During the last century, Michigan grew from being a medium-sized agricultural state, about the size of Iowa, to a highly populated industrial powerhouse in less than thirty years. The reason was simple - jobs.
Hundreds of thousands of jobs, produced by a rapidly expanding automotive sector. People streamed in from all across the world. We today talk sometimes as if we had an automotive boom economy from 1905 to 1975. But in fact, that wasn't always the case at all. When the Great Depression hit, nobody was buying cars, or much else. For more than a decade, we faced a shrinking economy that in some ways was very much like the one we have now.
I was reminded of this driving up I-75 to Mackinac Island yesterday, when I passed the sign that many of us have seen at Exit 244, CCC Museum. A couple of years ago, I actually got off the freeway and went to see it. I was happy that I did.
If you aren't up on your history, the Civilian Conservation Corps was one of the most popular programs of the now-widely scorned New Deal. Hundreds of thousands of young men from unemployed families worked on conservation projects across rural America, doing everything from planting trees to building roads and walls and fences. They were paid a pittance - about $450 a month in today's money - and had to send most of it home to their families.
But I have never met a veteran of the CCC corps who didn't look back on that experience with fond nostalgia. Many said it built up their bodies and gave them the discipline they needed to succeed in later life. Even my father, who never cast a vote for a Democrat in his life, thought it was a good thing.
When I first met Keith Cooley, he was running sort of a modern, sophisticated, private sector version of the corps. It is still going strong, and is called Focus HOPE. It was formed in the aftermath of the devastating 1967 Detroit riots. The original goal was to prevent more riots. But it has gone on to become a major force in Detroit, giving job training and pride to hundreds of inner-city youth.
Everyone knows that we need to vastly increase the number of young adults with college degrees in this state. The legislature's failure to adequately fund higher education is a disgrace. But we also need to invest heavily in vocational training and retraining, for those left behind when the world changed.
And we need to train people for the sophisticated technological jobs of the future. No, socialism is not the answer for the twenty-first century economy. But neither is laissez-faire capitalism. There is a future for an unregulated, minimum wage economy, and it is called Haiti. If Michigan is to build the economy we need to compete in the future, it will take a lot of shrewd game planning and intelligently crafted public-private partnerships and strategies.
If we fail to realize that, we haven't got a chance.