We Need A Generational Change In Leadership

Posted September 23, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Development, Labor, Tech, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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I spent a lot of time in early 2014 researching and pondering how Wisconsin’s economy stagnated after rising to pre-eminence in the 1970s. Among other things, I found Wisconsin’s leadership was resolutely stuck in the past while the national economy had moved on.

[T]hose old fights define Wisconsin, economically and politically. It’s as though our leaders are historical reenactors at Old World Wisconsin. They fire their muskets and shout the old-time shibboleths. Most of this is just spectacle — not really connected to resolving Wisconsin’s precarious economic position in the 21st century. But old habits don’t easily die.

Looking back at old glories, Democrats embrace the unions. Indeed, nothing rallies the base like a pledge to repeal the union-gutting Act 10. But unions are a declining force and face a questionable future in an era when worker-filled assembly lines are disappearing. Nationally, only one in nine workers is a member. In Wisconsin, union membership plunged from 33.5% of the non-farm workforce in 1965 to 12.4% in 2013, according to the economists at the Unionstats.com website.

The future is not bright. The expanding IT field, with its mix of collaborative teams, creative work and 1099 workers, seems particularly ill-suited to old-school unionism.

Republicans, meanwhile, embrace big business, especially traditional manufacturing, and have decisively tilted the state’s tax, regulatory and development initiatives to its benefit. That’s a king-size problem. Manufacturing jobs may have led Wisconsin’s modest recovery from the Great Recession. And Wisconsin does rank with Indiana as one of the top two industrial states in the nation. But Wisconsin’s glory days of manufacturing have decisively passed.

In 1979, manufacturing and its high-paying unionized work accounted for 33% of the jobs in Wisconsin. By 2012, it was 18%, according to the Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS).

Reality is that Wisconsin never recovered economically from the crushing recession of 1981-82. The bloody harbinger of Rust Belt de-industrialization, it laid waste to the huge manufacturing base in the eastern half of the state that runs from the Fox River Valley through Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha and out to Janesville and Beloit.

I make the case that we sorely need of a generational change in leadership. Both the techies and the Millennials are the sort of pragmatic idealists Wisconsin needs.  You can read a lot more here. Also, posted this story is a related piece.

Who Speaks For Tech?

Posted September 23, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Development, Politics, Tech, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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So if Wisconsin is trapped in yesteryear politics and economics, as I argue in the story posted above, the business group Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce is the exemplar of this thinking.  Here’s how I began this related piece, also in Isthmus:

This is a problem.

The state’s most powerful business voice has conspicuously little contact with Wisconsin’s rising technology industry.

Wisconsin Manufacturing & Commerce, which claims more than 3,500 businesses as members, brags that “the success of the WMC government relations team in projecting and accomplishing a proactive business agenda has been second to none.”

Well, yeah. On the surface, WMC has never been stronger. The support WMC has thrown to small-government, pro-business Republicans has paid off big time, to say the obvious.

Wisconsin has a Republican governor, a Republican Assembly, a Republican Senate, a Republican-favoring Supreme Court and a Republican-dominated congressional delegation.

But critics say that WMC’s success is mostly in pursuing a savvy political agenda — not a savvy growth agenda. And the group’s legislative wish list tilts heavily to helping Wisconsin’s legacy manufacturers. The problem: These venerable corporate citizens usually burnish their bottom lines by adopting strategies that emphasize tax avoidance, lessened regulatory costs and dampened labor costs.

Do they add new jobs to the payroll? Not so much.

To read more, including how the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce has embraced the tech industry, please go here.

When Politics Wasn’t So Nasty

Posted September 16, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Politics, WisPolitics.com

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I’ve written before about Gov. Pat Lucey remaking the Wisconsin Democratic Party and overhauling state government.  I jumped at the chance when WisPolitics.com asked me to cover a memorial service at the Capitol honoring Lucey’s accomplishments. Here’s a chunk of it:

…[I]t was Tommy Thompson, the state’s longest-serving governor, who seemed to capture the moment and draw the biggest applause. He started his speech by saying: “I’m a Republican.” Then pausing for dramatic effect, he added, “Pat Lucey was my friend.” 

In a booming, passionate talk, Thompson explained how he identified with Lucey because they were both Irish Catholic boys and the sons of small-town Wisconsin grocers. He said he kept Lucey’s official portrait hanging in the governor’s office, even though fellow Republicans were puzzled by it. 

“I kept the picture there, because I believed in the man. I wanted to show people the value of bipartisanship,” he said. 

Thompson, like Lucey, achieved some of his most important legislation through a politically divided Legislature. 

“It was the government of a different time, and it accomplished so much,” he said of the Lucey years. “These were civilized days when you could have friends on the other side of the aisle.” 

Democrats and Republicans could battle all day over a legislative proposal, he said, “but then we would go out for a steak and a beer.” 

The Capitol today is marked by “the politics of destruction,” Thompson said, “Pat Lucey never believed in that, nor did I.”

To read more, please go here. 

This Startup Could Be Big For Madison

Posted May 22, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Development, Tech, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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MdotLabs, the fraud-fighting startup that detects faked page views of online advertising, captures a lot of what’s good about the Madison tech scene. Co-founder Timur Yarnall moved his internet company here from New York in 2005 because he liked the Madison action. His partner, Paul Barford, is a tenured professor in UW-Madison’s Computer Science program and the co-teacher of CS’s groundbreaking entrepreneur class. Their company, founded in mid-2013, has an office in Palo Alto, but expects to keep its main office  in Madison because the town is so deep with code-writing talent. What could be better?

Well, that MdotLabs strikes it big and becomes a major player in the Madison economy. It could happen, observers say.

 “Anytime someone can develop a heavy technology solution to a complex problem that has large market opportunities, that interests us, and that’s what these guys have done,” says John Philosophos, whose Great Oaks Venture Fund is one of the startup’s seed-stage investors.

Philosophos sees online ad sales fraud as “a massive problem,” but also puts his finger on MdotLabs’ challenge: The industry may not be ready for reform. For some, scammery is simply a cost of business. And paying for it might even seem easier and cheaper than subscribing for MdotLabs’ validated data. Besides, he muses, are the ad agencies prepared to tell their national brands how much money they’ve wasted paying for robot-generated page views?

….

Zach Brandon, president of the tech-minded Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, says MdotLabs is a local startup to watch. He sees it as a game-changer in a lucrative industry. He compares MdotLabs’ potential to that of Exact Sciences, the local biotech company that is piloting a noninvasive test for colorectal cancer. He even compares its potential competitive position to Epic’s with electronic health records.

“I think MdotLabs could be not just a success story,” says the chamber chief, “but the creator of a new employment base in Dane County.”

To read more, please go here.

The Great Lucey Legacy

Posted May 21, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Politics, WPRI website

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Former Gov. Patrick Lucey was the most impressive political figure I’ve reported on. His shrewd understanding  of the sausage-making of legislation was matched by a visionary yet practical program for redefining state government in Wisconsin in the second half of the 20th century. In November 2012, I reviewed the Lucey legacy for a column in Isthmus:

Governing from 1971 to 1977, Lucey merged the two university systems, enacted consumer protection laws, strengthened ethics provisions for officials, revamped campaign finance laws, shifted mental health treatment from institutions to community programs and, perhaps most importantly, retooled government aid programs to reflect the progressive vision: Poorer communities, especially their schools, should get more state aid than richer communities. Republicans howled at how Lucey threatened their low-tax enclaves.

Jesuit educated, Lucey saw the moral end in politics. Linda Reivitz, who worked in the Department of Natural Resources, recalls briefing Lucey on the pros and cons of a policy matter only to be interrupted when she veered into its politics. “He put up his hand and said something like, ‘Young lady. I will worry about the politics. You just tell me about the policy options.'”

Notes Jim Wood, another aide: “Pat knew you only walked through this valley once. Politics wasn’t about getting elected. It was getting elected to do something.”

To read  that column, please go here.

When Lucey died on May 10, 2014, at the age of 96, I revisited and expanded the column for a post on the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute website. In a nutshell, I argued that the Democrats need a leader like Pat Lucey:

     It was Lucey, stealing a page from the GOP playbook, who exempted manufacturers from the machinery and equipment tax as an incentive to re-invest in their plants and then removed business inventories from the property tax. All this was hugely beneficial to Wisconsin’s economic wheelhouse in manufacturing.

            In 1977, the Wall Street Journal surveyed Wisconsin’s economic success and proclaimed the state “the shining star of the Snowbelt.” Those days are long past.

           For most of the next 35-plus years Wisconsin’s economy has struggled under Democratic and Republican governors alike. The ferocious 1981-’82 recession laid waste to manufacturing in southeastern Wisconsin and triggered a fundamental economic decline that bedevils the state to this day. For sure, there was a brief boom in the 1990s. But the new century has been a bust. It’s May 2014, and Wisconsin still has fewer jobs than it did in December 2007, just before another ugly recession rattled the state’s economic foundation.

            For Democrats, Wisconsin’s fiercely contested but decisive swing to Republican domination suggests that the powerless liberals need another Pat Lucey. That is, a nextgen leader who understands the imperative of building a vibrant 21st century economy in a state mired in an Old World Wisconsin re-enactment of yesteryear’s political wars. Where is the Democratic leader who recognizes that unions, as vital as they once were, are all but a spent force? Traditional labor is crippled by hostile economic trends, while public unions are reeling as much from their own cupidity and stupidity as from the conservative pummeling.

To read more, please go here.

Mike Ellis, RIP

Posted April 14, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Politics, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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State Sen. Mike Ellis’ 44-year career in state government ended in ignominy. Surreptitiously videotaped  in a barroom plotting to engage in the sort of illegal campaign tactics he once righteously denounced, the Neenah Republican saw the handwriting on the wall and meekly announced he wouldn’t seek his umpteenth re-election.

What a sad story. Ellis was a walking contradiction–simultaneously brilliant and crazy, both full of himself yet paralyzed by a fear of risk. In the end, Ellis showed himself to be another clueless politician who stayed too long at the fair. He was out of touch with the monochrome conservatism that rules the GOP these days, but lacked the guts to challenge its policies.

In January 2006, I wrote: “He could have been a contender. Instead he is a footnote.” I’ll stick by that assessment. That comment from eight years ago followed Ellis’ announcement that he would not challenge Jim Doyle, the incumbent Democratic  governor. The original links to two old Isthmus columns have been lost. But here’s part of what I said in June 2005, when I naively argued Ellis was well positioned to run an insurgent campaign for governor:

To talk politics with Mike Ellis, 64, is to talk substance, not tactics and wedge issues. He has a sweeping unified view of how Wisconsin has spun off the tracks and smashed into the wall -– and, more important, how it might yet regain its status as a leader among states.

Though he calls himself pro-life, Ellis ignores the familiar “guns, gays, God and feeding tubes” spiel of the GOP True Believers. Instead, he talks about Wisconsin’s unending fiscal crisis.

“We’re perpetually in hock,” he moans, noting that governors and lawmakers have cooked the books to balance the last six straight biennial budgets. “The papering over of the biennial budget deficit immediately throws the next budget into the red, so we can never do any serious reform because we don’t have the resources.”

Blame the pols, says Ellis. They’ve mortgaged their souls to the special interests who finance their campaigns. Doyle and the Democrats dance to the teachers’ union tune, while the Republicans take their cues from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

“We need to get the special interests out of the game,” Ellis says. “We need to use public money to fund elections. If we did that, the Legislature could break free from the tentacles of the special-interest groups. Then we could solve problem number one: bad budgeting.”

Now Ellis is warmed up, laughing and cracking jokes to his aides, looking Elvis-like beneath his sunglasses (a youthful swimming accident overexposed him to chlorine and makes him sensitive to bright lights).

Zeroing in on integrity issues, Ellis wants to merge the state’s election and ethics boards (“two toothless giants,” he sniffs), strengthen their powers, and let them root out trouble. “Legislators need to be afraid of something,” he says.

Then Ellis comes to the heavy lifting — restructuring school aid and local government finance. This is a policy area that typically sends lawmakers heading for the exits. This stuff is too hard, too complicated, too freighted with political dangers for the sound-bite rhetoric of the legislative leadership.

But Ellis is in his element. Long ago he was a teacher, and he delights in the exposition as he sketches out his Equity in Education Act, which would create a statewide levy to finance K-12 education, with add-ons for certain kinds of students and a facilities building commission reviewing capital projects.

“A kid in Crandon should get as good an education as a kid in a property-rich district like Neenah and Madison,” Ellis declares.

When it comes to shared revenue, Ellis would dump the current system and give local governments more latitude to decide what taxes to impose and services to provide. Real poor communities, he adds, would continue to get state aid.

Suddenly, Ellis looks up. “Jesus, I got a platform!” he exclaims, winking at staffers Mike Boerger and Kurt Schultz. “Where do I get the yard signs? I just came up with more goddamn good ideas than you’re going to hear out of Walker, Doyle — what’s that other guy’s name? — yeah, Green, him too.”

The full column can be found on the WisPolitics.com archive: http://wisopinion.com/index.iml?mdl=article.mdl&article=2158

In January 2006, I wrote a web post for The Daily Page (the Isthmus website), commenting on Ellis’ decision to not challenge Doyle. Here it is in its entirety:

Mike Ellis: No guts, no glory

Big surprise.

State Sen. Mike Ellis, the Neenah Republican, said last week he wouldn’t run for governor next fall.

Too expensive, he told the Appleton Post-Crescent. He needed at least $9 million to take on U.S. Rep. Mark Green and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker for the GOP nomination.

But the real reason is more mundane. Mike Ellis (umm, how to put this politely) is a big wuss. He lacks (umm, how to put this politely) the guts to put his principles to the test. Instead the veteran lawmaker, 64, will probably seek another four-year term in the Senate, which puts him in line for an AARP commendation, a free cup of Sanka, and increasing irrelevance.

Look at it this way: Ellis has already served almost 24 years in the Senate. What possible attraction, other than force of habit, does four more years provide? The guy has chosen to give up his shot at greatness

It’s a real shame. On paper, Ellis is darn near the perfect gubernatorial candidate, someone who could pick off the legions of Democrats disgusted with Gov. Jim Doyle’s lack of leadership and the legions of Republicans horrified over their party’s descent into the cloud cuckooland of rightwing politics.

Old-timers at the Capitol will tell you that Ellis is the smartest lawmaker around. School finance, local government finance, criminal justice and more—Ellis can rattle off detailed plans that would spin the heads of Walker and Green.

Campaign finance reform, of course, is Ellis’ signature issue. For years, he’s been aligned with the good-government types, trying to lessen the steely grip of special interests on the machinery of state government. The recent convictions in the Capitol corruption investigation only highlight the need for a let’s-clean-up-the-mess candidacy that Ellis alone could run.

You would have thought that Ellis would have jumped into this mile-wide opening. But no, he claims he couldn’t raise the money for a statewide run. Oh, baloney. That’s a fig leaf for his wussiness. Time and again, Ellis has failed to reach out statewide, and across party lines, to build a reform coalition.

He could have been a contender.

Instead, he’s a footnote.

Nothing changed in the next eight years. Play Taps for his demise.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Would Dig This

Posted March 8, 2014 by meisen
Categories: Divertissement, Education, Tech, TheDailyPage.com/Isthmus

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The tech world’s hard split between information technology  and biotechnology is perplexing.  Despite their kindred values, these really smart people seem to live in parallel universes.  I found myself puzzling over this last year while attending the International Bioethics Forum sponsored by Promega’s  educational institute. Despite a stirling assemblage of speakers on the nature of creativity, none of those brainy ITers seemed to be present.

Perhaps this year’s topic at the forum will draw some venturesome folks from the software world. Here’s how Promega founder Bill Linton describes this year’s convocation:

When we recently talked, Linton explained that the annual forum always picked topics — What is the nature of life? What is the nature of death? — in which the answers weren’t settled. “Sometimes people would leave with more questions than they came in with,” he says with a laugh.

This year’s forum — “3.8 Billion Years of Wisdom: Exploring the Genius of Nature” — promises more of the same. Nothing conventional, but an examination of the “many beautiful examples of life forms accessing information that we simply cannot explain, but call ‘instinct,'” as the promo material says. It runs May 1-2 on the Promega campus.

This is the fifth year the forum has burrowed into consciousness. “There are different points of view of consciousness in nature and taking it a step further — not just of consciousness, but also of intelligence. Does the very embodiment of matter, particularly as expressed in life forms, exhibit a form of intelligence that doesn’t quite fit the human definition of IQ?” Linton asks.

“Nature seems to have evolved with the ability to combine intricate, amazing complexity in ways that are astounding and that we don’t understand,” he adds. The great controversy, he continues, is whether evolution is a blind, random process that sometimes produces advantageous mutations. “Or is there something else happening that is not totally blind randomness?”

This question certainly stopped me in my tracks.

Linton points to the statistical unlikelihood of a light-sensitive organ like the eye evolving in nature eight or nine times from completely different origins. “The fact is, it seems like nature wants to enhance its ability to take in sensory information, and then do things with that information. Some people say that the nature of the universe is trying to find a way to ask the questions: Who are we? What’s out there? Why do we exist?

“In a way, when we ask those questions, it’s nature [expressing] itself, because we are a product of this natural process. That’s pretty amazing for nature to have brought in this element of consciousness.”

The forum runs May 1-2 on the Promega campus in Fitchburg. To read more, please go here.


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