JACK SPENCER: Living in the past isn’t the answer

By Jack Spencer

Guest Columnist

Living in the past can be a form of self-hallucination. Public policy based on old premises that no longer reflect reality are a recipe for failure. A doctor has a chance of prescribing the right medicine only if the correct diagnosis has been made.

Passage of Right To Work in late December has provided a new stage for the claim that conservative reforms make Michigan less desirable to live in. In recent years much of the political rhetoric from Michigan's liberals has revolved around this timeworn claim.

However, the argument that Right To Work states are less desirable to live in is pretty easy to knock down. That's because people have already been voting with their feet. Populations don't shift because people move to places they'd prefer not to live. Populations shift because people move to where they believe their lives will be better.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, from 2000 to 2010, regional population growth in the United States was much faster for the South and West (14.3 and 13.8 percent, respectively) than for the Midwest (3.9 percent) and Northeast (3.2 percent).

Where were most of the Right To Work states located between 2000 – 2010? You guessed it - in the South and the West.

To be fair, there were exceptions. Washington State, which does not have a Right To Work law, grew at a healthy 14 percent over the past decade. In addition, California, another state that does not have a Right To Work law, shouldn't have been expected to grow more than the 1 percent population increase it experienced. After all, 1 percent of California's population represents a very large number.

Yet,overall, there is no secret about where people have been moving. They're going where they figure they'll have the best chance of finding a decent job. In short, it has been a better bet to find work in a Right To Work state than not find work in the union-laden states of the Midwest and Northeast. What possible advantage is there to living in traditional non-Right To Work states and remaining unemployed or under-employed?

Let's make it clear. We're not saying the lack of a Right To Work law has caused large numbers of people to relocate in Right To Work states. We're saying the heavily unionized states that have been less likely to adopt Right To Work laws have been losing out economically. Why have they been losing out? It's the price these states are paying for clinging to policies designed for circumstances that no longer exist.

No state has provided a more blatant example of the high cost of resisting needed change than Michigan has. The economic tsunami Michigan experienced between 2002 – 2011 should be an object lesson for the whole nation.

Prior to the passage of Right To Work, the “less desirable to live in” claim was most often used by the left in Michigan regarding education spending. But regardless of which issue it is applied to, the argument is always Alice Through the Looking Glass reasoning. What must be understood about the “less desirable to live in” claim is that it is based on confusing causes with effects.

Laying the rhetorical static aside, the claim (as regards education spending) goes like this – Massachusetts spends more (per pupil) on education and has a higher per capita income than Michigan. Therefore, if Michigan wants to increase its per capita income, it should try to spend as much on education as Massachusetts spends.

This is like saying – if you want to be rich, just spend more money and pretend that you are rich. Or, in Michigan's case, pretend you're still rich. A lot of so-called liberal studies come with graphs and charts to show that richer states generally spend more.

Gee, the rich spend more money than the less rich. Is this really a surprise?

Nothing about the liberal “less desirable to live in” claim is more frustrating than the constant misclassification of Michigan. The line goes like this – “Do we want to be like Mississippi?”

This line is evidence of living in the past. Michigan is already more like Mississippi than it is like the Michigan most of us grew up in. During its economic tsunami, Michigan lost two-thirds of its auto industry. The resulting effect on jobs and the economy was devastating. It was also a clear signal that the old Michigan needed to adjust to the new global economy.

Over the last decade Michigan's per capita income tumbled from 20th nationally to 38th. Per capita income ranking doesn't fluctuate like other economic statistics. A glance at the historical data (which goes back 83 years) shows that states only move up or down the per capita income ladder a few rungs here and there.

The 18-notch free fall in comparative per capita income Michigan experienced in the mid-2000s, was a unique event in U.S. history. Considering this fact, is it any wonder that Michigan was the only state to actually lose population in the 2000s?

How can Michigan recover its formerly high per capita income ranking? It can't – at least it can't do so through it's own government actions. That's because the wealth that accounted for the relatively high per capita income Michigan previously enjoyed was not the result of government actions in the first place.

There isn't a single example of any significant increases in any state's per capita income ranking that were the result of a state government's policy decisions. Those who claim that - if government does this or that the good times will roll again - have absolutely no grounds for their claims. All they're really saying is – let's go back and live as if the economic tsunami never hit us.

But Michigan is – literally – a different state now than it used to be. We were impacted sooner and more drastically by the new global economy than any other state. Those who oppose reforms either just don't understand this, or refuse to face up to it.

Over and over again we hear reporters or politicians ask - “When will the economy come back?” In response we should ask - “How long have you been asleep?”

Michigan's old economy isn't coming back. We're not just experiencing a prolonged downturn. For nearly a century, Michigan's economy rose and fell in short cycles linked to the auto industry. But that's over now. We're no longer that same old state.

We can't blame our last two governors for misleading us on this. Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm repeatedly said our old economy was dead. She even appointed a blue ribbon panel to tackle the situation. One of the key adjustments it recommended was to close the gap between the salary and benefit levels of government employees and employees in the private sector.

Unfortunately, Granholm refused to do follow the panel's advice. Instead, she disparately, and unrealistically, claimed the old dead economy could be replaced with wacky government-subsidized projects. Ironically, as she did this, Granholm kept saying she was trying to adjust to the new global economy. In reality, she was steadfastly refusing to adjust.

Gov. Rick Snyder didn't run on “bringing the economy back.” Remember, he said his goal was to “reinvent Michigan.” Unlike Granholm, he has worked toward making the needed adjustments.

Now, when we hear the liberal “Michigan will be less desirable to live in” claim, we need remember one fact. Everything those who make this argument are advocating would be a return to the past. Issue after issue they want Michigan to cling to the policies that made it so vulnerable to the economic tsunami in the first place.