong golf extravaganza is expected to bring thousands of visitors and have an estimated economic impact of $130 million. Wisconsin has officially become a golf destination.

Erin Hills is 652 acres of gorgeous pristine land that was scraped into the elegant curves, peaks, and valleys that distinguish the area known as the Kettle Moraine. The towering nearby Holy Hill will sentinel the visitors and the innumerable pockets of shade will provide a welcome respite from the warm (I hope) sun. Wisconsin welcomes the U.S. Open, but the inescapable fact is that this would never have happened had it not been for global warming.

The area we know as the Kettle Moraine is said to have been formed during the last Ice Age when a vast sheet of ice covered Wisconsin as far south as Walworth County. As the earth warmed, the ice melted and scampered back into Canada leaving behind a Wisconsin landscape teeming with biodiversity and sculpted into regions perfect for farming, fishing, and yes, golfing.

The mania over the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord indicates that some folks are no longer capable of having a rational discussion regarding climate change, what it means, and the costs and benefits of various public policy options regarding climate change. Various factions have galvanized into reactive shock troops that are divorced from reason and defend their positions with the religious fanaticism of David Koresh.

Let us start with the basics. The earth’s climate changes. It always has. It always will. It changes because of many forces at play including the sun’s activity, volcanic eruptions, celestial collisions, and the activity of organisms on it. The approximately seven billion humans on earth are part of the picture — particularly with our capacity to manipulate our surroundings to our benefit. It is common sense that the climate is changing and that human activity has an impact on that change.

The next question we need to answer is how is the climate changing? Many climatologists argue that the climate is warming and will continue to do so. Much of that research is in doubt because of numerable reports of fraud, manipulated data, and the fact that much of that research is funded by governments and people with a vested interest in reaching that conclusion (always follow the money). It is also worth noting that the global warming adherents have been almost universally wrong when making predictions.

But given that the climate is changing, there is some chance that it is getting warmer. Let us stipulate to that probability and move on to the next question, is it good or bad that the climate might be warming?

The answer to that question depends on one’s frame of reference and perspective. Any change has positive and negative consequences and climate change is not any different. If the globe warms significantly, scientists predict that many islands will be submerged and coastal areas flooded as the oceans rise. Conversely, vast areas of tundra in Russia and Canada that are now locked in permafrost would melt and become farmable, thus helping provide jobs and food for billions of humans. There are undoubtedly millions of additional consequences if the globe warms, but nobody can categorically predict whether the net effect of those consequences would be good or bad.

So if the globe might be warming and that might be a bad thing, what public policies should we enact to “combat” it? And at what cost? Therein lies the rub. There is broad agreement in America, if not yet in other nations, that we want to take reasonable measures to make our environment as clean and sustainable as possible. We are even willing to pay more and sacrifice some comforts to achieve those ends. We want that not really because of anything to do with climate change, but because we do not want to breathe toxins, spread diseases, or drink unclean water.

What we do not all agree upon is that we should surrender our way of life and cripple our economy in order to combat the possibility that the earth may be warming and that might be a bad thing. Humans have proven tremendously adaptable and are capable of weathering moderate changes in climate. Simply put, the cost of the Paris Climate Accord was too high for the perceived benefits rendered. President Trump was right to pull out of the deal, and the baying of foreign liberals has far more to do with the fact that they will not be able to fleece American tax payers (always follow the money) than it does with how warm the earth might be in the year 2200.

After golfers from all over the world come to Wisconsin to enjoy the beautiful landscapes and lush foliage of the Kettle Moraine, let us hope that some of them return to their homes thankful for the warming planet that made it all possible.

Humbled and Thankful

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. No politics this week. Here you go:

What became Memorial Day began during the aftermath of the American Civil War. In an effort to find a way to grieve and remember the hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers whose graves were strewn around virtually every community in the newly reunited United States, Gen. John Logan, in his role as commander-inchief of the Union veterans group called the Grand Army of the Republic, designated May 30, 1868, as Decoration Day. He set aside the day for the purpose of decorating the graves of those who had given their lives in defense of their country during the Rebellion.

In the first national celebration of Decoration Day, former Union General and future President James Garfield, who was then a congressman from Ohio, gave a speech at the site of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s former property, which had been designated Arlington National Cemetery. After the speech, 5,000 participants decorated the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers in an act of national healing.

In the ensuing years, Decoration Day was renamed Memorial Day, fixed at the last Monday of May, and expanded to honor all those who have died in defense of liberty in all of America’s wars. The list of honored patriots is long — more than 1.1 million souls — and growing with each passing year. The price of liberty is indeed very, very high.

For most of our nation’s history, military service was compulsory. Men were expected to, and forced to by the government, serve in the armed forces in times of war and peace. Many men volunteered, as did many women, and after the draft was ended in 1973, every member of the armed services is a volunteer.

Although he was almost certainly not the first American soldier to die in combat, the honor of that distinction is generally given to Capt. Isaac Davis. One of the famed Massachusetts Minutemen, Davis set the mold for Americans for generations to come. He stepped forward when called to defend his nation, which was not even a nation yet, from the invading British Red Coats.

After seeing smoke in the town of Concord, the

Minutemen assembled on Punkatasset Hill decided to attack the British. Davis, accepting the honor, declared that, “I haven’t a man that is afraid to go,” and led his company down the hill to the Old North Bridge to confront the British. On the third volley from the disciplined British, a bullet pierced Davis’ heart just as he was raising his gun to fire. Private Abner Hosmer was also mortally wounded in the head during the same volley.

As of the time of this writing, we do not know the details of how Sergeants Joshua Rodgers and Cameron Thomas were killed. Aged just 22 and 23 years old, respectively, Rodgers and Thomas are the most recent casualties of America’s longest war. Both men were in the same unit and were killed by small arms fire on April 26 in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. This Memorial Day will be especially difficult for their families in Bloomington, Illinois, and Kettering, Ohio.

When one strolls through one of the far-too-many cemeteries with countless rows of identical white stones or stands before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that honors those heroes without a stone of their own, the distinctions of how or why they entered the military, race, creed, gender, age, religion, and even time fall into insignificance. Every one of those heroes had one thing in common. When our nation needed them to pay the ultimate sacrifice, they paid it. And for that, we are humbled and deeply thankful.

Repeal the Minimum Markup Law

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

West Bend has been enjoying something of a retail renaissance in the past few years. Unfortunately, Wisconsin’s Unfair Sales Act, A.K.A. “Minimum Markup Law,” is preventing consumers to reap the benefits of such an upsurge in competition.

Just in the last year, Kwik Trip opened in West Bend, the Shell on Paradise upgraded with a car wash and Mad Max built a shining new gas station on South Main Street. Pizza Ranch is planning a new store on Washington, Morrie’s Auto Group is planning a new Honda dealership in town and Russ Darrow is already building a new Nissan dealership. The big news last week was the opening of a huge Meijer grocery store and Pick ‘n Save is planning a major upgrade to its stores.

The natural result of so much competition is to drive the price of identical goods down for consumers. After all, if one can buy the same gallon of milk for a dollar less at Meijer than at Pick ‘n Save, why would a consumer pay more? Sure there are other factors that consumers consider like convenience, service, etc., but everything else being equal, consumers will buy from the lower cost retailer.

Sometimes, businesses will use the practice of a loss leader to attract consumers in the hope those consumers will buy other products, too. This is where a business will sell one product for a price dramatically less than their competitors and often below their cost. It is a practice that cannot be sustained over time without risking bankruptcy, but it can be used as a temporary lure for consumers.

Wisconsin’s Minimum Markup law was passed in the 1930s when Progressives held majorities in Madison to prevent just such business practices. As the preface of the law states, “The practice of selling certain items of merchandise below cost in order to attract patronage is generally a form of deceptive advertising and an unfair method of competition in commerce.”

While the Minimum Markup Law was written in an anti-capitalism spasm of socialist protectionism, the modern justifications for keeping it are essentially two-fold. First, proponents argue it protects consumers by preventing “big business” from moving into a community, selling below cost until the competition fails and then jack up prices. Second, proponents argue by guaranteeing a profit, the Minimum Markup Law protects a diversity of competition by ensuring that small retailers can

compete with larger ones.

The problem with both of those arguments is neither are true. There is no evidence of large retailers using loss leaders to bankrupt competition and then increasing prices in the long term. The reason is economies are dynamic and consumers are mobile. If Wal-Mart in West Bend, for example, were to sell all of its goods at significantly below cost for a period of time, some other retailers may go bankrupt. But as soon as Wal-Mart raised their prices, consumers could travel to a neighboring town and another store could easily move into West Bend with lower prices. Market pressures keep Wal-Mart’s prices – and other retailers’ prices – competitive.

A study recently released by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty disproves the second argument. The study was co-authored by WILL’s William Flanders and the Cato Institute’s Ike Brannon. The study looked across all 50 states. Slightly less than half of the states have a minimum markup law similar to Wisconsin’s and a few have it just for gasoline. The rest of the states have no such law.

WILL’s study found there was no statistical difference in the number of small retailers or gas stations between states with a Minimum Markup Law and those without. For all of the proponents’ rhetoric about protecting Wisconsin’s small businesses, there is no evidence that in more than 80 years Wisconsin’s Minimum Markup Law being in effect it stops anything other than Wisconsinites from getting a good deal.

Wisconsin’s Minimum Markup Law is an antiquated anti-consumer law rooted in a discredited economic theory. It does not accomplish the goals it purports to achieve and forces consumers to pay more than necessary for essential goods. It is time to repeal Wisconsin’s Minimum Markup Law once and for all.

Release of the Walker Trilogy

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

In perhaps the most anticipated, but least surprising, announcement in Wisconsin politics, Gov. Scott Walker told fellow Republicans at the state Republican convention in Wisconsin Dells he is ready to serve a third term as governor.

Although he has said that, he will withhold an official announcement until after the budget is passed, there is little doubt that Walker will ask the voters to elect him as their governor for the fourth time.

One could not help but contrast Walker’s 2017 Wisconsin GOP convention speech to the one he made to the same audience last year. By the time the Wisconsin Republicans convened in 2016, Walker’s presidential campaign had been dead for nearly eight months, but Walker was clearly in no mood to talk about the presidential campaign or his future. In a speech that did not mention the Republican presidential nominee once, Walker focused on getting Republicans to focus on re-electing Sen. Ron Johnson.

The focus and mood were very different this year. Walker delivered a rousing highlight reel of his record as governor and enjoined the Republican stalwarts in the audience to rally to his campaign. Judging from the reaction of the crowd, Walker will have no problem turning out his base of supporters again. And while many conservatives became frustrated with Walker when he uncharacteristically flirted with nonconservative positions during his run for president, his record in less than seven years as governor is truly unmatched in advancing conservative principles and issues. Of course, Walker had the support of a Republican Legislature for much of his tenure, but those Republicans have been increasingly conservative thanks in large part to Walker’s leadership.

Most people place Act 10 at the top of the list of Walker’s achievements. Act 10 was a reorientation of the government paradigm that continues to pay dividends to Wisconsin’s citizens. It deserves to sit atop the list, but that list, taken in its totality, dwarfs Act 10.

Since Walker assumed office, Wisconsin has passed concealed carry legislation, required voters to present a picture identification, made Wisconsin a right-to-work state, expanded school choice,

frozen tuition at Wisconsin’s public universities and much, much more. Walker and the Republican Legislature also funded the state’s rainy day fund, cut billions of dollars in taxes and turned Wisconsin into a state that repeatedly runs surpluses instead of the perpetual deficits we saw under Gov. Jim Doyle.

The results speak for themselves. Wisconsin’s unemployment rate is the lowest it has been since President Bill Clinton was in the White House. At the same time, Wisconsin has one of the highest percentage of people in the workforce. And the average annual wage for private sector workers is up more than 11 percent since Walker was elected. Wisconsin is working.

It is small wonder why Walker would want to run for a third term. Most governors would be proud to run on one or two of Walker’s achievements. No governor in America can run on such a chockfull record of success.

The Democrats appear to agree. Walker’s impressive record and bursting campaign coffers has already scared away most serious contenders. The Democrats are scraping the edges of their party and the private sector for anyone willing to charge the Walker windmill and finding few takers. The Democrats will eventually find someone to run and will attempt to sell them to the voters as the second coming of FDR, but Walker will be exceptionally formidable even in a year when national trends point to Democratic wins.

The next gubernatorial election is still 18 months away, but it is difficult to envision Walker not sticking around as governor well into the next decade.

A rough road

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

After weeks of speculation and trial balloons, the Wisconsin Assembly leadership released a plan called “Road to a Flat Tax.” The plan was primarily authored by State Rep. Dale Kooyenga and cobbles together some 30 ideas with the promise of fixing the state’s long-term transportation funding issues and cutting taxes.

It has become fashionable in Washington, and now in Madison, to tackle every issue with these massive omnibus bills that are just complicated and opaque enough to provide politicians cover from contentious political issues. The Road to a Flat Tax plan is no different. It packages some truly terrific and transformative proposals with a few policy and political duds with the hope of convincing legislators to pass the package with the excuse that most of it is good.

Let us start with the great parts of this proposal. The Road to a Flat Tax does just that. It would eliminate the state property tax, as Gov. Walker has proposed, and gradually move Wisconsin to a flat 3.95 percent income tax over the next decade. It does so by eliminating and changing several major tax credits and phasing out four of the five tax brackets. Wisconsin would end up with a fair and flat income tax. Wisconsin’s Republicans are not ambitious enough to eliminate the state income tax like seven other states, but a flat income tax is the next best thing.

The Assembly Republicans’ plan also repeals Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law for state projects, which would save taxpayers at least $300 million per biennium, according to a 2015 study by Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance. The plan eliminates 180 positions from the Department of Transportation, which does not save any money yet, but gives the department more flexibility to reduce spending in the future. It reduces the state’s minimum markup law as it applies to gasoline (more on that later), lowers the gas tax, imposes a moratorium on roundabouts, imposes a fee on electric and hybrid vehicles and eliminates the ability of local governments to enact new wheel taxes.

Then there is the bad part of the proposal. The Road to a Flat Tax includes an intricate change to the way the state taxes gasoline that results in an overall tax increase. For the first time, the state would impose the state sales tax on gasoline. This is estimated to generate about $600 million in revenue over the biennium. In order to offset some

of that increase, the state would reduce the gas tax by 4.8 cents, thus shaving off $278 million of the increase. It would also change the minimum markup law to a mandatory 3 percent markup instead of the combined 9.18 percent. This would save consumers another roughly $50 million at the pump while cutting into the profits of gasoline retailers and wholesalers.

The end result after all of those changes is that Wisconsinites would see a tax increase of about $330 million per biennium. The increase in funding would be directed to paying down Wisconsin’s debt. Bear in mind, however, that funds that go into the Transportation Fund are fungible. Although the tax increase is allocated to debt reduction, that means that the money that would have been spent on debt service without the tax increase will now be spent on current transportation projects.

The tax increase to be spent on transportation has long been the ambition of Assembly Republican leadership and it at the heart of this proposal. Packaging it with a bevy of other tremendously positive initiatives appears designed to pull the tax increase through a reluctant Republican caucus. Rep. Kooyenga should be commended for advancing so many great ideas. Repealing the state’s prevailing wage law, implementing a flat income tax, eliminating the state property tax, and many other parts of the Road to a Flat Tax would be tremendously beneficial for Wisconsinites. But there is no rational reason, other than for political brinkmanship, to amalgamate all of these ideas into a single “take it or leave it” proposal. The legislature should take up each piece of the Road to a Flat Tax as separate bills and then vote on them based on their merits. Good legislation that would benefit Wisconsinites should not be weighed down by legislation that would not pass on its own.

Protect free speech on campus

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

There has been a virulent strain of anti-free speech fascism developing on our college campuses, and on too many campuses, this fascism has been nurtured and encouraged by the very faculty and staff that are charged with expanding minds.

The most recent high-profile example of this trend happened at the University of California, Berkley, over the past few weeks. A group of fascists rioted in order to prevent conservative firebrand Ann Coulter from giving a speech on campus. Under the threat of violence and Berkley officials’ unwillingness to control the rioters, Coulter cancelled her speech.

This has been happening to invited speakers who do not espouse leftist political beliefs at campuses all over the nation. In March, students at Middlebury College in Vermont shouted down American Enterprise Institute political scientist Charles Murry, pulled the fire alarm, banged on the walls, and assaulted a female professor. Berkley was the scene of more riots back in February when pro-free speech (not conservative) provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to speak. The fascists set fire to trees, attacked bystanders, and forced the speech to be cancelled.

Lest you think that such behavior is confined to the coasts, Madison and Milwaukee was the scene of similar actions when conservative public speaker Ben Shapiro came to Wisconsin last year. When Shapiro spoke at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, students organized to shout Shapiro down and prevent him from speaking. Over at Marquette University earlier this year, Marquette’s faculty was caught trying to sabotage the event by reserving seats for the speech as fake students in order to prevent actual students from attending. Such lying is apparently condoned by Marquette’s staff.

Protests on college campuses are nothing new. In the classical liberal tradition, college is a place for students to have their minds stretched, their beliefs questioned, and their prejudices challenged. Protesting for and against various causes and pushing against authority is part of the American college tradition. But what is going on now on college campuses is something different and vile.

Instead of merely protesting or offering a different viewpoint, liberal fascists on campus are acting -often

violently – to repress the speech of people with whom they disagree. That is not expression. That is oppression.

In years past, college administrators and faculty were often the most ardent defenders of free speech and would take necessary actions to defend and protect others’ right to free expression. Unfortunately, for too many colleges, those days have ended. Too often, we see college administrators and faculty either refusing to defend anyone except fellow leftists and, as in the case at Marquette, actively work to suppress anyone who would challenge leftist orthodoxy.

State Representative Jesse Kremer (R-Kewaskum) has introduced a bill titled the “Campus Free Speech Act” to attempt to force public college administrators to do what they should have been doing all along – defend free speech on their campuses. The bill would require the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents to develop and implement a system wide policy to defend the free expression of ideas. The policy must continue to allow protests, but would punish students who repeatedly attempt to quash the free speech of others.

In a perfect world, the legislature would not need to step in and require the Board of Regents to take action to defend free speech. In a perfect world, UW officials at all levels would so honor and cherish the right to free speech that they would marshal every weapon at their disposal to protect and defend people who are speaking their minds – however contrary to their own beliefs. But as we all know, the world is not perfect, and we must continue to push back the forces of oppression and fascism. Kremer’s bill is a necessary step to protect free speech for everyone precisely in the place where diverse viewpoints should be celebrated.

Finish the job and repeal prevailing wage

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

Another battle in the long war to repeal Wisconsin’s Prevailing Wage Laws was launched this month when Sen. Leah Vukmir (RBrookfield) and Rep. Rob Hutton (RBrookfield) reintroduced a bill in the state Legislature to repeal the prevailing wage law for state projects. The bill faces an uncertain future in the face of massive opposition from powerful special interests.

Wisconsin’s prevailing wage “law” is actually a series of laws that were passed during the Great Depression with the goal of protecting local workers from losing their jobs to migrant workers who were willing to work for lower wages. The law essentially requires that any businesses that work on a public project of any size must pay the prevailing wages for the area in which the work takes place.

The prevailing wage is determined by a flawed process by the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development that heavily favors inflated union wages. The result is Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law protects large, unionized contractors at the expense of inflated prices for taxpayers and non-union contractors.

Intrepid conservative Wisconsin lawmakers fought hard to fully repeal the prevailing wage law in the 20152017 state budget. The result was a compromise that repealed the prevailing wage law for local governments and school districts, but left it in place for state projects. The bill from Vukmir and Hutton would finish the job by repealing it for state projects too.

The reason the fight to repeal the prevailing wage law is so heated is quite simple: money. As it stands, Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law props up the profits for some of Wisconsin’s largest private contractors. Those contractors donate an extraordinary amount of money and support to politicians on both sides of the aisle who like to spend taxpayer dollars on big, expensive projects.

In the 2015 battle over prevailing wage, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and other members of the Assembly leadership actively worked to thwart the repeal of prevailing wage. They could not resist the overwhelming public pressure and were forced into the compromise repeal. Last legislative session, Representative Andre Jacque had the temerity to hold a hearing on prevailing wage reform in his role as the Chairman of the Assembly Labor Committee. Jacque’s fellow Republican,

Vos, punished Jacque by stripping him of his chairmanship for the current session.

The reason to repeal the prevailing wage law is one of conservative principle – or of laissez-faire economics, if you prefer. The government should not enforce artificial labor prices or meddle in the free market. Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law does just that and it results in the government distorting the market and encouraging crony capitalism.

While one would like to think that our state lawmakers would consistently act on principle, repealing the prevailing wage law would also be in their self-interest.

There is another war waging in the Legislature over transportation spending. The prevailing wage law aggravates that issue by inflating spending on state transportation projects. A 2015 study by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance showed the state’s prevailing wage law was responsible for up to $300 million per year in unnecessary costs. In terms of Wisconsin’s biennial budget, that is potentially $600 million that could be used for additional transportation spending without borrowing or raising taxes. Such a windfall would release a lot of the political steam that is heating up the debate over transportation spending.

While it was disappointing that Wisconsin’s prevailing wage law as not fully repealed in 2015, state lawmakers now have the opportunity to finish the job for the benefit of state taxpayers. They should quickly pass Vukmir and Hutton’s bill and put it on Governor Walker’s desk – preferably before the state budget so that lawmakers can include the potential windfall savings into their budget calculations.

Dairy farmers feel slap of the Invisible Hand

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. In this age of populism and protectionism, it is bound to be unpopular. Here it is:

Dozens of Wisconsin dairy farmers with thousands of cows received a letter a few weeks ago that spoiled their year. Grassland, the company that had been buying their milk, told the farmers that they could no longer buy the farmers’ milk because of a new Canadian policy that has dried up the demand for American milk. The calls for government action throw kindling on the friction between Americans who believe in free trade and those who support protectionist policies.

The price of milk for Canadian dairy processors is set by the Canadian Dairy Commission. The way they set prices was based on a complicated process, but the end result is that the price that Canadian dairy farmers received for milk was substantially higher than in the rest of the world. By comparison, a Canadian dairy farmer received almost 50 percent more for his or her milk than an American farmer.

This artificial pricing sounds great for Canadian dairy farmers, but economies are dynamic and protectionist policies rarely have the desired effect. Canada’s participation in NAFTA and trade agreements with the European Union and other entities give other countries fairly free access to Canadian markets to sell their goods — including milk. While the high price of milk for Canadian dairy farmers sounds good on paper, the actual result is that Canadian dairy processors were buying most of their milk from American dairy farmers because it was cheaper. In other words, Wisconsin dairy farmers were directly benefiting from what was supposed to be a protectionist policy by Canada to prop up prices for their own dairy farmers.

The new pricing policy from the Canadian Dairy Commission would allow Canadian dairy producers to buy milk at whatever the global price is. The new policy is arguably promoting freer trade by dropping an artificial price of milk and allowing it to fluctuate with global supply and demand. Canadian dairy farmers will no longer get the higher prices for their milk, but they will be able to sell more of it. Canadian dairy processors and consumers will benefit from saving the cost of transporting milk from distant places. Wisconsin dairy farmers are being hurt by the policy because the artificial demand for their product that was created by the old Canadian policies has now dried up. While the new policy is arguably freer than the old policy, there is no question that it favors Canadian dairy farmers over foreign ones.

With so many Wisconsin families hurting, one question is what, if anything, should our government do in response? In an increasingly rare bout of bipartisanship, both of Wisconsin’s U.S. senators are calling upon the Trump administration to do something about the new Canadian

policy. Sen. Tammy Baldwin has called the policy an “unfair trade scheme” and Sen. Ron Johnson said Wisconsin dairy farmers should not be “victims of a trade dispute they didn’t start.”

What should the American government do? Should the Trump administration demand that Canada reinstate artificially high milk process for their own dairy producers? Should America enact retaliatory protectionist policies on other goods?

The free trade of goods and services in a market economy has proven to be the most efficient and economical way to align supply with demand. The United States has been a perfect example of this. Our large, diverse national land mass means that our nation has a diverse and robust internal economy that allows for specialization. Instead of Wisconsin having to try to provide our own milk, beef, oranges, wheat, iron, copper, etc., the lack of trade barriers with other states allows Wisconsin to focus on developing the natural abundances within our state and buy the natural abundances of other states. As Adam Smith said, “never attempt to make at home what it will cost him more to make than to buy.”

The same is true in a global economy. Free trade is the most efficient, economical and fair way to allocate scarce resources to the greatest benefit of the most people.

But getting to that greatest benefit means that some folks will feel the sting when they are slapped by the invisible hand. Problems arise when we react to that inevitable sting by trying to protect that which the market no longer needs.

Wisconsin’s dairy farmers have benefited for years by an ill-conceived Canadian milk pricing policy and are feeling the sting of that policy being changed.

Our reaction should not be to enact further barriers to trade and further distort the market. Instead, our reaction should be to help our dairy farmers find a new market for their milk, or help them reallocate their resources to produce something for which there is market demand.

Drifting toward Damascus, the sequel

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

In 2013, I opened a column called “Drifting Toward Damascus” with this paragraph: “As I sit down to write a column about our current situation in Syria, I fail to discern any coherent foreign policy coming from my president’s administration. If you can, you are probably filling in the gaps with wishful thinking.” As I sit down to write another column about Syria, the same opening would suffice.

After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons to murder more than 80 people, including kids, President Trump retaliated with a missile strike on a Syrian air base. The scenario was reminiscent of Assad’s previous use of WMDs during the previous administration. In 2013, Assad used Sarin gas to attack more than 1,000 Syrians. In doing so, he crossed President Obama’s infamous “red line” and the Obama Administration responded with huffy rhetoric.

Now it is 2017 with the same Assad but a different American president. When Assad used chemical weapons this time, Trump responded immediately with a punitive strike and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is signaling a new American goal of toppling the Assad regime. Yet the Trump Administration is promising to keep American forces out of Syria and Trump’s rhetorical “America first” isolationism was a major facet of his recent successful presidential campaign. Although a different president has brought us a different reaction, America still lacks a coherent Syrian policy.

The problem is that there are no good answers left for America in Syria. There was a time when direct American intervention could have yielded positive results, but that time has passed. The Syrian Civil War began with an uprising in the spring of 2011. As part of the socalled Arab Spring, secular pro-democracy protestors rose up to demand Assad’s resignation. When Assad refused to resign, as tyrants are wont to do, and launched a violent crackdown on the protestors, the protestors hardened their opposition and the fight for Syria was on.

The time for American intervention was 2011. If President Obama had used the power of the United States to support the secular pro-democracy opposition at that time, there might be a peaceful, secular, democratic Syria today. But speculation in alternate histories is the luxury of writers. The Syrian Civil War has evolved significantly since 2011 and America must deal with the present realities.

Since 2011, the Syrian Civil War has descended into a sectarian war with no good guys for America to support. In battle with each other are Assad’s tyrannical government, radical Islamist Sunni rebels, Kurdish forces, Hezbollah, and of course, the Islamic State. According to the United Nations commission of inquiry, all of them have been engaging in horrific war crimes including murder, torture, slavery, using civilians as human shields, forced starvation, and the use of WMDs.

The Syrian Civil War has also taken on significant international importance as it pulled regional and world powers into the conflict. The deluge of refugees from Syria and surrounding areas has had a destabilizing effect on several Middle Eastern and European nations, putting pressure on the international community to intervene. As the war has devolved partially into a religious war between different Muslim sects, several Muslim countries have intervened to support their sides. Shia Iran and Lenanon are supporting Assad as Sunni Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and others support rebel factions. Finally, Russia entered the war on the side of Assad as part of Vladimir Putin’s lifelong effort to reclaim Russia’s dominance on the world stage. As America retreated from the Middle East, Russia entered the chasm.

In deciding what America should do about Syria, two questions must be answered. The first question is, should America do anything? That is a broad question the answer of which depends on one’s valuation of the word “should.” There are some who believe that America should be the world’s conscience and act in the name of human rights. There are some who believe that American should only intervene if there is a direct American interest at stake. And there are some who believe that America should never do anything unless directly attacked.

In this case, there are no good guys to support, there are no direct American interests at stake and America has not been attacked. The only good reason for America to intervene in the Syrian Civil War is as a general policy to try to stabilize the region to quell the radicalization of people and the outflow of terror groups.

If one thinks America should intervene, then the second question to be answered is, what can America do? Short of a full scale invasion and occupation of Syria with all of the risks of igniting a global conflict with Russia and Iran, America’s options are very limited. And the American people have no appetite for such an earth-shattering endeavor.

America should stay out of the Syrian Civil War. There is little likelihood that American intervention could yield a positive outcome and the risk of embroiling our nation in another long, bloody, and expensive war is very high. America should do what we can to help the suffering, assist our allies, and protect American interests and American borders. No more. No less.

Taking back our civil rights

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

Shortly after the Constitutional Convention of 1787 ended, James Madison, whom John Adams labeled the “father of the Constitution,” began the arduous task of defending the intricate document signed by his fellow conventioneers and advocating for the state Legislatures to ratify it. The birth of a new nation was not to be had without some painful moments.

One of the immediate and most forceful attacks on the new Constitution came from his fellow Virginian, Richard Henry Lee. Lee was a powerful politician, forceful orator and fierce advocate for liberty. It was Lee who had called for the original resolution to break from Britain at the Second Continental Congress in 1776. But Lee turned his political prowess against the fledgling Constitution because he was fearful of the strong central government it created.

In order to retard the power of the new federal government, Lee proposed a declaration of rights that was to include the freedom of religion and the press. Madison was flabbergasted by the proposal because it was, in his mind, utterly unnecessary. The Constitution was firmly secured to the foundation that all power and rights rested in the People except for those few specific powers ceded to the government as enumerated in the Constitution. It was a bedrock enlightenment philosophical concept as articulated by the likes of Thomas Paine and John Locke.

Madison initially saw danger in what became the Bill of Rights because to enumerate specific individual rights to be protected by the Constitution would lead some to think that those rights not specifically enumerated for protection are within the power of government to restrict or rescind. This is why the 10th Amendment became a catch-all for rights not listed.

Madison eventually came around to support and author the Bill of Rights as a practical necessity to assure skittish state legislators and secure their support for ratifying the Constitution, but Madison’s fears were prescient. The natural momentum of government is to expand its power and our federal government has often run roughshod over natural rights not enumerated in the Constitution, as amended. But our government has also not been shy about trampling those rights that are singled out for protection.

That is not to say that all rights are absolute. It is the appropriate function of government to intervene and set boundaries when one right rubs up against another. For example, it is undeniably my right to speak out and protest against my government. But the government can, and should, deny that right to me if I try to do it on another citizen’s private property. The government can, and should, also restrict certain rights in a more systematic way when there is a substantial or pressing government interest to do so. But the standard for what constitutes a “substantial government interest” is, and should be, extraordinarily high.

Since the ratification of our Constitution, the right to keep and bear arms, as enumerated in the Second Amendment, has been steadily eroded thanks to fear, ignorance, and opportunistic politicians. For the first several decades, this right was rarely restricted. People regularly carried firearms either openly or concealed.

During Reconstruction after the Civil War, a wave of restrictions to the Second Amendment swept over the South as a means for the federal government to maintain order and, as white southerners regained

control of their state legislatures, to suppress black Americans. Subsequent waves of government restrictions of the Second Amendment came as politicians took advantage of various opportunities to disarm the public. New York City required its citizens to obtain a license to carry a concealed firearm in 1911 after a brazen murder-suicide in broad daylight. Mayor Daley ordered that all firearms in Chicago be registered in 1968.

All of these restrictions of the Second Amendment grew out of fear, hate, ignorance, and complacency without anything that could rationally be called a “substantial government interest.” A couple of decades ago, Americans began to take back their Second Amendment rights with the steady loosening of gun laws in states and the universal legalization of concealed carry. Despite the lamentations of opponents, the evidence is clear that the public did not suffer any negative consequences of this movement. In fact, the data points to several possible benefits like lower crime. The nation’s most crime-ridden bastions remain those with the strictest remaining gun control laws.

The next progression in reclaiming our Second Amendment rights is the passage of what has been termed “Constitutional Carry,” and it has been introduced in Wisconsin. Constitutional Carry is simply the return to how our Second Amendment was originally conceived and how it was enforced for most of the first century of our nation’s history. Free Americans who have not committed a serious crime and who are mentally competent would be free to own and carry a firearm in any manner they so choose. All of the other restrictions, like respecting private property rights, would remain in place.

Opponents of Constitutional Carry rest their arguments in the same irrational fear and hate as those who opposed concealed carry. “It will be like the Wild West with blood in the streets,” etc. But history and facts disprove their arguments. As of right now, 12 other states already have Constitutional Carry. One of them, Vermont, has had Constitutional Carry since the Constitution was ratified in 1791. Alaska has had it for 23 years. Liberal New Hampshire and Conservative North Dakota both passed Constitutional Carry earlier this year.

None of the states that have Constitutional Carry have experienced any ill effects. The reason is simple and is the same reason why there has been nothing but positive effects since concealed carry was passed six years ago in Wisconsin: concealed carry or Constitutional Carry only really applies to good, law-abiding people. Much to our collective lament, the bad people already practice Constitutional Carry.

We should never allow our government to restrict any of our civil rights without a rigorous debate and an imminently justifiable cause for doing so. And when we have foolishly allowed our government to restrict our civil rights without just cause, we should take every opportunity to take back our rights. Wisconsin should return to Constitutional Carry.

Tweaking the WRS

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

The Wisconsin Retirement System is a great example of government working well. Thanks to decades of prudent management by both Democrats and Republicans, it has provided an ample retirement income to generations of Wisconsin’s public employees and remains one of the only fully funded public pension systems in the nation.

The operative word in the phrase “prudent management” is “management,” and that is what state legislators need to continually do. Making sensible small changes in the present makes massive sweeping changes unnecessary in the future.

Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) and Rep. Tyler August (RLake Geneva) have reintroduced a bill that would raise the minimum retirement age for most new public employees from 55 to 60 and from 50 to 52 for public safety workers. Doing so would add solvency to the WRS and reduce pension contributions by the taxpayers by an estimated $59 million now and millions more in the future.

Most public employees in the WRS can receive their full retirement benefits beginning at 65, but they can retire early at 55 and take a fraction of their retirement based on their years of service. For example, if a public employee begins working at 25 and takes early retirement at 55, that employee would receive about 90 percent of their full retirement benefit. If that same worker only had five years of employment, his or her retirement benefits would be less.

What Stroebel and August are proposing is simply to slightly raise the minimum age at which an employee would be eligible for early retirement. Retirees would still be able to retire early if they are eligible and retire with their full benefits at the same age. And it would only apply to new employees. Current employees would not be impacted.

The reasoning is simple. People live longer. In 1960, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was 69.77 years. In 2012, it was 78.74 years. In other words, retirees are receiving many more years of retirement income than they used to. And more of those retiring early at 55 are spending more time in retirement than they worked. It is not only fiscally sensible to raise the minimum retirement

age, it is fundamentally fairer to the taxpayers — most of whom will not retire in their 50s.

Opponents of the bill argue that raising the minimum retirement age will make it more difficult to hire new workers. While that is theoretically possible, most 20somethings are not looking hard at the minimum retirement age of the pension system when considering a job. And if they are, they are probably not the kind of employees that the taxpayers want.

The opponents also argue that raising the minimum retirement age would increase government spending because the taxpayers would have to pay an older employee for longer at the higher end of the pay scale instead of being able to replace them with younger, cheaper employees. This argument neglects the fact that the taxpayers also funded the retirement of the outgoing employee. Thus, the taxpayers are on the hook for the current employee, the recent retiree, and perhaps even the retiree who had the job before both of them. No, it is a better deal for the taxpayers to hold onto a seasoned employee for a few years longer and pay them for the value they provide the taxpayers.

Stroebel’s and August’s bill is the smallest of possible tweaks to the WRS to help keep it solvent and fair. Also, since it only applies to new employees, any incoming employee will be able to decide for themselves if it is enough for them to turn down the job. Frankly, the state should go farther by raising the normal retirement age and perhaps indexing it to life expectancy. Or if state Republicans are really interested in longterm reform, they should move to a defined contribution system for new employees.

One vote for Gieryn, Miller and Cammack

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. The resignation of Therese Sizer last night puts it in a different context this morning. Here you go:

April 4 brings us another opportunity to exercise our right to elect our political and judicial leaders. While the national and state elections tend to get all of the attention, it is our local elected officials who arguably have more of a direct impact on our everyday lives. It is also our local officials who often work long hours, deal with a lot of quirky citizens and do so for little money or fame. We should all give our neighbors a big “thank you” for being willing to serve our community.

One of the important races on the ballot in West Bend and neighboring communities is for the West Bend School Board. Three of the seven board seats are on the ballot with only one incumbent running for re-election. The results of this election could push the school board in an entirely new direction.

Two incumbent school board members decided to not seek re-election. President Rick Parks and Vice President Bart Williams are both concluding their second terms and deserve a sincere thank you. While ideologically different, both Parks and Williams went about their business on the school board in a thoughtful, thorough, collegial, and effective manner. During their tenures, they navigated the district through the aftermath of Act 10, implemented a merit pay system for teachers, started a charter school, started a clinic for district staff, hired a new superintendent and many other things for which they should be proud. Thank you, gentlemen.

The third incumbent school board member did choose to seek re-election. Ryan Gieryn is running for his second term and wants to see through some of the issues he worked on in his first term including continuing to refine the teacher merit pay system, evaluate the effectiveness of the district’s testing regimen, direct the new superintendent that he helped hire and look ahead to replacing Jackson Elementary. While I did not support Gieryn when he ran the first time, his thoughtful and measured service on the board has been commendable and he has earned my vote for a second term.

There is also the issue with experience on the board. Our republican form of government is kept healthy by the constant refreshing of elected officials, but some experience in governing is necessary. An inexperienced and naïve school board shifts power to the unelected administration. If Gieryn does not win re-election, then every board member except one, Therese Sizer, would be serving their first term. Gieryn’s experience on the board will be particularly important as the new superintendent settles into his role.

Bob Miller is running for the school board for the second time having fallen just short last year. He has spent the past year talking to people, participating in school events and learning more about the district. Miller is a graduate of the district with three kids attending schools in West Bend.

He is a fiber optic technician, school bus driver, Boy Scout leader, father and husband who has some great common sense ideas to improve the district’s outcomes. A fiscal conservative, Miller wants to ensure that the district spends money wisely and has seen enough working and volunteering in the district to have some tangible ideas on how to save money. The second time is the charm for Miller and he deserves a seat on the board.

Richard Cammack has lived in West Bend for 22 years and wants to see the district improve in many areas. He believes in the importance of family, students, teachers and business and a school district that serves all constituents. Cammack considers himself a realist who needs to fully understand an issue and listen to the district’s stakeholders before making a decision. Cammack is receiving my third vote April 4.

The remaining three candidates, Tonnie Schmidt, Joel Ongert and Nancy Justman, are running as a bloc with virtually identical platforms. They all claim to be conservatives (one stands little chance of winning election in a district that is 70-plus percent conservative if one does not claim to be one). They trumpet “accountability” but only seem to want to hold administrators accountable. While that is a laudable goal, their reluctance to continue or strengthen even the mild performance pay standards for teachers is troubling.

Their repetition of the talking points coming out of the local teachers union and lefty talking heads leads one to believe that these three would be reliable agents for whatever the West Bend Education Association wants. Many of the yards in West Bend whose Hillary and Bernie signs died during the winter have now sprouted signs for Schmidt, Ongert and Justman with the coming of spring.

I will note that all three of these candidates refused to be interviewed for this column. Despite claiming to be conservatives, they had no appetite to be probed by the district’s only resident conservative columnist.

Once again West Bend is privileged to have some great people running for local office. I am happy to support three of them for the West Bend School Board. I will be happily voting for Ryan Gieryn, Bob Miller, and Richard Cammack on April 4.

 

The future of education in Wisconsin is on the ballot

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

For years the teachers unions and the rest of the liberal education establishment has considered the Wisconsin State Department of Public Instruction to be their exclusive domain and rightfully so. Almost all previous superintendents in the past several decades have been put into office by the money and power of the teachers unions and each superintendent has returned the support by pushing the union agenda. The current superintendent is no exception. Fortunately, Wisconsin has a real opportunity to make a change April 4 and elect a superintendent whose values and priorities are more in line modern educational thought.

The Department of Public Instruction is a somewhat unusual department in Wisconsin. Although part of the executive branch headed by the governor, the superintendent of the department is a constitutional non-partisan office that is elected every four years. The state constitution simply says that the state superintendent is responsible for the supervision of public instruction and that their “qualifications, powers, duties and compensation shall be prescribed by law.”

In the 169 years since the office was created, the legislature has granted more and less power to the office and shifted the responsibilities with the needs and wants of the time. The DPI is responsible for a wide swath of responsibilities including distributing state money to local districts, administering federal programs and money, providing operational and technical services to local school districts, crafting curriculum, compiling state education data and many other things. With a budget of over $6 billion per year, it is one of the largest state agencies.

The incumbent superintendent, Tony Evers, is asking for a third term in office. Evers’ agenda for the previous eight years has been to advance the liberal and union education agenda. He has passionately and aggressively fought back against the expansion of school choice in the state. Evers has been in step with the Obama Administration’s federal intrusion into education including pushing Common Core. After eight years of Evers’ leadership, the state’s education infrastructure is still languishing in mediocrity and he has fought every innovation coming from the legislature to try to improve it.

Thankfully, Wisconsin has an excellent alternative to just doing the same tired thing and getting the same disappointing results. Lowell Holtz, a selfstyled “Kidservative,” plans a new path for Wisconsin education.

Holtz has a broad and varied resume. He was a teacher in both private and public schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin. He was once Wisconsin’s Principal of the Year and was recognized as a National Distinguished Principal. Holtz has been the superintendent or district administrator of three Wisconsin public school districts in Palmyra-Eagle, Beloit and Whitnall. What is interesting about these districts is that they cover a range from rural to urban, small to big and homogeneous to diverse. In every leadership position, Holtz can point to a strong record of making a positive change.

More importantly, Holtz has a vastly different vision than Evers for improving education for Wisconsin’s kids. In fact, Holtz’s vision for education is much more in alignment with what the voters have been supporting as reflected in their choices for state and local leaders in the past several years. Holtz breaks down his vision into three basic categories.

First, Holtz wants to push more control back to the local districts and pull back state and federal mandates – including Common Core. Second, he wants to improve the graduation rate and close the achievement gap. He proposes to do this by providing resources and collaboration to the school districts who need it. Third, Holtz wants to empower teachers by pulling back burdensome administrative hurdles and improving classroom discipline.

Perhaps most importantly, Holtz supports innovation in educational choices including choice, charter, and online school options. Instead of trying to maintain the education establishment of the 1950s, Holtz welcomes a 21st century educational infrastructure to serve 21st century kids.

April 4 is a chance for Wisconsin to force the Department of Public Instruction to look to the future instead of protecting the past. Vote for Holtz.

 

Wisconisn’s Pioneer Days Are Not Over

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty’s Will Flanders has released a study comparing the recent test performance of Wisconsin’s children from Wisconsin’s public, charter, and private schools. The results confirm that Wisconsin needs to continue to lead in education reform.

The study, called “Apples to Apples,” evaluated the results of the 2016 Forward Exam and the ACT. The Forward Exam is required in all Wisconsin public school and private schools that participate in any of Wisconsin’s three school choice programs. The ACT is also required for all public and choice students. While there are exceptions for private schools that do not participate in a choice program, home-schooled kids, and kids whose parents opted to not have their children take the tests, the wide participation in these two exams give a broad view of the academic performance of Wisconsin’s schools.

The results of the study show that, “private schools in the choice programs and public charter schools in Milwaukee and Wisconsin perform significantly better on the ACT and Forward Exams than traditional public schools.”

These results are hardly groundbreaking. Various studies have been done for years and have consistently shown that choice schools and charter schools outperform the public schools in the same communities. In the past, these studies have been dismissed by anti-school choice advocates. They claimed that the only reason for the better performance of choice schools was because they could skew the results by only accepting the “best” students.

But the WILL study took it a step further. The key difference in WILL’s study is that it isolated school performance by accounting for the students’ socio-economic status and demographic differences. After adjusting for these variables, the study still shows that choice and charter schools outperform their public school counterparts.

Some of the details are further enlightening. In Milwaukee, while choice and charter schools outperform Milwaukee Public Schools, long-standing Catholic and Lutheran schools are top performers. Faith-based education works. Also, the best performing charter schools are those authorized by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Perhaps the most troubling result in WILL’s study is the racial achievement gap. The study shows that racial achievement gap is massive and it cuts across every kind of school. Specifically, “a school with a nonwhite student make-up is predicted to have 52.9 percent lower proficiency in English/Language Arts and 46.5 percent lower proficiency in math than a school that is all white.”

That is a massive problem and is also reflected in a recent study about the next step in education — college. A recent report from The Education Trust showed that UW-M has one of the worst graduation rates for black students in the nation. Only 21 percent of full-time black students at UW-M graduate within six years.

Given that UW-M and MPS are both, obviously, in Milwaukee, and that many MPS graduates feed into UW-M, the results of both schools are irrevocably linked. The graduation rate for black kids at MPS has been falling in recent years. The four-year graduation rate for black kids in MPS was 54.7 percent in 2016 and 67 percent after five years.

What all of this data reveals is that while choice and charter schools improve the probability of educational success for the majority of kids, none of them improves the achievement gap between white and non-white children. There is an expansive and pervasive issue that is holding back Wisconsin’s non-white children — particularly black ones. Since WILL’s study corrected for socioeconomic and demographic differences, there is something beyond poverty or unemployment driving the gap.

Flanders’ study reminds us that Wisconsin, once at the forefront of education innovation, still has a lot of work to do. We must continue to offer more Wisconsin families the opportunity to send their kids to the school of their choice, but that is only the beginning. We must also get serious about breaking the fetters that are preventing Wisconsin’s non-white kids from achieving their God-given potential.