Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama's Speech: More Nixon Than Kennedy?

With all the comparisons and allusions that have been made between Barack Obama and John Kennedy, I expected more from last night's speech. I didn't expect any bold policy prescriptions, but thought that Barack would at least leave us with some memorable phrases grounded in a progressive, forward looking philosophy of government and/or society in general. Instead, Barack defined the "American Promise" for us quite conservatively:

What -- what is that American promise? It's a promise that says each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will, but that we also have obligations to treat each other with dignity and respect.

It's a promise that says the market should reward drive and innovation and generate growth, but that businesses should live up to their responsibilities to create American jobs, to look out for American workers, and play by the rules of the road.

Ours -- ours is a promise that says government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves: protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools, and new roads, and science, and technology.

Our government should work for us, not against us. It should help us, not hurt us. It should ensure opportunity not just for those with the most money and influence, but for every American who's willing to work.

That's the promise of America, the idea that we are responsible for ourselves, but that we also rise or fall as one nation, the fundamental belief that I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper.

That's the promise we need to keep. That's the change we need right now.

Compare that with Kennedy's "New Frontier" philosophy from his 1960 acceptance speech:

Some would say that those struggles are all over, that all the horizons have been explored, that all the battles have been won, that there is no longer an American frontier. But I trust that no one in this assemblage would agree with that sentiment; for the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won; and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier -- the frontier of the 1960's, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats.

Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom promised our nation a new political and economic framework. Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal promised security and succor to those in need. But the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises. It is a set of challenges.

It sums up not what I intend to offer to the American people, but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride -- It appeals to our pride, not our security. It holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.

The New Frontier is here whether we seek it or not.

Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. It would be easier to shrink from that new frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric -- and those who prefer that course should not vote for me or the Democratic Party.

I think Kennedy's recognition of struggle and acknowledgement that "the battles are not all won" is what sets his speech and stated philosophy apart from Obama's. Barack's "post-partisanship" persona attempts explicitly to minimize the need for "battle" in order to create social change.

Barack's speech was thus historic only in that it was delivered by the first African-American to accept a major party's nomination for president. But philosophically, it continued the Democratic Party's depressing march backward to Republican-lite moderation. Richard Nixon's acceptance of the Republican nomination in 1960 contains themes that 75,000 Dems cheered for wildly last night:

We must never forget that the strength of America is not its government, but in its people; and we say tonight that there is no limit to the goals America can reach, provided we stay true to the great American traditions.

A government has a role, and a very important one, but the role of government is not to take responsibility from people, but to put responsibility on them. It is not to dictate to people, but to encourage and stimulate the creative productivity of 180 million Americans. That's the way to progress in America.

In other words, we have faith in the people and, because our programs for progress are based on that faith, we shall succeed where our opponents will fail in building the better America I've described.

But if these goals are to be reached, the next president of the United States must have the wisdom to choose between the things that government should and should not do. He must have the courage to stand against the pressures of the few for the good of the many, and he must have the vision to press forward on all fronts for the better life our people want.

Obama's quest to restore the "American promise" has much more in common with Nixon's staying true to the "great American traditions" than it does with Kennedy's "New Frontier."

I think Barack Obama will defeat John McCain, but it's starting to look like another case of what I heard Mike McCabe once refer to as "even when the Republicans lose they win."

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Manhole Cover Has Been Lifted

That title was Lori's response to last night's Common Council meeting. Though the cover has been lifted, we are still a long, long way from knowing all that's underground, including what may or may not be acts of city negligence. State law and court decisions provide extreme cover for cities as regards these matters, so absent some kind of independent third-party investigation we will probably never know the truth.

We heard some heart wrenching stories last night--and some justifiably angry ones--from citizens damaged by sewer backup. Ms. Carol Christianson's statement was especially eloquent because she reminded the council of its obligations to pursue justice and act ethically. [What a world it would be if the council and staff could expend half the amount of energy looking for ways to help these people as we do trying to find ways to fund an EAA exhibit hall or get the Akcess project off the ground.].

I realize that the the easiest thing for the common council to do on these claims is to mimic what common councils have always done: rubber stamp the insurance company decision. I call that the "Pontius Pilate" approach in that it only requires that we wash our hands of the matter and send the claimants off to the "mercy" of circuit court. Of course, as we know from Mr. Tweedale of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities, claimants rarely if ever prevail in ciruit court so that it hardly a solution. Because the system is weighted so heavily against claimants, the common council is literally the court of last resort unless we look for ways to make the process more fair.

Unfortunately, none of the speakers were in a position to be able to establish negligence, which is why it was extremely difficult to vote to allow the claims. Still, I think the Council did the right thing in creating a situation in which people would come to argue for their claims because it forced the council and staff to come face-to-face with victims of a problem that is at least in part the result of many years of bad planning and failure to rebuild an old infrastructure. We were not able to allow claims, it is true, but at least there seems to be close to unanimous agreement that:

*The insurance claims process needs to be overhauled. At the very least, our claim form should provide claimants with clear information about what they need to show in order to prevail. I provided an example from Ann Arbor, Michigan as an example of what such a form would look like.
*Problems with the storm water system need to be treated as urgent. I think a good start would be for the city staff to provide citizens with answers to all of the questions on the maintenace checklist for sanitary sewer systems.

More difficult is trying to get a majority of councilors to agree that some kind of indepenent claim investigation process is needed. Just about all of the speakers last night understood why it was difficult to allow the claims absent proof of city negligence. What they could not understand is why the Council is resistant to looking for a way to get an independent, third-party source to investigate what the problems are.

So the manhole cover has been lifted, but only a tiny bit. We've got a long, long way to go before citizens can feel confident that the process is fair and the city is truly committed to addressing infrastructure issues that have been neglected for many years.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

E & E Advisory Board Could Be Killed Tonight

Tonight the Common Council will vote on an ordinance that will "clarify" the functions of the Energy & Environment Advisory Board. The proposed "clarification," if enacted, could kill the Board. Below I will present the functions and duties, enacted in the 1980s, that currently define the Board's role, along with the proposed change.

Current Functions and Duties:
1. Advise the City Manager and/or Common Council on specific energy and environmental problems or concerns.
2. Review and advise the City Manager and/or Common Council on proposed or existing State and Federal laws and rules pertaining to energy conservation and their potential effect on the community.
3. Develop a comprehensive energy education plan, including emergency measures.
4. Advise the City Manager and Common Council on existing or proposed City ordinances which have energy and/or environmental implications. Serve as liaison on specific issues with Wisconsin Public Service, Advocap, Winnebago County, East Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (ECWRPC), and other agencies as requested by the City Manager and/or Common Council.
5. Develop methods and procedures through which the City of Oshkosh can more efficiently utilize energy.

The "clarified" functions and duties that we are being asked to approve tonight say the following:

"Advise on specific energy and environmental issues as requested by the City Manager and/or Common Council."

This means, of course, that if the City Manager and/or Common Council do not make requests, the Board literally has nothing to do! In fact, if the Council tonight fails to adopt Consent Agenda item 08-295 at the same time passing the revision to the duties and functions, the Energy and Environment Board for all intents and purposes will be killed.

Take a look at City's Boards and Commissions in chapter 2 of the Municipal Codes and you will find not one example of a Board or Commission that can advise only on the request of the Common Council or City Manager.

Suppose we get into a situation--and this is a real possibility--where the majority of the Common Council and/or City Manager are hostile or indifferent to environmental issues? According to this "clarification," that Council and Manager would be able to prevent the E & E Board from doing anything.

Chapter 2, Article VI, section 2-36(I) gives the mayor and council the power to establish Commission subcommittees. If we want to establish a subcommittee to advise on the ICLEI milestones, fine. But why on earth would we limit the Commission's ability to advise on other issues that it sees fit?

If we need to revise the 198os duties and functions (and so far a compelling case has not been made that we need to) and reduce them to one line, I would argue that we should simply keep #1 from the 1980s functions and duties: "Advise the City Manager and/or Common Council on specific energy and environmental problems or concerns." At the very least, that language would allow the Committee to exist and do business even if there is no request from the Council and/or Manager to do so.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

BO's VP: Could have been worse

I think the best thing that can be said about Barack Obama's choice of Joe Biden for VP is that it could have been much worse. The ultimate Washington insider, Biden hardly complements the "change" message we've been hearing so much about. The always irreverent Alexander Cockburn is much more harsh:

"Change” and “hope” are not words one associates with Senator Joe Biden, a man so ripely symbolic of everything that is unchanging and hopeless about our political system that a computer simulation of the corporate-political paradigm senator in Congress would turn out “Biden” in a nano-second.

The first duty of any senator from Delaware is to do the bidding of the banks and large corporations which use the tiny state as a drop box and legal sanctuary. Biden has never failed his masters in this primary task. Find any bill that sticks it to the ordinary folk on behalf of the Money Power and you’ll likely detect Biden’s hand at work. The bankruptcy act of 2005 was just one sample. In concert with his fellow corporate serf, Senator Tom Carper, Biden blocked all efforts to hinder bankrupt corporations from fleeing from their real locations to the legal sanctuary of Delaware. Since Obama is himself a corporate serf and from day one in the US senate has been attentive to the same masters that employ Biden, the ticket is well balanced, the seesaw with Obama at one end and Biden at the other dead-level on the fulcrum of corporate capital.

Corporate media, for obvious reasons, will not delve into the issues raised by Cockburn. Probably the major risk of having Joe Biden on the ticket is that he will say something stupid that will derail the campaign for a few weeks.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Gitmo on the Platte

Amy Goodman:

The bulwark against tyranny is dissent. Open opposition, the right to challenge those in power, is a mainstay of any healthy democracy. The Democratic and Republican conventions will test the commitment of the two dominant U.S. political parties to the cherished tradition of dissent. Things are not looking good.

Denver’s CBS4 News just reported that the city is planning on jailing arrested Democratic convention protesters at a warehouse with barbed-wire-topped cages and signs warning of the threat of stun gun use. Meanwhile, a federal judge has ruled that a designated protest area is legal, despite claims that protesters will be too far from the Democratic delegates to be heard. More.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Candidates on Reform: 18th SD and 54th AD

Last June a survey released by the Midwest Democracy Network found that a majority of Wisconsin residents (58 percent) trust state government to do what is right “only some of the time” or “almost never.” As summarized by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the survey also found that "nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of state residents said they are more interested in a candidate who believes it may not be possible to improve education, create jobs and cut taxes without first reducing the role of money in politics and the influence of lobbyists than a candidate who focuses solely on the issues. Just over a third of respondents (34 percent) said they would prefer the candidate who just focuses on improving education, creating jobs and cutting taxes."

Given those numbers, it's distressing to find out that nearly two-thirds of state legislative candidates did not complete a reform survey sponsored by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Common Cause in Wisconsin, and the League of Women Voters. Candidate responses (or lack thereof) can be found here.

Locally, neither candidate for the 18th district state senate seat (Democrat Jessica King and Republican Randy Hopper) filled out the survey. That's unfortunate, especially since King's camp is working hard to paint a picture of Hopper as part of the corrupt status quo. King's failure to answer the questions makes that effort much less credible.

District 54 assembly candidates Gordon Hintz (D-Incumbent) and Republican challenger Mark Reiff both answered the questions. There is a significant difference between the candidates--most notably, Gordon is a sponsor of legislation that would allow full public financing of Supreme Court elections, while Reiff disappointingly gives us Republican Party talking points: "the public should never be forced to support the campaign of any candidate or platform they disagree with, for any reason. Attacks on free speech by those trumpeting an illusory equality of access must be ended."

One major weakness of the survey is that it did not ask candidates where they stand on the issue of eliminating the closed partisan caucuses. As long as the legislature is allowed to go into closed session to "review bills" and "devise strategy," all other legislative reform measures will be almost meaningless. Gordon Hintz supports the closed partisan caucuses; if Reiff wants to be taken seriously as a reform candidate I'd urge him to give serious consideration to taking a stand against them.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Swimming Records and "Technological Doping"

T2T sports moves from the Brett Favre saga to Olympic swimming, where the performance of Michael Phelps and the American men's relay team has inspired global awe. Not to rain on anyone's parade, but today's New York Times included this interesting nugget of information:

“When technology is used in a sport, it is important to be in control of the way it is being developed and where it might lead us,” Claude Fauquet, technical director of the French swimming federation, said in reference to swimsuit technology.

Fauquet has called for more debate about the use of Speedo’s LZR Racer, the latest advance in the full-body suit craze popularized over the last eight years. The Racer has been worn for the setting of about four dozen world records since its introduction in February. The corset-like suit is made by ultrasonic welding instead of stitching, can require a half hour to put on and shoe-horns the body into a more streamlined position, designed to reduce drag in the water.

Critics suspect that the suit aids buoyancy in the water, in violation of performance-enhancing rules set forth by the international swimming federation, known as FINA. Alberto Castagnetti, the Italian national swim coach whose team wears a rival brand, has equated the Racer with “technological doping.” Some believe the suit can boost performance as much as two percent; in swimming, where races are won by hundredths of a second, that can mean the difference between a gold medalist and an also-ran.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Brett's A Jet

It's official: Brett's now a Jet. The New York press will have a field day this year, with a legend quarterbacking the Jets while the Giants and Eli Manning try to defend their Super Bowl title.

And the Packers? After the trade the best management could do was go into Ari Fleischer bamboozle mode. From the GB Press Gazette:

“Brett has had a long and storied career in Green Bay, and the Packers owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude for everything he accomplished on the field and for the impact he made in the state. It is with some sadness that we make this announcement, but also with the desire for certainty that will allow us to move the team and organization forward in the most positive way possible.

“We respect Brett’s decision that he could no longer remain here as a Packer. But there were certain things we were not willing to do because they were not in the best interest of the team. We were not going to release him nor trade him to a team within the division. When Brett ultimately decided that he still wanted to play football, but not in Green Bay, we told him that we would work to find the best solution for all parties involved. We wish Brett and his family well.

“We appreciate the tremendous passion shown by our fans. We, like them, always will see Brett Favre as a Green Bay Packer and our respect for him never will change. Moving forward, we are dedicated to delivering a successful 2008 season for all Packers fans.”

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Favre Gets Fleischered

The Green Bay Packer management's evasiveness, double-talk, and prevarication during the Brett Favre saga makes sense when you consider the fact that former Bush #43 White House press secretary Ari Fleischer is on board as a PR flak. once opined that “Ari Fleischer’s ability to repeat a lie even after it’s been shown, repeatedly, to be false is what separates him from the amateurs.” When Ari stepped down from the White House gig, DemocracyNow compiled his "greatest hits." You can listen to them here.

The Aaron Rodgers led Pack may or may not win many games this year, but the Fleischer-advised front office will almost certainly lead the league in piling on penalties--i.e. piling on the fans and press corp with bulls_ _ t.

Monday, August 04, 2008

EAA Salaries

A few months ago the Gannett press began publishing salary information for city employees and others. Given that the "not-for-profit" EAA has received considerable taxpayer assistance in a variety of forms over the years, it's only right that citizens become more aware of the organization's compensation for key employees.

The data below are from EAA's 2006 Form 990 ("Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax"). This form is open to public inspection.

Officer Salaries:
  • Tom Poberezny (President): $446,592
  • Paul Poberezny (Chairman): $105,625
  • Brian Wierzbinski (Executive VP): $226,876
  • Robert Warner (Senior VP): $178,374
  • Adam Smith (VP Museum and Education): $150,946
Five Highest Paid Employees Other Than Officers, Directors, Trustees:
  • Rick Larsen (VP Marketing and Comm): $192,541
  • Elissa Lines (VP Development): $139,570
  • Lee Siudzinski (Education Director): $209,044
  • Beatrice Germinario (VP Human Resources): $143,876
  • Earl Lawrence (VP Gov't and Ind. Rltns): $121,186
EAA reports that 38 additional employees make over $50,000.

As EAA gets set to reintroduce its request for TIF assistance from the city, I do hope the local press takes its responsibility seriously to do more than cheerlead for the organization.