Go Tell the Spartans

Lansing, Michigan – The Spartans of old were the lightly armed, highly determined warriors that defended the pass at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. against a vastly superior force of Persians, bent on the complete destruction of Greece. The modern Spartans are the lightly armed and highly determined municipal officials who battle to prevent Michigan from being overrun by economic collapse, commercial oblivion and social chaos.

You may chuckle at the comparison, but it is this vision that sprang to mind during a day-long forum last week with 30 state and local elected officials and professional staff in Michigan. I came face to face with the resilience of leaders who are bent on rebuilding the economic prosperity of their communities and that of their neighbors.

These are not starry-eyed Pollyannas. Rather, they are clear-headed realists who have gotten very good a calculating and managing risk and confronting and solving problems.

There is innovation here in good measure. Born of necessity and practicality, the use of shared service agreements between cities are commonplace, albeit still challenging. At a time when “place making” and “livability principles” are often ideas for philosophical discussions elsewhere, Michigan cities are defining place for their own needs and creating a framework that can support economic recovery statewide.

Complaints are minimal but when they come forth they are focused and reasoned. For example, the leaders want CDBG rules that are flexible enough to allow targeted funding to neighborhoods which can be transitioned to PERMANENT stability rather than spent in those places that will need an annual infusion of grant funds and which are unlikely to ever stabilize.

Ideas abound. Michigan is a state rich in water resources. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), half the world’s population will be living under severe water stress by 2030, making water perhaps the planet’s most valuable resource. Michigan, it seems, will be ready for that eventuality.

Cautious optimism seems to be the general sentiment. Leaders are experimenting and city workers are taking ownership of streamlined procedures. There are tasks still to be done but there is a confidence that is reinforced by steady progress.

I can’t help thinking that governing the country would be a lot more effective if Members of Congress could approach their work with the same objective and practical views as do the local officials with whom I spoke in Michigan.

America in the Last Lane

As any competitive or recreational swimmer knows, the swimming pool has a strict hierarchy of performance and expectation. At one end of the pool are the fast lanes and at the other end are the slow lanes. In the fast lanes are found the competitive tri-athletes, the varsity collegiate swimmers and the Olympic wannabees. For them, the fast lanes are an earned achievement won on speed, power, strength, constant effort and steady improvement over time.

It’s easy to slip from the fast lanes into the slow lanes. Skip a few workouts, cut back on interval training, sell your kick-board for a cooler set of swimwear and soon enough you’ve lost the competitive edge. Your fall from competitive status arrives when the Life Guard’s steady finger points to you and then over in the direction of the slower lanes. In your embarrassment you realize that you have been “Last Laned,” sent to swim with the lesser mortals, those who do not aspire to be best, fastest or even most improved.

There is a lesson here for policy makers. (In this blog there always is!) America has always viewed itself as a Fast Lane nation. Americans live by a creed of self-improvement, high expectation, performance, effort and achievement. But, every time we travel in a car, board a train, log-on to the Internet or lower the temperature of the air conditioner on a sweltering summer day, we bear witness to the limits of the nation’s infrastructure. In this field of endeavor, we are not putting forth our best effort.

Forget the studies from engineers and think tanks, and reflect on personal experience. Count the crumbling sidewalks or streets you walk on or drive on. Count the minutes it takes to reach your Facebook page or download a YouTube video. Count the cost and inconvenience of flying to a destination a few hundred miles away and then imagine the values that would accrue if you could reach that destination by a high-speed intercity train.

Like those once very competitive swimmers, the United States has lost a competitive advantage in infrastructure. We are not the best in the world. Because of a failure to invest, we have been “Last Laned.”

The budget deficit and the national debt have frightened this country down to the bottom of our wallets. The word “invest” is now viewed as shorthand for “tax and spend.” What people fail to realize is that in an economy as large as America’s (still the largest in the world), debt decreases proportionally as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increases.

Investing in infrastructure puts people to work and channels money into their pockets. That economic activity, both the investing in roads, rails and ports, as well as the spending by individual workers, increases economic activity and increases GDP, which thereby decreases the national debt. This is the kind of investment that makes America a competitive performer. Improving infrastructure earns the country a place in the Fast Lane rather than in the Last Lane.