Gov. Scott Walker, Mary Burke and a phony debate

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Yes, we know, the election for governor is still 13 months away. But that’s all the more reason to put to rest a silly debate that already has begun.
Democratic challenger Mary Burke and Republican Gov. Scott Walker are arguing over this question:
Who could do more to encourage job growth in the private sector?
The answer is neither.
It’s hokum to believe that either could do much to move the broader Wisconsin economy, and it’s even dumber to argue about it. Governors can do very little to affect the economic fortunes of their states despite their lofty political claims.
Walker famously promised that 250,000 new private sector jobs would be created on his watch, and, of course, he should be held accountable for that claim. It’s a campaign promise, after all. Presumably, Walker was counting on a combination of his policies, including creation of the public-private Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., tax incentives and tort reform to work this magic. Now that Walker remains far short of his goal—the state had only about 90,000 more jobs so far with barely a year to go—that promise is being cast more as a “goal.”
And Burke, the former secretary of the old Department of Commerce, which WEDC replaced, claims in her inaugural video that the state had 84,000 jobs more jobs when she was Commerce secretary than it does now. Well, yes, it does. But Burke is being cute with the numbers. There is that small matter of the Great Recession that Burke doesn’t mention. During the last three years of former Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration, the state lost thousands of jobs.
(And no, despite what Team Walker would have you believe, that wasn’t Jim Doyle’s fault; the seizing of the nation’s credit markets and subsequent financial collapse were the culprits).
And so this nascent debate over job creation is meaningless except to the extent that these two politicians can deceive you. It works like this: Businesses create jobs; politicians run government. Unfortunately, as the economist Justin Wolfers has found, voters tend to reward politicians for being lucky—for being in office during an economic run-up—and punish them for being unlucky.
The best example we can think of: The loss of President George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton in 1992. The recession was over by Election Day in 1992 but most people didn’t know it at the time. Bush was punished for events out of his control. And Clinton got lucky twice. At the tail end of the 1990s, he was rewarded (and his supporters still cite these glory years) for the booming economy that presaged the bursting of the high-tech bubble.
This is not to say that policy choices do not matter. They do, but over the long term. Stable, efficient, well-run state and local governments that provide good roads, top-notch educational systems and other services encourage economic growth. Individual policy choices can make a difference over time, as well. There is a continuing debate, for example, over the effects of right-to-work laws on economic growth—and on the pay that workers receive as a result of such laws.
So what can a governor do? High on our list would be running the government efficiently, making sure incentives are spent wisely, encouraging entrepreneurship, ensuring that taxes and regulations are reasonable and ensuring that the educational system is adequately funded.
“The economy is a big thing, and it is ridiculous for one person to take sole credit, or to be assigned sole blame, for anything that happens,” Brian Jacobsen, an economist at Wells Fargo Bank and lecturer at Wisconsin Lutheran College, told PolitiFact, which recently rated Burke’s 84,000 jobs claim as “half true.”
“They can help or hurt matters,” Jacobsen went on, “but we should really evaluate the merits of the policies they propose to implement.”
Mr. Walker? Ms. Burke? How about having a real debate about the state’s future focused on issues that you can control?
—The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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