Bissell, Part II

Nancy Crawley quotes Upjohn Institute economist George Erickcek in her column on Bissell. George, who is one of the best thinkers I know on economic development policy, says in the column

“I for one am not willing, without a stronger fight, to say production simply can’t be here…. To say simply we give up, we’ll just keep the intellectual capital, will not produce the number of jobs we need.”

The core belief we have at Michigan Future is that what happens to manufacturing employment, except at the margin, is not in our control. Anymore than it was in the government’s control at the turn off the last century what happened to farming. Despite massive government support for farming – which is still going on – only two percent of Americans earn a living on a farm today compared to something like half at the turn of the last century.

To us, the same is now happening in factory work. Globalization and technology have substantially reduced the need for American factory workers. Those forces are stronger than government – particularly state and local government. So no matter what we do the trends of factory work shrinking as a portion of the American and Michigan workforce and that factory work is no high paid will continue.

This is not a value judgment. But reality. If there were a way for the state to recreate a high wage factory based economy we would support it. There isn’t! The state for decades has tried every lever it has to keep factory jobs. Its been economic development priority one for decades. We have been fighting hard. But the levers we have are too weak to overcome the fundamental transformation of our economy.

Will there be factory jobs in Michigan in the future? Of course. But not enough to drive our economy as it did last century. Will they be as high paid as the past? No. Should government continue to fight for those jobs? Sure.

But the new reality is the only way Michigan will regain its status as a high prosperity state is if we make the transition to the growing part of the American economy, which is knowledge-based. Bissell is on that path. Unless more of us get on that path we will be one of the poorest states in the country.

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