As we head into Memorial Day weekend, here are two straws in the wind to mull as you sip your lemonade …
It’s now clear that Michigan’s economy has turned the corner. Things aren’t perfect yet, but seasonally adjusted unemployment figures put our jobless rate for April at 10.2 percent, according to the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget.
That’s impressive, when you realize that since last year, unemployment has dropped 2.9 percentage points, the nation’s biggest decline. Most encouragingly, there are 57,000 more payroll jobs in Michigan than a year ago.
Much of the increase has been led by our three domestic auto companies, each now making money by selling redesigned, high-mileage cars. They are becoming profitable even with high gas prices and relatively weak demand. According to CNN, Detroit experienced an 82 percent increase in new engineering jobs in the past year.
Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans, told CNN’s “Your Money” that “We hope within a couple of years (in) the Midwest, Detroit is really the central core of the Midwest for technology.” Michigan media jumped on the numbers, running hopeful stories about our state becoming the next Silicon Valley.
That may be premature wishful thinking, but those who know their Michigan history can point to a time in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when our state was, in fact, widely regarded as the cutting-edge technology center of the nation.
Sip your lemonade and consider these stories:
* The Upjohn Pill and Granule Co., the predecessor to the Upjohn pharmaceutical giant, was founded in 1885 in Kalamazoo by Dr. William Upjohn and his brother, Henry. Physicians in those days had a hard time making sure the correct dosage was contained in liquid and powder medicines, and the new company prospered by standardizing formulations.
* The Dow Chemical Company was founded in 1897 by Herbert Henry Dow, a Canadian chemist who figured out a way to extract bromine from the salt deposits near Midland.
* Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Co. in 1903, capitalizing on the radical innovation of standardized, interchangeable parts for automobiles, which made the assembly-line method of manufacturing possible.
* The Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Co. was founded in 1906 by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his brother, Keith. Dr. Kellogg’s sanitarium followed his Seventh Day Adventist dietary regimen of toasted corn, while the railroad line that ran through Battle Creek made nationwide distribution possible.
Consider then that over the course of a mere two decades, Michigan entrepreneurs founded companies that grew to be international giants. Clearly, smart freebooting businessmen capitalizing on new technology is woven into our state’s DNA.
That’s the thinking behind Gov. Rick Snyder’s emphasis on lowering tax rates for small, start-up companies without the government trying to pick winners and losers. He clearly believes that if you get enough entrepreneurs and enough technology coming out of research labs, sooner or later, you’re likely to catch lightning in a bottle.
Which leads to the second straw in the wind:
Dr. Sean Morrison, the director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Michigan, is leaving the state to lead a new pediatric research center at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School.
“There are a small number of faith-based special interest groups that are attacking relentlessly. Relentlessly looking for ways to block these forms of medical research most people in the country feel should be supported,” Morrison said. “They’re well-enough organized and sophisticated to have deep-enough pockets. What that means is that we are constantly under attack.”
Morrison is referring to attempts by conservative Republicans in the Legislature to tack stem-cell research reporting requirements onto the higher education budget. Gov. Snyder’s legal counsel told GOP leaders last week that the requirements are unconstitutional, in part because the Michigan Constitution provides autonomy for universities against legislative intrusion and in part because Proposal 2, passed statewide two years ago, approves stem-cell research.
Morrison denies that his decision to go to Texas had anything to do with all this, but it’s hard not to connect the dots. (That is, until the Texas Legislature gets around to outlawing stem-cell research.) I can only imagine what the reaction would be if legislators of the late 19th century decided that extracting bromine from brine was against natural law or that Dr. Kellogg’s views on diet violated religious doctrine. Or that Dr. Upjohn was messing with morality by wanting to have standardized doses of medicine in his pills.
Technology requires freedom to think out of the box. That’s why universities – these days the source of many commercial innovations – are guaranteed the right to operate freely and independently by Michigan’s Constitution. Once we start tacking individual ideological preferences by individual legislators onto appropriations bills, we are jeopardizing whatever chance we might have of, once again, being a great, innovative and prosperous state.
Editor’s mote: Former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power is a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and president of The Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think-and-do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of The Center. He welcomes your comments at email@example.com.