Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Michigan, you can't get there from here

"You can't get there from here" -- a salty bit of logical nonsense attributed to Maine that fits Michigan's current cultural and economic predicament. Over the last few years, Michiganders who want to improve the state have described a way forward, a new economy and a defining moment. They have struggled to articulate a vision that might inspire people to change ideas and actions and habits.

Yet, getting "there from here" can feel as impossible as Lansing Democrats and Republicans collaborating for the sake of the state or the Detroit Three producing cars that actually get good mileage or Dow just cleaning up its shameful dioxin pollution in Saginaw or Kwame Kilpatrick graciously stepping down so Detroit can get some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Thing is, Michigan could get "there" from "here," but it would take generosity, maturity, magnanimity, compassion, warm-heartedness, concern for one's neighbors, humility, creativity and openness to new ideas. Plenty of people who love Michigan are working on it. Lots of others are not.

Openness to new ideas is probably the biggest impediment to reviving Michigan's economy and culture. New ideas can be expensive. For example the executives at Dow Chemical could choose to do the most thorough possible cleanup of the dioxin in the Saginaw River simply because it is the right thing to do. That would be a new idea. It might cost the company a lot of money, but at least they would be acting in good faith. They would be demonstrating a commitment to the environment and public health in communities vulnerable to the pollution Dow creates and spreads.

New ideas can mean forsaking short-term gain for the sake of long-term benefit. The Detroit Three could have chosen to embrace high gas mileage as a core value for everyone's sake. But over the last few years, public appetite for gas guzzlers has meant big profits for the domestic industry. Turns out, that short-term strategy is biting the industry but good as foreign-owned companies prepare to sell lots of small, efficient cars that consumers need. You can't commute if you can't afford the gas it takes to get to work.

New ideas make people uncomfortable, defensive, and unwelcoming to people who are different. We saw that last week with the State Supreme Court's decision prohibiting employee health benefits to people not in "man/woman" marriages. The idea of same-sex marriage (to some an obvious oxymoron) makes people uncomfortable and defensive in a knee-jerk, gut-based way. And so, Michigan is now unequivocally inhospitable to same-sex couples in long-term relationships a.k.a. marriages. Here is an issue that could help Michiganders stretch themselves and practice openmindedness and compassion and generosity and hospitality.

So what'll it be, Michigan? Narrow-minded, short-sighted,greed-driven, socially intolerant policy or a new way -- progressive, community-oriented, inclusive, locally sustainable innovation?