Three Pointers on How to Fix Michigan

A Common Sense Position Paper

    icon Jan 12, 2012
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I think it was Mike Tyson that said “Everyone has a plan until they take a punch.” Unfortunately, I’ve tested this saying myself a few times over the years. Whether it was bad judgment, bad luck or just a little kick of karma, I’ve had to get back up off the canvas enough times now that I consider myself as kind of an expert in how to recover from failure. It was an excruciating experience the first time, but I can say with all honesty it gets easier once you’ve done it a few times.

Unfortunately, our home State is experiencing its own version of a Tyson punch to its economic jaw. For most of my life, Michigan has stood out as one of the bright lights of our national union. It didn’t matter which metric you used – income, educational achievement, home ownership – you didn’t have to look far down the list to find out where we ranked. 
What is amazing is not just that Michigan has experienced such a slide, but just how fast it has come. Within a dozen years we have gone from a regular rank within the Top 6 in per capita income to our current spot in the mid to low 30’s. While Michigan used to regularly rank in the Top 4 or 5 in Educational Achievement, a recent survey by the American Legislative Exchange Council placed Michigan 49 out of 51, ranking behind traditional laggards like Mississippi, Louisiana and the District of Columbia. Michigan was the only State to lose population in the last Census. I could keep going, but let’s just agree that it’s not a pretty picture.
Whether it’s a recession or a depression, the desperation is real and palpable. So, we organize. And we occupy. And we are seeing a general rise in civil disobedience. The situation has resulted in some gory TV and some pretty difficult discussions around the dinner table. Most agree; something has to give. Myself – I’d rather not see this solved in the streets.
This column is about solutions, some simple and some a little more contentious. Some are “new” ideas and, thankfully, some are already in the works. As I only get a few thousand words worth of space, it won’t be a comprehensive plan (For instance, I will have to save my proposal for a Universal Phone Charger law for another day), but here are a few Three Point Plans on how to “Fix Michigan.”
Progressive Education Practices
Education is the most fundamental public vehicle to prepare its citizens for a lifetime of positive achievement.   Local, county and State budgets in Michigan total just short of $100 billion. With education expenditures accounting for approximately $33 billion of that total, it’s a good place to start.
1.     Stable and Progressive Funding for Schools
While Governor Snyder’s blatant attack on education and its employees is one of the most regrettable aspects of his tenure as Governor, he has done one thing right. Moving to a two-year budget cycle will allow schools more financial certainty. In recent years, funding was often not set until well into the school year, often requiring schools to try and eliminate expenses retroactively. Try that with your bills sometime and see how your creditors take it. I’d actually like to suggest we go for a perpetual 36- month cycle, letting the administrators spend more time on curriculum and less on projecting cash flow.
Any plan that is adopted also needs to address the issue of funding equity. Michigan has tried to fix this through tax policy several times. A new funding system needs to provide similar funding per student for both capital spending and annual expenses in all districts. Within this system we should also strongly consider a practice common in Northern Europe, in which the most effective teachers are given incentives to work in the lowest performing districts.
2.      Smaller is Better
If you have spent any time in a school setting, you realize that it is like its own little society, with the administration doing what it can to establish norms, practices and a culture that will nurture its students as they (hopefully) realize their basic potential. There is an interesting fact that shows up with regularity in sociology and in operations research: once the population of a group reaches 300, it will begin the break down into subcultures, factions and, generally, experience an increase in interpersonal friction.
This concept should be kept in mind as one good reason to resist the call for school consolidations or additional State and Federal control. When it comes to schools, smaller is better. Smaller organizational units run an inherently tighter ship and, given the preponderance of larger institutions and districts among the State’s underperformers, produce a better result. Local control is the only way to create true accountability. Let’s return to the neighborhood school and do our best to cap its size at 300 combined souls – students, teachers and support staff included. (By no means take this as support for Charter schools, no matter what their size. But, we’ll save that discussion for another day.)
3.     Ditch the Standardized Testing
I’ve worked at a lot of jobs and, other than when someone sends around a group order for Chinese food, I’ve never had to fill in little circles with a pencil as part of one. Unfortunately, standardized tests – from prep to the reporting of results to built-in disincentives, which undermine academic integrity – dominate our schoolscapes at present.
When you look at the highest performing educational systems in the world, including America’s own in the past, you will find a near complete absence of this form of assessment.   Instead, you find integrated project work – even in the early grades – in which children are immersed in engaging assignments, which reveal the concepts of math, science, language and art that they will need to participate in a modern society. 
Ask a teacher what works best in their classroom and you will find they almost universally agree it is this type of critical thinking exercise, conducted in an atmosphere of academic freedom for both the instructor and the pupil. It’s time to put down the #2 pencils and pick up the energy in the classroom. Remember learning was FUNdamental?
Embrace Our Environment
I wouldn’t be true to my Green roots if I didn’t include an obvious nod to issues of the environment. Watch this space for more thorough treatments of environmental issues but, for today, here are three possibilities of low hanging policy fruit.
1. Reinvigorate the Rivers and Lakes
I want you to close your eyes and think the phrase “natural resources.” While I am sure there are a few on the fringe that had visions of the lumps of coal they received in this year’s Christmas stockings, most Michigander’s vision will include water. Lots of it. Like a lot of people in this area, I grew up with a canoe paddle in my hand, so I am able to offer first person testimony to the wonders of our waterways. They are as unique as they are vital.
This is one place where I would play “if you can’t beat them, join them” with our current unwieldy system of government.  Our lawmakers should be working full time on bringing home money to clean up Michigan’s water. They aren’t making any more water – what we have is what we have. And what we have is access to a huge chunk of the world’s supply. The economic spin off of these projects to our tourist industry would be enormous and the local jobs created would be valuable, ranging from skilled labor to those in the eco-sciences. 
Simply asking to open the federal “tap” into our rivers and lakes would also eliminate the need to engage in protracted negotiations with those who initiated the problem. The simple fact is things got done faster back when we simply fined the crap out of the offender and got on with the cleanup, rather than trying to making it a “teaching moment” for everyone, involved followed up by a TV commercial featuring the company butterfly farm.
2.   Nurture Green Technologies
Here’s where I get my chance to alienate everyone in the room. My take on “green” is actually one of “sustainability,” rather than “purity.” People, as a species, are consumers. It started with one bite of an apple and our appetite from “stuff” hasn’t quit since. Even more so than water, we really can’t manufacture matter (stuff, if you will). What we have must last. The question is how long we can make it last.
Most people will make the immediate correlation between petroleum and hydrocarbon products and combustion technologies like transportation and the generation of electricity. What you may not realize is that petroleum and natural gases are vital precursors to products from plastics to pesticides. Why do you think Dow keeps forming partnerships in the Middle East?   Love them or hate them, modern society is not possible without companies like Dow and their ability to produce commodity and specialty carbon based materials.
I would endorse what I’d call the “Grandma’s Best Perfume” theory. Everyone’s grandmother always had one bottle of really nice perfume that she only used on the most special occasions. We need to be thinking of oil, gas and coal as something we preserve as long as possible for our own good. We can’t convert off them completely for power, but we really need to think hard before burning them up. That means embracing the technologies we currently term green, like wind, solar, biomass and other methods to produce energy.
3. Fill In the Donuts
Despite our collective vision of lakes and streams, the fact is that most people in Michigan live in a more urbanized environment. And many of these environments are in worse shape than the lakes and rivers. I’d like to float a really radical idea first circulated in the 80’s in which we would basically draw a ring around our 10 largest urban centers and severely limit the expansion of electrical and water utilities in a radius adjacent to the cities.  
The basic idea is that developers who wanted access to these populations would be forced to “fill in the donut,” or look inside the city limits for property to develop. We’d quit plowing under farmland to build strip malls and subdivisions and start scouting the cities for Brownfield sites for commercial and residential redevelopment.   While it is not the best analogy, you could think of it like a liquor license for electrical installations. You couldn’t build unless you had one, so we could force the development were it we need it, and that is in our sagging cities.
Invest in Agriculture
Agriculture is the second largest industry in Michigan by revenue. We are one of the few places on Earth that could comfortably sustain our own population solely from what we can produce on our own land. In the long term, that is a matter of security. In the interim, we are a net exporter of food products. The further away we can ship it after we grow it, the better.
1). Infrastructure/Rail.
Here is another place where I would like to give credit where credit is due. State Senator Mike Green’s proposal to increase investment in rural rail systems and agricultural infrastructure is a good one.   This will not only ease our efforts in getting goods to market, it will create skilled jobs that carry higher pay than those typically associated with road construction projects. (While we are at it, what about a two-year refocus from highway reconstruction to rail and urban demolition projects? It would create jobs for the same demographic of worker and give us a couple of “cone free” summers to zip up and down I-75.)
While on the subject of rail, I’d also like to offer up an idea that could have gone under the Environmental heading, but it would have screwed up my numbering. I’d like to see Dave Camp propose and support the construction of a massive port and rail system on the Lake Michigan shore, allowing for the closing of the locks between the Mississippi River and us. 
As much as any industrial source, the river’s penchant for vomiting invasive species pose an enormous threat to the future of our Lakes. I know Chicago is a major shipping center - of the last century. We’ll gladly take that business and they can keep their dinosaur fish.
Despite the overwhelming popularity of what I’ve heard called “cooking porn” shows, Americans don’t really spend a lot of time exploring exotic techniques in the kitchen. Old people don’t cook anymore and young people can’t. The modern Holy Grail of food is the Star Trek idea of pushing a button and having what you want pop out of the wall.
2. Food Processing
This is another place where we can clearly up the value added in our local area. Converting the crops we grow into healthy processed foods will up their value in the marketplace and feed a growing trend in nutrition. Kudos to our local pickle and potato processors who already know this. We should look to their models and figure out what else we can do to create secondary jobs to our local agricultural market.
3. Free the Weed
If you watch this space, you already know my views on hemp. I’ll let others present their arguments for its psychoactive cousin cannabis, but we need to be able to grow industrial hemp. It’s a cash crop and a good one, providing the precursors for fuel and many consumer products. What do you do for someone in trouble? You throw them a little rope. Everyone knows the best ropes are made out of hemp and it’s time that we are allowed to grow our own.
Reverse Population Decline
Most of Michigan’s economic problems can actually be traced to the erosion of its tax base. It was the only State to lose population between the last two 10-year Census counts. People have moved in droves and, if my circle of acquaintances is a reasonable sample, a lot more people are contemplating the idea if things don’t turn around soon. We need more people, but we need the right people – productive, civil and tax paying citizens. Here a few ideas, just to give the Conservatives something to chew my butt about when they see me at the pub.
1.   Recognize Gay Relationships
2011 was a landmark year in gay rights for a couple of offsetting reasons. On one hand, it was the first time that over half of all Americans “approved” of same sex couples. Factoring out those over 60 (sorry, Boomers) that support jumps over 75%. Unfortunately, 2011 is also the year Rick Snyder banned the offering of benefits to the same sex partners of State employees. Funny, he doesn’t look like a caveman, but we had him figured as a hater during the campaign and that has proven to be the case.
Taking a more pragmatic look at the issue, every jurisdiction – here and abroad – that has decided to recognize gay unions has experienced a population increase. And let’s be reminded that the “stereotypes” that these couples typical earn higher than average incomes and adopt far more at risk children are true. Basically, they are the kind of neighbor that is nice to have.
As a moral issue, of all the places I would like to see us scale back government intervention, sexual interactions between consenting adults would be one of them. The last election focused on altering union membership requirements, theoretically making Michigan a “Right to Work” State. I’d like to suggest that we make Michigan the first “Right to Mate” State, allowing willing gay adults to enter into the kind of unions that hold our society together. 
And then we can turn our attention to the baby daddies and baby mommas who haven’t quite got the monogamy memo.
2. Universal Health Care
One of the big arguments against recognizing gay unions is the hypothetical cost of offering health care and other benefits to same sex partners. This is really just a subset of the fact that benefits, as traditionally structured, cost too much for employees of all demographics. 
In my old career, I often was called on to assess acquisition targets or new plant sites and it was quite often this area that caused the bulk of the cost disadvantage against any location that had socialized medicine. It is a huge part of the reason why so many plants have been sited abroad.
The problem is not one of the amounts of money we spend, but how we handle them in the process. As opposed to most health care systems, which are based around simplified identification, billing and payment, ours is built around the concept of “insurance.” 
While most of us think of insurance as protection against a catastrophe, it is in fact a fixed return investment for very wealthy investors. Take a look at the profits of these corporations, the dividends paid to stockholders, the bonuses and salaries paid to their executives and ask if that is a good use of our health care dollars. 
It makes no sense to me to have a financial instrument in the middle of our health care delivery system, no matter how comforting the concept has been made to appear.
I have lived under a socialized medicine system when I was in the UK and I will hold the quality and accessibility of care to any I have received from any US provider. Again, people relocate from around the world to live in places that have good social medicine systems. If Michigan had our own state-sponsored healthcare system, I believe people would move here. Not only that, the next generation of business development specialists won’t suffer from sticker shock when they see our location’s employee benefits costs.
3.   Support Immigrant Entrepreneurs
When I went through the Manufacturing Technology program at Eastern Michigan, a couple of things really struck me about the student population. First, was how many of them were foreign nationals. I was really expecting a lot of auto industry guys, but they were actually in the minority. The second thing was how many of the foreign students really wanted to stay here, sometimes evenly purposely taking a slow track to graduation to extend their time in the States.
If we look at the single greatest creation of wealth in history, it would be based around the rise of the Silicon Valley. While Steve Jobs is the face of the industry and the region, the fact is there are just as many innovators who started their personal journeys in India, China and the former Eastern Bloc. The most brilliant IT guy that I ever met moved here from Brazil.
This author aside, those that have studied science, technology or engineering have a great track record of starting high value companies and creating quality workplaces. Today, the people in these academic tracks are just as likely to be named Jung or Singh as Smith or Jones. Michigan’s university system is a magnet for academic talent from around the world. I am all for inviting them to stay once they have proven the potential that got them here in the first place.  
New York and America’s East Coast was largely built on immigration. Similarly we could use as much help as we can get. But, as we are casting our comeback story, I’d say we could let New York continue to take the tired, the poor and the huddled masses – we already have enough of those. 
For this modern day story of redemption, give me nerds, farmhands, a few gay boys, a good solid rope and a kid who everyone calls Haji. 
Even if you aren’t with us on this, we are going to be really entertaining to watch.

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