Interview with Jennifer Granholm: On Infrastructure Investment, AmeriCorps Expansion, and the Need for the Media to call out Obstructionists

Interview editor Ingrid Stegemoeller recently had the opportunity to sit down with Jennifer Granholm, former Governor of Michigan. Jennifer Granholm  shares a few thoughts on the labor market and the recovery, and how Michigan offers a blueprint for other states. She also talks about her different experiences between the Bush and Obama administrations in getting things done in the States. The full interview will be available in the print edition of the Georgetown Public Policy Review, available in Spring 2012.

Georgetown Public Policy Review: Education is a key component to this country’s future economic success, both for young people and for adults whose jobs no longer exist. In Michigan, you started the No Worker Left Behind program, which has successfully retrained more than 150,000 Michigan citizens. This initiative has national promise. What recommendations can you provide for federal policy makers in using your model?

Jennifer Granholm: In Michigan, we had to go to the federal government to get waivers from the restrictions that are embedded in the current Workforce Investment Act and Trade Adjustment Assistance money. We asked for a waiver to allow us to have the flexibility to craft a program that would serve our population, which obviously had been enormously affected by the changes in the manufacturing sector and the auto industry. They gave us permission to do that, and also provided additional funds with the Recovery Act. And so I said in the State of the State address: we will pay for the tuition of the first 100,000 people who come in the door for two years, $5,000 per year, up to $10,000 per worker. But the catch is you must agree to be trained in an area of need. And so, we had worked with our community colleges and our business community in each region of the state to identify those areas of need. And we crafted, in partnership with the community colleges, programs to address those displaced workers that would land them a job at the end. That was the structure of the program.

The federal changes that need to happen are to provide states with flexibility, or at least to upgrade our current labor laws and the laws related to compensation for workers who have been displaced. The rules are very rigid and there are a lot of hoops to jump through. But the reality is that in a 21st century global economy, the ability to retrain people and to be creative about it, and to be responsive to the private sector, must be much more robust. And I use in the book, for example, what Germany has done. Instead of requiring people to continually search for a job as opposed to going to get retrained while they’re on unemployment benefit as we do in the United States, Germany encourages apprenticeships which allows people to remain employed. They essentially subsidize employment rather than unemployment. In down cycles, the manufacturers really like that because they’ve got a skilled workforce they don’t have to lay off and then rehire. Instead, they just reduce worker hours and account for the down cycle in that way.

So the bottom line is that our system, which was developed and perfectly fine in the last century, is antiquated when you compare it to a global economy and the rapidly changing needs of the private sector in that global economy.

GPPR: Another demographic that’s suffering as a result of this recession is 20-somethings looking to begin their careers. Many in this age group are having difficulty finding work, even though they are educated. What are your thoughts on ensuring young people are able to get a successful start to their professional lives?

JG: I think one of the most significant and best programs that has come out of the federal government, which I would love to see ten times bigger, is AmeriCorps. Especially during a tough time when it’s not obvious that there are jobs and the recovery is slow this gives young people the opportunity to serve their country. If they don’t want to serve it in war, they can serve their nation in schools, in conservation, or in health care. To be able to ramp up that program to me is a huge opportunity without a whole lot of cost.

I say this as a mother of two young people who are in their 20s, who both have gone into AmeriCorps, who both have served in the toughest of urban schools through CityYear, and who have come out of that experience feeling it was the best experience they’d ever had. They train people in leadership, they give back to the community, and it’s a win-win-win all the way around. I would love to see a much bigger emphasis on the part of the federal government in supporting initiatives that would allow young people to have the opportunity to go to a different place, serve their country in a very meaningful way, and get a lot back themselves.

GPPR: Similarly, in your book, you discuss the differences in your experiences with the Bush and Obama administrations in terms of the support you received from the federal government while the auto industry was floundering. Talk about the importance of the state-federal relationship and where you see opportunities for additional partnership.

JG: The states simply do not have the resources to compete globally for jobs. All we can do is compete against one another as states. This weekend [Feb. 24-26, 2012], it is the National Governors Association meeting in Washington, DC. I can guarantee you that governors will go there and sort of nudge each other and say, “Ha, I got that company to come to Ohio from Massachusetts because I was able to put these types of incentives on the table.” We’re always vying against one another for job locations inside the United States.

But the reality is, jobs in a global economy are moving to places that have lower wages than any of us would ever want to provide, and to countries that are being very aggressive in offering access to capital and assembling land for investment in factories, etc. So we’ve got to have a state-federal partnership on economic development. Obviously Race to the Top is one idea, but truly the states need to leverage federal dollars to be able to go after international investment and encourage that investment to happen inside the United States. It is true on economic development and it is true—and happens right now—on health care. Medicaid, for example, is a state-federal partnership. Left alone, the states will never be able to compete against China, against India, or against any of these emerging nations. We simply don’t have the resources. You have to have a partnership with the federal government.

GPPR: One of the many problems you pose in your book addresses infrastructure, and the fact that states and the country have chronically underinvested in schools, the energy grid, the health care system and more. How do you propose to fix these problems when state and federal budgets are still stretched tight?

JG: First of all, we have to look at our investments relative to the rest of the advanced nations. If you look at the percentage of their GDP that other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations invest in infrastructure, you would see a significant difference from the United States. Other countries understand the importance of investment in these basics—not just hard infrastructure, but soft infrastructure too. When I say soft I mean making sure we have high-speed Internet or making sure we have investment in human capital. Other countries are doing this to a much greater extent and they’re using it as a way to lure industry to their shores.

So, for example, yesterday [Feb. 22, 2012] the President and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney each rolled out a tax plan. This morning there are some front-page headlines that compare at least the concepts in these tax plans. And on the Republican side, what they are doing is projecting forward massive deficits. Therefore they would be depriving our nation of the investments in the infrastructure of our country so that we can be competitive by providing corporate tax cuts. But if you ask industry, they would say we want to see the United States invest in infrastructure as part of the common good, so that we can hire people who are trained, so that our products can travel on roads that are smooth and so that we can ensure that electricity gets to our factories. All of that is part of the common good, so we have to have a rational investment strategy, which means a rational revenue strategy that supports those investments. And that means a rational tax policy that will sustain the investments necessary for them and for our nation to be competitive.

GPPR: You did experience some pretty intense gridlock in Lansing during your time as governor. What ideas do you have for easing some of that?

JG: I think you’ve got to make a very concerted effort to call out people who have been sent to the capitol for the purpose of obstructing. If they have gone there for that purpose, they will succeed in obstructing. And if that’s what you want, by all means elect those kinds of people. But if you want to see progress and movement, if you want to see collaboration, if you don’t think compromise is a dirty word, then you have to remove the obstructionists from office and put in people who are willing to make progress. That is the biggest suggestion that I have. Call out the people who are obstructing, point them out, by name, and ask the citizens to remove them.

GPPR: You have a new show on Current TV, “The War Room.” What are your thoughts on the role of the media in calling out people who have been elected to serve?

JG: The media have been completely lame about it, especially places like CNN, ABC or NBC. They feel like they have to give equal time to both sides. I think they have had a dereliction of duty in not pointing the finger at why things don’t get done. Everybody knows it, everybody sees it, but there’s this notion that you’ve got to have this false equivalency, and have people on from each side, so you don’t get to the bottom of it.

I want to see the media call folks out, even on simple things like who won a debate. If you think somebody won the debate say it, but don’t say, “Well, this side said this, and that side said this.” Even if it was super clear, many in the media don’t feel like they can call it because they have to be balanced. I think the idea of balance has elevated the side that has obstructed, honestly, and given them some legitimacy when everybody knows where the problem lies. The media have been an accomplice.

GPPR: On a related note, what advice can you give to young people interested in public policy leadership?

JG: I so strongly urge public policy students to consider running for office. We’ve got such a need for people who are of pure heart, and who only want to make the nation better. There’s such a level of distrust and discord and disgust with politics that often people are dissuaded from running. But if you really want to serve your nation, you’ve to raise your hand, you’ve got to serve to make it better.

Jennifer Granholm served as Governor of Michigan from 2003-2011. She is a Distinguished Practitioner of Law and Public Policy at UC Berkeley. Granholm and her husband, Dan Mulhern, recently authored the bestselling political book, A Governor’s Story: The Fight for Jobs and America’s Economic Future, which tells how Michigan pioneered ways out of a perfect economic storm—and offers proven advice for a nation desperate to create jobs. She recently became the host of “The War Room with Jennifer Granholm” on Current TV, which airs weeknights at 9/8c.

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