Windmillin'

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

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, , , ,

The Wilderness Preference

As if we needed reminders, Sunday’s news reports that Rep. Peter Hoekstra is looking seriously at a run for the Governor’s chair in 2010. Maybe it’s the month of August or perhaps it’s a slow news cycle — this does seem to be a little old. Nonetheless it does confirm the sorry state of the GOP. Hoekstra’s creed is of course that what ails Michigan is the absence of strong conservative values.

Of course, Congressman Pete is not alone. We have the Return to Core Principles of Jack Hoogendyk, the Republican candidate for US Senate (couldn’t Zandstra have run again?). And locally, there is Justin Amash in south Kent Countyand his theme of Take Back Your Government. Not to be outdone, Dan Tietema (SH-75) has doubled down with an anti-tax stance in his race against Robert Dean.

The ideological tenor of all these campaigns testifies to a Republican Party still obsessed with the political solutions of yesteryear. In this they are in a denial about the problems before us. Search their blogs for the importance of schools. Or for addressing the needs of infrastructure. Or repositioning Michigan for a global economy. These are the critical issues. What will be done in Michigan to bring it back? Instead it is a question of principles, of values, and of under-defined (and so, ill-thought out) solutions.

By framing the issues as a matter of true principles, that a return to the true (conservative) faith will set things right — what is this but denial? Of course, in West Michigan, who can blame them? This tendency to True Belief is something we grow up with — just look at the letters to the editor. This is the dark side to the cultural project of the Reformed: get the belief (or presuppositions) right, and the rest follows.

And when it doesn’t? The religious framing yields this preference for righteousness, where fidelity to principle is the highest good. In faith, that is noble; in politics, in the shaping and leadership of our society, this is a recipe for exile, a preference for the wilderness.

Politics being what it is, the wilderness is no place to be long term. But for now, the path of ideology and nostrums only leads farther away from the future (and leadership) Michigan needs.

Filed under: Elections, Michigan, , ,

Cool City? Tell that to Gaines

Sunday, Phil at West Michigan Rising wondered why all the smart kids were leaving Michigan. Picking up on a report from Michigan Future, Inc. reported in the Grand Rapids Press, he noted several factors that make a city “cool”, a place where young folks like to settle:

  • Mass transit and other alternatives to driving. Young workers who are creating the new prosperity want to get around town without having to drive.
  • “Walkable” neighborhoods — places where they can live, work and socialize within walking distance of each other.
  • Cafes, coffee houses, easy access to the Internet, and lots of cultural activities — music, museums, theaters.
  • Lots of rental housing
  • All this sounds like an extension of the ideas first introduced by Richard Florida in Rise of the Creative Class. Those ideas certainly have been debated in W. Michigan as it has struggled to keep its manufacturing base. Manufacturing is not especially cool. Sure it has a great job multiplier, but can it produce Coffee Houses like Four Friends? (Oops).

    The Envious Glance. The difficulty which Mayor Heartwell and the other folk from Michigan Future face, is that framed as a set of attributes, we will always be pursuing some ideal, alternate version of our self. Some body else has it better than us, and if we just “dressed” like them, we would be cool or rich, too. The envious glance is no different from that of conservatives who cast their longing eyes southward to low-tax Indiana: oh! if we had just been like them.

    The underlying difficulty with the entire Cool Cities approach is that it comes with lifestyle baggage that the surrounding community does not want to carry. Indeed, there is no clearer statement of that vision, than the self description of Gaines Township:

    Gaines Charter Township is a community which places a high value on family life, good moral standards, a sense of community, and a desire to enrich the lives of all its residents.

    Do You Want Benefits with that Coffee? The Cool City initiative is not about mass transit or more and better coffee houses.  Rather it is an invitation to negotiate the treacherous water of broadening the  work and social environment in the region to attract and retain employees.  Quality of life must be backed by quality of  schools, and quality of options.  Diversity is its hallmark.

    And as we know, that means repeated political conflict.  We already saw one of the first battles this spring in the school board elections, with reformers set against a more urban view.  It is the battle that Rosslyn Bliss fought for her City Commission seat; and a similar battle presently being waged between Jim Talen and Paul Mayhue for CC-16.  The rise of this more diverse community, fed by the downtown universities and the medical community will continue to push social conservatives to a resistance mode.

    Filed under: Community, , ,

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