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From Mackinac Island: A Culture Change

Almost the first words at this year's Mackinac Policy Conference were about changing Michigan?s culture. Yesterday, during an opening session featuring young entrepreneurs, Rick DeVos, founder of Grand Rapids' now- famous ArtPrize, said that culture change was the key to making this state prosperous again.

Each of the other pioneers on the panel agreed with him. Dave Zilko, who turned a five thousand dollar loan from his girlfriend into a hundred-million-dollar salsa company, said he was seeing a culture change that has to continue and our state's successful future depended on our adopting a new mind-set.

One where our prevailing attitude is that "we can do this."  Moments before their panel, an upbeat Governor Snyder opened the conference. Though he?s still not wearing ties, he has become much more confident and a much better public speaker than he was when he took office, possibly in part because his policies have met with some success. ?We are the comeback state in the United States right now,? he told an enthusiastic crowd. He said we all ought to speak up more about Michigan?s strengths, successes, and resurgence.

The day's main celebrity event was an inspiring speech by the internationally renowned CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria, who assured the audience that the American and world economies are actually in much better shape, especially long-term, than today's headlines indicated. But he too said culture change was necessary.

Especially, that is, in America. We have to be willing to cut spending on entitlement programs, he seemed to be saying, especially for the elderly. But we also need to vastly increase spending on investments in our future.

That means raising taxes to fix our roads and bridges and other parts of our aging and neglected infrastructure. But it also means investing in education. Right now, he said America's priorities seem to be too much about the present and the past.

Hours later, almost the last words spoken yesterday were also about culture change. Congressman Hansen Clarke, who represents a large portion of inner-city Detroit, said his largely desperately poor constituents needed a culture change too.

One involving the way they viewed education. Too many children in Detroit have parents who can barely read or write themselves. Those are generally not homes that value learning.

Unless and until that changes, they had no hope. And the congressman said what nobody else was willing to say openly, which was that in the final analysis, ?Michigan can only be viewed as being a comeback state if Detroit is viewed as a comeback city.

It is hard to disagree with anything said yesterday. And yet, I am a little uncomfortable with the hint that we simply ought to cut entitlement programs, and leave the elderly and dysfunctional by the side of the road. Congressman Clarke was once virtually homeless, and told the conference that a temporary job through a government program enabled him to reclaim his dignity and self-respect.

Nobody doubts that Michigan needs new ways of thinking. The days of highly paid unskilled labor are gone forever. But not everyone can be bright, young, and a highly inspired innovator.

It seems to me that we ought to remember that those who aren't are part of our society too.