There is no place in America more politically conformist than universities. This is odd in and of itself, but when you consider the fact that colleges are supposed to emphasize diversity of thought, skepticism and intellectual vigor and the end result is 98% of permanent residents in the college area precincts voting for the same agenda, election after election, it’s beyond amazing.
So what gives? How can The University of Michigan’s overwhelming political conformity be explained? Of course, the agenda is pure liberalism/progressivism; and while there have been several ideas advanced over time, I think at its base the politics of college precincts follow, like everywhere else, the pocketbook. All you have to do is walk down Main Street Ann Arbor (that’s a real place, not a metaphor) today to understand the phenomenon. When I was a student there in the late 70′s and early 80′s, the country, the state and Ann Arbor were all in economic stress. There were a couple of diners on Main St, and a Crepe restaurant that interested me not. Nearby there were a few shot and beer bars. The crowd was older students and local working class, out after a softball game, or to hear a blues band.
It was in the 70′s that the Federal government started to open the spigot with research grants. By the middle of the 80′s Ann Arbor was a changed place. Not only had the national economy turned around, but downtown A2 had undergone a cultural transformation. White tablecloth restaurants started to spring up. By the 1990′s a full scale remodel was underway. Gone were all the stodgy, midwestern clothing stores that the NYC students found so amusing. In their place came upscale steakhouses and ‘bistros’.
The transformation mirrored the increase in Federal government research grants to the University of Michigan. This year, the university will collect over 1.25 Billion in research grants. For a town of just 114,000 people (a number likely significantly inflated by a transient student population) that means a per person grant of nearly $11,000. For Detroit to receive the same amount per its population of 750,000, the city would need research grants of 8.5 Billion. Wayne State University, Detroit’s only research university, received less than 150 Million.
If you work in Ann Arbor, there’s a very good chance that it will be for the university or one of its offshoots, like the enormous medical center. With almost 11,000 full time faculty and other employees, plus 15,000 graduate students, Michigan easily dominates the local economy. What does the university produce? It produces research. Who pays for the research? We do. The university precincts that amazingly always vote for the same agenda, depend on the enormous generosity of the American taxpayer for their livelihood. That generosity comes of course through the vast powers of the Federal government. Without increased taxes on our productivity and our lack of shame with indebtedness, the University of Michigan would return to the school I attended, and Ann Arbor, then a little town surrounded by farms and a few factories would probably return to the conservative, midwestern town it once was.
The Federal government has been awfully good to The University of Michigan, and by association A2 . As long as their upscales livelihoods depend on big government generosity, Conservatives have no more reason to expect that university precincts will vote Republican than public employee unions will.
Unions are all about expectations, and expectations are often harmful when they go unchallenged. In Michigan, we have learned the hard lessons of great expectations unmet.
I have lived all over the country, even spent a couple of years in Paris, during my youth. But I came back to Michigan because it’s beautiful here. The spring, summer and fall are great. Weather is temperate and outdoor activities are plentiful. Winter is, well I’m sure you’ve seen it on the evening news at some point in your life. The wind can blow 4o miles an hour and it does in fact snow sideways quite often. And winter here, let’s be honest, last from November 1 through March 31. That’s 5 long months, folks. We count every day.
The other thing you probably associate with Michigan is the auto industry and the unions. There are actually lots of industries in Michigan, though fewer now than in the past, but the one everyone knows is autos. We also have, or used to have, food processing (Gerber, Kellog), pharma (Upjohn and Pfizer), chemicals (Dow), furniture (Steelcase, Herman Miller, Haworth, among many), appliances (Whirlpool), etc. The list goes on and on. Michigan was once the home of the American dream. Unlike New York or Chicago with their walk ups and apartment buildings, Detroit, and all other Michigan cities, were built with single family homes. Job at the plant, a house, a car, a family. That’s how we live.
But the good times have come to an end. Why? We expected the lifestyle we love to never end, and then over time we felt entitled to this lifestyle. The unions fought hard and there were stories on our own local news about people on the Big 3 lines earning over 80 grand a year (in the 90′s). Even we were amazed. When you can earn money like that right out of high school, why bother with college? You can’t blame people really for forming the expectation that life in the factories was better than almost anything else a middle class person could hope to achieve: Great benefits, unparalleled really, with really good wages, plus working conditions that are far and away better than anything you might imagine for a factory.
The upshot is that the population simply gave up on education. Not just college education, but high school as well. Kids graduated from high school in Michigan without ever reading a book, cover to cover. Why bother? To have an upper middle class life you don’t need to have ‘no stinkin’ education. It was the triumph of the dolts; the greasers finally ascended to the throne.
In a culture like this entrepreneurial activity is not only lifeless but incapable of resuscitation. You can count the number of new Michigan companies that have come online in the last 30 years and really made a national or international impact on one or two fingers. How did a state that produced so many of the great companies of the last century come to produce so few for the 21st century? How did we lose the risk taking culture that obviously pulsed through Michigan at the beginning of the 20th century?
The answer is that the union culture eventually gave way to an entitlement culture. We not only had grand expectations of a union lifestyle, but we started to think we were entitled to the good life indefinitely. Micheal Moore’s hideous “Roger and Me” was the first indication that not only were factories closing, but their closing was ripping out our sense of entitlement as well. Moore and a lot of other people were shocked. The finger pointing started.
While Michigan thought that, like Woody Allen, all you had to do was show up for the good life, the world was changing. People across the country and around the globe wanted a better life, too, and for them half of what the UAW offered was a big step up. So did we huddle and come up with a new play? No of course not, because we are convinced, to this day, that the life to which we had become accustomed is our entitlement. You hear this all the time when we defend the past with outlandish ideas. People, we don’t have the best, most productive workers in the world, workers who deserve wages and benefits 200% greater than the average US manufacturing worker. That’s simply not true, and we all know it.
Let’s also be honest about a couple of things. First, most auto factories don’t pay like the Big 3 assembly lines. While the stories of the 80 granders ran on the evening news, I personally knew of parts plants that were paying $10/hour, and that was under a UAW contract (and those were stamping plants, the worst factories). The boys at the Big 3, in other words, were taking such a large chunk of the available costs of producing a car, that the downstream workers were getting pinched harder and harder. This is why Ford, GM and Chrysler divested their parts divisions; they simply could not afford to contract a living wage at a parts plant when the assembly lines were costing them $28/hour/person in wages alone. Not that it ended up doing them a lot of good. So the Big 3 assembly lines can be accused of the same unfettered greed as the car companies and their management often are.
Also, we must mention that the loss of union jobs has now engendered a sad cottage industry of factory nostalgia. One of the ideas they’ve belted out is that we were all eager to find union work back in the day. I’m calling b%^&&@$%t on that. When I graduated from a Detroit area high school in 1978, I knew of no one who wanted to work in a factory, especially a UAW shop. Of course this was during the reign of Jimmy Carter, so that explains a lot. At any rate, there were times when Michigan came to its senses and realized that factory workers, even Big 3 workers, were not going to live a upper middle class life forever; that it was not sustainable. We occasionally saw the writing on the wall.
But as soon as the cars started selling again, all the bad times were forgotten and it’s back to the factory. Every time I hear someone start to carry on about how great the old economy was, I make a quick turn and #eyeroll. It would be a good exercise for Michiganders to take a more realistic view of our industrial past once in a while. Constantly lamenting the loss of union factory jobs denies fully one half of the reality of the union legacy; we ended up with an uneducated population and an entitlement culture. It has, so far, cost us at least three and possibly four lost decades. It’s time to be honest. Yes, the unions helped Michigan progress into the post WWII world, but since the 1970s that have largely been a drag on our lives. Factory work can and should dignify the people who do it; but let’s stop kidding ourselves that it can sustain a 21st century upper middle class lifestyle. In a competitive economy, unions actually add little to the worker’s bottom line. If we want to have a strong manufacturing sector in Michigan, and the US as a whole, then we need a more honest assessment of union culture and its problems.