America’s Premier Welfare Queen: Bud Selig, Commissioner of Baseball

Part 1

On a warm August 1996 morning, Wisconsin Governor Tommy G. Thompson, 53, and others in his retinue, kick-started their Harleys for a day’s ride south from Superior down U.S. 53. The ride was not to be recreational, for the leader of this political pack would spend the day cajoling voters and legislators along the way to rally behind his call for a special, five-county sales tax for Milwaukee County and the four surrounding counties down in the far southeastern corner of the state. The taxes would be used to build a new baseball stadium for the then-Acting, now real Commissioner of Baseball, the improbable Bud Selig, a car salesman by trade, and his team, the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Brewers were a floundering franchise whose previous good fortunes had plummeted under the “management” of Selig, his daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb, and her husband, known to local wags as Laurel “Selig”-Prieb. Leeched dry by the salaries of that expensive family trio, the Brewers as an organization had managed to lose some $39 million over the preceding four years—though no one really knows, because Selig refused to disclose the team’s financial condition.

Selig was threatening to ditch Milwaukee unless the state provided him with a new, state-of-the-art ballpark with a retractable roof, luxury sky boxes, and all the bells, whistles, and accouterments Selig specified. It didn’t matter that Milwaukee already had the modest, but perfectly functional Milwaukee County Stadium. Selig needed a showpiece; and he was in a hurry to get started, for he wanted a Tower of Babel raised in time for the 1999 All-Star game. With a Taj Mahal, Selig, as Acting Commissioner, would then be able to entertain and impress his fellow owners in the style to which they had become accustomed—Late Modern Pretentious.

The Milwaukee media are impressed with, even awestruck by Selig. Their slobbering is embarrassing. They were impressed that Bud was “Acting Commissioner” with a then $1 million salary on top of what he leeches from the team. “Make money and the whole nation will conspire to call you a gentlemen,” George Bernard Shaw said.

That technique plays well in Milwaukee, my birthplace, a town whose pseudo-urbane mavens crave big-time, East Coast publicity. Milwaukee has a raging inferiority complex. We’re always on edge. People from New York confuse Milwaukee with Minneapolis. Milwaukee is best remembered for the gruesome Jeffrey Dahmer and its very bad drinking water that poisoned thousands in a 1993 epidemic caused by negligence at the municipal water works.

Because the Green Bay Packers moved away several years ago (they used to play three games a season here), Selig is the city’s only link to more conventional fame, though we had a couple of Playboy Playmates about 20 years ago (twins who displayed their gifts together in quadruple, though it is rumored they cheated with implants; and later got in some income tax trouble over gifts they received from a local geezer, though they were eventually cleared). Former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist was trying to make Milwaukee Big League, he was “fighting hard” for light rail with a line to the new ballpark. Our last link to fame was Spenser Tracy, who was born in Milwaukee and stayed a short time before hitting the big screen. Liberace also was born here. Abraham Lincoln once visited Milwaukee. And Clinton has dropped in a few times, mainly to visit local German eateries with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, though they had dinner at a burger palace.

Milwaukee’s publicity junkies and status seekers needed to keep the Acting Commissioner happy; and to be happy, Buddy Boy needed a new stadium. Then he could show George Steinbrenner and baseball’s other owners that his own people treat him like a real Major Leaguer. The Milwaukee media’s love affair with Bud is like “the worship of jackals by jackasses”, as Mr. Mencken would say. The spectacle was to onlookers like the performance of a very bad play, like the one George Kaufman saw when he leaned forward and politely asked the lady in front of him if she would mind putting on her hat. Kaufman later added, “I didn’t like the play, but then I saw it under adverse conditions—the curtain was up.”

The motorcycle jaunt was one the ubiquitous Thompson, a self-professed conservative Republican who still fancies himself presidential timber, would soon regret. Speaking to a crowd of voters along the way, Thompson pushed the tax real hard. “This is a no brainer, folks,” he said. “Stick it to ’em'”, the “it” being the sales taxes and the “’em'” the taxpayers of the lower counties, then a seemingly safe 300 miles away. Tommy Thompson is Ichabod Crane as a presidential candidate, but no one should ever drop his guard. Clinton made it. Bush II did too. As Clarence Darrow once said, “When I was a boy I was told that anybody could become President; I’m beginning to believe it.”

The next day, after the inevitable uproar over Thompson’s “stick-it-to-’em'” remarks had begun to subside, with great ballyhoo and bombast, Thompson unveiled some of the details of the proposal he styled as an “unprecedented . . . Partnership for Wisconsin: A Major League Community . . . A Winning State!! Play Ball!” The Media had a triple orgasm. An accurate description of the fanfare and hoopla over the “unprecedented partnership” would have been Alexander Woolcott’s review of a production called “Number Seven”: “Number Seven opened last night. It was misnamed by five.” Peter Sellers was right: “People will swim through s*** if you put a few bob in it.”

There was a lot of happy talk and bob, but one serious problem no one wanted to talk about: the partnership really was “unprecedented””unlike any other partnership, the “Partnership for Wisconsin!” had no intention of allowing the other “partners”—the taxpayers—access to the partnership financial records. Those partners would be given the unprecedented privilege of financing the partnership without the worry of knowing how the partnership was doing. Indeed the taxpayer-partners would even be spared the trouble of having to collect dividends on their investments and the annoying chore of reporting those dividends to Internal Revenue. Everyone was happy, for Milwaukee would now for sure be Major League. The general good cheer proved as Sinclair Lewis once said, that “Advertising is a valuable economic factor because it is the cheapest way of selling goods, particularly if the goods are worthless.”

Selig and Thompson eventually had their way with the Republican legislature, though barely. By a vote of 16-15 at dawn one day two months, after three failed tries that night and through the wee hours, the state senate approved Selig’s erection and enacted the taxes—but only after the now-legendary George Petak, an adamant opponent until the last minute, miraculously switched sides. Petak couldn’t resist the bob either. Seduced by fellow politician Thompson and car salesman Selig bonding together, historically, in a “Partnership for Wisconsin! A winning state!!”, Petak casting the deciding vote.

Part 2

The legislative “deliberations” were thought so important that the live birth of this Medusa was actually televised.  Most people, myself included, didn’t give a damn.  We should have been there hoisting the Jolly Roger, instead of watching the idiocy on the boob tube. Mencken was probably right when he said, “The typical American of today has lost all the love of liberty that his forefathers had, and all their disgust of emotion, and pride in self-reliance.  He is led no longer by Davy Crocketts; he is led by cheer leaders, press agents, word-mongers, uplifters.”

Immediately canonized that same morning by the Media as Milwaukee Baseball’s savior, Petak was eight months later thrown out of office by his angry Racine County constituents in a special recall election spearheaded by Elizabeth Ervin, a determined Davy Crockett horrified by Petak’s “immaculate conversion”.  But, like virtue, Petak’s flip-flop was ultimately its own reward—he was soon given a position in state government at a salary twice his legislative rate, curiously with a state agency that was slated to give Buddy some $50 million in bond proceeds for his edifice.  Petak, it must be said, is a modest man, who took his new fame characteristically; but like Churchill said of Attlee, “[H]e has much to be modest about.” Only in modern life could a man’s repudiation of his oath and word be grounds for sainthood.

Without saying so, the legislation called for a billion dollars in taxes and other subsidies for Bud and baseball.  But the legislation was then constantly misrepresented as costing a “mere” $250 million.

Supporters said that the tax served at “statewide public purpose”, namely boosting employment by keeping the Brewers and their then principal owner, Bud Selig from pulling out of town for greener pastures.

The argument that taxes can rightly be imposed for the benefit of baseball should be presumptively suspect to anyone giving it a millisecond’s thought: it presumes that baseball has something in common with fire and police, prisons, courthouses, and other constitutionally-authorized public purposes. The argument is far-fetched, to say the least.

All those customary public purposes cannot well be fulfilled without government. The costs of fire and police protection cannot be easily allocated to individual users and must be collectivized. That’s not true of baseball; the costs can be easily allocated to the users, the fans. Baseball is the greatest of all sports, but it’s no more a public purpose than the corner tavern, “Hooters”, or any other enterprise.

It was said that the $1 billion baseball bail-out would create jobs. But no one explained how taking cash from taxpayers and redistributing it to millionaires like Selig and his equally affluent players can create a net increase in jobs. It can’t, of course: the taxes are merely redistributions; had the $1 billion in baseball taxes and subsidies been left in the hands of the taxpayers, they could have spent the money on their own job-creating preferences.

The legislation establishing Major League Baseball and Bud as Wisconsin’s most elegant welfare queens flagrantly violates the Wisconsin and federal constitutions—so much so that it is only minor exaggeration to say that it’s hard to find a section of the Wisconsin constitution not violated, as a group of Wisconsin taxpayers, led by the irrepressible George Watts, discovered. When they investigated the legislation, they found some 15 separate state and federal constitutional violations and sued Tommy G. Thompson, Selig’s Brewers, and others to block the bail out. Watts need not have even applied; the case was over practically before it started.

The legislation’s leaden unconstitutionality  was cause enough for great concern. But the greater cause for despair, even panic, was the behavior of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in “hearing” the case. The court had a temper tantrum that witnesses won’t soon forget.

From the outset, Watts and his band of taxpayers were treated like vermin. It’s hard to say what the most abusive abuse of judicial power was: not letting the taxpayers present argument on nine of their 15 claims; giving the taxpayers only three days—starting the day after Christmas 1995—to reply to Thompson’s and Selig’s 50 pages of arguments; announcing that no extensions would be granted; holding the taxpayers hostage by refusing to recognize that the taxpayers, as was their absolute right, and seeing the handwriting on the wall, had dismissed the case and refiled in federal court; and finally in this matter of claimed public “urgency”, waiting until Opening Day of the baseball season in Milwaukee, some three months later, to issue an unsigned, anonymous decision that lifted nearly all of its verbiage verbatim straight out of Thompson’s and Selig’s brief, handing Thompson the singular honor of not only writing the “historic” legislation, but also the court opinion upholding it! The only question was whether the Wisconsin Court scanned the Thompson-Selig brief into its word processors or whether it got the governor’s computer disk instead.

The court’s “decision” reached what must be an all-time low in judicial “service”. It dismissed ten of the taxpayers’ 15 claims with these words: “[W]e recognize that not all of the challenges are meritorious. Therefore, any of [the] challenges not discussed with specificity can be deemed to lack sufficient merit to warrant individual attention.” Poof. Two-thirds of an annoying case out of the way in 31 words. The court is getting more efficient all the time. And as to the five claims the court did at least purport to consider, it quite literally didn’t deal with a single argument the taxpayers made.

The federal court to which the taxpayers retreated also behaved almost as deplorably. Judge Thomas J. Curran simply rubber-stamped the supreme court’s “decision”. The actual basis for the judge’s decision remains a mystery. All Judge Curran had to say about the taxpayers’ arguments that they hadn’t been given a fair chance in the Wisconsin Supreme Court was: “[The court is] not persuaded . . . that the state court proceedings were so flawed that they did not comport with Due Process.” That was it. Though the judge seemed to recognize there was something unfair, he decided to “deem” the unfairness insufficiently unfair to disturb him enough to do anything about it. And he never even addressed the taxpayers’ other argument that the supreme court had lost jurisdiction over the case when the taxpayers immediately dropped it and refiled in federal court.

How long can we endure a judicial system where judges routinely decide cases with language like, “We deem them to be without merit”, or “I am not persuaded”? Are those the words of John Marshall or Caligula? Reasoned analysis or raw power? What’s happened to the rule of law? What’s happened to the very idea of law? Does it have any life left?

The answer is either “None” or “Not much”: the rule of law, like the constitution, is either stone-cold dead and “in the dark union of insensate dust” (Byron)—or in the throes of its terminal stage.

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Published in: on March 17, 2012 at 3:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

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