No Silver Lining to Michigan’s Decline


Derek Melot of the Lansing State Journal pens what may be one of the best local journalist’s blogs in the state, “Just Asking,” in which with an experienced, sensible, mature journalist’s eye he does just that about public and other affairs in and around Lansing and the state. His July 6 entry describes the latest dismal economic and employment figures, and ponders the question of whether Michigan can be a prosperous state of just 8 million, vs. it’s current 10 million. He concludes hopefully, “Being smaller is not automatically a bad thing.”

Derek, it’s only human to look for a silver lining to any bad situation, but sometimes that’s really not the appropriate response. The tragic history of Ireland provides a poignant example.

Over several years beginning in 1848 Ireland’s population fell from nearly 8 million to half that number or less, due to the famine and ensuing emigration. Population continued to fall and the country remained an impoverished basket case for another 130 years, only reversing direction beginning around 1980, when enlightened, free market-based tax and other public policies triggered the birth of an economic turnaround that gave the country the nickname, “the Celtic tiger,” a reference to the fast-growing “Asian tiger” economies of Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc.

After the 1848 famine Ireland was no doubt a more pleasant place in many ways, at least for visitors and those of means. Certainly less crowded, with the natural scenery less impeded by human structures, etc.

At the risk of laying it on cruelly, in 1848-49 the prospect would have given no comfort to a stick-thin waif expiring in the ditch, or a penniless immigrant in the stinking hold of a “coffin ship.”

So it is today in Michigan, when radical environmentalists loftily celebrate how wonderful things will be when the population has fallen to eight or six million from the current 10 million. That’s no comfort to millions who have seen the value of their life’s work fall in half, and seen the industry that sustained the state ravaged by labor laws that enabled pernicious union work rules and contracts, by absurd federal CAFE standards, and yes, also by the folly and hubris of past managers who failed to confront these destructive forces head on.

Here’s the bottom line: There is nothing good about “involuntary” depopulation, whether the cause is famine, barbarian invasions, or pernicious public policies that make a place unable to compete in a dynamic “post-industrial” economy. This is not something to accept philosophically and with resignation, but to fight against tooth-and-nail, resisting to the bitter end.


With all that in the background, 2010 will be a critical year for Michigan, one in which the people make key decisions about whether the state will emulate the growth-stultifying, inward-looking policies of Ireland for 60 years after gaining independence in 1921, or the pro-growth, “supply side” ones of the past 20 years (notwithstanding the fact that the auld sod too is now suffering now from the worldwide recession).

It’s clear that no “man on a white horse” will come to our rescue in the political sphere. In fact, our craven, self-serving political class is only capable of following the incentives imposed on it by the climate of public opinion. Whether we can change that particular climate is unambiguous – we can. To paraphrase the title of a book by my favorite thinker on these kinds of issues, “It’s in our hands.”

How do we do it? Obviously I don’t have all the answers, but let me offer two valuable concepts to guide us. First, to keep in mind that definition of insanity – “doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

Second, consider that who loses elections is almost always more important for changing that all-important political incentive structure than who wins them. This suggests that we begin to think about the electoral process and the choices we make in very different ways.


9 Responses to “No Silver Lining to Michigan’s Decline”

  1. Matt Says:

    The troubling part is when you consider, say Detroit (and future Michigan or Califoria?) which has been losing population for how long? You can end up with and leaving in place a populace (and controlling majority) who either lives off the state or is employed to a large extent in creating and dispensing those benefits. Those who provide the tax dollars to support this system end up a minority voting block and exit, try to or retire. You still have the same people and ideas in place. Now only the subject government goes up the line to beg for aid to perpetuate the system (which has worked for decades for Detroit). Sorry but things can always get worse what about my example leads you to be optimistic? I am not sure.

  2. jmchugh4u Says:

    I think you’ve described the “looter state.” To see the result when a population has the ability to depart, look at Detroit. When people can’t leave it’s much worse. Zimbabwe and the African kleptocracies are extreme examples.

    In less extreme cases, there is very little or no economic growth, because the incentives for investment, innovation or entrepreneurial risk taking are lacking – why bother to take risks when the state will take whatever you earn? Unless you are a well connected politically, of course, and such individuals and entities tend to be less procuctive than REAL entrepreneurs.

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  4. Ron Willey Says:

    How can I get a copy of your book “In our hands:…”?

  5. jmchugh4u Says:

    Ron, thanks for asking. I wish it was my book, because obviously I think highly of it and Mr. Murray. ;-)

    As for where to get one, I’m sure it’s easily obtainable on Amazon. My library has one, but that may be a fluke.


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