‘Small Government’ Facade Falls in Milwaukee, Revealing Split-Level Reality

Roger Bybee

Milwaukee County Executive and gubernatorial candidate Scott Walker.

Imagine the public outcry if, after the Deepwater Horizon rig explosion killed 11 workers and unleashed the nation’s largest environmental catastrophe, BP was chosen to inspect other oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

Yet that’s exactly what’s happening in a parallel situation in Milwaukee. On June 24, a 13-ton slab of concrete fell off of a county-owned O’Donnell Park parking structure, killing a 15-year-old on his way to a summer festival. Graef USA, the engineering firm in charge of maintaining the structure since 1991, has since been appointed by County Executive Scott Walker — a leading Republican candidate for governor — to carry out inspections of other county facilities.

Observers of the pervasive payoffs-and-paybacks relationship between private contractors and government will not be totally shocked to learn that Graef USA executives have contributed $15,000 to Walker’s campaigns. But they might be just a bit stunned to find out that Walker also chose Graef for a $300,000 no-bid contract for an emergency inspection of other county facilities.

But the Milwaukee tragedy is more than a local story about cushy treatment of campaign contributors. It exemplifies the hypocrisy embedded in the Republican philosophy of small government” that Scott Walker so zealously advocates.


In reality, small government” treatment is reserved for the bottom 80% of society, the little people, who are essentially told at times of need, you’re on your own.”

But for corporations and the rich, small government” actually means lavish big-government subsidies and bailouts so that their survival is never threatened. Meanwhile, an approach of strategic neglect is applied to public facilities and services mainly used by working people and the poor.

This was most glaringly obvious in the heckuva job” performed for the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

In The Wrecking Crew, Thomas Frank explains this split-level role of government first and foremost opens up government as a giant opportunity for private plunder. It also serves as a chance to show the public that they should rely exclusively on the market, not the hopelessly incompetent government.

The Milwaukee tragedy is the latest in a string of alarming cases where the wrecking crew” approach has resulted in critical public infrastructure collapsing due to a lack of inspection and upkeep, like the sudden cave-in of a segment of the I-35 expressway in Minneapolis in 2007 that killed 9 people.

The O’Donnell Park death is thus emerging as a symbol of the governing philosophy of Scott Walker.

In response to the case, local labor organizations led by Service Employees International Union Local 1 and County Board officials have called for a third-party investigation by a state agency. Our goal is that the public, through an objective and independent agency, gets the thorough investigation to which they entitled,” declared County Supervisor John Weishan. You can’t have the a campaign contributor be in charge of the investigation.”

Walker responded that it is despicable that anyone would use this tragedy for political purposes.”


But the collapse of the parking structure façade was clearly the outcome of Walker’s political decisions for deferred inspection and maintenance, as a local TV station reported:

As reported by WTMJ’s I-Team, last December Milwaukee County Department of Public Works inspectors conducted an audit of County facilities and found that the O’Donnell Park parking structure needed nearly $600,000 in maintenance and repairs – maintenance and repairs which were deferred due to cost.

The deferral of these necessary outlays was in turn directly tied to Walker’s decisions. As an editorial in the conservative Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed,

The county budgeted $150,000 a year for the inspections, but that was zeroed out [by Scott Walker] the past two years because of budget constraints.

Up until the collapse of the parking structure, the most visible casualty of Walker’s selective neglect was the county’s treasured parks system. The decline of the county’s parks — the legacy of Milwaukee’s Socialist mayors (who ruled the city almost continuously from 1910 to 1960) — is increasingly obvious.

Yet Walker remains fiercely opposed to a 1% sales tax increase designed to revitalize the parks and restore bus service reductions that cut off access to suburban job opportunities for more than 40,000 inner-city residents, according to the UW-Milwaukee enter for Economic Development.

But those inner-city residents are not Scott Walker’s real constituents, unlike private contractors. So they get the you’re on your own” version of government. 


As economist Dean Baker writes in his book The Nanny State, The reality is that conservatives have been quite actively using the power of the government to shape market outcomes in ways that redistribute income upward. “ 

The nanny state” for corporations and the rich includes bailouts for the banks and insurers, trade policy enshrining investors’ privileged status while ignoring worker rights, privatizing government operations for profit by capitalist cronies and virtual giveaways of public resources like mineral and oil rights on government-owned land and water to outfits like BP

Thus, the conservative Wrecking Crew” has succeeded spectacularly in colonizing government as a source of easy profit and reducing its capacity to serve the public. For example, the fedeal government even under Obama continues to award contracts to firms like Blackwater (re-branded as Xe) despite its multiple crimes because the government’s own capacity to provide vital security services for diplomats has been destroyed.

To top it off, citizens are implicitly taught that they cannot count on the government to be on their side in times of desperate need, and that they can only rely more on their own meager resources and of course the merciless market.

Yet the façade of small government” sometimes collapses — literally and tragically as in Milwaukee — revealing the sordid reality of government resources commandeered by corporations and the rich while shamefully shedding its obligations to protect the vast majority. 

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education.Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus.More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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