Sunday, July 29, 2012

What This Is…
Issue #73- July 29, 2012
In this issue: A Citizen's Responsibility, Walkergate and Issue Updates

Our Civic Duty…
I've written quite a bit about the competing visions for our nation that currently are competing for control of our nation in the political, economic and social spheres.  It appears that the extremes on both sides are dominating the debate over issues that are of importance to all of us, no matter our race, religion, ethnicity, gender, etc.  It is becoming clear that neither extreme provides a long term, realistic solution to the problems we face that will allow our nation to remain a truly united country.

Unfortunately, the current political climate is forcing our politicians to adopt positions that are increasingly farther from what most of us believe and want for our society.  This extremism combined with an increasing reliance on short sound-bite media coverage means that we are in an era of one-line, limited context political grandstanding.  Our information about policy comes at us quickly and in a disjointed manner that makes it difficult for most citizens to form an accurate picture of what is going on.  People form their opinions based on headlines, hearsay and propaganda.

What we are seeing is a trend towards political grandstanding and divisive politics where substance is valued less than style.  Political leaders are using the struggles and suffering of citizens to score political points and promote their own interests instead of looking for ways to help promote the general welfare of the people they represent. 

At the same time many of our political leaders are failing to uphold their duties as representatives of the people, small groups of wealthy, influential people are asserting their power to promote their personal agendas. 

We, the people, remain our own best defense in promoting quality government that represents the best interests of our society as a whole.  Each of us has a responsibility to stay informed and to hold our elected officials accountable.  We need to support politicians who listen to, and represent their constituents and vote those who don't out of office.  Our representatives need to know that we are aware of their actions and that we will support them when they do their jobs well, and hold them accountable when they don't.

We must also continue to work to make sure our fellow citizens are aware of what is going on.  Recent electoral history in Wisconsin shows us that the public is continuing to buy a message that doesn't hold true under scrutiny.  We will be facing a series of very important elections over the next few months and our efforts are vital as we work to preserve and protect our values of freedom and social justice.   

Wisconsinites have long mocked other states' (most notably Illinois) reputations for their corrupt public officials and crooked politics.  We looked at the shenanigans going on in other places with disdain and touted our relatively clean political status.  Now it appears that we are leaving the "clean politics" rank and plunging headlong into a trough of corruption and illicit political acts.

While it is certainly difficult to find politicians in modern America who are free from the taint of big money and other outside influences, Wisconsin's politicians are quickly gaining a reputation as being among the most corrupted.  In fact the general tone on-line seems to have switched from a predominantly supportive and sympathetic one to a "you deserve what your state voted for" theme.  Based on the fact that we have the only U.S. governor with a legal defense fund, legislation drafted by special interests and now a sitting justice with a legal defense fund, it is difficult to counter these attacks. 

For those who thought that the recall was unmerited because Walker hadn't done anything criminal, keep an eye out on the continuing stories surrounding his administration (both current and past).      

Issue Updates…

Many people continue to see the struggle for worker's rights only as a political conflict between unions and conservatives.  This narrow view of the struggle gives an advantage to anti-labor forces who have aggressively attacked unions as being greedy, wasteful and a negative force on our economy.  Conservatives, heavily supported by corporate and other business interests, have been able to "divide and conquer" workers by preying on the struggles that many middle and working class citizens are facing in these difficult economic times.  

The bigger picture shows us may disturbing trends in the workplace as workers are paid less, work more and face more dangerous and unpleasant working conditions.  It is clear that there is a concentrated effort being made to protect the interests of management over those of a majority of workers.    

There is no doubt that workers in America need to "wake up" and become more engaged in protecting their rights in the workplace.  Conservatives are playing on a historical American fear of socialism and communism, but phrases like "Workers of the world, unite" have a place in American society and American economics.  Time an time again throughout our history we've seen the effects of severe economic stratification and it has never been peaceful or productive.  It is time for the middle and working class of America to exert their strength or else we will face a long, difficult and unpleasant struggle to regain what we have lost.   

This past year has seen Wisconsin regress significantly in many ways.  We've set the clock back 60, 100 or more years in many social, political and economic areas.  Our treatment of children and our public education system is no exception to this.  Many people would like to see us go back to the "good-old days" with regards to public education.  For these people this would mean a return of straight rows of desks, children being seen and not heard and a back to basics curriculum.  What is ignored in this model is the fact that we must expect more from our students than what we did in the past.  How can we expect our children to compete in the future if we use teaching methods and school models from the 1950's? 

What is most frustrating is that many of the attacks on public education are not based on realistic criteria.  Instead of accurately assessing our efforts to educate our young people, we rely on standardized tests and other flawed measures.  Then, using these "facts" we hear about the failures of public education and the need for massive reform.   

I've said it many times before, I don't believe that our public schools are perfect institutions.  Every human endeavor is in constant need of monitoring and improvement.  However, our current school systems have the potential to meet the needs of the most students and need to be supported and further developed. 

Public schools are being attacked for many reasons, but one of the primary ones is the continuing issues surrounding Achievement Gaps.  We have always had students with different needs and different abilities.  In the past we segregated schools for a variety of reasons and excluded children based on different physical, emotional or cognitive reasons as well as race, gender or other physical characteristics. 

Modern public schools are mandated to be inclusive and provide services for a wide range of student emotional, academic and physical needs.  This is a mandate that most educators embrace and, while challenging, also provides many positive opportunities for everyone involved in the educational process.  With adequate support public schools provide excellent opportunities for students who attend them.  Unfortunately, we are seeing fewer and fewer resources allocated for public education while more demands are placed on educators.

We are also seeing a disturbing trend of increasing segregation of our public schools.  As our schools segregate based on race and social class we see a return to the separate and unequal education that previous generations experienced.  The stratification of our neighborhoods, combined with the illusion of choice provided by the privatization of education accelerates the segregation of our public schools.   

Along with the segregation of schools we can't ignore the impact of the recent "reforms" that have been enacted here in Wisconsin regarding public sector unions.  Governor Walker can try and spin his policies by saying they are good for education, but in reality they are only good for the bottom line of business owners and special interests.  Claiming that reducing state spending on education by $1.6 billion in the last budget is a positive step for Wisconsin students is ridiculous.  Walker's reforms make our most vulnerable students even more "at-risk".   

Public educators are facing an uphill struggle as we face threats to our employment along with declining working conditions and increased animosity towards our profession.  Many of us are facing a difficult choice as to whether to remain in the field or to move to "greener pastures".  Those of us who are committed to improving educational opportunities for all students must be vigilant and ready to defend public education.  

It is surprising to many people that the United States Constitution originally left much of the discretion about voting in the control of the states.  Gaining the vote has been a struggle for many groups throughout our history and voting has become established as a right that most of us expect to be protected through policy and legislation.  Over time our national government has exerted more influence over who can cast a ballot in an election.  However, states still maintain their rights to set the rules for elections as long as they don't violate the Constitution or Federal law. 

The GOP has seen an opportunity to attempt to cement their political power by imposing restrictions on voting at the state level.  They have misrepresented facts and mislead the public so that many citizens are fearful of widespread voter fraud.  This fear has allowed the GOP in Wisconsin to try and implement one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the nation.  The full effect of these efforts is still undetermined, but the intent is clear.    

The real damage to our electoral system may not be as much about who can cast a ballot as it is the quickly eroding confidence that our process of electing officials is honest and accurate.  Unless there is a significant change in laws at all levels along with a radical change in the interpretation of the Constitution, we should see most citizen's right to vote protected for the near future.  

What is disturbing is the idea that a person's vote may not be counted accurately and that the "real fraud" in the system is much bigger than any individual voter.  This lack of confidence in the integrity of the system does more to disenfranchise citizens than any single piece of legislation.  Our democratic traditions and the foundation of our government is threatened by the lack of public confidence from all sources.  After all, if don't respect the process, how can we respect the office holders who emerge from it?       

The past year has seen many families torn apart by the political upheaval in Wisconsin.  If families can't discuss politics without "fireworks" than it stands to reason that business and politics wouldn't mix well either.  Many smaller businesses have tried to stay away from making broad statements about their owners personal beliefs for that very reason.  While they may share their ideals with regular customers, or make their social, political or economic statements through their choice of products or treatment of employees, they refrain from making broad statements regarding specific issues. 

This is true for many reasons, but I would guess that the main reason is that it makes good business sense not to alienate any potential customers.  As a consumer I have the right to spend my hard-earned money on products and at businesses that support my values.  I consciously choose to make my best effort to purchase goods and services that I feel good about.  That's my right as a consumer and I respect the rights of anyone else to do the same. 

Business owners also have the right to their political beliefs, but need to be ready to accept the consequences (positive and negative) for expressing them publically.  What makes the ethical positions of these larger business owners more important is their ability, under current political finance laws, to influence public policy.  By choosing to exert an inordinate amount of influence on our political process (either individually or in groups), business owners have inserted their personal politics into their business world.       

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Issue #72 July 22, 2012- Communication and Issue Updates

 What This Is…

Issue #72- July 22, 2012
In this issue: Communication, Issue Updates

Difficult Conversations…
Politics have always been a touchy topic.  There's an old rule of etiquette that says, don't talk about religion or politics in social situations.  It's interesting that religion and politics are grouped together as "unspeakable" categories of conversation.  This is probably because most people form their opinions on these two topics in similar ways.  It is also because most of us have difficulty sharing accurate information rationally about these topics and fall back on rhetoric and dogmatic reasoning.    

Unfortunately, our inability to discuss politics in a calm and coherent manner means that most people only talk politics with people who agree with their own viewpoints.  "Discussions" with political opponents often become heated and do little to find a middle, common ground and often only serve to reinforce existing prejudices against our political opponents. 

What is lost is the reality that in order for our society to thrive and grow, we need dissenting viewpoints.  It is extremely rare for one side of an argument to hold all the "correct" answers.  Even in cases where the "facts" seem to point in a specific direction, hearing alternative views can help guide us to an improved outcome.

An example of this is provided by the tragedy in the Colorado movie theater.  In the aftermath of the shooting we hear multiple voices calling for very different solutions to our problem of gun violence.  Gun control advocates say that more regulation on weapons would help eliminate access to firearms like the ones used in Colorado.  Opponents of gun control offer the idea that more armed citizens could prevent attacks like this one.  I heard callers to a national talk show express the idea that armed citizens could have fought back and ended the shooting earlier. 

We can never know whether one view or the other is correct.  With stronger regulation would this disturbed individual ever have gotten such powerful weapons, or did our efforts to regulate gun ownership mean that he had nothing to fear from others in the theater?  Would wider access to firearms have meant that an armed citizen could have ended the shooting or would it have turned the theater into a gunfight with even more casualties?  Is there any way to prevent such horrific events from happening in the future?  These are discussions that we need to have on an ongoing basis and ones that our leaders need to address in positive and proactive ways. 

This need to discuss and debate while listening to opposing opinions is crucial to successful democratic societies.  Here in Wisconsin (and across the United States) we are turning away from informed debate and losing the ability to resolve problems for the good of our society.  The GOP's actions around the passage of Act 10 provide excellent examples of this unwillingness to listen to opposing views.

As the rhetoric amps up, the divisions between groups widen.  Instead of looking for solutions to our problems that make our society a successful one, people begin to concentrate on defeating their opponent.  It no longer matters if policies lead to success for most citizens, but rather that a particular ideology is advanced.  We forget the purpose of our government which is to provide a safe society where there are equal opportunities for all people living there. 

How does this happen?  Do most Americans really feel the intense hatred of the "other"?  I certainly hope not.  It seems to me that most of us want others to enjoy safe, productive and happy lives.  I look at different studies along with my own experience and it appears that most of us put others in two categories, people I know and people I don't.  The people I know can be of any race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. and are "good", "hard-working", "honest" and deserve the benefits they earn.  The people who we don't know fall into the other categories and are to be feared because of the damage they do to our society.  How many times have you seen someone speak out against a particular group, while embracing a friend or family member who fits the attacked demographic?

It comes down to leadership and a sense of common purpose.  People will always fear the unknown and distrust the larger world outside their own experience.  What we need are leaders and media sources who point out the common ground and shared experiences that we as human beings have.  There are always negative examples that can be found, but it seems that we emphasize these, over what the majority of people feel and do.

The idea that parents want their children to succeed and enjoy equal opportunities is one such common goal.  Another is the satisfaction that we get from working hard and achieving goals, whether they are financial, educational, or any other type of achievement.  What we are currently doing is assuming that anyone who doesn't meet our standard is actively working to exploit the system.  It is difficult to have a unified society when groups assume negative intent from any opposing group.          

No person, or group is perfect.  We are all human beings.  Because of this, any individual, group or organization that claims to have the whole truth will fall victim to hypocrisy.  This in turn gives the opposition an opportunity to attack resulting in an ongoing spiral of negativity.  Instead of this circle of rhetoric (which leads us nowhere) we need to see our leaders start by discussing their opposing views and then working towards a reasonable compromise.  Many of our politicians are painting themselves into a corner from the very start and then can't negotiate or compromise because of their extreme starting position.   

What we need here in Wisconsin, and across the nation, are some strong and confident leaders who can reframe the debate.  Not in extreme, confrontational language that ends discussion, but rather in an intelligent and rational manner that leads to reinforcing the commonalities that we share.  People are people wherever they live, whatever they do and whoever they are.  It's good to disagree, but we need to start disagreeing like mature adults using facts and reason.

However, responsibility doesn't rest on our political leadership and members of the media.  Each of us has the duty to be active participants in the discussion and debate that surrounds key issues.  We can't accept the half-truths, rhetoric and outright lies that we hear from any source.  As a society of individuals we must learn to listen and discuss issues with respect and tolerance, listening for the potential solutions that exist within the opinions of those who think differently than we do.  Ultimately, the society we live in is shaped by the people who make up that society and we are the ones who bear the ultimate responsibility for it.

Progressives continue to hold out hope that the investigation will uncover the full truth about our current governor and his actions while in Milwaukee County.  This is an example of how claiming to be morally superior to others means that you should live your life by the highest possible standards.

Issue Updates…

All of us should want the economy to rebound.  Too many citizens are living under incredibly stressful conditions created by the struggling economy.  Our state's budget crisis is directly linked to the difficulties our economy is facing and without the crisis much of Walker's agenda wouldn't have been able to have been implemented.  Remember that the budget crisis was the supposed impetus for the "reforms" that the GOP advanced.  Progressives find themselves in a challenging position where we don't want it to appear that Walker's agenda is a viable one, but we want to see our fellow citizens succeed. 

Republicans in power don't seem to feel the need to try and improve the conditions of the citizens they represent.  It's one thing to disagree with the policies proposed by your political opponents, but to resist without advancing alternative solutions is not acceptable.

As with any human organization, unions aren't perfect.  However, they provide a voice for workers that would otherwise be lost and go unheard.  They are a natural outgrowth of democracy and should be a part of our society.  Workers need to unite and support each others' efforts to improve wages, benefits and working conditions for all of us.  

We must also remember that businesses exist to make money and therefore will put other considerations aside if their profits are threatened.  Sometimes this is just the nature of doing business and sometimes it is the result of a need for more profit than might be necessary (greed), but the reality of our world is that management doesn’t have the good of the worker as a top priority.  Therefore unions, laws or other protective measures must be in place to insure that worker's rights are recognized.  If we don't have these in place and strongly reinforced then a majority of the workforce suffers.

Schools should not be defined entirely by their bottom line on any budget.  The value of an educated citizenry is virtually immeasurable and the benefits of education for any individual person are just as difficult to quantify.  That being said, schools do need money to function and our public schools are facing a continuing shortage of financial backing from all levels of government.  

It is also difficult to determine adequate compensation levels for public educators.  There are so many variables that go into determining the effectiveness of any individual educator that creating a fair salary structure would quickly decline into chaos.  The current salary schedules that reward experience and education are probably the most equitable way to compensate educators that we have currently developed.  Conservatives want to eliminate these salary schedules so that they can control the money that goes into schools, but their argument that experience and education doesn't impact the quality of teaching that an educator provides rests on shaky ground.  

The interest that conservatives have in public education seems to have less to do with educating students and more to do with accessing public funds.  Public education and health care are the two biggest remaining pots of public money that states have.  

There is no doubt that we need to continue to work to improve public education for all students.  Public educators and public school systems need the financial and philosophical backing of our society so that they can continue to work to educate all students from all backgrounds.  The calls to privatize our schools are shortsighted and serve to divide groups who need our public education system the most.  Instead of fighting against each other, we should be looking for ways to support each other's efforts and look out for the needs of the children and families we serve.  The variable that impact student success are many and the strategies we employ must be flexible and inclusive. 

Honest elections are the cornerstone of any democracy.  They rely not only on the integrity of the balloting process, but also on the access of the electorate to accurate information that can guide the decision making process.  If accurate information isn't readily accessible than any ballot cast is tainted.  Our current system of electing public officials is twisted and tainted by money and the ability of politicians to share their message accurately.  Once again we all have a responsibility to hold our politicians and media outlets responsible for presenting honest and accurate portrayals of issues and positions that impact voting.

Just like the tangled web of personal, political and financial connections taints our political process, our economic environment is just as confusing.  In addition, any action taken to impact a corporations action will inevitably impact the workers at that company.  This has lead to many citizens feeling powerless to have any control over the trend in business for companies to grow larger less responsive to the needs of the communities they operate in.  How is anyone to know what products to buy, and what stores to shop in when they all seem interconnected.

Indeed, keeping up with what companies are operating in ways that support worker's rights, environmental protections and other progressive values is challenging to say the least.  It often seems like an impossible task to try and spend money in a progressive manner.  In fact it is probably unrealistic for most of us to reach a point where almost all of our purchases go to companies that we can support without reservations.  That fact doesn't remove the obligation that we should feel to spend our hard earned money on products and at businesses who share common values with our movement.  There is no doubt that we must continue to find ways to express our dissatisfaction with the current economic trends in our society.    

Conservatives key in on the idea that unrestrained capitalism is the best way to provide for the most citizens.  They've attacked the boycotting of companies and products as being counterproductive, and many citizens find boycotting a difficult strategy to implement and support.  However, the concept of a buycott is different in many ways.  By buying goods from companies that support one's beliefs one has a more positive impact on our current economic situation.    

Of course, some companies are easier to identify in their opposition to socially just policies.