In Defense of Scott Walker

Earlier this week, Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker took a stand, announcing he would not accept federal stimulus dollars to bridge the gaps in county funding.

The move, no surprise, drew the scorn of numerous detractors and even raised eyebrows in his own camp.

Let me add my own: Scott Walker's move is an example of bold and necessary leadership.

Walker seems to realize that it's time for fiscal conservatives to act on their principles - to make the tough decisions that come with the responsibility of leadership in hard times. He appears to recognize that for municipalities (and our nation) to recover truly, they must restrain government activity and expenditures, keeping them to a sustainable level.

Walking up to the federal headmaster, bowl in hand, as Governor Doyle and Mayor Barrett have, to ask "More please, sir" is not the responsible approach to local budget deficits. Although the President-elect is ready to ladle it aplenty, the federal government doesn't have any gruel. In fact, it owes over a trillion dollars worth of gruel already.  And it's planning to owe more.

Paring spending to align it with tax revenues at current levels is the sustainable option that doesn't bury future generations under an endless mountain range of debt, as President-elect Obama's stimulus package promises at the national level. The belt-tightening will be painful, but it's necessary to develop a sense of government spending triage for true fiscal health - what is actually a need as opposed to a want? Are manicured parks today more important than having a future free of ridiculous debt payments that monopolize and cripple government budgets for decades, restricting government's ability to respond to future non-economic crises?

Here's what one Walker opponent identified as the County's "infrastructure" needs:

Milwaukee County which has significant infrastructure investment needs including: $10 to $15 million for the Milwaukee Public Museum; $5.5 to $8.5 million for the Milwaukee County Zoo (plus another $130 million for capital improvements); $276.6 million for the Milwaukee County Parks; and $56 million for 150 new buses and $15 million annually to operate the collapsing county transit system.

While I understand some of the entities have a potential to generate revenue and positive externalities for the public, are most of the items listed really necessary functions of government in hard times?  Besides the annual operating budget of the County transit system, I wonder.

Many critics of Walker's decision have cited the fact that Milwaukee County taxpayers have already paid into the federal system, and would thus stand to lose from a choice to forgo federal stimulus money. First, Wisconsin has long been a "donor state," paying in more than it receives, so that's nothing new - it's not Louisiana; there's a strand of Proxmirish disdain for pork in Wisconsin politics. Second, Walker's path is the more responsible in the long run, as much of the federal money promised requires local matching dollars - which would create additional financial obligations for the County. Third, this is about leadership.

How is it about leadership? Walker wants to take his county where the country needs to get to. And he's shown he's willing to go out on a lonely precipice to do so. For our nation's fiscal health to be restored, local governments ultimately need to live within their means. They need to hone their outlays and services so that they match what the local tax base can sustain independent of support from upper levels of government. 

That's difficult.  Many figures, like Doyle and Barrett, fear the specter of a tax hike in this equation, just as Walker does. However, Doyle and Barrett are ready to shift that problem to the federal government. Walker, conversely, proved he was willing to weather the firestorm by doing what is ultimately more responsible - taking a hard look at spending, prioritizing, and leading - accepting that Milwaukee County will bear the burden of Milwaukee County.

What about all the other counties, though?  For critics from the left, I'll make an analogy. Walker's decision is unwise because other municipalities won't refuse stimulus money, right? Wisconsin taxpayers have paid their taxes and they should get their piece of the pie, right? So ultimately, you're thinking that Walker's decision is only helpful if it takes place within a framework where all other municipalities are rejecting the federal aid - or where the federal government isn't giving the aid at all.

Well, think about global warming, of all things. Many on the left believe the U.S. should unilaterally enact various regulations to limit American emissions. Nevermind that these moves won't actually reduce overall global emissions if there's no global framework that stops big developing nations like China (now the world's chief polluter) and India from spewing even more emissions. And yet we as a nation should take these steps. Why? Because, I often hear the argument, we should do it regardless of other actors. We should lead.

The same holds for Walker's action, I submit. It is only when enough local leaders are bold enough to act as government should in limiting itself - whether for political posturing reasons or otherwise - that change will occur, that government finances will regain a sound equilibrium.

Walker's action also aligns with another key interest at stake here - local governance and local control. As federal power continues to expand, refusing the temptation to succumb to federal carrots becomes increasingly difficult. And with more and more of the population feeling dependent on those carrots, it becomes more and more difficult for local leaders to retain any semblance of local control.  Walker's move keeps him and his constituents from being mere marionettes of Washington.

People will no doubt compare Walker to Hoover (check).  They'll say he's worshiping at the altar of a narrow, failed ideology.  But some of those critics, too, are worshiping at the alter of a narrow ideology - a Keynsian one that makes individuals dependent on the federal government, one that is not grounded in individual or government responsibility, one that reads the financial crisis as a repudiation of the free market - without recognizing that government policy and regulation intervening in the market had a hand in the affair.

I don't necessarily support tax cuts in this environment, as that, too, adds to the debt pile without the rapid effects of other stimuli that, while I disagree with doling them out, seem to provide rapid spending capacity to those most likely to spend, e.g. food stamps.  However, short term tax cuts - or something like a payroll tax holiday - are a better option than federal aid if government it going to deficit spend.  While not as effective per dollar as something like food stamp increases, they are more effective as economic stimulants than long term tax cuts - and they align with the need to rebuild economies from individual initiative upward, not the other way around.  But tax cuts are a secondary issue to discuss after hashing through the county executive's statements about stimulus aid.

I, for one, applaud Scott Walker's decision to refuse federal assistance.