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Michigan risks falling further behind if it doesn’t get serious about change

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Daniel Howes, April 29, 2017
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  As wake up calls go, think tank reports ain’t much.

Yeah, they marshal the grim statistics. They make harsh comparisons. They tell the people who bother to read them, mostly the already converted, just how Michigan is failing in education and job growth, in per-capita income and in the number of adults who work.

Describing what’s broken is easy. Moving voters and their representatives to act is hard. The sad truth about the Michigan culture over the past generation is that it doesn’t move much without a full-blown crisis like the auto collapse or Detroit’s bankruptcy.

The latest bid to stir the civic mind comes from Michigan Future. It’s the Ann Arbor-based outfit dedicated to the proposition that the state needs to write its next chapters far differently than its past. The head of Michigan Future, Lou Glazer, says the state that put America on wheels and helped birth the modern middle class has, quote, “moved from being a high-prosperity to a low-prosperity state.”

He says a lot of work in the new Michigan does not pay well. In fact, as much as half of those jobs don’t pay well enough to meet the basic needs as set by the Michigan Association of United Ways.


This in the state that once defined 20th-century America’s industrial might. Michigan produced broad economic gains for both blue and white collars until its affluence, arrogance and complacency pushed its bellwether auto industry to the brink of collapse.

Now it’s kinda’ stuck.

Add the march of technology, which is leaving human labor in its wake. Add the undeniable link between higher educational attainment and steadily rising wages — a formula that counters the work-a-day mentality still too prevalent here.

The result is what Glazer and Company call the “Great Uncoupling.” The 25 percent or so with higher education reap the economic benefits, while the rest mostly drift, buffeted by forces they can’t control.

Predictably, Michigan Future wants lawmakers to improve educational outcomes; to demand accountability up and down what it calls the educational chain; to create places for mobile talent to live and work; and to share prosperity with folks outside the high-wage knowledge economy.

Right. In this political environment? Lansing’s more likely to head the other way, like it is with the move to water down state curriculum standards because they’re too hard. Seriously? Places in the knowledge economy will require young people to be more educated, not less, to compete with their mind, not their back.

In what world do the adults in charge today do them favors by not telling the truth? The creative destruction popularized by Joseph Schumpeter is moving more quickly than the industrial age accelerated a century ago right here in Michigan. Back then, Henry Ford and his contemporaries shunned the conventions of their time, took risks, embraced change and succeeded.

Their gutsiness is worth emulating. Doing the same thing over and over again really is a definition of insanity. If the past sixteen years tell you anything, it should be that trying to revive the old Michigan model is a losing proposition – and the sooner this state coalesces around a realistic path to the future, the sooner we’ll arrive.

Daniel Howes is a columnist with The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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