Inside the State’s Conservative Bubble
The not-very-surprising views of Mike Nichols and the Badger Institute.
Mike Nichols, president of the conservative Badger Institute, begins his column with a lead sentence criticizing a “leftist canard” that the “Gross Domestic Product doesn’t really matter much.” He is so proud of this observation that he includes it in his headline as well.
But he offers no proof of this alleged leftist belief, not one quote stating this, not one Democrat or liberal pushing this view. That’s a rather large omission in a column by anyone, much less the leader of a self-described research institute.
Indeed, the GDP has grown faster under Democratic presidents (4.4% a year) than Republican presidents (2.5%). And the annual growth rate of nonfarm jobs was much higher under Democratic presidents (2.8%) elected since 1933 than under GOP presidents (1%).
Democratic-leaning counties in the nation in the 2020 election represent 70% of the nation’s GDP. And the counties that are most dependent on government help, like Social Security, Medicaid and food stamps, are red counties who support Republicans. These GOP voters, to use Republican Mitt Romney’s famous phase are the “takers,” not the “makers” of our economy.
Liberals, of course, disagree with that, and support the government safety net that helps so many Republicans across the nation. GOP leaders, meanwhile, try to cut this funding. They also tend to oppose Democratic efforts to support unions, a higher minimum wage and other measures to help lower income people become makers, not takers.
The key difference between the parties on the economy is not whether it needs to grow but how to get there. Democrats strongly support universities while Republicans like Scott Walker have cut funding for the UW System. Silicon Valley is all about synergy between high tech and university education. The top high tech cities in America are liberal cities near strong universities like San Francisco, New York, Boston and Chicago. In Wisconsin that synergy is also powering the growth of heavily Democratic Madison.
Republicans have one repeated solution for the economy: tax cuts skewed toward the wealthy. Donald Trump’s major policy was the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which resulted in no increase in business investment, the data shows.
Nichols notes that Wisconsin has fallen behind several neighboring states in per capita GDP since 2011, but ignores the elephant in the room: during that time Gov. Walker and the Republican-dominated Legislature repeatedly passed tax cuts skewed to help the wealthy and since then the gerrymandered Legislature has resolutely opposed nearly any proposal by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
And with Nichols cheering them on, and ignoring all the data showing tax cuts for the wealthy haven’t grown the economy, Republicans now want to pass still more cuts. The flat tax Nichols and Republicans support will actually take a state tax system that is currently pretty flat, save for a lower rate for the wealthiest, and make that situation even worse by greatly decreasing the percent of all taxes paid by the wealthy, as Urban Milwaukee’s Data Wonk has documented.
Nichols is a former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter, who got hired as a staff member by what was then the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI), in 2008, and moved up to become its president in 2013. In 2017 the group changed its name to the Badger Institute, partly he said, because it does more than research.
The WPRI was founded in 1987 under the leadership of Michael Joyce, then the president of the conservative Bradley Foundation, which provided most of its funding. Joyce saw it as a vehicle to drive state policy to the right, and the institute became known for state polling with questions often designed to further a conservative agenda. It also did a lot of hot-button research that was headline news. Back then Joyce and WPRI leader Jim Miller aggressively and successfully courted the mainstream media.
The Badger Institute is a tax-exempt nonprofit and its federal tax forms show it has $3.5 million in assets and an annual budget just over $1 million, with about one-fifth of that going to Nichols who earns $217,000 in total compensation. The Bradley Foundation still is a major funder, giving the group $350,000 in 2021.
Nichols’ style is pretty mild mannered, which may not be an attention getter in today’s supercharged political environment. His recent hiring of Patrick McIlheran, also a former Journal Sentinel staffer, may have been intended to gain more publicity for the institute’s efforts. McIlheran spent years as an aide to Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, whose many reckless and unproven claims have gained him widespread media scorn, but certainly got him a lot of attention. Nichols tells me the Badger Institute was lucky to get McIlheran: “Pat’s a great hire for us. I think he’s got great talent.”
McIlheran can shoot from the hip, as he has proven in the past. But that’s probably perfect for right wing radio host Vicki McKenna, who has had McIlheran on several times as a guest. The institute has gotten some interest for its work from the media, though much of it has been from low-visibility conservative websites like Wisconsin Spotlight and The Center Square.
Nichols offered a long list of organizations the Badger Institute works with, but they are mostly conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity. “We routinely testify before legislative committees,” and have “worked with legislators on both sides of the aisle and are proud of our legislative victories,” he says.
To that end the institute recently published a 289-page “Mandate for Madison” which had 18 different authors and that it hopes will have an impact on legislative policy making, though much of it seems to simply reinforce Republican views. By contrast the old WPRI sought to convert more than Republicans, and did not simply operate within the conservative bubble. Nichols’ recent column, which was intended to promote the Mandate for Madison, is a case in point: it simply ignores much of what is happening in the real world to convince Republicans of what they already believe.
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