Friday, December 29, 2006

Back to the amendment

In one of her last official acts, outgoing Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager has issued an advisory opinion on whether Art. I, sec. 13 of the Wisconsin Constitution (the newly enacted marriage amendment)prohibits the City of Madison's domestic partner registry or its extension of benefits to the domestic partners of city employees. She concludes that it does not.

I am a bit amused by the certainty of this opinion as opposed to her "who knows" description of the amendment before it was passed, but I think she is absolutely right on the issue of domestic partner benefits.

Madison's domestic partner registry is a closer question but given that the city lacks the authority to create a relationship that is substantially similar to marriage, it too may survive the amendment.

What is troubling about the opinion is her indiscriminate reference to something called "domestic partnerships" - a legal status which does not exist. She writes that "neither the Legislature or the people intended to invalidate domestic partnerships" when they passed the amendment.

Well, yes and no. The question is whether these domestic partnerships are substantially similar to marriage. While the opinion acknowledges that and the troubling passages may just be sloppy draftsmanship, the opinion can be read to imply that the legislature could create a "domestic partner" status that confers "most of the same benefits as marriage" because she has found some opinion polls that found a majority of respondents in favor of that shortly before the election. One could see her arguing that civil unions could be created as long as something that is present in marriage is held back.

In supporting the amendment, I argued that it would not invalidate domestic partner benefits. I still say that today.

But I said then - and now - that the amendment prohibits creating something that amounts to "marriage lite." A status that has some of the attributes of marriage won't be prohibited but one that has "most of them" probably will be.

This is in keeping with the purpose of the amendment, i.e., to preserve the traditional understanding of and norms surrounding marriage. If you create an alternative that is "almost" like marriage but called something else and extended in circumstances in which those traditional understandings and mores will almost certainly be absent or devalued, you threaten the institution of marriage itself, just as it been threatened - and harmed - by relaxed attitudes toward, and (most importantly) legal recognitions of, cohabitation.


I am a bit skeptical of the nascent approval of the use of cloned animals for meat and dairy products. There is an interesting article in the most recent issue of First Things by neurobiologist Maureen Condic. Dr. Condic points out that cloned animals (few of which survive to birth) are almost always genetically abnormal with "multiple genes aberrantly expressed in multiple tissues."

As Dr. Condic points out, this presents huge problems for the posited use of somatic cell nuclear transfer to create cloned human embryos that can then be used to derive stem cells, tissue and perhaps even organs to treat disease. Even if we someday figure out how to clone a human embryo and even if some will turn out normal enough for therapeutic use, how do we tell which ones? She writes "[h]ow normal is this particular cloned embryo, the one we are going to use to generate stem cells to treat this particular patient?"

Given the problems with immune rejection in stem cell based therapies, this is a tsunami of cold water for those who believe that embryonic stem cell research will end disease as we know it, but I wonder if it is not pertinent on the question of cloned meat and dairy products.

The FDA study group seems to acknowledge the high rate of abnormality, but concludes that all should be well as long as "obviously sick and deformed animals were kept out of the food supply ..." It says that clones that survive past the first few days "appear to grow and develop normally" and that healthy adult clones are "virtually indistinguishable" from non-cloned livestock.

Is this right? Are cows that "appear" normal really normal enough to eat? Given the relatively few cloned animals (maybe several hundred in the US) and the fact that they have been kept out of the food supply, how can we know?

I prefer market solutions and I am generally uncomfortable with the hysteria over genetically modified foods, but this seems to present enough of an uncertainty that a labeling requirement might be in order.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Return of the Shark

Milwaukee's Harambee Community School runs an ad on WMCS, a local station geared toward an African-American audience, which notes, among other things, that the school has been "empowering African-American children for over 40 years."

If we played the game of race-flipping, we would ask "can you imagine what would happen if a private school, say Zusammen Community School, ran an ad saying that it had been empowering white children for over 40 years? Can you imagine?

What I don't have to imagine is that the reaction to the Harambee ad - by both blacks and whites - is not the same as it would be to a school that promoted itself as a place for white kids and I don't really need to rehearse all the traditional justifications for it - racism requires power (that blacks do not have); African-American solidarity does not imply a claim of superiority; this is a reaction to years of oppression and so on.

I buy some of this. The ad for Harambee is not the same as the ad for our fictional Zusammen ("together" in German; "harambee" apparently means something like "pull together" in Swahili), but I'm still not sure that it is ok.

To some extent, your position on this (and related matters like affirmative action) may turn on what you think of the rationale for Brown v. Bd. of Education. Was segregation wrong, as Chief Justice Warren suggested, because it harmed black children (implying that segregation that did not do so was ok) or, given our sorry racial past, do we need to completely abjure race as a consideration in the making of decisions of all kinds?

And even if you accept a consequentialist view of Brown, does segregation become less harmful because it is freely chosen. Is it really a good thing for people to choose to live in a subculture?

If you think it's not, does that concern apply to subcultures that are built on things other than race such as religion (e.g., Catholic or evangelical schools) or wealth (e.g., places like University School)?

I have the questions. You get the answers.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Getting it wrong

Solving Milwaukee's nasty crime problem will not be easy. One tactic that is guaranteed not to work is to change the subject. My colleague on Eric Von's Backstory program, Robert Miranda, wants to take the heat off what he refers to as "community phenomena" and makes what may has the merit of being a clear statement of the response to crime of much of the central city's political leadership and the shame of being not only wrong but wrong in a very dangerous way.

Robert says that wrongdoing by the city's police constitutes a "criminal culture far more dangerous to the citizens of this community, and much more difficult to catch."
This tracks the path of many "community" leaders who, quite properly, organized marches in response to the beating of Frank Jude by a pack of off-duty cops and who can't manage a tenth of that energy in response to the antinomian predation on the "community" by some of its "members."

Rogue cops are a huge problem and should be dealt with severely, and I am sure that the notion that the police are the problem gives the tingles to the type of person who sees life as an exercise in Fighting the Power and privileging the Other.

But it requires taking leave of reality.

Robert points out that “since 1990, 84 Milwaukee officers have been fired, and all but two appealed ... Thirteen got their jobs back, 57 lost their appeals and 12 have pending cases.” he thinks that this means there have been "about five criminal cases per year involving Milwaukee police officers in the last 16 years."

The rather evident problem with this is that not all of these cops - or even very many of them - have been dismissed for criminal acts, much less violence against citizens. But, in acknowledgement of the fact that cops - apparently following Michael McGee, Jr.'s advice - "don't snitch", let's take that number and triple it. That would be 15 incidents per year. Too many.

But, in 2005, 6010 violent crimes were reported to the Milwaukee Police Department. It wasn't the Milwaukee Police Department that created Little Beirut and it won't be "no snitchin'" anMichaelal McGee roaming the streets in search of evildoers that will return it to a place where people can live and work. My guess is that the cops will play a rather larger role in that.

The irony of all this is that, while the perpetrators of this crimes may be disproportionately racial minorities (members of "the community" in Robert's parlance), the victims are just as black and hispanic and there are relatively few white people who live in Milwaukee's "no go" zones. It is "the community" that is held hostage to wilding in the streets and it is inexcusable not to demand that this stop.

Of course, I know that Robert and other community leaders want that to happen, but, so often, their responses seem wide of the mark. When I have more time, I'd like to consider why that is so.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Talking out of your a**

The ACLU has spoken out on behalf of a Virgina art teacher who was suspended after students found a YouTube video of him demonstrating his rather unique artistic methodology. Stephen Murmur apparently paints with his derriere. According to an ACLCU press release:

Using the pseudonym Stan Murmur, the art teacher uses parts of his body, painted and pressed on canvas, to recreate flowers, butterflies, and other objects from nature. Some of his paintings are nonrepresentational abstracts that also rely on paint transferred from body parts for their shape and texture.

The video apparently shows him in a thong doing just that. People pay $400-$900 for this ... (no, I don't even want to say it).

If dipping your butt in paint and smearing it on canvas can be considered "speech" (and it probably can), then Murmur may have a case although, under the law as generally applied, it will have to show that the speech pertains to a matter of public concern and it's not clear that pondering just what an imprint of Mr.Murmur's nether region looks like has people up at night. Even if we get past that, the district may discipline him if the expressive activity substantially interferes with his job performance, such as students suggesting that his work is a bit anally retentive or a tad cheeky.

He certainly has a right to do this. He may even have a right to do it and keep his job. What puzzles me is how completely self absorbed one must be to think this is art and how jejune your tastes must be to regard it as interesting.

Do you think he disinfects the stuff before he sells it?

Friday, December 15, 2006

More on McGee

In response to a recent post here on Michael McGee, Jr., Lew Wasserman writes that "McGee (Sr. or Jr.) gives a significant portion of his community what it wants by doing nothing more than appearing to be "sticking it to the man" and that it is naive to underestimate how pervasive this sentiment is among African-Americans."

I hope that I do not underestimate that sentiment, my point is that it is an unfortunate and largely unproductive sentiment. Lat night on Eric Von's show, we got into debate about just that. Robert Miranda, launching into one of his flights of the type of rhetoric that you used to have a find a Black Panther rally to hear, seemed to argue that McGee is the Malcolm to someone's else's Martin in a racial game of good cop/bad cop. Retired UWM professor and former radio host and columnist Dave Berkman, while critical of McGee (largely for his alleged homophobia) suggested that maybe we would someday come to see people like McGee as today's Martin. Eric, always the realist, said that no black politicians seem to be able to get what they want anyway so the efficacy of McGee's tactics are no greater or weaker than those of anyone else.

My point is that, if there are concerns that need to be pressed on behalf of Milwaukee's central city, the behavior of the McGees pretty much gives the rest of us license to ignore it - or at least to do so when he is the one leading the charge. While the McGees would be the first to say that they don't care about what the rest of us think (and would probably put it more colorfully), I'm not sure that's a luxury that an African-American political leader who wishes to accomplish something can afford, at least if he or she is committed to traditional liberal approaches (or some variant on them) to inner city distress.

Those solutions are predicated on the assumption that there needs to be a transfer of resources from those (presumably outside of "the community")who have them to those who do not. This requires engaging the community at large (even by shaming it) rather than convincing them that you are a racist thug who has nothing worthwhile to say about anything. You can celebrate this tweaking of the white establishment as "prophetic advocacy" but it gets exactly nothing done. It might make some of McGee's constituents feel better, but it leaves them as they were before.

Brother Wasserman writes that "I'm not sure, but it is entirely possible that we (all of us) are on the wrong side of the "event horizon" of race relations." I think that's a useful metaphor. I'm not sure how he means it, but I would suggest that we cannot see past the racial script that was written in the sixties. But the thing about an event horizon is that there are things that are happening beyond it and, with respect to questions of race and poverty, there are ways to think about them other than the way we used to in 1969.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Michael McGee Jr., does worse

In a saner political world, we might not react in the same way to Alderman Michael McGee, Jr.'s comment that Leon Todd should be "hung" for supporting the effort to recall McGee. We might be willing to see it as classless, but wouldn't furiously debate whether it is "hate speech." Conservative commentators, like Jessica McBride, point out that, if a conservative said this - say Rick Esenberg wrote that "McGee should be hung, straight up, for betraying the community with his 'no snitching campaign'" - he or she would be accused of racism because of the perceived connection with lynching. Understandably, she thinks McGee, Jr. should get the same heat. Given the rules of the game, I don't blame her.

My own view is that this the political game of "find the gaffe" in which elections and control of the United States Senate can turn on an off-hand comment ("Macaca" = Harry Ried as majority leader) is a dangerous distraction. It focuses debate on what doesn't matter and on what no one really cares about.

Neither McGee nor Esenberg (had he written what he just did) want anyone to be hung (as Jessica pointed out on her show with respect to McGee) and neither meant to invoke lynching. Both are (or would be) engaging in a gauche form of hyperbole.

The thing that I find more unsettling about McGee Jr.'s comments is his assertion that Todd has "betrayed the community" as if opposing the recall is an act of racial solidarity. What is unsettling about this is that it appears that many leaders in the black community believe that - or at least think that a critical mass of their constituents will see supporting the recall as an act of racial betrayal.

What this demonstrates (again) is that, in Milwaukee, racial demagoguery is a winner. The McGees have made a political career out of baiting white people (Badger Blogger has the latest) and, while they have been doing that, they have done exactly nothing for the people they represent.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Ten square miles surrounded by reality

How can you write an article on the discrepancy between median incomes in Madsion and Milwaukee and fail to ask the most obvious question? To what extent is the increasing advantage enjoyed by Madison an artifact of the subsidies it receives from the rest of the state? In other words, to what extent is the difference the result of government employment?

The Journal Sentinel's front page story exploring the huge - and growing - difference in median incomes between Milwaukee and Madison dances around that issue. It acknowledges that Madison is a govenment town, but does not suggest that - or even ask whether - taking money from the rest of the state and spending it within the confines of Dane County in and of itself makes Madison a prosperous place. It may be that the unexamined assumption made in the article, i.e., that the presence of the UW's Madison campus, has fueled all manner of high technology start-ups in Dane County, but you wouldn't know it from reading this piece nor would you have the faintest notion as to how much of Madison's advantage is traced to this private activity as proposed to the public elephant that takes up much of Dane County. We do know, from a prior piece, that the proportion of Madison's workforce drawing a public paycheck is a bit over twice as high as in Milwaukee. We also know that private companies in the Hotline 1000, Forbes 500 or IndustryWorld 500, are disproportionately likely to be located in Milwaukee as opposed to Madison. While these lists might miss bold new start-ups, it is another hint that the public trough may be the source of Madison's prosperity.

That the difference between Madison and Milwaukee has apparently increased could be a result of the "information" economy or it could have something to do with the growth of state government and its relative immunity from the competitive pressures. I don't know the answers, but, at least, I know that these are fairly obvious questions.

Monday, December 11, 2006

A bad Wisconsin Idea

Is it a good idea to offer free tuition to students who promise to stay in Wisconsin for ten years? I find the way in which the the members of a state commission studying the UW system's two year campuses have thrown in with this idea to be astonishing. It strikes me as ill-conceived. Won't it drive some of the best students out of state? Free tuition is a wonderful thing, but it pales in contrast to limiting your life options at 18. Those with larger ambitions are unlikely to bite and, given that the idea will almost certainly raise tuition for those who don't promise to stay put, may be more likely to go out of state.

The premise behind the idea that we lose business because our college graduates don't stay in the state seems flawed. I think it's far more likely that we lose our graduates because of a lack of opportunity here. Forcing those kids to stay will not create opportunitues.

I also suspect that the plan would be riven with enforcement problems. You can't forbid graduates from leaving. What you'd have to do is require them to sign an agreement to pay the state back if they leave. The state would have to chase departng grads around the country and take them to court. It could be done, but something about is just unseemly.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

ISG: Bringing back the Rope-a-dope

I remember an old joke about how an economist would advise a castaway on a deserted island to open a can of peas that had washed onto the beach. "Assume," he would say, "that you have a can opener."

This seems to be the approach of the Iraq Study Group. Are Syria and Iran destabilizing Iraq (the ISG acknowledges that they are)? The solution is for them to stop. Why will they stop? The ISG's answer is, literally, because they should. Is sectarian violence preventing the unification of Iraq? The ISG thinks that those responsible should cut it out or ... we'll leave. In other words, if you don't quit trying to throw me out the door, I'm walking.

It's solution is hard to distinguish from no solution. We should embed more troops with Iraqi units but not send in any more to replace them and to protect the trainers from the sectarian violence which the report acknowledges is currently out of control. We should set deadlines, but there is really nothing in its seventy-nine recommendations that makes it any more likely that they will be met.

John McCain is, I think, right is suggesting that the ISG recommendations would ensure defeat in Iraq. It may be that the ISG has adopted them because it cannot figure out a way to win. If there truly is no path to victory, then maybe Feingold and Murtha are right. We should simply cut and run.

Of course, what Feingold and Murtha will not admit (and the ISG, to its credit, does) is that this will lead to further chaos in the Middle East, bloodshed in Iraq and strengthen the Islamofascists (or, if you prefer, the "terrorists.")But if we're going to bug out, why not minimize American casualties by quitting sooner than later?

This is why the ISG report is likely to satisfy no one. It is an incoherent mash-up. Maybe it is right to surrender. Maybe it is right to press on and win. But it is certainly not right to cover up, take a few more rounds of beating (hoping, I suppose, that our opponent will see the error of his ways) and then throw in the towel.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Eugene and Michael McGee

Sometimes an attempt at of obfuscation through euphemism can be enlightening.

In today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Eugene Kane manages to kill 700 words or so in opposition to Alderman Michael McGee Jr.'s recall without acknowledging any of the reasons that someone would want to remove this guy from office. If I didn't know better, I presume that Kane does not believe that a politician who promotes a policy of "no snitching" in a community wracked by gang violence should be recalled. I'd surmise that he is not in the least bit troubled by the same alderman promoting gatherings of youth (under the misnomer of "cruising") after 2 am in the same community. I'd conclide that he doesn't care if the guy lies under oath, threatens women, uses slurs against persons he believes to be gay, fraudently obtains a second driver's license after the first is suspended, and on and on.

That would be his prerogative.

Or maybe Gene believes that McGee has extraordinary gifts and accomplishments that might warrant overlooking all of this. But it takes a little more heavy lifting than to dismiss his problems as being "nothing more" than becoming a "lightning rod." Kane doesn't quite capture the issue by describing McGee as a guy who is just "dynamic" and "bombastic" with a touch of "controversy" in his "personal" life. I would think that a defense of his record would require more than simply establishing that he is cerifiably "not convicted."

As I've said before (in opposition to many other local conservatives), I think Eugene Kane is a talented writer. He can definitely do better than this. My sense is that, if he really thought McGee "deserved" to remain in office, he would have.

I bet the problems here is not with what Mike McGee deserves, but with what, in Gene's view, ViAnna Jackson hasn't earned. His problem with the recall seem to be that it has not been blessed by the right people (black radio and newspapers) while it has been supported by the wrong ones (conservative talk radio).

I agree that the lack of the involvement of African-American leaders with efforts to rein in McGee is troubling. But the fault is not ViAnna Jackson's. Rather than worry about the interference of an "outsider," I think Kane would do better than consider why the insiders have kept quiet.

A Bleak Midwinter's Pick Me Up

Blogging has pretty much slowed to a standstill here. Maybe I am just mired in post-election lassitude. The Democrats control Congress and my Milwaukee Panthers are, to put it gently, in a (2-7) "rebuilding year." (I thought the Packers were as well, but it now seems to be more of an "imploding year.")There are, all around us, signs and warnings; trials and tribulations.

Still, I'm stirred by some potential good news. In finally rousing himself to face the crisis that isn't in Milwaukee's central city, Mayor Barrett has announced a program that at least suggests that it might avoid the same old deadends of midnight basketball and make-work jobs. That the Safe Streets Milwaukee program will focus on prosecution and faith-based organizations suggests that it may emphasize treatment of the causes (yes, that's what I said) rather than symptoms. Although the left generally talks about getting at the "root causes" of poverty, it begins with the assumption that the two things that cannot be foundational are culture and the lack of public safety. That has been a tragic mistake and maybe we are seeing the beginning of a new way.