I will be totally thrilled if David Hollister manages to use his $15 million federal grant to jump-start the mid-Michigan economy.
Perhaps his non-profit organization, Prima Civitas, will give a few thousand to someone who will use it as seed money to start something that will be as important to this century’s Michigan economy as General Motors was to Michigan’s last century.
But I don’t believe it for a moment. His grant is so small, and he intends to spread it out among so many far-flung groups that I can’t believe it will have much economic impact. Other groups have been trying to do similar things for years. Occasionally, they have led to some small business success, but nothing major, far-reaching, or world-changing.
They haven’t, and they won’t, because they can’t. The bureaucrats running the government programs don’t have enough money to really get something major going. And given that they see themselves as responsible stewards of the people’s money, they are unlikely to fund any venture crazy enough to change the world.
“Let me get this straight, Mr. Ford. You think you can make a horseless carriage cheap enough so every man can have one, and you want us to give you money to do it? We don’t think so.” Or, “so you dropped out of college, Mr. Gates, and now you want to make stuff for computers, and you want the taxpayers to fund you and not some engineers with Ph.Ds?
Unfortunately, the days of the lone inventor changing the world from his basement laboratory are probably gone. And as far as I can see, our corporate leadership is too set in its ways to make real changes.
Now I need to give you fair warning. If you are a devotee of the free market religion, you may now want to switch off the dial.
Because I am about to say what may be the dirtiest words ever uttered on public radio: We need big government.
That’s right. Michigan needs an industrial policy. We need to have a summit meeting of our top leadership and make rational, informed decisions that our future belongs in biotech -- or making hammocks out of burlap, if that makes more sense.
And then go for whatever makes the most sense, big-time. The state needs to pour billions into priming the pump. We need to knock down whatever legal barriers exist and mobilize our financial, technical and academic communities to get it done.
That sounds like heresy, right? Everyone says government can’t do anything efficiently or well. Well, everyone is wrong.
Think of the Manhattan Project, in which an entire secret city was built for the purpose of inventing and making an atomic bomb. Think of the space program – we went from nothing to the moon in barely a decade, thanks to a massive government program.
That’s what Michigan needs, now. Years ago, old George Romney gave a new governor of Michigan just two words of advice:
Be bold. When it comes to reinventing our economy, that’s the spirit we need today.