Now that Snyder has effectively ruined our state brand, we should be thinking about what it is we DO want to be known for. We’ll have the chance to replace him in 2018 (or maybe even sooner, if he steps down or is forced to resign), but Michigan needs a lot more than a better leader at the top.
If you think back to the heyday of the auto industry, Michigan was a booming state. My grandparents moved here because there were good-paying jobs to be had in Michigan. Detroit was a prosperous city, as was Flint and Pontiac and many more. Our state government was relatively well run during the boom times, or so they say. But then some key things happened.
The Detroit riot in 1967 led many people with money to leave the big cities over the next few years, leaving people with fewer resources behind. This made municipal budgets harder and harder to balance for cities like Detroit. Public services suffered, crime increased, more people fled – a vicious cycle. The waves of drug epidemics of the 70s, 80s, and 90s hit Michigan cities hard, too. The blocks in Detroit and Pontiac where my parents grew up are utterly devastated now.
It was boomtime in the suburbs though in the 70s because Michigan was still a great source of well-paying blue-collar factory jobs and national policy favored the suburbs in some key ways.
However, the auto industry was not competitive against the Japanese during the oil crisis of the 70s when fuel efficiency became a big deal. This started the series of job cuts from GM, Ford, and Chrysler, which hit cities especially hard. The Japanese companies opened their plants mostly in Southern right-to-work states where they could get away with cheaper wages and less benefits.
In the mid-80s, thanks to dropping oil prices, the auto industry had a revival which carried on into the 90s. But the auto industry in Michigan has never recovered to its mid-20th century highs and Michigan hasn’t come up with an industry or industries to replace it. There hasn’t historically been an emphasis here on higher education because it wasn’t needed to get a good factory job. But those jobs went away years ago and we have a workforce without the training for white-collar jobs.
The Great Recession of the ‘00s hurt Michigan hard because we had never fully recovered from the shocks of the 70s and beyond. People have been pitted against each other, suburbs versus city, because of the way that schools and local governments are funded (or not) with an ever-shrinking pot. The fact that the metro Detroit area is one of the most segregated in the country has made the divisions especially likely to cut against people of color, which you can see clearly in the 8 Mile dividing line between the city of Detroit and the wealthy (and white) northern suburbs.
For a variety of reasons we haven’t had a forward-thinking leader to see this coming and plan for a different future. (Or else they were able to see it but weren’t able to deliver on it.)
There are pockets of Michigan doing well, like the high tech scene in Ann Arbor, the upscale tourist area of Traverse City, or the reviving downtown of Detroit. The wealthy suburbs of metro Detroit are holding their own, for the most part.
But where is our vision? If autos are not the future for Michigan (and given that millennials are the largest generation now and they are averse to cars…) then what is?
What will Michigan be known for in the next 50 years besides ruin porn, failed public schools, and poisoned cities? Are our leaders even thinking about the big picture? Or are our leaders-to-be?