To start with, let’s stipulate that Wisconsin’s doing OK. Not terrible. Sort of all right. Some high, some low.
But “doing OK” takes you only so far and only for so long. Consider some truly great Wisconsin inventions.
The typewriter was invented in Milwaukee, for example, making the world far more legible. “Nice,” replies most everyone under age 40, probably by text message. “What’s a typewriter?”
All right, take the solid-body electric guitar, perfected by Waukesha’s own Les Paul and which changed the sound of music ever since. Except that Waukesha’s own Les Paul by then was working in New York.
Not to deprecate great things from Wisconsin — vitamin D genuinely makes humanity healthier — but we must bear two things in mind:
First, what worked yesterday might not suffice tomorrow. Best to keep improving.
And while it’s nice to see Wisconsinites going on to fame and fortune elsewhere, how wonderful it would be if more Wisconsinites — long-timers and new arrivals — could find fame and fortune here.
That doesn’t happen often enough right now. You’ll read in this book’s chapter on the economy that Wisconsin is only the 29th most productive state as measured by gross domestic product per capita and second lowest among seven Midwestern states.
Our population is growing faster than the populations in Ohio, Michigan and certainly Illinois, but we’re far outpaced by Minnesota, Indiana and even Iowa. Even more troubling, trends foretell a decline in the coming years in the share of prime-age workers.
We know free-market reforms will help us thrive, and we’ve made a little progress. The Badger State is 27th in economic freedom, according to the Fraser Institute and 19th according to the Cato Institute. But we have a long way to go in order to truly compete.
The good news is that there is a lot to compete for. Reshoring and foreign investments, you’ll read, are revitalizing the American manufacturing sector, and corporate relocations from places such as Illinois are on the upswing.
Luckily, we can put ourselves in a position to capitalize.
What follows is a book full of ideas about public policy centered on how to improve Wisconsin. We are proud to present the research and recommendations of a remarkable set of scholars and authors who bring extraordinary insight into Wisconsin’s situation.
One of the most essential ingredients in a greater prosperity is faster economic growth. Everyone has his or her own idea about the good life, but everyone is more likely to reach it in conditions of growth. That is why our first chapters address faster growth specifically and why so many of the scholars in later chapters measure their ideas by the effect they would have on our economy.
Our economy — the daily voluntary interaction of millions of us with each other for mutual benefit — is one of the central things we have in common. This common good also has been subject, decade after decade, to fiddling and worrying by policymakers. Much of what our scholars recommend amounts to the careful work of undoing mistakes and restoring the conditions under which that shared good thing, our economy, will flourish to the benefit of all.
We need pro-growth tax reform, you’ll see, and more options for parents in search of better schools. We’re currently only 27th in the Tax Foundation’s State Business Tax Climate Index. There are far too many schools, particularly in Milwaukee, where the vast majority of kids can’t read or write.
We need to lessen harmful government overregulation of everything from early childcare and learning to occupational licensure. We also need to encourage our elected leaders to make necessary investments in criminal justice — that is, more cops in places such as Milwaukee and more money for prosecutors and defense attorneys. And we need to focus on making sure there is a path toward work. Government can provide a necessary safety net, but we need to do more in Wisconsin, you’ll see, to encourage upward mobility.
Jobs, education and family structure are key.
In the pages ahead, you’ll find practical options for thorny problems such as the impending decline of gas tax revenue and high healthcare costs. Wisconsin right now ranks fourth highest in the United States for hospital commercial prices relative to Medicare. We can do something about that, things such as direct primary care, price transparency and dental therapy.
One of our premises is that government cannot be the central institution in society, not if we hope for a free and prosperous Wisconsin. We are blessed to be part of an America founded on that understanding — that government has a place, but a limited place, next to a civil society centered on other more organic institutions such as families, communities, associations and congregations.
We propose no panaceas here. We bear in mind what the great Thomas Sowell said — that we humans are “flawed from day one, and there are no solutions, only trade-offs.” That said, we think our scholars are pointing Wisconsin toward some epochally better trade-offs. The options outlined here can trigger a sharp bend for the better on so many of the old, glum graphs about Wisconsin.
This list isn’t all-encompassing — we don’t duplicate what others already have said well, and our scholars have more to say. We will offer it as time ripens.
But for policymakers who want to make systemic change at the crucial nodes of problems holding back our state from greater prosperity, these options offer a fast start. Let’s go.