I’ve seen a few pieces in the conservative press lately boasting about Scott Walker’s performance as governor of Wisconsin. For example, the American Spectator ran an article called “Wisconsin Thrives Under Scott Walker“:
In 2011, Wisconsin had a whopping deficit of $3.6 billion dollars. But a cooperate tax cut and collective bargaining reforms invigorated the state economy. Now, the state is boasting a $911 million surplus, credited to “good stewardship of the taxpayers’ money.”
And what will Walker do? Buy his wife a $19,000 dress? Increase his paycheck? Go on vacation? Nope. He’s proposing $800 million in tax cuts. “What do you do with a surplus? Give it back to the people who earned it. It’s your money,” Walker said.
I find these articles revealing because they show how the Tea Party mindset has affected the definition of success in Republican circles generally. Why has Scott Walker been a success in their view? Because Wisconsin’s state government is financially healthy. The actual people of Wisconsin take a back seat to that. A friend of mine in Indiana summed up the mindset when she noted that many people today equate the financial health of government with the well-being of the people in the state.
This I think is the Tea Party mindset writ large. As I’ve noted before, under Tea Party influence, Republicans have come to see government as purely a fiscal machine in which nearly the entirety of good policy consists in reducing the amount of money flowing through it. This is rooted in a single factor determinism view of economics. Much like Marxism, it has a base and a superstructure. The base in Tea Party thinking is government. If you shrink it, the theory goes, prosperity must inevitably follow.
The fiscal health of government is no doubt important. But to determine if Wisconsin is actually “thriving” you need to look at statistics that actually affect people. So let’s do that. Scott Walker took office in January 2011. So here is the percentage change in jobs in Midwest states between December 2010 and December 2013 from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
Wisconsin actually doesn’t rank that well in job growth during Scott Walker’s administration, barely beating fiscal basket case Illinois. The state looks better in its unemployment rate:
However, in part that’s because Wisconsin’s unemployment rate was already low on a relative basis when Walker took over. It ranks near the bottom in reducing its unemployment rate, though obviously reductions are harder to come by when you’re already lower. Michigan had nowhere to go but down.
I actually support many of Scott Walker’s reforms. Public sector unions clearly need to be reigned in or even eliminated as they are a huge barrier to rational fiscal management and effective service delivery in addition to being an inherently corrupting political force. Items like allowing unions to force localities to buy health insurance through union affiliated firms at inflated rate were clearly abusive.
It’s also early to judge, and this is monthly data that is fairly volatile, even though it’s seasonably adjusted and with a same month comparison. There just isn’t that much other data available.
What I object to is declaring victory when the budget is balanced. The attitude exposed by this is profoundly revealing and shows everything that’s wrong with Tea Party type thinking. It’s obvious that people claiming Wisconsin has thrived under Walker didn’t even take a cursory look at the actual economic performance of the state.
Wisconsin balanced its budget? Big deal. You’re supposed to balance the budget. That’s just doing your job. It shows how far we’ve come that you can receive plaudits simply for meeting what should have been the baseline expectation.
The charts above should also cause a reconsideration of the notion that government finances are the primary determinant of business climate and economic growth. There are states on both the left and right of that issue that are both thriving and struggling. Part of it is that states have limited power in the modern economy. There’s only a limited amount they can do to make things better, whereas they can definitely screw it up.
Also, the natural condition of a participant in a marketplace is failure. The vast majority of new businesses fail. Similarly, places can fail too, and having a budget surplus can’t necessarily stave that off.
My view is that while state governments are weak actors and there’s a risk of screwing it up, the likelihood of failure in the marketplace is high enough that government does actually have to try to do things. By all means prudent finances and a good regulatory climate need to be maintained, but if you think that’s enough to save you, you’ve got another thing coming. Now that Scott Walker has repaired the budget, what’s his actual plan moving forward to try to build actual personal and marketplace success for Wisconsin residents and businesses? That’s what will determine his actual legacy. It’s in whether he boosts the fortunes of the state’s residents over the longer term, and manages to bend the curve of progress in a positive direction over time.
Aaron M. Renn is an independent writer on urban affairs and the founder of Telestrian, a data analysis and mapping tool. He writes at The Urbanophile, where this piece originally appeared.
Scott Walker photo by AndyLindgren.