‘Backed themselves into this corner’

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin There are local versions of the problem Fox News now faces as a flack for Trump. First, the Fox situation, then the local equivalent —

Nationally, the Daily Beast website writes of remarks from a former Fox News contributor & panelist:

[Andy] Levy, who served for 10 years as “ombudsman” and nightly panelist on Fox News late-night show Red Eye until its early 2017 cancellation, added: “Fox News should disavow it, but it kinda can’t because, with a couple of exceptions, they’ve backed themselves into this corner and they’re now the Trump News Network, and that’s their life blood.” Levy is now a regular panelist and senior producer of Cupp’s show.

Locally, both established newspapers (Gazette, Daily Union) and websites (Banner) have a similar problem: they’ve tied themselves to an economically ignorant boosterism, now to find that actual conditions undeniably lag local claims. Their own mediocre grasp is That Which Paved the Way for an even worse local, nativist impulse. (It’s also a nativism that doesn’t give a about damn hierarchy, forcing publications to pander, or at least stay silent, in an effort to hold on. See Old Whitewater and Populism.)

These nearby publications share this characteristic with a national one: they’ve backed themselves into a corner, on behalf of bad ideas and bad policies. One may be daily thankful for not making a similar mistake.

Policies & Actions

The Scene from Whitewater, Wisconsin Yesterday’s post, The Winnowing Transition, offers thoughts on the last several years in Whitewater, and a look ahead to the next several. The key point is that we’re in a transitional time, where many who were politically prominent a decade ago no longer are, and few who are prominent now will come through the next seven to ten years successfully.

A few more observations —

1. Policies, Actions. In a time of transition, where many have faded and others will, it’s more useful to focus on policies & actions than officeholders. The important questions will be what someone believes and what will he or she do.

In 2007, when I began writing, Whitewater’s city notables were at their high water mark, and conditions for them were seemingly stable. Most of them assumed they’d easily outlast a critic, and imagined – or at least declared – no end to their own prospects. Focusing on specific officeholders mattered more in conditions where an official’s tenure might yet be lengthy.

Weak policies (revealed to be even more so by economic conditions after 2008) came to take a toll, and over time officials’ prospects became weaker and the accuracy of criticism clearer. There might have been an effective break with the past between 2010-12, perhaps, but Whitewater’s officials didn’t make that complete break.

(As a policy matter, a complete break was needed; as a cultural matter it was more than even those who knew better could manage. Indeed, Whitewater’s policymakers have been laughably slow to admit their own mistakes, and delusionally stubborn in the face of repeated errors. See The Last Inside Accounts and The Dark, Futile Dream.)

Over time, a critic’s position has proved the stronger. See Measuring the Strength of a Position.

Who’s going or who’s arriving now matters less than what someone believes and what will he or she do. More of the same will prove worse than useless.

2. Many Options. There’s a common technique among those with an Old Whitewater outlook that every choice is between their way and chaos. This was especially true ten years ago: officials convinced others that the choice was between the official view and disaster/chaos/cannibalism/killer bees. That’s never been true: there are many kinds of conservatives, many kinds of moderates, etc.

It served small, smug notables to shout that it was a choice between their way and utter madness. One can sell slop if customers believe the only alternative is sludge.

3. Challenges Ahead. We have at least this many risks before us: harm inflicted intentionally against immigrants peacefully situated in their communities, harm inflicted through overzealousness against other residents (often disadvantaged) but peacefully situated in their communities, unacknowledged harm from sexual assaults against residents on campuses or nearby, and an unchecked and unchallenged Trumpism.

4. Some, Yet Few. There are some – yet few – officials now serving who, if they so decide, could help Whitewater during the rest of this (sometimes difficult & painful) transition.

Not most, to be sure, but a few.

Nationally and locally, it will be a tough slog. Now and always, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than Whitewater.

Quick Note on Comments

Someone wrote me today and asked why comments were off on a post from last week. She asked if I had turned comments off to avoid criticism on the subject (the post was about Mitt Romney).

The way FW is set up, comments turn off after automatically after five days, for all posts.

Some blogs have a method for readers’ comments, some don’t. For sites satisfied that they effectively filter trolls, comments are manageable and welcome. That’s always been the case here – spam and trolls have been manageable. (Large commercial sites, by contrast, struggle with spam and trolls despite their best efforts.) In Whitewater, too, I’ve always received more email messages than comments, although that seems unexpected to me (comments would seem easier).

In any event, I welcome readers’ comments and email.

As for the Romney post, well, if I were going to receive a lot of criticism, it would be funny if a Romney post bothered people the most (Romney’s incident with his dog notwithstanding).

Seamus Romney

Daily Bread for 4.18.17

Good morning.

Tuesday in Whitewater will be partly cloudy with a high of seventy-two. Sunrise is 6:06 AM and sunset 7:41 PM, for 13h 35m 08s of daytime. The moon is a waning gibbous with 59% of its visible disk illuminated. Today is the one hundred sixty-first day.Days since Trump’s election, with 11.9.16 as the first day.

Whitewater’s Common Council meets tonight at 6:30 PM.

On this day in 1775, Paul Revere began his ride from Charlestown to Lexington, Mass., warning American colonists that the British were coming. On this day in 1818, Wisconsin becomes part of the Michigan Territory. (Wisconsin was a part of the Northwest Territory from July 13, 1787-May 11, 1800; the Indiana Territory from May 1800-February 3, 1809; and the Illinois Territory from February 3, 1809-April 18, 1818. The Territory of Wisconsin was formed July 4, 1836.)

Recommended for reading in full —

Roger Cohen asks Meet the new Trump . . . same as the old Trump?: “These reversals represent nothing less than a retreat to the status quo ante — that halcyon era before Trump and his cast of mental munchkins started messing with foreign policy. The policies that now seem to be in place are ones that even former president Barack Obama might support. In fact, with the exception of hitting Syria, he did. But before we start celebrating Trump as a drunk who has suddenly gone sober, additional reversals are in order. The president might want to declare that it is wrong to mock persons with disabilities. He might want to say something nice about Mexicans, and he might want to retract his belittling of John McCain’s heroism — acknowledge how the man suffered as a prisoner of war, choosing to undergo torture and confinement rather than accept freedom without pride. Trump might also want to praise the Khans, the couple who lost a son in Iraq and whose sacrifice he mocked by likening it to what it cost him to build his business. He might also want to say he was wrong to suggest a certain judge could not fairly preside over a case involving Trump University because he was of Hispanic ancestry. Trump was wrong, too, to turn the presidential race into one of schoolyard taunts — “Little Marco,” “Crooked Hillary” and the rest. In short, Trump might want to institute a policy of acting presidential. Now, that would be a reversal.”

Jim Dalrymple II describes how Russia works to divide America in a story entitled The Leader Of “Calexit” Is Giving Up On The Secession Movement To Live In Russia: “The leader of California secession campaign has decided that he would like to live in Russia permanently, and is therefore abandoning his efforts to make the Golden State its own country. In a lengthy statement Monday, Louis Marinelli, president of the separatist group Yes California, announced he was withdrawing his petition for a referendum on secession. Instead, he plans to apply to be a live permanently in Russia, where he currently resides. “I have found in Russia a new happiness, a life without the albatross of frustration and resentment towards ones’ homeland, and a future detached from the partisan divisions and animosity that has thus far engulfed my entire adult life,” Marinelli wrote. “Consequently, if the people of Russia would be so kind as to welcome me here on a permanent basis, I intend to make Russia my new home.” In the statement, Marinelli explained that he was “primarily motivated” to work toward California’s secession due to a “personal struggle” over his wife’s immigration status. But his wife now has a green card, and anyway he is disillusioned with the US and doesn’t “wish to live under the American flag.” It’s a blow to Marinelli’s organization, which rose to prominence after President Trump’s win in November, when its proposal of a so-called “Calexit” carried at least some appeal for many of the state’s liberal voters. Organizers had until July of this year to collect more than half a million signatures to get the issue on the state ballot in 2018.”

(Calexit was a Russian-fed effort to divide resistance to Trump, duping some Americans into believing that separatism was a sensible opposition strategy. Dividing this Union never was, and never will be, the right course; it’s something the Kremlin found appealing as an active measure to weaken America.)

Alan Rappeport writes that Trump’s Unreleased Taxes Threaten Yet Another Campaign Promise: “WASHINGTON — President Trump’s promise to enact a sweeping overhaul of the tax code is in serious jeopardy nearly 100 days into his tenure, and his refusal to release his own tax returns is emerging as a central hurdle to another faltering campaign promise. As procrastinators rushed to file their tax returns by Tuesday, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, emphasized again on Monday that Mr. Trump had no intention of making his public. Democrats have seized on that decision, uniting around a pledge not to cooperate on any rewriting of the tax code unless they know specifically how that revision would benefit the billionaire president and his family. And a growing roster of more than a dozen Republican lawmakers now say Mr. Trump should release them. “If he doesn’t release his returns, it is going to make it much more difficult to get tax reform done,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, pointing out that the president has significant conflicts of interest on issues such as taxation of the real estate industry and elimination of the estate tax. “It’s in his own self-interest.”

Peter Beinart offers Why Trumpism Will Outlast Steve Bannon: “But if Trump has moved the GOP toward nationalism and nativism, why can’t he—or a future Republican leader—move it back? They could, but it won’t be easy because the Republican coalition has changed. Between 1992 and 2016, the percentage of whites with college degrees that identified as Republicans dropped five points. Over that same period, the percentage of whites with a high-school degree or less who identified as Republicans rose 18 points. Blue-collar Republicans are far more hostile to immigration and free trade than their white-collar counterparts. And as Walter Russell Mead has famously observed, they tend to be “Jacksonian” on foreign policy. When they feel threatened, they support ferocious military attacks. But they have little appetite for expending blood or treasure on behalf of international norms or commitments from which they perceive little personal benefit.”

(One battle at a time: political ruin for Bannon, then Trump, then Trumpism. This long political war will not end until all are finished.)

Tech Insider shows how a Robotic bricklayer builds houses 3x faster than humans:

Lyrics from Hamilton

If you’ve not heard the cast recording from Hamilton, you’re missing out – it’s memorable from first to last. 

Although I’m not big on standalone quotes, here’s one, from that musical’s Washington on Your Side, that’s both memorable and, I think, often figuratively true:

If there’s a fire you’re trying to douse,

You can’t put it out from inside the house

(It’s not a direct historical quote from anyone, to my knowledge, but rather clever lyrics. Jefferson and Madison sing these words in the musical.)

There’s much to be said for an independent position, for a policy of distance, detachment, and (in all cases) diligence.

Revisiting Kozloff’s ‘Dark, Futile Dream’

About a year ago, I wrote a post on an off-campus meeting at which local notables and a search consultant (Jessica Kozloff) discussed a replacement for Richard Telfer. A story on that meeting, published in the Daily Union, is one of the best accounts of insiders’  thinking.  See, from that newspaper, UW-Whitewater chancellor session held, http://www.dailyunion.com/news/article_f042575e-a63a-11e4-bcd8-939679ffcc09.html.

(The Daily Union may be a mediocre paper, but it’s a clear window into town notables’ inflated views of themselves, mistaken notions of quality, and willingness to say and believe any number of tall tales about the city.  See, along these lines, The Last Inside Accounts.)

The DU story quotes Kozloff as dismissing the assertiveness of the local press, seeing that not as a problem, but as a benefit:

“One of the trends we’re finding in the search is that the role of the president is, to some degree, less attractive today because it’s everything from social media to the volatility of politics today,” she said. “All of that has sort of had an impact and made the role much more stressful, especially in a place that has a very, very negative media. However, that’s not going to be true here, so I think that’s going to help.”

Kozloff is right that the local press here is laughably weak (what she’s describing as ‘a very, very negative media’ would undoubtedly be investigative journalism and inquisitive reporting elsewhere).  Gazette, DU, and the Banner (an online imitation, if not a parody, of a newspaper) have played critical roles in supporting local authorities at almost every turn.

(For those who doubt that the Banner‘s publisher could possibly imagine himself as a journalist of sorts, there’s confirmation of those pretensions  in a Gazette story still online, in which he poses with a reporter’s notebook and a voice recorder: http://www.gazettextra.com/news/2008/jan/20/ambassador-records-community-life/.   At the time, this must have seemed almost precious to the Gazette; it would have been closer to the truth to say that it was a foretaste of where quality of inquiry was headed, in a race to the bottom among declining newspapers and their imitators.  The political-press relationship is so distorted here that one can be a candidate, and report on one’s candidacy, while describing oneself in the third-person in a childish attempt to downplay the conflict.)

Big_Fat_Red_CatWhere Kozloff’s wrong, however, is in her implication of how news actually travels in this community.  She wants to reassure her audience of notables that they needn’t worry about ‘negative’ news, but of course she’s reassuring only in the way a doctor would be reassuring when telling a morbidly obese patient that he’s fit and looks great: a few people will believe anything.

One can consider the contrast between what a few seem to think and how information actually travels.

What A Few Seem to Think.  Even now – it’s 2016 – one can find examples of officials who must think (or hope, really) that information comes from only a few sources: DU, Gazette, and Banner.  They’d also know that there’s word-of-mouth discussion, but would have less worry about it except in personal terms.  (If there’s anyone left who thinks that the Register is a meaningful source of information, well…)

How Information Actually Travels.  People read stories in the DU, Gazette, and Banner, to be sure.  (Candidly, though, the actual penetration of either the DU or Gazette into the community is almost certainly far lower than their publishers would have one believe.  That’s more true of the Gazette – sales of the paper locally or online subscriptions for Whitewater’s residents are surely small.  Doubt this?  Potential advertisers should ask for independent readership figures for Whitewater, that is, figures specific to the city.  They’ll be surprised, if they even get anything.

But there are other ways that news travels, from email, blogs, Facebook, text messages, etc.  On the blogging side, a post that mentions local policy (or responds to mention of local policy discussed elsewhere) reaches a significant audience within twenty-four to thirty-six hours of posting.  That doesn’t mean everyone in the relevant group (city, school district, whatever) sees every post, but it’s about a day to a day-and-a-half before the post reaches a critical mass, to speak.

ostrichThere are undoubtedly officials who would deny this, or at least hope it’s not true.  They are committed to a strong perimeter fence, and desperate to live as there is no discussion – or life – beyond it.  SeeThe Perimeter Fence and How a Perimeter Fence Dooms Elites Within to Impossible Tasks, Exhaustion.

Their denial has never bothered me.  In fact, it’s been a great advantage.

First, when a few carry on as though no one has heard a counter-argument, when in fact many have heard the counter-argument, those who pretend nothing in reply has been said look ridiculous.  Even a few episodes like this makes a person look absurd.  It leads to a situation part silly, part sad.

Second, I don’t think that Whitewater’s public policy differences are merely a choice between alternatives of equal quality.  What officials say about something, and what one writes in reply, is not what will carry the day: the underlying soundness of a position is what matters most.  Many of Whitewater’s policymakers evidently believe that it’s enough to sell something. No, and no again: only close alignment between one’s views and the fundamentals of policy and human nature can assure a view’s ultimate vindication.  That’s why I see blogging – or any advocacy if undertaken properly – as both Commentary & Chronicle.

Third, remaining distant from local ‘movers and shakers’ assures that one will not be influenced, biased, or compromised by personal relationships.  Most insiders in Whitewater are individually talented but – when part of a collective group – produce work below their individual abilities.   SeeWhitewater’s Major Public Institutions Produce a Net Loss (And Why It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way).

Given the choice, I would for both principled and practical reasons never trade my aerie for one at the Gazette, Daily Union, or Banner.  Newspaper-oriented publications are on the wrong side of history.  Part of that historically disadvantageous position comes from the costs of printing, but just as much from the top-down, authority-boosting perspectives they hold.  One measures the strength of a position by considering whether one would trade it for another.  There’s no reason to trade to a weaker position.

Groups – at least political or social groups with serious concerns – wanting to advance a message in this unfolding, new environment need to create their own messages with their own media.  Relying on others’ media, when those media lack the energy or acumen to drive a serious political or social concern – is a recipe for failure.

One should do one’s own work.

4 Points About Public Records Requests

So a local paper complains that a local school superintendent won’t comply with a public records request, won’t put the paper on a media contact list, and simply ‘must’ improve communications.  

A few points —

1.  Compliance with a public records request isn’t a ‘communications’ issue; it’s a legal issue, of rights of residents under Wisconsin law.  

2.  Perhaps there would be a greater willingness of public officials to comply with the Public Records Law (Wis. Stat. §§ 19.31-19.39) if newspapers hadn’t made clear that they’re too weak or too miserly to challenge officials’ non-compliance at law.

3.  A newspaper can say all it wants that it’s the ‘leading media company’ of its area, but that doesn’t mean much in a diverse media environment in which newspapers are doomed (as almost everyone knows them to be).  

In any event, social media messaging in many communities – by itself – vastly outstrips the reach of any media company.  Sorry, gentlemen, there is no ‘leading’ force anymore.  

4.  When a resident or publisher thinks about pursuing an issue in which a public records request might be needed, he or she should consider what might be next if officials slow-walk, respond only in part, or simply deny the lawful request.  One would prefer that local officials felt a duty other than self-interest disguised as public interest.  What one would prefer describes – less and less – the environment in which we live.

Residents, bloggers, and community groups that seek information under a public records law should be prepared to defend that request at law.  One hopes that won’t be necessary, but rights are more than hopes, and so one should think ahead, even before a request is submitted: what’s next at law if officials obstruct this request?  See, along these lines, Steps for Blogging on a Policy or Proposal.

That’s a big commitment, but a commitment one should be prepared to see through.  

If Market-Based Solutions Are Superior to Cronyism, Why Are There So Many Cronies?

Here’s a question, concerning even small towns like Whitewater, for which the Financial Times publishes an answer: If market-based solutions are superior to cronyism, why are there so many cronies?

First, there aren’t that many cronies (or insistent insiders) in Whitewater or elsewhere, but the few there are manipulate or intimidate weak reporters at local papers into representing their numbers as though they were all the community.  So they’ll commonly speak about how Whitewater does something, when the people acting are a few insiders in a room, for example.

(The truth of Whitewater is that the adult, non-student population in town is only about half the city’s total population, and by the time one accounts for natural differences in interest, outlook, and ideology, the number of big-business lobbyists in town is actually small.  Sometimes, it seems like it’s one person, and a guy who follows along beside him dutifully – if awkwardly – carrying signs or flyers.)

Why, then, does cronyism persist, despite the greater intellectual, practical, and ethical strengths of voluntary, unaided transactions in the marketplace?

Prof. Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago’s Booth School has the answer:

While everybody benefits from a competitive market system, nobody benefits enough to spend resources to lobby for it. Business has very powerful lobbies; competitive markets do not. The diffused constituency that is in favour of competitive markets has few incentives to mobilise in its defence.

This is where the media can play a crucial role. By gathering information on the nature and cost of cronyism and distributing it among the public at large, media outlets can reduce the power of vested interests. By exposing the distortions created by powerful incumbents, they can create the political demand for a competitive capitalism.

SeeA strong press is best defence against crony capitalism @ The Financial Times.

Needless to say, I don’t think that the traditional local press (Gazette, Daily Union, Register) or an imitation (Banner) plays this role.  On the contrary, those publications are defenders of town squires’ repeated errors.

No matter: a new informational order now arises in many small places that progressively, effectively, decisively eclipses insiders to the benefit of those towns’ broader communities.

Tomorrow: Whitewater’s Major Public Institutions Produce a Net Loss (And Why It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way).

Methods, Standards, Goals

Whitewater doesn’t have, and hasn’t had, a legitimate press that would serve as a check on political or corporate power.  On the contrary, what’s passed for reporting in our area is merely written sycophancy.  In this way, Whitewater has been ahead of a national trend toward a weaker press, or no press at all.

Yet, before plentiful newspapers, before a vigorous press, America had vigorous inquiry and debate. We’re now returning to something like our early era of pamphleteering, made incomparably better for being both audio-visual and also more dynamic between readers and authors.  For the waning press, the new way represents a shock of inclusion, but that shock is all to the good.

What, then, shall we do, in this new (but in some ways old) world?

This world will not be won through grand pronouncements, but through daily work, repeated over months, seasons, and years. One begins every day with new work to do, knowing there is always more to do, tenaciously approached from the perspective of a dark horse underdog.

That sort of work requires methods, standards, and goals.

Methods.  One should have a method, in the case of a blogger, with Steps for Blogging on a Policy or Proposal.  There should be a discernible pattern to one’s work.

Critically, though, method should meet one’s standards and goals.  Just as the Romans had to build a fleet, mostly from scratch, to battle Carthage, so one sometimes has to build new things to achieve one’s goals.  In those cases when a new method or medium is required to carry the day, one learns, builds, and deploys those methods or media accordingly.

If one needs ships, and doesn’t have them, one learns shipbuilding, and then builds ships.

Standards.  We are an advanced people, as are many of our friends abroad.  We deserve more than dodgy data, deceptive claims, and lazy work.

The overwhelming number of people in any community are sharp and capable; society would not be possible otherwise.  Libertarians (as I am) do not hold this as true because we say it; we say it because it is true.

(Some number of people in any community are permanently disabled or disadvantaged.  We do not need obligations from them; they need comfort from us.)

For our city, then, we owe ourselves the best of Wisconsin, of America, and of civilized places beyond, for all Whitewater.

Goals.  A community’s future may take diverse ideological hues, of left, right, or center.  That will always matter less than that our  community – each person, individually – is assured the rights of all of America, and all of Wisconsin, for all of Whitewater.

One can see that a community’s fixation on a few key people, stakeholders, or influencers is both childish and destructive.  It’s to the good that this way of thinking slowly wanes in Whitewater: it’s been bad for our politics, and not a single mature & reasonable person will ever miss it.

Those who glory in personality are proud; those who submit to such people are pitiful.

The goal, then, should be rights universally upheld, but the obstacle is bias, partiality, and the overweening entitlement of a few against the many.  It’s to the best, all things being otherwise fair, to balance against power, as Churchill observed of Britain in the nineteenth century: “We have in all occasions been the friend of the second strongest power in Europe and have never yielded ourselves to the strongest power.”

So it should be with commentary: balancing against the conflict-riddled, influence-seeking of a few, who would manipulate politics or economics to their illegitimate ends.

In method, standards, and goals this is decisive: a dogged commitment each day, assuring a better future.




Measuring the Strength of a Position

A good way to measure the strength of a position (considering its quality of being strong, its merit, and its desirability) is to ask: would one trade that position for another one?

If the answer is that one would trade, then there’s something better in an alternative by way of greater heft, reason, or enjoyability. 

If, by contrast, one would not trade one’s present position for another, then at least one might say that his or her position is stronger than the alternatives.

Standing pat is a bet that the future will not prove one’s constancy false. 

Looking at the principal political institutions and factions in Whitewater, there’s not the slightest reason to trade  an independent position for membership in any particular clique. 

On the contrary, looking at the alternatives, there’s every justification and encouragement in making one’s own way, and staying as far as possible from proponents of one sad scheme or another.

It’s not even a close call, truly; it’s an understatement to say that trading would be unnecessary and unjustified.