Public Investments are the Priority
Just back from a week in beautiful – but rainy – northern Michigan. As I was leaving I circulated a terrific column by Rick Haglund (read it here). It once again provides evidence that lower taxes is not a path to economic success.
Quite surprising it reports that the Tax Foundation – a conservative think tank – rated Michigan with the seventeenth best business climate. Up from twenty eight the year before. Better business climate rating, worse economy. Why can’t folks accept that business taxes have little to do with a state’s economic performance?
A flurry of e mails ensued. Wonks who I associate with are clearly engaged in the debate on the role of taxes in driving economic growth. Mark Murray, Meijer’s President, responded with a question: “why am i spending so much time writing about taxes, when the Michigan Future agenda is focused on public investments?”
As usual, Mark is right. We are debating the wrong issues. And I get sucked into that debate. If you care about recreating a high prosperity Michigan what is most important for state, regional and local policy makers to get right are public investments. Primarily in education and quality of place.
The two that matter most are higher education and central cities. Two areas that have been near the top of the chopping block during a decade of budget cutting in Michigan. Our higher education system – anchored by three terrific research universities – is arguably the best asset Michigan has to grow a knowledge-based economy. And vibrant central cities are essential in retaining and attracting talent that is the driving force of economic growth across the country.
The only reason to spend so much time on taxes is until we get it off the table as the default answer to how to grow the economy, we can’t get to what really matters: preparing, retaining and attracting talent. And the public investments that can most help us grow the Michigan economy.
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I absolutely agree that public investments are the priority. Michigan will stabilize and grow when we substantially invest in education and quality of life strategies, as you’ve stated. I believe, however, that the focus in education should be on early childhood education. While higher education might be the ultimate goal, learning begins at birth. The first five years are a critical time to establish a strong foundation, ensuring success in school and life. Our priority in education should be investing in quality preschool and child care, and providing parents with the support they need to support their child’s learning and development prior to the school years.
A previous comment argued that we should make retaining and attracting talent the priority, because ultimately what matters is where folks choose to live and work after college, not where they went to school. I responded that preparing talent – teaching and learning – needs also to be a priority as much for moral reasons as well as economic.
I think the same is true for pre school. If your goal is economic – growing a high prosperity Michigan – then higher ed and quality of place are the priorities. But there is a compelling moral case for insuring that all children from birth have a real opportunity to fully participate in the economy of the future. Tough choice in an era of limited resources. What is clear is the longer it takes us to increase the proportion of adults living in Michigan with a four-year degree or more, we will be a poor state. And poor states have less resources for pre school and everything else.
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