(Editor's note: Several Mackinac Center analysts spoke at Tax Day protests this week. Below are edited excerpts of some of their comments. More information about the events and resources you might find useful moving forward can be found here.)
In short, the state of our economic state is worse than ever. Economists typically use three major metrics for measuring the economic well-being of a state or other political jurisdiction: state gross domestic product, per-capita personal income and the unemployment rate.
State GDP is the value of all goods and services produced within the geographical borders of our state. It is a measure of economic output. Last summer's official GDP numbers indicate that Michigan has endured a "lost decade" of economic growth and were the only state to do so. Since that time our fortunes have only declined. It has tumbled from 16th in 1999 to 41st in 2008.
There has been a precipitous decline in the relative wealth of our residents, too. Since 1999 our per-capita personal income ranking has dropped from 16th to 37th. From January 2003 Michigan's per-capita personal income rank among the states has dropped from 23rd to 37th. Our personal income is now $5,259 (13.1 percent) below the national average. This is the worst it has been in our known history. If present trends continue, traditionally poor and agricultural states like Mississippi will have a population with greater average income than those in Michigan.
A dramatic increase in unemployment. Michigan's unemployment rate leapt from 6.7 percent in January 2003 to the current 14 percent. This state has had the highest unemployment rate of any in the nation for 48 straight months.
Why is this important? Unemployment rates act as a signal that there are opportunities to be had elsewhere. This isn't speculation. Economists who study human migration have found empirical links between home state and destination state migration patterns and they rank this variable fairly high as a determinant of American migration patterns. This leads me to my last metric: Migration.
Record setting out-migration. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Michigan has lost population for the last four years in a row and was only one of two states to lose population last year. More than 86,000 people have migrated from the state between July 2008 and July 2009 alone.
United Van Lines — a household moving company — reports that 68 percent of all its Michigan-related traffic is outbound.
Migration should not be overlooked as a state of the state metric. There is perhaps no better single metric that better illustrates qualify of life issues than that of migration. For some reason people are willing to incur enormous financial and psychological costs and pack everything they own into cars, vans, trucks and tractor trailers and leave behind all that they have known, including dear friends and families. For some reason, people everywhere have been voting with their feet, and they are not voting for Michigan.
Michigan has become a more expensive and less attractive state in which to do business, and untold numbers of job providers and people have left for Indiana and elsewhere as a result. Despite all of this the Legislature's thirst for revenue or power or both has not been slaked. Our state is already an economic basket case and yet there are proposals afoot to hike taxes again and they range from $500 million to $6.5 billion. These will no doubt improve the health of the state government, but not the economic health of Michigan.
Hi, I'm Paul Kersey, and I'm the director of Labor Policy for the Mackinac Center. We're a free-market oriented think tank. You may wonder what a think tank does. Well, to put it as simply as possible, we complain about the government. You see, there was a time when any halfway intelligent person with a decent education could complain about the government, but nowadays government is so big, so intrusive, and so complicated that you need trained professionals to really grasp how messed up the whole thing is. That's where we come in.
The child care situation shows one thing: our state government is ignoring the plain meaning of the law and twisting itself into knots in order to send taxpayer dollars to unions, who in turn can be counted on to protect themselves and reward those politicians it favors, using those same taxpayer dollars. This is clearly illegal and it's about as cynical a move as I've seen in 20 years of watching politics.
The bottom line is unions now basically have a veto power over a lot of things — whether or not teachers will be rewarded by performance, how tax dollars will be spent, whether or not pensions will conform to state law — things that the people should be able to decide. This turns everything on its head. The people run the government, not unions. This isn't about Republicans vs. Democrats, conservatives vs. liberals, or even capitalism vs. socialism. This is about democratic government, our ability to pass laws and make decisions and have them put into effect. At some point the union interest has to give way to the public interest. We just can't let this stand.
The reality is, most politicians don't care very much about public policy. They would be just as happy to support limited government, but the incentives on them are almost all to serve the special interests that want more spending, more regulation and more corporate welfare.
Here's what that means for you: We can't get rid of them, because they'd just be replaced by other political careerists influenced by the same rotten incentives. Just electing more Republicans next November won't fix our problems either. Your real work begins the day after the election, when the job becomes making sure the newly elected or re-elected state and federal lawmakers are more afraid to tick off you and your fellow Tea Party patriots than the SEIU or corporate-welfare seekers.
How can you do it? The first step is to find out what they're really up to, not just what they and the mainstream media choose to tell you about. Capitol Confidential and Michiganvotes are great places to start, and you can also learn a ton by becoming Facebook "friends" with political activists you trust.
Once you get plugged into some of these networks, the information you need will tend to find you — you won't have to go looking for it. By the way, don't just rely on Rush, Hannity or Beck. They're good entertainment, but yelling at your TV screen will never change the world.
Here's the bottom line: Political class members aren't stupid or crazy: Most of them know and understand what good public policy looks like. Most know and understand limited government principles.
They've mostly all read the Constitution.
The problem is, most just don't care very much, because it's not in their interest to care.
We need to make it in their interest to behave like they do care. Once they see this, the rest will take care of itself.
How many of you here are business owners? Or independent contractors? You work for yourself, right? You set your own working conditions, right? Call your own shots?
Imagine you wake up one day and find out you, the business owner, or you, the independent contractor, now belong to a union? Without ever having voted to join a union? And you don't even work for anyone.
That's exactly what happened to about 40,000 people in Michigan. Small-business owners who run day cares out of their own homes. Day care providers who file 1099s and have no employer to speak of. Gov. Jennifer Granholm has the power to end this scheme, by the way, but she won't. She has chosen to defend it.
I'm not here to bash the unions. They only did what they could get away with. But the reason they got away with it is what I'm here to talk about. The reason is that we, you and I, have fallen into some bad habits. That's right. Something my colleague Jack McHugh calls "Bad Habits of Democracy" that have gotten us where we are, and not just in stealth unionization of day care and home care providers.
The good news is, bad habits can be broken. The Mackinac Center wants to help.
Those bad habits include things like paying too much attention to the national and ignoring the state and local; accepting participation in the "sausage making" legislative process rather than demanding accountability from legislators; focusing only on social hot-button issues at the expense of real change; giving politicians credit for political careerism; defining your identity in terms of a political party or candidate;
Remember, information is power. Power to break all of these bad habits. That's where the Mackinac Center can help. When people are trying to quit smoking, some try things like special gum or patches. For these bad habits of democracy, the Mackinac Center has your limited government, back-to-basics, free-market equivalent of gum and patches!
Here's what our bad habit-breaking patches look like, and we already know they work. We have a Web site, www.michiganvotes.org, where you can look up any piece of legislation that is introduced and every vote that is recorded. That's where some folks, looking to break their bad habit, found Senate Bill 731 last fall. Remember that? A Republican senator introduced Senate Bill 731, which would have given legislative cover to the home care union scheme. Who wants to bet if that had happened, any business owner whose clients or customers get government subsidies would wake up one day and find they, too, belong to a union.
Grocery store owners whose customers get food stamps, landlords whose tenants get housing subsidies, doctors whose patients get Medicare.
With Michiganvotes, some citizens' groups spread the word around about this bill, in this legislator's own district. Senate Bill 731 has yet to see the light of day.
We also have Michigan Capitol Confidential. You can subscribe to it and get a bimonthly paper version, or a daily version is available online. You'll find out who voted how, and how to get a hold of those people.
We also have our main Web site, www.mackinac.org, where you'll find details policy issues that impact you on everything from labor to education to property rights.
Just being here today shows that you are ready, indeed you have already started, doing what is necessary to break these bad habits of democracy. We're here to help.