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Wisconsin’s state and local governments have learned to be useless

The “nothing works” doctrine continues to hinder progress in transportation, housing, and much more.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.
Illustration: Ghosts and ghouls are shown swarming about the Wisconsin Capitol. Illustration by Maggie Denman.

The “nothing works” doctrine continues to hinder progress in transportation, housing, and much more.

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.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a sucker for a historic neighborhood. Give me some cobblestone or brick pavers, buildings with regional brick or stone or actual hardwood, and a whole bunch of non-utilitarian embellishments from the days when buildings and homes were vehicles of craftsmanship and beauty.

What I am not going to notice is if one lot is larger than all the others, especially if that lot has some desperately needed housing with “historically sensitive architecture.” I would definitely appreciate that over a nondescript Struck and Irwin Fence building and overgrown unused plot.

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The decision this month by the City of Madison’s Landmarks Commission to vote down adjoining these two Willy Street lots so a developer can build more cost-efficient (which I hope would be reflected in the price points of the units) housing, is part and parcel of a tendency among good-governance types to defer towards doing nothing, instead of something.

In his commentary on Madison all but abandoning the Madison Public Market project over a $5.2 million budget shortfall, Tone Madison publisher Scott Gordon wrote:

When push comes to shove in these narratives about public spending, cutting budgets and scuttling projects equals a “hard choice” that shows true leadership, while just spending the damn money to finally get something done shows profligacy and a lack of discipline. We Americans have gone past an austerity mentality to a full-blown fetish for getting as little as possible for our tax money and just generally having our sense of possibilities squashed.

While that seems to be the mindset amongst the centrists, the further right you move the more you see that mindset warp into a full abandonment of governance. “We shouldn’t do something” morphs into a learned uselessness that argues there’s no point in the government doing anything.

Milwaukee TV station TMJ4 did a report this week on street design and cycling safety in Milwaukee. In the segment, Mike Pyritz, communications manager at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) said with a straight face, “Reducing efficiency of a roadway doesn’t make it safer, necessarily. In fact, a lot of times, it’s the exact opposite.”

In non-WisDOT comms speak: designing roads to make drivers drive slower (AKA calming features) does not make them safer. The US Department of Transportation disagrees, citing case studies and peer-reviewed studies.

When asked about bump-outs, which improve visibility and discourage illegal passing on the right, Pyritz tells TMJ4, “You think they won’t go over the curb?” Then he says that implementing those measures will prompt reckless drivers to move to smaller residential streets which is, again, not shown in the data. 

Because what Pyritz and people with a similar mentality believe is that people will act badly regardless of their environment. I don’t think environment is to blame for people’s bad actions, but it has been demonstrated over and over that it has a sizable impact. But we see that mentality deployed to justify inaction on everything from poverty, to climate change, to our criminal justice system.

One origin of this mentality was the “Nothing Works” doctrine, based on a 1974 study from sociologist Robert Martinson that argued the United States’ correctional system, which was then focused on rehabilitation, was a waste of time and money. His skepticism (which one reviewer called “empty rhetoric that is useless for rational correctional planning”) spread, resulting in cuts to rehabilitation programs, such as mental health and education. Today, two-thirds of released prisoners are arrested less than three years after release; half of them wind up back in prison.

“To put it plainly, unhealthy minds can’t make healthy choices. The reality is 37% of incarcerated individuals and 44% of those in jail have been diagnosed with a mental health illness. Yet, 66% of prisoners reported not receiving any form of mental health care during the full length of their incarceration,” Liz Benecchi wrote in 2021 in the Harvard Political Review. “Prisoners who participate in education programs have a 43% lower chance of being reincarcerated than those who do not, and for every dollar spent on prison education, the government saves four to five dollars on the costs of reincarceration. Education can do wonders, and if incarcerated people left the system with degrees and hard educational skills, it would be far less difficult for them to secure and maintain steady jobs.”

I’m not saying we should go wild and approve every development, plan, or program. But we need to shake this idea that a government that governs the least governs the best. When government takes action focused on community and based on facts, it can make a difference and improve people’s lives. 

We can have beautiful historic neighborhoods with affordable housing, public markets where local entrepreneurs can thrive, streets engineered to promote safety for cars, bikes, and pedestrians. And while our criminal justice issues extend far beyond programming, treating inmates as human beings and helping them re-enter society is a good first step toward reform. We just need officials who aren’t afraid to act.

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