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Beer, cheese, football

A story in a recent issue of the Green Bay Press-Gazette described how several groups in Wisconsin are trying to change the state's national image of being all about beer, cheese and football.

None of which, apparently, is appealing to the young professionals the state needs to attract if it is to grow its lagging economy. Wisconsin is more than agriculture and the old manufacturing industry, those who would like to re-imagine the state point out, but the message isn't getting through.

I noticed that one of the partners in this endeavor is none other than the big corporate lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce which, I'd venture to say, has been a leading player in helping give the state its negative image in recent years. No one has been more vociferous than WMC in claiming the state's a hell hole for businesses, with unprepared high school graduates and excessive environmental regulations. Who'd want to come here after hearing all that?

If the state has a bad reputation now, let's make it clear that wasn't so in the recent past. Yes, Wisconsin has always been the "dairy state" and famous for being a beer capital and the state with the publicly owned and highly successful professional football team the Green Bay Packers.

But Wisconsin has also been known for its progressive government dating all the way back to the late 1890s. Of all the states, it was considered a laboratory of democracy, a place where new ideas were hatched and nurtured into sound public policy. Many of its innovations were copied by other states — insurance and banking regulation, workmen's compensation and statewide unemployment service, a minimum "living wage," the nation's first state income tax to be shared with local governments — and even were copied by the federal government when Franklin D. Roosevelt relied on prominent UW economists to create what we now know as Social Security.

Our state government long embraced the "Wisconsin Idea," where the best and brightest at UW shared their expertise with the state to help build the middle class and promote economic and social justice. Coupled with its concern for education and the environment, the state became a magnet for young idealists who wanted to be a part of it.

As we know, that image of Wisconsin has been turned upside down. Where once the state exported ideas aimed at building a more equitable economy and an infrastructure of strong schools and a world-class university, the biggest idea the Scott Walker administration is touting is a textbook plan on how to destroy unions. Instead of inviting university faculty to partner in solving problems, this Legislature demonizes them as pampered left-wingers intent on brainwashing young-adult students.

Environmental regulations have been eviscerated, the state parks have been unfunded and many of our school districts are struggling. This isn't the image that attracts young people hoping to start a career and raise their families. 

If Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce really wants to send a message that our state is a welcoming place to locate, perhaps it ought to stop spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on politicians who do their best to prove that it isn't.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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Editor Emeritus