Tale of two Michigans

The movers and shakers went to Mackinac. What about those left behind?

Jun 6, 2012 at 12:00 am

MACKINAC ISLAND — Don't know about you, but I livened up my life last week by going to the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce's official tribal gathering of the rich and powerful.

Every year, at the end of May, our political and business leaders get together for three days on Mackinac Island, our state's favorite quaint resort area, (horses, no cars) which is way up in Lake Huron, 300 miles and a million cultural light-years from Detroit.

There are always a series of panel discussions, most of them not very memorable (this year's were duller than usual) plus a couple headline speakers (this year's Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria were probably better and more thought-provoking than average).

Nothing much is normally accomplished on Mackinac, though the conference traditionally ends with some sort of resolution pledging everybody to new efforts at regional cooperation that mostly never quite happen. But nobody pays much attention to that.

Finding common ground is not why anybody goes. The politicians go because they get to rub elbows with business leaders who contribute to their campaigns. The corporate types go to see each other as well as the politicians they like to control.

Lobbyists go, for the same reason flies are drawn to honey. Journalists come, partly because it is easy to buttonhole powerful political and business types, who are thick on the ground. And all of the above go because there are mountains of free food and booze.

Personally, as Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca, I came for the waters, which are indeed pretty up there. But besides the chance to touch base with some interesting people, I went largely for sociology; I wanted to see and feel what the ruling class thinks.

Essentially, my feeling is that they are cautiously optimistic. They think they've got a business-friendly governor in the saddle and folks they can do business with in control of the Legislature.

Curiously, the coming presidential election was not a big topic at Mackinac. There was one suspect "straw poll" at one session that showed the attendees overwhelmingly thought President Obama would beat Mitt Romney, but that wasn't their main priority.

Creating a "globally competitive Michigan" was. A series of successful young entrepreneurs were paraded on stage, including one Rich DeVos, the founder of Grand Rapids' much-admired ArtPrize competition, and a friend of startups.  Michigan's future success is "all about changing the culture," he assured us.

What he meant was we need to take the lead and start businesses, etc., rather than waiting for someone to put us to work. He's right, of course, but I couldn't help thinking that it's probably a little easier if you have the DeVos Amway fortune behind you.

I was more inspired by a Detroiter named Dave Zilko, who borrowed $5,000 from a girlfriend and parleyed that into what is today a $110 million business, Garden Fresh Gourmet.  He even ended up marrying the girlfriend, which was heartwarming.

However, he had a degree in finance and an MBA. These weren't illiterates stumbling out of the ghetto to boldly reinvent society. Even the one minority entrepreneur on view, Internet business pioneer Angel Gambino, had first been a highly successful lawyer with international experience and sports connections.

Nothing wrong with that, and we need more brilliant, energetic and ambitious young professionals reenergizing our economy. Oldsmobile isn't ever going to open up again, kiddies, and there are no more good-paying jobs for the unskilled.

However, there are lots of people being left behind, and so far as I could tell, almost nobody at Mackinac gave a damn about them, except for U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke, who was on a panel late on the first day. Nowadays, it is fashionable to sneer at "government jobs." Republicans take it as an article of faith that only the private sector can create legitimate jobs. But Clarke credited such a job with saving him years ago, when his parents had died, he had dropped out of school and was nearly homeless. "I got a job through a government program. It restored my dignity and self-respect," he said.

That started him on a path that led to finishing college, and on to law school and the Legislature, then Congress.  But few were listening to the Democratic Detroit congressman from the inner city.

Not long before, CNN megajournalist Fareed Zakaria spoke to the conference, making a major and highly impressive speech without a single note. The good news, he told us, was that the bad news was largely wrong. Despite the crisis in Europe and lingering unemployment here, the world economy is really in good shape.

There is now essentially a single world economic system. No country today is suffering from hyperinflation. There is, to be sure, the problem of the jobless recovery. Before the coming of the Internet, workers were all back at their jobs six months after a recession ended. Today, it takes, on average, five-and-a-half years.

This isn't news to Detroit. Americans need to do two things, Zakaria told the corporate and political leaders. One is raise taxes to "invest in the future," meaning education, roads and bridges.

But since resources are tight, he seemed to be saying, we need to cut spending on the "present and the past," including, he seemed to be implying, "entitlement" programs for the poor and elderly.

Sound advice, perhaps. But I couldn't help thinking of the lunch I'd had the week before with state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, in her downscale district along the Detroit River. She is a 35-year-old Muslim woman, the eldest of 14 children, who put herself through college and law school.  She fought Matty Moroun before that was cool. But she also has served notice any new bridge better contain some benefits for her impoverished Delray citizens. While the prime movers soared above the clouds on Mackinac, Tlaib was stuck back in Lansing, trying to get a bill passed regulating scrap metal dealers.

Among other things, she wants to make it illegal for them to buy "burnt copper," which is what lowlifes dig out of homes they've burned down so they can dig copper out and sell it to get a fix.

In her spare time, she is campaigning hard to try to win the August primary. It is an uphill battle; the lines were redrawn to throw her in the same district with Maureen Stapleton.

Most of the district was Stapleton's turf before, but Tlaib is fighting hard. She represents mainly people invisible to the high rollers at Mackinac, people who don't do Internet startups or salsa companies, and whose boats are seldom lifted by even the highest economic tide. Except that doing something for them may, in the long run, be critical for us all to survive. Frankly, I'd be a little more impressed with the Mackinac conference next year if they invited Rashida Tlaib too, and really listened to what she had to say.