Kicking off the TED conference would be a daunting prospect for most, but Jennifer Granholm has tackled both nastier challenges and less friendly audiences in her time. After all, she is the former governor of Michigan, a state that, as the blurb to her book A Governor’s Story: The Fight for Jobs and America’s Economic Future puts it, was “synonymous with manufacturing during a financial crisis that threatened to put all America’s major car companies into bankruptcy.” TED? For Granholm? A piece of cake–and an opportunity to air her theme of how to foster meaningful innovation at state level, and to lay down a challenge for the assembled TEDsters.
But first, she wants to share three enigmas. First: how do you create good jobs in America? Granholm has a story to share, featuring empirical data from her first year in office in Michigan in 2003. The 8,000-person-strong community of Greenville, Michigan, was about to lose its major employer, an Electrolux refrigerator factory. 3,000 jobs were set to be lost when the company moved its operation to Mexico. “Not on my watch,” said Granholm.
Off she went with her cabinet to convince Electrolux to stay. Proposed incentives included: zero taxes for 20 years! A new factory! The UAW would offer unprecedented sacrifices! Management, she tells us, considered the proposal for all of 17 minutes before unceremoniously rejecting it. None of the incentives made any difference when salaries in Mexico were $1.75 an hour. So Electrolux left, and Greenville’s longstanding manufacturing-based culture was decimated. “All I know how to do is make refrigerators. Who is ever going to hire me?” asked one worker, echoing those from the 50,000 factories closed between 2000 and 2010. It’s a sobering point.
Granholm’s next two enigmas include two minor challenges. First, how do you solve global climate change? Second, how do you do any of this with Congressional gridlock? After all, she jokes, Congress is rated worse than cockroaches, lice, Nickelback and Donald Trump (though better than meth labs and gonorrhea). The audience loves this.
Now Granholm points us to an Obama administration policy that did cause massive changes across the country — the “Race to the Top for Education.” This $4.5 billion proposal prompted competition among 48 states and caused many voluntary changes across America. The price of entry was that governors had to raise their college standards–and Granholm wonders if we couldn’t do the same kind of thing with clean energy.
After all, $1.6 trillion has been invested in that sector; but most of that has not been in the United States. Couldn’t a similar prize competition prompt real action? When the President is calling for 80% clean energy by 2030, couldn’t the states take on that challenge instead? And could the prize be the same $4.5 billion budget afforded to the education prize? The figure is, after all, a rounding error on the federal side.
“Each region has something to offer,” Granholm details. ”Iowa and Ohio could lead in wind energy. The sunbelt could produce solar energy for the country. Jerry Brown could create a solar cluster in California. Every region of the country could do this.”
“If you create a competition, it respects the states, it respects federalism,” she adds. “And both Republican and Democratic governors love to cut ribbons; they want to create jobs. It fosters innovation at the state level.”
So how do we pay for it when Congress can’t agree on anything? “Go around them,” she says simply. And now, her challenge. “What if we created a private-sector challenge to the governors?” she asks. “What if several of the high-net-worth individuals or companies here at TED decided to band together to create a national competition to the governors to have a race to the top?” The audience giggles, but a smattering of applause shows that they’re paying close attention. “What if it all started here at TED? What if you were here when we figured out how to crack the code to create good paying jobs here in America, to create an energy policy, and create an energy strategy from the bottom up?” More applause. There’s a sense in the room that this could really happen.
“If you’re impatient, as I am,” Granholm concludes, “You know our competitors are in the game and eating us for lunch. We can get in the game or not. We can be at the table or on the table. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to dine.”