If 3 Billion Dollars Didn’t Scare You…

By now, anyone following Wisconsin politics probably has some opinion about whether the state should be handing out $3,000,000,000 to a Taiwanese corporation for the promise of some jobs. If you support the plan, you’ll probably say “It’s going to be 13,000 jobs!” If you’re not a supporter, you might point out that the number Foxconn promised is closer to 3000.

My take on the hand-out, in brief, is that putting $3 billion on one horse is irresponsible. We could more effectively grow our economy by investing in the university system to draw talent to the state; people who will start businesses or bolster the companies that might create jobs.

As Steven Verburg points out, once the $3 billion has been paid out and thousands are working there, the state will have that much less leverage when it comes to enforcing air and water quality standards for the 25 years it will take for the state to see a net return on that money.

That’s assuming that we’ll have a DNR inclined to enforce environmental standards. Cathy Stepp recently left her position at the DNR (with a lax record of allowing manure from CAFOs into the water supply) to join the EPA, with the likely goal of making that agency less effective. In the short term, Scott Walker will get to appoint someone even less qualified.

Yet, there’s more to the Foxconn package that makes it even worse.

Before we get to the bizarre things that have been tacked on, we need to be familiar with Wisconsin’s judiciary hierarchy:

Wisconsin State Judiciary
Circuit Court: 249 judges, with jurisdiction by county (mostly)
Court of Appeals: 16 judges, with jurisdiction by district (1/4 of the state)
Supreme Court: 7 justices, with statewide jurisdiction
All publicly elected.

The Right to “Super-Appeal”

A prevision was just added to the Foxconn incentive bill to allow Foxconn to appeal any lawsuit directly to Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, skipping the Court of Appeals.
This exclusive right to “super-appeal” also puts a stay on the lower court’s ruling. That means even if the Circuit Court decided against Foxconn, they don’t have to comply unless the Supreme Court takes the case and rules against them. This puts the burden on the Supreme Court to reinforce any Circuit Court rulings against Foxconn.

A specific corporation will be explicitly named in law as having rights above and beyond any other Wisconsin companies or any of Wisconsin’s human beings. This is not normal.

We don’t know yet what the Wisconsin Supreme Court thinks of having their docket be determined by Foxconn. But we do know the Wisconsin Supreme Court no longer make their deliberations public. Nor to the the publicly-elected justices recuse themselves when a case involves a campaign donor.

In other words, the highest court in the state is up for bid. Foxconn has a free pass to skip the lower courts, giving them extraordinary power. If a citizen, another company, or perhaps even the state of Wisconsin itself ends up in court against Foxconn, they’ve probably already lost.

Here’s how it plays out: let’s say Foxconn takes billions of gallons of water from Lake Michigan and dumps it back in with all sorts of chemicals added. Maybe the DNR sues. A circuit court judge tells Foxconn to stop. Foxconn appeals, and gets to keep doing what they want while waiting for the Supreme Court to take the case.

And, maybe this isn’t Foxconn’s first appeal. Maybe they’ve filled up the Supreme Court’s docket for the next several years. Or maybe the justices handle the extra caseload by changing their rules, so that they don’t need to have in-person hearings and deliberation, they can just submit their verdict and move on.
Yup. That’s a broken system.

That’s why we need to make it clear to our representatives and state senators, our neighbors, and our media that this provision threatens the independence of each branch of government.That’s not a partisan concern.

And this underlines the importance of the Supreme Court elections. Tim Burns and Rebecca Dallet have already announced their candidacy for the next election.
We need to pay attention to lower court elections as well — in the Court of Appeals, Dane County is grouped with everything west of Dodge and south of Clark County. And Dane County alone has 17 elected circuit court justices. If you search news for Dane County Circuit Court, you can get a sense of the issues they rule on and how consequential their decisions are.

It’s Not About the Money

It’s easy to call the current Foxconn agreement a ‘bad deal’ because, most certainly, it is. The bill that passed the Wisconsin Assembly sets up over $2.85 billion in state tax credits over the next 15 years, exemptions from sales taxes, and environmental waivers.

The deal’s proponents have pointed out that if it were to fall through, it would make whichever state that does manage to make an agreement with Foxconn very happy. This is undeniable but it’s indicative of the real problem. When elected officials treat our state government as just another player in the market rather than the voice of the people, we end up with an economy without safeguards. Such an economy quickly becomes a race to the bottom, with states fighting over how much of their tax revenue and how many of their environmental protections they can give away just for the privilege of housing an employer. The problem with races to the bottom? You might win.

The temptation is to continue calling this a “bad deal,” but I don’t think that tells the whole story. For me, the issue is bigger than the money saved, or not saved, by taxpayers. It’s not about a good or bad deal, but the role of government in general. More than a government that is simply efficient or that saves me money, I want a government that protects the people and environment of Wisconsin. To call it a deal suggests that the Wisconsin state government is just another business out to make a profit or cut costs. But that is not what our government is (or, at least, that’s not what our government should be).

The Wisconsin State Assembly (who passed the agreement) and the office of the governor (who constructed the agreement) were built to enact the will of the people of our state. And, in that regard, it is not they who make deals, but we who make rules – rules to protect the safety and interests of Wisconsin citizens. In terms of a deal between two financial entities, sure, the deal is ‘bad’. But in terms of an agreement designed to protect Wisconsin, this bill is a colossal failure and a complete perversion of the role of government.

Further, to call it a ‘bad deal’ assumes that the agreement’s proponents didn’t get what they wanted. It’s tempting to criticize Governor Walker, and his allies in the Assembly, on their own terms: to say that if they ‘were really a conservative’ they wouldn’t have resorted to ‘corporate welfare’ or ‘tried to pick winners and losers in the market.’ But, again, I’m not so sure that’s the whole story. Maybe the ‘bad deal’ they’ve made serves their ends perfectly well: By waiving environmental regulations and providing Foxconn with a massive tax cut, the agreement increases the burden on the state’s infrastructure while removing the tax revenue necessary to maintain it. This guarantees further budget shortfalls and other financial dysfunction and makes it easier for ideologues to justify a weaker government, one incapable of meeting the needs of its citizens.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve called it a deal in the past and you’ll probably catch me calling it a deal in the future; it’s an intuitive way to understand and talk about what’s happening. But it’s important to remember that, as progressives, we do have a broader vision for our society, one that includes building a robust and responsive government accountable to its constituents, capable of protecting the people and their interests, and that ensures prosperity for all.

What’s Wrong With 3.1%?

The Wisconsin unemployment figure is historic, but not the complete economic picture.

In May, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development calculated the unemployment rate to be 3.1%. This is a percentage we haven’t seen since 1999, so naturally people with a stake in it are taking credit.

But what does it really mean for the economic and social success of our state?

Standard Caveats

Regardless of which direction they’re trending, or who’s attributing them to whom, bear in mind that unemployment numbers are calculated by polling. You only count as “unemployed” if you aren’t employed when they call, are available to be employed, and have trying to get employed. It doesn’t count those who work part time, seasonally, or have given up on the job market.

Just Following the Trend

Unemployment has been trending downward since the Great Recession, and Wisconsin has mostly just been paralleling that trend, consistently, about one percent below the national average. You could attribute that one percent however you want. Maybe it’s the role of agriculture in our economy. Regardless, it’s not new, and it’s not Governor Walker’s accomplishment.

Lagging in Population Growth

At an estimated growth rate of 1.61% over the past 6 years, Wisconsin is ranked 38th, and is far below the national average of 4.66%. The state’s birth rate is middling; the real cause here is emigration. Wisconsin was recently ranked the 7th in proportion of outbound moves to inbound.

A lot of the state is actually losing population, with Menominee and Dane counties as clear exceptions. We’re losing talent and tax revenue. When people move away, and we all know people who have, their knowledge and training goes with them.

Open Only For Big Business

Wisconsin has been on a streak of ranking dead last in startup activity according to the Kauffman Index, by a significant margin. This means we’re placing a disproportionate share of our economic eggs in a few baskets, relying on large companies for more of our job growth rather than building the economy from the ground up. We’re entirely too vulnerable to the next  Oscar Meyer pulling up stakes.

This is entirely in line with the Koch’s “jobs” strategy, as carried out in their legislature. The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) has been giving out large lump-sum grants with little accountability, and Wisconsin’s labor standards have become so lax that China’s disastrous Foxconn is looking at moving here. This dependence on large employers is bolstered by limited non-employer insurance options, right to work, and an active crusade against unions. Madison is the exception in this metric too, and Dane County overall has been leading the state in job growth.

Be Careful What You Wish For

A shortage of one thing can often be a surplus of another. A seller’s housing market and a low rental vacancy rate can be a housing shortage. Low unemployment can be a shortage of workforce, and an excess of unfilled positions, holding back our economic growth.

This isn’t to say that higher unemployment would be better for the state, just that it’s a situation that might not be great for service and retail jobs struggling to cover all their shifts, or for the hiring manager trying to replace someone about to retire.


In 2010, I scoffed at Scott Walker’s claim that you could “create jobs” just by changing the tax rate, or handing out grants to large companies. And I don’t believe it now either. Whether a company comes to our state or leaves it depends on much more than those two items on the balance sheet. It depends on whether there’s a plentiful labor pool to recruit from, what it’s like to live here, and how much it costs to do so.

It’s not all about attracting those “whales” either. The surest way to land the next Land’s End or Harley is to help businesses get started here.


Courtesy of https://medium.com/@IndivisibleMad.  Nicholas Davies is a local member of, and regular contributor to, Indivisible Madison.