Time to Talk of Future Economy: Candidates Must Tell How They’d Move Wisconsin Ahead

Bruce Katz
Bruce Katz Founding Director of the Nowak Metro Finance Lab - Drexel University

February 23, 2008

We keep listening, listening carefully, in fact, to all the talk taking place in this historic presidential election. But so far, we have not heard any candidate offer concrete ideas or a vision on how states such as Wisconsin can take hold of their economic future.

Such ideas can come none too soon for Wisconsin, which in December reached one of those milestones few like to celebrate: For the first time since such data has been recorded, the average number of factory workers in Wisconsin dipped below the half-million mark.

Yet another aspect of Wisconsin’s manufacturing tale should guide candidates’ necessary forward thinking. For while Wisconsin’s manufacturing companies have been shedding jobs, those remaining are more productive than ever. Talent and determination, training and a visionary strategy by business, labor and government is a key reason why – and one national politicians need to understand.

There is no reason that the callused hands of old-school tool- and-die makers, metal workers and machinists cannot turn their skills toward new-age wind turbines and other 21st-century ventures just as easily as they turn out car parts or craft microscopic components.

More and more, the keys to the next generation of American manufacturing are found in the metro areas of our nation. Throughout America, globally competitive businesses and high-value economic activity are clustered in major metro areas home to highly liquid capital flows, specialized skills and productivity-boosting knowledge creation and diffusion. In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee metropolitan area contains about 27% of the state’s population but generates an outsized 34% of its economic output.

It is time the candidates not only focus on Milwaukee and the state’s 14 other metropolitan areas but let us hear their specific plans to take those ingredients that are scattered across our nation and create the recipe that we all can share. Candidates must recognize that our nation’s long-term economic prosperity hinges on how our major metro areas keep pace on innovation and job growth in a hypercompetitive global economy; how they educate an increasingly diverse future workforce; and how they build and maintain the physical and technological infrastructure to support economic and population growth. Many metropolitan areas are trying to tackle these issues on their own, building upon the assets that make them economic engines.

In metropolitan Milwaukee, business and other community leaders have recognized emerging opportunities for economic development around freshwater research and technology owing to the region’s unique combination of geography, industrial capacity and scientific and academic expertise. But in this globally competitive industry, creating a “Silicon Spigot” of clean water industries won’t be easy without a reordering of national priorities.

For instance, shouldn’t the federal government – through direct investments in scientific research and favorable tax treatment for corporate investment in R&D (where it’s already involved in scattershot fashion) – help put innovative regions such as Milwaukee ahead of the curve in cutting-edge industries? Because, whether we appreciate it or not, the federal government is heavily involved -with money, rules and powerful institutions – in large sectors of national life.

The challenge is to how to make the federal involvement current with the dynamic changes at play in our nation. Those running for the job of leading that federal government should tell us how we get there.