Whatever became of Michigan’s population council?

Legislators couldn’t follow report’s recommendations even if they wanted to

The report put out in December by the Growing Michigan Together Council received much fanfare. Media stories were voluminous, and legislators rushed to invite council members to share their findings in public hearings. The report was praised as a “long-term plan of action,” “a set of guiding principles” “a set of actionable recommendations” that are “catalysts for change.”

The council’s report has faded from public view somewhat since then, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rarely mentions the report or the council. One of the council’s co-chairs even admitted the plan probably won’t grow the population. Is this whole effort going to turn out to be a dud?

A close reading of the report suggests the answer is yes. The best way to show the inadequacy of the report is to dissect one of its main recommendations. This will require summarizing several pages of the report, but bear with me, as this reveals the slippery way the Growing Michigan Together Council manages to say a lot about a lot of things without saying anything relevant to the state’s population crisis.

A key strategy highlighted in the report is to “establish Michigan as the Innovation Hub of the Midwest and America’s Scale-up State.” Questions like, “What’s an innovation hub?” and “What does a scale-up state do?” might naturally pop to mind. But neither of these terms is defined in the report, which will make it hard to know if the state succeeds on either count. The report is full of nebulous policy objectives like these.

The report explains why these strategies are necessary. But in doing so, it just raises more questions. “States with robust innovation ecosystems become magnets for both businesses and talent, driving population growth,” the council says. Fair enough, but which states? And what is a “robust innovation ecosystem?” What types of businesses and talent does it attract? The report provides no other information.

The council notes that 5,600 more college graduates leave Michigan than move here annually. Readers are to infer from this, presumably, that becoming a scale-up state has something to do with the migration patterns of recent college graduates. But the report explains nothing more about this. It also says the state’s “low labor force participation rate” harms Michigan’s chance to become an innovation hub. But again, it never connects the dots on how a higher labor force participation will make Michigan into a scale-up state.

The next section is titled “What we can do,” which sounds promising for readers interested in the policy particulars. There are two recommendations: “develop an economic growth plan” and “attract and retain young talent,” and each idea has two full pages devoted to it. But both fall well short of giving meaningful information for policymakers.

The closest the report gets to explaining the economic growth plan is to list a handful of “elements … that are ripe for short-term implementation.” These are, unfortunately, little more than collections of buzzwords and vague catchphrases. For example, the plan should include “strategies that catalyze more regionally driven innovation districts framed by anchor institutions and high-wage, high-growth industries.” It should implement “expanded capacity in Michigan’s business incubation and accelerator network to support business scaling.” What any of this means in practice is anyone’s guess.

This new economic growth plan must be “bold,” “robust” and “coordinated.” It should use a “customer service approach that removes barriers.” But what counts as bold or robust? Who needs to coordinate? And which barriers need removing? The report doesn’t say. The plan should also provide “stability” and “predictability” and “have a sustainable governance and funding model.” Sounds good, but the report is silent about how to accomplish these objectives.

Massachusetts, Silicon Valley and Austin have already achieved the growth Michigan seeks, according to the report. They used “deliberate plans” that allowed them to grow incomes, attract talent and improve quality of life. But all we learn about these other plans is that “public-private partnerships [were] integral to their success.” Surely there’s more to the story than that.

After all this, it is easy to lose sight of the report’s chain of logic — that the purpose of the economic growth plan is to make Michigan into an innovation hub and scale-up state. The report never explains how the economic growth plan will produce that result. Readers are just left to assume that this vaguely defined plan will produce these nebulous policy goals.

The economic plan was only half of what the council recommended to make Michigan into an innovation hub. The other was to attract and retain young talent. The report is a little more concrete with this recommendation, but it is still insufficient for policymaking purposes.

Michigan can attract talent with “novel incentives” and “targeted marketing.” A few other states already do this, such as Alabama, Maine and West Virginia. The report provides no evidence that these policies grew these states’ populations. Of these three states, only Alabama is particularly healthy, at 15th place nationally in population growth. Meanwhile, the two fastest-growing states — Idaho and Utah, both of which are growing at double-digit rates — are not mentioned at all. That’s an odd omission in a report whose stated purpose was not to create new agencies or promote hip industries but to grow Michigan’s population.

The most detailed policy recommendation in this section is to pay people to live and work in Michigan with taxes taken from the other people living and working in Michigan. One wonders how successful the state can really be if it has to bribe people to be here. A more sustainable and long-term strategy would address why not enough people want to move here in the first place. The previous section on economic growth plans even warned against short-term, gimmicky strategies like this.

The report also recommends college students get more “exposure to real-world, on-the-job experience.” How this will help create an innovation hub or scale-up state is not explained. The state should also “develop a state-led support service that streamlines processes for employers and immigrants.” How this will help create a hub of innovation is left to the reader’s imagination.

A final element of attracting talent, according to the council’s report, is just a matter of public perception. The state should use a “targeted national marketing campaign to shape the perception of Michigan as the Midwest Innovation Hub and America’s Scale-up State.” Maybe it’s not so important that the state become an innovation hub, just that it appear to be one. Again, no evidence is provided to suggest that this type of marketing campaign could make a difference. Advertisements promoting innovation in Michigan will just somehow increase the state’s population.

This is just one of the three strategies listed in the report. The others follow a similar pattern: establish a big but vague goal (“build a lifelong learning system” and “create thriving, resilient communities”) and then recommend a handful of half-baked and inadequately described policies. The Growing Michigan Together Council implies that its ideas will somehow grow the state’s population, but it provides no supporting evidence and produces few useful recommendations. No wonder policymakers may have already forgotten the council and the report.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.