find a way: an open letter to milwaukee and wisconsin on the milwaukee bucks arena

On Thursday, 4 June, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker held a presentation in Madison. Flanked by fellow politicians and Milwaukee leaders, Walker stated the case in partnering to get a deal done with the Milwaukee Bucks to build a new arena. This morning, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published an editorial stating their cautious endorsement of making this development a reality.

I agree with the editorial staff: the details should merit strong scrutiny. I also agree that, if the details bear weight, this is a deal that needs to get done.

Predictably, the comments to that editorial are filled with reflexive and reptilian polemicist claptrap. Rather than respond there, I choose to respond here.

First, with this kind of opportunity, no one in their right mind leaves that much private money on the table. Former Bucks owner and US Senator Herb Kohl, and current principal owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry have pledged $250 million of their own wealth. Kohl and Edens/Lasry are putting up a considerable amount of their considerable wealth to make this happen. That’s not only noble, but a good faith gesture to the region and state. If you have half the cost of anything–a house, a car, a business–in place, you find a way to punch that deal through. By comparison, this is a much better deal for the city and state than Miller Park ever was.

(The ESPN/AP report’s headline is misleading: taxpayers may be responsible for up to half of the cost, should there be delays or cost overruns. The $500M figure, as I understand it, includes contingencies. There is public precedent for doing this kind of thing the right way; thousands of cars drive it every day. Another major public project, the reconstruction of I-94 and the Marquette Interchange in Milwaukee, was completed early and under budget, one of a scant few praises anyone should have for former governor Bingo Jim Doyle.)

Also, it merits mentioning that no one found it grundy-inducing for the Green Bay Packers to do extensive expansion and renovations to Lambeau Field on the public dime twice. What are the Packers, or the Milwaukee Brewers, that the Bucks aren’t?

Second, fully publicly financed stadiums and arenas have overwhelmingly been a poor ROI, I will concede that point. Private-public partnerships, though, have not been such a dramatic boondoggle on the whole, partially because of the built-in accountability that tends to come from direct oversight in a healthy business. Current Bucks ownership has streamlined and modernized the business and gone to considerable lengths in their pilot year to be good corporate citizens. There is no reason to think they would not be good stewards of this project as well.

Third, by keeping the Bucks, an unquestionably ascendant NBA team, it guarantees a continued draw of interest, bodies and money to Milwaukee, keeps a percentage of wealth in Wisconsin to be spent in Wisconsin, generating tax revenues to be used to support the community and state as a whole and, coincidentally, help retire the Miller Park tax/debt. This is as opposed to high-speed rail, which only facilitates travel en route from to B. A midpoint is not a destination, and if California’s rail debacle is any indication…well, let’s just try to avoid being like California government in any way, shape or form.

Finally, the model new developments such as this are following is Kansas City’s Sprint Center, which not only has assisted revitalizing KC’s downtown, but has regularly turned a profit (independent economic impact report available here, and yes, that is independent) for the city and stakeholders, all without a full-time tenant in the arena. The criticisms of these reports are your garden variety fallacies: question begging and poisoning the well. One gets the sense that as soon as Walker came on board, others jumped off, which is as short-sighted as it is foolish.

People are free and welcome to disagree with me on this; it is my hope that their reasons are offered in good faith and are worthy of the kinds of scrutiny the Bucks arena deal will be getting in upcoming days and weeks. I should be clear, again, that if there are problems with the agreement, I agree it must go back to the drawing board. Frankly, in an admittedly cursory review of the plan, I don’t see any.

After clearing those hurdles, though, it has to be a green light. A Good Land Green light.

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an accidental feminist: a note of appreciation for the women in my life

My family isn’t exactly what one would call a bastion of progressive or liberal ideology. In fact, quite the opposite: much of my family is firmly planted on the right of the political spectrum fiction. And you would be hard-pressed to find people who are more caring, compassionate, respectful, generous or even-handed. Politics has divided us, and not for the better: people of good will can be found anywhere, and we will be a better society when we stop shovel-feeding ourselves preferred narratives, tell the politicians to shove it and realize that there is a reality that very much exists without our assorted grievances being rubbed raw all the time.

That said, it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that our red-meat-potatoes-and-America family was decidedly feminist. And thus feminism isn’t a left- or right- wing proposition, but a human one. To reduce it, like so many other matters co-opted by activists and power players, to politics undermines everything that feminism–generally speaking, the idea that women and men ought to be on equal footing–stands for, namely, the provision of identity to people who historically have gone without. I would go on to suggest that identity politics is detrimental to respective causes, but that would be another conversation for another day.

As Mother’s Day approaches, I want to recognize a few of the women who were and are examples par excellence to me growing up, and who, wittingly or otherwise, made me an accidental feminist.

Growing up, I always looked forward to visits from my aunts Susie and Elaine. For many years, my father’s oldest and next-youngest sister lived with my grandmother in Milwaukee, and continue to do so in the exburbs. It never occurred to me that they were never married–Susie married later, long after her career at one of the largest banks in Wisconsin ended–they were always their own people, career women whose strength of personality left no doubt in my mind that they were their own people in their own right. Susie, the reigning family queen of the one-liner, taught me the power of humor and her sense of practical sense and savvy rubbed off on me by osmosis. When I was older and in college, I would spend days at their home, talking with her from morning late into the night about just about anything.

Elaine taught me the power of compassion and hope. An intensely religious person–my family is all pretty much devout Protestant and Evangelical Christians–her faith and love continue to speak volumes to me. Physical maladies have ravaged her body, but her spirit is strong and she doesn’t allow anyone to feel sorry for her. My aunt Nancy may have never officially entered the ministry, but to think of my uncle in the ministry without her presence and involvement is absurd. Her wit and grace, kindness and bedrock support to her family and the extended family–including friends who might as well be family–have been evident and enviable throughout the years.

Growing up in a family that was a clear partnership, and being surrounded by family that treated each person as a person, the idea of sexism was alien to me: why should women be treated differently from men? They were full participants in their lives and didn’t take crap from anybody. The women in my life were strong, confident, successful people. So, when I realized that there was a world around me that didn’t match the experience or perspective I had growing up–including an implicit sexism and departure from original views in the Christian denomination in which I was raised–I guess that’s when I realized I was a feminist, which isn’t necessarily feminist as much as it is pro-humans-be-treated-as-humans, which I suppose is a way to describe what feminism is at its essence.

***

The idea that women aren’t permitted to be ministers in parts of Evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity is fundamentally wrong and degrading to me as a man who was raised surrounded by strong women. When the urban church we were a part of in Kansas City accepted its first female deacon, it was natural for me to stand for an ovation at the announcement. When we moved to Springfield, we were part of a church that had already integrated women into its leadership structure and specifically sought out input from everyone involved. When we moved back here to Wisconsin, we joined with a church that again shared our values.

And I see many churches around the country whose directories show males as pastors and a female on staff as ‘coordinator’, ‘administrator’ or ‘director’. That’s horsecrap, and that’s not gospel. Some of the fastest growing churches in the country are sexist by design; those churches are horsecrap and they’re proclaiming a limited gospel, which could be construed to say they’re not proclaiming much of a gospel at all.

Priesthood of all believers: neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female. That’s my feminist credo. (That, and calvinus delenda est.)

***

Then there’s my wife: passionate, bold, her own person from a strongly matriarchal family not entirely dissimilar to mine. I couldn’t survive everything I’ve endured without her surviving and enduring with me. She’s given the paternal side of my family their first daughters in 60 years. No one will ever tell my twins they cannot do whatever they want to do in life. They already show the spirit of their female forebears, and they will be full participants in their lives, never second-class. I hope to provide a home like the one I knew as a child: where everyone is fully human and full participants. I want them to see a world where sexism exists as a strange and alien place and work to make a difference through their own gifts and graces.

Finally, my mother is the strongest person I know. The depths of her love, fire and inner strength are unknowable. Her patience and graciousness and generosity are unmatched. As she’s transitioned from Mom to me to Mimi to my girls, I’m always left blown away by the quality of person she is, the insight and wisdom she has, the incisive sense of humor I didn’t realize she had until far too late.

All of that doesn’t make her a great mom, it makes her a great person. And that’s the ideal, isn’t it? To see people as people, character and virtue above all else? That’s what I’ve learned growing up. And if that’s what makes me an accidental feminist, I guess I can live with that.

(PS – there are so many more women in my life and family who have meant so much to me. Please know that I love and value you beyond measure as well, even if you remain nameless…and, you know, happen upon this somehow.)

briefly, on the folly of raising the minimum wage

Our fearless golfer was in Milwaukee today, carrying the workers’ banner for a minimum wage increase to $10.10/hr, a steep hike from the current level of $7.25.

Arguments like this are red meat quinoa for those of a particular political persuasion, though the overwhelming majority of those of unsaid political persuasion haven’t seen a pay stub based off minimum wage in decades, if ever. In fact, 1.566 million workers make minimum wage, according to Pew Research in findings published last summer. Of those, half are young, meaning that most of them are probably supported either at home or by parents, meaning that this is not some kind of widespread Steinbeckian nightmare.

Not yet, at least.

The problem with raising the minimum wage is not that the price of a Happy Meal would go up, which it would, or that the franchisee would replace workers with touchpads, which she could, and turn every burger joint into a scene from Metropolis, which she should, since that would actually be kind of awesome.

The problem with raising the minimum wage actually has nothing to do with minimum wage earners; it is that raising the minimum wage has everything to do with the rest of us.

If the minimum wage is increased to $10.10, it does not elevate those about 750,000 workers out of poverty, it drags the person making $12, $15, even $20 an hour further into it. If the wage is increased, everyone making $8-10.09, that is, those who currently make more than minimum wage, end up at minimum wage, as well. It’s a step backwards, regardless of how one looks at it. And yes, the law of unintended consequences applies, as the price of everything would increase because an artificial baseline for take-home pay was artificially increased (as are the corresponding tax receipts. Don’t think this is some act of charity. It’s not, and not by a long shot.)

It also devalues those who are currently earning more the proposed minimum wage, in that those people are pushed closer to the aforementioned baseline. I can guarantee that raising the minimum wage will not result in a correlative $2.85/hour raise on either my paycheck or yours, or roughly two-thirds of a quarter-pounder with cheese, which would only get more expensive.

Instead of tackling real problems–amongst which include fiat currency, profligate deficit spending, quantitative easing propping up markets that are an insult to paper tigers everywhere, and wholly unserious politicians of all persuasion$ who have made themselves fundamentally insulated from the laws they foist upon the rest of us–they tout raising the minimum wage…on Labor Day…in the throes of campaign season. A cynical proposal from cynical people during the most cynical time of every other year.

We can have a serious, good faith conversation about the ways which we can better the lot of Americans in poverty or struggling to live paycheck-to-paycheck. I remain unconvinced that raising the minimum wage should have anything to do with it.

briefly, on the meaninglessness of cable news

While CNN rages on one side, and Fox blusters on another, both share an inauspicious culpability. We may call it the boys who cry news.

One screen shows BREAKING NEWS, though the news is not actually breaking: the facts were first broken earlier this morning. The other shows ALERT, even though the matter being discussed is not worthy of disrupting my day.

It’s enough to make one long for the pre-news channel days, when special report carried more significant weight than a show hosted by Bret Baier.

Then again, NBC broke into the programming schedule of affiliates nationwide to report on Steve Jobs’ death in 2011.
First tabloids imitate news, then news imitates tabloids, then we can’t tell the distinction.

The tyranny of the urgent, we must do this, have to do that, can’t get through today without the other thing. Cynically, the news channels shout ALERT! when there is no alert, begging us to pay attention in the hopes that we fall in line and pay attention to the next commercial break, for schmucks to hawk their cheap wares (or investment gold).

Certainly, there are serious, vitally important matters which demand the attention of concerned citizens everywhere. Ferguson, the Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, China, Washington: from the McDonald’s in Missouri to the White House, all are deserving of the scrutiny of a free, intrepid press, as well as the free exchange of ideas and opinions as is afforded to a liberal democratic society.

Instead, we get Gretchen Carlson’s crazy eyes, Carol Costello a hair’s length from going berserk at any given time (a sight even funnier muted, as it is here in the workplace), blustering talking heads bloviating their biases. One needs not shout fire in a crowded theater (who can afford to go to the movies? And who really wants to?); merely put BREAKING NEWS above the crawl and you get the same result.

The modern era in the tyranny of cable news began as an expression of 9/11 anxieties and we are now beholden to it for everything, as evidenced by the incessant crawl, constantly pooping out new data for us to ignore.

New data for us to ignore. When the real news breaks, we respond not with outrage, but a shrug.

a debriefing from life in missouri

(or, for being a reddish-type part of the country, this state really knows how to extract/extort money out of its residents!)

I should make one thing clear right off the bat: I very much enjoyed living in Missouri for the past five years. Given the right set of circumstances, we’d still be there and, if the right set of circumstances were to arise in the future, we would be open to returning to Kansas City or Mecca.

That said, I must air my grievances with the Show-Me the Money State.

Taxes are a reality. I get this. I’m not naive to the realities of needing to subsidize government’s myriad roles and responsibilities nor am I complaining about the largesse of many state governments (to mention nothing of the feds, though that conversation would dovetail nicely with this one. I’ll spare us all that.) The two forms of taxation that left me floored–and my wallet emptied–dealt with vehicles.

I don’t know what vehicle taxation is like in most states, but here in Wisconsin, the governmental cost of owning a vehicle is included in the title and registration, personal licensure and in the annual plate renewal. Sales tax on a vehicle purchased is paid at the point of transaction, while sales tax on private party transactions are paid via title transfer. In other words, it’s all upfront, and plate tabs cost a little more per year. It can be tough on the wallet, but nothing terribly unreasonable.

I registered our vehicles in Missouri back in the summer of 2009, and thought to myself the cost to be quite cheap. Cool deal! We moved mid-year, things were good. Fast forward to late summer 2010, when we needed to get a new car. I traded in our old car for a new one, made what I thought was a good and fair deal and we were on our way.

Two months later, I got a knock on our door. The postman hand delivered registered mail from the state. I opened it, and was shocked to see that we owed a not insignficant amount of money in sales tax on the vehicle we bought and, if we didn’t pay by date, they’d repossess the car!

After the exploding Ron Burgundy eyes subsided, I drove to the dealership to speak with the business manager who drafted the terms of the sale, who proceeded to inform me–after the fact–that sales taxes were to be paid separately at a branch of the DMV, whereupon I informed him he never told us that. His reply was essentially a shrug of the shoulders and conceded that he thought we knew that. Never mind the legality of the matter, that dealership not only concealed information related to the sale, but ended up ripping us off on our trade to boot.

In the Show-Me the Money State, unless you specifically request to have the amount of sales tax lumped into the sale of the vehicle, they won’t. The unassailable analogy I used to the business manager and anyone else who would listen is that such a practice is akin to going to McDonald’s, purchasing a Big Mac value meal for $4.99, and the customer being under the force of personal obligation to go to a separate state government office to pay the roughly $.40 in sales tax, tax that would otherwise have been rightly garnished at the point of sale.

I asked anyone who would listen if that made any sense. No one said yes.

I sucked it up and paid out, but learned a valuable, if not tautological, lesson: car salespeople are slimy and unscrupulous human beings.

Nary a few months later, I was then surprised to see another invoice from government in the mail, this time from Jackson County, informing us that we owed about $400 in personal property tax on the vehicles we registered the summer prior. It’s not enough to get socked when you buy a vehicle, but one must to pay an impossible-to-decipher percentage conceived in the bowels of generally accepted accounting hell every single year.

You might not live in a nice house, but if you own a nice car, they will annually kick you. Pay by December 31.

Pay by December 31! That’s right, in the Show-Me the Money State, they’ll take what they can get off your cars, even if it means siphoning off hundreds of dollars per resident that could have otherwise have been spent in the busiest shopping season of the year, during the coldest months of the year. So one must choose whether to sacrifice Christmas**, the utility bill or to end up owing even more scratch and running the risk of not being able to renew one’s plates in the next renewal period.

[** feel free to replace ‘Christmas’ with whatever holiday you prefer]

It is here where I mention that much of Missouri’s constituency is comprised by conservatives, libertarians and centrist Reagan Democrats; people who typically are averse to paying out tons of money to government and its varied machinations, people with whom I am entirely sympathetic. Yet no one seems to care that this would constitute [ZOMG!!1!! BLATANT GOVERNMENT OVERREACH!!!!11!!!!11, to borrow from any number of pundits] in any other scenario because they’ve been completely Stockholm syndromed into complacency and acceptance. In what is a bit of a paradigm shift, the state’s Supreme Court did strike down the obvious double taxation of real estate a few years ago, but thus far has apparently failed to have been made aware of the ramifications of its decision-making on the real culprit of personal property.

It doesn’t take an economist or even that much creativity to point out that both these scenarios both hit the working and middle classes the hardest, and there are better solutions for government to generate revenue. One would be to, um, make dealers engage in truth-in-pricing. The idea that a DMV office–for the record, MODoT privatized most of its offices, and they are by far the best DMVs in the history of mankind both in terms of efficiency and courtesy–should be the default option to pay sales tax is sheer idiocy.

The other is to scrap annual personal property tax in favor of an escalated sales tax on holiday retail, perhaps a .5% increase from November 1 to December 24. (I only put it at that level because I recognize how much counties are reliant on these annual forms of usury. Admittedly, that’s a steep increase.) Not only does this notion put hundreds of dollars back in pockets, but also encourages people to not drive that old ’86 Tempo further into the ground while generating revenue on things people are already buying. And, if the marketplace chooses to push back holiday spending before the November kick-in, all the better: they’re still collecting.

Regardless of how much I loved living in Missouri, the fact is that the public entities there suck the capital life out of their residents in a most pernicious and parasitic way, and the only people who seem to care are those who have left or are on their way out. In this respect, this reddish state is no different from blue states like California or Illinois, which is to say that the same institutional and systemic issues are pervasive throughout the country.

Some are just more straightforward about it than others.