At the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce Leadership Conference on Mackinac Island last week Gov. Jennifer Granholm proposed that a commission be formed which would recommend ways to make Michigan’s urban areas “cool.” She wants to make them, in other words, more attractive to young adults.
While the governor has displayed admirable instincts when it comes to fixing state budget woes without raising taxes, those instincts have misled her in this case. There certainly is room for legitimate concern about the inability of Michigan cities to attract young professionals. But Gov. Granholm’s idea is exactly the wrong way to go about fixing the problem.
First of all, “coolness” is both difficult to define and highly subjective. Judgments as to what is and is not cool can change dramatically within a few months or weeks. Trends in fashion, music, and art come and go too quickly for any committee to keep track of, let alone make whatever arrangements are needed to capitalize on them. Taking advantage of trends requires the capacity for quick and daring action, traits one does not typically associate with either governments or committees, much less government committees.
Second, cool tends to be antiestablishmentarian. From James Dean to modern hip-hop, what’s “cool” has tended to be whatever upsets authority figures. As governor, Jennifer Granholm definitely qualifies as an authority figure. Consequently, any determination by a committee of her appointees that something is “cool” will have the potential to instantly render it passe’.
In short, nothing could be less “cool” than a government program. Depending on its focus, Granholm’s “Committee on Cool” would be in serious danger of turning into the functional equivalent of the old high-school yearbook committee, more a recorder of old fashions than a maker of new ones. It would be a shame for her image as a no-nonsense budget cutter to be tarnished by something silly.
State and local government would be better off leaving matters of fashion, music, and art, those parts of life where coolness matters most, to private individuals and the voluntary associations they form for commerce, culture, and recreation.
To the extent that political leaders can make their communities cool, we already know what works: Cool cities have an innovative, risk-taking atmosphere — they are places where entrepreneurs are free to invent new products, services and styles, whether the field is computers, making products, music, art, or fashion, the key is not government leadership but creativity unleashed by freedom.
The politician's contribution — and it’s an important one — is a government that provides security of persons and property, while keeping taxes modest, allowing creative people to create and trendsetters to set trends. This formula has brought new life, including nightlife, to cities like Indianapolis and Cleveland. There’s no reason it couldn’t work for Detroit. The Mackinac Center recently recommended 77 ways for the legislature to apply this formula in Michigan.
It is possible that Gov. Granholm is looking for a way to promote lower taxes and regulatory reform among local governments. If that is what she has in mind then her committee can be worthwhile.
Otherwise, some sound advice to her would be simply: “Cool it.”
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Paul Kersey is a labor research associate for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit research and educational institute. He recently testified before the Michigan legislature on the effects of “living wage” ordinances on Michigan cities.