Jon Anne Willow

Wisconsin’s Small Government Experiment

By - Dec 14th, 2010 04:00 am
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There’s no use lamenting Wisconsin’s past as a progressive state. Heck, there’s no use in mourning the end of the whole country’s 70-year run in that general direction. For now, that’s all in the past, and progressives are as much to blame for the current state of things as conservatives.

Somewhere in the later 20th century, Democrats gave unions too much power over elections. Republicans gave too much to faith-based organizations and Big Business. Ultimately, both bellied up to the corporate trough, dropping the occasional crumb to the American People. And voters sat by, throwing bumper stickers on their cars and staying home on election day. Many of the best leaders in this country wouldn’t touch public service with a ten-foot pole now (though arguably this has always been the case). And here in Wisconsin, at least, it’s almost as easy to qualify for elected office as for parenthood. Or at least to be perceived as qualified.

That’s not to say we don’t have our shining lights. I won’t name names because there’s no way to not miss someone. I also won’t provide the longer list of people who serve in office to serve themselves (though Lee Holloway does come immediately to mind). But what I will say is this: Collectively, we’ve gone off the rails. The power pendulum in Wisconsin has swung mightily back and forth – in the last four decades, especially – and the result is a confusing mess of conflicting policy that is ultimately unproductive for everyone. Two years of guaranteed Republican control may or may not set us on a definitive course to the fabled land of Small Government and a compassionate noblesse oblige. Time will tell, but we can make some educated guesses about our near-term future from Scott Walker’s first big middle finger to the rest of the nation.

We’ve officially waved goodbye to the train, arguably the most ambitious government-sponsored economic growth initiative since Roosevelt’s 1935 Rural Electrification Administration. State governments and private industry then balked at the steep up-front costs and low profit margins of wiring less-populated areas. They couldn’t see that a wired country would be a more prosperous one, with more access to not only opportunity, but to goods and services that people would pay for. Roosevelt and his colleagues had to man-handle governors and corporate utility giants to make it happen, and to guarantee $400 million in federal funding (equal to $6.2 billion today). It took twenty years to complete, with some areas not served until the mid-1950s, but today the R.E.A. is seen as an unqualified success, with a default rate of less than 1%, a mere 10-year ramp to profitability and … the fact that everyone now has electricity.

During the train debate, most detractors referred vaguely to the “inevitable cost overruns”, the fact that they would never ride the train themselves and a general dislike of being told what to do. They didn’t want to be responsible for the potential 13-cents per taxpayer, per year cost of operating 80 miles of rail. They did, and do, want to uphold Walker’s campaign promise to one of his biggest funding sources – construction companies – by increasing funding for roads and bridges. And make no mistake, we DO need to maintain our roads and fix our bridges, but rail funding was never a trade for bridge money.

Walker’s plan to grow the economy also includes a 1% corporate income tax decrease for small business owners. I have spent hours laughing with my fellow proprietors (including conservatives) about this. We wonder how the new desktop printer we’ll buy with our savings will translate into jobs for Wisconsin. We’d rather have the revenue flowing into state coffers and used to help us create a competitive health insurance exchange. I mentioned this to State Senator Alberta Darling [R] recently, figuring that since she’s the co-chair of the joint finance committee she might be in a position to consider it. She suggested I check out Community Shares, which is trying to start up an insurance exchange for sole proprietors and small businesses. “I wish them luck, I really do,” she said. Me too, I guess…

Like most commentators, I could go on and on. But what I’m really getting at is that we’ve got a mess on our hands. As my alderman recently said to me, “If it costs $5 to run a city, no matter how much you cut, it’s still going to cost $5. You can make it cost $4.95 for a while, maybe, but not without fundamentally shifting your structure and the scope of your responsibilities.”

It’s a point well taken. If we continue to favor only revenue cuts for growing the economy, government’s ability to function will decline along with it. Which will be great for Big Business and the wealthiest 2% of Americans, but lousy for the rest of us. Don’t believe the hype: trickle-down economics is a joke. Service jobs are not middle class, family-supporting positions, and they will not be able to fuel the consumption-based engine that drives this country’s economy. Besides, the secret to amassing wealth is to not spend your money. The rich know this, and a willingness to rely on them to provide for the rest of us is the height of ignorance.

Interestingly, nobody living today who espouses the virtues of very small government has ever experienced it, though many of those same people have prospered despite those pesky taxes and road construction detours. If this new breed of conservatism does will out, however, we’ll all get to see it firsthand. So grab your money and your guns, and get ready for the new frontier.

0 thoughts on “Wisconsin’s Small Government Experiment”

  1. Anonymous says:


  2. Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed this story and your opinion throughout very much. I read all of your stories. Not often do I feel the need to respond to philosophies that I disagree with; because I am a firm believer in ‘to each his/her own’. Discussing ones differing opinions rarely – if ever – lead to any positive outcome. Understanding as to where one is coming from yet still disagreeing is good for everyone I believe. Agree to disagree, is a motto that many more people should adhere to. Yet, I do get myself very upset when ‘Trickle Down’ economics gets lambasted by those who don’t understand what exactly is being laid out with the ‘Trickle Down’ premise. Whereas ‘Trickle Down’ has never been advocated in any economic book or class, it is because the true meaning of ‘Trickle Down’ has been jumbled up to the point where it basically means to most that the rich keep getting richer. I believe that the ‘Trickle Down’ philosophy needs to be renamed to correctly explain its existence. I encourage you to read another ‘opinion’ article such as yours that actually attempts to explain what people who support ‘T-D’ really mean when they say the dirty words of ‘Trickle Down’. Understanding the true meaning of ‘T-D’ is helpful to all whether or not once understanding the true philosophy of it. I by no means expect anyone’s opinion to change after reading the article attached to the link below; just want everyone to be on the same page. Thank you again for your insights. I look forward to more of your articles.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hi Seth, Thanks for your comment, and for the link. I’ll definitely read it, though no promises on changing my mind. 🙂

  4. Anonymous says:

    Nice piece, Jon Anne. Thanks much. I’m afraid that the right wing will have to live with the term ‘trickle down’ and its negative vibe. Just one of those things. While Seth’s reference to Thomas Sowell and his cherry-picked data about the ’80s rate reduction and revenue increase, ironically, that and Reaganomics produced nothing but growing deficits and huge defense spending increases. Strangely enough, the tax increases of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton contributed to the 90s boom and the first surplus in decades. Further, the introduction of supply-side economics (voo doo some said?) in 1980, marked the beginning of the huge hockey stick of growth in wealth of the top 1 % or 2% of income earners and stagnant income growth for everybody else. Indeed, it’s the revenge of the angry old white guys. Like my aged father in law says, “The train? Why would I use it? Waste of money.” He was opposed to the Interstate system back in the 50’s. Communist plot. Figures.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I completely agree, but what can the little guy do? I sit there and when I see these politicians bickering, it is just a sad joke about getting things done and I laugh. I have a more extreme view of the governmental system today.

    1. It is completely broken and there is no hope of fixing it unless we start over from ground zero.

    2. I firmly believe the political caste would prefer a semi-stupid voting base (Dumb/Ignorant people are easy to lie to.) The government has successfully accomplished this by pulling money from education and putting it into bombs.

    3. I believe a reliable solution to the current problem we have now is to be able to fire a politician that is full of it. (Fire within reason) To accomplish that would be sticky but it could be done in the same token easy enough. Politicians are the only ones I know of that can’t be just fired (I know the legals, but it should change so we can) If I can’t hold my own in my job I would get fired, if I don’t know what I’m doing I’d get fired. If I screw up with 20 millions people’s lives or more I’d definitely get fired! The politicians currently mess up and affect an entire nation. They should be fired for their complete idiocy.

    4. I believe that all political control was lost during the Vietnam War. I think that’s when Americans really started to lose control of their own government. I can’t vote on even the smallest of things that affect my life. The only thing I can vote on is my small government reps which can’t do anything for me really on the grand scale and which moron gets elected President in 4 years whom also will do nothing for me except blender things up more. I do admire what Obama was trying to accomplish but there is just too much Red Tape and bickering politicians in the way to get anything done. I need a governement that can make a decision, not one that sits arguing it for 3 years.

    5. Perhaps some of my views are misinformed or biased and I don’t pay strong attention to the political arena but I don’t need to in order to see or feel how bad the situation is out there with finances, big business and politics. If something isn’t done and this problem isn’t figured out and the middle class and poor get to the point of breaking, then chaos will ensue.

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