What's the Matter with Wisconsin?

What's the Matter With Wisconsin?

Begin with disturbing parallels to a classic political screed castigating the anti-business politics of Kansas in 1896.

By Charles J. Sykes

Author's note: While William Allen White is best known for his editorial "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus," the legendary editor also wrote one of the most influential political tracts of the 19th century: a red-hot denunciation of the anti-business populism then sweeping his home state of Kansas.

Millions of copies of "What's the Matter With Kansas?" were circulated nationally in the 1896 presidential campaign, and White's editorial became a classic American polemic. More recently, the title was expropriated by Thomas Frank for his (ironically) populist critique of modern politics. This essay is a Wisconsin version of the original, an homage to White's screed; where passages appear in italics, they are taken from White's essay. The rest is on us.

Last December, the Brookings Institution released a study showing that Wisconsin experienced a net loss of 20,000 people to other states in the last four years. From 2000 to 2004, Wisconsin gained residents from other states; but from 2004 to 2008, Wisconsinites voted with their feet, and the pace of their departure is accelerating.2

According to the Census Bureau, Wisconsin is growing at a rate slower than 37 other states. If there had been a high brick wall and not a soul had been admitted or permitted to leave in the last four years, Wisconsin would be tens of thousands of souls better off. In those years, millions of people have been added to the national population, yet instead of gaining a share of this, Wisconsin has apparently been a plague spot, and in the very garden of the world, has lost population.

Not only has she lost population, but Wisconsin has also lost money. Every month in every community sees someone who has a little money pack up and leave the state. This has been going on for years. Money has drained out all that time.

From 2001 to 2006, folks fleeing the seven counties of southeastern Wisconsin took with them $1.3 billion more in personal income than households moving into the area. Where did they go? To other states and to the lower-tax, lower-crime areas of Wisconsin.3

What neighborhood or family doesn't know a half score of acquaintances who have packed up, scraped together their assets and headed to sunnier or more wealth-friendly climes? Maricopa County, Ariz.; Lee County, Fla.; Denver County, Colo.; and Clark County, Nev., teem with expatriate Badgers and their cash.

A September 2008 study from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Government found that Wisconsin has one of the five worst migration patterns in the country: While people with money are moving out, we are a magnet for the poor.4

In states like New Jersey, the Princeton study found, "poor people leave, but rich people do not." Wisconsin is the anti-Jersey: Wisconsin, it found, "is more attractive to low-income individuals than high-income earners."

We have become about as attractive as...North Dakota.

Wisconsin's per capita income has fallen from 98% of the national average at the beginning of the decade to under 94% at the end of last year - a drop of $5,000 a year for a family of four. Yet our neighbors - who share the scourge of our climate - continue to grow comparatively rich. Our per capita income ($34,476) lags behind both Minnesota ($38,751) and Illinois ($38,297).5

We lag behind the nation and our own region both in creating jobs and opening new businesses. In 2006, the number of businesses nationally grew by 2.5%, while here the number of new private-sector businesses dropped 0.4%.6 By the end of 2007, the state had 2,487 fewer private businesses than it had in 2006.7 And so it goes. Last year, Wisconsin was one of just 20 states where local venture capital funds raised no money at all.8


Wisconsin isn't just losing dollars; she is also losing brains. According to the UW Board of Regents, Wisconsin ranks dead last in attracting college graduates into the state;9 meanwhile, half of our new migrants from other states were high school dropouts. While the proportion of college graduates in the nation's population has actually risen 1.8% in the last five years, the percentage of our population holding at least a bachelor's degree (24.6%) dropped 0.3 percentage points. Wisconsin is now last in the region, behind Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan and Illinois.

Between 1989 and 2007, Wisconsin saw a net loss of 128,492 people with college degrees; people with diplomas are following the people with cash out the door.10

What's the matter with Wisconsin?

Take up the census numbers and you will see that Wisconsin is falling further behind the country and its own neighbors. Our largest city continues to decay, with a rising jobless rate, an imploding school system and one of the worst racial employment and educational achievement gaps in the country.

Take it by any standard you please. Wisconsin is not in it. We attract neither the young nor the old. Businesses look elsewhere; capital flows outward.

What's the matter with Wisconsin?

We all know; yet here we are at it again. We have moss-backed New Dealers, aging ex-hippies, bitter academics, defrocked union bosses railing about the need for higher taxes and mandates on evil corporations.11

We have raked the old ash heap of failure in the state and found an old human hoop-skirt who has failed as a mayor, agitator and pseudo-intellectual and turned him loose to cudgel the businessman, the producer and the job creator about the head and to send up the cry to regulate them, load him with mandates and, for good measure, drive him (and her) from the political scene.12

We have a moth-eaten ex-university chancellor who fired off a denunciation of the business community as he headed for a comfortable retirement largely paid for by their sweat and equity.13 We have another shabby, wild-eyed, rattle-brained fanatic who thinks the solution for all that ails us is to hire more state tax collectors.
"We've got to get revenue in here somehow," howls state Sen. Fred Risser, enthusing over the prospect of new and higher taxes.14 The co-chair of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee joins in the chorus of the addled, declaring that he hopes to use the current budget crisis to raise taxes on the wealthy and jack up the capital gains tax.

"If one of the positives that can come out of this budget experience is that we've restored some tax fairness, and that means there's some new revenue streams when the economy's better...that will be a great positive," says state Rep. Mark Pocan.15

And we have a grizzled union boss who says the time has come for unions to seize the day, declaring, "We have identifiable villains who have benefited from deregulatory policies that we have been fighting for years."16

That's the stuff! Give the prosperous man the dickens!

By all means let's pack the halls of government with the bibulous, the economically illiterate, the Don't-You- Know-Who-I-Am gas bags,17 the better to punish the high earners and small business folk who are left to be shaken down.

What's the matter with Wisconsin?

She has one of the worst budget deficits in the country, but we send up the cry for more spending and pork; lets the roads go to hell, but choo-choo trains for everyone! Losing manufacturing jobs? Let's find ways to tax businesses more and raise the costs of energy! Let's block nuclear power, litigate wind power and harass coal power!

Businesses shutting down? Raise the minimum wage; mandate mandatory sick pay and insurance coverage! 18 Exports growing as a source of state jobs? Let's have the Legislature salivate for a Buy-American-Only trade war!19 Urban schools in meltdown? Strangle school choice if the unions demand it!

Above all, even as private business sheds jobs, fatten the public payroll, juice the fringe benefits, and bloat the public employee pensions! Tax sales, tax property, tax income, tax profits, tax gas, tax cars, tax the sick, tax iPods, and, by all means, go back to taxing the dead!20

On Wisconsin!

Our politicians steal money from the doctor-funded Patients Compensation Fund — and complain about the high cost of health care; require businesses to tack on a minimum markup and then lambaste them for "price-gouging." Our leaders sneer at oil company profits, demonize pharmaceutical companies, block Wal-Marts - but make sure to keep the casino cash flowing and campaign dollars rolling!21

Then for fear some hint that the state had become respectable might percolate through the civilized portions of the nation, they contemplate passing a massive government-run health plan that will cost tens of billions of dollars while creating a new magnet for the poor, sick and dependent looking for a government handout.

A new study by the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (the publisher of this magazine) says that the Healthy Wisconsin plan would draw an additional 143,000 people to the state and cost an additional $550 million a year (in 2007 dollars).22

Oh, this is a state to be proud of! What we need is not more money, but less capital, fewer white shirts and brains, fewer men with business judgment and more government bureaucrats and government dependents! Let the state ideal be set high. What we need is not the respect of our fellow men, but the chance to get something for nothing.

When businessmen complain about regulations, litigation, or taxation, let's let loose a cloud of pajama-clad bloggers and tenured hit men to deride, mock and assail them, questioning their motives and their integrity.23

Oh, yes, Wisconsin is a great state. Here are people fleeing from it by the score every day, capital going out of the state by the hundreds [of millions] of dollars.... Let's not stop this year.

Let's drive all the decent, self-respecting men out of the state.

What's the matter with Wisconsin?

Nothing under the shining sun. She is losing wealth, population and standing. She has got her statesmen, and business and commerce have been put in their place. Wisconsin is all right. We never really believed in a dog-eat-dog capitalism or the lure of filthy lucre (unless it comes in the form of taxes). Here in Wisconsin, after all, we are all progressives yearning for a smoke-free, environmentally friendly, jobless Midwestern utopia. We are definitely all right.

Charles J. Sykes, the editor of Wisconsin Interest, is the author of six books and hosts a daily radio show on AM620 WTMJ in Milwaukee.


1 William Allen White, "What's the Matter With Kansas?" Emporia Gazette, August 15, 1896.
2 "Economy, Housing Woes Slow Migration, Census Shows," Brookings Institution, December 24, 2008.
3 "Plugging the Income Drain: Southeastern Wisconsin Income Migration Trends, 2001-2006," Public Policy Forum Research Brief, November 2007 (Vol. 95, No. 5).
4 "Trends in New Jersey Migration: Housing, Employment, and Taxation," Policy Research Institute, Woodrow Wilson School of Government, Princeton University, September 2008.
5 Annual Benchmark Survey, Competitive Wisconsin, March 31, 2008.
6 Ibid.
7 "Pace of Business Openings in Wisconsin Lags Nation," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 23, 2009.
8 "Steve Venture Capital Funds Raised No Money in 2008," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 19, 2009.
9 http://www.uwsa.edu/govrel/engage_wisconsin/12.pdf.
10 Tom Still, "Reversing the Brain Drain: How Can Wisconsin Attract and Retain More College Grads?" WTN News, October 13, 2008.
11 Readers will be forgiven if they think these are apparent references to State Sen. Fred Risser, former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, former UW Chancellor John Wiley and Ed Garvey; in fact, they could be liberally applied throughout state politics and government.
12 You can peruse the work of former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin here: http://www.waxingamerica.com/2007/12/wisconsin-manuf.html.
13 "Wiley Blasts WMC Influence," Wisconsin State Journal, August 22, 2008.
14 "Hire Tax Help, Report Urges State: 155 Agents Could Bring in Millions in Revenue," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 8, 2009.
15 "Federal Largesse Could Leave Wisconsin Budget Worse Off," Wisconsin State Journal, February 2, 2009.
16 David Newby, president of the state AFL-CIO, quoted in Roger Bybee, "Union, yes!" Isthmus, January 30, 2009.
17 "State Senator Sought Ticket's Dismissal," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 29, 2009. Could apply equally to many other local and state elected officials.
18 See http://www.thewheelerreport.com/releases/Jan09/jan8/0108deckerbills1.pdf; and here: http://www.mmac.org/display/router.asp?DocID=1152.
19 http://www.lakeshorelaments.com/?p=193.
20 See Institute for Wisconsin's Future Tax Policy; http://www.wisconsinsfuture.org/taxes/index.htm.
21 http://www.wisdc.org/pr031704.php.
22 Richard Cebula, Ph.D., and David Dodenhoff, Ph.D., "Expected Migration Impacts of the Healthy Wisconsin Program: New and Serious Challenges on the Horizon </Reports/Volume22/Vol22No1
/Vol22No1.html> ," Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, January 2009 (Vol. 22 No. 1).
23 A possible reference to http://www.onewisconsinnow.org/....among others.