Explaining Michigan’s lost decade II

Received a thoughtful comment from former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins to my post that Michigan’s lost decade can be explained by the fortunes of the domestic auto industry, not state tax and spending policies. Tom’s main point is that state leadership could have made – but didn’t – a difference by preparing Michigan and its citizens for a world transformed by globalization and technology.

He wrote: …  the missed opportunities that leaders in both parties and both branches of government failed to take to address the shifting reality of globalization, technology and rising opportunities elsewhere in the country and world. … We did not accept the new reality. Spent to much time denying it, hoping it was the typical cycle and good times would return— this exacerbated our problems.

We couldn’t agree more. This has been the core of Michigan Future’s work for twenty years: what made us prosperous in the path, won’t in the future. That first and foremost we need a new vision of what economic success looks like. Aligning with, rather than resisting, the new realities of a flattening world is the only path to future prosperity. And those realities require us to make the transition from a mass middle class built on good paying factory jobs to one that is far more knowledge-based.

The challenge is that the transition cannot happen quickly. It not only requires leadership that is honest about the need for each of us to change (rather than promising they will get others to change, so we don’t have to) but also is willing to do now what matters most even though it won’t pay off for years to come.

But back to my original post, none of this is possible if the stories we are told, by too many of our leaders, over and over again is that we got in this mess because the state went on a tax and spending spree during our so-called lost decade, when the opposite is the case. Until and unless we get over that as the dominant explanation for why Michigan’s economy is bad, we can’t get to the conversation Tom (and we) want to have.

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