The Powerlessness of the Powerful

jackhammerA Governor’s Story: The Fight For Jobs And America’s Economic Future by Jennifer M. Granholm and Dan Mulhern. PublicAffairs, 2011. 312 pp.

Many Americans who follow national affairs superimpose the plight of Detroit – once the symbol of American manufacturing and exporting prowess – on the state of Michigan. After the adoption of neo-liberal free trade agreements in the 1990s, jobs began to leak out through the cracks of an antiquated industrial framework that had not adapted to new technologies or management theories. Jennifer Granholm was elected to Michigan’s highest office as this leak burst into an outright flood.

Granholm and her husband, Dan Mulhern (she insisted they write together), analyze the difficulties of governance in a cash-strapped state. A Governor’s Story: The Fight For Jobs And America’s Economic Future takes its reader inside the head of the woman who ran one of America’s most troubled states from 2003 to 2011. The book contains both tedious and intense moments that combine to form an entertaining, important narrative of painful lessons learned.

The account of Granholm’s first months in office erases any doubt as to which job skill is most pertinent for running a government: crisis management. As calamities piled up, they consumed Granholm’s plans for Michigan – race riots, bankruptcies, outsourcing and mass layoffs, and a statewide power failure. Her grand visions for the state’s recovery from a period of weak economic growth vanished along with most of her campaign platform. Immediate budget cuts were necessary. Vividly described, stressful early meetings with staffers and business representatives underscore her worried question, “Where the hell is the rebound?”

The book is an engaging memoir. The authors forego the self-congratulatory tone of so many post-office volumes by probing the strains of office on their family life, as well as the governor’s inner conflicts with self-worth and desire for approval. One compelling story explores the nadir of Granholm’s psychological struggle with the weight of her office; Mulhern usefully reminds her not to internalize the problems of Michigan. In some passages, Granholm (the book is written in her voice) jumps off the page to convey the whirlwind of emotion and intellectual energy she experienced.

A Governor’s Story makes effective use of one tool Granholm mastered on the campaign trail: personal tales of struggle or success that provide lasting images in the minds of the audience. Through the course of the book, the reader becomes familiar with several out-of-work Michiganders, key business leaders, and government officials.

Roughly halfway through the book its tone shifts. Instead of crisis management, the authors focus on the larger theme of what political obstacles stood in Granholm’s way as she sought to rebuild the Michigan economy. In conversation, Mulhern says to his wife, “’We Democrats have completely capitulated to the conservative line on financing government. New taxes and revenue increases are off the table. We’re playing the game by the rules of the strangle-government crowd. Yet the voters don’t seem to think anything has changed.’” This is the defining paradox underlying our political era: the antigovernment movement is hardly a Republican phenomenon. Politicians on the left have adopted fiscal positions that were to the right of conservatives 30 years ago.

Granholm and Mulhern continue by pummeling the conservative theories that tax cuts will create economic and job growth. “To be clear, the cuts did create jobs…but not necessarily in America,” they write. “The loss of jobs in Michigan in the decade from 2000 to 2010 was directly related not to taxes but to globalization, productivity-boosting technological innovations, and the loss of market share by U.S. automakers.” Of course, Michigan was at special risk thanks to its reliance on the automotive industry: outsourced jobs by the Big Three automakers led to parts suppliers – brakes, aluminum, and so on – feeling the crush of free trade and lower wages abroad.

The winds of fortune swept into Michigan with the election of Barack Obama. A Governor’s Story makes him out to be a knight in shining armor – a much needed and welcome partner after years of laissez-faire national governance. (The book recounts a rather lame attempt at empathy from then-Vice President Dick Cheney, which the authors highlight as archetypal of the Bush administration.) The dominant theme of the book emerges as the story enters 2009: without the federal government spending initiatives, Michigan’s recovery would have been impossible. Indeed, the authors feel that this is true for every small- and mid-sized state in the country.

Many governors – and even the president – can learn valuable lessons from Granholm. As federal dollars started flowing, she learned to capitalize on the state’s comparative advantages: a pool of highly talented and well-educated graduates of its public universities, as well as tens of thousands of out-of-work manufacturing laborers. Her administration devised brilliant plans to subsidize the education of recently unemployed factory workers and bring in jobs in new growth sectors: large-scale batteries (for cars) along with wind and solar power. With new training, many of these former auto-industry employees have been able find to new jobs, and Michigan has seen modest job growth since 2010.

The concluding chapter of this book sketches what government must do to “reinvent our economy to be competitive in the twenty-first century” with a number of policy suggestions. Granholm and Mulhern do not delve into the gritty details of actionable legislative proposals. Though this decision saves the book some space and likely the authors’ time, greater detail is not beyond their expertise and would have been a welcome inclusion to this section of the book. Their eight ideas revolve around continued, deeper government involvement: from restructuring labor relations to recruiting foreign business to cutting excess bureaucracy, their ideas are pragmatic.

The weaknesses of A Governor’s Story are inherent in the timing of its publication: a handful of months is obviously not a sufficient period to step back and analyze the kinds of policy changes Granholm instituted in office. With that in mind, the authors are careful to not claim responsibility for a full recovery, though they point out that the state is on the right track. Another side effect of the book’s release is a series of eye-roll-inducing references to Republic candidates for presidential nomination. Their critiques of the policies of Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney (on several occasions), Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and even Mitch Daniels are, though forced, accurate and well founded. Still, the book would be better without this injection of current national politics that diminishes its value.

Granholm and Mulhern have written a book that should have impact beyond the elections this fall. As a work of political analysis, A Governor’s Story is discerning and reflective. However, its greater significance is as a window into the mind of a talented leader. Granholm inherited a disaster, and with further misfortune heaped upon her, was able (thanks to help from the federal government) to revitalize a state on life support.


Note: this review appeared in The Wagner Review on April 10, 2012.

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