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Commentary: Ford’s better idea

There’s a lot going in Michigan this week. The governor is asking the state supreme court to rule on the constitutionality of his Right-to-Work law. Detroit City Council is deciding whether to allow the state to improve Belle Isle, the city’s once-lovely island park.

The Red Wings are playing hockey again, and many of us are starting to tire of what has been a rather depressing winter.

Yet I think that the best thing we could do to clear our heads to imagine Michigan’s future would be to take a trip to the past tonight, by sitting in our living rooms. American Experience, the public television’s documentary series, is airing a new two-hour biography of the original Henry Ford.

The reviewers’ say the film is excellent. But it would be hard to make Old Henry boring. He is the man who essentially invented our state’s economy.  He pioneered the system of mass production of transportation technology that changed the lives of everyone in America -- the automobile. Because he lived here, that industry was established here. Because of what he did, Detroit went from a medium-sized town to a city of two million, in half a century.

He also, by design, made his industry one where largely unskilled workers could make high wages for doing a series of repetitive tasks. Like so much of what he did, this had as many unforeseen negative consequences as obvious good ones. Yes, the automobile industry allowed workers to climb into the middle class.

But the same circumstances that allowed them to have far better lives than their parents meant Michigan never valued education as much as it should have. For too many workers, there was too little incentive to go beyond high school.

This left us extremely vulnerable when the automobile industry began to change, and is one of the reasons for our economic difficulty today. The high-paid unskilled assembly line worker is not quite as extinct as the buggy whip maker, but he will be.

Ford himself is endlessly fascinating, a bundle of contradictions, like so many in this state. Born in the same month as the Battle of Gettysburg, he lived long enough to see a world war ended by atom bombs.

He was equal parts visionary and crank, genius and raving fool. He gave African-Americans opportunities when others would not, but indulged in a  quixotic and deeply embarrassing anti-Semitism. His vision helped  create the modern world -- and threatens to destroy its environment.

Today, we are still trying to cope with Ford’s legacy, a world where we see normal as everyone going everywhere in a private fossil-fuel burning machine weighing a ton.

My guess is that if we could bring a thirty-five-year-old Henry Ford back to life, he would look around and suggest we blow this model up and try something new. Then, he might even give it to us.

Ford believed in lone geniuses, not in focus groups. He once said that if he had started by asking people what sort of better transportation they wanted, they would have said “a faster horse.”

Today, we still depend on steel horses with headlights, a model that‘s ultimately unsustainable. You have to wonder if somewhere there’s a new Henry Ford, one with a better idea.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.