Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

Pure Folly

On one level, you couldn’t really blame them. It seemed like such a natural: a chance to do the victory lap and reinforce the Michigan brand.

So they put it up for all to see, there in the Wall Street Journal: Pure Michigan, now RTW.


And really, who can blame them? The Pure Michigan campaign has created a solid brand for the State. Why not use it, then, to piggyback an emotional punch to the political? As brand experts have been pulling out their hair in protest, such a move lacks strategic and economic sense. It is sloppy and it puts Michigan’s second industry, tourism, at risk.

On one hand the cost of the ad, the brag of  $144,000 is more a vanity than a pitch and so unlikely to generate much business. Certainly the numbers look that way. By its own accounting, the Pure Michigan has generated a billion in new business. In contrast, what does the direct RTW pitch get its backers?  Perhaps not a lot, if we look at Indiana, certainly not anything on the order of the billion dollar revenue. To the extent that such a stunt jeopardizes the larger, successful campaign, it can hardly be called wise.

But are things really in that sort of danger?

In making Right to Work a business calling card it brands the state as surely as the tourism campaign. As with all partisanship, this political edginess gets in the way of the State’s competition for tourist dollars. It’s a conundrum, the more successful the State is in establishing this partisan identity  the more it risks alienating a portion of the market. Some will find the right wing turn sufficiently distasteful and so spend those dollars elsewhere. This degrading represents a real business risk.

Now this risk will ease over time, but not entirely. Had MEDC kept the campaign separate, it could negotiate the partisan blowback with continuing with tourism advertising. After all it works with the white sands of Alabama and Texas. And here is  the real problem with the RTW/Pure Michigan play: it creates a disincentive with the audience while at the same time robbing the tourism bureau of one of its tools.

Finally, if RTW is the game-changer they claim, that it changes the “product” so to speak, then it would be far better to craft a distinctive advertising message of its own. Here the ad reveals the ambiguity Lansing. Is this really a game changer, per the advocates? Or something like business as usual? How big is the rift? That Lansing and MEDC would turn to the Pure Michigan theme suggests a viewpoint that believes this will not be a move of continuity rather than disruption. It is a view of hope and unwarranted optimism.

Filed under: Economy, Michigan, , , , , ,

The dog that didn’t bark

A short note about last week’s Policy Forum: unlike four years ago, Right to Work was not on the table.

Perhaps we will put it down to the shift of the economy. In a seemingly prosperous time, RtW seemed like a natural; in these grimmer times, less so. But also, we may think of it as another indication of a walking back from GOP extremism. Granted, this is not something to hold one’s breath over, but that other items should take priority suggests that attendees were in fact thinking strategically.

After all, were there one measure to block the growth of W Michigan it would be that of RtW.

Still local businessmen have had a hankering for it, like some long-lost high school love. But examined closely, and the difficulties arise; this is no beauty. In fact, it is a recipe for more of the same, as Peter Secchia notes,

“A lot of companies don’t come here because they perceive Michigan as a rustbelt of union activity and that isn’t the case anymore,”

What he sees is a W Michigan that continues with the same old manufacturing base. More of the same, only better. But it is difficult to see how the future belongs to the older economy.While manufacturing will continue to play a major role in the economy, the real growth will lie elsewhere, that’s why the Chamber’s Jared Rodriguez rightly cited the need for talent retention.

Two items are at stake for West Michigan’s future. Will the region be prepared to participate in a new and transformed economy — this is where talent retention and education play such a critical role. And second, what will be the brand, the image the region brings to the world. A community that steadfastly clings to the old ways is far less likely to be seen on the cutting edge. And that’s the real danger of RtW — it’s not its impact on business recruitment, or even in its ability to hold down wages (dubious as that is) — it is simply that declares fealty to an older way of business (the Way We’ve Always Done It, actually in W Michigan).

A successful push for RtW would certainly make the region “safer” for current small businesses, but it would also leave them out of the competition for the real economic growth of the 21st Century.

So for once, they chose well. Our region’s growth depends on the motivation and participation of all its stakeholders; cooperation  is far better than that of needless wrangling. Far better.



Filed under: Economy, , , ,

Standing up for free enterprise and slums

It can be challenging standing up for free enterprise today, especially when it involves real estate. But somehow, Kent County commissioners Shana Shroll, Dan Koorndyk, Harold Voorhees, and Mike Wawee found that courage. As Jim Harger reports, theirs were the only votes against the purchase of property by the Kent County Land Bank.

On one hand the complaints are understandable: if the Land Bank steps to the head of the line for certain properties, doesn’t that create disincentives for other speculators? Notwithstanding that more than 300 properties are being offered up at the County auction.

One can understand the Voorhees vote, and even that of Wawee — both come from the far west side, and reflect that sort of economic conservative (aka Tea Party) sensibilities. Fine. But Koorndyk and Shroll? They both live close enough to see the impact of abandoned properties in neighborhoods, or the impact of absent land lord. Their support for the flippers and slumlords is hardly appetizing, and  certainly not the mark of civic leadership.

As David Allen explained earlier on Urban Planet, it is not even clear how many of these speculators now crying foul, will actually perform any renovations let alone pay taxes. To date, that has not been the dominant strategy from the playbook.

While the properties are not in their district, their vote places them on the side with the economic radicals — a position broadly out of favor in both districts (and certainly in East Grand Rapids, one third of Shroll’s new seat.  With redrawn districts, the commissioners have gone and handed their opposition a prime issue, one that Democrats will gladly say, “thank you.”

Is the support for slum lords overblown? Below the fold, Allen explains how the Kent County Land Bank purchases work, and more importantly how the speculative flipping damages neighborhoods and city revenue. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Community, Economy, , , , , , , ,

Jobs, training, and education

Today’s New York Times tells the story of another part of the proposed congressional budget: cutting of job (re)training.

Whether Congress is willing to consider more aid is uncertain. The federal budget endorsed by House Republicans calls for reductions in a broad category that includes job training.

Now this should concern most folks in west Michigan. The shifts in jobs have put a number of workers in economic jeopardy; re-training is one of the crucial skills the region needs for economic health. And it is not only re-training, but simply the training itself.

As Rick Haglund pointed out Sunday, Michigan jobs are not only going unfilled, but the State continues to underfund

One of the state’s biggest problems is that it doesn’t have enough workers with the skills to fill about 76,000 available jobs posted on Michigan’s online jobs bank.
What is the Legislature’s response to that? Squeeze K-12 and university budgets.

More expected than disappointing has been the stance of “Congressman No,”  Rep. Justin Amash. His profound skepticism about the civic infrastructure robs the future prosperity.

On the surprising side, there is the silence from the Democratic challengers, either to Amash’s own votes, or for the general cause of education. After a month, the Steve Pestka campaign has yet to put out any information as to what the candidate stands for. On anything. The web site is little more than a bill board with a space to contribute. The campaign site of Trevor Thomas provides more information — one would expect that, they are in some sense the challenger, the unknown — but again, not a word about education. Not even where he was in high school, ten years ago.

Such silence is confusing for two reasons. First, for constituencies, education and retraining are essential. The African-American community has especially supported the cause; the districts to the east of Grand Rapids (East Grand Rapids, Forest Hills) are state-recognized leaders in education. Meanwhile in Calhoun County, the federal government provided $5 million in stimulus retraining. Second, knowing that the Republican campaign can pull out serious financial guns, it simply makes no sense to wait as to messaging. Like or not, the November election campaign has already started.

Filed under: Economy, National, , , ,

A cheer or two for political courage

The President was in Toledo Friday, making one more stop on a victory tour for the auto bailout. By most accounts, the program has succeeded in its basic goals: safeguarding workers, communities and suppliers in the great auto meltdown of a few years ago. Manufacturing is now up. GM has added a third shift at Hamtramack, and even Chrysler is showing life.

A presidential win, that not only goes to Obama but to his predecessor, as well.

Still, folks dislike the deal. For them talk of saving industry, suppliers, communities cannot overcome the actual cost — estimated at $25 billion. These issues, the reluctance and the push back can both be found in Megan McArdle’s writings at The Atlantic, here in this blog cited by Lowry in The National Review, but also in a more measured published response, where McArdle admits

The worst fears of many critics—including me—were overblown. The government did not simply leave the bloated legacy costs intact in order to protect its political friends.

What the current debate highlights more than anything else, is the uncertainty of that initial decision, and the continuing skepticism about government action generally. This continuing debate driven in part by the ascendency of the Tea Party only further highlights the political courage of those who stood up, as odd a mix of political bedfellows as you will find: Virg Benaro, Mike Cox, Thaddeus McCotter, and our own David LaGrand.

That political courage takes place amidst uncertainty accounts for why so many go silent. Practical calculus paralyzes. We may believe but we muffle our voice. As with all things political, it is one part rashness, one part calculation of benefit and one part driven principle.

All this comes to the fore with the other current instance of political courage in our midst, that of Rep. Justin Amash. His co-sponsoring of the War Powers Resolution certainly belongs in the category of political courage. And then he adds to it with the success of his Amendment to protect Freedom of Information Act requests at the Homeland Security Agency.

Like those who stood up for the auto bailout these are actions whose actual outcome is uncertain (will hindsight prove him right? Wrong?), but that is the substance of political courage. And like those who came before, Rep. Amash moves with that mixture of principle (moral and philosophical) coupled with a mix of political calculation and political rashness.

And let’s be clear: political courage deserves its honor.

Filed under: Economy, Politics, Washington, , , , , , , , ,

Dying. Really?

All the hoopla of the Newsweek article listing Grand Rapids as a “dying city” certainly stirred up a discussion.  And most of it off track.

A great deal of the defense turned on the vitality of the downtown shows. From Rob Bliss to Art Prize, how could this not be an alive, happening place?  However, if staging a great party were a sign of health, New Orleans would be in the pink of things. But of course, it’s not.

Rather the commotion touches one of the key questions before any metro region: do all parts share in the prosperity, in the distribution of various social goods? Looking past the events and the Rob Bliss adventures, another story may be unfolding,  in effect are we looking at a Potemkin village that hides a creeping collapse?

That skeptical question is important.  After all, the City is different from the County, the neighborhoods  different from downtown. A metro area may thrive while  individual municipalities or neighborhoods suffer. , e.g. one need only travel west down the 28th Street corridor in to see something that indeed looks like collapse, from the vacant stores, the empty lots to the plans for urban redevelopment to look at all the vacant stores and sense the collapse. Yet even here, Wyoming itself has not yet suffered a collapse, even if its northern neighborhoods do appear on the decline.

However to understand if Grand Rapids is in decline we need to confront both the metrics and the rhetoric.

Fear of a black (planet)

The language of decline does not simply refer to a set of metrics, but participates in a narrative urban dysfunction. To speak of decline we do not mean declining fortunes or opportunities — from a middle class perspective, we can always escape — rather, the object is that of the increase in a certain kind of community: the urban poor, the urban minority poor.  In Eugene Robinson’s words, these are the Abandoned, this (growing) urban underclass. The narrative carries with it an inevitable racial cast; while Sioux City may decline, Buffalo dies. In the narrative of the urban poor, the dying city is to be blamed (e.g. too many social services, too much social dysfunction), or ignored, and certainly separated from, even if that means crossing a municipal boundary or moving to the townships.

The dying city narrative at its best is one of condescension that barely masks a despair underneath.

Should Grand Rapids be considered in this narrative or not?  The condition of the city will not be found by press release, but by data.  Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Economy, , , , , , , , ,

Ed Golder Declares War on the Poor

I suppose we should be thankful that the Press is finally beginning to take the deficit seriously. Yet to judge by the front page editorial, we shouldn’t get our hopes too much.

Ed Golder wants to be a reasonable man, someone asking for a well-meant bipartisan approach to the deficit.  A pressing issue that must be addressed, a time for mutual sacrifice, and so forth. And to judge by the essay, it is a sacrifice to be borne solely by program cuts.  Really? Even though most economists recognize that we cannot cut our way to economic success.

Alas, Golder is drinking from the font of Republican foolishness here.

And to be clear, the sacrifices entailed shall come at the expense of the poor and their opportunities.  To turn a blind eye to the trillion dollar tax advantage handed the very, very rich, while asking for the poor and middle class to do with less represents little more than the transfer of financial benefit form one class to the other.  The middle class will  have less in their pay check in order that the exceptionally fortunate may have more.

A better path for Golder and The Grand Rapid Press would be to name names.  This will ask them to be sharper about what is going on, and not listen to the local conservative whisperers.  When the GOP imagines that its proposed repeal of ACA law comes at no expense to the deficit (CBO estimates place it at close to a 230 million charge), or that tax advantaging the wealthy will pay for itself — these are precisely the fiscal foolishness that should be called out.  At least by any one who professes concern about budgetary responsibility.

but oh, would he at least acknowledge that one cannot cut on

Filed under: Economy, , , ,

Just how green is that grass?

Saturday, Michael LaFaive signed up once more for the “Grass is Greener Club” in the Grand Rapids Press. We’ve seen it before –the  idea is pretty much the same: some state is outperforming Michigan on some standard, and only if we emulate that other state then we, too, will out perform.  Invariably our problem is that we are not somehow Oklahoma, Florida, Mississippi, or in this case, Texas.

The narrative is also inevitably  wrong.

To fall for the reasoning of “if only we had…” invariably places policy choices in a reactive setting. Strategically, this is bad reasoning, since it means that state action must invariably follow in someone else’s footsteps.  We surrender control of our destiny.  The second flaw is political: it teaches a politics of despair.   It is at the end, a moralistic argument: if only we did x, then we would be blessed.  Of course there is a long tradition of such jeremiads, particularly from the Right, particularly looking nostalgically (or this case, over the fence) to some other, imagined eden.

LaFaive is much more concrete.  His hook is the comparison of population loss in Michigan compared with the significant increase in Texas.    There’s no doubt the numbers are big and troubling – and costing our state at least one seat in Congress. And the reason?  Sunshine, no unions and lower taxes.  Economic virtue is rewarded, plus you get a beetter tan.  The evidence however points to a more complex answer.

Texas. Really?

LaFaive cites  the ALEC Competitiveness Index:  Michigan is at 34 while bastion of economic freedom, Texas is at 10. Of course, that was for the 2009 data. The 2010 report gives a different picture: Michigan now at 26, middle of the pack, and Texas at 19. So what happened?  Did our Texas suddenly fall on its sword?  Did Michigan suddenly acquire economic religion?

LaFaive goes on to admit that total net Michigan to Texas over the past decade may be as high 80,000 (we’re being generous), however with a job loss even add in the 68,000 net moves to Florida, and we’re still left with 400,000 moves unaccounted for.

With numbers like this, the claim that this is the result of a poor tax code or some other failure in the state’s economics.  Obviously, there is more at work. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Economy, Michigan, , , ,

Longing for the return of the Buffalo

A generation ago Michigan (and midwestern) industrial policy faced two challenges: off shoring and increased union militancy.  That legacy lives on.

Sunday, The Grand Rapids Press began its series on how to bring Michigan back, and initially, some of the solutions seem, well, old.  Apparently to read the thoughts of industrialists, our problem is that of labor policy.  As the comment board at the Press quickly made clear, that was understood as making Michigan a Right to Work (RTW) state.  Some of this arises from the loss of a Toyota plant in Grand Rapids, a fault laid at the feet of the UAW; some part too, comes from an older history of militancy, particularly during the Yokich years. It was not just the militants at Delphi, but a longer narrative of union activity in our state.   And practically speaking, it is the legacy of union pensions, and union-won healthcare — this economic overhang — that left domestic automakers with a burden.

The complaint in short, is that the unions have cost the state opportunity.  Thus, no unions, more growth.  Two observations however should temper this easy (too easy!) manner of thinking.

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Economy, , , ,

Fleeing Michigan

The impact of the collapse of Michigan’s auto-driven economy keeps rolling in.  As Ron French reports in The Detroit News, our state suffered a net loss of 109,000 last year, and many (most) of them were the college-educated we need.  Half of all  graduates from Michigan’s public universities leave the state within a year after graduation.

Obviously, sending away your college educated is sending away your future. But it also changes the chemistry of our public life.  Fewer college graduates means fewer champions for arts or for schools.  The skepticism to education first borne from the auto era when low skilled paid big wages — this skepticism dogs our efforts to find the will to raise money for education.  And of course, as attitudes resistant to the arts, resistant to education take hold, these same values only push more graduates to leave.

This changed chemistry can already be seen in the Governor’s proposal to cut funding for the arts in our State.  This is rather like the absentee homeowner who decides not to rake the leaves or cut the grass.  The action is itself a small testimony of despair, a dullness to the future.

But if the state does not have the resources for culture, who does?

Here, we come back to the Windmill.  The struggle for Michigan’s future will fall on the shoulders of the civic stakeholders — the key foundations, the chambers, the civic leadership — and on the colleges.  These latter are the custodians of our cultural life and increasingly the building blocks for regional prosperity.  The reality is that Dutch and the Christian Reformed in particular have had an ambiguous attitude to this civic leadership role.  The path previously had been to adopt the practice of verzuiling or pillarization — the formation of separate, parallel institutions to those of the general society, most notably in their schools, but to a lesser extent in labor, business, and often in politics (aka the “windmill”).

Some steps forward have already been taken, specifically in the development of the Avenue of the Arts — largely the vision of Dwelling Place Inc., the move downtown of Calvin’s Art Department, and the college’s acquisition of the Ladies Literary Club.  In this same regard, the expanding footprint of Grand Valley downtown also contributes to a growing arts community.  Yet more can, indeed ought to be done.  To date, the Festival of Writing and the Festival of Music have largely taken place to national acclaim within the college; leveraging these events regionally offers other opportunities.  These are some of the steps that can make the region “sticky” for the young professionals it needs to thrive.

As Phil Powers recently wrote,

But at the end of the day, Michigan’s attractiveness to young people will define the number of college grads who stay. This has as much to do with the quality – and affordability – of life here in Michigan. So our woods and waters, our arts and culture, our cities and our universities are all vital in the competition for brains.

Filed under: Community, Economy, , , ,


August 2020