Gov. Scott Walker has promised to create 250,000 new jobs in Wisconsin by the end of his first term, a bold pledge that requires a bold plan.
So bold, in fact, that Walker has said a plan drafted by business interests last year called "Be Bold: The Wisconsin Prosperity Strategy" is not bold enough. "I want to be even bolder, so we may take this plan and build off it, be more aggressive than what they're presenting," he said.
The Wisconsin Prosperity Strategy was created by the state's corporate/high-tech/educational elite and is supported by the Wisconsin State Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Its main provisions:
- Have the state invest $1 billion in "innovative" start-ups.
- Adopt "lean" principles and "market-driven" reforms to reduce tax and regulatory burdens.
- Create a private-sector-dominated state agency to guide economic growth.
- Get the state's schools and universities to play along through a business-based curriculum and profit-oriented research.
In short, it's a private-sector takeover of government and education that is more brazen than bold. But it falls short of Walker's desire to make Wisconsin "Open for Business."
While Walker has not committed to creating a $1 billion "prosperity fund," he will likely redistribute as much state money as possible to keep his ambitious jobs promise.
In funding the private sector, Walker will happily sacrifice state jobs, corporate tax revenue, consumer rights, natural resources and social programs. Because the Wisconsin Prosperity Strategy comes down to austerity for public servants, regulation and the poor; gluttony for the science/industrial complex.
The Wisconsin Prosperity Strategy puts this redistribution of public wealth more vaguely: "To prosper anew, and to protect its historic quality of life, Wisconsin must champion emerging industry sectors, as well as the physical, governmental and educational infrastructures that will support them." Translation: high-tech tyranny.
Ohio's Third Frontier techno-investment plan, created eight years ago and a model for the Wisconsin Prosperity Strategy, claims to have created some 60,000 jobs. How is this plan working out for Ohio?
Cleveland's poverty rate, according to the Census Bureau, went up in 2009, from 30.5% to 35%, making it the second-most-impoverished big city in the nation. High-tech Ohio is now facing an $8 billion deficit.
Another region that serves as a model for this kind of plan, California's Silicon Valley, leads the nation in the number of polluted Superfund sites.
If such an "entrepreneurial ecosystem" is nothing more than an economic and ecological mirage, where do we turn?
Almost all of Wisconsin's 34.7 million acres still grow pasture or crops or trees. Plain old manufacturing still accounts for nearly 600,000 jobs across the state.
This agrarian and industrial base is a solid foundation upon which to build. Solar and wind power employment is also a promising development.
If Wisconsin wants to spend public money on job creation, give it to communities for development - not "high-growth" corporations - in the rural and urban areas that need it most. Above all, the state should encourage, through regulation and subsidy, farms and businesses to stay responsibly small, community-minded and clean.
James Eggert, emeritus professor of economics at UW-Stout, suggests that what we need is a market economy whose "growth" is limited by government regulation, ecological law, community values and - that most neglected of economic principles - happiness.
In his book Meadowlark Economics, Eggert writes that government's job is "motivating businesses and consumers to pay the full direct and indirect costs (full-cost accounting) of their economic activity, including the costs of collateral damages to natural and human environments."
Tax money should not be used to bribe and enrich a few big corporations or fund fashionable industries. It ought to be placed directly into multifaceted community development proposals like "Build Milwaukee" or used to subsidize small, diverse, community-minded businesses.
Whether a company is making potato chips or computer chips, when "high-growth" profit is paramount, jobs inevitably vanish to the highest bidder. Gov. Walker wants to open Wisconsin for business - but what is to keep all these new corporations from using technology, cost-cutting and weakened unions to hire frugally, fire swiftly, pay poorly, pollute freely and leave "regretfully"?
What's needed is what economist Eggert calls "local natural capitalism," an economy balanced like a true ecosystem, one focused primarily on creating markets loyal to communities and nature. A more general and honest prosperity will not be found in high-tech greed; it will be found in enlightened, progressive regulation and good old craftsmanship.
John Kaufman, a freelance writer and poet who lives in Wauwatosa, is the winner of the 2009 Milwaukee Press Club award for business writing.