Yesterday I had some fun with numbers. I tried to make a case that Madison would be better off, at least from a municipal finance perspective, if it weren't part of the state of Wisconsin.
From my admittedly back-of-the-envelope calculations, Madisonians would come out substantially ahead if we just kept all our state tax dollars at home while forgoing any state aid payments. In fact, by my estimates we could keep all the services we currently have, cut property taxes by about a third, and have some left over for local investments in things like education
This isn't so crazy. For thousands of years, cities have been the centers of economic activity while the nation states and provinces around them changed their borders and their names. Nations and states come and go, but cities endure. In fact, in the evolution of human settlements, cities came first. Nation states are a relatively recent invention.
But yesterday's exercise wasn't really about Madison seceding from Wisconsin, no matter how tempting a proposition that might be to some. It's just not going to happen. I ran through the numbers to make a case that Madison is a net exporter of wealth to the rest of the state. We are not the evil empire that so many legislators like to run against back home. We produce wealth, ideas, and products that benefit the entire state.
So, why don't our fellow Wisconsinites see it that way? Well, of course, some do but UW-Madison political science professor Katherine Cramer Walsh has done a good deal of research by just hanging around places like gas stations in rural Wisconsin and listening to people talk about us.
In a recent interview based on her research, here's how she described the attitudes of typical Wisconsinites:
All of our taxpayer dollars get sucked in by Madison, diverted to Milwaukee, and we never see them again. The people in Madison are out of touch with the lives of people in rural and small town Wisconsin, and they are liberals and elitists who for the most part work for the state and have cushy health care and pensions. In addition, they are lazy. They can't possibly be working as hard as the rest of us who are working 2-3 jobs to make ends meet out here in these communities from which we can see businesses, industry, and farms leaving on a daily basis.
Now, of course, the first part about Madison sucking resources just isn't true. Not by a long shot, as I tried to demonstrate yesterday. We are net exporters of value.
So that story needs to be told, but the cultural disconnect -- the idea that we are a bunch of lazy, liberal elitists -- is an even stickier problem.
The first thing we have to do is admit that there's some truth in there. I don't think many of us are lazy, but we can come off as elitists sometimes. I cringe, for example, every time one of my fellow liberals goes off on how "dumb" some Republican is or what a travesty it is that Governor Walker doesn't have a college degree.
The GOP certainly isn't stupid, and a lot of very smart people didn't finish college. We've got to knock this kind of stuff off.
But fundamentally, we need to develop a little bit of humility. I disagree with Mayor Paul Soglin who announced during city budget debates, in what may become his epitaph, that "Madison isn't special anymore."
We are special. But we're special because we're endowed with a stunning natural setting in the middle of some of the most productive farmland in the world. And on top of those natural gifts, the people of Wisconsin saw fit to locate the state capital and the big public university here.
Thanks to that, we do have a lot of well-paying, relatively secure state jobs (even after Act 10), we have spin off high-tech industries from the UW, and every year about 6,000 of the brightest 18-year-olds in the state show up here to be college freshmen. A lot of them stay and contribute to our economy.
And it all happens in large part because people around the state pay their taxes and some of that money ends up here, not so much in municipal aid programs (where we lose) but in the salaries of state workers, university employees and in support for the UW.
So, the first thing we need to do is develop a sense of humility. We're lucky to live here and some of that is because the rest of the state supports us. We should have a sense of the need to give back.
Finally, in a practical sense, it seems to me that we need a game plan. If I still had my old job, here's what I'd be doing.
I would convene city economic development staff, Professor Walsh, the Chamber of Commerce, Thrive, the UW-Madison and the UW Alumni Association, Dane County, and a group of young advertising execs that helped us fashion the successful "Freakfest" makeover of Halloween. I'd ask them to put their resources and heads together and come up with a game plan for going out into the rest of the state and telling Madison's story. Maybe, we also need to invest in a paid advertising strategy.
This would take years of sustained effort but the payoff would be huge.
I don't mind Madison being thought of as "[fill in the blank] square miles surrounded by reality." I think we should put that on bumper stickers that say, "Madison is expanding while reality shrinks."
We're always going to be thought of as a little quirky. That's part of our charm. But we shouldn't be disliked, misunderstood and thought of as "the other."
With concerted and sustained effort and with an attitude adjustment toward some humility, we can turn this around. Let's start.