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Social media can be hazardous to truth PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 08 November 2017 16:00

Free speech has limits.
    The classic exception frequently cited in academic discussions before the invention of the internet as an example of harmful speech undeserving of protection by the First Amendment was crying “Fire!” falsely in a crowded theater and causing dangerous panic.
    In the internet age, the equivalent of “Fire!” is shouted many times every day, and often panic ensues. This happens on social media, where anyone is free to say anything—true or false, innocent or malicious, benign or harmful.
    Social media giants Facebook and Twitter are under fire in Congress for allowing their platforms to be used by Russia to influence the American presidential election with a massive disinformation campaign, but there is a telling example of the consequences of misleading social media communication much closer to home.
     The example is a story of how panic, or at least “mild hysteria,” as a police spokesman characterized it, resulted from rumors spread on social media by Port Washington High School students and some of their parents that caused more than 100 students to skip school on Oct. 27.
    The story illustrates not only the pernicious effect of bogus information broadcast by social media, but also the power of the likes of Facebook to drown out accurate information disseminated by trusted institutions.
    It started, fittingly, with social media posts by a Port High student who called himself “Mr. Yeah” on Snapchat, which led to an exchange with other students, including the comment, “I’m going to kill myself Friday night at 11:59 p.m. and the auditorium.” (Police said he meant to type “at” the auditorium.)
    The post was brought to the attention of school administrators and police, who tracked down Mr. Yeah, arrested him and put him in the county jail.
    Authorities quickly determined the threat was not legitimate. High school Principal Eric Burke said that based on the police investigation it was clear that the incident amounted to “a student being inappropriate with social media.”
    Nevertheless, both school and police authorities took pains to allay any fears the incident might have raised. The Port Washington Police Department issued a press release and the high school sent an email to parents, both messages clearly explaining the situation and reporting the fact that the student who was responsible for it had been arrested and was in jail.
    This well-handled outreach to the community occurred on Wednesday, Oct. 25. Overnight, rumors and statements that seemed deliberately false, including made-up claims that police had arrested the wrong person and that the culprit who made threats was on the loose, spread over social media. By Thursday morning the high school and police department had to deal with parents demanding to know if it was safe to send their children to school. The high school principal sent another email to parents stating flatly: “There were no threats to students or our school.”
    Yet more than 100 students, about 15% of the student body, did not show up for classes on Friday.
    Police Captain Michael Keller said officers interviewed some of the students who started or passed along rumors on social media. “They admitted they didn’t know what they were talking about,” he said. “A lot of this was caused by students using social media, which got parents worked up, and all of a sudden we had a bit of mild hysteria on our hands.”
    Though this may seem like small stuff at a time when false information spread on the internet can destroy reputations and skew elections, it is a vivid display of how easily irresponsible use of social media can become a negative force.
    Social media, whose place in society is now about as certain as death and taxes, are not going away, but their empowering of misinformation has to be addressed.
    Facebook and Twitter have some culpability, especially in allowing their networks to be vulnerable to propaganda, but so too do the users of social media, including those who without malicious intent share the misinformation, rumors and the concocted false narratives that inspired the term fake news.
    The reason for the existence of the internet is to inform, and yet much of the responsibility for the damage to truth caused by social media falls on users who are poorly informed, gullible and unable or unwilling to separate fact from fiction.
    It has been suggested that the energetic exchange by the Port students of wild rumors born in fantasy rather than any semblance of fact was an internet-era ploy by teenagers to facilitate playing hooky. That is almost a comforting explanation; after all, scheming to find a legal way to legally skip school has been a time-honored tradition for many generations of students.
    But we have to ask: What were the adults thinking? Concern about their children’s safety is certainly understandable, but did more than 100 sets of parents really buy into rumors that had no more reason to be taken seriously than that they appeared on Facebook, Twitter or Snapchat?

Tax politics threaten retirement savings PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 01 November 2017 17:13

Should American workers finance a massive tax cut for businesses by giving up some of their retirement savings?
    That may sound like a dumb question, but it is being asked seriously in the U.S. Congress.
    The central feature of the tax law changes being considered by Congress is to reduce the business tax rate from 35% to 20%. The resulting loss of revenue, along with tax cuts for high-income payers, is forecast to add $5 trillion to the federal deficit over 10 years. This conflicts with a congressional rule that requires that changes in tax policy have no effect on the federal budget in 10 years.
    Which is why some in Congress want to severely limit the 401(k) plans millions of Americans depend on for retirement income.
    Republicans have been trying to keep the details of their tax overhaul plan under wraps, but members of Congress have said it calls for a drastic reduction in the cap on 401(k) contributions.
    The proposal would impose a $2,400 annual limit on contributions—a mere one-tenth of the $24,000 cap now in effect for workers age 50 and older and more than $15,000 lower than the $18,000 annual cap for younger workers.
    The 40l(k) program is in the sights of those bent on cutting business taxes to the level demanded by President Trump because it allows participants to defer paying taxes on contributions until the money is withdrawn. Limiting contributions would instantly bring in more tax revenue from workers to help offset tax-cut losses.
    William Gale, a former economic adviser to President George H.W. Bush now with the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, called the proposed caps “just an enormous budget gimmick . . . raiding future revenues to pay for current tax cuts.”
    This is retrograde policy at its worst, concocted to serve a political agenda and threatening to take the quality of life of families backward by denying them adequate access to the retirement program more Americans depend on than any other besides Social Security.
    Since 1980, when the program was added to the tax code, 401(k) accounts have become the most common employer-sponsored retirement plans. They are more important now than ever because company pension plans have mostly disappeared.
    The $2,400 annual cap would be too small to add up to a comfortable next egg and would likely discourage many workers from even bothering to sign up for their employer’s 401(k) plan.
    The genius of 401(k) is not just that it gives workers control over their retirement savings; it is also that it enables them to participate in the country’s economic growth by investing in the stock market with the professional guidance that is included with most 40l(k) programs and paid for by employers.
    The threat to the retirement plans opens another window on political hypocrisy. Advocates for cutting the business tax by more than 40% argue it’s needed to stimulate the economy, yet to facilitate it they would restrict workers’ ability to enjoy the fruits of that prosperity by severely limiting the amount of their earnings they can contribute to 401(k) stock and bond investments.
    President Trump said he would not sign a tax bill that does not cut the business tax to 20%. Then he tweeted there should be no change in the “great and popular middle class tax break” of the 40l(k) program.
    People who have learned that the president’s views have a short shelf life were probably not surprised when he said a few days later that it was all right if the 401(k) proposal was part of legislative negotiation.
    A survey taken last year found that three-fourths of Americans fear they won’t have enough money to support themselves through retirement.
    Sadly, there will be good reason for that number to grow if 401(k) is crippled for a tax cut.

The Town of Grafton is not a firing range PDF Print E-mail
Written by Ozaukee Press   
Wednesday, 25 October 2017 16:16

It would be no surprise if a scientific analysis of the soil in areas of the Town of Grafton revealed an abnormally high content of lead. Thousands of rounds of ammunition have been fired over that land.
    The Town of Grafton, particularly the part along Highway C between Port Washington and Lakefield Road, was once the home of some of the most intensely hunted public hunting grounds in the state.
    On opening day of upland game season, the shoulders of Highway C were parked chock-a-block with hunters’ vehicles. When the hundreds of hunters took to the fields and legal hunting started on a Saturday noon, the barrage could have passed for the thunder of a military assault.
    Much of the lead in the ground is no doubt in the form of No. 6 shot, the shotgun-shell pellet size favored by pheasant hunters. The Grafton hunting grounds were pheasant-hunting nirvana, thanks to the great numbers of the gaudy birds planted in the fields rented from farmers for public hunting by the DNR.
    This is not ancient history. Hunting was flourishing in rural Grafton as late as the last quarter of the 20th century. Then things changed. Homes popped up in what once were the wide-open spaces. Subdivisions consumed vast tracts of former farmland. An enormous shopping complex rose a short distance from the hunting grounds.
    Today, though crops are still grown on some land under contract, working farms are a thing of the past in the Town of Grafton. Residential development is surging. Town roads are busy, not with the vehicles of hunters, but with commuters, sightseers, bike riders, runners and walkers and people bound for the beauty and serenity of the county park created adjacent to the one-time hunting grounds, Lion’s Den Gorge Nature Preserve.
    The character of the area has changed to the point where shooting must be considered mostly an obsolete pastime in the Town of Grafton. And certainly, shooting rifles that fire high-velocity bullets, which unlike the short-range shotgun loads that once fell on the hunting grounds can fly for miles, cannot be considered safe in the current town environment.
     The more than 30 people wearing camouflage clothing who confronted the Grafton Town Board on Oct. 11 obviously disagree. They exercised their right as citizens to show up en masse to protest the town government’s restrictions on shooting ranges and expansion of the town’s no-discharge zone.
    Town Chairman Lester Bartel explained why the restrictions are needed: “We have received legitimate complaints about people coming out on weekends and firing hundreds of rounds of high-powered ammo, which has been scaring the bejeebers out of people.”
    In February, the board acted to put a stop to the use of land on Arrowhead Road, not far from the I-43 business district, for a firing range. Now the problem seems to have moved to the eastern part of the town near Highway C. Residents have reported prolonged firing of numerous guns and even shooting after dark. To be clear, this is not hunting; it’s shooting for the fun of shooting.
    The citizens who appeared at the board meeting to object to firearms restrictions were reacting to letters sent to owners of property where shooting has been taking place informing them that firing ranges are not allowed in the town.
    The residents were also informed of a possible amendment to the town’s nuisance ordinance that would further restrict the use of guns.
    The Town Board in on the right track. The type of shooting that is “scaring the bejeebers” out of some residents is simply not compatible with life in the town in the 21st century. Safety is the heart of the issue, but it is appropriate that the problem is being addressed under the nuisance ordinance—because the racket and anxiety caused by the shooting are truly a nuisance, one that people seeking the peace and quiet of the countryside should not have to endure.
    One of the firearms enthusiasts protesting the restrictions told the board, “I moved to the Town of Grafton so I could shoot.”
    His disappointment is understandable. The Town of Grafton is a nice place to live and shooting guns is a perfectly acceptable hobby that gives enjoyment to many, but the two do not go together.   

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