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MN2020 Journal: Still Waiting for the Apology

February 12, 2010 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
Nobody ritually apologizes quite as well as Japanese executives ritually apologize and certainly not Minnesota's state public policy leaders. Last week, Toyota chairman Akio Toyoda, stood before the world's media, bowed reverently and apologized for a poor break assemblies, failing brake pedals and for mucking up the recall.

Well, pretty much. Mostly, he avoided detailing specifics, focusing instead on regretting the shame he's brought on his family, his workers, his company and, probably, Japan, itself. As public rituals go, don't miss this one; it's terrific theater.

Japan watchers promptly noted that Toyoda, the founder's grandson and in charge of Toyota since June, did not bow as deeply as his predecessors bowed during previous shameful public moments. Does this mean that Toyoda isn't feeling completely shamed or that he's retaining a little something for greater shame yet to come? I suspect the latter.

Can you imagine Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty bowing and apologizing for eight years of poor policy leadership?

Me neither.

Toyota and Minnesota appear to share a common challenge; past glory all too easily shades current problems. Toyota is one of the world's great manufacturing success stories. Every auto manufacturer sought to apply Toyota's practices to its own organization. As consumer brands go, Toyota appeared nearly bullet-proof. Its autos commanded higher retail prices and retained greater value than other non-luxury vehicles.

It recent years, Toyota became synonymous with innovation, adroitly positioning the Prius hybrid as the category leader. Even with the global recession, Toyota seemed, somehow, less immune to market slowdowns. Toyota appeared to be able to do no wrong.

Minnesota, during the same post-World War II period, moved from being just another Midwestern state to leading the country in key quality of life indicators. Speeding this change, Minnesota heavily invested in education and infrastructure. In turn, highly capable high school and college graduates fueled Minnesota's growing economy.

Recognizing the strain on local property tax payers and the state's realized educational investments on Minnesota's economy, state public policy leaders passed the "Minnesota Miracle" in 1971. It expanded state financing of education while lowering property tax burdens by increasing state taxes. Not only did it work, it worked brilliantly.

But, despite considerable civic investment in Minnesota communities, somewhere, somehow, we started to lose our way. Bluntly, Minnesotans began to take hard work, sacrifice, public investment and its demonstrable outcomes for granted. We started coasting when we should've continued investing.

Listening to persistent, reactionary conservative voices whispering self-interest leveraged from community investment, insisting that government never helped anyone pull themselves up, it became easier to coast. We felt pious, simplifying complex investments and outcomes into a single selfish equation.

Honestly, though, it's a false piety because it's prideful, not loving. It's also not a Minnesota sentiment. We can and must do so much better.

While I don't believe that Chairman Toyoda is truly sorry yet, I think he's surprised that Toyota's comfort has dulled its competitive mien. Consequently, he's really apologizing for not staying on top of his game. That, frankly, is the heartfelt public apology I'd like to hear from Minnesota's state public policy leaders for Minnesota's slide of the past seven or eight years.

More likely, Governor Pawlenty will continue advocating the failed, "no new taxes" conservative public policies that are driving Minnesota to average or worse. And, when we call him out, he'll attack us for speaking truth to power.

Minnesota's past performance should guide us moving forward. We can't and shouldn't relive history but we can and must change course. Strong schools, first rate transportation infrastructure, affordable healthcare and robust economic development policy will move Minnesota forward, reversing our state ranking slide. Minnesota does best when Minnesota invests in Minnesotans. For that, no apology is ever required.

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