Fund education — or die

Michigan is in trouble, for reasons that have little to do with the current state budget crisis, though things are worse than at any time since the 1950s.

We're mainly in trouble because the mainstay of our economy for a century — the domestic auto industry — is not what it used to be, and never will be again. Worse, we have a poorly educated work force, and nitwit or cowardly politicians who don't realize our only hope is to pour more money into education, now.

We now have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. We are below the national average in both education and income, and the percentage of people with college degrees is one of the nation's lowest.

Naturally, that's partly because so many people with degrees are leaving the state.

How did we get in this mess?

We stuck with the past too long. For nearly a century Detroit was the engine and the factory of the world's automotive industry. What that meant is that any kid (boys, anyway) could get a job on the line that paid as well or better than the average job some chump got after four years in college.

Eventually, the college-educated guy might make more, and have more job satisfaction, but, by and large, higher education was seen as unnecessary by the working class. Most of them could afford a nice ranch house in someplace like St. Clair Shores, a car, a truck, a boat and maybe a cabin up North.

Beginning in the 1950s, the auto companies provided excellent health benefits. If you were injured, you could take time off, or maybe retire, on disability. Once I went to Pontiac to interview a man who was up on his house working on the roof. When he came down, I asked if he had the day off.

"No, I am retired on full disability," from some auto company, he said. With benefits like that, no wonder Michigan has traditionally lagged behind most other states in higher education. Not in the quality of our schools; there was money available for them. But we trailed badly in the proportion of residents who went to colleges and universities. The latest figures show about two-thirds of other states have a higher percentage of adults with degrees.

That didn't matter so much when a vigorous, muscle-based economy was enough to keep us rolling in dough. But them days is gone for good, Stash.

The domestic auto industry — that is, the Detroit-based auto industry — has shriveled to a shadow of its former self, and it is never, ever coming back.

Automotive employment has been falling for years, and the experts agree that it will fall even further, especially in Michigan.

Two weeks from now, Ford will close its Wixom plant. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler are in the process of working through other plant closings and buyouts. The United Auto Workers union has about one-third the membership it had in 1970. Expect it to fall further still.

In the first three months of this year, for the first time in history, Toyota sold more vehicles worldwide than General Motors. Not by much — the margin was a mere 90,000 cars. But what was really significant was the bottom line each company reported. General Motors actually made money in those three months — $67 million. But Toyota made $3.6 billion.

That means for every dollar General Motors made, Toyota made $54. As for Ford — well, Ford isn't really even on the playing field anymore. Dearborn's finest lost $288 million, and is losing market share even faster.

General Motors still significantly outsells Toyota in the United States, but here, too, every year the Ren Cen slips and Tokyo gains. Meanwhile, Toyota sales in the United States have drawn virtually even with Ford.

Back in the muscle-car-racin' 1960s, General Motors accounted for more than half of all the vehicles sold in the country. That figure is now 20 percent, to 17 percent for Ford and 16 percent for Toyota. And Detroit is now bracing for the coming Chinese cars, which are said to be good, reliable and cheap.

What can we do?

Our only hope, really, is to attract new high-tech, new-economy jobs. The odds are heavy that we will never again be able to depend on a single product or industry, which could be a damn good thing if we ever get our economy together.

But how do we do that? We have a few things going for us. One is a large pool of manufacturing and engineering talent. Another is a university system far better than most states have. The University of Michigan is a world-class institution, and Michigan State and Wayne State are great schools that see helping people improve their lives as a major part of their mission.

What we need to do — even in a slumping economy — is to make sure those schools have the resources they need to get us a future. We need to do everything we can to get more of our students in colleges and universities and high-tech vocational programs, or they will have no future.

Three years ago, the governor appointed a commission led by Lt. Gov. John Cherry to look into what we ought to be doing about higher education. It concluded we should double the number of people getting bachelor's degrees within 10 years. But since then, little has happened.

Yet as important as higher education is, it means nothing if we don't have decent lower education for everyone — kindergarten through high school.

We don't. Far too many school systems are not getting it done, in large part because they don't have enough money. Now, they may be about to have a lot less. The governor's office has announced that every school district in this state will lose $122 a pupil unless the budget mess is resolved by June 1.

What that will do is force some schools to close, right then. Others will end their year with a technically illegal deficit, and have to lay off teachers right away. That means they will have to cope with the new, much more demanding high school standards next year with fewer people and fewer resources.

That threatens to finish off our future. The schools, by the way, were doomed by Proposal A, which helped poorer districts for a while, but took away local control without guaranteeing the schools adequate state support.

We are doing ourselves in. The greatest and most harmful myth the right wing has brainwashed so many of us into believing is that lower taxes are always better than high ones, that tax cuts are the answer to everything.

Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society. If we don't have schools middle-class people can feel good about putting their kids in, forget it.

Nobody's coming here, no matter what the tax rate. Last year, Western Michigan University paid for a massive survey of the nation's high-tech and new-economy businesses to see what states they would most like to be in.

The winners were two states with some of the nation's highest taxes, California and Massachusetts. Yes, the business owners said, low taxes were nice, but a society that worked was worth the price.

Our future depends on our politicians figuring this out, now. If you agree with me, it would help a lot if you let them know.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, opines weekly in Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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