Commentary: Mackinac Conference

May 29, 2012

If you were going to stage a revolution and wanted to arrest the entire political and business leadership of our state, you might want to start by seizing Mackinac Island this week.

That’s because the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce is holding its annual Mackinac Policy Conference. It will feature speeches by national headliners, such as public intellectuals Thomas Friedman and Fareed Zakaria.

There will be panels and discussions on innovation and entrepreneurship and on making Detroit and Michigan competitive again. Policymakers who normally don’t see each other during the year will be able to meet and rub shoulders and maybe have a drink together in what should be a fairly relaxing
atmosphere.

The conference’s final day will feature a meeting that has now become a ritual; a panel discussion by the leaders of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and Washtenaw Counties, plus the mayor of Detroit. They will discuss, quote, “how Michigan can better compete in the global marketplace,” and “how regions throughout the state can work together in making Michigan successful.”

What everybody always hopes is that friendships will be forged and new common ground found at this conference, and that relationships will take root here and flower and evolve for the common good of the state That’s the dream, anyway.

These conferences have been held since 1981, and I have been to several of them. And what has been wrong with them is the same thing that’s right about Las Vegas. There’s an old saying that “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” for obvious reasons.

But historically, what gets started on Mackinac tends, sadly, to stay on Mackinac, at least when it comes to regional cooperation.

What has happened in the past is that people have come to Mackinac, dined, drank and talked together, and vowed to start a new era of closer cooperation, between, for example, Oakland County and Detroit. But then they would get back home, and realize that their constituencies didn’t really like each other very much, and that politically, it was more advantageous to bash each other than to try the difficult task of working together.

Well, it’s a different world now. Globally, as Fareed Zakaria tells a national audience on CNN every week, and in Michigan too. We’ve survived the Great Recession, although we are a long way from making a full recovery.
Hundreds of thousands of jobs have disappeared and are never coming back. The battles that Brooks Patterson and Coleman Young used to fight are about as relevant to today’s situation as the battle tactics of the Vietnam War.

What IS relevant to Michigan, however, is Benjamin Franklin’s old slogan from the American Revolution: We must hang together, or we shall most assuredly all hang separately. Economically, that’s very clearly true, even if the legislature hasn’t quite figured that out.

According to the Chamber of Commerce, this year’s conference is supposed to focus on "innovation, collaboration and the twenty-first century global market." What should be painfully clear is that we need a lot more innovation and collaboration in order to have a crack at penetrating those markets in a meaningful way.

This should be a very interesting conference. I only hope those taking part in it draw the proper lessons from what is said.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.