Reporting on Michigan's Economic Recovery Effort

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Competing With California

Posted to MichiganNow.org on Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Michigan has lost a lot to Mexico. 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot warned that free trade would create “a giant sucking sound” of jobs moving south of the border. It did. Perot said that during the years that high U.S. wages fall and low Mexican wages rise up we will have “wrecked the country.” Watch the video.

Many Americans would say Perot was right. GM Flint auto workers tell of their equipment being loaded onto trains and sent to Mexico as early as 1979.

Michigan has lost a lot to Texas. In 1982, unemployment in Michigan was 18%. Texans began to call Michiganders ‘black plates.’ At the time, license plates here were black. So many were seen in Texas on the back of Michigan vehicles that Michiganders became Oakies of a new kind. The federal government increased subsidies to the oil and defense industries. The gearheads from the assembly line found work on oil rigs and in supply warehouses. They also went for the warm weather. It didn’t matter that Detroit was the arsenal of democracy that made America rich and free. Few noticed that Texas deepened the military industrial complex that has made us poor and scared. Few knew that Dick Cheney and George W. Bush had planned the Iraq War in the 1990’s, while still at Haliburton Corporation and the governor’s mansion.

Michigan has lost a lot to Florida. Listen to billionaire Al Ratner, head of Forest City Enterprises in Cleveland and a 1951 forestry graduate from Michigan State University. He laments how the mass production of air-conditioning in the 1940’s made Florida a destination for New Yorkers, Michiganders and Ohioans. But now, the sunshine state is getting its due. It leads the nation in foreclosure. Its natural beauty is limited to beaches partly contaminated by the BP oil spill. Hurricanes have ravaged it for a decade. And sprawl has given people just two places to live: in air-conditioned homes or air-conditioned cars.

But Michigan has lost much more to California. San Diego is 75 degrees year round. San Francisco is about 65 degrees year round. The pacific coastal towns and cities have plenty of room to keep absorbing Michiganders. Florida might start to look more and more like a natural and man-made disaster. Texas is driven by war and natural resource extraction. Neither state looks like it’s on a sustainable path. California however, appears to be the state to beat; the best competitor.

For 10 days this month, I was a Michigander at risk of emigrating. I had been to California twice before in my life. I’ve been scared of going there, to Portland and Seattle for years now. I went to the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, just off-campus, for a conference organized by Ypsilanti’s Susan Santone who started the non-profit Creative Change.  The conference was inspired by the ideas of two military men from the Pentagon. They embrace diplomacy, resource conservation and early childhood education. Their document is the National Strategic Narrative. It’s radical.

But first I stopped in San Francisco. Okemos High and 1982 MSU grad Randy Rentschler provided a tour of the multi-modal city. Rentschler is one of the top lobbyists and spokesmen for mass transit and high- speed rail in California. People use feet, ferries, bikes, trolleys, buses, subways and cars to move around. This makes people move there. San Francisco has something called casual carpooling. The government established high occupancy vehicle lanes that motivate private drivers to pick up passengers on the street whom they don’t even know. They might charge $1 per seat. They might just say “get in” for free. This enables them to save on gas, time and pollution.

Remember the earthquake of 1989? The freeway built through the center of downtown had collapsed. Instead of rebuilding it, San Francisco removed it. Now it’s a boulevard that has trolleys and buses. It’s called the Embarcadero. Pedestrians come off the subway and the ferry and safely walk across it with signs and stoplights. Then they are downtown. People love going there.

Free road maps say ‘California…Find Yourself Here.’ That may sound fake. Does that mean California is for gays who can’t come out of the closet in Grand Rapids or Sterling Heights? Is it for hippies camping in VW buses? Is it for aspiring actors and directors who want to be “found?” Is it for retirees? Yes. California is for everyone. California is still for dreamers. The whole world is trying to get there. Why can Michigan afford not to let everyone in? The 20th century was called the American Century. Much of it was the Michigan Century. Foreigners built the cities, the trains, the neighborhoods, the schools and the universities. Are we more xenophobic now?

According to writers at the Lansing City Pulse, Michigan inspired California.

Modernist architecture, whose best known figure could be Frank Lloyd Wright, sprung up during the interwar years. The individual communes with nature, not necessarily neighbors, in the new rambling home built for him in the woods, on the prairie or on a cliff. He’s getting away from it all at the house and then returning to the daily grind in his car. Wright was from Wisconsin. But he designed dozens of structures in Michigan where another giant, Eliel Saarinen, was transforming Cranbrook Institute of Arts into an architecture power house. Saarinen mentored many of America’s great modernist architects, including Ralph Rapson, born in the tiny Thumb town of Rapson, Michigan. His son Rip runs the Kresge Foundation in nearby Troy. Rip wrote a stunning book about Ralph that includes photos, designs and cartoons.

Ralph eventually settled in Minneapolis where he stood up for walkable communities and against freeways. In the meantime, California was leading post-war America. Driving through canyons with the convertible top down and pulling into your contemporary ranch home overlooking the ocean was the greatest freedom. It was the reward for having won World War II.

I saw evidence of this American dream when I rode a bike from Monterey to Los Angeles — 340 miles.  I cheated on about 120 of them by hitchhiking. But I rode along Highway 1, the Big Sur coast at Carmel, up and down mountain roads, 2,000 feet above the Pacific. Four or five feet to my right, and I fall to my death against the rocks and into the sea. I chose to ride a bike because my sedentary lifestyle on the freeways of Lansing has wrapped my chest and waist in 30 pounds of fat. I need to shock myself into shape. Indians, Chinese, Russians, and Americans were driving the same narrow road. No one honked or threatened my right to it. I was able to stop and stare at the thousands of mansions and fancy new cars. California’s 2012 car of the year?  The Ford Mustang convertible, from what I saw. Detroit muscle. It made me proud.

A sea and mountainside campground called Kirk Creek was full the night Leslie from Lima, Ohio carried me the last 4 miles in her 1999 VW bus.  I paid just $5 for a hiker/biker campsite. Most of the campers were in their twenties and thirties—more from Ohio, one from Connecticut, some born and raised in California. Everyone was thrilled to be there. Two guys planned to bike up and down a tiny road that went up 4,000 feet in 5 miles.

After the climbs and descents of the Big Sur coast, with pockets of redwood trees growing along the shoulder, Highway One flattens out. There’s a spot where 2,000 elephant seals congregate and rub their winter skins off on one another before the next trip to Alaska. A hundred years ago hunters killing seals for blubber would have made the species extinct, had they not missed a few dozen animals. Then the Mexican government created a sanctuary in 1922. This group near San Simeon first showed up in 1990. They are wonders of the sea.

Strawberry season in Michigan comes in June. But it seems to go on forever in central California. Farms can span hundreds of acres. They grow large, firm fruit that holds up well after it’s trucked 3,000 miles to market. But even picked fresh off the stems, they don’t taste sweet like those in Michigan. Outside one of these sprawling towns, a man named Victor, of Filipino descent, cranked plumber’s wrenches around a water pump. It was helping spray water on fields he rents to grow lettuce. But the machine was leaking. “Look at this. I’m out here on a Sunday still working. I’m 56 years old. I wouldn’t have chosen agriculture if I were to do it again,” Victor said. “Regulations on fertilizer and pesticide are too heavy. My friends that chose to be police and firemen are retired now with pensions bigger than my earnings from working. And my son wants to go to dental school. $60,000 a year. Will he be able to pay that off?”

Victor said he works for large ag companies; he leases and he owns some of his own land. “But I can’t compete with Mexico. They’ve got no regulations.”

The government can argue that it facilitates a safe and abundant food supply. But what health risks are being taken by importing peppers from Mexico and asparagus from Peru? How long can we afford to burn fossil fuels to move food 5,000 miles from the soil to our mouths?

Troops of fruit and vegetable pickers stoop along the rows. They wear straw hats and cotton cloth around their faces and necks. They pick by hand and fill boxes. They run to flat bed trucks where a man counts each box. They’re paid by the box. Such workers exist in Michigan too from Little Traverse to the Indiana line. California is #1 in crop diversity. Michigan is #2. Agriculture might be the real backbone of both states. Migrant workers, legal and illegal, might be the backbone of the industry. But California’s water supply can’t compare. The fields are irrigated. Look at the soil anywhere from San Francisco south, containing two-thirds of the population. It’s sandy and rocky.

In the strawberry mecca town called Guadalupe, a bridge spans 100 yards across a shallow river bed. No water runs in it. It’s dry.  Read how Californians started to wise up to this problem years ago.  “Every water drop saved – whether by conservation, recycling or groundwater and storm water management – counts as water supply. Those drops add up to more than 7 million acre-feet of water a year.”

More than any other state, and more than nearly every other country, Michigan has the luxury of abundant water. Michigan can plan for the years when the world wants our water. We can plan our cities and transportation system to attract and accommodate people. Or we can sell off water because we’re desperate, because we’ve destroyed our own state and failed to attract people. Georgia, Arizona, Texas and California will get federal permission to take their newly bought Michigan water home where nature didn’t intend it to go. And they’ll enjoy our water that maintains their lifestyles and economies there.  Will we commodify water so corporations can make profits for shareholders around the world? Will that pay dividends for everybody else? Will that pay taxes here? Can the free-market solve water problems?

In case you’re not convinced that water will be a huge problem, read this: California siphons a trillion gallons of water a year from Lake Mead in Colorado.

This winter, Colorado’s Rockies got just 16% of their snow pack needed for run-off into drinking water. Water is the next oil. Water wars will happen.

California is facing another issue in common with Michigan.  This is from the Western Farm Press, not Mother Jones Magazine:

“Wild pigs travel in herds, and create wallows, overturning native vegetation as they dig for food. Their rooting also damages the habitat of animals that live on or under ground such as amphibians, reptiles, mammals, and ground nesting birds. Rooting loosens soil, which may then be washed into streams and creeks, compromising water quality.”

In the ranch country about 40 miles west of Santa Barbara, I saw two adult, brown-skinned pigs in a field about 120 yards from the road where I stopped pedaling. Piglets were following since the tall grass was getting matted down several feet away from the adults. Ted Nugent might say these pigs were an isolated problem. And they weren’t his problem because they’re not in Texas where he moved to or in Michigan where he doesn’t want the DNR to regulate his high-fence hog hunting operation in Jackson County. Nonetheless, wild pigs pose a natural resource problem.

The brush country is hot, dry, windy and open. The physical challenge on a bike becomes mental. “When will I be able to go on flat land? Why did they have to make the road this way?” About 7 miles before Highway 1 hits the ocean and Gaviota State Park, it crests at about 2,500 feet. The descent lasted half an hour. My bike reached more than 40 m.p.h. One rock, stick or hole could have thrown me to the pavement where bones would break and flesh would get mangled. I pulled my brakes on and off like a semi-truck driver trying not to overheat them.

I passed through Malibu where surfers and windsurfers filled the beaches. The Beach Boys’ 1973 album Endless Summer played in my head. Homes built right over the beach, just 25 feet wide, lined the highway for miles. Porsches, Mercedes and Mustangs parked in their garages. Thousands more homes are built stretching up the mountainsides, looking down over the ocean, like people in the seats of old opera houses looking at the stage. The homes have verandas, decks and glass walls.  I came to a gas station where two guys and a gal, handsome, all about 21, had stepped from a shiny car. They stretched and joked. I asked “How far is Santa Monica from here?” One guy had wavy hair that flowed from one side of his head, across his forehead and over to the other side. He said “about 25 miles. But I don’t know exactly. I don’t go there much.”

“Aren’t you from California?” I said.

“Yeah I am. Lived here my whole life. Isn’t it beautiful?” he said. He broke up half the sesame granola bar he was nibbling on. He handed it to me. “Yes it’s beautiful,” I said. “Thank you.”

Hating your hometown is common for kids in the south and the Midwest, maybe Pennsylvania too. But California’s youth don’t feel the need to hit the road. They live at the end of it. For them, the grass is not greener on the other side. Michigan’s yards, lawns and sports fields actually are greener. Michigan has more water. But that doesn’t matter. California has the imagination of the world’s youth.

The author Horace Greeley wrote in 1865, “Go West young man. Go West, and grow up with the country.” California is the end of the covered wagon trail. There’s no further west to go. The country has grown up. This is where it wants to be born again, live and grow old.  Before you die, go to California. Imagine scattering your ashes in the Pacific Ocean. You’ll see what heaven looks like.

California has had cloudy days recently. Some see the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 as the root of decline. It capped property tax rates at 1% of cash value at time of purchase. Californians now complain public schools are crummy because they’re underfunded. They’re complaining that universities are too expensive and too hard to get into. If my tour had included the hottest driest areas of the state I would have seen migrant workers in shacks whose children get bilingual education reminiscent of ‘separate but equal’, Plessy v. Ferguson in the Supreme Court, 1896.  Regarding this situation at least, conservatives aren’t to blame. I would have seen where, in 2007, a Texas bank financed a subdivision of $300,000 homes, couldn’t sell them, then demolished them in 2009.

The Public Policy Institute of California published a study in December. It says The Great Recession has helped widen the gap between upper and lower-income families. “They are larger in California than in the rest of the United States… middle-income families reached a new low of 49.7 percent in 2010.”  Also, while the national unemployment rate in April was 8% California’s was 11%.

California’s budget deficit is $16 billion. It’s losing its high standards of education, its middle-class and its water.  Rush Limbaugh says all is lost in California due to unions. But Michigan still has a lot to lose to California.

People in Flint, Detroit, Saginaw and Benton Harbor can survive crime and abandonment. Both problems are spreading to the rest of the state now too.  Michiganders generally have a resilience to match their work ethic. But they could use optimism and understanding that natural resources are limited. This requires an unlimited imagination, an ability to adapt, change, try new things and learn from mistakes. Californians are doing this. They’re willing to say goodbye to the 1950’s, and hello to the future.

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