Tag Archives: Washington County Daily News

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.

 

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.