I Weep for Wisconsin

I had only been outside its borders once before I went to college. And yet I already knew that Wisconsin did not take up much space in the national consciousness. The coasts seemed more important—the glamor of New York, the sunny promise of California. It did not have the fables of Texas, the loyalties of New England, the energy of Chicago or the bluesy fascination of New Orleans. Even so, I was proud of being from Wisconsin.

The topography did not have the drama of the Rocky Mountains or the Southwestern Desert, but the kettles and moraines of Wisconsin had visual interest that softened the landscape. The state did not have an ocean coast, but it had the Great Lakes with a grandeur that non-midwesterners did not grasp. Lake Michigan is like the ocean, but oh no, it’s not. It’s Lake Michigan with its own majesty. (A friend has just returned from golf at a course on the Lake Michigan shore. He was surprised that the water was blue and clear. He assumed, based on no knowledge, that it was brown. I could see that ignorance about Wisconsin abounds, but since few think about Wisconsin in the first place, the abounding is limited.) Unlike other places, Wisconsin had smaller lakes everywhere—no one in Wisconsin was more than ten or fifteen minutes from several—that afforded fishing, boating, swimming, mists, and soothing, primordial sounds. Perhaps the landscape was not as awe-inspiring as some locations, but it was pleasant and welcoming. And it had walleyes.

The climate, however, while interesting was not always pleasant, but even that could afford some pride. People whose only opinion about the state seemed to come from televised playoff games at Lambeau Field (aka, the frozen tundra) would ask me about the cold (and yes, okay, it was cold). However, I would rather haughtily reply that it was just winter in Wisconsin implying that unlike the questioners, Wisconsinites were tough.

The human institutions, however, were the real cause for my pride. They had led to a better state and society than elsewhere in the country. The public education system was excellent starting, at least for me, with two years of kindergarten culminating in an affordable, flagship university that was considered one of the best in the nation.

Politics, while not totally free of rancor, did not have the bosses or the machines of other places. Local elections were nonpartisan, which helped to reduce blind partisanship. Although rich people were elected to office, money was not necessary to hold office. In the 1980s, William Proxmire spent less than two hundred dollars to get reelected to the Senate.

Wisconsin had a tradition of reform and innovation that others in the country copied to make their states better. It had created the first unemployment insurance program, for example, which acted as a model for other governments, and people from this Wisconsin tradition helped create Medicare. As a recent magazine article stated, “The state’s home-grown social-democratic tradition, which fused support for open government, public institutions, and economic equality, remained largely bipartisan.”

Of course, not everything was wonderful. I was dismayed when I learned that Milwaukee was one of the most segregated cities in the United States. And, of course, Wisconsin produced Joe McCarthy, leader of a movement that took his name and did so much damage to the country. Still, Wisconsin was a place to be proud of. It was a place of clear skies, clear water, and clean, transparent, and sensible politics.

Then something happened. The news that seeps out of Wisconsin now makes it seem as the state has become nearly as corrupt and crazy as many other places. Legislators have been indicted for various acts of corruption, something I do not remember happening in my youth. Money, as elsewhere, has become central to politics. Five million dollars were spent on a state Supreme Court race to defeat an incumbent. Seven hundred million–seven hundred million!!!–is expected to be spent on the 2022 elections. Wisconsin has undermined its educational system. State funding for the University and K-12 education has decreased. A Dean at the University of Wisconsin told me that the school was no longer a public university but a university with some public assistance. Wisconsin has become a leader in attacking and denigrating teachers as well as a leader in corporate giveaways, both in money and in permitting pollution. The state also has become a poster child for partisanship adopting one of the most gerrymandered legislatures in the country. The state has also made it harder to vote, but the gerrymandering means that votes don’t matter that much anyway.

This sort of news made me realize that Wisconsin was no longer a beacon for reasonable government but had become just like many other states.

Then came the aftermath of the 2020 election. The crazy comments and actions escalated—too many for me to summarize, but here’s one for you to consider: Imagine a government official saying that there is no evidence that you did not commit murder last year. Would you be shocked? Outraged? Would you laugh at such idiocy? Would you lose faith in the government official or the government itself? Now consider that one of the six officials on the Wisconsin Election Commission said about the 2020 election in Wisconsin: “There’s no evidence voter fraud did not occur.”

Oh, Wisconsin, grand old Badger State. What has happened to you? I wanted to think that Joe McCarthy was an aberration, but his insanity now seems to have taken hold.

Student Debt: Yours, Mine, and Ours (concluded)

          I know how concern about student debt affects life decisions. It had determined my law school choice and how I lived, which was frugally, trying to avoid any further loans. Even so, the issue of student debt was thrust at me earlier than I had expected. During my second law school year, I got a draft notice. I was able to push back the induction date until I had completed the school year. In that era of the Vietnam War, I had many concerns about going into the military. Among the minor ones was loan repayments.

          The undergraduate payments would be deferred if I remained in law school, and the school told me that it would also wait to get its money back until after the army, willing to be stiffed if I became a stiff in a rice paddy. The law school, however, was not so kind and told me that once I left their institution, no matter what the reason, I would have to start paying back my debt. I was both pissed and amused. My memory is that I was to get paid $110 a month as a private, but $40 a month would have to go to the law school. As it turned out, I did not have to find out how I might fare on $70 a month. As I have related elsewhere on the blog, I eventually got a medical deferment and was not inducted. (See post of March 15, 2017, “Big Government Makes Killers” Search Results for “”Big Government”” – AJ’s Dad (ajsdad.blog))

          When I finished law school, though, I went into low-paying positions—first a civil liberties fellowship and then into the public defender’s office. Nevertheless, I had to start repaying the student loans. I owed $80 a month, which might not sound like much, but it was almost 20% of my monthly take-home during the fellowship and remained a heavy burden when I joined the Legal Aid Society.

          Sometimes the spouse and I discuss when it was that we first felt financially secure, and we both agree it was not until we had enough money to know we could make it to end of the month and pay the rent. We scrimped. One time, invited by some friends for dinner, we debated whether the free dinner was worth the four subway fares it would take to get there and back. Eventually, we attained what we considered financial independence, the result of a pay raise and the end of one of my loans. The college debt was less than the law school one, so we paid it off sooner. The removal of $40 from the recurring debit side of the ledger was a big event and a reason we did not have to worry about money every single moment. A few years later, the law school obligation was retired, and the disappearance of those monthly $40 payments almost made us feel we were middle class.

          When I no longer had student debt, I gave the topic little thought for a long time, even when I went into law school teaching. But as my academic career continued, I began to consider the financing of higher education more. The law school in which I taught was a private, tuition-dependent institution. As the costs of the school soared, I realized that most of the students could afford it only if they took out loans. I started asking students about their debt. The figures were astounding. Fifteen years ago, it went from $90,000 to over $200,000.

          I realized that I had little idea about their ability to service such loans because I knew little about the career paths of our typical graduates. Like many academics, I might hear about the outstanding successes but knew little about the average graduate.

          There was little data about our grads, but there were good studies of the legal profession as a whole. The initial salaries of law school graduates did not fall into a single bell-shaped curve as it did in other professions. Instead, starting pay was grouped into two bell-shaped curves that were far apart. The modal point for one group was $160,000 and the rest of the beginning attorneys were grouped around $60,000. The high-earning graduates were corporate attorneys going into large law firms; everyone else fell into the lower bracket. The corporate jobs were overwhelmingly staffed from the elite law schools, and my school certainly did not fall into that category. Nineteen out of twenty of our grads were headed to that lower range. Of course, they could expect a higher income as they became more experienced, but the sociologists of the profession also showed that few of those in the lower bell curve would ever jump into that higher group. Starting with lower pay, our grads would forever have incomes less than those other attorneys.

           I was in the teaching business for those who would not get the high-paying jobs. The corporate law firms were not going to have problems hiring smart, well-trained lawyers, but I was especially interested in a better criminal justice system, and I wanted a hand in preparing competent prosecutors and defenders where starting jobs were at best at the $60,000 point. So I compared the starting criminal justice salaries with what I earned in my first positions some thirty years before. To my surprise the money I was paid was, in inflation-adjusted dollars, more than the comparable attorneys were earning today. Starting salaries in many of the “do-good” and government legal jobs in constant dollars have been dropping. I had not found it easy to pay off my relatively modest debt. How were these graduates going to pay off so much more with less pay?

          I did not have the answer, but I did have some idea as to why present student debt was so large. The costs of higher education have increased at a much greater rate than inflation. For example, in the year I graduated from college, in-state tuition at my home state’s flagship university was around $350. My first two summers after high school I worked at minimum-wage jobs that paid me $50 a week. Living at home, I could have saved enough for the tuition, and working ten hours a week during the school year could have paid for the rest of college expenses. In today’s dollars, that $350 tuition would now be about $3,000, and a minimum-wage summer job could still cover tuition. However, today the in-state tuition at the University of Wisconsin is actually about $11,000, much higher than inflation would indicate. A summer job for ten weeks at even $15 an hour will cover only about half the tuition. And the out-of-state tuition, which more closely mirrors some private schools, was about $9,000 back in my day. Now that tuition is about $39,000, and no normal student jobs are going to pay that. Thus, increased student debt.

          There are now important debates about whether student debt should be forgiven. But along with those considerations, there should also be an examination of why the cost of college and graduate school has soared well beyond inflationary increases. Even if all the present student debt magically disappeared, as long as students have to pay the over-inflated costs of university systems, the student debt problem will remain.