June 15, 2010 9:29 AM
I had a little fun with State Representative Steve Nass recently. The Republican from Whitewater put out an unintentionally funny press release claiming that a new way of marking the stopping places for bikes at intersections in Madison was evidence of a liberal agenda to take away your car. I issued what I hope was an intentionally funny retort. You can read it in Cap Times editor Paul Fanlund's blog at http://host.madison.com/ct/news/local/madison_360/article_20f2ce1e-73ce-11df-8ff5-001cc4c03286.html.
But there's something serious going on here and it's worth a serious response. For years legislators have found political gold in beating up on "Madison." Sometimes they're referring to state government in general, but often times they're talking about us directly. We're supposed to be that wacky bunch of liberals off in a world of our own while the real Wisconsin resides elsewhere. The late Governor Lee Dreyfus referred to us as, "55 square miles surrounded by reality." It was a good line and worth a response, which I'll have at the end of this blog. But Dreyfus was tapping into this sentiment with his usual good humor while others like Nass tap into it with more venom.
What's going on? Why is it apparently good politics in parts of the state to attack Madison? There's certainly more than one answer, but I think the most fundamental reason is resentment borne of economics, and that resentment isn't entirely misplaced.
Madison has hitched its wagon to the new economy. Thanks mostly to the University of Wisconsin, just over half of our adult population has a college degree compared to about a quarter in the state as a whole. Not only does the UW provide lots of stable employment, but high tech ideas hatched at the university and incubated at places like the University Research Park spin off into major employers like Epic Systems. As a result, our unemployment rate, while high by our standards, is running almost half that of the rest of the state, and that's true in good times as well as bad.
It would be a mistake for us to feel smug about that. After all, we didn't make our own good fortune 160 years ago when the legislature decided to move its home here and to create the state university on the other end of State Street. Those were the key decisions that sealed our prosperity a century and a half later. People all over the state pay their taxes and while the whole state benefits, we benefit a little bit more because of the major state institutions located here.
So we should always acknowledge our debt to the rest of the state, but the gratuitous attacks on Madison, on state government and especially on the UW have negative consequences for everyone from Superior to Kenosha. The UW is a key economic engine in an economy that becomes more knowledge-based every day. Research at the UW makes our agricultural economy more efficient and creates new jobs in technologies that didn't exist a few years ago. There's a good chance that the medical and pharmacy schools produced most of the doctors and druggists in every community in the state (the law school probably turned out most of the lawyers too, but for some reason that one doesn't seem to resonate as well). If a family member is ill with cancer or needs an organ transplant, you'll likely find that life saved at the UW. And kids from around the state get a world class education here at a price that's still a good deal.
Attacking the UW, cutting its budget and micromanaging its work, is harming the single most important public institution in our state. The answer is an old idea rooted in Wisconsin progressivism. The Wisconsin Idea is that the boundaries of the UW are the boundaries of the state. We need to put the Wisconsin Idea on steroids and demonstrate to legislators and their constituents that what happens in Madison has direct and tangible benefits for them in their own communities. If we can't do that, then the attacks will continue and our economy will be weakened from within.
So, it's not us and them, but one Wisconsin. And if we're considered the slightly eccentric uncle in the Badger family, well, that's okay too. It was better than three decades ago when Lee Dreyfus said we were 55 square miles surrounded by reality. But since then, Madison has expanded to about 77 square miles. So it looks as if Madison is growing, and reality is shrinking. If that means that the new economy, an educated work force and technological innovation are growing to every part of the state, then here's to a better reality everywhere.