Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Economic Madness of Robin Vos

His stance on “prioritizing” research could hurt our universities and the state economy.

By - Nov 18th, 2014 12:19 pm

Back in the 1980s, three economics professors, Robert Wilson of Stanford, Paul Milgrom of Northwestern and R. Preston McAfee (University of Texas), worked together conducting research on “game theory and auctions.” It was just the sort of seemingly trivial, silly-sounding research that critics of universities point to, but it became crucial in 1993, when Congress granted the Federal Communications Commission authority to auction portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. The three profs helped design the auction, helping pave the way for the telecommunications revolution.

Robin Vos

Robin Vos

If Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) had his way, that sort of research probably wouldn’t be getting conducted at UW-Madison, one of the nation’s research powerhouses. “Of course I want research, but I want to have research done in a way that focuses on growing our economy, not on ancient mating habits of whatever,” Vos said at a press conference. “So we want to try to have priorities that are focused on growing our economy.”

Vos was referring to research on the sleep habits of fruit flies and mice by Chiara Cirelli and Giulio Tononi, two highly regarded UW-Madison professors in the department of psychiatry, whose research gained them a grant of $1.6 million in the first year and up to $7.7 million over five years from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “We are trying to understand why we sleep, why we need to sleep,” Cirelli told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We have a lot of evidence already that the major mechanisms of the regulation of sleep are surprisingly similar in flies, in mice and in humans.”

I’m not a scientist, but it’s not hard to imagine the potential impact of such research. Could it lead to better rested and happier people who incidentally are more productive at work? Could it help astronauts in space, truck drivers handling long night shifts or air traffic controllers? Could it lead to the creation of a more effective sleeping pill or to other medical breakthroughs?

Or could this research — horror of horrors — simply help us better understand the world in which we live? In short, could it simply help accomplish what we have created our universities to do: to advance the state of learning and pass this knowledge on to students.

Vos’s comment — and his suggested state policy to “prioritize” university research — is wrong on so many levels, one barely knows where to begin explaining why.

This is research that will bring as much as $7.7 million in federal funding to Wisconsin. Is Vos suggesting the university turn this down?

Such grants are what makes UW-Madison by far the state’s biggest research powerhouse and among a handful of the top research universities in the country. UW-Madison now spends about $1.2 billion on research, with about half of the money coming through federal grants. Does Vos want less of this money flowing into this state?

When experts talk about building a new economy in Wisconsin, they routinely note the state’s most important building block is all the UW research grants and resulting patents issued. This, for instance, led directly to the biotech industry in Madison. “If you look at the most prosperous regions in the United States — San Francisco, Boston, Chicago — it’s no surprise that nearly all of them are affiliated with research institutes,” David Krakauer, professor of genetics and director of Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, told the Cap Times. Has Vos somehow missed the drum beat of experts across the country saying you can’t build a new economy without high quality research universities?

Or does Vos understand this, but thinks legislators can better decide which research can lead to cutting edge applications and innovative new companies. If so, how? Would Vos, for instance, approve funding for the sort of wooly-headed professor who spends his time imagining what it would be like to ride a beam of light? That silly sounding thought experiment led to Einstein’s theory of relativity, and incidentally to the creation of a GPS systems, among other applications. In Wisconsin, Krakauer noted, the accidental discovery of the advantages of irradiating milk cured the world of rickets and led to the establishment of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which today has an endowment in excess of $2 billion.

If legislators are to set the criteria for what is acceptable research, what will be the message to wealthy alumni of UW-Madison like John and Tashia Morgridge, who just announced a $100 million grant to the university. They previously gave $100 million over several years to fund the Morgridge Institute for Research, which does a wide range of scientific research. Would they want to keep funding it if legislators were to decide what research is acceptable?

To state the obvious, the Morgridges haven’t given any money to the state legislature. But they have endowed UW faculty chairs in reading, computer science, economics, geoscience, business, pediatric nursing and health systems innovation, which seems to bespeak a tremendous faith in the broadest kind of academic learning. I doubt they’d be as interested in donating to a university that prioritizes only learning that helps grow the economy.

Vos’s comment arose from his concern that professors should be teaching more courses. That’s certainly an issue worth discussing, but attacking award-winning research is a poor way to address it. Moreover, if his goal is to get more bang for the state’s buck, the reality is that UW full professors earn about 15 percent or $18,000 less in annual salary than their peer group professors. They are “pretty much at the bottom of the Big Ten,” as University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank has noted.

The percent of the UW System paid by the state has been dropping for about three decades. The state now pays for less than a quarter of the budget. Meanwhile the UW-Madison endowment — and private donations — have become an ever bigger part of how the state’s flagship institution funds itself. Those donations could decline drastically if it became a university which could only conduct research related to growing the economy. And in the long run, such restrictions would badly damage the economy Vos wants to help.

Vos’s Other Dumb Comment

The Assembly Speaker also embarrassed himself by criticizing Milwaukee Bucks owner Marc Lasry for supporting Democratic President Barack Obama. Referring to the Bucks owners hope for some state support for a new arena, Vos told the Business Journal: “If you’re looking to people for support, you certainly don’t want to poke people in the eye.”

One could imagine a more delicate approach, where Vos privately explains to the Bucks owners that legislators aren’t crazy about supporting an arena and Lasry publicly meeting Obama in Milwaukee just before the election doesn’t help the Assembly Speaker’s cause. But this public statement functions as a warning to all businesses that they dare not support Democrats for fear of reprisal.

And if business leaders had any doubt, they need simply look at the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, the state agency that has awarded nearly 60 percent of some $975 million in assistance distributed to firms that had contributed to Gov. Scott Walker or the Republican Governor’s Association.

Republicans were once the party of business, that supported business leaders across the board. But Walker’s extraordinary attacks on Trek Bicycle served notice that businesses that don’t fall in line will get trashed.  Once again, this is likely to hurt the state’s effort to build a new economy, because many of the leaders of high tech, alternative energy and other such industries are Democrats. The message to them from Vos and Walker is anything but welcoming.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

53 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: The Economic Madness of Robin Vos”

  1. Rich says:

    Keep the real news coming.

    Unfortunately, this will (likely) never be read by anyone who voted for Robin Vos. If, by chance it is, perhaps they can explain how these actions align with the “values” they saw in him when casting a ballot.

  2. PMD says:

    “Or does Vos understand this, but thinks legislators can better decide which research can lead to cutting edge applications and innovative new companies.”

    Great question. Do we trust our legislators to make these decisions? How would that work exactly? Would they even bother to consult with university staff before deciding?

    Between this and the Bucks comment, Vos is a colossal moron and a total embarrassment.

  3. Frank Galvan says:

    Why isn’t this person managing a Sizzler restaurant somewhere instead of mismanaging Wisconsin?

  4. John says:

    A Sizzler manager, awesome.

  5. Big Al says:

    What ever happened to that person who dumped a beer on Vos’ head during the Act 10 protests? I want to buy that person 2 beers – one for him/her to drink, and the other to dump again on Vos.

    Another business example similar to Trek – the state never seems to mention New Glarus Brewing, even though they seem to have done well (disclaimer: I routinely enjoy their products!). Is it because the owner is Democratic? I did hear former Assembly Majority Leader Kramer say he’d never drink their beer because of the owner’s political views; I get the sense that’s the way the entire GOP thinks.

  6. PMD says:

    No more Papa John’s for me. The owner is a Republican. I think that also rules out Pizza Hut and Domino’s. Can anyone recommend a pizza I can eat whose owner votes Democrat? Thanks.

  7. Kyle says:

    Okay Bruce, since you felt the need to cite your own story as a source, what percentage of all businesses in Wisconsin contributed to Walker or the RGA at some point in their history? I’ll help you out with the criteria from your eventual source:

    “Nearly one-third of WEDC’s total investment portfolio (190 recipients) were
    donors to Scott Walker’s campaign, either individually via employee(s) or as part of a
    management or ownership structure.” –

    So please Bruce, how many companies in Wisconsin had an employee donate to either Walker or the RGA? And how does that compare to the percentage of companies that receive money from WEDC?

  8. Bruce Murphy says:

    Yes Kyle, its one third of the companies funded by WEDC that donated to Walker or GOP, but nearly 60 percent of the total WEDC money allocated went to companies who had donors to Walker or GOP. As to how that compares to all businesses in the state, I’ve seen no statistic, but as of 2007 there were 433,000 firms in Wisconsin. I’d be surprised if even 5% of them make political donations. More likely it’s much lower.

  9. Kyle says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised Bruce. One Wisconsin now defined “donating” as loosely as a single employee. Looks like when this article was written, Walker had 150,000 individual donations ( And that’s only one campaign. One Wisconsin Now didn’t limit their information to just this campaign, and I don’t really care to compare the donor lists of all the campaigns and the RGA. Maybe Bruce Thompson can tell us how many individual donors it would take to be statistically likely that 1/3 of all 433,000 firms in Wisconsin had at least one individual donate?

  10. Jerry says:

    Vos will now be the mouth piece for Walker. He’ll say everything that Walker wants put out there but which he can’t say because of his run for president. Vos is a little weasel who now that the Republicans have total power and control of all aspects of government he’s ready to cut anyone who disagrees or doesn’t support him off at the knees. This makes him a dangerous little guy with BIG man syndrome. Republicans in the Assembly will all fall in line and do whatever he says or they will find themselves with an opposing candidate with lots of campaign cash! Vos sees himself as the next governor when Walker heads on down the road. He’s now got a stage to put on his show and as far to the right that he leans this show will not be comforting for many Wisconsinites!

  11. Michael Nowotny says:

    My question is Robin Vos a college drop out, or did not finish college, or maybe just a high school education such as our ‘beloved’ governor. These guys will tube the state faster than we can imagine.

  12. Andy says:

    Kyle brings up a good point. So if even a single employee donates to a political party, we should no count it against the company? I wonder what the percentage is of companies receiving WEDC money that had employees who donated to Democrats…

  13. Cindy Van Vreede says:

    I’m thinking that if Mark Lasry gave $700,000 to the Wisconsin Club for Growth, he’d be able to write his own stadium support bill. Doesn’t Lasry realize it’s “pay to play” now in Wisconsin?

  14. Andy says:

    As far as Vos, is he the new popular target for the left? First his comments taken out of context regarding the Lasry/Obama meet up and now this. Vos, from what I can tell, wasn’t advocating stopping this kind of research. The article I read about this just has him stating his goal of trying to put more state resources for higher education into things that directly benefit the students and economy. Since the program being referenced about the fruit flies and mice is mostly, if not completely, funded by federal dollars I guess we have nothing to worry about?

    I have no strong feelings about Vos one way or the other, I just notice he is the new hot target for the left and most of these attacks are pretty meaningless. So Bruce, why be such a follower? I think more of you than that!

  15. PMD says:

    I don’t think Vos is a new target. Personally, I’ve disliked Vos for a long time. I can’t imagine I’m alone there. He’s just in the news a lot lately. How were his Lasry/Obama comments taken out of context exactly?

  16. Andy says:

    OneWisconsinNow is trying to say Vos threatened action or inaction because of Lasry’s political donations. He never did such a thing. In fact, he was saying that there will indeed be action in favor of the bucks, but that his job was difficult in spite of what some see as a blatant insult to the GOP by meeting Obama. (I don’t see Lasry meeting the president as a slap in anyones face, but that’s beside the point)

  17. Allison says:

    This particular blog is strange, it seems to really take Vos’ comments out of context. Maybe he is the new target for the anger of the left.

    First, nowhere is he advocating eliminating the “mating” program in question.

    Second, as for the Bucks, all he said is it will be a tougher sell for him to his fellow legislators with Lasry working with Obama/Burke a week before the election.

    This all seems like much ado about nothing.

    Anyway, lots of the same old left wing venom in the comments section though. Standard name calling, personal attacks, etc. Stay classy, guys.

  18. Dudemeister says:

    @ Rich,

    One word (three letters actually): WCD. The Dark Knight of conservatives, stalking Southeastern Wisconsin’s most liberal websites, waging a one-man crusade against their nefarious activities. Armed with only the truth and a copy of Windows 95, WCD will assuredly combat the lies and illogic of this article.

    I’m very surprised he hasn’t commented yet.

  19. Gee says:

    Cripes, the idiot Vos must be embarrassing his alma mater, UW-Whitewater. Not a research university but a university where research is done — and taught, too, but who knows his GPA.

    He doesn’t get the most basic benefits of grants: Researchers often are job creators, as that crew likes to call ’em. Grant-getters not only pay (for) themselves but also hire staffers, students, and others whose pay adds up to many millions in the Wisconsin economy. (And their income taxes add up in state revenue, so that Walker, Vos, et al., can give tax breaks to the roadbuilders and other corporate buddies.)

    That’s most true in STEM fields, of course — and this good response, Mr. Murphy, also is too weighted to those fields. There also are jobs created and other funding into this state from grants in humanities.

    And can we say, please, that research in humanities also has value? I hardly can wait for the next volume of our state history and what it will have to say about Vos, Walker, et al. (But may it not discuss their mating habits. . . .)

  20. PMD says:

    That’s One Wisconsin Now Andy. I’d expect them to say something like that, and I take it with a grain of salt. Just like when say Media Trackers issues a press release. I consider the source.

    I’d say thing statement by Vos, “If you’re looking to people for support, you certainly don’t want to poke people in the eye,” is pretty ill-advised, and it’s easy to see why people think it comes across as petty and short-sighted. I’m not losing any sleep over it, and I fully expect people like Allison to cry left-wing smear, but to me it seems like a stupid thing to say.

  21. tim haering says:

    Bruce, his comment about $$$ spent on “ancient mating habits of whatever” is a thought we have all had as commentators talk about Congressional budget pork that often goes to these obscure studies. I bet Herb Kohl got a few earmarks like these in his time, he was the bacon-bringer style Senator. And I bet Bill Proxmire woulda given a Golden Fleece to a study like Vos invoked. Vos is simply not yet as articulate as his role model, Scott Jensen. And hopefully he fares better handling power than his everyman-style ancestor, John Gard. Good luck, Robin.

  22. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    The Left in the form of college administrators and professors and others of their ilk have driven college costs from $220 year when i went to school in 1962 to over $10,000 today for supercilious projects, bloated admin and courses, keeping kids in school for five years while putting them in debt to the tune of over $50,000 per year. that is what Robin wants to fix Dummies.

  23. Big Al says:

    Here’s some interesting info on the UW System written by none other than Christian Schneider (who we all know is a completely credible source and not just a schill for the GOP):

    State general fund support as a percentage of the UW System budget has decreased from over 33% in 1998 to 20% today. Maybe that has something to do with the tuition increases. Yet plenty of people still gladly fork over those tuition dollars to UW – so if it’s a market system, that means the tuition is still low correct? If it was too high, shouldn’t people stop paying it?

    Vos is on a power trip, plain and simple. He’s trying to shake down as many people as possible to get more campaign $$ to get his support for legislation; if you don’t, kiss your request goodbye. And since the GOP has given itself a permanent advantage through redistricting, what are you going to do about it?

  24. Mike says:

    I can’t imagine many state legislators relish the opportunity to vote on giving state money to the Milwaukee Bucks and it’s going to be a tough sell. So it simply doesn’t help things if the guy who wants the money is being overtly partisan.

  25. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Who will vote for the bucks??? The dems, upstate, who have criticized the 1%ers, “Tax the Rich”? Do not think so? Will the GOP again carry the mail for the Bucks and then see the dems come after them again, like Petak??? Do not think so. Out state it is almost 100% against this turkey. Robin Vos is right.

  26. PMD says:

    The state is almost 100% against what, public funds for the Bucks? I’d love to see proof of that claim.

  27. Kyle says:

    I think, for once, WCD didn’t commit a typo. I think he actually means ‘out’ state, or the rural portions beyond SE Wisconsin. Not ‘our’ state, as you chose to interpret it PMD. Granted, he still has no proof of the claim, but I don’t think it’s much of a reach to claim that Rhinelander probably has no interest in sending tax money to the owners of the Milwaukee Bucks.

  28. PMD says:

    So just rural parts of the state? Or also Appleton and Oshkosh and Green Bay and La Crosse and Wausau? Come on, no way it’s anywhere near 100%, even if the fine folks in Rhinelander are overwhelmingly against it.

  29. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Proof? How about the stadium question?? That was a real battle even though the people out state did not have any skin in the game. Tommy had to tour state to sell the referendum and even then it was tough. we just barely got the votes to pass and then we saw Petak and Drezewick get recalled and lose. That was in Racine county, not Calumet. Ignorance of the situation will get you buried. If you want that turkey put up the money. fix the bradley center, the money is coming from TV.
    I get 15500 emails daily from around state, cannot type. Only come on here so that Murphy has someone with some sense instead of all the Racist Liberal Whites.

  30. PMD says:

    What would it cost to fix the Bradley Center?

  31. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Okay, you are right, probably 99.9% have yet to fins anyone out state out of thousands of facebook and email entries.

  32. PMD says:

    OK thank you. I appreciate you acknowledging that I’m right.

  33. John says:

    I think it important to note that much of the State’s budget is provided by two major metropolitan areas, and many of the rural communities would have far worse budget outlooks if not for the robust tax revenues raised by the economic engines of the State. It would be awfully shortsighted for rural folks to have issues with the State funding projects to continue to improve the most important economic areas the State has.

  34. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    John, figured it out finally. Out state they hate Milwaukee and its crime spending, state almost completely supports MPS and Shared Revenue. I grew up out state am outstate half the time talking to them all the time. attitude: If Wisconsin was going to get enema they would stick it into Milwaukee. Legislators that vote goodies for Milwaukee become unemployed.
    Bradley Center is really bad???? How come NCAA is playing their in 2017??? Let these guys rpove themselves and the team then come back or better yet finance it themselves.

  35. PMD says:

    Is renovating the Bradley Center completely off the table? And if so why? Would it be just as expensive as building a new arena?

    Yeah people living “out state” do loathe Milwaukee. I was born and raised outside Green Bay and have relatives there and in places like Neenah, Oshkosh, and Appleton, and all they do is talk trash about Milwaukee despite never spending any time in the city. Too much talk radio poisons a healthy mind.

  36. Bruce Murphy says:

    Couple factual points: there was a statewide referendum on state funding for the stadium and it lost decisively but a sizable minority supported it.
    On renovating the Bradley Center: its been studied a couple times and it would cost too much to renovate it to create all the modern revenue generators that today’s NBA arenas have. It has nothing to do with deterioration, the bdg works fine for NCAA tourneys, as pointed out.

  37. PMD says:

    Yeah that’s what I figured Bruce. Thanks.

  38. Kyle says:

    Bruce, any chance you remember the year that referendum took place? I’d like to look up the county breakdown, but I’m having trouble finding it.

  39. PMD says:

    Is this what he is referring to? If so the year was 1995.

    “Wisconsin voters have already rejected a state lottery that would have financed the new stadium, but now it’s up to politicians.”

  40. Bruce Murphy says:

    I’d guess around 1994 or so

  41. PMD says:

    A Pittsburgh Post Gazette story from September 1997 says, “In 1995 two states, Wisconsin and Washington, held referendums in which voters rejected the idea of public taxes going for new baseball stadiums.”

  42. Casey says:

    Just to help back up what John is saying and what most people up/out state don’t understand is that Milwaukee county is far from a drain on the state. For every $1.00 that is sent to Madison Milwaukee only receives $0.93 back.

  43. Kyle says:

    You’re using a 20 year old referendum on a different sport? The Brewers are broadcast on the radio throughout the state, but the Bucks are significantly more local. If that’s what I get to work with though, okay…

  44. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Casey: Who Cares? As far as referendum, that was voted down, the basketball team is even worse. They are not Bucks fans. Most people follow Badgers, their local high schools, UW systems and Marquette. The Bucks are and have been boring. They would not spend nickel on them.

  45. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Have been, maybe change. They were worse than Badgers before Richter.

  46. Tim says:

    I guess we should have disbanded the Badgers right then, WI would be so much better off.

    I’m not trying to carry water for the Bucks but WCD, you just made the case.

  47. Kyle says:

    PMD, just because the Bucks are suddenly playing better basketball doesn’t mean people who don’t care suddenly will. I find it interesting that you had to find a paper for a city with 2 teams to get that opinion.

    But back to the stadium. That was 20 years ago, and for a team and sport more popular throughout the state, but it still only got 36.06% approval statewide. Take out the 5 tax counties and you’re down to 27.69% approval. Only 4 counties actually favored the referendum, and you only get one guess which of the 5 taxed counties didn’t.

    Personally, I think the numbers today would be a little lower than this. The Bucks aren’t as popular as the Brewers, and the fiscal attitude of 2014 isn’t what it was in 1995. Still, you’re probably looking at a skewed population if you only consider the people willing to contact the Wisconsin Conservative Digest. Can we at least agree that outside of SE Wisconsin, only 1 in 4 are likely to support paying for the arena? And that if that many people oppose legislation, their representatives should probably not support it?

    (If anyone else wants these numbers, you’re looking for the Wisconsin Blue Book, 1995-1996. Page 885. And you get to make your own spreadsheet.)

  48. Mike says:

    Here’s a question that no one will ask. Did Tom Barrett just make state funding of this project impossible by doing the TIF financing he’s going to do with the trolley that no one is exactly clamoring for? In other words, if you can raise the money to do that project, why can’t you raise the funds to kick in for the arena.

    The arena is unpalatable regardless of a politicians political stripe. The primary reason the Bucks want a new arena is so they have more places that rich people can get together and not have to hang with the unwashed masses. I can’t see how Dems support that. On the Republican side they likely remember what happened to George Petak.

    The reality is the public isn’t that enthusiastic about funding these things. The Brown County referendum barely passed and the Packers are far more important to Brown County than the Bucks are to Milwaukee.

    I think if funding went to a referendum it would be soundly defeated regardless if it was just Milwaukee County voting or a wider region.

  49. PMD says:

    Kyle I don’t watch the NBA and really don’t care about the Bucks. I just happened to come across that story by chance literally right after reading WCD’s comment about the Bucks being boring.

  50. Tim says:

    I’m wondering if the WI GOP fails to secure a new stadium, if MMAC will diversify who it’s backing/contributing to in the next round of elections.

    Vos/Walker are running this state as pay for play, what happens when you cash a check and poke your contributor in the eye?

  51. Urban Dweller says:

    The best thing about Vos’s proposal is that it’s not unprecedented; perfect models for subjecting academic research to political vetting and oversight can be found in the Stalin-era Soviet Union, China under Mao, and North Korea today. We should start raising money to send him on a study junket to Pyongyang.

  52. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Urban dweller grow up

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