Richard S. Russell

Big Dark Out-of-State Money in the Supreme Court Race

In the wake of the recent elections for the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the camps of both candidates have recriminated against each other for campaigns financed by massive amounts of dark, out-of-state money. Both sets of complaints are fully justified and reflect the appalling politicization of what, by all rights, should be the least partisan offices in the state: the impartial, unbiased, unbought, thoughtful, professional judicial tribunal of last resort.

But the position of justice has become disgustingly partisan, because the Democratic and Republican Parties have the most effective fund-raising machines, and they’re leading the big-money parade. Brian Hagedorn was a Republican operative before a courtesy appointment by Gov. Scott Walker allowed him to campaign with “Judge” in front of his name. Lisa Neubauer is the wife of a former state head of the Democratic Party and mother of a Democratic state representative. Their campaigns absolutely reeked of partisan favoritism.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and for one brief shining moment it wasn’t. In the waning years of the Doyle Administration, the Legislature adopted a plan for public financing of state Supreme Court elections. You may not remember it, because it was never put into effect; it was one of the very first laws repealed by the new Legislature after the Walker Administration took over in 2011.

That was the first year after the disastrous Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC opened the floodgates to political spending from all comers, for what purposes nobody knows, because accountability and transparency were right out the window. And now we see how fatuous was Justice Kennedy’s observation in that decision that big money in politics will lead to “neither corruption nor the appearance of corruption”.

Woe betide anyone bringing a case before the Supreme Court if the justices sitting in judgment on it are financially beholden to the opposing side instead of, as they properly should be, to the general citizenry.

The question will arise, and arise in your day, ... which shall rule — wealth or men? Which shall lead — money or intellect? Who shall fill public stations — educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?

— Edward Ryan, Chief Justice, Wisconsin Supreme Court, addressing the UW graduating class of 1873
Richard S. Russell

The Russell Lottery

Cindy Polzin of the Wisconsin State Lottery tried to put the best face on the scam she's running like this: "Of every dollar spent on lottery products, approximately 57¢ is paid in prizes, 30¢ goes to property tax credits, 7¢ to operational expenses, and 6¢ to neighborhood businesses."

I've got an even better deal. I call it the Russell Lottery. Its great advantage over Wisconsin's shabby equivalent is that, in mine, every player is a winner every time. Here's how it works: You send me $10, and I send you back $6. That's 60¢ on the dollar, also a better deal than Polzin's. An identical 30¢ on the dollar goes to relieve property taxes (mine), and I promise to spend 5¢ out of every buck at the corner bar, certainly a local business.

How can I do it? I keep my administrative expenses low, low, low. I stocked up on Forever stamps back when they were only 45¢, and that's all it takes to mail you your $6 check. Such a deal, right?

Lottery: A tax on people who are bad at math.
Richard S. Russell


Last week there was a primary election in Madison, and I always serve as an election official at a campus ward. Turnout for primaries is normally low to begin with, and in this case the only races on the ballot were for city offices that were of minimal interest to students. The upshot of this is that it was a VERRRRRY slow day. Thus I had my book polished off by 2 PM. (The Consuming Fire by John Scalzi, BTW, an engaging read.)

Facing the prospect of another 6 hours with nothing to keep my mind occupied, I took advantage of a break to nip across the street to the University Bookstore to pick up another one. Let me repeat the name of the place I was headed toward: University BOOKstore. The sign at the entrance said textbooks were downstairs and “general books” were on 1st floor, so that’s where I headed. But, after a couple of minutes of wandering around looking for them, I thot maybe I’d misunderstood the sign, so I asked for directions. A helpful employee walked me over to a remote corner and said “Here it is”:

And that’s it! That’s their entire “general books” collection, fiction and non-fiction both! For a campus of 40,000 students. Hardly any title in any category had more than a single volume represented, and about ⅓ of the sections had books discounted by half in an effort to move inventory. Science fiction occupied only 2 shelves, and I’d already read almost everything on offer. (I ended up getting a non-fiction book, Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker.)

What is happening? Is this really the death spiral for actual books?

When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes. — Desidarius Erasmus (1466-1536), Dutch philosopher
Richard S. Russell

How Cold Is It?

Temps Around 53

Getting Warmer in Wisconsin

How Cold Is It?
An annotated thermometer
(degrees Fahrenheit, then Celsius)

+50 / +10
• New York tenants turn on the heat
• Wisconsinites plant gardens

+40 / +4
• Californians shiver uncontrollably
• Wisconsinites sunbathe

+35 / +2
• Italian cars don't start

+32 / 0
• Distilled water freezes

+30 / -1
• You can see your breath
• You plan a vacation in Florida
• Wisconsinites put on T-shirts
• Politicians begin to worry about the homeless

+25 / -4
• Boston water freezes
• Californians weep pitiably
• Wisconsinites eat ice cream
• Cat insists on sleeping on your bed with you

+20 / -7
• Cleveland water freezes
• San Franciscans start thinking favorably of LA
• Cranberry bog frost warnings

+15 / -10
• You plan a vacation in Acapulco
• Cat insists on sleeping in your bed with you

+10 / -12
• Politicians begin to talk about the homeless
• Too cold to snow
• You need jumper cables to get the car going

0 / -18
• New York landlords turn on the heat
• You plan a vacation in Hawaii
• Wisconsinites go swimming

-5 / -21
• You can hear your breath
• Sheboygan brats grilled on the patio, yum!

-10 / -23
• American cars don't start
• Too cold to skate

-15 / -26
• You can cut your breath and use it to build an igloo
• Miamians cease to exist
• Wisconsinites lick flagpoles

-20 / -29
• Cat insists on sleeping in your pajamas with you
• Politicians actually do something about the homeless
• People in LaCrosse think about taking down screens

-25 / -32
• Too cold to kiss
• You need jumper cables to get the driver going
• Japanese cars don't start
• Milwaukee Brewers head for spring training

-30 / -34
• You plan a two-week hot bath
• Pilsener freezes
• Bock beer production begins
• Wisconsinites shovel snow off roof

-38 / -39
• Mercury freezes
• Too cold to think
• Wisconsinites button top button

-40 / -40
• Californians disappear
Car insists on sleeping in your bed with you
• Canadians put on sweaters
• Record ice-fishing catch on Lake Mendota

-50 / -46
• Congressional hot air freezes
• Alaskans close the bathroom window
• Michiganders put gloves away, take out mittens
• Green Bay Packers practice indoors

-60 / -51
• Walruses abandon Aleutians
• Sign on Mount St. Helens: "Closed for the Season"
• Boy Scouts in Eau Claire start Klondike Derby

-70 / -57
• Glaciers in Central Park
• Superior snowmobilers organize trans-lake race to Sault Ste. Marie
• Hudson residents replace diving boards with hockey nets

-80 / -62
• Polar bears abandon Baffin Island
• Birkebeiner at Hayward

-90 / -68
• Edge of Antarctica reaches Rio de Janeiro
• Lawyers chase ambulances for no more than 10 miles
• Minnesotans migrate to Wisconsin thinking it must be warmer

-100 / -73
• Santa Claus abandons North Pole
Girl Scouts in Eau Claire start Klondike Derby
• Cheeseheads pull down earflaps

-173 / -114
• Ethyl alcohol freezes
• Only Door County cherries usable in brandy Manhattans

-297 / -183
• Oxygen precipitates out of atmosphere
• Microbial life survives only on dairy products

-445 / -265
• Superconductivity

-452 / -269
• Helium becomes a liquid

-454 / -270
• Hell freezes over

-456 / -271
• Illinois drivers drop below 90 MPH on I-90
• Madison study committee on downhill water flow turns in findings

-458 / -272
• Incumbent politician renounces campaign contribution

-460 / -273 (Absolute Zero)
• All atomic motion ceases
• Wisconsinites allow as how it's getting a mite nippy
Richard S. Russell

No System To It

Rob Thomas is the film critic for The Capital Times here in Madison, and I always find his reviews to be informative, insightful, and well written. The one he did last week was no exception. It was a sympathetic interview with Milwaukeean Steve Burrows, director of the HBO documentary Bleed Out, about his decade-long struggle to find justice for his mother, who had been seriously disabled in what should have been a routine medical procedure.

Something about the review nagged at me, however, and I finally realized that it was the use of the term “health care system” in the headline and thruout the article. It perpetuates the mistaken notion that there is such a thing in America.

There is not.

I’ve done a fair amount of systems analysis in my time, and I’ve got a good grasp of what a system is supposed to be. Above all, it’s something that’s been designed, something to serve an intended purpose, with all its parts properly constructed to fit together smoothly to produce the desired result. If that were the case here in the US, we’d actually have proper health care for everybody. But it’s not. It’s stupendously excellent, world-class, cutting-edge health care for the privileged few, occasionally adequate and fitful attention for the bulk of people in the middle of the economic spectrum, sincere wishes of good luck for the people between jobs, bad nutrition and emergency-room visits for the poor, and “suck it up or please die quickly” for the desperate.

No, health care in America is like our measurement system. Not neat, orderly, consistent, and easy to learn and use like the metric system used by 95% of the world’s population. Instead it’s a cobbled-together patchwork of disparate profit centers like hospitals, pharmacies, independent medical practices, X-ray and lab-test providers, insurance companies, employee-benefit plans, lawyers, accountants, marketers, lobbyists, claims deniers, and of course corporate CEOs whose only joy greater than their annual 8-digit bonuses is pissing all over their competitors. The sole purpose of each of those independent components is not health care or patient sympathy but the ability to make a buck. And if there’s no money to be made, there’s no service.

That’s why, for example, you can get mail delivered to your front door 6 days a week for any address in the United States, or flip a switch and be assured that the lights will go on anywhere in America, but good luck if you need an emergency appendectomy in the northwoods of Wisconsin. No money in it, you know.

And that’s Wisconsin. Imagine what it’s like in Appalachia. Or Alaska. Or ranch country in Wyoming. Or Indian reservations in the Southwest. Or even inner-city Los Angeles, with no public transportation.

We can do better than this. Congress needs to buckle down and give us a serious health-care SYSTEM, like every other industrialized democracy on Earth! Sorry to say, they apparently have higher priorities. Instead of health care, they’re focusing on wealth care. But my rant on big money in politics is a topic for another day.

= = = = = =
Health tip: If you can’t afford a doctor, go to an airport. You’ll get a free X-ray and a breast exam. And, if you mention al-Qaeda, they’ll throw in a free colonoscopy.
Richard S. Russell

Righty-to-English Pocket Dictionary

You know how, if you’re a tourist and somebody says “bienvenu” to you, you can whip out your French-to-English dictionary and look up that it means “welcome”? Well, it’s the same deal with right-wing phraseology: It’s a language all its own. So, in an effort to promote better communication in American politics, here’s a start on a handy right-winger-to-normal-English dictionary:

fake news = honest reporting

enemy of the people = free press

alternative facts = lies

tort reform = corporate protection bill

tax relief = billionaire enhancement program

right to work = kill unions

healthy forests initiative = chop down more trees

clear skies act = no more birds

patriot act = civil liberties farewell tour

patriot = vigilante

dangerous criminal element = young black men

cost-effective corrections = for-profit prisons

enhanced interrogation techniques = torture

judicial activists = judges who’ve read the Constitution

secure elections = voter suppression

chain migration = family reunification

invaders = asylum seekers

rapists and murderers = Mexicans

security threats = Canadians

decisive leaders = authoritarian dictators

good people = racists and fascists

abstinence education = sexual ignorance

no child left behind = standardized testing for all

Satanic mind-rotting plot = evolution

just some egghead’s opinion = science

religious liberty = Christian fundamentalism for all

values voters = shameless self-righteous hypocrites

clean coal = dirty coal

world’s greatest hoax = climate change

that which may not be spoken = climate change

[obscenity redacted] = climate change

health-care system = health-insurance jungle

health-care plan = don’t get sick, or die quickly

Stalinism = Obamacare

Benghazi = Pearl Harbor

people = corporations

speech = money

peace = war

slavery = freedom

strength = ignorance

This list is still under construction. Additions welcome.
Richard S. Russell

Fixing the Problems with Personal Pronouns

This essay is about 2 problems with personal pronouns in the English language:

  1. ambiguity in the 2nd person (shown below in red) and

  2. inadequacy in the 3rd person (shown below in green).

Available Letters

I’m going to suggest using 1-letter pronouns as partial fixes for these problems. Here’s what we have to choose from:

What letters are available? The vowels, of course! But 3 of them are already spoken for:

  • A, the indefinite article (usually uncapitalized),

  • I, the 1st-person singular pronoun (invariably capitalized), and

  • O, an interjection of surprise or astonishment (also invariably capitalized).

That leaves us with these, currently unclaimed:

  • E

  • U

I recognize that Y is a “sometimes” vowel, as in “candy” but not in in “yard”, but it’s not pronounced “wye” in either of those cases, so it would make for a poor pronoun. I think that, if anything, it’ll be used in the future as a substitute for “why”. I’ll ignore it and focus on the E and U.

Fixing the 2nd-Person Pronouns

One of them fairly screams “Use me!”. That would be U, which is an obvious substitute for the singular “you” and is already in wide use (tho in its lower-case form) in texting. As a replacement for the plural, I recommend “yall” (no apostrophe). This is already in verbal use in some parts of the shallow South (where it’s apostrophized to indicate that it’s a contraction of “you all”), and I choose to turn the other way when I hear that in the deep South “y’all” is the singular and “all y’all” is the plural.

What problem would this fix? Suppose you’re addressing your board of directors and the treasurer asks what you plan to do about the slowdown in revenue. Your response? “Well, I’d like to have a separate meeting with you about that.” To whom does the “you” refer, the treasurer (singular) or the entire board (plural)? If you had “U” and “yall” available, you wouldn’t have to explain yourself.

Of course, it would be an incomplete solution if I just stopped with the objective case, so here’s the complete set of replacements:

Fixing the 3rd-Person Pronouns

So now let’s look at what we can do with E.

And here I turn to the most persistent and irritating problem in English, the final vestige of gender in the language: the 3rd-person singular pronoun, which lacks a “human” option. I realize that this is about the 50th suggested fix for the problem, and none of the others have ever managed to catch on, but I figure it’s worth trying anyway.

There’s nothing wrong with “he”, “she”, and “it” if the gender of the referent is known, and in fact having the gender association helps keep things sorted out. “We invited Bill and Sue; she could go, but he couldn’t.”

But what happens if the person’s gender is uncertain? “They told me to contact Pat. Are you, um, her? him?”. (AFAICT, nobody has ever seriously proposed using “it” in this situation, since “it” is literally inhuman, tho on rare occasions it’s been used to refer to infants.) Or what happens if you aren’t even talking about a particular person but an indeterminate one in the abstract? “The last person to leave needs to turn off the lights; he/she should also push all the chairs back in.” OK, you can get away with “he/she” in writing, but who ever does that when speaking?

In fact, for the longest time the practice was to always assume the masculine “he” (or “his” or “him”) for people of indeterminate gender. Of course, this built all sorts of biases (some conscious, many unconscious) into the language, and we’ve been making a concerted effort to overcome them. That’s how we got “Ms.” instead of “Miss” and “Mrs.”, “firefighter” instead of “fireman”, “letter carrier” instead of “mailman”, “officer” instead of “policeman”, and Time’s “Person of the Year” instead of “Man of the Year”. This is a trend I heartily endorse.

However, here’s a trend I most decidedly do not endorse: the use of plural pronouns (“they”, “them”, “their”, “theirs”) as if they were singular. Pronouns are supposed to help you quickly understand whom you’re talking about. (Remember Bill and Sue, AKA he and she, from up above?) If “they” can be either singular or plural, the pronoun has failed to do its job. “Someone told Jan and Kim they could leave early.” In the standard meaning of “they” (plural), it’s clearly Jan and Kim who could leave early. But if “they” could also be singular, perhaps it was intended to refer to the unnamed “someone”. How can we tell? Either further explanation is required (where none was before) or people proceed as if they understood what was intended (when they may not have). In short, use of plurals as legitimate singulars just introduces ambiguity into the arena, creating a new problem without actually eradicating the old one, since the temptation to use “he”, “him”, and “his” will continue to exist. No thanks!

So I’m proposing to put E to work, as follows:


Notice a couple of patterns here. The singular subjective pronouns would all be capitalized single letters: I, U, and E. The new “human” pronouns all begin with an “e” for consistency. Everything’s short, as pronouns should be. And the only place where any of them are already in use are for the very purposes I propose for them here.

These look like winners to me. But then, so do the metric system and my aversion to switching back and forth with daylight saving time. Still, somebody has to go first, so why not me?