To have an impact on policy, you need to persuade your audience. To help convince people that our policies will help, we try to tell stories of people that highlight our issues. The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation does a great job, and we work hard to find people that can put a face on our policies. Stories are best used when supported by the underlying evidence, however. Amazon’s recent decision to exclude any Michigan location from its second headquarters project is an example of how the data can be ignored when there’s a captivating story.
Amazon is a high-profile company and staple of the new economy. Its new headquarters project is a big story. To put the size of its second headquarters in context, the 50,000 jobs the company pledged is more than all those people currently employed in the state by Ford.
Amazon’s place in the economy and the size of its proposed facility makes the company a magnet for politicians. The officials that eventually land the headquarters will say that their city or state is the place of the future. They will thump their chests and use Amazon’s presence to plug whatever policy they’d like, regardless of whether those policies made any difference in the decision.
Yet for all of the hype, the Amazon headquarters would still be a story — a single example. What determines how well an economy performs is not having a story, however. It is instead seen in the data. If a state is adding jobs and becoming more prosperous, it shows up in the economic data.
There’s something underappreciated in the numbers, which reflect a massive job turnover that happens without public furor. Michigan lost 199,000 jobs in the second quarter of 2017 and it added 215,000 jobs during the same period. These changes happen without hitting the news or asking politicians for either favors or permission.
Michigan lost the jobs equivalent of four Amazon headquarters and added more than four Amazon headquarters in just one quarter. Three months. In the current recovery, Michigan has added 596,000 more jobs than it has lost.
There is a lesson in this quiet turnover. Broad improvements to the state business climate can encourage more jobs and discourage job loss more effectively than landing a big project, even if the big projects get significant media attention.
Still, the narrative of a single example is powerful. The 215,000 new jobs rising up across the economy without fanfare can’t give credit to a state lawmaker. Amazon can. Politicians feel no heat for the loss of 199,000 jobs, but may feel uncomfortable for having lost the Amazon bid.
Even though stories like Amazon cannot improve an economy by themselves, politicians are willing to devote huge sums of taxpayer dollars to lure them. Buying a symbol of growth is more important to politicians than actual growth, at least if growth comes without credit. Politics favors a spectacle while improvements in people’s lives lie quietly in the data.
There is no shortage of people in Michigan and around the country trying to use Amazon’s story to leverage their policy agenda. Yet, this should be a case where the data is more important than the story. Taxpayer dollars can buy you an example. But they won’t influence the broader job creation environment that people need for the state to become better off.