Friday, July 3, 2015

Under Cover of Darkness

President Ronald Reagan once quipped "The nine scariest words in the English language are 'I'm from the Government, and I'm here to help'."  With apologies to The Gipper, the six scariest words coming from someone in government is "You don't need to know that".

Unfortunately, the 12 Republican members of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee said that to everyone here in Wisconsin on Thursday by inserting a last-minute measure into the state budget that will gut the state's Open Records Law.  The measure would exempt many records from public disclosure--including e-emails and other correspondences, research and drafting files of proposed new bills.  It would effectively shut out the public from learning and understanding how a law was drafted before it came for a vote in the Legislature.

The change comes as more laws and public policies are delivered in boiler-plate, ready-to-introduce on the floor form from special interest groups like American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) or the State Innovation Exchange (SiX).  These groups write the laws, contact some conservative or liberal lawmakers in each state to see who might support it and email over a copy that can be printed off and brought right to a committee meeting or to the clerk.  Legislators just paste their names to the bottom and viola it looks like they have "come up with a great idea to help our constituents".

Obviously, as a reporter I vehemently oppose this bald-faced attempt to limit our access to public records.  And as a Wisconsinite I am insulted that my representatives think that they should be allowed to conduct their business behind closed doors.  What's ironic is that many of the Republicans who voted for this would be the first to criticize Hillary Clinton for her illegal use of a private server to handle her State Department emails--and they would gladly add their voices to the chorus of criticism when she doesn't turn over all of those emails.  But ask them for their own emails--or on how they just happened to "come up" with a proposed bill and suddenly they think we have no right to know.

This measure was fittingly approved by Joint Finance under the cover of darkness at around 9:00 last night--on the day before all of their Capitol offices are closed for the holiday, the voters are all hitting the road to get away for the weekend and more than a few news outlets are running on reduced staffing and content.  It was almost like a reverse-information dump--taking away news that might be embarrassing at a time we won't have time to notice--instead of releasing all of the bad news late on Friday.

So why did Republicans do this?  Because they can.  They control both houses of the Legislature and the Governor's Mansion--so there won't be anyone to stop them--and to lock you out of the process.  Which proves another old political adage from John Dalberg-Acton: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely".

Thursday, July 2, 2015

You Can Always Count On Us!

One of the main arguments that those who support greater Government dependence like to make is that the Government "will always be there".  Social Security will always be your "retirement safety net"--no greedy Wall Street banker is going to steal that like they will your 401(k) or IRA's.  The Affordable Care Act will "always make sure" that you have access to health care--unlike those greedy insurance companies that are just trying to reduce their risk for monster payments that need to be funded by the rest of the people in the risk pool.  And you don't need a car because there will "always" be buses, subways, high speed trains and streetcars to get you within at least a few miles of where you need to go.  Yes, Government will always be there for you.  Except when it isn't.

Milwaukee County Transit System users are finding that out this week, as the bus drivers have gone on strike in protest of a stalemate in contract negotiations with the County.  You would have thought that Act 10 would have prevented something like this--but for some reason, transit workers were exempted from that law so their unions still hold considerable power.  And they are using that power to force the riders that depend on them to either stay home, walk or bike considerable distances or bum a ride.  And the timing of this action couldn't be any worse, as Summerfest is on--which provides some temporary work for many unemployed minority youth in Milwaukee that have no other means of getting to the festival grounds. 

Making things even more interesting, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel investigative reporter Dan Bice has turned up emails showing County Supervisor John Weishan was advising the drivers' union to go on strike this week--saying they need to show that they have "no other choice".  That while Weishan issues press releases criticizing County Executive Chris Abele for using an "expensive chauffeured SUV"--employing the old "class warfare" tactic.  If some of his constituents can't get to work or the doctor or get their kids to daycare--well I guess that's just collateral damage.

Now those who rely on the buses have to hang on for just a couple more days.  This is just a 72-hour job action that started at 3:00 on Wednesday morning.  That means the drivers will return to their routes at 3:00 Saturday morning.  Did anyone notice that Saturday is also a holiday?  And what does working on a holiday mean?  TIME AND A HALF, BABY!!  No statement of solidarity is worth losing out on that!

So I hope that those who have been placed in this situation of being at the mercy of Milwaukee County for their mobility and ability to hold a job enjoy being used as pawns in a political battle.  It's just another "benefit" of Government dependence.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Inequal Protection Under the Law

The Washington Post recently ran an interesting editorial piece from the Deputy Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union about why they no longer support the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  Louise Melling starts out by extolling the ACLU's victories in cases where they have advocated in favor of people claiming religious liberty and suing others to protect the "practice thereof" guaranteed in the First Amendment.  Those examples include Native Americans not being fired for smoking peyote as a "spiritual rite" and a Sikh Hindu member of a university ROTC program being allowed to keep his beard and turban despite the military's ban on facial hair and non-standard issue headgear.

But now, Melling says the Religious Freedom Restoration Act must be repealed because Evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics are using it to exert their "rights".  She cites the family that owns Hobby Lobby successfully getting an exemption from the Affordable Care Act to not cover a handful of contraceptives as part of their health insurance package.  Melling also points to the Catholic Church not reporting unaccompanied minors (illegal immigrants) that it is assisting who are also pregnant--because those girls might be offered access to abortions by Federal caseworkers.

In its argument for repeal, the ACLU says it used the law as a "shield" for those of these minority religions and that exemptions granted to them "hurt nobody".  But the Evangelicals and the Catholics are using the law as a "sword to attack the rights of others".  And they fear that it will continue to be used to keep churches from performing gay marriages and the infamous refusal to bake gay wedding cakes.

Since this was an opinion piece submitted by the ACLU itself, there is no follow up questioning of Melling.  But I would love to know under what circumstances the group would actually support the "rights" of Evangelical Christians or Catholics?  Would it be to protest near abortion clinics?  To keep women out of the priesthood?

Keep in mind that I have no dog in this fight.  But when the group that proclaims itself to be the "leader" in fighting for civil rights is picking and choosing which religious practices are worth defending and which are not, it makes me a bit nervous.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Prodigal Son's Brother

You know who is my favorite Biblical character?  You might think it would be Jonathan--the son of King Saul who gives up his birthright and fights against his father to allow David to become the King of the Jews--but it's actually the Prodigal Son's brother.  He is the one who didn't demand his inheritance from his father early.  He's the one who stayed and worked on his father's estate to make it even more successful.  He is the one who didn't squander everything he was given.  And he is the one that after learning that his father had prepared a great feast to celebrate the return of the son who had squandered everything that he was given was offended and asked why his hard work and responsible actions were never celebrated in the same way.

Biblical scholars will tell you that the Prodigal Son's brother is meant to represent the Pharicees of the Jewish religion who believed that strict adherence to the hundreds of laws at the time was the only way to guarantee eternal salvation.  The father represented God and the Prodigal Son was the sinner--and the forgiveness of those transgressions was a main selling point for the authors of the Bible as they tried to recruit people tired of living under the control of the Pharicees and who might want to check out that new "Christianity thing".

In today's society, the Prodigal Son's brother has come to be seen as greedy and heartless--someone who is unwilling to share what he has accumulated with his own brother who is obviously down on his luck--due entirely to not following the same path as his sibling.  I've seen the Parable of the Prodigal Son used as the basis of arguments that "Jesus would be a Liberal" and that continuing to offer assistance to those who choose to act irresponsibly is the "Christian thing to do".  German Chancellor Angel Merkel has even been compared to the Prodigal Son's brother in her treatment of Greece and their debt crisis.

But those who see the parable in that way seemed to have missed a very important element.  In Luke 15:31, the father tells the elder heir "My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours."  You see, the father does not take anything away from the son who stayed and worked on the estate to give to the son who wasted all he was given.  And there is no inference that to do so would be "fair" or "Christian" or "God's will". 

Fortunately for us, there are still a lot of "Prodigal Son's brothers" around "working the fields".  But the number of "Prodigals" are always increasing.  And the "fathers" who are willing to forgive--but not to enable--are becoming more and more scarce.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Appreciating Greatness While It's Still Around

Wimbledon begins its fortnight on the grass courts outside London today.  And that makes it a good time to turn some attention toward the greatest American female athlete of our time: Serena Williams.  Barring a major upset in the next two weeks, Serena is expected to win her sixth Ladies title at Wimbledon.  It would also give her the third leg of the single-season Grand Slam--having already won the Australian Open and the French Open this year.  And yet, you don't hear much buzz around Serena.

Consider that she has won 20 Grand Slam singles titles in her career--the third most of all time.  Add to that another 13 titles in doubles and two in mixed doubles and she has captured 35 Grand Slam championships--seventh all time for men and women.  In 2002 and 2003 she captured the "Serena Slam" winning four consecutive majors--just not in the same calendar year.  She has also won four Gold Medals in the Olympics.  Her career winnings of more than $70-million are the most of any female athlete in history.  And at 33-years old, she is the oldest number one ranked player in women's tennis history.

But still, you don't see as many Sarena Williams commercials on TV and in print as you do certain other, far-less accomplished female athletes.  She's not even the most glamorized player in her own sport--with Maria Sharapova getting the watch and shoe and jewelry ads.  Serena is left to do Citibank smartphone app commercials where she doesn't even have a line of dialogue.  Of course, Sharapova has actually won some Grand Slam tournaments.  Why Danica Patrick is in half the commercials during a NASCAR race still confuses me--seeing as how she has never won a race on that circuit and her only major racing victory came in a rain-shortened Indycar race in Japan.  But we love us some Danica.  Serena--not so much.

Maybe it's because Serena is a bit of a drama queen.  She is constantly "fighting through injury" or illness or fatigue.  But how is that different from the almost weekly drama that Brett Favre created for himself the second half of his career?  Serena painted an ugly portrait of herself threatening to choke a line judge who called her for a foot fault at the US Open a few years back.  But that's not far from what John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase were yelling at officials back in the day. 

We should also celebrate the fact that Serena Williams is the only American that is even competitive in international tennis now.  Can you name the last American male to win a Grand Slam tournament?  (It was Andy Roddick, who won the US Open in 2003.)  And even Serena's sister, Venus (who was supposed to be the better tennis player of the two) can't get out of the first round of most tournaments nowadays.

So hopefully, you will be take the chance to enjoy some Breakfast at Wimbledon the next couple of weeks, if for no other reason than to enjoy the greatest American female athlete in history while she is still competing.

Friday, June 26, 2015

O'er the Land of the Not-So-Free.....

You'll have to excuse the rest of the world if they snicker when they hear us Americans sing about being the "Land of the free" in our national anthem.  A new poll finds fewer and fewer countries believe the US Government respects the freedom of its citizens.  The most precipitous drop took place in Germany--where just 43-percent of people see the US as the "Land of the Free" anymore.  That's down from 81-percent just two years ago.

Those studying the results blame Edward Snowden for the change in perception.  He revealed how and where the United States was spying on its own people and those around the rest of the world.  And since Chancellor Angela Merkel was among those who had their cellphones tapped without their knowledge, you can understand the German's changing their mind about our government.  But it's possible that those elsewhere are picking up on the more subtle changes in our society.

I had the chance to travel to Europe as a teenager and to meet kids of a similar age to talk about the difference in our countries and cultures.  One of the things that teens and young adults in places like England, Ireland and France couldn't believe is that we had our own cars at the age of 16.  Not vehicles we had to borrow from our parents, but our own set of wheels that we could use at any time.  Most of them were stuck with the timetables of buses, trains or streetcars--usually with a walk on both ends of the trip if they wanted to go somewhere.  Or if they did drive, they had to deal with outrageous gas prices and narrow streets and roads not designed for personal transportation.

But young Americans today are being told they don't need their own vehicle.  Cities across the country are scrambling to set up new public modes of transportation--like streetcars and light rail systems.  Liberals like Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett insist that young professionals don't want to drive anywhere anymore--they want the government to provide that service--even if they have to adapt to the government's pre-chosen routes and pickup times.  Just another little bit of personal freedom taken away.

With our ever-growing Nanny State--conveniently married to Big Brother--I expect Americans to continue to give up the personal freedoms that our ancestors once enjoyed.  It's a little bit like the frog that is placed into the pot on the stove.  He doesn't notice that he is being boiled alive because the change in temperature is so gradual.  It takes a little outside perspective to realize what is really going on.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Waving the Loser Flag

One of the best responses to the Confederate Flag controversy this week was posted by one of the comedians I follow on Twitter.  He expressed his hope that the flag would never be banned because "It's the easiest way to identify the biggest idiots in our society."  And he is right.  I doubt that those flying the Stars and Bars over their campsites at Country USA this week are neurosurgeons taking a week off from the operating room.  You don't see Confederate Flag back window stickers on many Mercedes or BMW's either.

While those who choose to defend public display of the Confederate Flag claim it's "honoring Southern heritage" or it somehow stands for "states' right", it is first and foremost the symbol of a losing cause.  You are flying the flag of a bunch of losers.  We fought the bloodiest war in our history to decide that the virtues and principals embodied by the Stars and Stripes were going to the be ones by which all 50 states are going to abide.  And I think that it turned out pretty good.

The Charleston shootings have also led to call to flat out ban public display of the Confederate Flag.  Supporters point out that in Germany, the display of the swastika and all other Nazi symbols is illegal--even the extended arm salute.  But keep in mind that Germans don't have the First Amendment protections provided to us Americans (and guaranteed by the Union victory).  Besides, it's important that we not try to run from our history and try to whitewash it be removing everything that people of today might find offensive.

So keep on flying your Conferderate Flags there, "Mr Rebel".  And keep installing the horn that plays "Dixie" in your car.  And don't be afraid to wear the Stars and Bars handkerchief on top of your head to keep your Skullett from burning.  It just helps us to more easily identify you idiots and losers.