It wasn’t adultery or murder or Michael Moore that compelled the gods to smite the Great Lakes state with an abysmal economy — it was hubris. Michigan’s deified auto executives were arrogant enough to believe that their industry was invincible, even though its success was contingent upon the availability of a few limited resources. And now that their fatal flaw is out in the open, the state must ask itself how it can turn from tragedy to triumph. By investing more resources in the University Research Corridor, Michigan would be one step closer to that goal.
In August, Michigan’s unemployment rate rose to 8.9 percent as part of a chain reaction induced by the faltering auto industry. Compare that to the 6.1 percent national average. Manufacturing jobs are being lost left and right. Though concern is utterly appropriate, the argument of who is to blame for the state’s economic woes comprises too much of the political discourse in Michigan. Partisan debate has overshadowed the greater discussion of how to solve the problems at hand.
Fortunately, Michigan has an unlikely guide in Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist who spoke last week in Ypsilanti about the current energy crisis. According to Friedman, the United States can simultaneously solve the global issue of climate change and recharge its lagging economy simply by investing more resources in alternative energy programs. He argues that the next industrial boom will emerge from clean energy and clean water, and that the United States should be at the forefront of those industries.
And Michigan should be forefront of the United States’ transformation. Michigan has a surplus of seasoned manufacturing workers desperately in need of work, and a state government desperate to help them find jobs.
Furthermore, the state’s geography is ideal for harnessing the powerful winds coming off the lakes, most notably Lake Michigan. Michigan’s capacity for solar energy is also remarkably large. Moreover, solar power provides a model that promotes bilateral job growth. Take the example of United Solar, a manufacturer of solar panels near Detroit. Emphasis on solar power would expand United Solar, and businesses like it, creating more manufacturing jobs on the industry’s supply side. Even more jobs would be created on the implementation side, where workers would tend to the actual collection of energy.
Who, then, should conquer the energy colossus and catalyze an industrial boom? The state has a set of heros already primed for the task at hand. The University Research Corridor, which consists of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Wayne State University, has the brainpower and research capacity to experiment with forms of alternative energy.
The URC already has results to back it up, too. With a total expenditure of $1.38 billion, the URC has had a total economic impact of $13.3 billion on the state of Michigan and has yielded a whopping 126 patents in the past six years. But the capacity for changing the economy could be even greater if only there were more funding. Similarly, a greater emphasis on energy research would start a domino effect for more creative and entrepreneurial drive toward alternative energy in the state.
Economic prosperity and energy independence are unquestionably on the horizon for Michigan. But in order to reap either of these benefits, the state has to wake up and start sewing the necessary seeds within the rich soil of research.