Monday, March 20, 2006

Vote for me: I'll suck less than the other guy

Michigan voters will be electing someone to live in the Governor's mansion this fall, and it already looks like a two-contender race, Dick DeVos challenging the current resident of the governor's mansion, Jennifer Granholm. Except for the perks that go with the office there's precious few gubernatorial responsibilities to exercise since Michigan's real governor hasn't lost a race since 1914 when Henry Ford made Michigan the manufacturing capital of world.

Manufacturing is Michigan's monster political party. It's a party so large it cares little for who wins the title of Governor of the State of Michigan, which of the other lesser parties they come from, or how many or what type of representatives sit in the legislature. Manufacturing's ambivalence towards state politics is justified. Even when the monster party showed its vulnerabilities during the 70s oil crisis, and again to foreign competition in the 80s and 90s our politicians accomplished little towards replacing its greatest benefactor.

The monster is resilient even to its own electorate, its shareholders. The only thing that may tame one monster is another monster. Both of these points are subjects for another article, but it's worth noting some of the monster-tamers names are Toyota, Sarbanes-Oxley, and perhaps Kirk Kerkorian.

If the monster is the pilot of Michigan's aircraft then our gubernor is its stewardess. As our economy loses altitude and threatens to leave a skid mark the size of Lake Michigan she's serving drinks, passing out peanuts, and telling us to ignore the oxygen masks in front of us, gently reassuring us it's normal for ears to pop a little with the nose pitched 30 degrees down. Such are the actions of highway spending, designating cool cities, and pretending bio-tech will employ our state's tens of thousands of already-or-soon-to-be unemployed auto workers accustomed to first class health care, pensions, jobs banks, and leather-trimmed reclining bucket seats with extra legroom and free beverages.

What should our gubernor be doing instead? Prepare a cushion. A really big one. Don't bother pretending it's a trampoline for economic growth. It's the biggest piece of foam rubber known to humankind prepared in advance of a Katrina-sized disaster that's been making landfall for over 20 years.

Michigan needs to stop spending on new infrastructure and encourage people to live and work where infrastructure already exists--cities. It matters little whether you're a fan of big cities like Detroit or not, but that's where our infrastructure is. That's were we're best equipped to economically handle high densities of residents and businesses -- and this crisis will require our state make every stretched dollar count. This means we stop subsidizing suburban sprawl. If you want to live away from civilization then do it on your own dime, not everyone else's. This means we should stop widening congested highways and build public transportation. We know how to do it. We just haven't wanted to do it, nor has Lansing shown the leadership to compel us.

Next we have to stop pretending to know which is Michigan's next big industry. First, we don't know and second, we don't want one. Sure they're nice to have during the boom times but there's no one to pay the tab when the party's over. What we do know is small business employees more people than big business, and with more smaller businesses Michigan's economy becomes more diversified. Furthermore, it is more likely the best idea for Michigan's economic future will be hatched by an entrepreneur than a politician.

Michigan must also to make itself more attractive to business and investment than ever before. We're already moving towards eliminating the SBT but it must be cheaper to start new businesses here than anywhere else. It has to be more rewarding to do business here than anywhere else. Easier transportation for employees and customers, safer streets, inexpensive utilities and internet, plentiful parking, more parks, and a better educated workforce.

Speaking of better education, we have a lot of education to do. Even with the latest education bill in Lansing requiring more math, science, and English credits to graduate the payoff is at least eight years away and we have plenty of unemployed people needing new skills today and will have more tomorrow that need attention now. This is where the state should cut both its funding and the handcuffs that go with it to its public universities and funnel more post-secondary education spending on community colleges and adult education programs where more of each education dollar pays for teachers and professors teaching students rather than taking sabbaticals and filling out grant applications for self-promoting research. Without the handcuffs our public universities would be free to take more out-of-state students paying higher tuitions and still take all the sabbaticals they want.

We must also make Michigan attractive to families. Specifically, families with children. Children are good for the economy. They need stuff. Lots of stuff. As they get older the stuff they need becomes more expensive until eventually someone else's kid you helped send to public school is buying your home at a profit rather than your home sitting for months in a market with a glut of other homes competing for the same shrinking pool of potential buyers.

Michigan has a tough road ahead no matter who the next gubernor may be. During the campaign season, don't be placated by lip service to jobs and the economy. Listen for the real ideas with real action steps, and that will be your real leader.


  1. Lots of ground covered and yet only scratching the surface. There's much to do, so I think we're all waiting for somebody to do something. Personally, I'm waiting for you to lead the way. Got a plan yet?

  2. It's good to know I'm not the only one wondering what affect a gubernor can have on a state's economy. Comerica's former chief economist David Littman and I are at odds at how much. I think very little, he thinks a whole lot. If his is the case, why wouldn't a governor do more to stimulate the economy? Mr. Littman thinks they lack the brains (his words).