Tag Archives: Wisconsin

Oh Wisconsin….

And the hits keep coming…

It’s bad enough that every day brings a new outrage from those a reader of this blog aptly dubbed “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” –Trump, Pence, McConnell and Ryan. What is even more depressing at a time when our hopes for sanity lie with local resistance to the anti-intellectualism, self-dealing and demagoguery in Washington is news of similarly destructive behavior by state-level fools and toadies.

Remember Wisconsin’s Scott Walker? A perfect contemporary Republican–a corrupt lackey of big money, antagonistic to education, dismissive of science? Of course you do.

When I read a friend’s post to the effect that Wisconsin’s DNR webpage had been scrubbed clean of all uses of the word “climate”–and altered to imply a lack of scientific consensus about anthropogenic global warming–I checked with Snopes.

Turned out to be true.

In a 26 December 2016 op-ed published by the digital newspaper Urban Milwaukee, environmental writer James Rowen reported that a section of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) web site, originally titled “Climate Change and Wisconsin’s Great Lake,” had been substantially altered:

Gone are references to known “human activities” contributing to a warming planet, warming’s contributions to changes in rainfall and snowfall patterns, extreme weather events, drought, species and economic losses are among other truths whitewashed off this official, taxpayer-financed website.

Snopes reproduced the former text, which had accurately reported the relevant science, and that which replaced it; the new language says that reasons for changing conditions “are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”

Responding to our request for comment, Wisconsin DNR Communications Director James F Dick stated that their office’s official position is that the science is not settled and that the page was updated to reflect this view.

Of course, the science is settled. As Snopes concludes,

The overwhelming scientific consensus from the climatological community is that the climate is indeed warming and that human activity is contributing to that process.

Here’s what mystifies me: if the settled science is right, and we do not act, we will face massive planetary devastation. If the settled science is wrong, and we do act, the worst thing that will happen is we’ll get cleaner air and water, and cheaper and more renewable energy.

This doesn’t seem like a difficult choice.

Oh yes– fossil fuel companies will make less money. But I’m sure that has nothing to do with climate change denial….

When the history of this era is written–assuming there are survivors left to write that history–it will undoubtedly be called “the age of insanity.”

When Evidence Doesn’t Matter

A friend who lives in Wisconsin recently shared an article from the Madison newspaper, detailing the declining rank of the University of Wisconsin in the wake of Scott Walker’s savage cuts to that institution.

Now-retired UW-Madison Chancellor John Wiley would often say that it took well over 100 years for the people of Wisconsin to build a world-class university, but it won’t take but a few years to tear it all down.

We saw the first signs of how true Wiley’s observation is when late last week the National Science Foundation reported that the UW-Madison has fallen from the ranks of the top five research universities in the country, a position it had maintained for the past 40 years.

The news underscored how the university is being impacted by the draconian policies of the current crop of Republicans who are running state government. .The governor and several key legislators have consistently insisted that UW faculty are overpaid and coddled. Walker chided that budget cuts could be weathered if only professors taught one more course. Other legislators would go so far as threatening more budget cuts when they would hear of a class they didn’t like.

Not surprisingly, a number of professors have left for greener pastures, and have taken their research grants with them, exacerbating the University’s fiscal woes.

As the article points out, Walker’s dogged insistence that cutting taxes and spending are the cure for anything that ails state government isn’t just affecting the university.

Wisconsin’s once-proud K-12 public education system is being forced to go begging to property taxpayers with referendums just to keep school districts’ heads above water. The condition of our lakes and streams and even our groundwater has been deteriorating each year and the DNR, charged with protecting it all, is being starved to death under a secretary who won’t fight for it. Our job creation is far below the national average and Wisconsin workers, many no longer protected by unions, earn less.

Wisconsin’s experience isn’t unique. Kansas’ economy continues to decline under the similar ideology and even more draconian policies of Sam Brownback. Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, has presided over the abysmal performance of Detroit’s schools, thanks to a radical privatization philosophy she and Trump want to employ nationally. Paul Ryan and other House Republicans have their guns trained on Medicare, ignoring the fact that the program is both popular and cost-effective.

In each of these cases–and many others I could cite–elected officials are pursuing their ideological commitments with a decidedly religious fervor. Reality be damned.

When evidence doesn’t matter and experience doesn’t inform, Dark Ages aren’t far off.

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.”