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Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation

Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation

Mike McCabe is the founder and president of Blue Jean Nation and author of Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politics.
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Blue Jean Nation, P.O. Box 70788, Madison, WI 53707
Email: one4all@bluejeannation.com
Phone: 608-443-6086

Wisconsin’s Own Twilight Zone

Posted by Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe is the founder and president of Blue Jean Nation and author of Blue
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 16 September 2015
in Wisconsin

capital-madisonMADISON - The dictionary defines “twilight zone” as an “area just beyond ordinary legal and ethical limits” or alternatively as a “world of fantasy where things are not real” or a “situation or an idea that is unclear or confusing.”

All these definitions describe Wisconsin’s State Capitol and those who rule the place at the moment.

A leading Republican lawmaker who sits on the Assembly Campaigns and Elections Committee says “there’s no question” Wisconsin should dump the nonpartisan agency that oversees elections, campaign finances, lobbying and government ethics in favor of a partisan replacement modeled after the Federal Election Commission.

joe-sanfelippoRepublicans like state Representative Joe Sanfelippo are convinced Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board is biased because it did its job and joined with both Democratic and Republican prosecutors to investigate suspicious election campaign conduct.

The law school at Ohio State University has singled out the GAB as anational model that should be copied by other states and Wisconsin’s largest newspaper calls it a “model for impartiality.”

Nevertheless, Sanfelippo insists “Wisconsin would be wise to follow the model of the Federal Election Commission and have state legislative leadership appoint” a new six-member board replacing the GAB.

Wise clearly means two entirely different things to Sanfelippo and the business-oriented Bloomberg news service. In an editorial published in recent days, Bloomberg said: “No agency better represents Washington’s dysfunction than the FEC.” The editorial went on to say the commission is “hopelessly and endlessly deadlocked” and noted that as the amount of money spent on campaigns has increased candidates, parties and independent groups have been allowed to stretch the law with “virtual impunity” and “the agency’s impotence has become all the more embarrassing.”

You’d think such an assessment might dampen Representative Sanfelippo’s enthusiasm for creating a state-level version of the FEC in Wisconsin. You would think wrong. Sanfelippo still fantasizes about “following the FEC prototype . . . which guarantees greater transparency and compliance for all residents and public officials.”

Representative Sanfelippo is in that fifth dimension Rod Serling always used to talk about.

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11 Steps to More Open and Honest Government

Posted by Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe is the founder and president of Blue Jean Nation and author of Blue
User is currently offline
on Monday, 27 July 2015
in Wisconsin

capitol-dome-mdsnRepublicans who call the shots in Madison want to butcher the state’s open meetings law and turn our independent elections watchdog agency into a lapdog. It’s easy to focus on condemning the attacks, but let's think of ways to make open government laws sturdier and government more trustworthy.


MADISON - Those who call the shots in Wisconsin’s Capitol show themselves to be most comfortable working in the dark. They tried to butcher the state’s open meetings law, and only backed down when their action whipped up a public firestorm. They want to do away with the highly respected state audit office. They’re itching to turn a nationally acclaimed, politically independent elections and ethics watchdog agency into a lapdog.

They must have a lot to hide.

With open government laws under assault, it’s easy to focus entirely on condemning the attacks and seeking to prevent further harm. It’s harder, especially in times like these, to take the time to think up ways to make our open government laws sturdier and the business of governing more transparent and trustworthy. It’s not enough to bear witness to destruction or even to try to stand in the way of the demolition crews. Blueprints for new construction need to be drawn.

It’s only a start, but here are 11 ways to bathe the encroaching darkness in light:

1. Require all legislative proposals – every bill, every amendment, every budget provision – to have named sponsors. Whoever wants a proposal drafted and considered has to be publicly identified.

2. Strengthen the open records law by clarifying how promptly government agencies must respond to public records requests. Wisconsin’s law just requires them to do it “as soon as practicable and without delay.” In Illinois – Illinois, for crying out loud – officials are given five business days to either comply with or deny a request or put in writing a darn good reason for needing more time. Maybe five days is not enough time, but 352 is definitely too much. That’s how long one Wisconsin newspaper was made to wait.

3. Further strengthen the open records law by narrowing the exemption for draft proposals. Once the official developing the proposal shares it with colleagues or other officials, it should be a public record.

4. Strengthen the open records law even more by clarifying that electronic records – or “electromagnetic information” as it’s called in Wisconsin’s law – have to be treated just like paper records when it comes to storage and retrieval. Make it abundantly clear that sudden mass email deletions and other destruction of electronic public records are crimes.

5. Create an open data law requiring the government to publish data online in an open format, and require government responses to public records requests to be made available in an open data format. Harnessing the power of the Internet to drive transparency, efficiency and innovation is gaining momentum globally, and was written into law for the first time anywhere in the U.S. by a major American city in 2010. Wisconsin has dabbled in a few open data projects, but has no overarching open data law.

6. Sharpen Wisconsin’s open meetings law to address the reality that members of public bodies too frequently go into closed session simply because they believe they can speak more candidly that way. When enough members are present to constitute a quorum, the meeting should be open to the public, with very limited exceptions. And it should be made clear that the open meetings law applies fully to the legislature, even when members of just one party gather.

7. Instead of dismantling the independent Government Accountability Board, make the GAB stronger by giving it the staffing and funds needed to carry out its duties and deal with the work backlog identified by arecent audit. That audit pointed out that the GAB keeps being given more and more to do on top of its regular workload, including administering recall elections in 2011 and 2012, overseeing a statewide election recount, implementing redistricting legislation, and preparing for a photo identification requirement for voting. Yet the GAB’s funding has actually shrunk, decreasing 3% from $5.8 million in 2009-10 to $5.6 million in 2013-14.

8. End the home-court advantage for public officials who find themselves in trouble. This would fix one of the two major flaws in the 2007 law establishing the Government Accountability Board. That law allows any legislators and other state officials accused of wrongdoing to be criminally prosecuted in the county where they live. All other citizens are charged where the offense allegedly occurred. This double standard gives state officials – and no others accused of crimes – the ability to go court shopping and choose where they will be tried.

9. Make Government Accountability Board records related to complaints and investigations public, and require all actions by the Board regarding complaints and investigations to be done in open session. Currently, records pertaining to complaints filed with the GAB and investigations by the agency are confidential, and all Board actions dealing with these matters take place in closed session.  This change, along with repealing the law’s measure making it a crime punishable by up to nine months in jail and a $10,000 fine to publicly discuss or disclose any records about an investigation into ethics or campaign finance violations, would repair the second substantial flaw in the law creating the GAB and unmuzzle the watchdog.

10. Bring Wisconsin’s conflict of interest laws into the 21st Century. State law prohibits public officials from knowingly taking any action “substantially affecting a matter in which the official, a member of his or her immediate family, or an organization with which the official is associated has a substantial financial interest.” The law – written back in 1973, long before campaign contributions played the dominant role in elections they do today – is silent on whether political donations could create a conflict of interest for Wisconsin officials. Likewise, the state’s Code of Judicial Conduct allows judges to rule on cases involving their biggest campaign supporters. Both the judicial ethics code and the broader 1973 state law should be rewritten to disqualify officials from participating in decisions that could benefit individuals or groups that spend large sums to get them elected.

11. Follow Minnesota’s lead and ban gifts of travel and lodging to public officials from lobbying groups, even when passed through an organization that is not a registered lobbying group. Better yet, prevent the unregistered groups doing the passing of gifts from gaming the system by treating them as lobbying operations and requiring them to publicly disclose their activities and obey Wisconsin’s law prohibiting officials from accepting “anything of value if it could reasonably be expected to influence the state public official’s vote, official actions or judgment, or could reasonably be considered as a reward for any official action or inaction.”

Here you have 11 ideas for making governing more open and honest that should be under active consideration at the Capitol but currently are not. Surely others can come up with another 11. Or 111. There is much to be done to reverse Wisconsin’s descent into darkness.

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What to do about You-Know-Who

Posted by Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe is the founder and president of Blue Jean Nation and author of Blue
User is currently offline
on Thursday, 02 July 2015
in Wisconsin

scott_walkerMADISON - Wisconsin Democrats have a bad case of Scott Walker on the brain.

The governor is in the news constantly, especially now that he is unofficially but obviously running for president. His opponents do a great deal to help keep him in the news, ridiculing his every move and parsing his every word and filling the blogosphere and twitterverse with a daily recital of his transgressions and shortcomings and overall unfitness for office. Whether any of it is true or false is beside the point. It all does Walker a considerable service.

In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant! and other writings, noted linguist George Lakoff examines how the human brain works, politically speaking. In our minds, words and images fit within what he calls moral “frames” and what us non-linguists would probably call core values. One of Lakoff’s key teachings is that when faced with facts that conflict with a moral frame, many if not most people will ignore the facts and hold tight to the frame. Lakoff also has observed that negating a frame paradoxically evokes the frame. For example, when Nixon told the country “I am not a crook,” the negation conjured the frame. The president unwittingly made people think of crooks when they thought of him.

There’s an old saying, “Speak of the devil and he appears.” When Walker’s enemies talk endlessly about what a bum the governor is, they keep the governor top of mind. Negating Walker evokes Walker . . . and relegates his critics and their ideas to the political equivalent of a dusty attic.

Democrats would be better off giving the governor the Lord Voldemort treatment. Do not speak his name. Resist the temptation to vent about You-Know-Who’s latest slip of the tongue or divide-and-conquer maneuver. Think twice when He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named does one more thing prompting the urge to hurl insults. Counter the impulse to spew more venom with a conscious effort to concentrate on hopes and dreams and big plans for making Wisconsin a better place.

It has been well established that Wisconsin Democrats cannot beat Walker by hating Walker. Hating him has helped him immeasurably, made him stronger. Wisconsin has been reminded daily what the Democrats are against. What they are for is more of a mystery to state voters. It will remain a mystery until the choice is made to stop obsessing – and mourning – over what is being torn down and start drawing up blueprints for what will be built up.

If Democrats could just channel their inner Harry Potter, they would see that’s the power the Dark Lord knows not.

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Cue the turning

Posted by Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe is the founder and president of Blue Jean Nation and author of Blue
User is currently offline
on Thursday, 02 July 2015
in Wisconsin

depressionMADISON - In their provocative book The Fourth Turning, authors William Strauss and Neil Howe suggest there is a predictable rhythm to social conditions and change, with alternating periods of progress, decay and renewal.

According to Strauss and Howe, each generation has distinct characteristics and archetypes that contribute to the perpetual change and occasional upheaval societies experience. Over the course of what they describe as a “natural century,” or roughly the length of a normal human life, there are four identifiable phases or “turnings.”

A first turning is marked by a high, that euphoric buzz that accompanies a recent overhaul of the social order. Faith in institutions is high, and society is confident of where it is headed collectively. These heady times are followed by an awakening, when institutions begin to be questioned and attacked in the name of personal autonomy. Just when society is reaching a high tide of public progress, people tire of communal discipline and long for more individual satisfaction and enjoyment.

Awakenings invariably produce an unraveling. Public institutions become weak and distrusted. Individualism flourishes. More than one observer has noticed that the early part of the 21st Century has amounted to a “great unraveling.” After unraveling comes crisis. Fourth turnings are phoenix moments, when societies are reborn – as if arising from the ashes – and national identity is redefined. Institutions are torn down and rebuilt from the ground up in response to a perceived threat to the nation’s very survival. Civic life revives, and a sense of community purpose reemerges.

America’s last fourth turning began with the stock market crash of 1929 and climaxed with World War II, followed by a prolonged post-war high, closely tracing the telltale pattern Strauss and Howe identified. Highs follow crises when society senses it must coalesce and rebuild. Unravelings come on the heels of awakenings, when the social impulse is to fragment and enjoy.

As the title of their book implies, the U.S. is now entering a fourth turning. Our country has gone through this before . . . three times to be exact. The first was at the time of the nation’s founding and culminated with the American Revolution. The second was the nation’s reckoning with the scourge of slavery and the resulting Civil War. The third was the Great Depression and World War II. The impending crisis grows out of the chaos of economic globalization, the concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands, and global climate change.

Public institutions are in tatters, having fallen victim to the loss of civic consciousness that came with the great unraveling. The major political parties are canaries in the coal mine.

The Republican Party was established by radicals who sought to overthrow morally bankrupt institutions and remake the social order. It now works to ward off social change and protect the privileges of the high and mighty. The GOP once was the party of Abe Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower and devoted itself to creating opportunity for all. It now is dedicated to serving the rich.

The Democratic Party has spent an enormous amount of energy trying to make amends for being on the wrong side of history with respect to slavery, and even emerged as a force for considerable good under the leadership of FDR at a time of national and global crisis. But since then the Democrats have experienced their own great unraveling, to the point where it is known to most Americans simply as the party of more government and higher taxes. At a time when society has grown wary if not resentful of public authority and when once-stout public institutions are being torn to pieces, being the party of government is not solid ground to stand on. Today’s Democrats are easy prey for opponents wishing to caricature them as a party that takes from people who work and gives to people who don’t.

Meanwhile, economic and environmental challenges and demand for social change are reaching a boiling point.

Another phoenix moment fast approaches.

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UW Budget Debate "A self-defeating liberal impulse"

Posted by Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe, Blue Jean Nation
Mike McCabe is the founder and president of Blue Jean Nation and author of Blue
User is currently offline
on Wednesday, 24 June 2015
in Wisconsin

2015-budgetMADISON - Wisconsin deserves far more than a debate over whether investment in our state university system should be cut by $300 million as the governor wishes or $250 million as legislative leaders desire. The debate should be about how to make education as affordable for future generations as past generations made it for us. Lawmakers here and across the country should be trying to figure out how to reach the goal of tuition-free college. The future of the American Dream depends on it.

Something predictable happens when it is suggested that the promise of free public education for all children be extended all the way through college. Hardcore right-wingers balk at the idea of paying for anything that helps someone else. But something else happens too. Liberals instinctively call for means testing, arguing that only those who could not otherwise afford to pay for schooling should get society’s assistance.

This liberal impulse is understandable. It is also self-defeating. It ends up undermining the very kind of public investments liberals think are so critically important. It does so by stigmatizing public investments and sowing the seeds of resentment and hostility toward the beneficiaries.

Means testing inevitably pits those who qualify against those who don’t. It is no accident that the government programs that have been most successful and enduring – like Social Security – are not means tested. Everyone pays, everyone benefits.

Means tests also are prone to creating poverty traps. You have to be needy enough to qualify for a public benefit, and you have to stay needy enough to keep receiving it.

In order to have a just and decent society, we need to be there for each other. And we need our government to reflect that spirit of interdependence. Arriving there depends on us being smart enough to resist impulses like means testing that make government programs vulnerable to divide-and-conquer tactics. To the greatest extent humanly possible, what government does needs to be done for the whole of society. Everyone pays, everyone benefits.

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