It was a veritable lovefest in Milwaukee in July 2017 when Republican Gov. Scott Walker and Foxconn chairman Terry Gou announced their plan to create a heavily subsidized manufacturing plant in southeastern Wisconsin. Walker gushed that Gou, who founded his Taiwan-based company in 1974, was “one of the most remarkable business leaders in the world.” Gou returned the favor by saying, “I’ve never seen this type of governor or leader yet in this world.” Effusive, yet ambiguous.
The details of the deal were famously written on the back of a napkin when Gou and the Republican governor first met: a $3 billion state subsidy in return for Foxconn’s $10 billion investment in a Generation 10.5 LCD manufacturing plant that would create 13,000 jobs.
The size of the subsidy was stunning. It was far and away the largest in Wisconsin history and the largest government handout to a foreign company ever given in America. Like most states, Wisconsin had given subsidies to companies in the past, but never higher than $35,000 per job. Foxconn’s subsidy was $230,000 per job.
But Walker was elected in 2010 on a promise of creating 250,000 new jobs in the state in his first term as governor. Six years into his tenure, he still was far short. Running for a third term in 2018, he badly needed a big win.
And the Foxconn deal was beyond big. Some predicted that bringing the company that manufactures devices for Apple and many other tech giants to the state would create the “Silicon Valley of Wisconsin,” which is no small claim in a state that’s far from a high-tech hotbed. Conservatives predicted Walker’s re-election would be a slam dunk on the back of the deal.
But what seemed so simple on a napkin has turned out to be far more complicated and messy in real life. As the size of the subsidy has steadily increased to a jaw-dropping $4.1 billion, Foxconn has repeatedly changed what it plans to do, raising doubts about the number of jobs it will create. Instead of the promised Generation 10.5 plant, Foxconn now says it will build a much smaller Gen 6 plant, which would require one-third of the promised investment, although the company insists it will eventually hit the $10 billion investment target. And instead of a factory of workers building panels for 75-inch TVs, Foxconn executives now say the goal is to build “ecosystem” of buzzwords called “AI 8K+5G” with most of the manufacturing done by robots.
Polls now show most Wisconsin voters don’t believe the subsidy will pay off for taxpayers, and Walker didn’t even mention the deal in a November 2017 speech announcing his run for re-election. He now trails in that re-election bid against a less-than-electric Democratic candidate, the bland state superintendent of public instruction Tony Evers.
It all seemed so promising. So how did everything go so bad so quickly?
h/t David Stockman