It’s been unpleasant to watch the life trickle out of the Detroit Free Press ever since the mindless Gannett chain sank its fangs into a once-proud newspaper that’s been publishing since before Michigan gained statehood. I didn’t realize how bad the situation was, however, until the Freep started stealing story ideas from the youthful William Buckley-wannabes over at the Michigan Review.

Angela Cesere

The Review’s lead story last week Tuesday: “It’s time to lead by Ann Arbor’s example: How Ann Arbor avoided Michigan’s economic downturn.”

The Free Press, of which I am an increasingly less-loyal subscriber, on my doorstep six days later: “Michigan’s high-tech hope: Ann Arbor’s economy shines.”

Timing coincidence aside, there’s more support for the plagiarism hypothesis. Both stories, citing the same basic facts about the high-tech industries and low unemployment rates here, support the case that Ann Arbor has what the rest of the state needs – those newfangled “knowledge economy” jobs. If only we can replace all those crumbling auto plants with solar-powered, ethanol-fueled, computerized stem cell research centers, by golly, Michigan will be rich again! Or at least the state’s median household income will move back above the national average – it fell below last year for the first time since the glaciers carved out the Great Lakes – but you get the idea.

This notion that high-tech jobs can save the state is a common one, and it’s sound in its fundamentals. It certainly makes more sense than bemoaning the “unfair trade agreements” that have sent our jobs “on a slow boat to China and on the Internet to India,” as borderline xenophobe Gov. Jennifer Granholm said during Tuesday night’s gubernatorial debate, the one you didn’t watch ’cause the Tigers were on. And a knowledge economy is a clear winner over Dick DeVos’s belief that if we only cut taxes for millionaire business owners like himself a bit more, we’ll magically see an economic rebirth that would make Milton Friedman proud, or at least we’ll bankrupt the state government.

Building one of these high-tech knowledge economies may be the best bet our state’s got – but that doesn’t mean the odds are exactly in our favor. Even if we followed all the right policies – cranking out more math, science and engineering grads; making higher education more affordable; developing the vibrant communities that attract skilled young workers – we’re still going to find that something’s lacking. I’ve spent entirely too much time thinking about the state of this state over the past couple years, and I still have no idea how a knowledge economy can ever support the broad middle class that the auto companies and their unions once did.

One key part of a knowledge economy, as everyone must know by now, is a highly educated workforce. Older folks in Michigan, they just ain’t as edumacated as they oughter be. Young people, meanwhile, flee the state about as quickly as its universities can print diplomas. If we could just attract and build a more educated workforce, the story goes, we’d be able to recruit the high-tech firms we need.

That’s great, but it’s great mainly for those with the brains to soak up a fancy education and the savings or family support needed to keep fed while being educated. Wise policies can perhaps make sure more people can afford college, but the fact is that most people just aren’t bright enough to be alternative-fuel or stem-cell pioneers. Even less prestigious high-tech workers – the technicians and such who leave the top-flight innovators free to spend their time innovating – typically need a level of smarts that rules out the half of the population that, statistically speaking, is below average intelligence.

Even if I’m wrong about how bright a person needs to be to have a future in the high-tech economy, there’s still the issue that these knowledge-economy firms tend not to employ all that many people. YouTube, for all the buzz it’s created, employs 67 people – each apparently worth nearly $25 million of Google stock. General Motors and Ford, meanwhile, are both shedding tens of thousands of employees.

The emphasis in the knowledge economy is on educated workers who can provide added value – not on the massive industrial armies of yore. Plus, the unions that made sure manufacturing workers got a fair deal back in the day haven’t figured out how to adapt to a more competitive global economy – and they’re essentially absent in the high-tech world anyway.

Michigan could do worse than to put its few remaining eggs into the knowledge-economy basket. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves: Even if it helps make our state more prosperous, this isn’t a solution that’s going to do much to reverse the hollowing-out of the middle class that’s been happening awfully quickly in Michigan these days.

Zbrozek can be reached at zbrozek@michigandaily.com.

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