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Rick Snyder's role in China job outsourcing examined

| Thursday, June 24, 2010
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My answer to the question of whether Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Snyder sent jobs to China and other Asian countries while serving on the board of Gateway computer is: What does that have to do with being governor of Michigan?

If anything, Michigan should be engaging with China to figure out ways of capitalizing on China's huge and fast-growing economy, as former state schools superintendent Tom Watkins regularly urges.

But with anti-China sentiments running high, there's political capital to be amassed by accusing rivals of sending American jobs to the Middle Kingdon. Witness the effectiveness of Gov. Jennifer Granholm's China-outsouring attacks on challenger Dick DeVos during the 2006 election campaign.

So what's the story with Snyder? Annarbor.com reporter Nathan Bomey does an outstanding job of researching the Snyder-Asian jobs connection. You can find it here. I suspect Bomey's story already is required reading among political operatives in Michigan.

Here's the issue that nagged me as I read story: Snyder said he raised concerns at the board level about sending Gateway jobs to Asia. But Rob Enderle, a computer industry analyst told Bomey that Gateway likely wouldn't have survived if it hadn't shipped jobs to lower-cost countries.

So would Snyder have won the ideological battle but lost the company had he prevailed in his view that outsourcing jobs was the wrong move?

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A tale of two Michigans

| Friday, June 18, 2010
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Two pieces I wrote coincidentally were both published today and point to a divergence in key segments of the state's economy.

My column today in the Grand Rapids Press is about how outgoing United Auto Workers President Ron Gettelfinger played a significant role in the restructuring of the Detroit Three automakers by negotiating major concessions and getting his membership to accept them.

Conversely, a story I wrote for Dome magazine is about promised growth.

It's a story about the University of Michigan's expansion plans, centering on significantly growing its research capability through its acquisition of the 174-acre Pfizer research complex.

U-M, which purchased the property a year ago after Pfizer closed it in 2008, is planning to hire as many as 3,000 researchers and other faculty members over the next 10 years. It is hoping to develop breakthroughs there in medicine, alternative energy and other areas that could lead to new companies and jobs.

It's an ambitious agenda, and there's always a chance it won't work out the way U-M is planning. But it points to a new reality that Michigan has been slow to embrace--sustainable economic growth will come more from developing knowledge than from bending metal.

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Truth Squad to hold Michigan political candidates accountable for untruthful, misleading ads

| Tuesday, June 8, 2010
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I'll be spending a considerable amount of time until the November election as one of two "referees" at the Michigan Truth Squad, which will be examining political ads for wrong or misleading statements.

The candidates for governor and their supporters in those shadowy issue ads already are getting down and dirty, so it looks like I won't lack for material.

Susan Demas, the prolific Lansing political analyst/writer, is my partner in this endeavor, created by The Center for Michigan. That's the "think-and-do" tank started by former newspaper publisher Phil Power, who is investing his time, money and talent to improve civic and political life in Michigan.

You can play an important role, too, in keeping office seekers honest. Just contact the Truth Squad here and let us know when you see an ad in a Michigan political race that's false or misleading.

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Michigan needs a growth strategy

| Saturday, June 5, 2010
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Politicians like to say the cost cutting by Detroit automakers over the past few years should serve as a model for state government.

True, the automakers had a bloated cost structure and couldn't survive without making deep, painful cuts.

But even the Detroit Three automakers realized they couldn't cut their way to prosperity. They know they need a growth strategy to ensure long-term viability.

That's true for the state, as well. State government's levers in boosting the economy are limited. But it can focus its spending (investment) on things that matter: higher education, transportation and other quality-of-life issues.

That's the topic of my column today in in the Grand Rapids Press. And check out the reader comments, which are refreshingly thoughtful in what too often is a sea of vitriol.


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Lesson from Mackinac Policy Conference: Confabs don't solve problems

| Friday, June 4, 2010
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Criticizing the annual Mackinac Policy Conference as a food-and-booze-fueled bacchanal that accomplishes little is almost as fashionable as rejoicing in the prison sentence of former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

Everyone, at least in the media, seems to do it. Many complain the same issues are discussed by the state's business and political leaders on the island year after year with little to show for it.

Veteran Gongwer News Service Editor John Lindstrom has a slightly different take on the Mackinac conference, which ends tonight.

Lindstrom, writing in Dome magazine, sees the Mackinac conference as a sort of giant confessional, in which speakers lament all the things that are wrong with the state and pledge to start fixing them before the lilacs bloom next spring on the island. Some even take responsibility for the economic woes and urban ills plaguing Michigan.

The problem, in Lindstrom's view, is that all the grand poo-bahs enjoying a lovely few days at the Grand Hotel can't get past the confessional stage. Going home after Mackinac promising to sin no more isn't easy.

But after having covered hundreds of conferences and meetings in my long journalism career, I've come to the conclusion that such gatherings are the wrong format for affecting change.

Yes, they can bring people together, and spark ideas and valuable discussions. But it's unrealistic to expect these folks to go home after a few days of schmoozing and change the world.

That's true even of conferences that promise to carry on with "action agendas." One example I'd cite is the biannual West Michigan Policy Forum sponsored by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

After the last conference in 2008, conference organizers promised to force Lansing to enact the pro-business agenda approved at the conference, including a repeal of the 22 percent surcharge on the Michigan Business Tax and making Michigan a right-to-work state. Those things obviously haven't happened.

I don't know what the best strategy is for fomenting change. But I will credit the Detroit Regional Chamber, which has sponsored the Mackinac conference for the past 30 years, for trying.

The Mackinac conference replaced a men-only chamber cruise, which I understand originated in Miami, and included drinking, gambling and lots of other things these guys probably didn't tell their wives about when they got home. Now that was a bacchanal.

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Michigan businesses, heal thyselves

| Thursday, June 3, 2010
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The big ideas are flowing like the horse--well, you know--at the Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island this week. Turn Detroit into a tax-free zone! Make Michigan a right-to-work state! Give all our kids an iPad! Sell the Mackinac Bridge!

Most of these ideas will disappear into the northern Michigan mist before the 1,400 folks leaving the conference step off the ferry Saturday at Mackinaw City.

But Meijer Inc. President Mark Murray offered some wise counsel to his fellow attendees.

Murray is one of those rare business leaders whose views on government policy related to the economy are grounded in actually having worked in the public sector--and on both sides of the political aisle.

He has served in top positions in the administrations of Democratic Gov. James Blanchard and Republican Gov. John Engler. Murray also did a stint as president of Grand Valley State University.

Speaking to Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes, Murray advised his fellow business leaders not to depend on Lansing to solve all their problems.
"The state will be renewed with the help of Lansing and the support of Lansing, but overwhelmingly ... it's going to come from our economies, from an entrepreneurial renewal," he said. "Michigan is where it is in June 2010. Let's go forward."

Howes' column, with more of Murray's comments, is worth a read. You can find it here.

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Is "entrepreneur" just a fancy term for "unemployed"?

| Wednesday, June 2, 2010
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Since taking an early retirement buyout from my employer last year, I sometimes tell people that I'm a journalistic entrepreneur. They usually respond by saying, "Oh, you're a freelancer." So much for trying to impress people.

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, writing today in the New York Times, also expresses skepticism about a supposed rise in entrepreneurial activity during the Great Recession, from which we may or may not be emerging.

Reich examines the latest results from the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, which found that business startups in 2009 reached their highest level in 14 years.
"Challenging economic times can serve as a motivational boost to individuals who have been laid-off to become their own employers and future job creators,"said Carl Schramm, president and CEO of the Kauffman Foundation. "Because entrepreneurs drive the economy, the growth in 2009 business startups is encouraging and hopefully points to a hopeful trend in terms of our economic recovery.”

But Reich says he suspects most of those who started new businesses did so mostly because they couldn't find a job and that they want to become re-employed:
At first glance, all this seems a bit odd. Usually new businesses take off in good times when consumers are flush and banks are eager to lend. So why all this entrepreneurship last year?

In a word, unemployment. Booted off company payrolls, millions of Americans had no choice but to try selling themselves. Another term for “entrepreneur” is “self-employed.”

Reich's view would seem to suggest that Michigan, with the nation's highest unemployment rate, should be a hotbed of forced entrepreneurs. But the Kauffman index shows that Michigan was slightly below the national average in new business startups last year.

Michigan created 300 new business per 100,000 residents per month, or 0.30 percent. Nationally, that ratio was 0.34 percent. The top five states in the rate of business creation were Oklahoma, Montana, Arizona, Texas and Idaho.

The Kauffman Foundation said Michigan and the Midwest tend to have the nation's lowest rates of new business creation. Experts say that's a serious impediment to needed economic growth in the state and region.

For the record, I'm trying to make a go of it as a journalistic entrepreneur. Seriously.

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