Ted McClelland on fleeing “Michissippi” and why we’ll never be able to keep our brightest young people from Chicago

Here on the site last week, I twice invoked an article that had appeared on Salon.con entitled Right-to-work bill: Michigan just gives up. Well, the second time I did so, the author of the piece, Ted McClelland, left a comment. And, from there, a short email exchange ensued, resulting in the following interview. I hope that you enjoy it.

MARK: Your work came to the attention of a number of us here in Michigan a few days ago, when you penned an article for Salon entitled “Welcome to Michissippi.” The title of the article, if I’m not mistaken, after being online for a day or so, was then changed to, “Right-to-work bill: Michigan just gives up.” I realize that authors rarely choose their own headlines, and that you might be bit out of the loop as to why the change was made, but, before we get into the content of the article, and your thoughts on the future of Michigan, I thought that I’d ask if you knew what motivated the change. Was it seen as too inflammatory? Did people complain? Or did they just decide to focus on the right-to-work angle as it was the hot topic of the day, having just passed?

TED: I was the one who suggested the “Welcome to Michissippi” headline. It was used as a cover on the main website, and, then, when you clicked through, the “Michigan gives up” headline appeared. I was worried that it wouldn’t be understood by people outside of Michigan, but it seems to have attracted a lot of attention from Michiganders.

MARK: This isn’t really a question, but I’d like to thank you for lighting a fire beneath our collective ass by saying in the national press what a lot of us have been saying here in Michigan for years… that instead of positioning ourselves to be successful in the future, we’re positioning ourselves to be a third-tier state.

TED: I’ve been writing about this for 20 years. I wrote an essay called “Living the Lansing Dream” for Gen X anthology called “Next: Young American Writers on the New Generation” in 1994. The Lansing dream was moving away from Lansing. The right-to-work bill showed me the consequences of the outmigration I’ve been part of. As Michigan becomes older and less educated, it becomes more reactionary.

MARK: Do you think the passage of that bill that had more to do with the outmigration of young, educated Michiganders, or the fact that labor union membership and activity has been waning in recent years?

TED: I think it’s the fact that labor union activity has been waning for decades in Michigan. For a long time it wasn’t certain whether the United Auto Workers was a special interest in the Michigan Democratic Party or the Michigan Democratic Party was special-interest of the United Auto Workers. As the UAW got weaker the Democrats got weaker, and the Republicans saw a chance to weaken them both even further.

MARK: Your article in Salon, for those folks in the audience who haven’t read it, has at it’s core the vastly uneven rivalry between Chicago and Michigan over young, talented, college-educated workers. From my own perspective, as a Michigander who has seen a number of bright friends migrate to Chicago (and elsewhere), my sense is that it’s a huge and growing problem, but I’ve never seen hard data from the State of Michigan, the University of Michigan, or Michigan State, for instance, to confirm that suspicion. Do we know definitively how many of our college graduates each year make their way to Chicago? And do we know for certain that it’s getting worse?

TED: There was a Detroit News series in 2010 that said half the recent Michigan State college graduates left the state immediately, and the city with the most recent graduates is Chicago. In Chicago, there’s a bar for every Big Ten school, but Michigan State has 14. That’s more than the University of Illinois. I interviewed an engineering grad from Michigan who’d grown up in Detroit, and I asked him whether he’d have an easier time finding his classmates there, or in Chicago. He looked at me like I was an idiot. “Oh, Chicago, of course,” he said.

MARK: I think that most of us have that same impression, but I don’t know that there are definitive numbers. And, in absence of them, it’s hard to know whether we’re moving in the right direction. At any rate, the State at least says that reversing the brain drain is a priority. For the past few years, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation has been pursuing a campaign called “MichAGAIN,” with the intention of luring some of these folks back. I suspect they’ve done a significant amount of polling, but I don’t know, however, if they’ve ever shared their findings. Would you happen to know whether or not the campaign has been successful?

TED: I’ve not heard of that campaign. Nobody contacted me and asked me to come back.

MARK: Here, in case you’re interested, is a quote from Michigan Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Michael Finney, taken from the most recent MichAGAIN newsletter, which, in case you’re interested, invites Michigan ex-pats, like yourself, to attend a reception on December 27, at the Renaissance Center, to find out about employment opportunities in the state. “We have a message for Michigan natives who moved away in difficult times: today’s Michigan is not the Michigan you left behind,” said Finney. “Employers are hiring, new businesses are calling Michigan home, and the entrepreneurial spirit that built this great state is alive and well. Michigan needs your talent and experience to insure our businesses will continue to thrive and help grow the state’s economy.” The newsletter then goes on to rattle off a number of facts concerning the economic climate in Michigan. Among these are a Comerica report stating that our “economic activity index” is at a 10-year high, and one from the Bay Area Council Economic Institute stating that we’re the 3rd-best state in the nation when it comes to high tech job growth. I know they’re hosting events in Chicago as well. Do you get the sense that people are buying it?

TED: I’ve always said that Michigan didn’t become great because of the auto industry, the auto industry became great because of a Michigander. Michiganders are creative and entrepreneurial people; however, as I pointed out in the Salon article, the greatest tycoon Michigan has produced in this century is Larry Page, and he lives in California.

MARK: In your article for Salon, you say that, twenty years ago, after graduating from Michigan State, you moved to Chicago, along with all of your friends. As things in Michigan weren’t so terrible 20 years ago, at least relative to today, would I be right to assume that there were others things luring you there? In other words, as much as I’d like to attribute the brain drain to economics and politics, isn’t it probably true that a great many young people move to Chicago because it’s a relatively functional large city, where a lot of interesting things are happening, and where there’s a sizable dating pool? Which isn’t to say, of course, that politics and economics haven’t played a part in keeping Detroit from becoming such a destination. It may be a distinction without a difference, but I wonder if, in other words, we’re losing the war with Chicago just because we don’t have a thriving metropolis during a period in our history when bright young people are being disproportionately drawn to cities.

TED: Twenty years ago, the country was in a recession, and Detroit’s murder rate was its all-time high, because of the crack wars. When I graduated from MSU’s College of Arts and Letters, I don’t think any of the people surrounding me at commencement had a full-time job. I actually lived in Washington D.C., and Decatur, Illinois, working on a newspaper, for two and half years before I moved to Chicago. But so many of my friends from Lansing had moved there, I was able to plug right into a community. It was like being an immigrant. I think young people have always been drawn to cities. One thing I learned is that Chicago’s success comes at the expense of the other cities in the region. There can only be one Midwestern metropolis. It’s a consequence of globalization. Just as money and education are flowing to fewer people, they’re flowing to fewer cities… The Midwest only has room for one big destination city. The book “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism” by Richard C. Longworth describes this phenomenon well. In its first golden age, from the 1890s to the 1920s, Chicago was luring young people from the farms. Now it’s luring them from the smaller industrial cities.

MARK: That’s awfully fatalistic. If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re saying that Michigan can never compete, as Chicago, having already won the race, and become the dominant regional player, will always attract the best and brightest. Is there really nothing that can be done? Aren’t there other examples of functioning, financially-viable cities existing within a 250-mile radius of a thriving metropolis?

TED: I’ll quote from Dick Longworth’s book: “This is the manufacturing heartland of America, and much of the manufacturing took place in the small towns and cities that radiated out from metropolitan centers such as Chicago or Detroit. The industrial era needed a lot of these cities. The global era doesn’t. Globalization concentrates everything and is concentrating the new workforce-educated knowledge workers, the creative people, the idea-mongers-in cities. You don’t need to scatter the production of ideas across the countryside, as you scattered the production of goods. You need to bring ideas together in one place and let them bounce off each other.” In truth, the best and the brightest have always gone to cities. Skilled, hard-working people with some secondary education could lead a middle class life back in the old home town, working in the local factories. That’s what’s gone now, and it dooms these towns, just as surely as it has doomed the old rusting mill by the tracks.

MARK: Speaking of Michigan cities, I’m curious if you’ve spent much time in Grand Rapids? It pains me to say it a bit, as I’m not a fan of the Amway empire, but it really seems to me that they’ve been doing a lot of things right (i.e. investing in local entrepreneurship, education, sustainability, health care, the arts, etc.), in spite of what’s happening in the rest of the state, where we seem intent on cutting taxes to the point of collapse. While their population numbers certainly aren’t large enough to put them in the same league with Chicago, I wonder whether there may be a lesson to two to be learned from their experience. And I wonder whether any parts of the Grand Rapids model could be replicated elsewhere around the state. Personally, I think it would be difficult, as much of what they’ve done has been made possible by personal philanthropy, the likes of which we don’t see elsewhere in the state, but I think it’s a question worth asking.

TED: I haven’t spent much time in Grand Rapids. I do know it tilts a little more toward Chicago. And, as not everyone wants to live in a big city, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and even Lansing may be good models for people who want a smaller town life.

MARK: A few days ago, after your article was released, our Governor, Rick Snyder, sat down with reporters from the Detroit Free Press, who asked him directly whether or not his recent passage of right-to-work legislation would drive away the young high-tech entrepreneurs, members of the so-called “creative class,” and new graduates. He essentially said that young people don’t care about right-to-work. Is he right?

TED: I don’t know how much they specifically obsess over right-to-work, but as Brian Dickerson pointed out in the Free Press, they want to live in a forward-looking, progressive state, and right to work is a sign of a state moving backwards.

MARK: You mentioned in the Salon article that, six years ago, you attempted to move back to Michigan, but were only able to find one job, which paid $25,000 a year, and offered no vacation time. You, as a result, decided to stay in Chicago. I’m curious if you could speak a bit about the kinds of jobs that you were finding in Michigan at that time, and what, if any, change you’ve seen since then… I don’t know if you’ve looked for a job in Michigan since, but I imagine that, in doing research for your new book, “Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times, and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland,” you’ve had the occasion to look into hiring trends here, and I’m wondering what you found… The reason I ask is that, in the article, you write, “Michigan has lost so many educated workers that the state’s leadership seems to feel it has no choice but to become a low-wage haven. The kind of place that attracts chicken processors, not software engineers.” And I’m wondering whether the data supports that. Do we know, for instance, that jobs for software engineers are declining, while low-wage jobs are growing?

TED: Interestingly, I ended up taking a job at a magazine with offices in Northwest Indiana, and I lived in New Buffalo. But I was laid off after a year, and the magazine went out of business a year after that, during the 2008 recession. So I bounced back to Chicago, where I wrote a book about President Obama, so it was all good. Since then, I haven’t had enough confidence in Michigan’s economy to entrust my career to it. In Lansing, I did visit a high-tech business called Niowave, which employs skilled craftsmen to build cyclotrons. Most were retired autoworkers, not earning as much as they had in the shop. An important trend is the auto industry’s two-tier wage system, which starts workers at $14 an hour, half of what their more experienced linemates earn. I think that shows there are not as many high-wage jobs as there used to be, even in supposedly high wage industries. Anecdotally, the shopping center near my mom’s house is now anchored by a Laundromat, a dollar store, and a plasma center.

MARK: Sorry for the detour, but, as you mentioned your earlier book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President, I’m curious to know if you might have any insight, given what you learned about him as a young politician in Chicago, as to how he might lead in his second term, especially as pertains to this fiscal cliff that we’re now approaching. Also, I’m curious as to how much access you had to him, if any, when writing that book.

TED: I had my access to him in 2000 and 2004, when he was running for Congress and Senate. I still have the tape of the nearly 2 hour long interview we did in 2000. As for the fiscal cliff, I tell people “I’m an expert on what Obama did 10 years ago, not what he’s doing now.”

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  1. Cheryl W
    Posted December 24, 2012 at 1:23 am | Permalink

    Mark, in Washtenaw County, it seems we employ more people commuting from outside our community. Many people come in from Ohio, even. I believe we have many skilled employees here who remain unemployed or under-employed in spite of their skills and experience.. The person that surprised me the most was a St Joe cafeteria worker who was commuting from Ohio! I know they also have large hospitals there. the mapping of employment trends is complex. I suspect there are also people here commuting to Ohio for work from here.

  2. Edward
    Posted December 24, 2012 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Like you, I suspect there’s something to what he’s saying. I found it frustrating, though, that every time you asked for data supporting his claims, he responded with anecdotes. I’d like to know the clod, hard facts concerning the number of young people leaving the state each year.

  3. Sebastian
    Posted December 24, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Huge amount of Michiganders end up in Seattle too.

  4. Topher
    Posted December 24, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    It made me a little sad that one of the video “testimonials” on MichAGAIN’s website has only about 1700 views (after a year of being up). The other has 42,000 after about a year and a half.

    I moved back to Michigan after being gone for 5 years. While I love Michigan, it’s hard for me to recommend it to friends who ask. At least in the Education field, I would not recommend that educators come to Michigan. Nor do I feel that Michigan in currently family, gay, women, lower socio-economic status, working and middle class friendly.

  5. Stupid Hick
    Posted December 24, 2012 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Interesting that you compare the State of Michigan to the city of Chicago. Not sure what it implies, just curious why not state vs state or city vs city.

  6. Eel
    Posted December 24, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    So, free drinks at the Ren Cen on the 27th? What time should I be there?

  7. Gillian
    Posted December 24, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I know I’m being oversensitive, but I feel like this guy is calling me a stupid hick for staying here. I mean “ideas can only happen in huge cities” pretty much discounts all the interesting and exciting things happening in Detroit, all the entrepreneurship around art and food happening in this region. I moved back because of those exciting things, but this guy (and my parents’ friends, and probably most of Rick Snyder’s people whenever they are not hosting MichAgain events) look down their noses at young educated people who chose to stay in Michigan, especially if we’re wasting time with something other than starting new high-tech companies. Sorry, but I want there to be more to my economy than that.

    Also, Cheryl W, I am *shocked* to hear that people outside Washtenaw County work for our county’s many large employers… To hear Ann Arbor City Council tell it, Ann Arbor’s success is built 100% by Ann Arbor residents. Maybe these invisible people should take their health care skills to the Chicago suburbs where they can take transit to work…

  8. Gillian
    Posted December 24, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Not – i should add – that he isn’t totally right about people being driven away by these idiotic policies. I only have anecdotal evidence too but when Right to Work passed all my out-state friends were crowing about how smart they were to leave Michigan. And whenever the anti-gay anti-woman shit passes the people who are still here have to take a serious look at the uphill battle ahead of us and consider whether it’s really worth it to live in a place that’s actively trying to legislate you out.

  9. Stupid Hick
    Posted December 24, 2012 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    To Gillian, no, stupid hick is a screen name I select to identify myself. I picked it to fit in with the commenters on the an arbor.com site but I use it other places too.

  10. Aruna
    Posted December 24, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Looking at a map, Boston and Baltimore are closer to New York than Detroit and Minneapolis are to Chicago. So going on the idea that Michigan and subsequently Detroit is losing out to Chicago, simply because of proximity, implies that Boston, Baltimore and Minneapolis should be losing population to either Chicago of New York. Out of these cities the only one that is contracting is Detroit. In fact Baltimore, Boston and Minneapolis are growing faster than both Chicago and New York, so Detroit and Michigan seem to be unique cases. In short I disagree with McClelland’s assertion that mega cities are killing smaller regional cities. Instead there is something that needs to be fixed in Detroit and Michigan.

    Census growth data in chart form:

  11. local yokel
    Posted December 25, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    The Ohio boarder is closer than most of the metro Detroit and its a much easier commute.

    Further, the MichAGAIN campaign is an utter failure. Great for giving out free food and some common Michigan Identity talk but it can’t point to a single person who was from Michigan who returned to Michigan based on this program.

    and, Mark, you can get some data on the location of recent grads from the colleges. It may take a FOIA but believe me, they keep track of us for fund-raising purposes.

  12. Mr. X
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    McClelland is in a twitter fight with 80s pop star Richard Marx of all people.

    First blow:


    I wish Richard Marx would call me a two-faced coward.

    And here’s what seems to have set it in motion.


  13. Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Yup. The whole sordid story can be found here.

    I especially like the tweet where Marx says, “Hey @TedMcClelland I’m running some errands. Should I stop and pick you up some tampons?”

  14. anonymous
    Posted January 29, 2013 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    The McClelland/Marx thing is blowing up. I just heard McClelland interviewed on the Drew and Mike show in Detroit.

  15. Posted May 13, 2013 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    Ted McClelland is going to be in Ann Arbor in June, reading from his new book. The following is from Ted.

    Nicola’s Books
    Thursday, June 6, 2013

    Join me for a discussion of “Nothin’ But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland,” the first complete history of the Rust Belt.

    A description from the publisher:

    The Upper Midwest and Great Lakes region became the “arsenal of democracy”-the greatest manufacturing center in the world-in the years during and after World War II, thanks to natural advantages and a welcoming culture. Decades of unprecedented prosperity followed, memorably punctuated by riots, strikes, burning rivers, and oil embargoes. A vibrant, quintessentially American character bloomed in the region’s cities, suburbs, and backwaters.

    But the innovation and industry that defined the Rust Belt also helped to hasten its demise. An air conditioner invented in Upstate New York transformed the South from a sweaty backwoods to a non-unionized industrial competitor. Japan and Germany recovered from their defeat to build fuel-efficient cars in the stagnant 1970s. The tentpole factories that paid workers so well also filled the air with soot, and poisoned waters and soil. The jobs drifted elsewhere, and many of the people soon followed suit.

    Nothin’ but Blue Skies tells the story of how the country’s industrial heartland grew, boomed, bottomed, and hopes to be reborn.

  16. Demetrius
    Posted August 27, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Detroit News: Michigan Medicaid expansion fails to pass when senator abstains from vote


    No Medicaid expansion for Michissippi, y’all.

  17. Demetrius
    Posted August 27, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    I stand (very happily) corrected.

    Freep: Michigan Senate OKs Medicaid expansion to cover 470,000 with low income


  18. Meta
    Posted August 28, 2013 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    From Talking Points Memo on yesterday’s vote in Lansing.

    The Michigan Senate voted Tuesday to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, extending health coverage to more than 400,000 low-income residents, but not without a little legislative drama first.

    The GOP-controlled chamber approved the bill by a 20-18 vote at about 8 p.m. Tuesday after being in session for more than eight hours, much of it spent in caucus debating how to get the expansion passed. Eight Republicans finally joined 12 Democrats to pass the bill.

    The House, which had already passed an expansion bill, will soon take a concurring vote, and Gov. Rick Snyder’s office confirmed to TPM that the governor would sign the legislation when it reaches his desk.

    Before the bill ultimately passed, the legislation was stuck in parliamentarian limbo for more than two hours.

    The bill needed 20 votes out of the 38-member Senate to pass. On its first vote at about 5:30 p.m., it received 19 yea votes and 18 nay votes in a floor vote, but Republican Sen. Patrick Colbeck, who is vehemently opposed to expansion, abstained from voting. If he had cast a nay vote, leaving a 19-19 tie, then Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Calley could have cast the tiebreaking vote to pass the bill, as Calley has pledged to do.

    But because Colbeck didn’t vote, the bill failed when it didn’t reach the 20-vote threshold. The Senate then immediately voted 21-17 to reconsider the vote and went into recess so the party caucuses could meet. It took more than two hours before the Senate reconvened and finally passed the bill.

    Sen. Tom Casperson, a Republican, switched his vote after securing an amendment that reformed hospital payments for uncompensated care for the uninsured. According to tweets from local reporters, Casperson had been expected to vote for the expansion initially, but unexpectedly voted nay on the first floor vote. His yay on the second floor vote made Calley’s tiebreaking vote unnecessary.

    The Senate also rejected two alternative proposals that would have relied on state-only funding to expand health coverage.

    Michigan joins a handful of other red states that have signed onto this key piece of Obamacare, which grants Medicaid eligibility to people with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Arizona and North Dakota are two other uniformly Republican states that agreed to the expansion; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie also endorsed an expansion proposal from his Democratic-controlled state legislature.

    As TPM reported last week, several key red states — of which Michigan was one — are still debating the Medicaid expansion. Proposals in Ohio and Virginia are very much alive and could be approved before Jan. 1, 2014, when the expansion goes into effect. There is a substantial impetus for those states to get expansion passed as soon as possible: the ACA requires the federal government to cover 100 percent of the costs from 2014 to 2016.

    But because more than 20 Republican-controlled states rejected the expansion, made optional by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Obamacare ruling, up to three million fewer people are expected to be covered under the law, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

    It wasn’t an easy path to passage in Michigan, despite Snyder’s enthusiastic endorsement. The Senate had rejected the House’s expansion bill earlier this summer, and Senate GOP leaders were forced to break their own version of the “Hastert Rule” — which usually requires a majority of the majority caucus to approve a bill for it to reach the chamber floor — to get the expansion passed.

    And that was before Tuesday’s shenanigans.

    Read more:

  19. Demetrius
    Posted December 12, 2013 at 6:00 am | Permalink

    Michigan Legislature OKs initiative to require insurance rider for abortion coverage


  20. Demetrius
    Posted April 16, 2014 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    Interesting op-ed on this topic on MLive today:


  21. Mr. X
    Posted December 16, 2014 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    For those who doubted that it the Michissippification of our home state was happening, the MEDC folks just proudly announced that a pork processing plant has been lured Coldwater, where they will create 810 new jobs. These are the jobs of Michigan’s future. We are Mississippi.


  22. Demetrius
    Posted December 16, 2014 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    800 jobs for $13/hour, in one of the dirtiest, most back-breaking and dangerous (non-union) jobs available — in an industry that consumes enormous amounts of energy and water, and creates untold amounts of toxic waste …

    And our state’s so-called “leaders “are issuing press releases trumpeting this as some kind of “win?”

4 Trackbacks

  1. By Ypsi/Arbor Exit Interview: Zach Pollock on December 28, 2012 at 10:40 pm

    […] an interview I did with an author by the name of Ted McClelland, who has written extensively about the emmigration of young professionals from Michigan to Chicago. To sum up our conversation in one sentence, McClelland believes that we have little hope of […]

  2. […] dozen years. Sadly, I think it’s true what that say about Michigan rapidly evolving into the Mississippi of the Midwest, and I don’t see why anyone with an opportunity to make a life elsewhere would […]

  3. By Michigan Workers Get Porked on December 16, 2014 at 10:55 pm

    […] few years ago, I interviewed an author here by the name of Ted McClelland, a former Michigander who, as you might recall, had stirred up a little bit of a shit storm after […]

  4. […] what it’s worth, just as I was writing this, I saw the following from author Ted McClelland, whom we’ve spoken with here before. [McClellan, as you may recall, coined the phrase […]

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