The traditional conception of democratic citizenship roots itself in a specific polity, and will for the foreseeable future. Disparate political communities, each with their own form of governance and view of the human good, do not serve as a deterrent to virtuous citizenship, but in some cases serves as a boon for good citizenship. Most people believe in national identity and attachment to it as both inevitable and desirable. Few and far between are cosmopolitans—at least outside of the halls of liberal academia—who bemoan particularistic and provincial attachment to nation, state, or local space. “For the vast majority of human beings,” Leon Kass writes, “life…is lived parochially and locally, embedded in a web of human relations, institutions, culture, and mores that define us and—whether we know it or not—give shape, character, and meaning to our lives.” This idea of citizenship and its connection to community is alive and well.
Yet, Jonathan Last writes in this week’s Weekly Standard that community and geography will sever, eventually, at least in one important respect, by the business practice known as “microtasking”—i.e., the use of Internet platforms that operate like job fairs, where willing participants sign up to perform tasks for business involving the Internet and paid upon completion of the task (provided the company is a legitimate, tax-paying and law-abiding one). In Last’s case, he utilized Amazon.com to land a gig entering search terms into Google, clicking on the first result generated by the search term, and copying the URL into a work page. He earned a paltry $0.16 for his labor, but worked less than two minutes. But beyond his meager salary as a “Mechanical Turk,” Last’s participation in microtasking seems innocuous enough, yet highlights a problem with what any future economy may look like—completely remote participation in the workplace.
To be sure, Amazon’s platform—and others like it—represents a novel contribution, matching worker’s skills with jobs, or rather tasks, businesses need fulfilled on a part-time or one-off basis. It does not make sense for companies to hire for such tasks, nor to allocate them to current employees, so the Internet affords them an outlet for such task completion. Last notes that free-market advocates ought to like these types of platforms, where work is unforced, the labor and tasks defined transparently, employment discrimination nearly impossible, and the human factors such as résumé review and interview performance reduced. The biggest and most profound shift engendered by these platforms, however, is the severing of community and geography—and without any pretense of replacing it in new ways.
The work-commute paradigm, where work centers around particular spaces of productivity such as offices, remains a particularly ossified concept, even in the digital era. At their best, offices are places of dynamism, productivity, idea-swapping, and friendship. Even if they are, in some senses, economically inefficient, we confirm them despite this inefficiency for the aforementioned reasons. Microtasking destroys this nexus, however. US business may contract with citizens of Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, or Mexico. All that matters is that the task goes fulfilled, not the communal atmosphere of the office, the common devotion to the company and its product(s), or the vested interest of the workers in the long-term future and ethical behavior of the business. Microtasking encourages fleeting relationships of utility centered on task completion for small monetary remuneration.
The implications, I believe, are straightforward. Microtasking decreases the likelihood that businesses will view their relationship with the community in which they locate—or eventually, even the nation in which they place their headquarters—as vital to their future. It decreases the likelihood that business will maintain a vested interest in that community—in its work force, its institutions, its sound government, its education system. Tout court, it decreases the likelihood of business participation in all that makes a community healthy and vibrant. The only way microtasking will not lead to the erosion of the nexus between community and geography is if any increased efficiency therein lands within the community or the American economy itself, which, for the nonce, is highly unlikely. The change that microtasking brings to the American business experience and its historical linkage to communities is something unprecedented and overall, deleterious to the nexus we hold dear.
U.S. census data shows that 27 states have a higher percentage of residents with college degrees than Wisconsin. Middle of the pack in education attainment might have been ok thirty years ago, but today our middling position is a barrier to attracting businesses that demand a highly educated workforce.
A college diploma does not guarantee employment, as thousands of new graduates are learning. However, it is a basic credential that gets you in the door. Walker’s plan provides a flexible path for more students to get that credential.
According to the governor’s office “more than one-fifth of all Wisconsin adults have some higher education credits, but no degree.” This statistic does not surprise me. As an instructor at UW-Milwaukee, I have come across numerous smart, capable students that were unable to complete their coursework because of work and family commitments. Often these students were first generation college attendees.
It is particularly cruel to make a student choose between improving themselves through education and helping to provide for the basic needs of their families. I am hopeful this new program will prevent ambitious busy students from having to make that choice.
Specifically, the new initiative allows students to demonstrate specific competencies at their own pace in a structured program that leads to a University of Wisconsin degree. Though I am admittedly partial to face-to-face learning and the overall university experience, qualified students whose circumstances prevent such an experience should have a path to a credible degree based on their knowledge and skills.
The UW Flexible Degree concept seems like a no-brainer. It is a way to improve Wisconsin’s economy, and more importantly, a path to greater opportunity for thousands of Wisconsin residents.
Over the past couple years I have had the privilege of teaching a social science course to undergraduates in Milwaukee. Every semester I ask soon-to-be graduates about their job search, and more often than not I hear about interviews and placements in the non-profit sector. While social science students are likely more drawn to the sector than business or science majors, there is good evidence that non-profits have weathered the economic downturn better than the private and government sectors, particular when it comes to job growth.
Data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics indicate over 13,000 Wisconsin non-profit charitable organizations with combined revenues of $33,983,676,906 filed 990 tax forms this year. Though the number of non-profits in Wisconsin is down slightly from last year, total revenue in the sector is up. Indeed, total revenue in the sector has been increasing annually for years.
More interesting is a recent report from the Johns Hopkins’ Non-Profit Data Project showing the number of non-profit jobs in Wisconsin increased by 2.1% between 2007 and 2009. During the same timeframe the number of private sector jobs in Wisconsin decreased by 3.7%.
There are any number of possible reasons non-profits have fared better than the private sector in recent years. One may be an increased need for organizations that provide social services during difficult economic times. Another may the need to fill the gap in services caused by cuts to government. Or, perhaps, lower starting salaries and the absence of a fiscal profit motive give non-profit employers a competitive advantage in a down economy.
Unfortunately, the tax-exempt status enjoyed by non-profit organizations in exchange for providing a public benefit is becoming increasingly politicized. The basic critique is that some non-profit corporations, particularly those involved with religion and public policy, may not be holding up their end of the bargain.
I will leave the debate over which public charities are worthy of tax-exempt status to the IRS, however I do want to point out that taking funds out of the non-profit sector through the removal of public support seems antithetical to the goal of job growth. Right now, there is evidence that it is the one sector in Wisconsin steadily creating jobs.
WPRI polling from last year found the majority of Wisconsinites think jobs/economy is the most important issue facing the state. As state policymakers move forward to address this issue, they would be wise to include the non-profit sector as a key component of any plan for job creation.
A report released today by WPRI details the strong connection between early childhood education and economic development. The authors, Minneapolis Federal Reserve economist Rob Grunewald and former Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau analyst Don Bezruki, use existing economic research on early childhood education programs to inform a series of recommendations for increasing the economic development power of early childhood education in Wisconsin.
The authors review four key longitudinal studies on early childhood education and conclude that the return on investment in such programs can be “as high as $16 for every $1” spent. Looking specifically at Wisconsin’s YoungStar system, it is possible to estimate that the additional $20 million in incentive payments required from moving about 10,000 children into higher quality education centers would generate $60 million in future economic benefit.
The strength of this report goes beyond its quantitative foundation; it is rooted in common sense. Education is a lifelong process and it is easy to grasp that making the most of a child’s first exposure to formal education is crucial to future attainment and productivity. A troubling harbinger of Wisconsin’s economic future is the fact that we currently trail a majority of U.S. states in the percentage of our residents with a higher-education degree. Getting our youngest students off to quick start is a logical long-term approach to closing this attainment gap.
Grunewald and Bezruki conclude their report with a variety of ways to strengthen the quality of early childhood education so as to maximize its positive economic impact in Wisconsin. One recommendation is to consolidate several existing childhood education efforts into a single governance structure focused on economic development. Other recommendation include developing strategies to engage parents and the business community, and assessing the feasibility of improving the quality of existing early childhood education providers under the current YoungStar incentive structure.
A well-educated populace is necessary for Wisconsin’s future economic health. WPRI’s latest report highlights an oft-overlooked area of education with vast potential to deliver long-term benefits to the Wisconsin economy.
Friday I had the opportunity to hear some excellent speakers at a Business Journal event on the future of downtown Milwaukee. Former Mayor John Norquist was as opinionated as ever, but I was most taken by Marc Marotta’s pitch for a new basketball arena downtown.
Marotta emphasized, as yours truly did in a commentary last week, the importance of a high quality of life in economic growth. He put the need for a new stadium in this context, arguing that having a professional sports team downtown brings great intangible benefits to Milwaukee’s economy.
It is an important point, because there is pretty substantial literature showing that stadiums and professional sports in general are a costly and inefficient way to boost the tangible indicators of economic growth. A 1997 report by economists Robert Baade and Allen Sanderson, for example, concluded:
“[C]ities should be wary of committing substantial portions of their capital budgets to building stadiums and otherwise subsidizing professional sports in the expectations of strong income and job growth.”
So what intangible benefits do professional sports bring to a place? The big benefit, nearly impossible to measure, is civic pride. John Gurda touched on this idea in his book, The Making of Milwaukee. He describes in detail the excitement in Milwaukee when the Braves came to town; residents saw their coming as proof that the city had finally made the big time. And civic pride is important, good luck getting outsiders to come to a place if longtime residents are down on it.
Another intangible benefit is even more basic than pride: unity. In our current political climate, it is invaluable to have reminders that there is more to Wisconsin and to being a Wisconsinite than recalls and partisan divides. Consider, for example, the Brewer’s run last year. The state was in political turmoil yet thousands of citizens of all political and demographic stripes found something common to care about.
At their core professional sports are trivial, but perhaps that is why they matter. Anything that can bring thousands of people who may disagree about all the serious stuff together even for a little while is worth supporting. That is why I hope Marotta and other stakeholders find a way to get their new arena and keep pro basketball in the state, not doing so would mean one less institution with the potential to unite Wisconsinites.
Politically the rejection of anything relating to job creation is strange. WPRI’s latest public opinion poll shows the majority of respondents (52%) think “jobs/economy” is the most important issue facing state government in Wisconsin. No other issue cracks 20%. Given that short of hiring people there is little government can do to directly create jobs, Gogebic should have been a slam-dunk.
Alas, Wisconsinites also like the environment. The same WPRI poll shows a majority of respondents (51%) think environmental regulations “should not be weakened” to create more mining jobs in northern Wisconsin. The senate vote certainty suggests that when it comes to the competing issue of jobs and the environment, the environment wins.
Which is why I found it humorous that the same state senate that rejected streamlining environmental regulations for jobs approved legislation (by a 24-9 margin!) allowing Wisconsinites to hunt wolves with traps, guns, bows, and crossbows. I know I know, wolves are no longer endangered and pose a legitimate threat to livestock, but the optics sure look strange to this city-dweller.
Maybe the real issue is government power. Poplar Senator Bob Jauch alludes to this, telling WLUK in Green Bay that he wants the jobs but does want the Department of Natural Resources to have its “tools limited.”
More important than why the bill failed is the disappointing end result: 700 mining jobs are not coming to Wisconsin. But hey, at least the senators saw fit to give us a wolf hunt.
Just like communities and individuals have been affected, the foreclosure crisis has had an effect on the state of Wisconsin, in terms of unemployment. . . . This will offset that damage done to the state of Wisconsin
The problem is that the policy options Walker (or any other Governor) has are limited. The 2011-13 budget already cut K-12 school aids, shared revenue to local governments, and funding for higher education. The cuts to higher education were the subject of another Journal Sentinel story this morning. Administrators across the UW system say they are struggling to maintain quality in the face of revenue losses, UWM Chancellor Michael Lovell cites the loss of over 40 faculty members to other institutions as exhibit A in demonstrating the challenge he faces.
The perils of another strategy, finding lower-cost ways to deliver state services, shows up in another Journal Sentinel story this morning on the notable absence of a common school accountability system for all schools receiving public revenue in a new piece of education legislation. Erin Richards writes of the bill:
[I]t did not propose creating a statewide school accountability system that would hold all public schools and publicly funded private voucher schools to the same standards.
What is not mentioned in the story is that an identical public, private, and charter school accountability system is functionally impossible, and undesirable. The presence of religion in private choice schools for example requires that the schools spend (and document the purpose of) every dollar they receive annually through the choice program so as not to have a surplus that could be seen as aiding religion. In comparison, having and carrying over a surplus in a public school district may actually be a sign of responsible budgeting. And the heart of the charter school concept is a third party authorizer that serves as the accountability agent. A common accountability system undermines the very idea of a charter school.
More important, if choice and charter face identical public school rules and regulations, there is every reason to expect them to be nothing more than poorly funded public schools that may save the state money, but not increase educational quality. What is needed is a way to ensure all of our schools are accountable and transparent, not identical regulation.
The straightforward short-term answer to a revenue shortfall is to simply raise taxes. This is a political non-starter and a bad idea for the long-term competiveness of our state. The easier said than executed long-term solution to Wisconsin’s revenue problem is a combination of policies conducive to economic growth, new approaches to local service delivery, and responsible state budgeting. And of course, Wisconsin’s toxic state of political discourse must be addressed.
George Wagner brings out the old “What’s the matter with Kansas” argument in today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. For those unfamiliar, “What’s the matter with Kansas” was a book written in 2004 by Thomas Frank that argued Kansas residents supported Republicans despite it being against their economic interest. The implication is that Kansas conservatives are ignorant and/or being distracted by social issues.
Wagner applies the sprit of the argument to income inequality, citing a finding that Americans, “even traditional Republican constituencies,” support a more equal income distribution. Yet, Americans somehow do not support raising taxes on CEOs. Why? Wagner says the reason is ignorance, writing: “most Americans believe that wealth distribution is a lot more equal than it actually is.”
I agree with Wagner that growing income inequality is a potential problem. Data from the Department of Revenue indicates that between 1996 and 2009 the percentage of all Wisconsin tax filers with annual incomes between $20,000 and $70,000 has decreased from 43% to 40% while the percentage of all filers with incomes above $200,000 increased from 0.78% to 1.71%. To the extent that is attributable to an inequality of opportunity, it is troubling.
However, it is not clear why a higher percentage of Wisconsinites are earning more than $200,000 today than in 1996. More wealthy Wisconsin residents can be viewed as a positive, especially given that the percentage of total state tax revenue being collected from filers earning over $200,000 annually has increased from 14.9% to 25.3% between 1996 and 2009. More importantly, the increase in wealthy Wisconsin residents is certainly not the reason that 46% of Milwaukee children are impoverished, as Wagner alludes. Increasing taxes on the rich, a solution that Wagner argues Americans are too ignorant to support, will not in and of itself decrease poverty.
I’ll call this the housing project principal, based on that well-meaning urban policy failure. People needed better housing, so cities built public housing projects. It solved the immediate problem facing the homeless and those with inadequate housing, but did nothing to address the myriad of social issues of which a lack of adequate housing was the most obvious symptom. Yes, poverty is a lack of income, but it is so much more. Simply taking money from the wealthy and giving it to the poor does not address urban education failures, infant mortality, inadequate health-care, crime, or any other of the social problems that are also symptoms and causes of poverty.
Growing income inequality is a problem if it means that the United States is no longer an egalitarian society where everyone has a chance at success. One of the reasons I blog so often on urban education is that addressing policy failures in that arena is necessary for our society to get closer to true equality of opportunity. The discomfort I and others have with proposals to simply soak the rich comes not from ignorance, but a desire to enable success rather than punish it.
The House of Representatives last week voted 223-197 to block a $150 million annual payment to Brazil’s cotton industry…
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., with help from fiscal conservatives in the Republican-run House, finally succeeded in voting down the payment Thursday. Kind correctly argued that the United States should cut its domestic cotton subsidies to comply with international trading rules, rather than paying off Brazil to look the other way.
“Let’s end this nonsense of stacking subsidy program on top of subsidy program to blackmail other governments,” Kind said.
Unfortunately, some House leaders have suggested Kind’s smart change could be nixed during negotiations with the Senate over a final agriculture spending bill.
That’s where Wisconsin’s delegation comes in. Every House member from Wisconsin – with the glaring exception of Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis. – voted with Kind to block the Brazil payment. Wisconsin should be unified against this sham in both the House and the Senate.
The $150 million in savings isn’t much, given the federal government’s debt crisis that climbs into the trillions. Congress still has a long way to go in scaling back fat farm subsidies – especially the direct payments farmers get for not growing crops.
Major kudos to the Wisconsin delegation for standing up against subsidies, which are wasteful and distort the global market. Hopefully domestic subsidies are next on the list.
WiscNet is a private nonprofit cooperative that provides high-speed Internet to the research and education networks in Wisconsin. It’s used by every UW campus, the technical colleges, and a majority of the K-12 schools.
“The Joint Finance Committee earlier this month voted to put restrictions on the network and to force the state to return a nearly $40 million federal grant to expand broadband to rural Wisconsin. The moves sparked discontent from the University of Wisconsin System and rural legislators.
Under a budget amendment the Assembly will adopt later Wednesday the state could keep the federal money and WiscNet will continue to run for at least two years the same way it has in the past, said Rep. Robin Vos (R-Rochester), co-chairman of the Joint Finance Committee. Any expansions to the network, which serves most schools and public libraries, would have to be approved by the committee.”
Telecommunication companies object to WiscNet because they feel that they are competing against a government-subsidized entity. WiscNet contends that it is a “member organization” that collects money from its affiliates, and that it is not subsidized through tax dollars (though it does receive some federal grants.)
Like most telecommunication regulations, this is a complicated issue. On the face of it, telecommunications companies’ complaints seem legitimate – they are not competing in a free market. However, telecommunications have never really operated in a free market. Infrastructure costs are a significant barrier to entry, and the market has always been prone to natural monopolies. (This Internet connection brought to you by Ma Bell!)
High-speed Internet is increasingly expected for business, education, and research opportunities, yet the broadband and fiber-optics infrastructure in the United States (particularly in rural areas) lags behind most industrialized countries. Communities without high-speed Internet have no recourse if the major telecom in their area decides their community is not worth investing in.
The proposed restrictions on WiscNet were unexpected and left little time for important research and debate. Delaying the decision for two years was a good move, as it will allow time for WiscNet and the other telecoms to work out how to provide affordable broadband Internet to those that need it. Ultimately, access to high-speed Internet is a necessity, not a luxury. The two year delay should give legislators and telecoms enough time to phase out any unnecessary government involvement while still meeting the needs of Wisconsin’s educational institutions and rural communities.