The Republicans are huffing and puffing about a few paragraphs in Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke's economic development plan that were gleaned from similar plans of other candidates. They're going so far as to demand that Burke withdraw from the whole shooting match over this.
This is silly. What Burke did is not plagiarism in the sense that the term is usually applied. Republicans point to U.S. Sen. John Walsh. The Montana Democrat withdrew from his race for reelection last month amid charges that he had plagiarized a paper at the Army War College. And, in fact, charges of academic cheating are serious enough that they might lead to a candidate's bowing out, but that's not what happened in this case.
What happened here was that a consultant hired by the Burke campaign, Eric Schnurer, reused language that he himself had written for plans done for gubernatorial candidates in Delaware, Tennessee and Indiana between 2008 and 2012. For one thing, you can't plagiarize yourself. And for another, a campaign document, offered under the candidate's name but understood to be written by many others, is not presumed to be covered by the rigorous standards that apply to originality and proper footnoting in an academic setting.
Besides, if we are going to go down this path, then what's more serious: borrowing a few paragraphs in a plan offered on a campaign website or taking exact language from outside sources and placing them in bills that become laws governing our state?
That is exactly what Gov. Scott Walker and Republican legislators have done in taking draft language (PDF) developed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and turning it into legislation and eventually laws limiting public employee union bargaining rights and at least 11 other pieces of legislation.
Actually, I don't see anything wrong with doing that either. After all, there is a long and perfectly acceptable practice in this country of developing and offering model legislation. A search on the term "model legislation" brought up examples from the Innocence Project, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and even the League of American Bicyclists. Simply because we might not like the direction of the legislation ALEC develops doesn't make the practice of developing model legislation wrong in itself.
So, neither borrowing language for a policy document nor using proffered language for legislation is either unusual or inappropriate.
If it were possible to have an intelligent conversation about this topic -- and trust me, it's not -- we might ask a more fundamental question: How much can a state government really affect economic development in the first place?
Republicans have long argued that creating jobs is as simple as cutting taxes and regulation, but there's scant evidence to support their claims. A review by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities of dozens of studies on that topic results in no consensus. You can quote reputable studies that back up the Republican claims, others that refute them and more concluding that it's hard to say. And in the real political world, Kansas' Republican governor, Sam Brownback, is facing a tough reelection fight after taking conservative economic orthodoxy to its logical conclusion and dramatically reducing state income taxes. The result has been a state budget crisis and nothing to show for it on the jobs front.
Back in Wisconsin, Walker owns this issue and the bad numbers that go with it because he unwisely claimed it for himself. Four years ago he made a very specific promise -- 250,000 new private-sector jobs in four years -- and then explicitly said he should be held accountable at the next election for producing them. The state is on track to add about half that number, and we have consistently ranked at the bottom of Midwest states and in the bottom third of all states in job production during Walker's time in office.
At the center of Burke's campaign is her claim that she should be given a chance to do better. Certainly, Walker's turning back of over a billion dollars in federal investment in high-speed rail, rural high-speed Internet and expansion of Medicaid has hurt the state's economic competitiveness. There's little doubt that Burke would make smarter choices in these areas and that she understands the importance to the state's economic future of investing in education, especially for young children.
But there is a serious question about how much a state's economic development policies really matter in the end. A good case can be made that Wisconsin's troubles are the result of demographics (we're skewing old), international economics (it has been cheaper to manufacture products offshore), pricing of agricultural products (beyond our control), farm policy (made in Washington) and the irresistible gravitational pull of major metro areas, of which we have none to compare to the coasts, Chicago or the Twin Cities.
So the Republican charges of plagiarism are just so much campaign-season nonsense. But the chances that we'll have a meaningful conversation about just how much the state can do to improve its jobs picture, and exactly where those levers are located, are slim to none.
Dave Cieslewicz is the former mayor of Madison. He blogs as Citizen Dave at isthmus.com/citizendave.