Perhaps you’ve heard about SB 318, a new bill in the Wisconsin legislature that aims to force the sale of “underutilized” buildings owned by Milwaukee Public Schools and the City of Milwaukee. You can read the bill here: SB 318 text

The bill is sponsored by a number of a Republican senators and cosponsored by an even greater number of Republican representatives. These are all legislators who claim to believe in limited government and local control. So, a few questions for them:

1. How do you square a belief in local control with sponsorship of a bill that strips control away from locally elected leaders? SB 318 establishes a mechanism for forcing the sale of MPS buildings according to criteria set by the state. This is a clear intrusion by Madison into the affairs of a local city and school board. Beyond being bad policy, it’s a terrible precedent to set and a betrayal of what are supposed to be core Republican values.

2. If this is such a great idea, why limit it to Milwaukee? If there’s some deep and abiding taxpayer interest in selling a certain class of public buildings to private parties, why not require every municipality and school board in Wisconsin do to the same?

It’s clear that this bill is a giveaway to private and charter school operators who have their sights set on certain unused MPS buildings. The goal is to force the sale of a few particular properties. As written, however, it would also force the sale of several other MPS buildings that meet the very broad “eligibility” criteria the bill establishes (including being “underutilized” for as little as a year), buildings that MPS is using for the expansion of some of its flagship schools, including Golda Meir. The bill is thus not only bad government—you don’t pass a law to force a particular market transaction—but it’s so badly written that it has much broader destructive consequences for the district, even if unintended.

If you live in Wisconsin, please call your state legislators and tell them to oppose SB 318.

Today brings a reminder of the dangers of talking about income tax rates as if they applied to people rather than to portions of income (a subject we’ve covered before). Here is Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos defending a proposal to cut rates in all five of Wisconsin’s income tax brackets, rather than only in the lowest three brackets:

The tax cuts for high earners are a concern for some Senate Republicans, Fitzgerald said. But Vos said he had no problem with them.

“I think everybody who pays income taxes deserves a tax cut,” he said.

Of course, cutting rates in the lowest three brackets does provide a tax cut for everyone who pays income taxes: high earners enjoy the same rate cut on the portions of their income that fall in the affected brackets. Vos’s statement—variations of which have become a core conservative talking point on tax policy—is carefully crafted to imply (but not entail) that this isn’t the case, and that high earners will be left out unless the top two brackets also see rate cuts. This move is facilitated by talking about tax rates as if they applied directly to people: by this fuzzy logic, no rate cut for the top two brackets means no rate cut for people in the top two brackets, and we are on the slippery slope to “class warfare”.

This kind of misleading talk about taxes is so ingrained that journalists apparently never think to challenge it. Vos’s statement closes a section in the AP article quoted above. Even the self-styled truth-tellers at Politifact indirectly quote, without comment, Wisconsin State Rep. Dale Kooyenga making the same disingenuous point in an investigation of his claims about the state’s tax code.

Politicians of both parties frequently claim to want to “fix” the tax code. A good first step would be to fix the way we talk about it.

A suggestion for how to talk about the NRA’s current leadership, in light of the organization’s cynical and unrepentantly gundamentalist press conference this morning: as a failed partner for peace.

The term partner for peace highlights the NRA’s standing as an organization apart from the public and from the government bodies that might enact meaningful gun reform: you don’t need a partnership with those who are already in your group. It frames the failed partner as untrustworthy but possibly improvable, as needing to undergo a significant internal change in order to become a reliable partner; failure to change can then be taken as a sign of bad faith, hostility, or unsalvageable corruption. It is no accident that governments use phrases like this as euphemistic terms of abuse for those they deem to be terrorists but whom they must work with politically. Finally, partner for peace places the focus on peace, which connotes an absence of weaponry, rather than on safety or security, which are intimately tied to the rhetoric of unfettered gun ownership.

It is clear today that the NRA, under its current leadership, is unwilling to be a partner for peace. It’s time for those who seek meaningful gun reform to say as much.

In the wake of Sandy Hook, much has been written about the vexed linguistic opposition between gun rights and gun control in which our national discussion about guns is predominantly framed. The phrase gun rights, which has (apparently) become increasingly common in the past few decades, brilliantly preempts criticism of gundamentalism, framing any firearms restrictions whatsoever as an affront to liberty. Gun control, meanwhile, is rife with negative connotations and is especially self-undermining in light of the rhetorical ascendancy of gun rights: rights are things to be defended, not controlled. That the matter is almost universally framed in the media as one of gun rights vs. gun control is, as usual, a gross oversimplification, and a deeply misleading one in its implication that one cannot simultaneously support both gun rights and gun control. More to the point, this framing is a losing proposition for those who seek meaningful restrictions on gun ownership in America (restrictions that the Supreme Court’s Heller majority explicitly leaves room for in its original, if not originalist, interpretation of the Second Amendment).

So, a suggestion: let’s talk about gun reform. Reform has none of the bad connotations of control: on the contrary, reform is what Serious People nowadays propose in response to all sorts of pressing and difficult problems (see: school reform, entitlement reform, etc.). Unlike with control, the understood object of reform is not guns themselves, but the way in which our society deals with them. Reform frames its outcome not merely as a change from what came before, but as an undeniable improvement. Gun reform thus not only avoids taking the bait of gun rights, but redirects attention away from the false dichotomy of gun rights vs. gun control.

At present, however, gun reform is all but absent from the national discussion. Google searches today return 5,060,000 hits for “gun rights”, 13,800,000 for “gun control”, and just 286,000 for “gun reform”. There is thus a clear opening for those who support restrictions on gun ownership to claim the phrase gun reform as their own, and thereby to disentangle themselves from the unfavorable linguistic framing of the current debate.

A few links and thoughts on the ongoing administrative assault on faculty tenure (and the corresponding status for academic staff) at Wayne State University (full disclosure: I was a tenure-track assistant professor in the Wayne State English Department and Linguistics Program from 2008 to 2011):

Links:

Thoughts:

  • The administration’s July 17 proposal unambiguously guts tenure protections. It gives the university president sole discretion to initiate the termination process (section B.2) for an explicitly unlimited range of reasons (section B.1.a; “shall include but not be limited to” is the key phrase), as well as to hear and decide any appeals (section B.3). The July 17 proposal contains no provision for peer review or any other faculty involvement in the detenuring and termination process.
  • The administration is nonetheless adamant that its proposal does not do away with tenure. This may be true, in a narrow, heads-I-win-tails-you-lose sense. That is, the university can keep the tenure process for faculty in place while eliminating all of its protections and guarantees: junior faculty would still have to earn “tenure” in order to keep their jobs, but would be at-will employees every step of the way. This is tenure in name only. It is also a useful demonstration of the difference between lying and dishonesty: the administration can say truthfully that it is retaining tenure for faculty, while omitting the fact that it is seeking to rob the term of all recognized meaning.
  • The rationale for the proposed change is ever-shifting between a desire to terminate “unproductive” faculty and a desire to eliminate faculty in unpopular or otherwise undesirable programs. The two goals are entirely independent: faculty “performance” is wholly unconnected to the matter of program offerings. The two are nonetheless rhetorically linked by the administration, in a classic bit of set-’em-up, knock-’em-down polemical sleight-of-hand: some faculty are bad, thus we must be able to fire any faculty member at any time for any reason.
  • Bound up with the rhetoric above is a persistent effort to preemptively marginalize anyone who might question it. Despite the lack of any checks on its firing power in the July 17 proposal, the administration assures us that it is only going after bad apples. The Detroit News opines, in its editorial linked above, that “Faculty members who do good work have little to fear from the changes.” And the only reason to oppose warrantless domestic surveillance is the fear that your own misdeeds will be exposed, right? This is a rhetorical staple of oppressive regimes; the administration and its champions in the local press should be embarrassed to touch this argument with a ten-foot pole.
  • A detail not much remarked on in press accounts: section B.1.c of the July 17 proposal lists as grounds for termination “forcibly interrupting the normal daily teaching, research or administrative operation of the University or directly inciting others to engage in such actions”. In other words, going on strike or engaging in any other sort of traditionally protected act of protest (or encouraging others to do the same) would be grounds for detenuring and termination.
  • Finally, the local press’s unconditional support of the administration’s position can be traced at least in part to its framing of the university as a business (a frame reinforced by the new university president’s past as an auto executive). In this frame, administrators are viewed as business managers who need business-like control over every aspect of the university. Anything less undercuts their authority as managers; their managerial wisdom is taken for granted. Wayne State, of course, is a not-for-profit research university and a public institution supported (less and less) by taxpayers. If its administrators were viewed not as business managers but as government bureaucrats, they might come in for less-than-total sympathy from the media. We might instead hear calls for the university to rein in and minimize its substantial administrative overhead costs in order to concentrate its resources on teaching and research, the latter especially being an area in which academic peers, and not administrators, have the relevant “managerial” wisdom.

As noted above, the administration’s July 17 proposal has likely been amended in the negotiating process, though we don’t know the details. It is, however, hard to see how anything other than a full withdrawal of that proposal’s section B (or other changes amounting to the same) could reasonably preserve tenure protections for Wayne State faculty (and the corresponding protections for academic staff). If anything like the above-linked language is put in force, it will likely spell the end of Wayne State as a viable research university, as “productive” faculty depart for institutions that grant them the rights and protections they need in order to do their work unmolested by administrative caprice. The continued existence of those protections at other institutions, of course, can’t be taken for granted: as Coleman Young memorably put it, “Detroit today has always been your town tomorrow.” We appear to be in for a long fight.

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