Commentary
1:30 pm
Fri December 16, 2011

Michigan's Future: Asking Basic Questions

There are a number of important debates going on in Michigan about our economic crisis, and our future.

Three of the most intense are these: 

  1. Should Detroit have an Emergency Manager?
  2. Should the Emergency Manager law itself be repealed? 
  3. And what’s the future of public education in this state, and how should we pay for it?

Virtually everyone has opinions about these issues, and I have expressed mine, on Michigan Radio and elsewhere. But it occurs to me that we may all be missing something.

We may not be asking the fundamental and important questions we need to answer first to resolve any of these issues.

As I see it, there are at least two big ones. First, in all these cases, what are we trying to achieve? The maybe even more fundamental question is, what kind of society do we want?

To answer the second question first, my guess is that virtually all of us want a society where everyone has a chance to succeed.

That’s what Governor Snyder says he is trying to do, both in Detroit and statewide. He says his goal is to see Detroit successful, by whatever means works best.

“I serve all the people of the state of Michigan,” he told the Free Press’s Rochelle Riley recently. “They are all my customers.”

He honestly seems bewildered that other elected leaders don’t seem to feel that way, that Detroit‘s elected officials seem more interested in defiantly rejecting outside intervention than they do trying to figure out a gigantic economic problem.

I feel the same way about the education crisis. What really matters to me is that so many students are leaving high school -- whether they graduate or not -- while lacking basic skills they need.

On top of that, higher education opportunities don’t exist or are economically impossible for many to even consider. That’s what should matter far more than the cost of teacher health care.

You don’t have to be a futurist philosopher to see that a huge mass of unemployable people represent a huge cancer in our society. Six months before Barack Obama was born, a President of the United States said that “if a free society cannot  help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.“ That wasn’t even seen as a controversial statement then. I suspect if any politician said that today, he’d be accused of socialism.

And yet, there is an enduring fascination with John F. Kennedy. the man who uttered those lines, a fascination that can‘t be explained by the endlessly rehashed controversies over his affairs or his assassination. New books about him keep appearing, though he has now been dead longer than he was alive; there’s currently a new best selling biography by Chris Matthews.

My guess is that we still look to JFK because he challenged us to do better. He told us that any problems caused by men could be solved by man. Yes, that was another era. But despite our difficulties, there’s no reason we can’t solve our problems, fix Detroit and educate our children, if we want to badly enough.

All that would certainly cost much less than a war.  And in the final analysis, what other choice is there?