Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Religious Freedom should not become a means to discrimination

Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act grants huge powers to business owners, allowing them to discriminate in dangerous, bold ways

The backlash against Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act is strong. It has undoubtedly taken some legislators in the state aback, opening some eyes to the amount of support for the LGBT community in the state and around the nation.

The law grants businesses the right to refuse service to any patron on the basis of the owners’ religious beliefs. So a Christian florist could refuse to help a gay couple for their upcoming wedding.

That opens the floodgates to other possibilities. Religious belief is a broad subject -- a person could well claim that their religious beliefs permit the exclusion of others based on their racial identity. Could, then, a restaurant refuse to serve a black family coming in that day, unaware of the racial bias that the owner has based on backwards religious tenets?

The Indianapolis Star has editorialized on the subject at great length. But the lettering in big, bold letters at the top of their opinion article puts it best: “FIX THIS NOW.” The law is flawed in so many ways, and grants overwhelming discrimination protection to business owners on the basis of a broad definition of religious belief. That’s a real slippery slope that Indiana legislators need to recognize and remedy.

Protecting individual beliefs is an important aspect of the American identity. But generally speaking, that protection has been afforded to individuals against state persecution, not the exercise of other people’s own lives. The government has no business ensuring my religious beliefs are intact when I walk down a public sidewalk. The protections I’m afforded merely grant me the right to practice my beliefs on that sidewalk if I wish to, provided I don’t interfere with other people’s lives negatively.

When a business discriminates in a just way, it does so based on policy that makes sense. I can’t enter a business without a shirt or shoes on, and that’s based on keeping the health standards of the business in good standing.

However, discrimination that unduly refuses service to patrons based on the owners’ dislike of some identifying trait is wrong every time, pure and simple.

The #BoycottIndiana hashtag is sending a strong message to the Hoosier State. It’s time that lawmakers there take action to fix a broken law.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Another quarterly report shows the "Wisconsin slowdown" continuing under Walker

Walker's solution to bad jobs results? Run for president.

Another set of jobs numbers came out Thursday, and it's more sad news for Wisconsin.

From September of 2013 to September of 2014 the state gained 27,491 private sector jobs. While the numbers show a positive jobs growth from year to year, Wisconsin fared much worse than the rest of the nation, ranking 40th out of the 50 states in terms of job creation.

In the Midwest, Wisconsin was once again dead last during that time period. The latest jobs numbers are the second-worst set of third quarter reporting since Scott Walker became governor. 

Data from Bureau of Labor Statistics
In fact, Walker has yet to outdo the success of his predecessor, former Gov. Jim Doyle. In 2011's third quarter report -- a report that included nine months of Doyle's last budget and the first three months of Walker's first -- 41,461 private sector jobs were created.

The difference between the most recent data and Doyle's last set of third quarter numbers is startling. It represents a slowdown of more than 33 percent. Put another way, for every three jobs created during the last Doyle third quarter report, only two jobs were created under the most recent Walker report.

The state under Walker's watch was well-behind how the rest of the nation was performing, according to this latest report:
Wisconsin continued to trail the national rate of job creation, as it has continuously since July 2011. The United States created private-sector jobs at a rate of 2.3% in the latest 12-month period, twice Wisconsin's 1.16% rate, the data show.
This should be the clearest indicator out of anything else that the Walker agenda is stifling the Wisconsin economy. This report, which Walker himself has touted as "the gold standard" of jobs ratings, shows more failure on the part of the Walker administration.

Cutting taxes for the rich and for corporations hasn't grown jobs. Nor has lifting regulations done anything positive for the state. It seems as though what little jobs we HAVE created have come IN SPITE of Walker's "reforms" rather than because of them.

Middle class economics, as touted by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address earlier this year, would be the proper remedy to save Wisconsin. But rather than listen to common sense, Walker has a different plan in mind.

Run for president and ignore Wisconsin's woes completely.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Polling shows Clinton leading every viable Republican challenger

Clinton leads Bush, Christie and Walker by 55-40 margins

If the election for president were held today former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would win.

In a poll released by CNN earlier today, Clinton has leading numbers against every viable Republican challenger, including Jeb Bush (55-40) Chris Christie (55-40), Marco Rubio (55-42) and Scott Walker (55-40).

That’s a huge uphill battle for Republicans to climb. With the presidential election just over 18 months away most GOP candidates vying to win the presidency are facing around a 15-point margin against the former First Lady.

Why might this be? A lot of it has to do with name recognition. Clinton has a ton of it, bursting onto the national scene when her husband Bill became president in 1993. That’s more than 22 years of being in the spotlight. Many of these other candidates don't have half of that exposure at the national level.

Another facet to her popularity over the Republican contenders is that the GOP nomination is currently a race to the hard right. Those vying for the Republican nomination are trying to woo an ever-increasingly conservative base.

This isn’t uncommon in American politics -- the move from nomination contests to the general election is often a huge swing ideologically for both candidates. But the Republican swing seems to be wider, with Republican candidates staking policy positions that may appeal to primary voters within their party but not so much within the electorate overall.

Meanwhile, independents in America seem to be getting more liberal, especially among Millennials who are becoming a large bloc of the American electorate.

(I first spotted this trend in 2010, noting that dipping polling numbers for President Obama seemed to suggest that dissatisfied liberals were behind the drop.)

Whoever the Republican candidate for president ends up being they’re going to face some huge challenges in 2016. They’ll have to explain some pretty outlandish policies and statements that seemed like the right thing to support before their nomination but don’t hold up well within the American populace overall.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, the all-but-certain nominee for the Democratic Party’s ticket, seems to have things wrapped up already. It isn’t a guaranteed victory, but it’s a comfortable lead that she holds for the time being.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Change is needed in law enforcement practices, but let's not pick "sides"

Let's commit to ending racial disparities, but let's also recognize the sacrifices that most law enforcement officers make

If you have time this morning, read the Appleton Post Crescent’s recent editorial about the death of Tony Robinson. It’s a smart piece, and it gives real context to the debate overall.

Here’s a quick excerpt, a response to the comments that the Post Crescent received on its stories about the situation:
The word “thug” was tossed around and people talked about the value of one person’s life over another. Some unquestionably backed police officers and others said police never have good intentions. Few offered solutions.

When we blindly repeat labels, nothing is accomplished.

No matter what your thoughts, we can all look at the big picture: We want a more peaceful society. We don’t want to live in fear of criminals or police.
I don’t believe that we need to “pick sides” in this conversation. There is a disproportionate amount of crime that seems to target black people in this state. Indeed, Wisconsin locks up more African Americans in its jails than any other state in the nation. That fact desperately needs our attention, and solutions need to be made quickly.

At the same time, respect for law enforcement must remain. Even the family of Tony Robinson acknowledged this.

“We are not proponents of anti-police, in terms of the chants I hear, in regards to not trusting police -- we don’t condone that,” Robinson’s uncle said at a recent press conference.

Madison’s Police Chief Mike Koval has expressed his apologies to the community and to the Robinson family, and has also acknowledged the need for change to address the growing problem of racial disparities in the city. The Robinson’s have expressed their respect for law enforcement and the need to keep this matter civil when protests occur.

The people on both sides of this issue need to do the same.

As for me, I support change in policing that will create a more reputable and fair process. That doesn’t mean I’m anti-police. Quite the contrary -- I try and show respect for law enforcement whenever possible, understanding that they put their lives on the line for us every day.

Change is needed. And the debate on that change needs to be open and honest, resulting in a process that everyone can respect.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Walker's higher ambitions are costing him votes of confidence among Wisconsinites

Lofty plans to run for president don't bode well with citizens in his home state

Gov. Scott Walker’s latest poll numbers are out, and all indicators demonstrate that he’s not leading the state in the direction it wants to move in.

According to a Public Policy Polling poll conducted recently, a majority of Wisconsinites, 52 percent, now disapprove of Walker’s job performance. Just 43 percent approve of his actions since the last election.

When it comes to the presidency, most Wisconsin voters don’t want him to run -- and most would vote against him. In hypothetical match-ups against Democratic candidates Walker loses to Vice President Joe Biden (48 to 45), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (48 to 45) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (52 to 43).

Why the sudden change in Wisconsin? It’s clear that citizens of the state are not happy with the new budget and policy initiatives Walker has introduced since taking his second oath of office. Attempts to remove the Wisconsin Idea, instituting right to work legislation (despite calling it a distraction in his campaign) and removing several hundreds of millions of dollars from education funding in the state don’t bode well with many people in Wisconsin.

But there’s also his higher ambitions to consider. Walker has been out of the state for much of his second term, campaigning-but-not-really-campaigning in Iowa, New Hampshire, New York and other states in anticipation of running for president in 2016. Wisconsinites don’t like that -- they want their elected leaders to lead, not make plans to leave the state.

If Walker wants to keep his people in his home state happy, he should consider scaling back his radical policies and put Wisconsin first. If he wants to shoot for some higher office, expect him to care less about the state and to propose more ideas that will aim to strengthen his conservative credentials on the presidential campaign trail.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Madison mourns Tony Robinson as questions linger about his officer-related death

The officer-involved death raises concerns and outrage

A young black man is dead under questionable circumstances in Madison. He was shot Friday night by a police officer on Willy Street on Madison’s near-east side.

Tony Robinson, who just graduated from Sun Prairie High School and was planning to attend Madison College, was 19 years old. He was unarmed.

According to reports, the police officer in question was responding to Robinson “jumping into traffic” on Williamson Street. He followed Robinson into the home where he was allegedly assaulted by the teen. It was then that the officer chose to use his gun to defend himself.

Those details are fuzzy at best. No other information about the decision to enter the home, the extent of the alleged assault of the officer or whether lethal force was justified are being released at this time because the incident itself is being handled by an independent statewide agency designed to investigate all police-related deaths.

The law, which was passed in 2014, was spearheaded by State Rep. Chris Taylor, who coincidently was in the neighborhood of the shooting last night. She was able to hear the shots go off, just across the street from the home where the incident occurred. Witnesses described five shots being discharged.


Those are the facts we know at this time. Beyond that, not much else is definitively known. We cannot say for sure at this juncture whether the officer acted in the right or if Robinson’s life was unjustly cut short.

What we can surmise is that too many deaths are happening in this country at the hands of our police forces, especially when you look at other countries’ data: the U.S. had between 400-1,000 police-related deaths in 2013, while Britain had zero. Germany had only eight in the past two years.

In particular, black men seem to be at risk. The list of young black men whose lives were taken by officers of the law is far too long.

Police deserve to defend their lives. That is always my belief, and that will not change. We must have respect for the police force, and understand the dangers that these men and women face on a daily basis. I’m thankful for their service, and I understand when one “bad cop” does something wrong, there are dozens of other good police officers that don’t get the attention they rightly deserve.

When patterns emerge that show problems with the methods of officers of the law, however, it is up to the community to demand changes for the better, and for our leaders to implement them. The pattern we’re seeing today is unacceptable. In particular there are far too many deaths of black men who are unarmed.

I choose to reserve judgment in the specific details of this particular incident. There is not enough information known right now to make an opinionated statement on what was done and what wasn’t. That may change. For now, it doesn’t look good, and it saddens me greatly that Madison may become the latest chapter in what has become a troubling trend in America.

This case does have one thing that other incidents across the nation didn’t have: a state law passed last year requires an outside investigation of police-involved deaths. That is one recommendation that President Barack Obama gave last week:
Mr. Obama said that some of the recommendations, including requiring independent investigations when the police use lethal force, would be “controversial,” and that others would be difficult to put into effect. But he said he would push the Department of Justice to press forward on them.

“It will be good for police and it will be good for the communities involved, and as a consequence it will be good for the country,” Mr. Obama said. “Everybody wants our streets safe, and everybody wants to make sure that laws are applied fairly and equitably.”
But is it enough? Other methods, such as placing body cameras on officers, might be necessary as well. Yet ultimately, a camera or a law won’t save the lives of young men who “act odd” in the streets -- it likely will take a change in policy itself, in understanding that a shoot-to-kill mentality isn’t necessary in all cases of defense, before we start to see some positive outcomes.

Again, I stress that I don’t know everything in this particular instance. And I also believe officers deserve to defend themselves when attacked. But young men also deserve a chance to defend their actions.

Tony Robinson didn’t get that chance. He won’t be able to tell his side of the story. And a community rightly mourns his death following these tragic circumstances.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Could removing the 48-hour waiting period for gun sales lead to more crime in Wisconsin?

South Dakota removed it's 48-hour waiting period in 2009, and violent crime went up by 70 percent

For forty years, a Wisconsin law requiring a 48-hour waiting period between the time a background check is performed to the time a person acquires a gun for purchase has been in place.

And for forty years, that law has operated without a problem of any kind.

No one has had an issue with the waiting period, besides those who have felt some minor inconvenience by it. Waiting two days for a weapon that can impose fatal bodily damage on another person doesn’t seem too cumbersome, and few would argue that it violates any personal liberties to require such a wait.

Yet Gov. Scott Walker and several Republican leaders in the state legislature are aiming to eliminate the ban completely.
”We’ve been the leader when it comes to freedom over the last four years,” Walker said in the interview, citing Wisconsin’s passage of a concealed-carry law and another law that protects homeowners from prosecution when they shoot people they perceive as a threat. Of dropping the waiting period, Walker said, “I think we want to be a leader in this area as well.”
Of course, this isn’t really about “freedom.” It’s about appeasing the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association the year before a presidential election, which stands steadfast against any ban on gun ownership of any kind, even those that aren’t bans at all. No one is restricted from owning a weapon because of the 48-hour waiting period -- rather, they just have to wait two days to get the weapon they want.

Could lifting this ban be dangerous? There’s reason to think so. South Dakota might give us some clues on what to expect. The state dropped its own 48-hour waiting period in 2009.

Stats obtained from FBI.gov
From 2009 to 2013, the rate of violent crime in South Dakota went up by more than 70 percent, from 185.6 incidents per 100,000 citizens per year to 316.5 incidents per 100,000.

Correlation and causation aren’t the same thing. There may be reasons behind this spike in crime that have nothing to do with the lifting of the 48-hour ban. But it’s still worth discussing and noting that the instant-access to guns that South Dakota implemented didn’t lead to a safer state overall.

Nor did concealed carry create a safer Wisconsin. In 2011, when Walker signed concealed carry into law, he issued a strong statement saying that, “By signing concealed carry into law today we are making Wisconsin safer for all responsible, law abiding citizens.”

That wasn’t the case whatsoever. From 2011 to 2013, the violent crime rate in Wisconsin went up by more than 17 percent. The rate of murders committed by guns in our state went up by more than 28 percent.

The bottom line? Concealed carry didn’t make the state safer, as Walker had predicted it would. Violent crime and murder went up, specifically murder committed by guns.

Whenever we talk about guns, it’s important to discuss gun rights. I do believe that there is an inherent right to defend oneself, and that every person (within reason) should have the ability to purchase weapons to do so. As with every right, restrictions to limit abuses of that right are sometimes justified. I can’t erroneously yell “bomb” on a plane and claim my free speech rights protect me; I can’t deny an officer of the law the ability to search my home through Fourth Amendment protections if there’s a blood trail leading to my doorstep.

Likewise, reasonable restrictions to the right of defense should be enforced. Allowing a 48-hour period of time to remain in place doesn’t restrict someone of the right to defend themselves. It allows cooler heads to prevail when someone is so mad they could do something very wrong.

Removing this waiting period is the wrong move to make. Gov. Walker should ignore his presidential ambitions for a moment, disregard his NRA lobbyists for the time being, and issue a statement saying he won’t sign any bill into law that removes the 40-year old 48-hour waiting period for guns.

For some reason, that seems unlikely to happen.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Right to Work (for less) will worsen our already dismal rate of job growth

Legislation will stifle demand by lowering wages, lessening the influence of the consumer class

Right to work (for less) legislation is being fast-tracked in the Wisconsin legislature. Having already passed the State Senate by a margin of one vote, the ALEC-written bill will undoubtedly pass the Assembly this week. Gov. Scott Walker is expected to sign the bill into law, despite promising that such a bill would never reach his desk during gubernatorial campaigns in the past.

Many proponents of the bill suggest that it’s needed to boost job numbers in the state, citing studies that show RTW states producing more jobs than their non-RTW counterparts. These studies, however, fail to account for other factors, and are therefore flawed in their reasoning.

The Center for Media and Democracy’s PR Watch explains (emphases in bold added):
Economic development and job creation are complicated issues with many factors, and isolating the impact of right-to-work requires scientific rigor. Yet Vedder’s [pro-RTW] study only controls for seven factors—whereas the leading study on right-to-work laws, by Gould and Shierholz, controlled for forty-two different variables in finding that wages are 3.2 percent lower in right-to-work states.

By only controlling for seven factors, Vedder can’t claim that right-to-work is responsible for its claimed effects. Correlation does not mean causation. For example, North Dakota and Texas are both right-to-work states—but their high recent job growth is attributable to the oil and gas industry, rather than right-to-work laws, which Vedder doesn’t appear to control for.
Common sense dictates that RTW legislation will actually create less jobs for the state. Here’s why: RTW states, because they lessen the influence of union negotiations, tend to pay their workers lower wages than non-RTW states do.

When workers get paid less, that’s bad news for the economy overall because it means consumers will ultimately spend less as well. A lower amount of consumer spending will translate into less demand for goods and service, which will lessen the need for workers in the eyes of business owners.

In short: RTW will lessen demand, the true driving force of job creation.

Lawmakers and pundits who claim we need RTW are guilty of two sins. First, they’re willfully ignoring evidence that shows job growth isn’t congruent with the legislation they’re aiming to pass. The evidence just isn’t there.

Second, and more importantly, they’re admitting that the much-propagandized “Wisconsin Comeback” that Scott Walker touted during his re-election campaign is non-existent. Either we need to create jobs (the “irrational-rationale” for this legislation), or we’re creating them at just a fine enough pace. Wisconsin Republicans, however, are trying to have it both ways.

Unfortunately for Wisconsin, the state IS experiencing a slowdown of job growth since Walker took office. What’s more troubling is that RTW isn’t a remedy to that problem. Instead, it’s going to make our slowing job growth even worse than it already is.