The Mackinac Conference Is An Engorged Albino Lamprey Sucking the Substance From Meaningful Policy Debate

No man is an island – but you sure can fit a lot of lobbyists on one.

Let’s begin with a hypothetical: What if, through some freakish geological event, Mackinac Island were to sink into the waters of Lake Huron during the annual “policy conference” held on the island by the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce?

The human cost would, of course, be deeply unfortunate, and Michigan would lose a very pleasant piece of real estate.

But it’s hard to argue that Michigan would be much worse off in terms of policy ideas.

On that front, we might even consider the Edmund Fitzgeralding of the island to be a decided improvement.

Can It Get Any Dumber?

In my last post, I noted the nearly $3000 price tag to attend the island conference. For that kind of money, you might at least anticipate a good deal of substantive discussion of pressing issues facing Michigan, like the fact that metro Detroit tops the nation in concentrated poverty, or that the decline of the middle class in the Great Lakes State has been the most precipitous in the country. Unfortunately, you’d be mistaken.

Indeed, the 2016 conference may have set a new standard for vacuity, even as the crises facing Michigan become increasingly more grave – if not deadly, in the case of the poisoning of Flint.

Consider, for instance, the keynote by Daymond John, founder of FUBU and co-host of the ABC show “Shark Tank,” in which entrepreneurs compete to, well, win money to make more money.

John is most recently author of the book “The Power of Broke: How Empty Pockets, a Tight Budget, and a Hunger for Success Can Be Your Greatest Competitive Advantage.”

By this logic, the 59% of Detroit children currently living in poverty are admirably poised for success in today’s global economy.

Daymond John and one more “competitive advantage” for Detroit schoolchildren.

According to the Chamber’s synopsis of John’s speech.

“John said he learned five powerful tips, called “Shark Tips,” that the millionaire prides himself in sharing with other entrepreneurs:

  • Set a goal and stick with it
  • Do your homework
  • Love what you do
  • Remember your brand and be able to describe yourself in five words
  • Keep swimming”

Rather than dropping three grand for that last insight, Mackinac attendees could simply have watched the 2003 Pixar feature “Finding Nemo,” in which Dory, the talking tropical fish voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, offers the exact same counsel, in an arguably more entertaining fashion.

Fishy advice for a state in the tank.

In keeping with the entrepreneurial ethos, the conference also featured a “Shark Tank” – style competition between two start-ups. One, in Grand Rapids, is building underwater drones. The other, in Detroit, manufactures protein extracted from bugs. (You’ll be happy to know the bugs are “locally raised.”)

Honestly, this stuff would be pretty hard to make up.

Has the Conference Jumped the Shark?

It should be acknowledged that the conference exhibited occasional nods in the direction of something approaching relevance, such as a panel on the proposed metro Detroit regional transit plan, and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s plea for Republicans in the Legislature to stop the state’s insane experiment in dismantling public education in the city.

A panel on “Inclusion and Economic Prosperity” reached the startling conclusion that, in the terminally colorless words of the Conference’s publicists,“as the 50th anniversary of Detroit’s 1967 civil unrest approaches, business and community leaders must be willing to have tough conversations in order to better understand that moment in time and the underlying issues of opportunity in order to move forward inclusively.” True to the overarching theme, the panel scoured the city to find a black entrepreneur benefiting from Detroit’s supposed “resurgence” – in this case, a Midtown hair salon owner. (It must be said, based on a couple visits a couple years ago, that he runs a decent shop, although I didn’t get into much discussion of structural racial inequality while there.)

The conference’s 2016 “to-do list” combined a nod to “economic inclusivity” (please, don’t mention race!) with a call to “promote financial literacy” – because it’s so much easier to encourage poor people working multiple jobs to double down on budgeting than, say, raise the minimum wage.

For the most part, the tone of almost unfathomable absurdity was succinctly captured by right-wing Beltway columnist Ron Fournier, who pledged to the audience: ““The Fournier family is changing. We’re adapting. We’re disruptive.” (May God have pity on that family.) He also said something about millennials not wanting government solutions to the nation’s problems, which tens of millions of young Bernie Sanders supporters might potentially have some argument with.

The conference also witnessed Governor Snyder’s supposedly revelatory unveiling of “Planet M” as a marketing slogan for the “mobility industry” in Michigan, as well as his ludicrous call for “One Michigan” – yes, in the wake of state-imposed emergency management that has denied democracy to a majority of Michigan’s African American residents. We were also treated to a full hour of Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert saying a whole lot of nothing to former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer. Mona Hanna-Atisha, the Flint pediatrician who helped expose the poisoning of the city’s water under the Governor’s appointed emergency manager, was generously allowed a full ten minutes.

Then there was the “PAC to the ’80s” reception, raising money for the Chamber’s political action committee – because nothing says “austerity” like harking back to the soundtrack for Reaganomics. (Check out the Chamber PAC’s record at this link.)

Potentially the most colorful part of the entire conference.

However, in an election cycle that’s exposed widespread anger at the corporate establishment, the traditionally breathless media coverage of Mackinac is starting to show a few signs of unrest.

Free Press columnist Nancy Kaffer wrote a withering column on the lack of women on conference panels, while the Freep’s architecture and redevelopment writer, John Gallagher, gently suggested that a few twenty-somethings making underwater drones and edible bug parts might not quite make up for the loss of the state’s industrial base. Even the normally mild-mannered Stephen Henderson, who oversaw the Freep’s two-time endorsement of Snyder for Governor, raised pointed questions about Snyder’s economic strategy, while suggesting that Republican legislators opposing plans to regulate charters should be tossed into the lake.

The year of Daymond John’s “Shark Tips” may just be the year that Mackinac jumped the shark.

The Biggest Bloodsucker

One of the most insidious things about the Mackinac Conference is how cleverly its corporate organizers have concealed the essentially predatory nature of much of their operating philosophy (disrupt! compete! profit!) under the guise of supposedly meaningful, ostensibly nonpartisan  policy conversations.

There are no sharks in Lake Huron. There is, however, another breed of aquatic predator in the waters surrounding the island: the invasive sea lamprey.

Take it from the poor Great Lakes trout: lampreys suck.

The lamprey, for the uninitiated, is an eel-like jawless fish with uniquely disgusting feeding habits. The adult lamprey fastens its toothed mouth to a host fish and gnaws through surface tissue until reaching blood and other bodily fluids, which it proceeds to slowly siphon off as food, while the host fish is still alive.

This parasite might just be the ideal analogy for the Mackinac conference, especially given its slippery nature and relatively simple brain.

On the one hand, it’s hard to be terrified of something so primitive, even something as grotesque as the lamprey. Yet, while you’ll never see a horror movie about it, the lamprey has done terrible damage to the Great Lakes’ aquatic ecosystem.

The Mackinac Conference might be compared to an engorged albino lamprey – probably a male lamprey – sucking all the substance from meaningful discussion about the future of our state. It’s covered nonstop by the newspapers, TV channels, and radio programs, all of which would have us thing that the Very Important People at the conference are talking about very important things.

The invasive sea lamprey (left) may not be a talking head, but you can’t say it’s not mouthy.

For the most part, they aren’t. And the tragedy is that the chest-thumping white male corporate canards of the conference are not only inane, not only actively harmful for the majority of people in this state, but that as amplified by the corporate media, they crowd out discussion of all other alternatives.

It’s time to put an end to that – before we’re sucked dry.

Let the billionaires and their friends in Lansing have their island party. Let the corporate media keep treating it as something we should pay attention to. But let the people of this state turn off the televisions and forget the media blitz. Let’s work to detach ourselves from this bloated critter, and start talking about what really matters – and policy solutions that might actually do some serious good for the people of this state.

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