Back in March 2009, I wrote a piece for Wisconsin Interest magazine that was more or less modeled on William Allen White’s famous "What’s the Matter With Kansas?" Updated and localized, but still using some of White’s rhetoric, I asked the same question about Wisconsin.
Four years later, it’s useful to remember where we were back in the waning days of the Jim Doyle Era:
*In December 2008, the Brookings Institution released a study showing that Wisconsin experienced a net loss of 20,000 people to other states in the last four years. From 2000 to 2004, Wisconsin gained residents from other states; but from 2004 to 2008, Wisconsinites voted with their feet, and the pace of their departure was accelerating.
*A September 2008 study from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Government found that Wisconsin has one of the five worst migration patterns in the country: While people with money are moving out, we were a magnet for the poor.4 In states like New Jersey, the Princeton study found, "poor people leave, but rich people do not." Wisconsin is the anti-Jersey: Wisconsin, it found, "is more attractive to low-income individuals than high-income earners."
*Wisconsin's per capita income has fallen from 98% of the national average at the beginning of the decade to under 94% at the end of last year - a drop of $5,000 a year for a family of four. Yet our neighbors - who share the scourge of our climate - continued to grow comparatively rich. Our per capita income ($34,476) lagged behind both Minnesota ($38,751) and Illinois ($38,297).
*We also lagged lag behind the nation and our own region both in creating jobs and opening new businesses. In 2006, the number of businesses nationally grew by 2.5%, while here the number of new private-sector businesses dropped 0.4%.6 By the end of 2007, the state had 2,487 fewer private businesses than it had in 2006.7 In 2008, Wisconsin was one of just 20 states where local venture capital funds raised no money at all.
Wisconsin wasn’t just losing dollars; the state was also losing brains. According to the UW Board of Regents, Wisconsin ranks dead last in attracting college graduates into the state; meanwhile, half of our new migrants from other states were high school dropouts. While the proportion of college graduates in the nation's population had actually risen 1.8% in the last five years, the percentage of our population holding at least a bachelor's degree (24.6%) dropped 0.3 percentage points. Wisconsin was last in the region, behind Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois.
Between 1989 and 2007, Wisconsin saw a net loss of 128,492 people with college degrees; people with diplomas were following the people with cash out the door.
So back in 2009, which direction were we headed?
Like White, I asked: What's the matter with Wisconsin? This is what I wrote then:
She has one of the worst budget deficits in the country, but we send up the cry for more spending and pork; lets the roads go to hell, but choo-choo trains for everyone! Losing manufacturing jobs? Let's find ways to tax businesses more and raise the costs of energy! Let's block nuclear power, litigate wind power and harass coal power!
Businesses shutting down? Raise the minimum wage; mandate mandatory sick pay and insurance coverage! Exports growing as a source of state jobs? Let's have the Legislature salivate for a Buy-American-Only trade war! Urban schools in meltdown? Strangle school choice if the unions demand it.
Above all, even as private business sheds jobs, fatten the public payroll, juice the fringe benefits, and bloat the public employee pensions! Tax sales, tax property, tax income, tax profits, tax gas, tax cars, tax the sick, tax iPods, and, by all means, go back to taxing the dead!
Our politicians steal money from the doctor-funded Patients Compensation Fund — and complain about the high cost of health care; require businesses to tack on a minimum markup and then lambaste them for "price-gouging." Our leaders sneer at oil company profits, demonize pharmaceutical companies, block Wal-Marts - but make sure to keep the casino cash flowing and campaign dollars rolling!
Then … contemplate passing a massive government-run health plan that will cost tens of billions of dollars while creating a new magnet for the poor, sick and dependent looking for a government handout.…
When businessmen complain about regulations, litigation, or taxation, let's let loose a cloud of pajama-clad bloggers and tenured hit men to deride, mock and assail them, questioning their motives and their integrity.
Now, four years later, after Governor Scott Walker has reversed course dramatically, Democrats have settled on Doyle-ally and cabinet member, Mary Burke, as their candidate to lead us back to those halcyon days.
It might be helpful to remind voters just what it used to be like around here.