Smiling faces sometimes pretend to be your friend
Smiling faces show no traces of the evil that lurks within
Smiling faces, smiling faces sometimes
They don’t tell the truth uh
Smiling faces, smiling faces
Tell lies and I got proof…
Beware, beware of the handshake
That hides the snake…I’m telling you beware
Beware of the pat on the back
It just might hold you back
“Smiling Faces Sometimes ”
by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong
Performed by the Undisputed Truth (listen here)
On Monday October 1st the MMSD Board of Education will vote on “support” for the Wisconsin Way Initiative. My advice is, beware. Every indication is that behind the smiling public face of populist civic virtue lurks the hand holding snakes of powerful vested interests.
Funded and sponsored by the Wisconsin Realtor’s Association (WRA), the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the Wisconsin Transportation Builder’s Association (WTBA), the Wisconsin Counties Association (WCA) and Wood Communications Group, Wisconsin Way is self-described as “a non-partisan, grassroots effort to reduce property taxes by creating a more fair and equitable funding system that promotes excellence in education and public service.” More specifically, the initiative has identified “make[ing] Wisconsin taxes fairer and reduce[ing] the property tax burden;” providing “a first-rate educational system” to create “a 21st century work force;” and “up-grade[ing] and maintain[ing] our current infrastructure” as the most pressing issues. According to their materials, the chief obstacles to meeting these needs are demographic (mostly an aging population and “economic realities”) and “a fiercely partisan political environment.” They will be hosting a series of public forums “to engage Wisconsin citizens in a constructive, solution-oriented conversation.”
It should go without saying that the issues and problems identified are real and deserving of attention (although far from comprehensive – where’s healthcare, inequalities in education and income, environmental concerns… – and are not presented as I would). Public forums are hard to argue with and although I have my doubts about any new solutions emerging they can be an effective tool for educating the public and cultivating a climate for reform.
The smiling face of the Wisconsin Way is very attractive. If all was as they would like you to believe, then I would applaud their work, urge MMSD to give support and eagerly await the results. However, the whole project is so rife with misrepresentations that I think some truth telling healthy skepticism are needed.
The Wisconsin Way “who we are” statement is a good place to start. They claim to be “a non-partisan, grassroots effort.” I’ll grant them “non-partisan (although bi-partisan would be a better description and keeping in mind that the phrase is so devoid of meaning in this context that Wisconsin Manufactures and Commerce is technically “non-partisan”). Grassroots is too much of a stretch. The current entry in Wikipedia (not a perfect source, but sufficient) defines a “Grassroots movement” as “one driven by the constituents of a community. The term implies that the creation of the movement and the group supporting it is natural and spontaneous, highlighting the differences between this and a movement that is orchestrated by traditional power structures.” I know grassroots efforts, I work on grassroots efforts, gentlemen, you are no grass roots effort.
In modern politics, an attempt by public relations professionals to disguise an interest driven agenda with the trappings of a populist grassroots campaign is called “astroturfing.” Think the bait-and-switch phony signatories of TV4US’s (read AT&T and friends) video franchise give away campaign. Think the corrupt and ambitious Edward Arnold sponsoring the “John Doe” clubs in Frank Capra’s “Meet John Doe.” This seems to describe the Wisconsin Way.
Wood Communications principal James Wood (by most accounts the driving force behind Wisconsin Way) is a public relations professional. His highly successful (and connected) firm boasts of their government relations’ services “positioning your issues and engaging in the process that drives policy making.” Wood himself has described the reliance on opinion polling to frame the initiative as well as the lengthy and difficult birth of the Wisconsin Way, so he admits there is nothing spontaneous. Ed Garvey (one of the few voices that has been questioning the Wisconsin Way) mentions a rumored $1 million price tag. I’ve heard reports of the carrot for taking part in training sessions (and maybe the forums themselves for selected groups) includes a very generous per diem stipend.
The fun really starts when you look at the other sponsors who ask us to believe they want overturn the status quo of “a fiercely partisan political environment.” It is abundantly clear that the simplest way they could contribute to this worthy goal would be by ending their own participation; firing their lobbyists and using their political endorsements and contributions in a more productive manner.
At this point it is probably worth saying that Wood and the WCA may be sincere in their civic mindedness. I am less charitably inclined toward the others.
WRA, WEAC, WTBA and WCA spent a combined $843,784 in lobbying between January and June of 2007. WEAC ($314,899) and WTBA ($230,028) rank #3 (corrected, the #1 that appeared earlier was a typo) and #8 in dollars spent. By any definition they are all part of “traditional power structures.”
Although the WRA lags in lobbying ($116,599 is hardly chump change), they more than make up for this with their targeted political spending through RPAC. Their January continuing campaign finance report includes $105,000 in contributions to a much uglier astrotruf outfit called “Coalition for America’s Families.” Headed by former Wisconsin GOP chair Steve King, this group helped fund this exercise in homophobia that helped pass the anti Gay Marriage and Civil Unions amendment. Their website features, along with pleas for vouchers, guns and lower taxes, an ad saying that Governor Doyle wants to raise your taxes in order to pay for free health care for gay couples. Once you get over your disgust, you have to admire their ability to link their social and economic agendas. These are the people directly responsible for the poison political atmosphere the Wisconsin Way presents itself as an alternative to. It took me a long time get over the disgust and when I did I also came to the conclusion that I don’t want to be even indirectly associated with these people. I hope the Board of Education agrees.
The WRA, the WTBA and WEAC all have well defined agendas based on the interests of their constituents. It is hardly surprising that the issues identified by the Wisconsin Way are aligned with these interests. The Realtors want lower residential property taxes, so does the Wisconsin Way. The road builders want spending on roads, the Wisconsin Way calls this “infrastructure.” WEAC represents teachers and education spending is on the Wisconsin Way list (although it should be noted that most of the supporting materials are about higher ed and there is very little about the insanity of the current k-12 education finance system). Although the word “inclusive” appears often in Wisconsin Way materials, the reality is that at some level this is about the interests of the funders. Pretty much business as usual.
There is lovely little passage in their White Paper playing the old “fair and balanced” game of setting up two groups or positions as deserving equal consideration, when one is demonstrably wrong:
“Two major political positions emerged. One held that Wisconsin taxpayers were already overtaxed and that taxes should be frozen or reduced. This side argued that schools, the UW System and local units of government could manage the lack of new money by operating more efficiently and/or cutting unnecessary services. The other held that while some Wisconsin taxpayers might be overtaxed, there were plenty of taxpayers (corporate and individual) who were not paying their fair share and that failure to support education and other local services would do serious damage to the state’s infrastructure and the ability of local governments to serve their constituencies.”
By Wisconsin Way’s own account, Wisconsin needs to better fund infrastructure and education, so the money has to come from somewhere. This is the only mention of corporate taxation and I don’t recall any mention of sales taxes. Maybe the Wisconsin Way will end with a proposal for more corporate taxation, an expanded sales tax and fairer property taxes (with fewer exemptions for businesses). I’d like that, but I’m not holding my breath.
The White Paper also reveals how rigged this exercise is. First they hold the public forums, but the real business will occur behind closed doors and the only people sitting at the table will be the sponsors:
“At the conclusion of this first round of public forums, Wisconsin Way partners will summarize the major conclusions and proposals offered by the citizens and
ask a variety of academic and policy experts to review and comment on them. After that review is complete, the Wisconsin Way will draft a preliminary “Wisconsin Way Agenda” that will be presented at six to eight regional public forums in early 2008. Based upon the public reaction to, and comments on, the preliminary document, a final “Wisconsin Way Agenda” will be developed to serve as the basis for an on-going
discussion with elected officials and opinion leaders.”
Don’t be fooled by that last round of public forums, this is known as test marketing, like a preview for a movie.
If MMSD wants to support the Wisconsin Way it should request in exchange a seat at that table. Otherwise they will end up like those citizens and lawmakers who found their innocent queries about video competition presented to lawmakers and the public as support for a specific piece of legislation.
Thomas J. Mertz
(please note the opinions expressed here are mine and do not represent the position of any group I am associated with)