The Paradoxical Scott Walker

At great cost, a gifted but flawed leader moves the needle on change in Wisconsin

Jan 6, 2012

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The governor views development as most politicians do: Offer incentives to lure businesses from other locales. Promote real estate projects. Assume that political borders define markets. He adds the conservative special sauce of tax cuts and similar spices. Most of this is strikingly at odds with the economic development sentiments offered by two old pros—UW–Madison emeritus economics professor Don Nichols and West Bend manufacturer and longtime business commentator John Torinus—last February in their economics chalk talk before the Wisconsin Academy at Overture Center. Walker and his young staff should have been taking notes.

Even then, when the Wisconsin economy was showing a few green shoots of life, Nichols said it was “very unlikely” that 250,000 jobs would be created in the next four years. This recession and its recovery were tracking very differently than previous economic cycles. “In the short run, state policies have almost no effect on state job growth,” he said with a dour finality, explaining that the national trends would tell Wisconsin’s story.

Torinus was less deterministic, arguing that the key to growth lies in entrepreneurial start-ups. That’s why Wisconsin’s chronic shortage of venture capital was such a big problem for the state. The best and brightest would head to the coasts, where investors were more likely to finance good ideas.

His big push was for fostering companies that export outside of the region. They brought in the money that circulated to “derivative” businesses in the region. Torinus was unimpressed with the usual government strategies. Job-training programs might prepare workers for better jobs, but they didn’t create those jobs. Real estate development was a classic derivative thing. As for raiding other states to recruit businesses, as Walker brags of doing in Illinois, it seldom works, Torinus warned.

He asked for shout-outs of successful examples of recruiting out-of-state firms to Wisconsin. Kikkoman, Mercury Marine… “In 40 years of following this, I’ve seldom gotten beyond the digits on one hand,” he said. “If you’re a business guy like me and something doesn’t work in four months, you move on to something else.” Left unsaid was what he thought of politicians who keep touting the same old strategy year after year.

Nichols, displaying a rare moment of humor, puckishly said that Walker’s chance of hitting the 250,000 benchmark depended almost entirely on President Obama’s success in turning around the national economy. That prompted a laugh: Who would have thought that the fates of Walker and Obama are intertwined!

But paradoxes are a staple of the Walker administration. None is more painful than the state economy stalling under a governor who celebrates business. In January, Walker boasted about Wisconsin’s tax climate while ridiculing Illinois, as he invited flatlander businesses to move north. One problem: By October Wisconsin led the nation in monthly job losses (-9,700) while Illinois led the nation in job gains (+30,000).

This was the fifth straight month of bad news on the Wisconsin job front.

Here’s the bottom line: Standing athwart history to shout Stop to public employee unions will put Scott Walker into the history books. But it probably won’t determine his political future, despite what labor and its friends fervently believe.

The economy will.

Voters are concerned about jobs, about economic security above all else. Based on his first-year performance, Scott Walker has work to do.


Unsoliticted Advice: What Would You Tell the Governor?

Listen Up! By John Wiley

Marc Eisen is former editor of Isthmus and a Madison-based writer.

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