THINKING FOR OURSELVES
By Shea Howell
Michigan citizen, June 12-18, 2011
There’s something obscene about the annual gathering of Michigan business and government elites on Mackinac Island. It is not only the fawning over the event by the media, clearly delighted that it is finally allowed “access” to the presentations and panels. Nor the excess of drinking and deal making that goes on in the bars and on the porch.
Rather, this is another example of the arrogance of business and government elites who continue to believe that they should decide what is best for the rest of us. It is a time for grand plans and schemes, generated without any serious public input and certainly without any accountability.
Behind all of this is the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce which has vigorously backed virtually every failed development scheme for the last four decades. It has also been behind nearly every policy that has harmed the city of Detroit, including such “innovations” as eliminating residency requirements for public employees and favoring suburban development at the expense of the city. Its push for regional authorities resulted in the closure of the only African-American owned food provider at Cobo Hall just days after the conference ended.
Last year’s policy conference touted the bold leadership of Mayor Bing and launched the embarrassing “I’m a believer” campaign. This year’s conference turned against the Mayor, questioning his management style and offering “help.”
A new slogan emerged, “Outsource to Detroit.” Trying to pick up on the hit Chrysler Super Bowl commercial, the gang settled on a phrase that evokes images of environmental degradation, child labor and poor quality service.
Almost all the news coverage highlighted the spirit of optimism that infused the gathering. Writing from the conference, Detroit News Nolan Finley worried that the overwhelming good news would undercut the political will to make drastic changes. He said, “…the danger is the sigh of relief will ease the sense of urgency. Difficult reforms and dramatic change are a lot easier to sell when people are terrified.”
This spirit of optimism had little to do with any real changes in the lives of Michiganders. Rather it reflects the Republican majority’s recognition that it is now able to run its agenda through the legislature essentially unchecked. The core of that agenda is the dismantling of public responsibility, the defunding of public education, the destruction of unions, the elimination of environmental restraints, and the shifting of tax burdens from the wealthy to the poor.
This “neoliberal agenda” was on full display at the conference. While the conference logo promised to rebuild, reinvent and reenergize the state, there was little new thinking and no thoughtful exploration of the issues facing us.
Perhaps the clearest failure was in the area of education. While everyone agrees that we face a crisis in education, there was absolutely no discussion of the causes of this crisis or the impact of the current governor’s policies on our educational institutions. The primary focus was a presentation by Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone, reflecting the governor’s belief that the solution to the crisis rests with charter schools.
To show their commitment to education and to demonstrate what they consider “accountability,” the Chamber issued a 7 point “to do” list. Point 7 reads “Education: ask the Governor for an assignment.”
Rather than looking toward the people in our city and state who are creating a new paradigm of education that enables children to learn while rebuilding their communities, the Chamber continues the kind of topdown thinking that has failed over and over again.