By John Austin
Last week, at Wayne State University, I gave the Samuel Levin Economics Award Lecture http://www.mieconomiccenter.org/Portals/0/1_THE%20FOUNDATIONS%20OF%20OUR%20MICHIGAN%20ECONOMY%20-%20SPEECH.pdf and used the forum to deliver a major speech on Michigan’s economy.
I basically made two arguments about what matters most: One, we have to build up, not diminish through disinvestment, the public institutions and services: schools, universities, transportation infrastructure, parks, museums, libraries, that support a thriving economy and rich quality of life; and two, we have to send the right values message to our own citizens and outsiders – that say Michigan is the state that is the most attractive and supportive place for wonderful, creative, diverse and well-educated people to live, work and play.
These values signals we send – as a political community or polity, and through our public policies – matter enormously to the economy, and are often given short shrift in debates over whether we should raise or lower taxes; invest more or less in roads or education.
The questions: Are we welcoming and inclusive and tolerant – of women, the LGBT community, immigrants, people of color and each other? Are we embracing change, or protecting our past and present – whether by protecting our “tribe” by resisting newcomers or those different from ourselves; or protecting our existing industries, and not embracing the coming ones like clean energy and clean water? Are we sending messages that we care about our neighbors, our community and our planet? Answering these questions the right way is so important.
Happily and increasingly around the country and in Michigan, most people, and clearly young people in the next generation want to live lifestyles, and live in communities that animate certain values, including social equity, tolerance and sustainability.
We are at a thrilling time in the nation as same-sex marriage for gay and lesbian couples is being embraced. Immigrants rightfully are viewed as an asset to a more economically vibrant and diverse society. Leaders in business and government are appreciating as never before that our people, our human capital, our “talent” – whether gay, straight, black, white, brown, old, young, man, woman – is the most precious commodity and important ingredient in growing jobs and opportunity.
We need Michigan to join that national party. That is why we need clear messages from our leadership at all levels: We treat all equally, we welcome newcomers, we embrace our LGBT children, friends and co-workers, and want to do everything possible to make this state the choice place for our children to make their careers, and newcomers to make their home and do their business.
That is why we must have zero tolerance for leaders and legislation that send the wrong message to our own citizens and outsiders. Early last year when Michigan passed and saw signed by the Governor, legislation denying domestic partner benefits to gay couples at universities – and denying university employees the right to organize – I said then in a Free Press editorial – we should make Michigan the “want to work here state” – not the state that tells top researchers, top talent: “Hey, we don’t want you to be happy and welcomed here.” Also last year the homophobic over-reaching including “religious and moral” opt-outs from anti-bullying legislation was called out and beaten back – but we still did not get the needed clarity and enumeration of “whose rights are being protected” in this long overdue bill.
We failed to join the states sending a message that we embrace the industries of the future, and want to lead in needed job creation in clean energy, when we defeated increased renewal energy standards at the ballot.
And right after the election the Right-to-Work law was jammed through the legislature in lame duck, and Pure Michigan ads touting it ran in the Wall Street Journal. As I said at the time – this is sad and embarrassing for Michigan – both sullying Michigan’s ‘brand’ and sending a message to the world that Michigan is competing to be a “low-wage” state; and has succeeded in beating up its labor unions and working people. More recently we have the spectacle of a right-wing legislature seeking to ‘punish’ schools and universities for negotiating long-term “win-win” agreements with their employees — and modeling collaborative labor-management relations — because it violates the spirit of “right-to-work” (which I guess is about punishing your workers). And RNC Committeeman and former State Rep. Dave Agema starts frothing about the menace to society posed by its gay citizens. Boy are we looking backward!
Make no mistake, we are in an international competition to be the place the best educated people in the world want to live, work, become an entrepreneur, and start their own business. Our top-talent still leave our state in droves, because we aren’t modeling the attitudes, nor making the investments in our communities, nor higher education, nor jobs of the future – that make Michigan the place to be. Do our young people, our new college graduates – move to Indiana because it’s a right-to-work state? No they go to Chicago, Boston, Seattle, New York, Colorado, California – all non-right-to-work – and arguably attractive as tolerant and forward leaning. Why would any woman choose to make their career in a state where threats of invasive health practices are “on-the-agenda” in Lansing? Can immigrants choose and trust a state where the Governor says you’re welcome here, but the Secretary of State of the same party wants you to have to (illegally) check a special box to vote? Where the LGBT community can’t trust, day-to-day, whether elected leaders will stay strong, and say clearly: “you are embraced as part of the Michigan family!?”
Michigan needs leadership that won’t compromise, and will consistently stand up for the values shared by the growing majority – here and around the country. Why? It is the right thing to do, but also, as Clinton advisor James Carville famously put it: “It’s about the economy, stupid!”