Abraham Lincoln probably never gave any thought to Michigan’s economy at all. But as MSU economist Charlie Ballard notes, he once said something that perfectly sums up our situation. “The dogmas of the past are inadequate to the stormy present,” Lincoln told Congress, early in the Civil War, when he needed more money, more troops, and more creative thinking.
“The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise to the occasion,” he advised. If his fellow politicians could “think anew and act anew,” then he thought there was a good chance that “we shall save our country.”
Well, the country was eventually saved, after a lot of pain and suffering. But the jury is still out on the future of Michigan. We are living in a new age, and most of our people still don’t get it.
Ballard does, and if I could come to your house and make you read just one thing for the rest of this year, it would be his latest book, a slim little volume just published by the MSU Press, Michigan’s Economic Future. It is well-organized and well-written.
He lays out in easy-to-follow prose what went wrong with our once-booming economy and tells us what we might do about it. “Half a century ago, the world was knocking on Michigan’s door,” he begins. “But yesterday is gone, and it’s not coming back.” We need to get over nostalgia for the 1950s and 1960s.
We need to face facts: Ford and General Motors are not going to come out with an exciting new line of cars that will pour billions into our economy and get Pop his job back on the assembly line.
Those companies may survive, but they will be smaller, leaner and meaner -- smaller than now. While an auto industry will survive, we need to attract and invent other things to replace them.
Most of all, the economist says, “we need a new set of attitudes -- creative, highly skilled, flexible and entrepreneurial.” The situation is far from hopeless. We have a vibrant higher-tech manufacturing sector. We have an industrial work force, much of which is capable of being retrained and retolled.
Professor Ballard feels strongly that, “If we can make the transition to a new mindset, we really can achieve a vibrant economic future for Michigan.” But if that is to happen, it’s clear that we do need to think outside the box. Charles Ballard’s eminently sensible suggestions violate the dogmas of both our fossilized political parties.
Democrats are not going to like some of his suggestions about public employee pensions and health benefits. Republicans will be shocked by his suggestions about taxes. But it all makes sense.
Abraham Lincoln did say something else notable about Michigan; making fun of Lewis Cass, our first statesman, he called him the great Michigander, coining that word. We can take a chance on being great Michiganders again, if we dare to, and Charlie Ballard’s excellent little book provides a road map to start.