Howes: Business-hungry state helps economic revival
Detroit — Minutes after Guangzhou Automobile Group Motor Co. Ltd. confirmed plans to enter the U.S. market, Gov. Rick Snyder slipped through the Detroit auto show crowd and on to yet another opportunity to promote Auto 2.0 in Michigan.
That’s no accident.
Unlike his predecessor who refused for eight years to visit China and tout Michigan’s automotive cred, the business-minded Snyder is hungry for business. He has led seven missions to China, held “multiple meetings” with Guangzhou Auto’s senior leadership and visited their headquarters, the governor told The Detroit News Tuesday.
Credit a strategy to “create the environment for success,” as he put it. Credit a long-game aimed at relationship-building. Credit an understanding that should, but often doesn’t, transcend partisan politics: improving quality of life and expanding opportunity are tightly linked to increased business investment grounded in reality, not feel-good hype.
No, government is not a “business” in the profit-and-loss sense of the word. But it can rally leadership, revise policies and remove obstacles that prove to be disincentives to business expansion, relocation and investment — all of which contribute to the state’s economic vitality in the real world, not some faux ideological state mired in the 1970s.
Government can use its levers and the persuasive powers of its office holders to highlight its human and technical assets; to update narratives tarnished by corporate restructuring, bankruptcy and the long arc of urban decline; to assemble incentives, when necessary; and to serve as salesperson-in-chief.
Michigan’s accumulating record of regulatory and business tax reform, of a competitive auto industry and a reviving Detroit, can be touted to foreign investors, hometown automakers and mega-suppliers. Their post-recession investments in Michigan are reasserting the state’s status as the automotive capital of North America.
But will the momentum continue when the CEO-turned-politician leaves the governor’s office to a successor almost certain to come from the Republican or Democratic political classes? It should, but it’d require the next governor to see policy through a lens of long-term business competitiveness instead of short-term politics.
Easier said than done in the era of polarized politics fueled by social media and cable news. Politicians “have an important role,” the governor said. ‘We don’t create jobs. Our role is to create the environment for success.’ ”
Exactly right. And as much as Snyder’s many detractors are disinclined to give him credit for anything, the facts are that Michigan’s business environment is far more competitive today than what he inherited from Jennifer Granholm. The Obama-era auto bailouts helped, as did a slowly growing macro-economy.
It’s more than that. There are legislative remedies to speed the Detroit bankruptcy workout; legislation to promote mobility testing on public roads, making Michigan one of the first states in the country to do so; long-time-coming infrastructure upgrades; state partnerships with private industry on things like the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run Airport.
“You should learn about the industry,” Snyder said, offering a morsel of free advice to his successor. “Learn about the technology.”
Which raises a question: Are the folks who would be governor students of the transformation roiling the global auto industry, the interdependence of today’s automaking with tomorrow’s technology, the stakes for Michigan’s economy, and the steep cost if its schools continue to produced graduates unprepared for that world?
Don’t bet on it. Business-savvy politicians are exceptions, not the rule. As much as their business chops can resonate with economic policy-making, the dark political arts of consensus-building and gut politicking can prove elusive — as Snyder best demonstrated in the Flint water crisis.
“I’m not satisfied with today,” state Attorney General Bill Schuette, a contender for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, said on the floor of the auto show Tuesday. “I’m thinking about tomorrow.
“I’m not going to stand pat. We have rebounded. But the question is, how do you go higher. Michigan’s governor has to be a leader and an advocate for our state. This is all about relationships.”
Yes, it is. And those relationships extend a lot farther for a governor today than to the Legislature across the street or down I-96 to Detroit. They’re in China and Israel, Germany and Japan, and the best way to strengthen them is to go there.
Follow Daniel Howes on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him at 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.
Join Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes as he moderates “The Final Word,” the closing event of this year’s Automobili-D at the North American International Auto Show. He will interview Aptiv PLC’s Jada Tapley, vice president of advanced engineering and external relations, at 6 P.M. on the Atrium stage. Credentials are not required to attend.