Beginning to Catch on to That West Michigan Vibe…


Originally published in the Grand Rapids Business Journal, March 30, 2009

I took my first job out of college in 1986. I went to work for Thermotron Industries in Holland, Michigan. Thermotron was (and is) a manufacturer of environmental test chambers. The idea is that if you want to make sure a product works under specific conditions (temperatures, humidity, vibrations, and so on), you test it first in one of these chambers. Soon after starting I was privileged to experience the first of many “why government is worthless” rants by a native West Michigander. I forget who it was or why he was doing it, but it likely had something to do with payday and deductions. It was good theater. He was quite passionate — lots of “stupid wastes of money” and “stay the hell out of my life” and “killing the working man.”

I enjoyed it, but later it struck as a bit hypocritical. You see at the time the country was in the middle of a massive military build up — huge amounts of taxpayer money (and future debt) were being poured into modernizing the armed forces. Defense contractors ramped up to meet the need and were keen to make sure the stuff they were manufacturing actually worked. Ipso facto, approximately 75% of Thermotron sales were to defense contractors, which meant a greater portion of each employees’ paycheck was provided by (and not taken by) Uncle Sam. Ah, the circle of life.

So I want to be clear about my point in this week’s comic. I am not a neo-Reagnite who believes that all government is inherently bad. If the past six months have demonstrated nothing else, it has proven without doubt that any large organization can be equally adept at wasting money: banks, insurance companies, automobile manufacturers, branches of the military, and of course the federal government. What we should want, what we should expect — what we deserve — is some accountability from them. We can’t wish them all away — the void would simply be filled by other large organizations. (Ever read “Animal Farm”?) To get accountability there is got to be some checks and balances, some auditing, some tweaking, some informed reporting — a lot messier than “stay the hell out of my life,” but potentially more fruitful.

Oh. My point: West Michigan is getting hosed by the federal government. And if we can’t get some accountability, how about some free pie?

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