Wisconsin needs to permanently improveWe dislike slackers. It’s part of our history. As far back as the Civil War, Wisconsin soldiers fighting in the south derided the lazy southern landowners and observed the abhorrent use of slave labor had, as it was said, “perverted their energies.”
By: Mike Nichols, Superior Telegram
We dislike slackers. It’s part of our history.
As far back as the Civil War, Wisconsin soldiers fighting in the south derided the lazy southern landowners and observed the abhorrent use of slave labor had, as it was said, “perverted their energies.”
“How shiftless,” remarked one soldier in an essay I found through the Wisconsin Historical Society. “An air of decay pervades everything. The very soil seems to pray for an infusion of northern blood and Yankee ingenuity.”
Sensing opportunity, enough Badgers started fleeing to the south after the war that one newspaper editor in Fond du Lac complained the exodus was “depriving the city of business leaders and capital.”
Mirrors too, perhaps, because the truth is we often don’t seem to see an accurate reflection of ourselves. We aren’t really as industrious — at least in modern times — as we’d like to pretend.
A new report done for the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation indicates that in the late 1970s, our productivity per worker as measured by gross domestic product was about $5,700 less than the U.S. average — a relatively small difference I ascribe to the admirable fact we have both better football and better beer to occupy and distract us.
But then we’ve always had a fascination with football and Miller. And since the 1970s, statistics seem to suggest, we’ve become even more shiftless.
Our gross state product per employee is now some $22,000 less than the U.S. as a whole. Each of us is producing less on average than other Americans — well, expect belly fat. Let it be known that we produce substantially more belly fat.
Lee Swindall assures me, nevertheless, that we Wisconsinites are not lazy.
He’s the vice president of business and industry development for WEDC who has been examining why we’re not prospering the way a lot of other states are. Part of the problem is that we’re heavy on manufacturing, a sector that lost 150,000 jobs between 2000 and 2011. And, the WEDC report suggests, we’re just not efficient enough.
In comparison to eight other states we compete with, we’re dead last in both gross state product and productivity per worker.
Minnesota, for example, has fewer workers but a higher gross state product, based on 2011 numbers in the report, “The Wisconsin Economic Future Study.”
Aside from limiting our intake of Packer games and Leinenkugels, at least part of the solution is better technology.
That doesn’t mean we need to get out of the manufacturing business. Manufacturing can be extremely high-tech. But it does mean even our manufacturers could do more to use technology to drive efficiency.
Swindall, aside from defending the work habits of Wisconsinites, said really large manufacturers tend to adopt technology quicker so it would benefit us to have a higher percentage of bigger companies — not that those are something you can create by just waving a magic wand.
He also thinks that Minnesota might be outpacing us due to what he calls the “enabling effect of super-density” in the Twin Cities area. We’re not lazy, in other words, but we might suffer from the fact Milwaukee and Green Bay and Madison never developed together into quite the powerhouse the Minneapolis and St. Paul area has.
Our relative lack of productivity, by the way, is not because all our really smart ancestors took all the Wisconsin ingenuity to the shiftless south way back when. Many of the Wisconsinites who did go south, it would turn out, found it to be a much more discouraging place than they’d hoped, and there never was any real mass exodus.
In fact, the editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel successfully implored Wisconsinites to stay home and develop our resources and strive to “permanently improve.”
A pretty decent bit of advice.
Mike Nichols is a syndicated columnist who spent 18 years writing about Wisconsin for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. This will be his last column as he turns his attention to serving as director at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute.