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Capitol Punishments: The grifts that won’t quit

A busy week for free-speech concern trolling and Foxconners failing up.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

A busy week for free-speech concern trolling and Foxconners failing up.

Each week in Wisconsin politics brings an abundance of bad policies, bad takes, and bad actors. In our recurring feature, Capitol Punishments, we bring you the week’s highlights (or low-lights) from the state Legislature and beyond.

Tee-ing up for the next culture war

Regardless of when the University of Wisconsin System’s planned Student Perceptions of Campus Free Speech Survey is distributed—it was supposed to be this week but has been pushed back to this fall—the key takeaway is that the survey is not actually about free speech, but about acquiring ammunition against public universities.

The Wisconsin Examiner pointed out the survey is being conducted by the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service, which is funded by UW-Stout’s Menard Center for Public Policy and Service. The Menard Center has ties to the Charles Koch Foundation and bears the name of John Menard, Menard’s founder and frequent Republican donor.

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Last December, legislative Republicans introduced bills that would punish campuses for “free speech violations” with fines, lawsuits, and a requirement that the campus notify potential students of the violation for 10 years. A 2017 Assembly bill would have expelled students who shouted down or disrupted speakers invited by student organizations. That same year, the UW System’s Board of Regents passed its own policy that has pretty much the same effect.

Nick Fleischer, a linguistics professor at UW-Milwaukee, told the Cap Timesthis weekthat “all signs point to there being fairly intense legislative interest in this in a way that appears to be highly inappropriate.”

This initiative has as much to do with free speech as all the panic over critical race theory has to do with critical race theory. Both moral panics have a root cause: people in power, who are used to being able to direct national conversation and having their perspective affirmed by their echo chamber, are trying to stop dissenting voices.

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Yes, having a speaker come and speak is free speech, but so is interrupting that person. And if that speaker’s platform denies the humanity and rights of certain groups of people, it is not only right to interrupt, it is moral. And yes, conservative students have a right to voice their opinion, but others have a right to disagree.

The Republican platform over the decades has moved further and further away from evidence-based research in history, economics, medicine, science, and more. But instead of adapting their platform to the research, they want research to adapt to their platform. 

So they drum up a moral panic over “liberal bias” and “liberal elites” to discredit researchers and their work, and financially punish the institutions that support them. They use the considerable foothold they do have in academia to constantly portray themselves as persecuted outsiders. They’ve been doing it for decades. Now, it seems they’re getting ready to turn the pressure up another notch. 

Grifting 101

If nothing else, the failed Foxconn deal in Racine County is a fantastic lesson in how to “fail up.”

Foxconn promised a $10 billion manufacturing hub that would create 13,000 jobs. Now, after the Village of Mount Pleasant and Racine County have invested millions in relocating homeowners, and building out the infrastructure, the campus remains mostly empty.

Ideally, there would be consequences for such a massive failure. Somehow, in this case, the parties involved continue to reap benefits. 

The latest announcement is that UW-Madison’s College of Engineering has decided to hire former Foxconn executive Alan Yeung, who was heavily involved in the Racine County project’s development, to “jump-start technology entrepreneurship efforts.” 

How is Yeung supposed to do something at the College of Engineering he has no record of actually accomplishing? Foxconn was given everything it asked for and more. It wasn’t a start-up or bright-eyed entrepreneur—it is a multinational corporation that claimed it received $17.67 billion (in US dollars) in revenue in March. The only plausible explanations for why it has failed to provide a return on taxpayers’ investment is either poor leadership, or they never intended to fulfill those promises in the first place. 

Yeung was also involved in a pledge to donate $100 million to UW-Madison, of which Foxconn has only contributed $700,000.

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Yeung is not the only person still profiting off the failed project. Last December, Wisconsin Public Radio found through records requests that Foxconn Project Manager Claude Lois receives $28,000 per month. Even though he bills the Village of Mount Pleasant $175 an hour for 40 hours a week, there is no clear accounting of how he spends that time. This August, his hourly rate is scheduled to go up to $200 an hour. 

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