Blog: John Bebow

Before joining the Center for Michigan in early 2006, John Bebow worked 16 years as a professional journalist. He was an investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, and Detroit News, covered the war in Iraq in 2003 for the Detroit News and Gannett publications nationwide, and helped found and served as editor-in-chief of, the state’s largest online news and information service. Bebow is a graduate of Western Michigan University, a native of Mason (near Lansing) and a resident of Milan, where he lives with his wife, Monica, a professional singer and voice instructor, and their three-year-old daughter.

John will be writing about how we might envision Michigan's future.

Photograph by Marvin Shaouni

John Bebow - Most Recent Posts:

Post No. 5

 Citizens across the state are considering that question this fall in more than 80 Community Conversations -- small group discussions in communities from downtown Detroit to Marquette. Participants include women business owners, entreprpeneurs, educators, environmentalists, artists, regional government leaders, and many other everyday citizens who share a passion for the future of our state.
They're debating and refining detailed Principles for Michigan's Transormation developed earlier this year by more than 100 statewide leaders.
We'd like to hear your opinions, too. Hundreds more citizens are participating in our Online Community Conversations. In a matter of moments, you'll be able to weigh ideas for Michigan's future and compare your views to hundreds of others who've participated. Here's a sampling of what particpants' ideas from the past few days...
  • "A Michigan where our common -- wealth; intellect/knowledge; stewardship for the land, water and air; cause on behalf of the public interest; heritage of hard work, struggle and innovation; and, bound as friends, neighbors and co-workers across our two peninsulas -- are cherished and help lead us to a bright + sustainable future for ALL.
  • "Courageous leadership from our elected officials and business and education CEOs . . . which means willingness to compromise, look for long-term impact of short-term actions, ability to appreciate the merits of differing views. Michigan can return to prosperity via more than one path. There are great opportunities in today's economy including manufacturing, bio science, tourism/hospitality, health care, personal services and more. But we have to quit bickering, stop pontificating and get to work."
  • "A place with a high quality of life for all its citizens, regardless of background, that is sustainable both economically and in terms of natural resources."
  • "I see a Michigan where every child is valued and has access to appropriate education, nutrition, housing,etc. from birth through adulthood. I see a Michigan where our children are able to find productive and meaningful work and a quality of life that causes them to stay in the State. I see a Michigan that remembers the contributions of our senior citizens and guarantees that they have the services and support they need in retirement."
C'mon in and try it! Spend a little time on the future of your state!

Post No. 4

For eight months this year, Detroit Free Press political reporter Dawson Bell followed the daily machinations in Lansing as the governor and Legislature groped their way toward fulfilling their most fundamental responsibility -- setting a state government budget.
In the end, after much noise, threat of government shutdown, a bizarre tax increase on things like palm reading and the bronzing of baby shoes, and many government reforms proposed but not really acted upon, Bell summed it all up with a simple statement.
"There was a lack of vision," Bell said in October during a speech at Northern Michigan University, his alma mater. "None of the key people involved were capable of articulating what kind of a state Michigan should be."
It's not just jaundiced journalists who say such things.
Lack of a clear vision for Michigan's future is what prompted more than 100 statewide leaders to come together last spring to launch what's called the Michigan's Defining Moment Public Engagement Campaign
Sitting in roundtable discussions in Livonia and East Lansing, these leaders began the difficult task of creating a citizens vision for Michigan's future.
If that sounds pie-in-the-sky, consider that this kind of "deliberative democracy" involving groups outside of government is going on all over the country. In New Jersey, citizen tax assemblies have been debating ways to rewrite that state's tax code. In northeast Ohio, some 30,000 citzens have worked in the past couple of years to create a cohesive vision for the rebuilding of that "rust belt" region. In New Orleans, residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina have a voice in the rebuilting process, even if they're now living thousands of miles away.
For the kickoff of the Michigan's Defining Moment Public Engagement Campaign last spring, the discussions included Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, business leaders, educators, health care practitioners, heads of non-profit groups. Richard McLellan, a Lansing attorney and longtime leader and strategist in state Republican circles, was seated next to Andy Buchsbaum, a longtime liberal activist and the head of the Great Lakes office of the National Wildlife Federation. Young entrepreneurs sat with business vets who'd been around since the 1970s. East siders from Detroit sat with west siders from Grand Rapids.
Could this diverse group agree on everything? Of course not. But they did agree on many things, and released these "Principles for Michigan's Transformation" that are not being debated and refined by citizens statewide...

Michigan is at a defining moment. We can stay lashed to the past, lamenting the loss of 20th Century economic dominance and operating under "old ways" likely to lead to a poorer, more divided future. Or we can come together, embrace change, and create a new era of opportunity. In this new era, Michigan will be known globally as the attractive "North Coast," a place with a highly diversified and innovative economy, bountiful natural resources and a great quality of life.

We propose this vision for a prosperous Michigan future:

  • A Talented, Globally Competitive Workforce.
  • A Vibrant Economy & Great Quality of Life.
  • Effective, Efficient & Accountable Government.

Many individual leaders and community groups across the state have endorsed these principles, which are gaining traction in our State Capitol. Michigan needs broader public engagement and demand for a transformational agenda. Michigan needs elected leaders at all levels to take the steps necessary to realize a long-term, future-oriented vision for the state. To that end, now is the time to grow, inspire, and support leadership across our state.

Principle: To prosper in the flat world of the 21st Century, Michigan must greatly enhance the skills and potential of its people so they can compete with workers around the globe - and win. That means we must grow, retain, and attract talent.
  • Dramatically improve overall learning and completion rates from early childhood to K-12 to higher education.
  • Assure affordable access to lifelong learning so young people get the skills they need to launch prosperous careers and workers in mid-career and beyond can best adapt to the rapidly changing economy.
  • Greatly increase recognition that education and creativity are essential tickets to prosperity.
  • Make Michigan welcoming to all.
  • Rejuvenate communities to assure they have the amenities, culture, and diversity to develop, attract and retain talented people. Effectively manage the size and cost of our infrastructure.
Principle: To compete globally and prosper, Michigan must invest in those assets which differentiate it from other places to best attract and retain job providers and talent.
  • Remake and re-brand Michigan as a vibrant and entrepreneurial "North Coast." A place that is home to one-fifth of the world's fresh surface water and other bountiful natural resources that support sustainable growth in industries such as agriculture, tourism, and forestry. And a place that grows ever smarter and more innovative.
  • Establish a new "public purse" - a tightly focused, long-term, sustained taxing and spending strategy. Top spending priorities: education, economic development, marketing our state to the world, and quality of life investments in arts & culture, natural resources, health, and safety. Michigan must continually assess and modernize its tax structure to maximize and sustain those public investments that are crucial for the state's competitiveness in the global economy.
  • Greatly boost economic development by growing an entrepreneurial culture, growing venture capital and ensuring a competitive, simple and predictable business tax structure.
  • Intensify commercialization of university research.
  • Continue to thrive as a manufacturing powerhouse, especially in high-tech manufacturing and engineering requiring highly skilled workers.
  • Provide greater recognition and support for our state's growing new economy of entrepreneurs and small businesses.
  • Embrace change and risk as key factors in 21st Century personal and corporate success.
Principle: For Michigan to maximize the amount of tax dollars devoted to our most distinctive and competitive assets, our public sector must be nimble, thrifty, and accountable. State and local government, schools, and higher education must maximize efficiency to assure sustainable funding for Michigan's most pressing and strategic future needs. Public institutions must better serve people and embrace change.
  • Increase collaboration and service sharing among Michigan's hundreds of school districts and local government units. Tax revenue sharing and state laws should reward collaboration, service sharing, efficiency, and best practices.
  • Benchmark public sector practices and highlight and replicate the best and most efficient.
  • Continually examine public sector pay and benefits, weigh those costs against private market standards, and adjust accordingly to assure the public receives highest possible services at most reasonable costs.
  • Scrutinize and limit spending on corrections and general government operations that do not clearly contribute to the state's future competitive stake.
  • Manage large and growing public sector pension and health care burdens so that those legacy costs do not erode public investment in Michigan's most pressing and strategic needs.
  • Increase political accountability so that Michigan can rely on experienced, strategic, competent and decisive leaders in elected offices — leaders willing to set aside traditional party politics to craft and implement bipartisan strategies to move Michigan forward. Possible approaches to governance include lengthened term limits, a unicameral and/or part-time legislature, campaign finance reform, and redistricting.


Post No. 3

POP QUIZ: Twenty questions about Michigan and its future 
By John Bebow, Executive Director The Center for Michigan 

If a candidate for governor or state legislature came knocking at your door, what would you have to say? What tough question would you ask? What answers might sway your vote?  

Among the things we do at the Center for Michigan is strive to educate voters, to distribute facts and figures about where Michigan stands so that we citizens have a more informed playbook when we go to the polls.  

So, what do you know about your state? Here’s a quick Michigan pop quiz divided into three subjects: 

  1. Our Workforce: Who We Are, What We Do, and What We Earn
  2. Our Public Purse: Michigan’s State Budget Priorities
  3. Our Politics: Who’s Running the Show

Correct answers are at the bottom. Give yourself a grade: 

  • 16-20 correct. Fantastic! Have you thought about running for office?
  • 11-15 correct. Not bad. Make sure your vote in the next election.
  • 10 or fewer correct. Maybe you need more newspaper and less SportsCenter?


1. Where does Michigan rank in Forbes’ 2007 list of best states for business? 

    1. 5th
    2. 19th
    3. 31st
    4. 46th

2. What percentage of Michigan young people say they would leave Michigan if
    they could?

    1. 1 out of 10
    2. 3 out of 10
    3. 7 out of 10
    4. 9 out of 10

3. Only eight of Michigan's 83 counties showed an increase in the population of
    25 to 34 year olds between 1990 and 2000.  What one thing did those
    counties have in common?

    1. Much higher than average workforce in “new economy” fields like health care, technology, and consulting.
    2. Large new correctional institutions
    3. Great Lakes shoreline
    4. A state university

4. If you are a Michigan worker with a high-school diploma but no college education, what happened to your wages (adjusted for inflation) between 1979 and 2000? 

      A. They increased by about 23%.
B.  They increased by about 11%.
C.  They remained almost exactly unchanged.
D.  They fell by about 9%. 

5. In Michigan in 1979, the median weekly wage for a college graduate was about 
   46% higher than the median weekly wage for a person with only a high-school
   diploma.This gap between college wages and high-school wages grew between
   1979 and 2000.  How large was the gap in 2000? 

      A.   About 48%
B.   About 79%.
C.   About 106%. 
D.   About 133%. 

6. How many students are currently enrolled full-time as undergrads in a 
   Michigan public university or community college? 

      A. 25,000
      B. 75,000
      C. 150,000
      D. 300,000 

7. How many high-tech “New Economy” jobs did Michigan add from 2002-2006? 

      A. None.
      B. 10,000
      C. 125,000
      D. 500,000 

8. How much in student loans did Michigan university students take out in 2005? 

    1. $20 million
    2. $50 million
    3. $500 million
    4. $1 billion


9. In 1980, if we include all departments other than the prison system, Michigan’s state government employed about 65,000 people. How many non-prison employees were there in 2005?  

      A.   65,000
      B.   54,000
      C.   45,000
      D.   36,000 
10. In 1970, the state prison system employed about 2000 people. How many 
      did the prison system employ in 2005? 

      A.   22,000
      B.   17,000
      C.   11,000
      D.     5,000 

11. In 1980, about 60% of the day-to-day operations of Michigan’s 15 state-
     supported universities were paid for by the state.  About what percentage is
     paid for by the state now? 

      A.  About 60%.
      B.  About 45%.
      C.  About 30%.
      D.  About 15%. 

12. What percentage of the world’s fresh water supply surrounds Michigan? 

    1. 2 %
    2. 18 %
    3. 25 %
    4. 35 %
13. What’s been the trend in state general fund spending on the Michigan
      Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan Department of
      Environmental Quality since 2001? 
    1. Spending has doubled
    2. Spending is up 10 percent
    3. Spending is down 10 percent
    4. Spending is down more than 60 percent


14. The governor’s panel of bipartisan emergency financial advisors made 9
      major reform recommendations for state government earlier this year. How
      many of those were fully adopted as of the midnight balanced budget
      solution of October 1?

    1. None.
    2. Two.
    3. Four.
    4. All Nine.
15. How many combined years of legislative experience do Michigan’s top three
     elected officials (governor, House speaker, Senate majority leader) have
     right now? 
    1. 4
    2. 12
    3. 16
    4. 46  

16. How many combined years of legislative experience did the three leaders
      holding those posts have in 1992, the year Michigan passed term limits?

    1. 4
    2. 12
    3. 16
    4. 46.
17. How many hours was the “full time” state House of Representatives in
     session, in total, for July and August as the budget crisis loomed? 
    1. 46.5 hours
    2. 99 hours
    3. 124.5 hours
    4. 200 hours

18. How many state Senate races last year were truly competitive (decided by
     fewer than two percentage points)? 

    1. None.
    2. 4 out of 38
    3. 20 out of 38
    4. 30 out of 38
19. What percentage of registered Michigan voters who know which party
      controls the Michigan Senate?
    1. 10 %
    2. 33 %
    3. 50 %
    4. 80 %
20. According to a poll taken in the summer of 2007, what percentage of 
     Michigan voters younger than 40 think the state is "moving in the wrong

          A.   51%.
          B.   66%
          C.   83%.
          D.   95%. 


(A note about sources: These questions were compiled for the Council of Michigan Foundations by MSU Professor of Economics Charles Ballard, Public Sector Consultants President Bill Rustem, and Center for Michigan Executive Director John Bebow) 

1. D. 46th, with low rankings driven by economic climate, cost of doing business, and growth prospects. (Source: Forbes Magazine) 

2. C. 7 out of 10. (Source: Brogan & Partners “Mood of Michigan” poll taken Sept-Oct. 2007) 

3. B. Large new correctional institutions.  The remaining four--Monroe, Benzie, Cheboygan and Livingston--were the only of Michigan's 83 counties that experienced a "true" increase in that important cohort.  (Source:  Michigan Economic Development Corporation. 

4. D. Wages for high school grads with no college fell by about 9%. (Source: Rebecca M. Blank, “The Less-Skilled Labor Market in Michigan”, based on data from the Current Population Survey.) 

5. C. About 106%. (Source: Rebecca M. Blank, “The Less-Skilled Labor Market in Michigan”, based on data from the Current Population Survey.) 

6. D. More than 300,000, an all-time record. It’s enough to fill Michigan Stadium three times. (Source: House Fiscal Agency)  

7. C. 125,000. (Source: Michigan’s Emerging Economy, 2006, by Public Policy Associates)  

8. D. Just under $1 billion dollars, an increase of 52 percent in four years.   (Source: House Fiscal Agency) 

9. D. 36,000 (Source: State of Michigan, Department of Civil Service, Annual Workforce Report, selected years) 

10. B. 17,000. (Source: State of Michigan, Department of Civil Service, Annual Workforce Report, selected years) 

11. C. About 30%. (Source: House Fiscal Agency.) 

12. B. The Great Lakes contain 18 percent of the world’s fresh water (or about 90 percent of the fresh water supply of the United States). (Source: Michigan in Brief) 

13. D: General fund spending on the DNR and DEQ is down 62 percent since 2001.

(Source: Michigan League of Conservation Voters) 

14. A. None were completely adopted. Two of the nine – public sector benefits and government cooperation – were partially dealt with. (Source: EFAP report) 

15. C. 16. (Michigan legislature biographies) 

16. D. 46. (Michigan legislature biographies) 

17. A. 46.5 hours. (Source: MIRS) 

18. B. Four out of 38. The rest were pretty much “safe seats” for one party or the other. (Source: Michigan Bureau of Elections) 

19. B. 33 percent. (Source: September 2007 poll by Inside Michigan Politics) 

20. D. 95%. (Source: Detroit News/WXYZ poll, conducted by EPIC-MRA.) 

Post No. 2

ENVISION MICHIGAN: Share your best vision of our state’s future and you might go to college, vacation, or shop on us!

Note to the know-it-alls on the coasts and anyone else in the United States who might be willing to give Michigan up for dead...

The Great Lakes State has long been, and will long remain, one of the biggest and most populous states in the union. Yeah, we have some very public problems, but we’re nearly 10 million strong and the vast majority of us aren’t 20-somethings packing our bags for the bars of Chicago, Boston, or Austin or 60-somethings with moving vans bound for Florida or Arizona.

Many of us who plan to keep the lights on are passionate about this place. Consider, for example, these three views from Michigan citizens who recently entered the ongoing Envision Michigan Story Competition on the Center for Michigan’s web site:

  • "Every summer my wife, daughter, son and I pack some lunches, a cooler of punch and venture off to Michigan's west coast. The rules are simple… 3 state parks, IN the water at each one, lunch at the second stop, dinner in Saugatuck and watch the sunset before venturing back home… We've all seen beaches; we've all seen sunsets; we've all seen water. But after you've seen these gems in the State of Michigan, and see them reflected in your children's eyes, you'll never see them the same again." John & Jennifer McCune, Potterville.
  • "This autumn my husband and I took our twenty-month old daughter to an apple farm and cider mill. We ate fresh donuts and drank apple cider and she had her first pony ride… Next week we will carve pumpkins and rake together the red and golden leaves in our yard, so she can jump into them over and over until they spread all over the yard again. This is our future. It is not west of here or south of here- it is here and there is a peaceful comfort of belonging that surrounds that thought for me. My father died here, and my mother and all my siblings live within an hour's drive from me-none of us straying far from our small hometown. We spend Thanksgiving together every year, and we give thanks for our homes and our families."    Roxann Keating, Ann Arbor
  • "Michigan inspires wonder with its mixture of woodland and prairie, lakes and streams, cities and villages. Our hope is that we can join together in common pursuit of prosperity while preserving our natural resources. Those resources should be considered an integral part of economic planning, not only for the tourist industry, but also as part of what attracts employers and workers to our State. If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you!" – Bill & Nancy Woods, Kalamazoo

What’s your best vision of Michigan’s future? What do you love about this place? What do you want to see changed? Take a few minutes to share your thoughts and your Michigan life could be enriched considerably. The Center for Michigan, in partnership with Michigan’s universities, top resorts, and Meijer stores, are giving away $30,000 in college scholarships, vacations, and weekly shopping sprees to those Michigan residents – from high schoolers to retirees – who offer the most passionate, stirring, and detailed visions of our state’s future. We’re accepting entries right now at

So, what’s your story? Just by entering, you help change the dialogue in our state.

C’mon back to the blog tomorrow for Michigan trivia – fun and provocative facts and figures about our state.

Thanks for reading

Post No. 1


Several years ago, I escaped Michigan and its so-called lousy, backwards 20th Century economy, its winters filled with one gray day after another, it’s busted up highways and railroads on which mass transit never rolls.

I escaped for Chicago, city of opportunity. City of great restaurants, great blues joints. City of neighborhoods, the Midwest’s greatest boomtown, and envy of so many young people stuck on the eastern side of Lake Michigan.

As a journalist, I’d climbed near the top of my profession by landing a job as a staff writer at the Chicago Tribune. My wife, a professional singer and voice teacher, earned part-time teaching jobs in two schools and landed a spot in a professional jazz choir.

So, we’d "made it." But we’d traded our spacious, 75-year-old Michigan house with the giant hickory tree out back for – at the same monthly price – for a tiny apartment within earshot of the constant clacking of Chicago’s train system and right underneath the landing route for the jets coming into O’Hare Airport. Our "amenities" included a washing machine shared by three teenage girls who lived below us. So much concrete hemmed us in. The city beaches were nothing compared to those in South Haven, or Empire, or Holland.

We sure missed home.

We missed the short drives to northern Michigan. We missed Michigan’s great main streets in places like Ann Arbor, East Lansing, Plymouth, Royal Oak, and Traverse City. We missed old familiar hangouts for hot food and cold beers: the Sidetrack in Ypsilanti, Spike’s Keg ‘O Nails in Grayling, El Azteco in East Lansing, and the Anchor Bar and Los Galanes in Detroit. We missed the Cherry Street Market in Kalkaska, the Detroit Opera House, and Michigan Stadium. We missed regular gatherings with regular Michigan folks – good friends with whom we shared wine, book clubs, and poker games.

So we left Chicago, that cool city to which so many young Michigan natives move. We came back to Michigan. And despite all the state’s troubles, it sure feels good to be back home. 

Chicago's still a great place to visit. But I want to grow old right here. In Michigan. And, as a grow older (I’m 40 now), I’m confident I’ll be living in a revived and envied place. Here are four reasons I believe Michigan will once again be a boom state in the 21st Century.

Water. We’ve got it. Everybody else wants it. Eventually, employers both big and small will want to locate near dependable, abundant supplies of fresh water. That means we have tremendous responsibility in the Great Lakes Region to plan for future growth and water use. It also means we have tremendous long-term competitive advantage over the arid West.

Quality of Life. I’ll gladly accept those cloudy winter days so long as we avoid California’s earthquakes, mudslides, and inflamed mountains and the South’s tornadoes, hurricanes, heat, and potentially rising ocean levels. I’ll gladly “settle” for our abundant forests, rivers, relatively short commutes, excellent symphonies and museums, great college towns, good schools, country roads and open space, Great Lakes beaches, and everything that is Up North.

Affordability. Michigan is a place where a family can still buy into the American dream and still have a little cash left over every month. Employers and America’s increasingly free agent workforce are eventually going to figure this out.

Citizenship. There’s growing citizen engagement in this state. All kinds of interest groups are working harder than ever to improve our state. Adversity breeds citizenship. Sure, things are a mess in Lansing right now, but Chambers of Commerce, think tanks, education leaders, non-profit groups, foundations, and others are getting leaner, meaner, and smarter in grappling with Michigan’s challenges.

I’m in the unusual position of working on Michigan’s future on a daily basis. I’m executive director of a “think and do tank’ called the Center for Michigan. We’re a 501c3 non-profit “think and do” tank founded in 2006 by a bipartisan Steering Committee of experienced statewide leaders. The center hosts conferences, distributes a weekly policy and current events newsletter, collects and distributes public policy research focused on Michigan’s future challenges and opportunities, and works to promote citizen dialogue and action. The Center’s web site is

So, that’s my story. Tomorrow, I’ll share the stories of a few proud Michigan residents who each have a unique take on Michigan’s future. Thanks for reading!

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