By Tom Walsh
Detroit was a major example of the decimation of industrial jobs in America and unless the country reverses a scary decline in its education system, the economy is destined to sink, says best-selling author and renowned journalist Walter Isaacson.
Isaacson, former chairman and CEO of CNN and former editor of Time magazine, and biographer of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Henry Kissinger, is not so much a prophet of doom and gloom as he is a crusader for innovation to succeed in a fast-changing world.
In an interview with the Detroiter, Isaacson, a keynote speaker at the 2017 Mackinac Policy Conference, discussed the economic rise and fall of Detroit, the recent signs of revival, and the importance of education to the future success of the United States overall and Michigan in particular.
“We used to have the best education system in the world, so we had the best economy,” Isaacson said of America. “Now our education system ranks about 20th in the world.”
Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM), the state’s group of corporate CEOs and university presidents, has sounded that same alarm in recent years. At its 2015 CEO Summit, BLM reported that Michigan ranked 31st among the 50 states in educational attainment. As a result, despite an uptick in the state’s economy since the 2009 economic recession, Michigan ranks 36th in per capita income — $11,000 below the national average.
“The auto industry went into decline, and the cost of building cars in Detroit was higher than shifting those jobs elsewhere,” said Isaacson, reflecting on the industrial heartland’s ups and downs. “These trends gutted the city’s middle class. At the same time, the growth of the suburbs and of crime caused people to move out of the city. Detroit is now one of the cities reversing this trend. It has begun luring people back to town, and it is revitalizing and restoring its urban core.”
Isaacson cited a growing entrepreneurial ecosystem as a critical force in the city’s reversal.
“I think we all have been deeply impressed by the efforts, led by (Quicken Loans founder and chairman) Dan Gilbert and others, to restore the downtown area,” he said. “I think the key is attracting entrepreneurs and small business owners. In addition, the center of Detroit has refurbished many of its historic buildings, and it can build on being a cultural destination.
“Entrepreneurs have always taken risks and challenged conventional wisdom, said Isaacson, whose most recent best-seller, “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution” profiles tech giants who disrupted their industry. Profiles include Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates and Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited for inventing the internet.
“It is useful to be tolerant of diverse ideas and approaches,” Isaacson said. “That is what cities like Detroit have to offer.”
And what role should government play in economic renewal?
“The important thing that America needs — and Detroit in particular needs — is a major effort to rebuild infrastructure. That is the most important role that the public sector can play,” Isaacson said.
A key component is a bold overhaul of the nation’s approach to education.
“When we moved from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, we in America made high school free and universal,” Isaacson said. “Now we are moving into an age that is more dependent on information and entrepreneurship, so we need to do something equally bold. We need to create an educational system that is pre-K to 14. By that, I mean that every kid deserves quality pre-K education, so that he or she can get a decent opportunity to succeed. And education should be free and universal through at least two years of college, trade school, or career and technical education.”
“Education used to be an equalizer of opportunity. Now it perpetuates disparities of opportunities,” Isaacson added. “That must change as well.”