Michigan needs something more super than the big game: Jobs


DETROIT - Whatever you think of the Motor City and its problems, it has tried hard to be ready for the Super Bowl. The downtown is spruced up and hung with colorful banners.

Hotels are ready, the streets are swept, and some of the out-of-town press seem startled that they haven't landed in a Robocop horror movie. "I come to you in praise of Detroit. That's right. I like Detroit. I love Detroit. I could live here. Really," Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy wrote.

"Motown has had its problems in the last 40 years, no question," he acknowledged, then added, in what seemed a burst of what Alan Greenspan might call irrational exuberance, "But the place is coming back, I tell you."

Indeed, Detroit seems bound to get some favorable press from the Super Bowl. Motown has had so much negative media for decades that stories bashing it no longer seem interesting. So far, what bad press there has been has come from whiny sportswriters upset they couldn't be in a Sunbelt city in February.

Yet what will the big game really mean to Michigan? The local Super Bowl host committee commissioned a study that predicted it would produce $302 million in spending and 5,560 jobs. However, those numbers seemed tainted by wild optimism. Patrick Anderson, who runs the Anderson Economic Group in East Lansing, thinks those figures are essentially made up.

"They're escalating these numbers into the stratosphere," he told an interviewer. His guess: "All told, Super Bowl XL will mean about $20 million to $40 million."

That is certainly significant, but is little more than a droplet in the face of the city's budget deficit, which may be as high as $300 million, and the latest round of auto layoffs from both Ford Motor Co. and General Motors.

Indeed, the most popular game in the state these days could be called "How do we fix Michigan?"

The Granholm administration is feverishly trying to attract a new Toyota plant, and otherwise seems to be betting on education reform as the key to the future. Considerably tougher high school standards, particularly in the areas of math and science, seem likely to become law before school starts next fall.

What is not at all clear is where the money will come from to pay for the new teachers that are bound to be needed.

Higher education is seen as even more important, and the governor's ambitious agenda calls for the state to double the number of Michiganders who graduate from college by 2015. But in most recent years, the state has been forced to cut higher education funding to right an out-of-balance state budget.

What Michigan needs most of all is jobs, and not jobs that have something to do with serving french fries.

The state's senior senator, Carl Levin, is a moderate best known these days for his work as ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

The senator is not known for wild statements or suggesting grandiose programs. But he is so worried about Michigan's future that last month he proposed a federally funded, Apollo-type program, to help the state's desperately declining manufacturing sector.

Exactly how this would work wasn't clear. Mr. Levin suggested changing the tax code to give manufacturers more incentives to keep jobs here. But he conceded that it was difficult to compete with countries where labor is paid a dollar an hour or a dollar and a half a day.

Mr. Levin also said closing tax loopholes might help pay for some of his program. But it was hard to imagine the Bush Administration getting ecstatic about spending billions to bail out Michigan. President Bush tried hard three times to carry the state, in a tough primary and two national elections.

Each time Michigan voted against him. The governor and both senators are Democrats.

Even if Mr. Levin puts together a bipartisan coalition of rust-belt senators whose states face some of the same challenges, it is less than clear what kind of manufacturing the state could or should try to attract, other than transplant auto factories.

The good news is that Michigan is still home to a solid, highly skilled core of engineers and technicians, and politicians and economists have almost never seen the next big innovation coming. Nobody anticipated Henry Ford a century ago, or saw the coming of Bill Gates and the Microsoft revolution before it arrived.

Michigan has bounced back before. But this time, a big bounce is needed.

Even Dan Shaughnessy, the optimistic Boston columnist, knows things may never be the same.

"The golden days - when GM custodians had summer homes and their wives got new eyeglasses every year because their health plan said they could - are never coming back," he admitted.

But he thinks the city, and the state, just might. "The city's soul has been lost for a while, but Detroiters are determined to reclaim it," he said.

This weekend, the city and the state are making a gallant effort to present their best face to the world.

What's needed more, though, is to find thousands of good-paying jobs that will enable the state and its biggest city to build a prosperous future. That would be more super than having the Super Bowl and the World Series come to town, every week of the year.