How Big Averts Bad

If it should be true that small-town Whitewater faces a choice between difficult times now or an extended decline before an out-of-town-led gentrification, that her decline will otherwise be slow but no less signficant as a result, that stakeholder (special interest) politics grips the city, and that this stakeholder politics is really an identity politics that offers no uplift, then what is to be done?

(On identity politics – it’s comfortable for a few, but only in the way that it’s comfortable for a pig to sit in the mud: the animal’s momentary ease won’t forestall a trip to the butcher shop.)

There’s the possibility of restructuring committees and city functions to assure a streamlined – and unified – direction, but the effort presents some legitimate policy questions, and more relevantly would require additional work from some who just don’t want to expend that effort. (Although I share policy doubts about the idea, if I can guess the motivation correctly – and it’s just a guess – I would say that the idea seems born of a desire to motivate the city in a positive direction. One can be opposed to an idea yet sympathetic to a perceived, underlying goal.)

Unfortunately, an alternative to streamlining is even more difficult – far more difficult – to do: the city could undertake a comprehensive review of its entire political culture, setting aside much of the last generation’s approach, in citywide meetings and supporting referendums. (Think of something like a broad-based convention and the resolutions that might come from it.)

Because this approach would require setting aside most of what has been tried ineffectually, and stubborn pride abhors a new course, the likely acceptance of this approach is about the same as convincing wolves to eat broccoli. (They might be persuaded to try some, but they’d be more likely to eat a person’s hand or arm during the effort.)

The scene: Whitewater’s local government advanced a resolution on Citizens United, but the community lacks the unity to advance a series of broad resolutions or votes on reducing local government’s size and thirst for revenue, ending government-goosed business deals, paring back even further zoning restrictions that are still too burdensome, a genuine community relations to replace adversarial enforcement, ending the transparently deceptive practice of publishing cherry-picked data and dodgy studies (a problem for the city, school district, and local campus), rather than honestly presenting the city to all the state not as a paradise but as a work-in-progress that could use every last talented newcomer we could find.

This would be a big project, but the city’s in a spot where, to avoid an extended period of relative decline, Whitewater needs big to avert bad.  The long-term future of this city will yet prove bright, but why delay for many years that better day, for the sake of a few officials’ selfish pride?

Vulnerability of a Restaurant Culture

Whitewater’s publicly-driven marketing may not have amounted to much, these last ten years, but there are few better advertisements for Whitewater than thriving restaurants and taverns. Good restaurants, doing well, are a sign of a successful community.

Some of Whitewater’s newest restaurants also reflect a sensibility that’s significantly more contemporary than older ones that lingered and shuffled along in town for the last generation. Newcomers to the city, especially successful and discerning ones, will notice today good choices that did not exist a decade ago.

One could talk forever about how Whitewater is a great place to ‘live, work, and play,” but no one picks a town because of a tired slogan used too often by too many. No one sensible will choose Whitewater because of what we say, and especially what government, public-relations men, or local notables say about the town.

A sensible man or woman will chose Whitewater based on his or her own direct impressions of how the town appears and what it offers by sight, sound, and taste. Few would buy a house without a walkthrough; equally few will buy a car without a test drive.

All the websites, flyers, commercials, testimonials, etc., are slight when compared with a good meal, in a congenial setting, recommended to one’s friends.

Whitewater talks so much – rightly – about attracting the talented. Good restaurants attract good prospects, people who would help build a hip and prosperous community.

A restaurant culture, however, is a vulnerable and fragile one. It’s hard to run these establishments, and hard to be assured of patrons who, after all, are free to choose one offering – or one city – over another. It’s not so far to other towns that patrons will not go elsewhere, or prospects avoid our city entirely. We are, after all, a people of automobiles, easily able to drive to one place or another (or drive nowhere by dining at home).

One cannot avoid noticing how reduced is our summer traffic, how much smaller the prospects for patronage when campus is out-of-session. No doubt, there are some – including those who rely on a steady public income over private earnings – who would prefer Whitewater were less-trafficked all year long. A steady income from public employment (or a narrow professional clientele), leaves those so happily situated insensitive to the vagaries of the market.

Now, I am not a restaurateur, and I do not experience their daily uncertainties of patronage and opportunity. Nonetheless, like most people, I am able to see that these establishments are often like birds in the winter: they have a narrow margin for movement, lest they deplete their limited, available intake.

Regulatory or enforcement actions that drive those on campus to stay on campus, or to avoid choosing this campus, will leave Whitewater’s establishments with a market far smaller than fifteen-thousand people.

It will reduce Whitewater to a size effectually smaller than nearby towns.

Even a fraction of the total campus population is likely the difference between success or failure for many of Whitewater’s restaurants, including ones that serve (happily, successfully) many long-term patrons who have no connection to the campus.

The lost value to the city from a shift away from patronage at these establishments is far greater than the value of one or two public officials’ contributions. It would be worse than unfortunate if the actions of a public few ruined a thriving restaurant culture for this city. No public official of Whitewater has done more to advance this city’s image and value – not one, ever – than these private establishments do for the city through their own efforts.

We’ve made private gains; they’ll only be preserved and advanced by public restraint.

Marketing Whitewater Over the Last Decade

Yesterday, I mentioned that I would share observations from a longtime resident about marketing efforts on behalf of Whitewater.

First the observations, then my remarks.

….Ten years ago I think all the rhetoric about a perfect Whitewater was meant to set the tone for those already living in and around the town. They wanted to make sure everyone believed the narrative.

The top-tier insiders already understood the game plan, which was mostly to make sure those moving into the area understood that their resources were kindly accepted, but their ideas were not. The idea was to give the impression that the place was perfect, and the perfect management team was already in place, watching over everything, and all newcomers need do was go along, support the status-quo and be happy they had arrived.

Today, I think the campaign is much quieter, and it’s more about attracting new people to the area. Same idea: it’s perfect here; just come. I hear and see less of it though. I think their energy level has decreased over time….

1. I think these observations are, generally, spot on. The more one considers how Whitewater’s insiders craft messages ostensibly for people outside the city, the more evident it becomes that these messages are effectually for people already in the city.

One comes to this conclusion in significant part because messages supposedly intended for newcomers are so awkward, smarmy, or self-serving of town notables that it’s almost impossible to believe local authors could possibly believe newcomers would be persuaded.

Whitewater is beautiful, with so much to recommend to others, but official messaging about the city is under-thought and over-done. It’s as though someone chose particular Hollywood scriptwriters as Whitewater’s public-relations team.

See, along these lines, The Failure of Marketing (and the Marketing of Failure).

2. Whitewater’s town squires – with a few striking exceptions – do look less energetic, and less creative, with each passing year. They’re running out of sham claims. (There are only so many times you can tell people you’ve built a flying car before they’ll stop believing.)

3. To the extent marketing about Whitewater is really about local self-promotion within the city of a few to many others also within the city, then it’s evidence of a myopic political culture.

One needs to look farther, and gazing outward, bring the best that one finds to local discussions. Starting and ending from what one sees close at hand is a less-advanced approach.

That narrow approach is easy, of course, so it suits the lazy, entitled, etc. Most people are very sharp; some, however, become complacent, and thereby underuse their abilities.

Years of prior error mean that even genuine efforts to speak to newcomers will be unpersuasive.

Under these conditions, insiders lose the ability not only to see what outsiders find attractive, but what outsiders find unattractive or embarrassing. This is why insiders are so often startled by outside criticism – they don’t adequately imagine what people outside their small circles think. By the time there’s outside criticism, it’s already too late.

The problem: looking only close at hand produces limited insight, and limited insight leads to looking no farther than close at hand.

Errors of this kind beget more, and perhaps even worse, errors of this kind.

Thereafter, what myopia does not conceal pride will insist is unimportant: one starts with not knowing, and later insists knowing is unimportant.

4. Acknowledging actual problems and flaws is more useful to this city and her residents than all the sugary tales one reads. See, How to Make Whitewater Hip and Prosperous.

This is why, every day, it’s better to begin anew, working hard, and living the life of a dark-horse underdog.

First Vendor Presentation of 1.21.14 to Whitewater’s Common Council

WGTB logo PNG 112x89 Post 8 in a series.

First Vendor Presentation of 1.21.14 to Whitewater Common Council from John Adams on Vimeo.

In this post, I’ll look at the first vendor presentation on the digester proposal to Whitewater’s Common Council.

(Every question in this series has a unique number, assigned chronologically based on when it was asked.  All the questions from When Green Turns Brown can be found in the Question Bin.  Today’s questions begin with No. 60.)

60. City Manager Clapper (Clapper) mentions that one of the vendors presenting, Trane, is working with Whitewater to evaluate energy efficiency as part of a separate project. What happened with Trane’s energy efficiency contract with Whitewater?

61. Wouldn’t how Whitewater’s energy efficiency contract with Trane progressed show (1) what Trane is like as a vendor and (2) how skillful city officials (particularly Clapper) are in evaluating and managing city projects?

62. Clapper mentions that city officials (full-time staff, presumably) and the vendors did not have time to draft an agreement before the 1.21.14 meeting, so the 1.21.14 meeting will be a presentation only (that is, there will be no request to vote on a contract). Does Clapper think that a presentation and vote on the same night without time for later reflection would have been a good practice, had the vendors and city staff produced timely a draft agreement?

63. If Clapper thinks that a presentation and vote on the same night would have been a good practice, then what does that say about the level of diligence his administration (full-time staff) should be required to meet?

64. Wastewater Superintendent Tim Reel (Reel) claims that Whitewater would produce energy by “bringing in and increasing our acceptance of different and variety [sic] of industrial wastes.” What kinds of industrial wastes – by Reel’s account there are different kinds and a variety – would he import into the city from other places?

65. How would Reel’s contention that the city would need to “increase our acceptance” of waste influence the current standards for waste processing at the plant?

66. Reel contends that there would be an energy savings, but he doesn’t say how much. Why not? By his own admission from 12.3.13, there have been multiple meetings (off-camera) by this time, with vendors and a waste hauler. Why no energy estimate, even a loose-fitting one?

67. Reel mentions that there is excess capacity at the city’s existing digesters, as he has previously (12.3.13). Using his own analogy of a digester as like a human digestion system (3.16.15 presentation to Whitewater School Board), if a person’s stomach is half-full, does that compel eating until one’s stomach can hold no more? Even if Reel contends that it does compel engorging oneself, does Reel believe that what one puts into one’s stomach – what foods (or in a digester’s case what wastes) doesn’t matter?

68. How does Reel estimate the value of an idle digester? That is, not as how much, but how he arrives at a particular figure? Did he, himself, produce a figure? If not, who did? What is the analysis underlying that dollar figure?

69. Reel contends that, on behalf of the city, he sent letters to 12 industrial waste providers to see if they would be willing to dump industrial-strength waste into Whitewater’s digester. To which providers did he send that letter? How did he arrive at that list of twelve names?

70. Reel claims that three companies expressed interest in dumping industrial-strength waste into Whitewater’s digester. Which three?

71. Reel claims that although three vendors have expressed interest without a commitment, the volumes that they could dump into Whitewater’s digester could “drive the project.” What would those volumes be? How many trucks would that require, on what schedule?

72. Reel introduces two sets of vendor representatives, three from Trane (“Rachel, Jeff, and Todd”) and two from Black & Veatch (“Steve and Paul”), all on a first-name basis. How well does Reel know them? How much time has he spent with them, particularly those from Trane (as Trane was at this time already in the city working on an ‘energy efficiency’ project)? How often has he met them, and in what settings?

73. Trane advocates a performance contract where the “design team and the construction team are one in the same,” over a traditional designer-contractor partnership. Trane’s representative contends that a performance contract approach means no details will be missed within a unified team. How does he think so (does he believe that one business formation over another assures infallibility)? Can he show that no performance contract has ever failed for want of a detail?

74. What risks can Trane guarantee?

75. Trane wants Whitewater to pay for a feasibility study. Isn’t that simply asking Whitewater to pay for Trane’s cost of a sales (feasibility) presentation? Shouldn’t Trane alone bear the risk of what it can and cannot do for Whitewater? How, if at all, is this different from a baker asking a potential customer to pay for an estimate of whether the baker can bake bread for a would-be patron? Shouldn’t that be a cost that the baker bears?

76. Where is the (completed) Trane study? Did Trane complete the study?

77. Trane contends that Trane would manage and Black & Veatch would build the project. Can Clapper show, himself – with concrete figures – that this performance contract approach with self-selected companies would be superior to a conventional bid process?

78. If Clapper can’t, himself, do so, then how is he fulfilling a duty to manage and protect the city’s financial interest? Does Clapper’s fiscal obligation to Whitewater merely involve relying on what private parties looking for municipal payment tell him?

79. Black & Veatch’s representative lists a project, by his own admission, ten times the size of a likely Whitewater project. How useful does the Black & Veatch representative think that an order-of-magnitude-larger project is to Whitewater? He says that’s the most similar project to Whitewater’s project that his company has. Has he nothing closer? Why not?

80. The Black & Veatch vendor contends that Whitewater might increase its waste by importation to handle in total up to four times (or even eight times) as much “high-strength” waste as it now produces locally.

81. Do Clapper and Reel think that importing into Whitewater multiple times as much waste as we produce locally will have no environmental impact? Why do they think that (that is, what environmental analysis have they done)?

82. Black & Veatch contends that they could “get the plant off the grid” and “sell some excess [power] in addition.” How would they know this, even before a city-paid feasibility study?

83. The Black & Veatch representative admits that among industrial wastes, there are “good wastes and bad wastes to receive.” Who will secure and assure, day in and day out, that Whitewater will receive only “good wastes”? Who will monitor that importation, and how will others see results that are accurate and reliable?

84. Reel mentions that he has a 1.29.14 meeting with a waste hauler. Which one? How did Reel learn of that hauler? Did they meet? Did Reel take notes for that meeting?

85. Black & Veatch’s representative states that “typically tipping fees [paid by those who dump waste into a location] will generate more revenue for the city than for example selling peak power back to the grid.” If so, isn’t this truly less an energy project than a waste dumping project?

86. Reel says that a conservative estimate might be “twenty thousand gallons” for a facility that “would be open 24/7.” How many trucks would that require?

87. Is a large flow of waste haulers’ trucks into Whitewater a reason for the business lobby’s interest in truck traffic in the city? Will each and every member of the business lobby personally stand by waste importation into Whitewater?

88. Why would a hauler as far as Fond du Lac (as a council member mentions apparently from notes) be interested in dumping in Whitewater? Will no one closer take that hauler’s waste? Why won’t anyone closer take it?

89. What does it say about one of Trane’s representatives that he cannot answer a question about the study’s initial cost, but instead relies on a council member to quote that figure to him? Does the vendor representative not know? Is he shy to mention a $70,000 initial cost?

89. Clapper mentions that Reel will be the one who will “ultimately answer” questions about the project. What is Reel’s educational and professional background?

90. Why would City Manager Clapper, as city manager, not assume ultimate responsibility for the information about this project?

Original Council Common Presentation, 1.21.14
Agenda http://www.whitewater-wi.gov/images/stories/agendas/common_council/2014/2014_1-21a__Complete_Council_Packet.pdf (link broken)
Minutes http://www.whitewater-wi.gov/images/stories/minutes/common_council/2014/2014_01-21.pdf
Video https://vimeo.com/86074358

WHEN GREEN TURNS BROWN: Mondays @ 10 AM, here on FREE WHITEWATER.

WEDC Slowly Crumbles

image
WEDC ‘CEO’ Reed Hall Looks Downcast. 
You Would, Too, If You’d Disgraced All Wisconsin Yet Again. 
AP Photo.

On a Friday afternoon, there’s breaking news across Wisconsin. Having rejected free markets in capital, labor, and goods for cronyism and ineffectual manipulation of the economy, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation now slowly crumbles:

Scott Walker calls for elimination of state economic development loans

In the wake of another scathing audit of his flagship job-creation agency, Gov. Scott Walker called on lawmakers Friday to eliminate all loans the agency provides to encourage business development.

He also called for scrapping a proposed $55 million revolving loan fund for the agency included in his budget and using the money for education and worker training programs….

Should one be surprised?  Years of sham economics, lies about progress and development, and of job creation have met their match in audit after audit after audit.  So many of these millions went to the undeserving, bloated friends of insiders. 

To each and every person in this city who touted the work of the WEDC, one can confidently say this: you recklessly abandoned America’s deep tradition of reason and knowledge, and her advanced economic understanding, for hucksterism, for nothing but a low ideology common in banana republics and other degraded places.

If an ape screeched, hooted, and howled along Main Street, on that occasion Whitewater would have heard wiser and more melodious remarks than anything this city’s officials have ever said in defense of the WEDC.

There is much more work to be done, about this agency and in opposition to its unctuous defenders, but today is a good day for reason, learning, and fairness.

Wisconsin on Pace for Most Layoff Notifications Since WEDC Created

WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Now I thought, as it’s what I have heard again, again, and again, that the WEDC was the Laser-Focused Semi-Private Job Creator of Wisconsin™. 

How odd, then, to read that since the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation’s inception, Wisconsin is on pace for more job layoffs than ever. 

What a shock: who would have imagined that the grand claims of cronyism would meet their refutation in actual human experience?

When the first round of WEDC funding hit Whitewater (it’s been many trips to the trough since), one heard how this was to be a grand and astonishing triumph for the city.

It was, instead, what anyone might have guessed: water on sand, negligible and of no benefit to the many thousands of this city. 

The P.R. men, 501(c)(6) big-business lobby, and sycophantic officials who peddle these shoddy goods will keep trying.

It is impossible, nonetheless, that dollops of money preferentially allocated will produce a meaningful, lasting result for Whitewater. 

That’s why I have described these white-collar welfare schemes as an expression of a gutter ideology – they are such, as they are both intellectually, ethically, and in practice inferior to alternative methods of allocation.  (See, along these lines, Local Crony Capitalism via the WEDC (and similar schemes).)

I have every confidence in allocation of capital, goods and labor through free markets. 

However, to be clear, almost any allocation to the poor would be vastly better on moral and practical grounds than a compulsory allocation through taxes to well-fed, avaricious, big-business leaders and their unctuous flacks.

Jobs, jobs, jobs?  Not through the WEDC.

Kidney-Selling as a Threat to the City’s Future

In a city where some have had an unfortunate tendency to favor marketing over actual accomplishments, and where ‘Whitewater Advocacy’ often amounts to the laughable exaggerations of a few insiders, loss of funding poses a double risk. First, communities across the state have to make do with less, and Whitewater (with a public campus) will feel those cuts as much as most places, if not more so.

Second, what’s especially hard for this city is that the desire of officials to appear successful is so strong that they’ll make cuts that look less significant, even if they will bring long-term loss of competitiveness and quality.

In this way, they’re like struggling people who would sell a kidney so long as they could continue to buy fine clothes and a nice tan: what’s outside still looks great, but health and vigor is compromised.

Whitewater’s town fathers are particularly reliant on public money, and even more reliant on the idea that outward appearances are almost everything.

Now I’m not a medical doctor, but I did once see an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, and I recall hearing that people naturally have two kidneys, and that it helps to have at least one. (It really does pay to watch a whole program, leaving the room for snacks only during commercials.)

Whitewater’s leaders would have done well to see that same episode – over and over – until its implications became clear. Not only should organ sales be a last resort, but using those sales to persuade others that one is still healthy is likely to be ineffective. Visitors and newcomers can tell the difference between a healthy person and an ailing one.

(The profound economic confusion in Whitewater’s politics, by the way, reaches so far that some key leaders probably wouldn’t be able to determine correctly whether vital organs were more likely to represent capital or labor. Lincoln knew the answer, almost intuitively it seems.)

Whitewater may hollow out the body in a futile effort to preserve outward appearances, at least for a bit.

No matter: in any event, kidney-selling isn’t a long-term health plan.

The Meaning of Whitewater’s Not-Always-Mentioned Demographics

Our signs say that Whitewater, the city proper, has a population of around fifteen thousand.  We do.

What they don’t say, and what we know but don’t always mention, is that a significant portion of that population is attending the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

So much, when looking at data from the ACS Demographic and Housing Estimates (2013 Table), that the adult population in college is unquestionably the largest cohort by daily activity among all adults in the city. Not every young person in the city attends university, but so great is the group of young men & women that those attending college is the largest vocational group in the city. 

(The city’s median age is 21.9 in the same table.  In nearby Fort Atkinson, it’s 37.9.)

Those many students are vital to the city’s economic life.  There’s not the slightest chance Whitewater would have the same economic prospects without them. 

But if college students are the largest vocational group in the city, their presence means that news, marketing, etc., directed to non-student residents reaches a much smaller part of the city than some wish to admit.

In this city of thousands, many of whom are at school, how far does the influence of our local notables really reach? 

I have a guess that readership of local papers is poor, considering the health of newspapers, generally.  The only way to be certain would be for the local press to release independent, audited circulation figures that had numbers for Whitewater, specifically.  Even then, one would like to know about the age of those readers. 

Print publishers aren’t rushing to discuss those numbers.  One doesn’t have to guess long to conclude correctly why they’re not rushing.

Looking at election results, attendance at public meetings, and the probable circulation of press accounts that herald officials’ accomplishments, the reach of Whitewater’s local notables isn’t very wide. 

Some officials are popular, but others not so much as the pages of the Daily Union would suggest. 

By contrast, there are lots of people in Whitewater interested in city life, including its politics, who are in no way insiders.  They are among the most vibrant residents in the community.  Their numbers dwarf the number of town fathers.

In a city disproportionately young, and with a higher Hispanic population than our census figures state, most meetings skew older and whiter than the city’s averages. 

(There’s nothing wrong with being white; I’ve been white my whole life.  There’s nothing wrong with being older; I’ve been older than the city’s median age for quite a while.  Then again, this blog is the work of just one person, not a city committee or representative sample.) 

Almost no ordinary residents attend local WEDC meetings, CDA meetings, etc. The only way the Community Development Authority could get an ordinary crowd to the Innovation Center would be to change the city’s street signs so that people passing through town would accidentally land at the Tech Park. 

Reaching all Whitewater is a bigger job than reaching what a few wish to describe as Whitewater. 

As Whitewater is changing, those unwilling to see that what worked won’t keep working will find themselves surprised and frustrated. 

The Cold Fusion Problem

In the late 1980s, scientists Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons told the world that they had a device that demonstrated the energy-producing consequences of a nuclear reaction, but at room temperatures.  Since humanity had produced energy from nuclear reactions only at very high temperatures, this sort of fusion would have been cold (and more easily-produced) by comparison. 

As it turned out, no one reputable could duplicate their efforts, and their astounding claim became an astoundingly embarrassing one.  They had been noted scientists, but setting aside the caution that serious inquiry requires, they came to see the false results they undoubtedly hoped to see. 

The natural order, not being impressionable of men’s dreams of fame and glory, was unmoved. 

For Fleishmann and Pons, and those of their ilk, there’s this problem: once one blunders on the scale that they did, it’s hard to recover.  They weren’t any less intelligent or educated the day after others rejected these erroneous claims.  They were the same men, after all.  Still, their claims were thereafter incredible to others.

Recovery from misunderstanding of evidence, however, is difficult.  Recovery from fabricated evidence (a worse act that I do not understand either Fleischmann or Pons to have committed) is more than difficult; it’s almost impossible.

But people want things, want them so very much, for having them and for being seen to have them.  Proper positioning, presenting, marketing, and selling depend on whether one seeks something through clear eyes, honest intentions, and accurate assessments.

Whitewater’s had – and still has – a problem with accurate and honest assessments of data.  For us, at best, one may charitably call it a cold fusion problem.  Occasionally, I’d guess it’s simply fabrication to sell something.

I cannot say why some local men have lived their public lives with a hucksterism so thorough that it’s made them small-town copies of Fleischmann & Pons, if not occasionally worse.  It’s enough to know that they have, and that they’ve a powerful need to carry on that way before their own kind and all the city.

Their way won’t last, of course, but it’s not yet finished, either.  

WEDC’s Development Gurus Fail Again

All Whitewater has heard Chancellor Telfer, City Manager Clapper, and CDA Chairman Knight tout money from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation as though it were manna from Heaven.  We were supposed to see this money as they meant us to see it, as blessing and providence. 

Meanwhile,  each time those officials flacked these public funds, local news outlets drooled over the receipt of this money as though a scientist had rung a buzzer

The agency they’ve touted for their own self-promotion (‘see what gifts we’ve brought you’) is a dishonest failure, taking the money of ordinary taxpayers, giving it mostly to insiders, and then proclaiming that taking as though it were sound policy. 

Yet again, one reads that the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation has failed to keep track of taxpayer-funded loans for another entire year:

After saying repeatedly last year that they had shored up their shaky financial controls, officials at Wisconsin’s flagship jobs agency have disclosed that they again failed to follow state law and track how recipients of state loans and grants were spending tens of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. sent reminders and past-due notices to award recipients in January 2014, but it did not follow up on them until more than a year later, according to a letter written by Hannah Renfro, WEDC’s top lawyer, to its board of directors late last month. The notices said recipients needed to provide schedules prepared by an accountant that detailed their expenditures.

WEDC discovered the delay in December during an internal review, said Mark Maley, a spokesman. The agency’s risk management staff “immediately began investigating to find the root of the problem and involved other staff to create a solution,” Maley said.

The staff presented “preliminary results” to agency management in late January, and 77 past-due notices regarding the expenditures were sent to 67 companies on Feb. 13, Maley said. The value of the loans and grants reflected in those notices was $43.3 million, Maley said….

See, Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. fails to track how companies used incentives: Jobs agency sent past-due notices to 67 companies.

I almost believe that if Messrs. Telfer, Knight, and Clapper had relied on an agency staffed by apes (chimpanzees, let’s say), they would have found partners at least as competent and honest as they ones they’ve found in the men and women of the WEDC. 

For prior posts @ FREE WHITEWATER on the WEDC, here’s a category link.

Two of Three Little Pigs Weren’t Disappointed Because of Insufficient Public Relations

So a pig sits in a house of straw, and a wolf comes by.  The wolf huffs and puffs, and blows the straw house down. 

Not long afterward, a second pig sits in a house of sticks, and the same wolf comes by.  The wolf huffs and puffs, and blows the stick house down. 

What brought this disaster upon Pig 1 and Pig 2? 

Honest to goodness, it wasn’t for lack of a public-relations strategy that their houses fell down. 

It wasn’t because they didn’t have a marketing plan.

It wasn’t even because they lacked an understanding of media relations

Even a child, hearing the tale for the first time, would correctly conclude that Pigs 1 and 2 lived in houses too flimsy to withstand calamity.

From an ordinary child’s understanding of the story, one may conclude two things: first, that children are able to grasp many important lessons even at an early age; second, that some adults, blinded from pride and entitlement, lack even a child’s comprehension.  

Roger Goodell could swing a gig in Wisconsin

Over at Esquire, Ben Collins writes (accurately) about Roger Goodell as “a visual representation of everything wrong with corporate America squeezed into one empty suit made of blood and money.”   See, Roger Goodell, World Class Client of Crisis Communications Experts, Still Needs to Resign.”

Collins can be confident because he saw Goodell’s 9.19.14 news conference. 

Collins wasn’t writing about anyone in Wisconsin, or Walworth County, or Whitewater, but his critique of Commissioner Goodell could apply to more than one official in the Badger State: 

Roger Goodell’s latest trainwreck was a Friday afternoon hour of buckpassing under the increasingly transparent guise of “crisis management.” He littered a 3 p.m. press conference with the same sort of faux MBA talk that has reaffirmed a corporate American culture wherein all problems can be coached away if the bottom line is unaffected….

It would’ve been great, say, five years ago. It might have even passed for leadership….

This is see-through public relations, and the jig is up. Americans can now imagine the board room in which “I GOT IT WRONG: 4X” was scrawled in perfect cursive upon a white board. They know it’s happening, and they know it’s subhuman, and they’re a little appalled by it..

The tired phrases, the tropes, clichés, jargon, argot, buzzwords, etc.: they’ve been used too often, and at the wrong times, to persuade any longer. 

The national press will battle, and likely vanquish, an NFL commissioner who has it coming. 

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, others will do their part against those small, but equally disappointing, closer-at-hand versions of Roger Goodell. 

Video clips —

Roger Goodell spoke for forty-three minutes on Friday:

Keith Olbermann finished him off in six:

In a City of Sixty-Thousand, Fifteen People Aren’t a Sign of Community Enthusiasm

Nearby Janesville is considering a downtown revitalization, and at the most-recent meeting for the large & expensive proposal, only fifteen-people attended. 

The Gazette wrote about the plan with this headline: Last meeting for Janesville’s downtown plan doesn’t reflect ‘widespread championship’ (subscription req’d). 

Well, no, it doesn’t. 

(The online version of the Gazette had a more terse, mainpage description: ‘Last downtown meeting draws 15’.)

When a city government and local newspaper flack for any number of manipulative special interests styling themselves as development agencies (Forward Janesville, Rock County 5.0), ordinary residents lose confidence in both their government and their press.  

When the next big project comes along, having seen that previous projects were cash-grabs for contractors and connected big businesses, ordinary residents sensibly stay away.

The Bad Bet Placed on an Eternal 2004

Some local proposals, in Whitewater or nearby places, look like they were designed by someone from 2004. 

Some in that year assumed that local residents would support public funding for any designated purpose, that claims of job-creation would be swallowed whole, that the press would support those claims relentlessly, that press support would make a difference, and that a community would have one project, one view, and one supportive chorus. 

But it’s not 2004, and it will never be 2004 again.

Ten years ago, at least to a few, there must have been a confidence that 2004 would last forever, so to speak.  This ilk mistook their own imagined 2004 heydays with their communities’ needs. It’s why their statements are shopworn and stale: they’re stuck in their own past.  

Look now, just ten years later: widespread rejection of public-funding for white-collar projects, legitimate scrutiny of jargon about job-creation and economic claims, a press that still flacks but without the ability to persuade more than a declining few, and communities that no longer tolerate shut-up-and-sing orthodoxies. 

Those self-professed movers-and-shakers of that time didn’t think there would be an expiration date on their use of shoddy work, dodgy data, and grandiose pronouncements. 

As it turns out, there is.

It’s this time. 

The ‘Paris Women’ Problem

A benign but drunk man sits in a bar, and the tavern’s waitress keeps ignoring him. He tells fellow patrons that the waitress cannot be from Paris, as she’s claimed, because that’s not how ‘Paris women’ would treat someone.

That’s the scene from part of The Sure Thing, a 1985 film starring John Cusack.

The ‘Paris women’ remark is instructive, for reasons beyond the intoxicated patron’s description of Paris women rather than Parisian (let alone Parisienne) women.  It’s reasonable to conclude that the man doesn’t know much about French culture. 

That’s not so important – there’s no obligation to know particularly about France, or Sweden, or Laos, for example – most people aren’t cultural anthropologists (and shouldn’t be expected to be). 

What’s telling about the scene is that the barfly doesn’t grasp that others – including the audience – realize that he doesn’t actually know much about French culture or the women of Paris

That’s the joke, part funny & part sad – he knows what he thinks he knows, but he can’t see what other people know.

Everyone faces the risk this problem presents, and the way to overcome it is to push beyond situation bias and confirmation bias, to look at arguments and contentions from more than one perspective. 

It’s not enough to look at a problem only as an insider (that is, just one more intoxicated barfly who relies on the ignorance or acceptance of other intoxicated barflies). 

It’s critical to look at problems from a sober outsider’s view, from an American competitive standard and not just an edge-of-the-barstool view. 

Many schemes, plans, claims, contentions, and proposals go wrong when the perspective is merely from the inside.   Proponents find themselves surprised when what seemed so clear after one-too-many drinks meets with a different reception from others beyond that small, sloshed circle. 

That’s the ‘Paris Women’ problem, and how to avoid it.

Forget Selling

Whitewater can do much better than this.

There’s a useful place for sales and marketing in commerce, but they’ve been applied mistakenly and ineffectually to Whitewater’s politics. 

It’s been years and years of selling the town, with every tired expression about being a destination community, exceptional place to live, work, and play, etc.

Those who have pushed this tired approach won’t stop – it’s all they know, some believe it truly works, and some simply want others to believe it works (so as to receive credit for their efforts, however unproductive they truly are). 

For those who believe, there’s a combination of situation and confirmation bias at work: the twin assumptions that where one is, and the like-minded people to whom one speaks, are evidence of universal conditions & acclaim. 

Most of these low-quality sales pitches fail because unctuous pitchmen assume that prospects elsewhere are so gullible or so dim that they’re susceptible to…. low-quality sales pitches.

That’s false: most people are very sharp, and see through yet another stale presentation of exaggerations and distortions.

After these many years, of selling the city, various projects, and now even test scores as though they were miracle products, one would think that Whitewater would be a city of gold: El Dorado on Cravath.

If half of these pitches, claims, contentions, announcements, declarations, and special meetings had been half of what’s been claimed for them, we wouldn’t have had the need for still more pitches, claims, contentions, announcements, declarations, and special meetings. 

A bright, shining exaggeration, so to speak, is still an exaggeration.  The overwhelming majority of people – here and outside the city – know this.  They’re more than able to see through the dull, hackneyed, and inflated. 

We would do much better – for ourselves and our prosperity – to abandon disordered exaggerations for an accurate description of our small city. 

Accurate is not inadequate – on the contrary, it’s the only description worth respecting, beautiful in itself. 

When we embrace straightforward presentations – and one day that will be the only kind we’ll make – Whitewater will achieve truly the prosperity that crude sales pitches cannot provide.

One Reason a Comprehensive Marketing Plan Can’t Work (Now) in Whitewater

There’s talk, about every six months or so, about launching a comprehensive marketing plan for Whitewater.  (This must be version 17.0 by now.) 

I’ll set aside the problem of past efforts at marketing the city dishonestly, as though prospects were too dim to see through blatant exaggerations or omissions about life in town.  (See, The Failure of Marketing (and the Marketing of Failure)). 

There’s another problem: to market the town to good prospects requires presenting it both honestly and differently from the way in which declining town squires insist it must be presented.

Present effectively, and a waning old guard will be alienated or insulted; present as that old guard insists, and few prospects will find the presentation persuasive (or even credible).

Aging insiders would have to set aside their own pride to present Whitewater both honestly and effectively to newcomers.  They’d have to learn new tricks.

Even if they’re able to imagine a campaign that would be effective to outsiders (and that’s doubtful), they’ll never launch it as the content of that effort would undermine years of smug insistence that they’re masters at all this. 

So, here they are: waste money on a futile effort that appeals only to insiders’ pride, or commit to an effective program that abandons insiders’ tired method in favor of an appeal to motivated newcomers.  

It will be nearly impossible for them to overcome their own pride; it would be easier for them to flap their arms and fly. 

‘The Future Writes the History of the Present’

It’s an oft-repeated truism that the future writes the history of the present.

That’s true in Whitewater as much as anywhere.  It is a truth (like the most important truths) apart from both independent present-day commentary and contrasting, mendacious marketing and press-flacking. 

All the marketing in the world cannot shield against this simple question from the future:

Who, did what, for whom, at what cost?

If that should be the question from our future – and it will be – then what shall we say about so many projects now touted? 

That they’re doomed to irrelevancy or scorn; they’ll not be able to answer these simple questions adequately.   

Marketing to sugar-coat the present serves only the present; it has no hope of winning the future. 

There’s a distinction to be made, though, between news and commentary.  In an blog post at the Gazette, VP of News Operations Scott Angus writes that Editor’s views: Despite objections, media must reflect societal changes (subscription req’d).

That’s very true: for news, there’s an inescapable need to be honest about the present.  I don’t write this as a newsman (needless to say), but simply as someone who grew up in a newspaper-reading family. 

That’s no easy spot for Mr. Angus and the Gazette: much is changing, and some readers are surely angry that the paper’s writing about those changes, not simply reporting happy news, or feature stories, etc. 

But if news demands an attention to the actual present, then commentary demands both that present-focus and an eye to the future. 

That’s the Gazette‘s great problem: its editorial position is weak, and its exposition of those positions poor.  An editorial position that involves deal-making among tiny factions will be in disrepute, and error-prone editorial descriptions and analyses will not be able to answer satisfactorily the future’s question, Who, did what, for whom, at what cost?

So there’s the Gazette‘s dilemma: keep the editorial focus it has, bow to present-day demands for bowdlerized news, and lose the future.  Alternatively, they can risk a truly hard slog now, but at the prospect of a more secure future. 

For the risk-adverse, I’d guess, that’s no easy decision. 

There’s a contrast with Whitewater, though.  Reading his work, I’ve no doubt that Mr. Angus sees this choice, sees more than one path. (I have no idea if the Gazette‘s editorialist, Greg Peck, sees any of this.)

Locally, in Whitewater, a waning faction of town squires shows no (outward) understanding of a choice. 

They must know that their marketing efforts over these last several years have amounted to little, all their endless headlines and crowing brought few genuine gains, and that despite representing institutions fueled with millions in taxpayer dollars, they can’t get a crowd – let alone a majority – for their political agenda. 

They’ve no sense, though, of a viable alternative, so they’ll just double their efforts for more of the same, to an audience smaller and less believing with each passing season. 

I don’t know if the Gazette will make a change to answer the future’s questions adequately; Whitewater’s aging town squires simply can’t. 

Structural Limits and Wishful Thinking

If there’s a limit to a fraud (like Enron), it’s not simply because a swindler is discovered; it’s because some swindles (Ponzi schemes, for example) are impossible to sustain everlastingly.

Cleverness doesn’t matter – there are structural limitations that cannot be overcome (only so many people, only so many future victims, only so much money from those victims, etc.). 

Limits apply even for the honest (in fact, they apply more so). 

All people live in conditions of economic scarcity.  Capitalism manages those conditions more productively and efficiently than any command-system alternative, but it does not eliminate them. Humanity has no ability to eliminate conditions of scarcity, properly defined.  (That would be a divine, not human, power.)

About debt, generally, consider these remarks from Michael Pettis (writing with Chinese state-capitalism in mind, but applicable generally):

….Debt always matters. Either it must be repaid out of the proceeds of the investment that was funded by the debt, or – if the debt funded consumption or was misallocated into insufficiently productive investments – it must be repaid by transfers from some other sector of the economy, and these transfers reduce growth by reducing real demand….

And Pettis again, on sound economic predictions:

….Those who worried about rising consumer credit in the US were not wrong every single year until 2007-8, when they accidentally became right. They were right every single year, and were proven right in 2007. Those who have been arguing that China is experiencing an unsustainable increase in debt have not been wrong every quarter that China has not collapsed. They are almost certainly right and it is hard even for the most foolish of bulls any longer to deny it.

An analysis that points to an unsustainable trend is always right if the trend turned out indeed to be unsustainable. The fact that it may have taken many years before the limits were reached is not an indication that the model was wrong. It is simply how the economy works….

In a place like Whitewater, one sees so much talk about the need for marketing plans, how to market the city, etc.  There are few places as small as Whitewater with this much big talk about the need for marketing the community.  

There’s a place for marketing (it’s a legitimate field) but it’s wildly over-used here. (See, along these lines, The Failure of Marketing (and the Marketing of Failure).)  

Mediocre leaders rely on the talk of marketing to conceal their structural failures, or to convince residents that there are no structural limits (and so can be no failures). 

We’ve wasted millions of others’ earnings on empty promises and lies.  We can spend millions more now, too. 

Doubt not, though, that we’ll have to pay it all back, one way or another.