It’s a bad time to be in Michigan. Winter is coming. Jobs are scarce. Detroit is anarchic. The fate of the state’s economic foundation, the Big Three, is in the unpredictable hands of Congress — the same Congress in which a mutiny is being planned against Michigan icon Rep. John Dingell. The state’s main escape from reality, its sports teams, has turned into a source of depression. And with the holiday season on the horizon, everyone gets to look forward to hectic, overheated and overpriced malls, mounds of new credit card debt to please ungrateful children and plenty of awkward, embarrassing family outings.
Like all tough, depressing times, that means Michigan has just two options for moving forward. First, citizens could wallow in their sorrows, get drunk, blame everyone else for screwing them over, riot, secede from the Union and form a province in Canada, where instantly everyone will get health care and become happy and good at playing hockey. Or, Michigan can realize that almost everything that once made this state great is still here — what’s missing is even the slightest notion of leadership.
For starters, take Michigan’s workforce. Once considered the driving force behind the rise of Henry Ford’s ragtag automotive operation ballooned into a global success, Michigan’s workforce is now considered one of the state’s biggest liabilities. It is basically characterized as an obese bunch of unionized assembly line laborers, who are content to work their 30 years, retire, suck the sweet nectar of pension benefits and rack up astronomic health care bills. Or, in other words, stuck in the mid-20th century.
You can’t argue that Michigan workers aren’t somewhat behind the times. But I’m not sure why people are writing them off. Sure, a lot of them don’t have jobs now. And yes, they are fleeing the state at unheard of rates. But according to the 2008 State Technology and Science Index, Michigan is in the middle of the road among states’ worker technological assets. That’s not great, but it’s not terrible either. Then there’s this place — one of the best public universities in the country and the world. And there are the 14 other public universities, which house just fewer than 250,000 students.
I believe an X factor should be included in there, too: drive. Though no study or survey could quantify this, people in this state are willing to work and work hard. The auto industry would never have gotten a foothold here if that weren’t the case.
But Michigan’s workforce was only one thing that helped make this state one of America’s most important economic hubs. Water was another. We often take it for granted now, but water was key in the 20th century for transportation, agriculture and, in general, supporting human life. It may be 2008, but the last time I checked all three of those things still matter a lot, and we still have the water. Before other states started begging for a few drops, Michigan, Canada and the other Great Lakes states were smart enough to push through a monumental measure to protect this water from outsiders, too.
And lastly, Michigan became important in the 20th century because it’s a nice place — somewhere people were willing to work, live and start a family. With the notable exception of a few major cities, it’s still a nice place, especially here in Ann Arbor.
What Michigan doesn’t have is any leadership. We have a state legislature that apparently doesn’t believe Michigan workers can become anything more than underperforming factory line workers because it won’t invest anything extra in them or their children. Case in point: Between 2002 and 2007, higher education funding in Michigan fell by more than 10 percent, while nationwide, it rose more than 15 percent.
And we have a governor who arrived in 2003 as a potential savior and has since failed to convince anyone that Michigan matters. Only now that the Big Three are imploding has she really taken Michigan’s case to the country, and it looks like she is failing. What we may be left with after that is a lot more jobless men and women, a lot less tax revenue and a lot more people leaving.
What we need is someone who can step back, tell Michigan residents that they have the ability to rebuild this state, and then give them the resources to do it. That sounds simple. But no one has done that. Until then, the bad times will continue.
Gary Graca is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.