commentary

Commentary
10:40 am
Tue January 10, 2012

Destroying Our Future

All politicians say they’re against oppressive tax burdens. For instance, Governor Rick Snyder. Almost his entire program is focused on making Michigan more competitive economically.

But the tragic irony of this is that one of the unintended consequences of his reforms is having exactly the opposite effect. We are imposing a stiff and burdensome tax on our young people, making it harder for them to compete than most states do.

In some cases, we are making it impossible, and we are going to be paying the price for this for many years to come.

That’s because we are imposing what Phil Power at the Center for Michigan calls a “college user tax,” on the students of this state that saddles many with crushing debt and prices others out of the market entirely. I learned the details this morning from a story in Bridge, the new online newsmagazine published by the Center, a non-partisan, non-profit group aimed at finding common-sense solutions for our state’s problems. Phil Power also wrote his weekly column about the study. It makes for shocking reading.

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Commentary
11:54 am
Mon January 9, 2012

Who is Clark Durant?

Clark Durant is a man of ideas who is far more knowledgeable about American history than most United States senators I’ve met.

His office is filled with portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, together with photos of a much younger Clark with Ronald Reagan and Sandra Day O’Connor. He’s fascinated by Washington, D.C. and absolutely hates its culture.

This year, he’s running hard for the United States Senate, because he thinks his country is in great danger of being destroyed by debt and spending with no thought for the consequences.

And he believes that maybe, just maybe, he can do something to change that. “If this were just about trying to be one more Republican senator, I wouldn’t be doing this. I know I would be a freshman senator, bottom of the pack in seniority, at 63 years old."

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Commentary
10:34 am
Mon December 12, 2011

Prejudice, Modern Style

Last week two dismaying things happened - one predictable, the other shocking. The predictable one first: the Michigan legislature passed a bill banning the unmarried partner of any public employee from receiving health care benefits, as a spouse normally does.

The bill was sponsored by State Representative Dave Agema, who has never made any secret of his hostility to gay people. Make no mistake about it; this is a gay-bashing bill, though some of those supporting it hypocritically pretend otherwise.

They argued that this is required under a state constitutional amendment that says marriage is limited to men and women. There were even some who said this was necessary to save the cash-strapped state money. But in fact, while nobody has any statistics that I have seen, the amount saved has to be small.

My guess is that this law, if Governor Snyder makes the mistake of signing it, would end up costing the state more money than it would save, because of the lawsuits that are sure to result.

One problem is the state’s public universities. They contend that they have the power to determine their own policies under the Michigan Constitution, and the governor thinks they are right.

But others disagree, especially anti-gay activists, and they are certain to take to the courts. The resulting publicity is sure to be bad for competitiveness in Michigan. Aren‘t we supposed to be trying to attract the best and the brightest to our state? It is worth noting that one of Michigan‘s most respected university presidents is openly gay.

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Commentary
10:05 am
Mon November 28, 2011

Doing the Right Thing

Earlier this month, Wayne County Circuit Judge Prentis Edwards ruled that the privately held Ambassador Bridge company was guilty of contempt of court. This was not surprising.

Nearly two years ago, the judge found that the company and its owner, Matty Moroun, had violated its agreement with the state of Michigan concerning what is known as the Gateway project. This was a joint, two-hundred and thirty million dollar venture between the bridge company and the state to connect the bridge directly to I-75 and I-96 through a series of new roads and ramps.

Both parties agreed on where the roads were to be built. But Moroun violated the agreement. He built a money-generating duty-free shop and put fuel pumps where one of the new roads was to have gone. The Michigan Department of Transportation sued, and in February 2010, the judge issued a ruling.

He ordered the bridge company to tear down the pumps and the duty-free shop, and build the road as agreed. But nothing happened. Eleven months ago, the judge briefly jailed Dan Stamper, president of the bridge company for non-compliance.

He let him out when Stamper promised to get it done. But again, nothing happened. Finally, on November 2, the judge ruled the company guilty of civil contempt.

He set a hearing for Thursday to decide whether to have a court-appointed receiver take control of the project.

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Commentary
11:01 am
Tue November 22, 2011

A Media Lynching; Dale Kildee story deserved more scrutiny

Patrick Clawson is one of the more aggressive investigative reporters I know.

The former CNN journalist is now semi-retired, and dabbles in a number of occupations. He is no great worshipper of government, titles or institutions. Last year he broke the news that Governor Granholm had awarded a huge tax break to a convicted embezzler whose business was entirely fiction.

Yet he is now outraged about a story he sees as totally irresponsible, and so am I. Yesterday, media throughout the state began reporting allegations that longtime Flint area congressman Dale Kildee improperly touched a young male second cousin of his more than half a century ago. The 82-year-old congressman, indignantly denied the allegations, and noted that the man making them had a long history of mental illness.

There has never previously been any hint of scandal involving Congressman Kildee, who has a wife, three children and announced months ago that he intended to retire after this term.

These stories bothered me when I saw them, because they contained absolutely no evidence or shred of proof. And because I know that any time anyone is accused of something like this, the accusation sticks to them through life, even if later exposed as totally false. What I didn’t know was that it had been checked out.

Pat Clawson contacted me last night and said that he and another well-known investigative journalist, a man instrumental in exposing Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick became aware of these allegations more than a year ago.

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Commentary
11:08 am
Tue November 15, 2011

A Question of Guns

Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of what was once a nationally famous tragedy; the post office shootings in Royal Oak, Michigan, in which five people died. This was one in a series of similar shootings, which left our language with the memorable term, “going postal.” The Detroit Free Press had an anniversary story about the event, together with the latest installment in their series “Living With Murder.” Well over 3,000 people have been murdered in Detroit in the last decade, almost all of them shot to death.

The newspaper looked at these killings and explored ways to try to stop them.  They wrote about neighborhood groups and citizens who go patrolling with the police.

Mayor Dave Bing said it was a problem of our young people getting “caught up in this violent culture,” and said we needed to stop showing disrespect for each other. I guess he thinks if we all do that and take a few moments to read the gospels, or maybe Martin Niemoller, we’ll be less likely to shoot strangers in the head.

Which may be true, but isn’t really very much of a practical solution. What was almost unbelievable to me, however, was that  there was no mention of doing something about the real problem: Guns. Disrespect doesn‘t kill people. Guns kill people.

Not every murder is committed with a gun. There will always be murders, at least until humans become extinct. But it would be hard to kill 21 people in a restaurant with an axe, and impossible to kill someone with a butcher knife who is three hundred yards away.

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Commentary
10:21 am
Tue November 8, 2011

Election Day

My guess is that if you are listening to this on the radio, you haven’t bothered to vote today. That’s a guess, but an educated one. Based on recent history, fewer than one-fifth of those eligible will bother to vote today - and that is too bad for a whole lot of reasons.

Whatever your politics, whether left or right or somewhere in the middle, we ought to be able to agree on this much: Politicians often behave badly when they think voters aren’t paying attention. If you’ve been following Wayne County, you may know what I mean.

How could a county give large “severance payments“ to workers going from one government job to another? Simple. Somebody clearly thought nobody would notice.

Thanks to some diligent reporters, we finally did.

But not very many of us have taken notice of this year’s election - even though polls show that very few of us are satisfied with the way things are going. That’s partly because this is what’s called an off-off year election, one held in an odd-numbered year.

This election isn’t seen as very sexy. There’s no vote for president, or governor, or congress. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. As old Tip O’Neill used to say, “All Politics is Local.”

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Commentary
10:02 am
Wed October 12, 2011

Romney’s Biggest Problem

You don’t have to be a cranky old man like me to think that presidential campaigns start far too early these days.

The next election is still more than a year away, but the campaign already has been going on for months and months.

Some candidates, like Minnesota’s Tom Pawlenty, have already dropped out of the race. Former Massachusetts governor and Michigan native Mitt Romney said recently that he thinks it is too late for someone new to get in, and he is probably right.

It takes too much money to run a winning campaign today, and much to the cash available has already been sewn up.

Compare this to the way things were in nineteen sixty eight, when Robert Kennedy didn’t even get into the race until the middle of March and might well have been nominated, if he hadn’t been killed.

But if it is too late for someone new to start a campaign, it is also too early for anyone to have any idea who is going to win.

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Commentary
9:43 am
Tue October 11, 2011

Expanding Charter Schools

We usually think of Franklin D. Roosevelt today as the quintessential liberal, big government president -- and in today’s polarized politics, both sides look back at his New Deal as the time when things either started going right or wrong, depending.

However, FDR didn’t think of himself that way. Once, when asked about his ideology, he said something like, “I try something, and if it doesn’t work, I try something else." Those who were really on the far left in his day mainly hated him. They understood what he was trying to do better than the right wing did.

As author Gore Vidal put it, “He saved capitalism. Whether it should have been saved or not is a different question. But he saved it, all right.”

I was reminded of this today by the ongoing, ferocious debate going on in Lansing over charter schools, which are independent, for-profit, public schools. A new package of bills would lift virtually all restrictions on charters, which are now limited to areas where public school performance is below average.

What bothers me is that so much of the ongoing debate over these schools is ideological or self-serving. And too few of the lawmakers debating these proposals are asking any version of FDR’s classic question, which in this case should be put this way:

What is the best way to make sure these children are being educated? Common sense means that we should all be in favor of any system that gets that job done, by any means necessary.

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Commentary
12:09 pm
Fri October 7, 2011

Shared Sacrifice? Not So Much

When your local state legislator campaigns for reelection next time, or runs for some other office, they may remind you of how they helped save the state by gallantly giving up their retirement health care benefits.

When and if they do, you might want to remember that this is mostly a form of horse exhaust. With a very few exceptions, they didn’t vote to give up their benefits at all.

They voted to deny benefits to other people who haven’t been elected yet, and who could theoretically change the law back.

As for our current band of elected leaders - they are mostly keeping their benefits, thank you very much.

Here’s what’s really going on. Retired Michigan legislators have, in fact, been getting taxpayer-subsidized health care benefits since the nineteen-fifties. By the way, it was a solidly Republican legislature that first voted to do this. Contrary to some propaganda you may have been hearing, the benefits aren’t completely free, and they don‘t kick in till the ex-lawmakers reach age fifty-five.

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Commentary
6:23 am
Tue September 20, 2011

Playing Ball

If you could magically transport a Detroiter from a century ago to the present, he or she would recognize virtually nothing about their city or their state. They’d be staggered by the size of things and appalled by the vast stretches of blight.

While cars were becoming the mainstay of our economy back then, today’s vehicles are so different that they would be essentially unrecognizable to someone from nineteen eleven.

Most people back then had never seen an airplane, there were no bridges over the Detroit River and no federal income tax.

But they would understand they were in the same place once you told them: “The Detroit Tigers are in an exciting race for the American League pennant.”

Baseball, of course, is more than a sport; it is a cultural touchstone.  The Tigers of a century ago had a season that was a mirror image of this one. This year, the team played only slightly better than mediocre baseball until the last month or so.

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Commentary
10:50 am
Mon September 12, 2011

Emerging Voices After 9/11

Michigan and the nation just finished a weekend commemorating the September 11th terrorist attacks ten years ago. But I think we should take a moment to think about those we don’t normally think about who were also touched by the tragedy.

Last week a former student reminded me what I did that day, when I had a large lecture class in Detroit  that morning. “Who here lives in Canada?” I asked.  Half a dozen hands shot up.

“Go home, now. Right now,” I said. They were startled. They knew I never let them out early. “But I have another class after this one,” somebody said. “If you don’t go now, you may not get home,“ I answered. I thought they would close the border.

They actually didn’t, but by that evening, the wait time was many hours. Then, things got worse after a story in the Boston Globe incorrectly said some of the hijackers came through Canada.

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Commentary
10:00 am
Tue September 6, 2011

The President Speaks

Once upon a time, it was an enormous deal whenever a President came to town. I know a woman who was a little girl of six in Pontiac sixty-three years ago, when President Harry Truman came to make a Labor Day speech in Detroit. There was a motorcade along Woodward, and she still has a vivid memory of standing along the curb and hoping for a glimpse of the President on his car.

Incidentally, her parents were Republicans. They didn’t vote for Truman that fall, when he won re-election in a stunning upset. But that didn’t matter. He was the President of the United States, and if you had a chance to see him, you took it.

These days, however, presidents are always on the move. Mr. Obama visited a battery factory in Ottawa County barely three weeks ago. True, an estimated 12,000 people braved crowds and traffic to pack into a parking lot on Detroit’s riverfront to see President Obama yesterday. But 42,000 had come downtown the night before, to pay money see the Detroit Tigers annihilate Obama’s Chicago White Sox.

The comparison isn’t fair, in a way. These days, almost everybody had the ability to watch the President on TV or the internet, which certainly wasn’t true in the days of Harry Truman.

However, Truman started something that Labor Day long ago that still continues today: The tradition that Democrats running for election or reelection as President kick off their campaigns with a Labor Day speech in Detroit. Campaigns start a lot earlier these days, and that was part of what was going on here.

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Commentary
11:19 am
Tue August 30, 2011

Proposal A Revisited

These are tough times for Michigan’s Public Schools, which by and large, have done a superb job educating our citizens since we became a state nearly two hundred years ago.

Statewide, the schools are suffering from a series of crippling funding cuts enacted at the same time we are demanding they do more with less. Teachers feel that their hard-won health care, pension, salaries and benefits are under siege.

And some districts are suffering further because an explosion of charter schools are taking students and money away from them. This is most acute in Detroit. There, a revolving door of expensive financial managers and high-paid consultants have proven unable to fix the schools or halt the stampede away from them.

Naturally, this has led to a crisis atmosphere. I spent yesterday afternoon with the leadership of the various school districts in one of Michigan’s major counties. They believe there is an actual conspiracy against them. They think there are those who want to essentially destroy public education and turn it into a system of charter schools and vouchers, for one big reason: To get private hands on some of the thirteen billion a year Michigan spends on public education.

Whether that’s true or not, that there is a major crisis - and coincidentally, a major new report finally gets to the bottom of just why this is. There are few institutions more respected than the non-partisan, non-profit Citizens Research Council of Michigan, whose motto is this: The right to criticize government is also an obligation to know what you are talking about.

Released yesterday, the CRC’s study is called “Distribution of State Aid to Michigan Schools.” That may not sound like a sexy page-turner, but for those of us interested in saving our state, it is.

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Commentary
9:58 am
Mon August 29, 2011

Taxing Liquor in Michigan

There are taxes, and then there are taxes. Some are straightforward. If I spend ten dollars at the hardware store this afternoon, I know I’ll pay sixty cents in sales taxes.

But other taxes are hidden, and may be higher than we suspect. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is an independent, non-partisan think tank with a strong fiscally libertarian bias.

Last week, it released a statistical analysis of liquor prices. The center found they are higher in states like Michigan where the state government acts as the statewide wholesale distributor.

How much higher? A little over six percent. They took as their example a fifth of a particular common brand of Scotch. They found that it costs, on average, a dollar fifty-nine more a bottle in the seventeen states like Michigan where government is the wholesaler. The Mackinac Center said this amounted to, “a substantial hidden tax on a commodity already subject to large state and federal taxes.” The implication is that this is bad.

However, I’m not so sure. I suppose it would bother me more if it were a tax on baby formula, or if the tax left liquor costing twenty percent more than in Illinois, for example. But nobody forces anybody to buy a bottle of Scotch.

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Commentary
12:54 pm
Fri August 26, 2011

Remembering Elly Peterson

She was, simply put, a woman ahead of her time, now nearly forgotten, who deserves to be better remembered in Michigan history.

It was she, not Debbie Stabenow, who was the first woman in Michigan to ever win a nomination for a U.S. Senate race.

She spent her life fighting for women to get a toehold in politics, fighting to be taken seriously by the men who led her party and weren’t accustomed to sharing power. She accomplished more than she ever took credit or was ever given credit for.

And despite all that, in the end, her party turned its back on most of what she stood for. But to the end of her days, she fought back with dignity and charm, and never let bitterness eat at her soul.

The woman I’m talking about is Elly Peterson, who gave her life to better conditions for women in politics -- and did so from within the GOP. Elly - everybody called her that - was ninety-four and living in Colorado when she died three years ago.

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Commentary
11:44 am
Mon August 22, 2011

Odd Man Out

There’s a game of musical chairs going on right now to determine which congressman will end up without a job a year from January. Yesterday, the likely outcome became a little more clear.

First of all, a little background: Michigan is losing a seat in congress because of national population shifts. The legislature redrew the boundary lines, and since Republicans control everything in Lansing, they made sure it would be a Democrat who lost out.

The only question was, which one? When the proposed new districts were revealed, it seemed at first that Oakland County’s Gary Peters would be the certain loser. The area in which he lives and fellow Democrat Sander Levin lives wound up in the same district.

The two men could run against each other in next August’s primary, of course, but on paper, Peters wouldn’t stand a chance.

Most of the new district is territory Levin has been representing, so he has home field advantage. Sandy Levin is also a sort of an icon. He was first elected to the state senate before Peters was six years old. He’s completing thirty years in Congress.

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Commentary
10:22 am
Thu August 18, 2011

Should there be fewer judges in Michigan?

Does Michigan need fewer judges? The chief justice of the state supreme court thinks so, and so does the governor.

Yesterday, a new study by the state court administrative office recommended eliminating forty-five of the almost six hundred trial judges in Michigan, and also getting rid of four appeals court judges.

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Commentary
10:52 am
Wed August 17, 2011

Children in Poverty

Yesterday, we learned that Michigan has more than half a million kids in families whose incomes are below the poverty level. Half a million. That’s according to reliable figures provided by the non-partisan, non-profit Michigan League for Human Services.

Every year, they bring us something called the Kids Count Data Book, a demographic survey of children’s well-being, funded by the reputable Annie E. Casey Foundation.

This year’s study shows that almost one in four Michigan kids is poverty-stricken. That’s as of two years ago, and the situation probably worsened last year. That’s more significant than it seems: Poverty-stricken children all too often grow up to be poor, unemployed and sometimes unemployable adults. They seldom get the education they need to be successful in the modern economy.

Additionally, kids who live under economic stress also tend to have more health problems, according to Jane Zehnder-Merrell, the director of the Kids Count in Michigan project.

That should bother you even if you have a heart of stone, because society is going to end up paying a tremendous economic as well as human cost as a result. We won’t see the full effect of the recession on our children for years.

And, there are things we could do to cushion the blow. Unfortunately, according to the experts, we seem to be choosing policies guaranteed to do exactly the opposite. Michigan, by the way, isn’t the worst state in the nation when it comes to child poverty, though we are worse than most.

We’ve fallen a few notches to thirtieth out of fifty states. But while child poverty went up nationally by 18 percent since two thousand, it increased in Michigan by a staggering 64 percent.

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Commentary
11:15 am
Tue August 16, 2011

Sense of Decency

Back in the nineteen-seventies, Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Swainson, a former governor, was accused of having accepted a bribe. He was acquitted of that, but convicted of perjury.

There are plenty of people, including his biographer, Lawrence Glazer, who think Swainson was actually innocent of anything other than bad judgment and trying to be his own attorney.

But after the verdict, Swainson didn’t spend his life whining to the press about the injustice of it all.

The former governor, an authentic war hero who had his legs blown off in the Second World War, resigned from the court, lost his law license, did his time, and disappeared into obscurity.

Years later, he worked hard and diligently at rehabilitating himself, and became a highly respected head of the Michigan Historical Commission before he died in nineteen ninety-four.

I mention all this because I thought of him yesterday, when splashed across the papers were long stories about a self-justifying interview disgraced former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick gave on an AM radio station yesterday morning.

Kilpatrick, you may remember, just got out of prison for violating probation. He is facing a new trial on a vast array of corruption charges that could send him to federal prison for thirty years.

Nobody disputes that his lies cost his impoverished city nine million dollars, or that he still owes nearly a million in court-ordered restitution. Nevertheless, the press feel compelled to give him a forum to criticize the present mayor, an indisputably honest man.

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