Michigan Population Numbers: How Long Before We Just Admit That This Strategy Isn’t Working?

The census numbers are in, and we’re unsurprised to learn that population growth is stagnant in parts of the great, grey north, like Michigan. Blue states are, meanwhiles, losing Congressional seats to the Sunbelt. Michigan posted an anemic, decennial growth rate of 193,691. In perspective, that’s one Grand Rapids, 1 2/3 of a St. Louis, 1/3 of a Detroit, 1/43rd of New York City, and 1/2,000,000th of one of those Chinese supercities that keep popping up. In percentage terms, 193,691 is 1.96% in ten years. Or 0.20% per year. This is shameful, Michigan. But, to quote the beloved Claudia Jean: “Outraged? I’m barely surprised.” This invites the burning question that should be on the mind of every policymaker and economic developer: Why do we keep doing things the same way and expecting different results? The definition of insanity, yes?

Macroeconomic trends & policy

There are some unavoidable issues that should be mentioned that are driving national trends. First, white people are having fewer babies. This isn’t controversial, but it’s only a cause for concern if you’re one of these Tucker Carlson types. When your population growth rate slows, you either come to terms with the decline, or you accept immigrants. Remember how Tokyo was one of the most expensive real estate markets, like, twenty years ago? Yeah, so, turns out that this changes— like, tectonically changes- when your country’s population ages and your ethnocentric closed state government doesn’t really allow immigration.

Want more population growth in Michigan? Allow more immigration. Refugees. They’ll contribute to economic growth plenty. Not so here, where deep red voters said no more immigration, no sirree! Hell, even the Chaldeans voted for Trump (whose administration then, um, promptly deported a bunch of Chaldeans? Wild how that happens when you elect a guy and he does the things he said he’s gonna do!).

Bad microeconomic policy

The big things dogging Michigan right now? We have so heavily subsidized an auto industry that is in a state of flux but also arguably one of decline. We’ve allowed the truckmakers to call the shots to the point that they don’t even talk about “jobs created,” they talk about “jobs preserved.” In the meantime, our infrastructure, well, just sucks. Our infrastructure is built such that the State effectively requires every worker to own a car. That costs every worker several thousand dollars per year.

We know that infrastructure investment is a driver of economic growth. Gretchen Whitmer ran on the catchy slogan to “fix the dyamn roads,” leaning the hell into that Michiganian “short a.” The closest she’s come to fixing the dyamn roads is empowering MDOT to flex its bonding capacity to, I kid you not, add more lane miles. Nay, this isn’t because the governor is evil. It’s because, in the gloomy musings of one of the interviewees from my thesis research, “I don’t really think the governor understands cities.” Of course, it doesn’t help that legislators like Matt Maddock think that city buses are communist.

New infrastructure = new growth

How about this? Let’s not add more lane miles. Let’s start measuring progress by demonstrated reduction in vehicle-miles-traveled, not by level-of-service. Fund fixed-route systems. Stop throwing princely sums of taxpayer money at corporations that the market is dragging, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century. Isn’t it enough that infrastructure policy effectively forces everyone to buy their products? Come on.

We– as professionals, citizens, or policymakers- understand this issue, broadly. But, while culture and leadership from the Executive on the issue would be nice, the legislature is substantially responsible for holding up progress. A spokesperson for MDOT told us that “these sorts of policies and laws are dependent on the Legislature […] Michigan, across the board, has under-invested in transportation for several decades. That applies to all modes — roads, transit, rail, etc.” It’s true. But when your own organization’s priorities are misaligned with those of the general public by your own admission, it’s kind of hard to just blame the legislature.

But wait, there’s more!

It’s possible for us to have our cake and eat it, too. In other words, the auto industry can even make money off this! A rising tide lifts all ships, for one. For two, innovative infrastructure must necessarily involve the big private sector players. These are the people who, for all of their many faults, know how to design, engineer, and mass produce things.

At present, though? Per the population numbers from the census, Michigan is losing out to Ohio. Michigan hates Ohio.

We can’t let Ohio win, now, can we?

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner, journalist, and social entrepreneur based in the border town of Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset.

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