Choosing Michigan’s future, for dummies

Here’s a widely held local belief, half of which is dangerous myth: Detroit is a cesspool of urban and social blight that is collapsing toward receivership; the rest of the state, however, is doing just peachy, though most of the nation doesn’t know it because of all the negative media coverage centered on Detroit.

Unfortunately, Detroit really is as bad as all that — but the entire state is in far worse shape than is commonly realized, and indications are that we’re likely to fall further behind the rest of the country. Once an economic powerhouse, Michigan is now rapidly becoming a rusting machinery theme park.

Unless something major changes, “Michigan is poised to move … backwards to a future characterized by decaying cities, population flight, closing plant doors, deserted rural communities — a backwater in the world economy.”

Those words aren’t mine. They are those of the folks now running the state, who last year commissioned a major report on higher education and economic growth, normally referred to as the Cherry Commission, after Lt. Gov. John Cherry, who chaired it. The report came out around Christmas.

When I finally read it all last month, it shocked even a gloomy old cynic like me. “Other states are passing Michigan by,” it said, and backed it up with stunning, sobering numbers.

For a long time, thanks to a ripple effect stemming from the auto industry and its unions, incomes in Michigan tended to be considerably higher than the national average.

Today, we’re lower than the national average, and falling like a stone. According to the Cherry Commission’s pretty formidable team of researchers, our income growth since the Vietnam War has dropped by 12 percent, relative to the rest of the nation, while “the best-educated states with the highest shares of knowledge industries saw growth of up to 31 percent” more than average.

Wait a minute, I thought. Doesn’t Michigan outclass most places in terms of education? That’s what we were told, growing up in the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s, and, to a large extent, it was true. The University of Michigan is still one of the nation’s great universities, and our other schools still have major strengths.

But our residents are among the least educated in the country, when you look at the number of grown-ups with degrees. And in recent years, the politicians have been starving our best schools through crippling budget cuts — precisely at a time when they expect them to spark new technological or entrepreneurial revolutions that will “save” our state.

That’s plainly nuts.

Yet that’s exactly what has been happening. Single, college-educated young adults are fleeing the state. Others aren’t replacing them. We’re near the bottom — 45th — of all states in ability to attract young, educated people.

We have fewer young adults with bachelor’s degrees than almost any other state in the nation. The share of adults taking part in postsecondary education is in steep decline. Of those who start college, far too many will never finish. Even grimmer: Perhaps as many as a third of all Michigan kids don’t even graduate from high school, meaning they have essentially no chance to build decent, productive, financially secure lives. No chance. None. Nada. Zip.

Ironically, this is a legacy of the days when you could come out of high school with nary a skill and get a job as an assembly line worker with pay equal to or greater than that of the teachers who may or may not have passed you.

Those days “may have created a high standard of living in Michigan,” the commission agreed, “but they also produced a dangerous side effect: An education achievement gap between Michigan and its competitors.”

So are we doomed?

No, not necessarily — not if we take the right steps to make ourselves competitive again. Naturally, it’s almost always easier to diagnose the problem than to come up with a solution, especially when the solution costs money.

Yet it’s clear we need to better educate our citizens — and do everything we can to make Michigan a hospitable place for new innovations and new business.

This was once a sleepy, mostly agricultural state. Then came mass-produced cars and the assembly lines, and money rolled in and the population soared. Now, it’s been a long ebb tide.

The trick is to get the ball rolling again. “If we want a high-performance economy, we must work now to improve the strength, depth and adaptability of our colleges and universities,” Gov. Jennifer Granholm said when she chartered the Cherry Commission in March 2004. She was absolutely right, of course.

“Bold and courageous action” was what her commission called for nine months later. That means, in its best-known recommendation, doubling the number of bachelor’s degrees the state awards in the next decade.

While a nice idea, that’s probably neither very realistic nor economically important. Far more significant is the recommendation that Michigan make some form of higher education universal by adopting “an expectation that all students will receive a postsecondary degree or credential coupled with a guarantee from the state of financial support linked to the achievement of that goal.”

That policy alone would go a long way to getting Michigan back in the game. Yet the commission sets out no policy prescription for getting there nor any suggestion of how to pay for it. Worse, two months later, the governor dismayed everyone who thought she was finally getting it when she announced an additional $30 million funding cut for state universities.

What was she thinking? Yes, the budget does run a deficit every year that has to be solved with last-minute budget cuts, and, yes, the Republicans who control the Legislature say they would sell their grandmothers to Kwame Kilpatrick before they would raise taxes for any essential social services.

But what Granholm did spits in the face of her own lieutenant governor’s work. The governor knows better, and her administration could at least try to live up to the tiny core of beliefs it supposedly stands for. The Cherry Commission report goes on to talk in Silicon Valley-speak about the need to create an “emerging economy initiative” and a “culture of entrepreneurship.”

That’s all nice, but without a policy of demanding and supporting a vibrant, thriving, world-class education culture, kindergarten to post-doctoral work, the buzzwords are meaningless; Michigan won’t have a chance.

Earlier, I hinted that unless we do something to change our priorities, Michigan might evolve into sort of an economic Mississippi with ice storms. That may have been too harsh. On Mississippi, that is.


Hail Publius: Vince Keenan is a young guy who has dedicated himself to a career in which he’ll never make much money, but, in the process, he’s created a wonderful tool for voters to educate themselves. It’s a handy nonpartisan, nonprofit Web site called Publius ( that’s designed to make politics and government as simple and meaningful as possible. Check it out right now.

The Michigan secretary of state supports Publius, but Keenan says he’s never made much headway with Detroit City Clerk Jackie Currie’s office. This year, there are expected to be more than 100 candidates for City Council on the August primary ballot. It would be nice if the information the city has about these folks could land on Publius, to help voters make a somewhat informed choice. Which is Latin for: One Lonnie Bates is enough. Hey, Jackie: E-mail Vince.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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