We tell ourselves economic stories in order to live

If the victories of A over B…lead to non-challenge of B due to the anticipation of the reactions of A…then, over time, the calculated withdrawal by B may lead to an unconscious pattern of withdrawal, maintained not by fear of power of A but by a sense of powerlessness within B, regardless of A’s condition. A sense of powerlessness may manifest itself as extensive fatalism, self-deprecation, or undue apathy about one’s situation… The sense of powerlessness may also lead to a greater susceptibility to the internalisation of the values, beliefs, or rules of the game of the powerful as a further adaptive response — i.e. as a means of escaping the subjective sense of powerlessness, if not its objective condition. — John Gaventa (1980)

Yesterday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a great piece fact-checking the claim that the Republican National Convention would bring $200 million in economic activity to Milwaukee, echoing many of the points I made here over a month ago. As summarized at the end of the article:

[Mayor Cavalier] Johnson claimed the RNC is “a $200 million economic infusion into our communities.”

While the figure from VISIT Milwaukee is grounded in the experience of Cleveland in 2016, an expert who has studied a range of past conventions say it is “wildly exaggerated.” What’s more, even if anticipated spending figures were reached, much of the money would quickly leave the local economy for other places.

The bottom line is this: the mayor’s claim that inviting the RNC to Milwaukee was about “economics not politics” could not be further from the truth. Indeed, even if the touted economic benefits of the convention were something more than wishful thinking, the idea that “Milwaukee” will profit from the convention not only ignores that much of the revenue will be sent to corporate headquarters outside of the city, but also—and more importantly — forgets the fiscal handcuffs the state has placed on the city. As I wrote last week at The Recombobulation Area:

Wisconsin’s tax structure makes it impossible for the city to extract any fiscal dividend from hosting a convention. Rather, sales tax dollars generated by the RNC will go directly back to the state, where the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee will determine how to allocate them.

Members of Milwaukee Common Council were well aware, both of the illusory quality of VISIT Milwaukee’s numbers and of the way that tax limitations would prevent the city from deriving a fiscal boost from the convention. As Alderman Bob Bauman put it in a Steering and Rules Committee hearing on May 25th:

It frankly bothers me that we’re throwing out a number that I find highly suspicious and everybody just believes it. The media reports it as if it’s a given, as if it’s an established fact. It’s absolutely not an established fact. First of all, it’s a prediction, it’s not a fact. The methodology was never explained. Who did the study and how are they connected to the parties that sponsor the convention?

Further, recognizing Milwaukee’s inability to collect sales tax, Bauman pressed Department of City Development Commissioner Lafayette Crump to describe the impact of the RNC to the city “as a city”.

Under questioning from Bauman, Crump admitted that the city would derive no direct fiscal benefit from the convention — that sales tax revenues would go to the state and that food, beverage, and rental car taxes would go to the Wisconsin Convention Center District.

Another central point during those May hearings was the RNC’s strategic ambiguity about the deadline for the city to approve a draft agreement. While the Council had only been briefed on the terms of the agreement in mid-May, they were surprised to learn from the city’s amorphous “negotiating team”, which included City Attorney Andrea Fowler, that the deadline for the framework was in early June. Did the“exploding offer” — a classic high-pressure sales tactic — apparently elude the city’s top negotiators?

Councilmembers were, to say the least, exasperated. As Council President José G. Pérez put it: “The Council’s tired of ‘We’ve negotiated something. Here it is, rubber stamp it.’”

Bob Bauman speculated that if such a deadline did indeed exist, and neither Nashville nor Milwaukee were able to respond in time, then the RNC would in fact be without a finalist for their convention.

District 8 Ald. Jocasta Zamarripa noted that, with the state depriving the city of its fair portion of shared revenue for years, “why would we not leverage this opportunity to get as much as we can for our people and for our city?”

With these concerns in mind, the Steering and Rules Committee approved a substitute amendment making the city’s acceptance of the framework agreement conditional on the Host Committee providing “$6 million to the City or its designee for the purpose of addressing housing, higher education, and workforce development, on or before commencement of the Convention.”

Then, only a week later, Common Council unanimously adopted a substitute resolution, which placed no fiscal conditions on the city’s framework, save one ambiguous proviso:

The City and Host Committee shall engage in a good faith effort to come to an agreement under which the Host Committee shall provide to the City funding consistent with the dollar amount normally provided to a host city after previous in-person Republican National Conventions, adjusted for inflation, to be used by the City for programs relating to housing, higher education and workforce development.

Does this revised language, in fact, mean anything? Only the lawyers know! But let me offer this gentle prediction: it will only mean anything if a majority of Alders are willing to step in to enforce the agreement should negotiations result in a figure that falls below the implied threshold (let’s say, for the sake of argument, $6 million). But because of the state’s limits on the city’s ability to collect revenue, even that figure, as I’ve noted elsewhere, would be far lower than what cities typically “receive” from national political conventions. So even if Common Council is able to hold the negotiators to $6 million, their swift acceptance of the RNC’s imaginary exploding deadline only illustrates how incapable Milwaukee’s leadership is of securing for the city a fair deal from anyone.

This rather pathetic set of circumstances is not helped by the fact that media coverage of the furtive negotiations simply repeated as fact what alders knew to be, and what the Journal Sentinel now tells us (months after the decision has been blessed) was, wild exaggeration. That there is not a shred of evidence to support the $200 million projection does not matter because its recital allows the Mayor, and apparently many of Milwaukee’s political leaders, to avoid stating the obvious: that they feel themselves, and the city, to be at the mercy of Republicans.

Refusing to admit this situation — and to instead pretend as if the RNC is a “great opportunity” for Milwaukee — only compounds the sense of powerlessness that pervades the political life of this city. It helps, if anything, to engineer consent by allowing those without power to come to believe not only that they are bound to the fate dictated by the powerful, but that their interests are actually served by this convention––and that not wanting it is to misunderstand their own desires.

In a country where the national parties are both organizationally hollow and profoundly disconnected from the mass public, national political conventions serve one and only one purpose: to allow the fantasy that we live in a representative democracy to continue. These conventions may have economic effects too, but — like the policies of the parties that hold them — those effects are concentrated at the top strata of the economy.

The eagerness with which Milwaukee’s leaders embraced the RNC framework agreement does have one advantage, though. It allows us to see with greater clarity their inability to challenge the undemocratic status quo in this state.

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Philip Rocco

Philip Rocco

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Associate Professor of Political Science // Marquette University // Coauthor, Obamacare Wars (2016) // Coeditor, APD and the Trump Presidency (2020)