Commentary
11:41 am
Wed February 9, 2011

State of Desperation

Earlier this week Wayne State University’s Alumni Association invited me and Nolan Finley, the editorial page editor of the Detroit News, to have a frank discussion with their members.

The theme was “Michigan at a Crossroads,” a look at the challenges facing our state today. I think some people expected a bitter debate. After all, Finley runs an opinion section which is profoundly conservative. My reputation is that of some sort of moderate liberal, though I prefer to think of myself as a common sense pragmatist with a bias towards things that work.

But people expected a verbal slugfest, they were disappointed. Oh, Nolan and I have our differences. I think a graduated income tax would be a good idea; he doesn’t, and I‘d be comfortable with a higher level of taxation, if the revenue were to be used for the right things, like education, roads and bridges.

Fifteen years ago, our views probably would have been far further apart. But now, Finley and I were virtually united in recognizing that the first thing we all must do is understand how big our predicament is. Michigan is engaged in a race to the bottom, in more categories than anyone would care to count.

We’ve gone from being a relatively rich state to a poor one.

Still, we have to somehow get competitive for the jobs and growth industries of the future. And that’s hard to do when we have crumbling roads and bridges and crippling deficits.

That’s even harder to do when school systems are failing, and when cities fail to meet their obligations and slip into emergency financial manager status, the equivalent, in the political world, of bankruptcy and receivership. Treasurer Andy Dillon said recently that five communities soon won’t be able to pay their employees.

This may be only the tip of the iceberg, and speaking of icebergs, there are other monstrous ones ahead. We both agreed that one of the most uncovered stories in this state is the fact that state pension funds have a staggering $15.5 billion dollars in unfunded liabilities.

This happened, in part, because of profound irresponsibility on the part of both political parties, something made all the more possible by term limits. A politician who knows he won’t be around,  has lots of incentive to push the problem down the road.

Having seen the damage term limits have done, Nolan and I would repeal them in a heartbeat. There’s another elephant in the room we took on that nobody wants to talk about: Detroit.

Mayor Dave Bing is an intelligent and honest man. Yet he, like Robert Bobb at the Detroit Public Schools,  has an impossible task. Detroit is no longer viable as a city. Its tax base is too small; the vast majority of its remaining citizens are poorly educated -- most lack even a high school diploma -- and poor.

We agreed the best solution would be for the legislature to merge it with Wayne County -- or even better, make the tri-county area one megacity. Consolidated government has saved other cities.

We need it here. Our old way of life is disappearing forever. 

Now, it‘s time to forget the old categories, and as  Henry Ford spurred us to do a century ago, invent something new.