Last Thursday, at a campaign rally in Grand Rapids, MI (home, inter alia, to the Acton Institute), President Trump promised the crowd, “By the way, we’re bringing a lot of those car companies back. Remember I told you. They’re coming back. They’re pouring back in.”
Now, it is important to put this in context. Trump had just praised Michigan workers — and no doubt people likely came from all over Michigan, even out of state, to hear the president speak. That said, he returns to the theme of “bringing back” auto manufacturing jobs throughout his speech, which, again, was at a rally here in Grand Rapids, MI.
Each time, the applause is half-hearted at best. Unlike the east side of the state, West Michigan, which includes Grand Rapids, has remained comparatively economically healthy. Why?
We haven’t put all of our eggs in the basket of the auto industry, that’s why. For one thing, while there has been and still is auto manufacturing in the Grand Rapids area, we were once Furniture City, USA and are now proudly Beer City, USA. Grand Rapids can — and does — boast a dynamic, diversified economy.
By contrast, on the east side of Michigan the economy was too dependent on the big American auto companies. As I wrote in my book,
Many automobile factories in the United States were refitted to produce tanks, bombs, and airplanes during World War II. But when cheaper cars came from Japan forty years later, no one seems to have had enough imagination to ask themselves the most logical question, “What else could we make in these factories?” Instead, they held on to making cars as long as they could … until they couldn’t.
Oversimplifying a bit, that’s basically what happened in Detroit. They held onto their identity as Motor City until long after it made any economic sense. Detroit held on until — even after the auto industry was “bailed out” at taxpayer expense in 2008 — the city of Detroit went bankrupt in 2013.
Writing for Forbes, Pete Saunders gets into more detail regarding the complexities of Detroit’s decline and the hope of resurgence there:
Earlier attempts at Detroit revitalization have failed, sometimes spectacularly, because they failed to address root causes or follow all the steps of a reclamation process. New auto plants designed to shore up manufacturing employment still couldn’t withstand global competition. The Renaissance Center and People Mover gave the city the “things” that other cities offered, but without substance. By the ’90s, the human, financial and psychological withdrawal from Detroit was complete, and something had to happen to revive the city’s soul.
Saunders is optimistic about Detroit’s future — and so am I, for that matter — but I hardly want Grand Rapids’ destiny to look like Detroit’s present. Indeed, the contrast between the two is sharp. As the promotional site Experience Grand Rapids notes,
West Michigan’s global manufacturers supply customers with everything from circuit boards and medical devices, to personal care products, to bullet-proof composites for military and industrial vehicles, to smart rearview mirrors that automatically control a vehicle’s high beam headlights. Grand Rapids’ thriving craft beer industry has even driven manufacturing innovation, with one small startup designing and manufacturing a tool that allows breweries and cideries to can their own beverages for carry out directly from their taproom bars.
Grand Rapids has thrived without any protectionist policies to privilege its industries while Detroit failed despite such policies, having abandoned its enterprising roots. In Detroit, the economy became hampered by outmoded business models, special government privileges and protections for auto companies and unions, overegulation, and so on. By contrast, as auto manufacturing has declined in Grand Rapids (though many auto factories still thrive here), the city and surrounding area pivoted to medical research and manufacturing, services, craft brewing, and much more. That’s what healthy economies do.
If the president is concerned about out-of-work manufacturing workers in Michigan, the moral imperative should be to find new ways to compete on an international scale, rather than trying to protect dying industries with nationalist policies like tariffs. They don’t work, and they won’t work. They are a false promise for prosperity, and they promise a fate that Grand Rapids, to its benefit, rejected long ago.
Rather than promising to turn Grand Rapids into Detroit, the president would do better to encourage Detroit, Flint, and other former auto manufacturing centers in Michigan to reinvent themselves and adapt like we’ve done here.
He’d get a lot more applause in Grand Rapids for that kind of promise.