Months of leading the other 49 states in the crucial contest of who has the highest unemployment rate and year after year of ballooning budget deficits have been enough to convince Gov. Jennifer Granholm to say all the right things regarding the state’s future. But these ominous statistics have apparently not been enough to convince her to do almost any of the things necessary to reinvent Michigan’s economy.
Granholm has called for a shift from the state’s dependence on traditional manufacturing industries to more high-tech sectors, including the life sciences. She says she wants to make Michigan a place where young, highly educated people desire to come live and work. Her specific proposals, however, have been insignificant, uncontroversial and therefore unable to stem the tide of college graduates moving elsewhere to attend college and find jobs after school. By failing to take a strong stand on issues like stem-cell research, higher-education funding and gay rights, Granholm relegates her stated goals to mere pablum.
Part of Granholm’s vision comes from the writings of economic development Prof. Richard Florida, who defined the “creative class” as the fast-growing group of educated workers who are paid for their ideas rather than their labor; the group composes about 30 percent of the country’s workforce, yet earns roughly half of all wages and salaries. Florida argues that the best way for a region to attract new, high-tech industries is to draw in a large pool of young, educated, creative workers. The governor’s Cool Cities initiative shows that Granholm acknowledges and covets this creative sector; the published reasoning behind the initiative cites Florida frequently. But simply throwing a few grants at small-scale, scattered projects is no way to attract and retain the educated workforce Michigan needs. In more important areas, Granholm has so far failed to take the risks necessary to turn Michigan into a progressive state capable of attracting creative young workers and fertile new industries.
If Michigan’s economy is to expand into the life-sciences industry, an idea Granholm regularly promotes, it is impossible to avoid the issue of stem cells. Granholm claims to support stem-cell research, but she has shied away from efforts to change Michigan’s stem-cell laws, which are among the most restrictive in the country. The state’s restrictions not only directly impede development of Michigan’s life-sciences industry, but they also suggest to current and would-be residents that the state is unwilling to adapt to future technological advances. Granholm may have a difficult battle against Republicans to pass more progressive stem-cell legislation in Michigan, but she should recognize that supporting stem-cell research is necessary to developing a strong life-sciences industry.
Similarly, Granholm has made higher education a rhetorical centerpiece in her vision for the state’s economy — she claims it is her goal to double the number of college graduates in the state within a decade — but she has balked at reforming how the state’s higher-education system is funded. Universities receive money from the state’s discretionary fund, leaving them an easy target for funding cuts when falling revenues force Lansing to balance the state budget. As a result, Michigan’s universities are struggling at a time when the state needs them to thrive. Just as Silicon Valley could not exist without Stanford University, a high-tech revival in Michigan depends largely on the state’s universities. Granholm must take action quickly if she wants to even preserve, let alone improve, the state’s higher-education system. Budget restructuring and unpopular tax increases may be required, but if Granholm hopes to come close to achieving her goals, she must find a bold and creative solution to the higher-education problem.
If Granholm has read Florida’s book, she must be familiar with his writings on social climate and development. Put simply, Florida argues that regions with progressive social policies — those that are seen as diverse and tolerant, especially toward gay rights — are the most successful at attracting young, creative workers. Unfortunately, Granholm has handled gay rights with characteristic hesitance: She is a supporter only when it is politically painless. In 2003, she became the first governor to attend the Triangle Foundation’s annual dinner and later designated June as Gay Pride Month. But in the aftermath of Proposal 2, when conservative groups began to argue that the amendment made it unconstitutional for public employees in Michigan to be offered same-sex partner benefits, Granholm swiftly cut off the debate by revoking same-sex benefits for state employees — even though the legal question had not yet been addressed by any court. Failing to protect gay rights, except when it involves celebrations and dinners, will not only marginalize an important sector of the population, but it will also prevent Michigan from attaining the progressive, tolerant image it needs to attract and keep a young, educated workforce.
These are difficult issues for a governor to push against the Republican-dominated state Legislature, but they are necessary if Granholm wants to stem the brain drain in Michigan and make the state attractive to the “creative class.” The Cool Cities initiative and Granholm’s other attempts at progressive policies are good ideas, but they are trivial compared to the progressive reforms needed to bring in the young people that would carry out her vision of a thriving, high-tech state. Granholm will continue to fail the state until she stops trying to please everyone and instead becomes the progressive, proactive leader that Michigan needs.