Six months ago, I asserted in an article that it was hard to think of two states more similar than Minnesota and Wisconsin. A flustered reader responded that the two states were nothing alike.
For instance, he pointed out, Wisconsin is only 9 percent Norwegian. Minnesota is 17 percent Norwegian.
OK, I responded. Could he think of two states that are more alike?
North Dakota and South Dakota, he replied.
North Dakota's Norwegian population is apparently twice that of South Dakota, but I'll ignore that crucial metric of state identity to get back to the original point of my comparison: As similar as Wisconsin and Minnesota are, the political leadership in the two states are polar opposites.
Minnesota's statehouse is controlled by the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which is pushing ahead with a slew of progressive initiatives, including tax hikes on the wealthy and gay marriage. Meanwhile Wisconsin, in firm Republican control, has become a laboratory for conservative social, economic and environmental experimentation.
It's a dream come true for political scientists, sociologists, economists and others who see in the divergence an opportunity to make the closest thing to an apples-to-apples comparison between the effects of progressive and conservative policy.
Hence a column in the New York Times this weekend by Lawrence Jacobs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota.
"Which side of the experiment — the new right or modern progressivism — has been most effective in increasing jobs and improving business opportunities, not to mention living conditions," he asks.
"Obviously, firm answers will require more time and more data, but the first round of evidence gives the edge to Minnesota’s model of increased services, higher costs (mostly for the affluent) and reduced payments to entrenched interests like the insurers who cover the Medicaid population."
Minnesota, notes Jacobs, is the fifth fastest-growing state economy, along with California, a state whose high taxes and budget problems several years ago had conservatives predicting its economic demise. The other top performers include red states and blue states: North Dakota, Texas, Oregon and Washington.
The other major differences Jacobs notes will make progressives salivate: "While the state’s Constitution required that half of the new revenue balance the budget in 2013, Mr. Dayton invested 71 percent of the remaining funds in K-12 schools and higher education as well as a pair of firsts: all-day kindergarten and wider access to early childhood education. Minnesota was one of the few states that raised education spending under the cloud of the Great Recession."
Wisconsin, in contrast, made the seventh deepest cut to K-12 education in the nation.
And while Obamacare's first two months has been a disaster in Wisconsin and other states that refused to set up state insurance exchanges, Minnesota, which set up its own exchange, nearly hit its enrollment target. And, of course, it accepted Medicaid funds that Wisconsin refused.
Jacobs tries to find a caveat to Minnesota's generally outstanding economic performance, noting that a quarter of the state's employers rated the state's business climate as worse compared to other states. But in the same survey, commissioned by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, more employers (37 percent) rated the state's business climate as good compared to other states and a large share (36 percent) said the state was on par with other states.
When it comes to business climate rankings, however, there seems to be one for everybody. The national survey of executives conducted by Chief Executive Magazine heavily favors GOP-controlled states, putting Wisconsin at number 17, after a slew of low-tax, low-regulation states largely located in the South or West. Minnesota comes in at 30.
The state business ranking put out by Forbes comes to a very different conclusion. Minnesota is in eighth place; Wisconsin languishes at 41st.