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Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2008

A Vision for 2009

Bold action for difficult times

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This year, like every year, gives us an opportunity to consider where we've been, how we arrived at the present moment, and how we can launch a new year with promise.

2008 was particularly difficult and is ending with our nation in the deepest recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s. These difficulties offer us an opportunity to make big changes in the way we think about our society, our neighborhoods and our role in moving into the future in a fair and just manner. It seems that it is only in times of distress that people pull together and are willing to focus and think about the future and how we can recreate the greatness of our nation and our state. Piecemeal, patchwork, incremental plans won't be enough to solve our problems and lead the way in the 21st century. In fact, that will just keep a listing ship afloat.

What we need are big ideas and bold actions-a new vision-that sweep away the remnants of failure. The 1930s saw some of America's boldest policies position us to lead through the second half of the century. Our bold 21st-century ideas must be progressive because they are the ones that will restore confidence in a transparent, fair government; enable the economy to grow in a sustainable way and provide help to those most in need; and reflect the desires of our community for a safe, sustainable, forward-looking society.

How Did We Get Here?

Let's face it: 2008 was a disaster. We're still uncovering the many layers and expanding ripples of our shaky global economy. We're still mired in two wars overseas, even if our president-elect has promised to remove troops from one combat zone. The outgoing president has left us with a hornet's nest of legal and ethical issues that will be difficult to tame.

At the heart of these problems is the belief that former President Ronald Reagan articulated when he said, "Government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem." There was this belief that government is always bad, while the free-market approach is always good. As we're learning every day, we are in our current dilemma because the federal government did not provide oversight of the markets since it believed that greed is good, and that corporations and investors could regulate themselves. The free market has your best interests at heart, right?

We've seen how that's turned out. Even former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, the "oracle" who worshipped at the altar of uber-libertarian Ayn Rand, was forced to admit that there was a "flaw" in his thinking. Unfortunately for the rest of us, we're paying the price. The incredible profits of many corporations and financial institutions are now revealed to be mere fantasies, based on nothing more than accounting tricks and phantom assets. And while the executives and regulators are able to walk away from the mess they've created, the rest of us are left holding the bag. That means more layoffs and foreclosures; life savings gone up in smoke; more stress on government services; and a more dangerous society, since desperate people will do desperate things.

This is a pretty grim picture, but it is helpful in showing that the choice between progress and failure is stark. We can choose to keep bailing out the sinking Titanic, with a little aid here, and some too-late reforms there. Or we can choose to repudiate what created this mess and make utterly different choices so that we don't repeat our mistakes and so we end up with a revived and more compassionate capitalism that can lead the world in the 21st century.

Our New Vision

Our vision for 2009 includes some of the best ideas of the past. When Wisconsin Gov. Robert La Follette saw corruption in business and government, he didn't give it a pass, saying that's just the way the world works. Instead, he fought for open government, workers' compensation, the minimum wage and progressive taxation. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt was faced with the Great Depression, he didn't argue that individuals would have to fight for themselves during tough times. Instead, he invested in big projects that put people to work. These policies helped to support families, restore people's dignity and improve our nation's infrastructure. FDR's massive government programs were not massive enough to pull us out of the Depression-even though the economy improved. It was only with the tremendous WWII spending that the U.S. economy was brought out of the Depression.

We need a similar big, bold vision now-but we must retool it for the 21st century. We live in a global community connected by trade, the Internet, far-flung families and political alliances. We share common dreams of a healthier planet, peace, and sustainable economic development that raises the standards of living for everyone in the world. We aren't going to fix global problems by pretending that private companies or armed forces will do what's necessary and fair.

But, at the same time, we won't find solutions just by throwing taxpayers' money at problems. We will need to invest in our future, and it will cost money, but we need to make smart decisions about how we use our resources-whether it's money, human effort or physical assets-so that we invest in the common good in the years to come. Rather than using some of our best technical minds, for example, to create exotic financial derivatives that very few of us could understand, we need to redirect these human resources to more productive ventures, such as curing serious diseases or building the energy sources of the future.

Although we're looking to the future, we also have to focus on the basics of the value of work and fairness. That means reviving the social contract between employers and workers, a contract that has been ripped to shreds by executives squeezing as much profit as possible out of their companies. This labor-management social contract was established after WWII, and it enabled the U.S. economy to grow consistently. But it was seriously damaged when Reagan broke the air traffic controllers' union and gave the green light to some ruthless employers to do whatever they wanted with the knowledge that the government would not get in their way.

According to the data, workers have never been so efficient or productive as they are now, yet they are rewarded with lower real wages (wages adjusted for inflation), less job security, fewer benefits and the threat of having one's job shipped overseas. At the same time, individuals can't expect a handout; they must contribute in some way, whether it's by finishing their education, being a reliable employee, striving to be a great parent or providing a community service. The only way we are going to move the economy forward-as a nation, state or city-is by putting people to work in serious, productive jobs that build a new and greener economy.

What We Can Do

President-elect Barack Obama has announced an economic stimulus package that could pump as much as $850 billion into the economy over the next two years through such expenditures as improving infrastructure, renovating schools, installing computers in every classroom and developing more alternative energy sources. We think this is a great way to invest in our future and keep people working, and it's desperately needed after the Bush administration neglected needs at home.

Wisconsin must make a similar investment in our future. Yes, we should ask the federal government to foot the bill for projects around the state. And, yes, the state is facing an estimated $5.4 billion deficit when the Legislature returns, which will undoubtedly put pressure on legislators to satisfy loud conservatives and not increase spending. But that would be a terrible mistake. We got into this trouble by not investing in smart projects that would help us conserve energy, attract new talent to the state and help remove barriers to work. These programs can be funded with Obama's stimulus package, but also by enacting progressive taxation reforms-closing corporate loopholes, lowering property taxes by taking some services off of the property tax rolls, increasing the sales tax and re-examining the various sales tax exemptions.

Here is how we can achieve our vision for 2009:

n Raise the minimum wage. The state Legislature's first priority should be to raise the minimum wage, which is currently $6.50. While some companies may complain at first about having to raise their employees' wages, it's the best way for workers-especially those in entry-level jobs-to support themselves and their families. And those wages will be returned to the rest of the economy in the form of rent or mortgage payments and basic commodities and services. Simply adjusting the minimum wage to reflect the inflation over the past years would be a huge step toward fairness.

n Develop a green economy. We must also create jobs that will last, and hopefully will not be easily exported to another state or country. Good options are green jobs that will benefit Wisconsin residents by helping the state to use our resources wisely. Right now, Wisconsin is an energy island-that is, a fossil fuel energy island. But the state is rich in clean energy potential, such as wind, solar, hydro and biomass. We absolutely must wean ourselves from our reliance on gas and coal.

What's more, these green job projects will train workers in skills that will be helpful in the coming decades, whether they're upgrading the city's aging housing stock, house by house, or launching massive clean energy projects like a wind farm or a green roof.

n Upgrade our infrastructure. Wisconsin would also benefit from a massive investment in our infrastructure. By this we don't mean a handout to road builders who want to make us more dependent on freeways and cars. Yes, we will continue to need good highways, but we must go beyond that. We must think ahead to the coming decades. Will we get around in gas-guzzling SUVs? Or will we prefer to travel to Madison or Chicago-or even Door County-via high-speed or commuter rail, or perhaps in a battery-powered car? Will the potential Chicago Olympics spur more development in southeastern Wisconsin, and will we need to strengthen our connection to that city to reap the benefits of regional cooperation?

n Make health care more affordable. We also need to continue to invest in the health of Wisconsin residents, especially those in need. As former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey put it, "It was once said that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped."

While major reform should come from Washington, there is a lot that we can do in the state in the meantime. The expansion of BadgerCare Plus to cover low-income childless adults will help, as will more funding for substance abuse treatment and mental health programs. The state Legislature should pass a mental health parity bill as well, to bring down health care costs for individuals. Without adequate care, people who have been diagnosed with mental illness are not able to work, and, in the most tragic cases, wind up in the corrections system. That outcome serves no one. Health care can also be made more affordable by exempting prescription medication from the state's minimum markup law. It won't cost the state a thing, but it could result in dramatic savings for consumers. And it's only fair to establish a sensible medical marijuana program that is overseen by the state and easily accessed by the seriously ill.

n Recommit to Milwaukee's workers and residents. Milwaukee would thrive if we focused our attention-our grand vision-on the city. We simply cannot continue to allow urban residents to suffer with deteriorating streets, inaccessible health care facilities, inadequate schools and no job prospects near home. We need to recommit to our public schools, stop penalizing poor people by taking away their driver's licenses when they can't pay their fines and launch job-rich projects in areas like the 30th Street Corridor. Improving transportation from the city to outlying suburbs would also help ease economic tension in the city. Both the Milwaukee County Transit System and the Kenosha-Racine-Milwaukee commuter rail line must be funded and seen as a vital part of our region's economic infrastructure.

n Use resources wisely. Major decisions also need to be made about the way we use our natural resources. While the passage of the Great Lakes Water Compact was a huge achievement last year, details still need to be worked out. Waukesha will no doubt ask for Lake Michigan water; in fact, it may be the first community to request water under the new compact. We must make sure that Waukesha receives Lake Michigan water, but only under the strictest standards, since it will be setting a precedent, and only if the returned water does not adversely affect communities downstream. Groundwater rules also need to be strengthened so that we don't stress this precious resource.

n Keep it clean. Last, but not least, we must clean up our air and our government. The state Legislature should enact a comprehensive statewide smoking ban, a decision that will improve the health of smokers and nonsmokers alike. Urban agriculture and community farming should be encouraged, and a stable sales tax to preserve our parks and cultural assets should be launched quickly. And we've got to get rid of the corrupting influence of money in politics. We need real campaign finance reform, not the token effort produced by the Legislature in 2007. A good first step is to publicly fund Supreme Court races and require shadowy issue groups to reveal their funders. Wisconsin used to be the land of clean government, but we lost that image in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when big money invaded our state campaigns.

Now is the time for big ideas and bold action. The current financial mess has provided an opening to make our country a beacon of liberty, fairness and compassion, the values we all grew up learning that America represented. On the state level, we need to get back to being a progressive, compassionate and clean government state, not a mini-Illinois. Wisconsin can lead the way for other states, as we always have in the past.

What's your take?

Write: editor@shepex.com
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