Tuesday, September 30, 2008


As immersed in the media as I spend my days, I've heard from about eighty different people over the past week how doomed our nation's economy is. Yet I'm a little alarmed with how frighteningly easy it's been for me to accept this.

There's no question that this past week has been bad for our nation, and not just one group either. Throughout the strata of society, everybody's getting hurt by this unfolding economic disaster. Workers are getting laid off, budgets that were once tight are now broken, families are losing their homes and homes are losing their worth.

But none of that is anything new: this pending recession, if that is indeed what it is, has been building up a head of steam for a couple years now.

What's new is that for the first time, the people at the very top are feeling the hurt, and they're showing their true colors. Unlike the level-headed people in middle America, who have uncomplainingly tightened up their belts, gritted their teeth and settled in for the long haul, America's rich and prosperous are panicking, yelling and screaming at the prospect of economic doom. And after years of telling those less fortunate to pull themselves up "by their bootstraps," of explaining to jobless workers their termination was the result of "the market correcting itself," of mocking and despising anyone so selfish as to "neglect their personal responsibility" and "leech off welfare," it only took the span of a week for them to do the unthinkable.

They're begging for the federal government to intervene, and I wish them the best of luck in cramming it.

That's right, it's a bloated bureaucracy that eats tax dollars and shits unnecessary regulation, and it certainly can't be trusted to administer a system that would guarantee free health care to every United States citizen, but darn it, the federal government is good enough to shell out $700 billion to "ease investors' confidence" after the Dow drops 7 percent in a day.

When I had to replace a failing wheel bearing on my car last winter to ensure I could make it to work, it cost me about 33 percent of the liquid assets I had on hand at the time. I didn't need the federal government to hold my hand and tell me it was going to be all right.

My Dad taught me an important lesson when I was young... just old enough to get into a casino on international waters, in fact. As I bellied up to a blackjack table for the first time, he told me, "You never gamble with money you can't afford to lose."

When you stack those chips on the felt, you have to divorce yourself from the notion that they represent money that belongs to you. They're a part of the game, numbers in a formula you only control part of. A wise gambler accepts that the chips could come back unscathed, they could mutiply or they could disappear entirely, and strives only to manipulate his or her part of the formula as best he or she can.

And what is the stock market, after all, but an exceedingly complex game without the element of pure chance, controlled only by the whims of its millions of players, each of whom control a small part of that formula? And right now, most of them are getting cleaned out because a great number of them have been exceedingly irresponsible.

Predatory loans, adjustable rate mortgages -- even payday financing. These are some of the threads the credit industry used to build a web, the design of which was to ensnare the less fortunate, foolish and desperate and profit from them. The motive was greed, simple greed, and now, it seems, the credit industry has used those threads to spin a sizable noose on which to hang itself.

What's the bigger tragedy here: the wave of defaulted loans that has welled up to beat against the institution of Wall Street, or the thousands of borrowers who drowned in bankruptcy to form that wave?

As a result of those defaulted loans, banks like Fannie, Freddie, Citigroup and JP Morgan all have millions in unpaid debt hindering their ability to grant more loans and thus make enough money to cover their debt. They want the federal government to step in and shoulder that debt for them, to bail them out as George W. Bush first said they never would.

I've got ten-and-a-half grand in student loans hanging around my neck like a millstone. A year ago, that was about twelve grand. I could certainly become a more active contributer to the economy if the government were to bail me out of that debt, but instead, I keep my nose to the grindstone, my back to the yoke, working my way out one payment at a time.

And I'm one of the lucky ones in America. I was able to count on my parents for some support in college, and I was also able to find the time to work two jobs throughout most of my schooling. I don't owe anything in credit card debt. The average student graduates with a bachelor's degree and $19,237 in debt. The average American carries a balance of $1,673 on their credit cards.

Most of them aren't screaming, crying and begging for help, but if they were, you can rest assured the biggest proponents of a Wall Street bailout would tell them to stick it.

I'm not so naive or blinded by schadenfreude as to think the bloodbath on Wall Street won't affect me. It's certainly taking its toll on people I care about -- my parents, my grandparents and my co-workers are all hurting, and badly. But with steady employment, little savings, some debt, no investments and no immediate need of a loan, I'm in the unique position to weather economic hardship.

That doesn't mean I have any plans to sit back and laugh at the expense of everyone else who's watching their soundly well-laid plans crumble in front of their eyes. Unlike those who champion the cause of an "unhindered, unregulated free market," I believe that society as a whole needs to pull together to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people. As UW Sociology Professor and director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy Joel Rogers is fond of saying, "The markets are useful tools, but they make terrible gods."

So if I'm expected to pony up and pay my share (which is $2,300) for a $700 billion economic bailout package, which I'll never see but my grandchildren will still be paying for someday, I want a few guarantees. I feel Wisconsin Senator and all-around BAMF Russ Feingold, as usual, is spot on in what would begin to constitute a fair bailout package.

That is, of course, assuming a bailout package is needed. I'm still not convinced we shouldn't just let these firms go bankrupt, watch the market tumble, then build itself back up. I was fairly certain that was the way capitalism was supposed to work.

So if we must bail, Wall Street, which stands to benefit most from the package, should shoulder the majority of the burden. The package needs to help the families who are suffering in the midst of the housing crisis, not just the financial overlords that helped them get there, because trickle down economics is bullshit -- if anything, the current market condition proves the middle class's economic woes have trickled up. And the package needs to be more than just a blank check: it needs to include oversight, regulation and serious penalties for the people who gamble with our nation's future to ensure this doesn't happen again, because this has to be the LAST time it happens.

Also, I'd like it if we made the potential recipients of this cash crawl naked across a sandbox full of broken glass and rusty nails, but Sen. Feingold did not include that in his recommendations. I'm sure that was just an oversight on his part.

And whether the bailout works or not, be it officially decreed that no Republican is ever allowed to tout the value of deregulation ever again. The last eight years of financial deregulation are what has led us to this point, and without a fundamental change in the way government interacts with business, we're doomed to repeat it.


We got an unfortunately-worded press release at work today. The story itself is sad, but the first sentence on the release is written in a way that should at least make those with a healthy appreciation for the absurd look twice.

It reads:

"Chief Scott McElroy and the Evansville Police Department regret to announce the death of Lieutenant Arthur Phillips as a result of natural causes."


My thoughts and prayers are with the family of Lt. Phillips, but I'm sure their grief would not be lessened if his death had been of something other than natural causes.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

She's Got My Vote

Here's proof that the dregs are what rise to the top of American politics. Why haven't I ever heard of of Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur before, and why didn't she run in the Democratic presidential primary?

What's really great is that I found this clip on Brian Clevinger's nuklearpower.com... An online comic strip I read regularly to help me forget how depressing it is to be an American these days.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Listening Pleasure

I discussed my displeasure with Attorney General JB Van Hollen's staffers this afternoon on Sly's Midday Maverick program, although the deeper I get into it, the more amused I am. I haven't gotten permission to cite the story yet, but I have a friend who is a producer for a certain morning program that airs out of Madison, and she says Van Hollen's handlers had him on a tight bridle there as well.

I guess the lesson we should all take away from this is it's not the politicians we need to fear -- it's their staffers.

Anyway, I pulled a quick clip from my conversation with Sly, which also includes the original clip of the question that crossed the line when I was talking with Van Hollen. Seeing as I'm probably on their blacklist for a while, and I can deal with that, here it is for your listening pleasure.

And for the record, Stensberg, my name is not Justin... It's Dustin, or Dusty, or DeeDubs, and I've even been known to answer to D-Bag. But not Justin.

Take Action, Take Names

And hey, while we're on the subject of shady election proceedings, Madison blogger Emily Mills is abreast of all the latest with those fake absentee ballots and other general unpleasantness. If you've gotten one, or you want to force the election fraud task force to examine itself, or if you want to depress your friends with the declining state of politics in our state the next time you're at the bar, go forth, now, and read up.

Now that I have my internets back, I should have another post up tonight. The last couple of internet-free weeks have been rife with material.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Monopolizing J. B.

When I took my first journalism class at the UW, I was told a good reporter is someone who's inquisitive, tenacious and fearless. Apparently, the good folks in Wisconsin Attorney General J. B. Van Hollen's office tend to disagree.

I was one iota of self control from either blowing my top or bursting out laughing this afternoon after Van Hollen's scheduler, Dean Stensberg, yelled at me over the phone. No -- he didn't just yell at me over the phone. He specifically called me up to yell at me over the phone. It had all the potential to either make my day or send me into an apoplectic rage.

It is neither the first nor will it be the last time a government official gets short with me, but I will relate the tale anyway, because I think it speaks to the decaying transparency in our government.

At the very top of my stack of assignments for today was a pretty simple piece off the AP about the Top Ten Consumer Complaints list put together by the National Association of Attorneys General labelled, simply, "Find Out More." It looked like a big, fat, slow pitch over the plate, but I decided to make things tougher on myself and develop a theory to go with it -- namely, that the economy was to blame (Okay, blaming the economy is like shooting corn feed in a barrel, but the numbers add up. Debt collection becomes the number one complaint, investment issues appears out of nowhere and home construction complaints fall two slots? "It's the economy, stupid.")

The next step was simple: call Glen Lloyd, the Wisconsin Trade and Consumer Protection answer guru. Glen answered promptly -- I don't think he's ever taken even a lunch break -- but referred me to his boss the attorney general's office. He said he was willing to weigh in, but I might get better depth if I talked to an Attorney General's spokesman first.

I had a source to fall back on if needed, so I figured I'd shoot for an interview with Van Hollen himself rather than one of the spokesthings. I put in my call and got patiently in line, as the man had something of an eventful afternoon on his plate as it was.

While I was waiting for my call back, word came down that Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi ruled to allow Van Hollen to continue his lawsuit against the State Elections Board, in spite of the fact that his office is representing them in two other pending cases. Even though it seems counterintuitive, this is in fact allowed under state law. The attorney general's office features an entire cadre of lawyers, and by shifting them around, they can prevent any one from having a conflict of interest.

Not that Van Hollen's lawsuit makes a lick of sense, anyway. The Help America Vote Act took effect in 2006, the same year Van Hollen was elected as Wisconsin's AG. By the time he took office, HAVA had been in effect for a full year, and Wisconsin wasn't yet in compliance. He could have filed a lawsuit to force the issue then, when there was time for the case to run its course and the state elections board to sort their gremlins out.

Instead, the election is 40 days away and one out of every five names the SEB feeds through its machine comes back as inelligible. Van Hollen wants to add a component to the well-oiled machine that is the Wisconsin election process, and he wants to do it by beating it with a wrench until sparks fly out.

Van Hollen himself would take issue with my calling it a well-oiled machine. He's convinced there are felons and rapists sitting in seedy bars RIGHT NOW laying their plans to vote eight times in each district between here and Green Bay. He certainly doesn't seem to grasp that criminals have more ambitious plans than sneaking an extra vote in for their favorite candidate (if they're even aware there's an election), and citizens inclined to vote value the right too much to abuse it.

In a state with the motto of "Forward," having a system that does as little as possible to hinder a motivated citizen from voting is something we ought to be proud of. And humorously enough, days after Van Hollen announced his lawsuit to "fix" our system, the nonpartisan citizens' rights group Common Cause released a study saying Wisconsin has one of the most un-broken systems in the country.

Keep in mind, none of this is what motivated me to do what I did this afternoon. I saw the story about the results from the lawsuit hearing, and my reporter's curiosity (and a lazy desire to have one fewer call to make during the workday tomorrow) piqued. I decided to get some reaction from Van Hollen on the results of the hearing.

When I got him on the phone this afternoon, I moved through the interview quickly. Five minutes, and I had the fluff piece in the bag. So I asked him, politely, if he had time to fill me in on the latest with the elections board lawsuit, and he agreed, politely. I learned a lot I wouldn't have learned otherwise, and in another five minutes, I had a much better grasp on the whole story than I had previously.

Was it fair to ask him to react to the Common Cause report? I think so. It's not like I'm going to hurt the attorney general's feelings by calling into question his policy decisions. The guy used to eat defense attorneys for breakfast, for Chrissake, and it's a valid point of concern for any Wisconsin citizen.

Along those same lines, I was also apparently the first person to broach the subject with Van Hollen. He said he hadn't seen the study, so I filled him in and got a pretty standard response.

"Wisconsin's probably the easiest state to vote in in the nation," Van Hollen said, "and if that's what their standard is, it probably is number one. If their standard is it has the most accurate voting process and the least rife with fraud, we would probably be on the other end of that list."

I made to push the point further, to get beyond the talking point, when the aforementioned scheduler, Dean Stensberg, cut in abruptly on the line, saying they had to "move him along here."

No surprise there. Van Hollen was dealing with a holding pattern of other reporters who wanted to get some comment on the day's proceedings, and he clearly wasn't happy with the direction the conversation had turned. I was a little miffed when I hung up the headphones, but Stensberg's response wasn't anythiong out of the ordinary.

I got up, stretched, and walked across the room to cross the story off the white board. The phone rang. I grabbed it at the anchor desk, away from my notepad unfortunately, because I wish I could have taken better notes.

It was Stensberg again, and he proceeded to berate me for the next five minutes. I managed to jot a couple of notes, but the exchange that sticks out the most clearly in my mind was right off the bat.

"I don't know how long you've been doing this," Stensberg fumed, "but--"

I cut him off, expecting him to accuse me of 'ambushing' Van Hollen. "Doing what?"

"I don't know how long you've been in radio," he continued, clearly picking his words, "but we have a way we do things here."

He began to lecture me on the gross injustice just committed -- "I got him on the phone for you to interview on one subject, and come back to find you talking about something completely different." -- and I bit back a number of retorts that quickly flashed from my gut to my mouth.

While blurting out "I don't know how long you've had that rack of flag lapel pins crammed up your ass, but I've been in radio long enough to know a prick when I deal with one" is cathartic later on at the bar, it would not have helped my situation at the time.

I can understand the scheduling concerns Stensberg has to deal with, but he attacked me like I was monopolizing Van Hollen's time. When I stopped the recording, the final timecode read 12:28, part of which was the initial set up where I was on the line with Stensberg. If that was an inappropriate amount of time to go through what's clearly a complicated issue, they ought to rethink the way they deal with the press.

So rather, what got Stensberg's goat was something much more insidious, something that I as a member of the ruthless media ought never have dared to do: I asked a hard question.

We have a way we do things here? You mean, like, you screen the questions before they get to the attorney general so there aren't any unpleasant surprises? That must be "that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found" the UW Board of Regents was so keen on that made it onto that plaque, right?

None of this surprised me, none of it is anything I haven't dealt with from politicians and their cronies before. I've been working as a reporter for over three years now, been in radio for six. But if there ever comes a day when this kind of thing doesn't enrage me, I'll know I've been broken.

Not only was Stensberg's tirade unwarranted and unprofessional, it was un-American. If the message I was supposed to take away from the phone call was "fall in line," my response is "learn your place." The voters elected Van Hollen into office (myself among them -- I liked what he wanted to do with the state's crime lab, and I'm pleased with the results so far), the taxpayers pay Stensberg's salary, and their professional responsibility ought to come with a dutiful sense of humility.

You serve the public, at the whim of the public, and when the public has some pretty serious questions about some pretty pivotal issues, you'd best be prepared to answer them.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

the Highly Visible Ex

This may be simultaneously the first and last time you'll ever read me quoting a mainstream rapper, but the shoe fits. As Jay-Z once spat and frat parties the world over played on repeat, "I've got ninety-nine problems but a bitch ain't one."

Unfortunately, the rest of Packers nation and I share one problem in common, and he goes by the name of Brett Favre. And I can't escape the feeling that, no matter how well or how poorly the Green Bay Packers and the New York Jets play this season, he's going to be impossible to ignore.

If I may digress for just a moment. I'm well aware of how sad it is that I get worked up about a game and the affairs of the game's players. I was raised a Packerholic, and I made peace a long time ago with the fact that one of my myriad vices would be a near-obsession with the well-being of my team and its turf-warriors.

It was a combination of force of will and a busy schedule that kept me from commenting on the Favre saga as it unfolded in August. Would they reinstate him, would they release him, would they hold him in limbo? These questions kept me up at night, and I became notably agitated by my displeasure with the way Brett Favre himself, but especially, the Packers management handled the situation.

But even though the end was ugly, it was an end...it was over. The Packers traded an unhappy Favre to the Ney York Jets and I put it out of my mind throughout the preseason and moved on with life. Or so I thought.

I was calling around, trying to get some guys together to huck a Frisbee around at James Madison on Sunday, and flipping through the channels on the TV almost without thinking about it, when there he was: Brett Favre, our ex-quarterback after sixteen magical years, playing in another team's uniform. The phone dropped out of my hand and my mouth hung agape.

It was worse than a slap to the face.

Seriously, the most analogous comparison I can draw to my reaction at that precise moment was the whiplash feeling of seeing an ex-girlfriend from across the bar with another guy. Instantly, irrationally, I was overwhelmed with jealousy. I found myself thinking ridiculous thoughts, like what I could do to win Favre back.

I don't think I was alone in this reaction. After all, Madison's Channel 3 went out of its way to pick up all the New York Jets games for the coming season, so there must be a sizeable number of television viewers who are likewise unable to let Favre go.

But the longer I watched that game, the more the ex analogy seemed to stick. I found myself reminiscing back to the times when Favre wore a green-and-gold uniform. Sure, there were some rough patches, but for the most part they were some of the best years the franchise has ever had. I even found myself wondering if the fans in New York would be as passionate about Favre as the fans in Green Bay, or if Favre could ever really be happy there.

It was something of a relief when the game ended, and I DID get as excited as I ever had on opening day Monday. My agitation doubled as I sat through the first half of a Madison School Board meeting I was assigned to cover that ran simultaneous with the first half of the football game, and I literally sprinted out the doors of the Doyle Administration building to turn on the radio and find out the Packers were leading.

When I got back to the office, I snapped on the TV and relished in seeing my Packers, maybe not thriving, but, getting by under the leadership of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. They went on to eek out their fierce division rival Minnesota Vikings, which made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but I couldn't help but notice the Monday Night Football crew making regular comparisons between Rodgers's and Favre's performances all throughout the game.

This bothered a lot of fans. We took some calls at the radio station today from folks who say they tired of it immediately, but I'm fairly certain they're just in extreme denial. Let's face it, any Packers fan worth his or her salt is going to be tallying Rodgers and Favre's touchdown throws versus interceptions all season long, celebrating if Rodgers excels and mourning if Favre turns out to have been the better choice. For the commentators to ignore it would simply be silly.

It's kind of like the process anyone goes through with the first hook-up after a nasty break-up. Each of us finds things we prefer about the new significant other, if we're lucky, but of course there are always things the ex did better.

I've made my peace with it all. I'm excited to see what Rodgers can do with the team, and I'm happy for Favre and the success he's finding in New York.

The problem is, now that I've begun looking at the situation with Favre in the ex-girlfriend light, I'm unable to stop thinking that way. I find it a little alarming, and I hope to be able to shake it in fairly short order...because having Aaron Rodgers as the Packers starting quarterback is scary enough without having to think of him as a "rebound lay."

And it doesn't help matters that Packers fans are going to be seeing this same ex at this same bar for the next seventeen weeks...at least.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Beginning of the End

So this is it. After a week in the Canadian northwoods girding my loins (it's a messy process, don't ask) for election season, we're off and sprinting here in Madison. I've got to say, I still get goosebumps whenever election time rolls around in Madison. This is a city that gets fired up about its politics, something I starved for growing up where I did.

In the next two months, I'll be working a LOT, especially if the race in Wisconsin is as close once again as they're saying it's going to be. Wisconsin went to Al Gore and John Kerry by 10,000 votes or less in 2000 and 2004, and John McCain has really closed the lead Barack Obama had going into the summer.

In 2004, Kerry supporters (myself, while hesitantly, among them) felt certain the race was in the bag. After all, the country was already halfway into the rut we're in now, so who in their right mind could justify another four years of the same?

Turns out, a lot of people. It's still easy to villify people who voted for George W. Bush that year, to say, "51 percent of America is idiots" and "the United States of Jesusland strikes again," but that could prove to be a dangerous mistake going into the final push of the 2008 election.

At his rally on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard today, Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean made an appeal to a small crowd of mostly UW students. Flanked by local celebu-ticians Mayor Dave Cieslewicz and County Executive Kathleen Falk, he told them his generation, the crowd's (and my) parents' generation, had a fine thing going in the late sixties and early seventies, until they got jobs and had kids.

"The mistake we made was we let ourselves get out of politics for a while," Dean said, and I think he has a point.

My mom was a hippie. She won't tell many stories about it anymore, but I've seen pictures. My dad was a rebel in his own way, and then served a term on the Monroe School Board back in the day. But from the narrow point-of-view I held of them as a kid living in their house, I never viewed either of them as political animals.

After all, I was the one listening to politically-charged punk rock and getting into shouting matches in the middle of high school classes over whether invading Iraq was a sensible decision. They were busy putting clothes on my back and food in my mouth, for some reason.

But since I graduated high school, my parents have become noticeably more active in politics. I'm certain that it has as much to do with the declining state of our country as it does with their decreasing parental responsibilities as their kids get older. The last four years it's been especially pronounced, particularly since last winter when the build-up to the Presidential election began.

My Mom made it to Barack Obama's speech at the Kohl Center in February, and it was a thrill to see her as excited as I was about it.

So I do think the sixties generation is more pissed off and paying more attention than they were four years ago, but that's only half the battle. The big purpose of Dean's visit to Madison today was to kick off Wisconsin's voter registration drive.

"It's not just about you going to vote," Dean told the crowd. "You need to go out and register other people to vote, and get them to the polls."

But I disagree, I think that's still not doing enough, and it all gets back to that 51% who voted for George Bush in 2004. I know that 51%. I've spoken with them when I was growing up in Monroe, or working for the newspaper in Portage. They're smart, hard-working people, they just haven't had the time to do their own research, and every source they've ever listened to is still telling them the same thing they've based their decisions on for years: "The Democrats are going to break you with taxes, rip the fetuses out of your women, sieze your guns and force you to get married to a gay partner."

What they hear on the news won't change their minds. Statistics won't change their minds. And if someone shows up at their door wearing an Obama '08 tee-shirt, they'll pull down the blinds and act like no one's home.

The only way to speak to these people, the REAL voters of the American heartland, is to do just that... speak to them. Not as a politician, not as a news man, not as a political activist, but as another person. From as non-confrontational a stance as possible, it is possible to explain the facts to these people: to tell them the policies of the past eight years have left them penniless and benfitted the top crux of American society; that in spite of what old men on fishing trips say, Canadians really are happier with their health care system than we are in America; and that the Republican Party has thrived by convincing blue-collar working people they're going to bat for them, while backing corporate interests.

But no one's figured out how to do that en masse yet, because it's a slow, face-to-face job, and it requires political activists to leave the safe confines of their peers and delve into age and class groups they wouldn't normally interact with. As a UW student, I was bombarded with people who were happy to show me the way to the polls and how to register, but how many of those volunteers ever set foot in a town like Monroe or Portage? Or Rio or Cambria or Juda or Brodhead or Argyle or Evansville or Lodi or Cross Plains or Jefferson or Fort Atkinson?

That's where there are people who stand to make a difference, if they hear the message from someone with the right intentions, someone who can break them out of the voting rut that was handed down to them from three generations ago. And Obama supporters need to figure out how to reach these people, and fast, because as Dean said today, we only get one shot at 2008.

"Don't blow it," he said, and he's right. This is the chance to get a real, respectable leader into the highest office in America, at a time when our nation sorely needs it. It's the kind of chance that comes along maybe twice in a lifetime, and the way things have been lately, it could be our last shot ever if we don't do it right this time.