Tag Archives: Wisconsin

Those “Laboratories of Democracy”

A friend from Madison, Wisconsin, often sends me articles from that city’s newspaper. The most recent one had this headline: “As Deficit Looms in Wisconsin, Minnesotans Fight Over How to Spend 1.9 Billion Surplus.”

I’ve written about Wisconsin and Minnesota before. Scott Walker and Mark Dayton were elected at the same time; Walker, as we all know, pursued GOP “austerity” policies–slashing money for state government and education in order to “return” money to taxpayers, while Dayton actually raised taxes and increased funding for education.

As I noted in a previous post,

Minnesota and Wisconsin share common roots: both were settled primarily by German and Northern European immigrants; both states engage heavily in farming; and, until recently, both shared a political culture of populist progressivism. So when their politics diverged (with the election of Republican Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Democrat Mark Dayton in Minnesota), it created a natural experiment.

What happens when you apply dramatically different economic policies in otherwise very similar states?

The Madison newspaper article provides us with an answer to that question.

While Wisconsin’s budget, enacted in July, sets the state up for a $210 million structural deficit, legislators across the Mississippi are arguing over how to spend a $1.9 billion surplus.

Of course, results inconsistent with ideology and/or the desires of campaign donors will be discounted and explained away by the true believers, because we live in a world where “reality” is what the most skillful and unscrupulous propagandists tell us it is….

You Going to Believe Me or Your Lying Eyes?

Minnesota and Wisconsin share common roots: both were settled primarily by German and Northern European immigrants; both states engage heavily in farming; and, until recently, both shared a political culture of populist progressivism. So when their politics diverged (with the election of Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Mark Dayton in Minnesota), it created a natural experiment.

What happens when you apply dramatically different economic policies in otherwise very similar states?

These two governors aren’t simply Republican and Democrat: Walker is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Koch Brothers and espouses their brand of radical conservatism with almost religious zeal; Dayton is an unabashedly progressive Democrat. The two of them took their respective states in diametrically different directions. Walker attacked unions, cut property taxes and cut funding for education and infrastructure. Dayton raised taxes by 2.1 billion, and increased funding for primary and secondary education by $485 million, among other things.

So which state is doing better economically?

Minnesota’s Department of Revenue recently announced that the state’s budget SURPLUS has risen to $1 billion. At the same time, its unemployment rate in November was the lowest  since 2001 – 3.7%. Minnesota is the fifth fastest growing state economy, with private-sector job growth exceeding pre-recession levels. Forbes rates Minnesota as the eighth best state for business.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s budget DEFICIT sits at $1.8 billion and its unemployment rate is 5.2%. It ranks 34th for job growth.

Rhetoric may carry the day on Faux News, but on the ground, policies have real-world consequences.



If Evidence Mattered….

When I was researching my 2007 book, God and Country: America in Red and Blue, I came across surveys that asked clergy of various denominations about their economic policy preferences and beliefs. Not surprisingly, there was a split among Protestants between those who favored the “Social Gospel” and those we might think of as Social Darwinists.

What did surprise me was the discovery that the most conservative clergy viewed capitalism as the only economic system compatible with Christianity–as though Adam Smith’s “Hidden Hand” was another word for God.

Clergy aren’t the only folks whose economic beliefs have a whiff of religious ferver about them, of course. That’s what makes economic policy so tricky–ideology regularly trumps evidence. I thought about that when I read a recent article in the New York Times comparing economic performance of Wisconsin and Minnesota, states with similar histories, political cultures and weather.

In 2010, Wisconsin–as everyone who follows politics knows–elected Republican majorities in both houses of its legislature and Scott Walker (very rightwing protege of the Koch brothers) as Governor. Also in 2010, Minnesota elected Mark Dayton, described by the Times as one of the most progressive candidates for governor in the country, and in 2012 gave him a Democratic legislature to work with.

Minnesota raised taxes by 2.1 billion dollars, and introduced the fourth highest income tax bracket in the country. Wisconsin, under Walker, reduced taxes and spending, and attacked the collective bargaining rights of unions.

So–how have these states fared? According to the article, three years into Walker’s term, Wisconsin ranks 34th in the nation for job growth, well behind Minnesota, which has the fifth fastest-growing state economy. (Forbes ranks Minnesota as the 8th best state for business.) This is particularly noteworthy, since Minnesota’s economy was “subpar” under Dayton’s predecessor, Tim Pawlenty.

Dayton invested heavily in K-12 education and all-day kindergarden; Walker cut state funding of K-12 schools by more than 15%.

Dayton expanded Medicaid, and created a state insurance exchange that enrolled 90% of its first month’s target. Premiums in Minnesota are on average the lowest in the country. Walker refused to expand Medicaid or create an exchange, and as the Times reports, “The uninsured and ill bear the burden.”

Everything isn’t peachy in Minnesota, but it’s hard to ignore the difference in economic performance–not to mention quality of life–between the two approaches. It turns out that beating up on school teachers and other public servants while giving tax breaks to the wealthy doesn’t produce jobs or spur economic growth. It also turns out that raising taxes isn’t necessarily an economic kiss of death.

Not that evidence matters. There’s a reason we call it “blind faith.”



On Wisconsin

In the movies, the righteous “little guy” usually prevails over the moneyed forces seeking to enrich themselves further at the expense of the public. In real life, not so much.

Today is the Wisconsin recall election. As the media has endlessly intoned, this is only the third time in American history that a sitting Governor has been subject to a recall. (The last time was in California, where we expect such shenanigans.)

Whatever else is at stake in Wisconsin, today’s election is first and foremost about the power of money. Scott Walker, the Governor, is so obviously a pawn of the plutocrats who own him body and–if he has one–soul that he barely matters. For those who’ve been hiding out on another planet (actually, a wise decision) the facts are simple: Walker narrowly won the Governor’s race, and immediately began bargaining with Wisconsin’s public-sector unions for “givebacks,” citing the state’s fiscal woes. The unions largely acceded, agreeing to wage and benefit cuts. After getting what they wanted, Walker and the GOP legislature nevertheless proceeded to strip the unions of their bargaining rights.

In the ensuing furor, it became pretty clear that this had been Walker’s game plan all along, despite the fact that his anti-bargaining position never surfaced during his campaign for office.

Walker’s hard-right ideology–fueled by huge donations by the infamous Koch brothers and other wealthy backers–hasn’t been limited to union-busting. He also signed a bill repealing Wisconsin’s equal pay law, rolling back the principle that men and women doing the same job should be paid the same wage.

In the wake of Walker’s betrayal of the unions that had bargained with him in good faith, there were weeks of demonstrations. Working women were furious at his assault on the principle of equal pay. His closest advisors are under investigation for criminal activities. A former college girlfriend has gone public with a story about how the “pro life” Walker deserted her when she got pregnant and refused to have an abortion. Wisconsin’s job numbers are dismal–dead last, according to one report.

With all this, you’d think this recall would be a slam-dunk. You’d be wrong.

I am not a fan of recalls as a policy matter, but Wisconsin law allows them, and this Governor has been a disaster for Wisconsin. Nevertheless, polls show him slightly ahead going into today’s election, and that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed the money trail. The wealthy backers who have actually been deciding Wisconsin’s policies have poured millions of dollars into the campaign,  burying Tom Barrett, his opponent, in a blizzard of radio, television and internet ads. Campaign contributions are running 8-1 in Walker’s favor, and in our post Citizens United world, Wisconsin voters have little idea where that money is coming from.

The real question Wisconsin voters will answer today is: can money buy democracy?

This isn’t a movie, and I’m very much afraid the answer will be yes.

Vote–If You Can

Voter ID laws, as we all know, are a method to prevent voter fraud– in advance, apparently, since there is little or no evidence that in-person vote fraud has ever been a problem. Actually, as any sentient being knows, it is a way to keep “those people” from voting–“those people” being folks more likely to vote for the other party’s candidates.

Wisconsin has a voter ID law, which (like that in Indiana)requires their BMV to issue free ID’s to those who would otherwise be unconstitutionally disenfranchised. A minor scandal erupted when an email from a state official emerged, instructing BMV workers not to issue ID’s unless specifically asked, and not to inform customers that they were available. When an outraged emloyee urged his coworkers to “spread the word” among their acquaintances that people who needed them should ask, he was fired.

This was all about preventing fraud, of course. And I have some bargain beachfront property to sell you…

Of course, these efforts to make voting more inconvenient or difficult–and thus less likely–aren’t limited to Voter ID laws. Here in Marion County, where the incumbent Mayor needs all the help he can get to stay in office, Republicans have adamantly refused to approve satellite voting sites. They cite the expense, an excuse that rings pretty hollow from the party whose Mayor wants us to reelect him because, among other things, he has given money to private developers. (His words, not mine.)

Oh well. That “self rule” thing wasn’t working out so well anyway. Right?