Gov. Scott Walker’s policy of economic development by blackmail worked so well for Foxconn that Kimberly-Clark decided to give it a try.
After Foxconn extracted $3 billion in incentives and cash payments from Wisconsin taxpayers in exchange for building a new factory, who can blame other business owners for wondering why they shouldn’t get their fair share of corporate welfare?
Now, Wisconsin legislators have called the Senate in for a lame-duck session, after the November election, to vote on a handout for Kimberly-Clark.
Politicians will disagree about whether this model of economic growth works, but it’s blatantly immoral. It’s extortion, plain and simple. “If you don’t give us what we want, we’ll take our business elsewhere.” “We’ll close our factories in Neenah and Fox Crossing if we don’t get a handout.”
Not only is it blackmail, it takes money from hard-working taxpayers and gives it to businesses who pay little to no income tax. And it creates a race to the bottom: Businesses will simply take their jobs to whoever sets the bar lowest.
Fortunately, there’s another way to create jobs and grow the economy. And it bears our state’s name. It’s called the Wisconsin Idea.
The Wisconsin Idea was originally expressed by UW President Charles Van Hise, who said, “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every family of the state.” In general, it means that the University of Wisconsin should benefit everyone, not just students and professors.
The benefits of the UW System have trickled out in many ways over the years. Agricultural science has been used to improve the productivity of Wisconsin farmers. New technologies created by university researchers have made our lives better. Medical research has produced new treatments for disease.
The Wisconsin Idea is also a model of economic development. When you invest in young people’s education, you foster in them the knowledge, skills and creative thinking to be both good employees and entrepreneurs. If graduates want to work for a business like Kimberly-Clark, education gives them the self-discipline and skills to be better employees.
But if graduates don’t want to seek an existing job, or if they want to start their own business, or if they want to return to their hometown and invest in their community, they will have the vision and critical thinking skills to do it well. These skills come from across the university — from the College of Business to the College of Arts and Sciences.
The Wisconsin Idea is better for the economy than corporate blackmail because it harnesses the invisible hand of the market. Government shouldn’t be counted on to choose which corporations get tax incentives and which ones don’t. If all young people have the resources and capabilities to contribute to the economy in their own corner of Wisconsin, they will put them to use in all 72 counties.
In the end, the Wisconsin Idea means that investing in public education benefits everyone. Rather than giving huge sums of money to a single individual and hoping they share some with the rest of us, we should make small investments in all of our youth.
It’s time to reclaim the Wisconsin Idea. The economic development policies of the past eight years involved cutting money from education and redistributing it to corporate welfare. This robs the young to pay the old, and it stifles the entrepreneurship and creative energy of our youth.
If we want Wisconsin’s society and economy to be healthy for future generations, we should invest in future generations. Affordable public education for all benefits all.
Hart-Brinson is associate professor of sociology and communication/journalism at UW-Eau Claire.