March 10, 2011- On Wednesday evening, in a veritable Night of the Long Knives, Wisconsin's integrity was brutally murdered on the floor of the state Capitol in Madison. On 9 March, integrity and trust built up over a century was obliterated as Wisconsin state senators quickly reversed course and cleaved its budget "repair bill" in half. Financial items require a quorum, thus, collective bargaining was split off from the budget repair bill and voted on separately so as to permit its being voted on now. Even so, this still broke the state's open meeting law requiring 24 hours' notice to ensure transparency. Instead, the Wisconsin senate Republicans pulled out this new legislation without advance notice and began voting, leaving only a stunned Democratic legislator, Peter Barca, to read the open meeting law out loud to prevent the senators from voting. The senate voted over his objections anyway.
The Wisconsin brand has always centered on integrity. This was really about the only distinctive comparative advantage the state could lay claim to. Now, it is gone. With collective bargaining abolished, huge issues remain beyond labour. The privatisation of public assets is now on the agenda, with the yet-to-be-voted-on budget repair bill.
Governor Scott Walker emerges from Wisconsin, a state that invented Progressive Era Republican rule in the 19th and early 20th centuries under such exemplars as Robert LaFollette. Under their tenure, rent-seeking from the public domain and similar insider corruption were checked by a strong public sector anchored in integrity. The state's long history of reforms nurtured a prosperous middle class and made it a model of clean government, solid infrastructure, trade unionism and high value-added industry managed by socialists and the LaFollette Progressives.
Fast-forward to Scott Walker today. Representing a new breed apart from Wisconsin's earlier Republicans, he is seeking to re-open the asset-grabbing Gilded Age style. A plague of rent-seekers is seeking quick gains by privatising the public sector and erecting tollbooths to charge access fees to roads, power plants and other basic infrastructure.
Economics textbooks, along with Fox News and shout radio commentators, spread the myth that fortunes are gained productively by investing in capital equipment and employing labour to produce goods and services that people want to buy. This may be how economies prosper, but it is not how fortunes are most easily made. One need only to turn to the 19th-century novelists such as Balzac to be reminded that behind every family fortune lies a great theft, often long-forgotten or even undiscovered.
But who is one to steal from? Most wealth in history has been acquired either by armed conquest of the land, or by political insider dealing, such as the great US railroad land giveaways of the mid 19th century. The great American fortunes have been founded by prying land, public enterprises and monopoly rights from the public domain, because (to paraphrase Willie Sutton) that's where the assets are to take. Throughout history the world's most successful economies have been those that have kept this kind of primitive accumulation in check. The US economy today is faltering largely because its past barriers against rent-seeking are being breached.
Nowhere is this more disturbingly on display than in Wisconsin. Today, Milwaukee – Wisconsin's largest city, and once the richest in America – is ranked among the four poorest large cities in the United States. Wisconsin is just the most recent case in this great heist. The US government itself and its regulatory agencies effectively are being privatised as the "final stage" of neoliberal economic doctrine.
A peek into Governor Walker's so-called "budget repair bill" reveals a shop of horrors that is just the opposite of actually repairing the budget. Among the items listed in the bill until Wednesday night were selloffs of state power generation facilities – in no-bid contracts notoriously prone to insider dealing. The 37 facilities he wants to sell off that produce heating and cooling at low cost to the state's universities and prisons. Walker's budget repair bill would have unloaded them at a low price, presumably to campaign contributors such as Koch Industries – and then stick the bill for producing this power at higher rates to Wisconsin taxpayers in perpetuity. (And this is all being sold as a "taxpayer relief" plan!) Invariably, this will make its way into new legislation once attention is diverted from the current controversy.