Why Wisconsin?

Commenters have been asking me for my views on Wisconsin, but I’ve been holding back because instant reactions to emotional issues are usually wide of the mark.   (Remember the Gifford shooting reactions?)  Now Will Wilkinson has taken an appropriately above the fray look at the situation.  You’d be better off reading his excellent short post and skipping my meandering long one, but if you insist:

I actually grew up in Madison, so I suppose I should know something about the situation.  But I’ve lived in Boston for most of my life.  Nevertheless, I’ll try to describe why Wisconsin ended up in this predicament.

When I was young, Wisconsin was a strongly Democratic state.  In 1988 the Democratic candidate (Dukakis) lost California and won Wisconsin.  That’ll never happen again as long as I live.  But why not?

In the past few decades politics have shifted in several ways.  Well-paid professionals have drifted toward the Dems, and people who make things have drifted toward the GOP.  Well-paid professionals have also grown in number, and have flocked to big cities on the coast, and also a few interior places like Chicago and Minneapolis.  The state of Wisconsin doesn’t have one of those sophisticated big cities (although my hometown arguably punches above its weight.)

A few years ago I read that Wisconsin was number two in percentage of jobs in manufacturing (Indiana was one.)   That surprises people, who picture lots of dairy farmers.  Manufacturing has mostly left America’s big cities and gone to small cities, of which Wisconsin has plenty.  Wisconsin is a pretty boring state in a statistical sense, fairly average in total population, urbanization, income, you name it.  Why hasn’t it suffered as much as the manufacturing belt from Detroit to Buffalo?  I don’t know.

There is a strong Northern European social democratic vibe in Wisconsin history–it led the US in adopting all sorts of progressive legislation.  I believe they outlawed the death penalty about 100 years before the barbaric French got around to it.

At the risk of sounding racist, it may be that Wisconsin has done better that the eastern rust belt because the German and Nordic immigrants brought in a tradition  of relatively good governance, and skill at making the sorts of sophisticated capital goods that rich countries can still export.  But I don’t want to oversell this success.  They aren’t doing well, they are merely avoiding doing badly like Detroit/Northern Ohio/Erie/Buffalo, etc.

As highly educated young people leave Wisconsin for cities like Boston, you are left with lots of people who make physical things–farmers and manufacturing workers.  And of course all the ordinary service jobs that support them.  The Democrats actually aren’t doing badly in Wisconsin, it still leans slightly Democrat.  But they aren’t doing as well as they should be doing, because white voters in small and mid-size towns don’t perceive the modern Democratic party as offering much to them.  That’s why states like West Virginia have trended Republican, as big wealthy urban areas trend Democrat.

The really interesting message from Wisconsin is that Governor Walker is able to mount this challenge to unions, not whether he “wins” or loses (which I see as an issue of minor importance.)  This battle is a symbol that the old Democratic Party that I knew when I was younger is very much weakened.  The party of people like Hubert Humphrey, for you older readers.  It’s not gone, but it is more and more confined to public sector workers, who work with their minds.  My dad liked Humphrey a lot.  He was a Dem because when he was young the GOP was the party of deflation and prohibition.  And he like to drink and have fun, and as a realtor he liked seeing house prices going up.  He didn’t much care for public sector workers.

In smaller cities in Wisconsin you don’t have lots of rich people like here in Boston.  So the Dems in Wisconsin can’t easily say “look at those rich fat cats, we need to take their money and redistribute it to the rest of us.”  Factory managers and factory workers mix socially at cookouts before Packer games.   In many cases the struggling factory and service sector workers find that the public employees that they know are in much better shape–decent salaries, safe jobs with no layoffs, great pensions, etc.  Liberals write books like “What’s wrong with Kansas,” implying that lower income voters in middle America don’t know that their economic interests lie in voting Democratic.  But it’s not obvious why that is the case.  Extremely few Wisconsinites are on welfare, so that’s not a big factor.  The Dems obviously aren’t going to do anything about imports that steal factory jobs.  I suppose the health care bill could be a plus, but many working class people don’t want to be forced to buy health insurance, even with subsidies.  And although Wisconsin voters are more socially liberal than Southern voters, those aren’t big issues for struggling working class people.

In the last election the GOP made huge gains in the area between the two coasts that is not part of a big sophisticated city like Chicago, or a big African-American city like Detroit.  Because Wisconsin has only a modest number of highly paid professionals, and also a modest number of minority voters, it was exactly the sort of place the GOP made large gains.

Keep in mind that almost all generalizations about Wisconsin are slightly inaccurate, as it’s hard to make generalizations about highly average places.  For instance Wisconsin does have some professional jobs in insurance, biotech, etc.  But Wisconsin is un-average enough in one dimension to make at least a few generalizations possible.  And that dimension isn’t dairy farming, it’s lots of cities with 50,000 people that make things.  It’s easy to convince foolish rich people in West LA to waste $300,000,000 on boondoggle high schools, they even think teachers are poorly paid.  But in a community of 50,000 people, most folks pretty much know what’s going on, and they accurately perceive that the public employees are currently doing better than they are.  In the end the GOP may over-reach, as Wisconsin still has that strong Northern European social democratic tradition.  It’s still a Democratic state.  But the fact that the battle in Wisconsin is even this close should be a wake-up call that there are some internal contradictions in modern liberalism that are a long way from being resolved.

How do I feel about public sector unions? Let me put it this way, I oppose public sector jobs.  If I had my way there’d be nothing to unionize except police, judges, soldiers, EPA and IRS workers.  Having said that, I have nothing against teachers unions, as long as the teachers don’t work for the public sector.

Universal education care!  Single-payer!  Bring Swedish-style socialized education to the Badger state!

Confession: I was once a public sector teacher in Wisconsin (albeit for only one semester.)

Madison fun facts:  America’s two greatest artists lived there. One for just a year, the other grew up there.  (Our greatest film director was born in Kenosha.)  It’s on an isthmus (a word I still can’t pronounce.)  The UW was the most fun university in America when I was young–15 year olds could drink in bars with no IDs.  I suppose that’s changed.  But I think Wisconsin still leads America in alcohol consumption.  Believe me, growing up in Madison in the 1960s and early 1970s makes ever other place and era in America seem like a bunch of insufferable Puritans.  There are towns around me (near Boston) that ban alcohol!  Professors can’t drink wine at Bentley faculty parties!

In 1948 Madison was the cover story of Life magazine–the best place to live in America. Used to be the second most educated city above 150,000, but recently has slipped a bit.  Has the best state capital building. Has a brand new suburb where the architecture is non-ugly. Wisconsin has a far more egalitarian culture than Massachusetts.

When I was young I couldn’t get out of Wisconsin fast enough. Now as I think back to my youth it seems like a kind of paradise.

About Scott Sumner 490 Articles

Affiliation: Bentley University

Scott Sumner has taught economics at Bentley University for the past 27 years.

He earned a BA in economics at Wisconsin and a PhD at University of Chicago.

Professor Sumner's current research topics include monetary policy targets and the Great Depression. His areas of interest are macroeconomics, monetary theory and policy, and history of economic thought.

Professor Sumner has published articles in the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, and the Bulletin of Economic Research.

Visit: TheMoneyIllusion

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.