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Jack Lessenberry

Daily essays about politics and current events with newspaper columnist Jack Lessenberry. Subscribe to a podcast of his essays here. Learn more about Jack here.

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Don Haffner is a witty and smart guy in his late 60s who grew up in Downriver Detroit’s working class town of Allen Park. Growing up, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, except not to become one more cog on the assembly line.

So he went to tiny Albion College, until one day in 1972 when he was about to graduate and got a letter asking him if he might want to consider serving in South Korea in the Peace Corps. He did, and it changed his life. South Korea is prosperous now, and the United States hasn’t sent Peace Corps volunteers there in 35 years.

But that wasn’t the case in the early 70s, less than a generation after the entire country was devastated by the Korean War. The experience was, indeed, life-changing. Don, who I’ve known slightly for years, was sent to a town then called Mukho only about 40 miles from the infamous 38th parallel, where he taught English in middle school.

I talked yesterday about two bills before the legislature that would make it more difficult for hospitals to honor “do not resuscitate” orders, especially if an individual was unconscious and their stated desire to allow someone to die was opposed by a family member.

This made me wonder about who legally has the right to make decisions in such cases, especially when there is some question about someone’s soundness of mind. Since Michigan closed most of its state hospitals in the 1990s, mental health care in this state has sometimes resembled the Wild West, with a patient’s fate dependent on a particular probate judge.

Jack Kevorkian.
UCLA

For years, I covered the assisted suicide crusade of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who became internationally famous in the 1990s. Today, we tend to remember his outlandish antics –his bizarre suicide machine; the battered Volkswagen van, and the strange Mutt and Jeff combination of the wacky aged physician and a young, brash, and outrageous Geoffrey Fieger.

But we tend to forget that Kevorkian was fulfilling a need. Medical science can now prolong people’s existence far beyond the point when they have any quality of life.

People were being made to endure horrific suffering with no possibility of relief. Others just wanted to be freed from the prison of lives that no longer held any promise of happiness.

Mackinac Bridge
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

This week, Enbridge Energy reported the protective coating has worn off of it's Line 5 pipeline in more spots than previously revealed. Line 5 is the oil and gas pipeline that runs under the straits of Mackinac. The new report says there were 8 spots of bare metal and seven of them will be repaired before winter sets in. A state commission has called Enbridge to testify next month.

Michigan Radio's Morning Edition host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry talk about possible solutions.

I never really knew Irving Tobocman, the world-renowned architect who lived in Birmingham and designed buildings all over the state and the world.

I knew his work, which evoked the best of the Bauhaus movement and Frank Lloyd Wright, and I have often been amazed that Detroit has been home to what seemed a disproportionate number of great architects –Tobocman, Minoru Yamasaki, and back in the day when the auto industry was exploding, Albert Kahn.

satellite map of Michigan, the Great Lakes
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The principle a doctor is supposed to follow in dealing with patients is, “first, do no harm.” The most valuable natural resource this state and region has is undoubtedly the Great Lakes. They contain twenty percent of the world’s surface fresh water. They mean billions of dollars every year in recreational boating and fishing and other activities.

Paul Weaver / Creative Commons http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

As a firm believer in the ideology of rational behavior, I have plenty of problems with the Democratic Party on both the national and state level.

Nationally, all of their three most often mentioned presidential candidates – Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and even Elizabeth Warren – are extremely old, by political standards.

Were any of them to take office in 2021, they would be the oldest new president ever to be inaugurated. 

President Donald Trump
Gage Skidmore / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

This week’s elections are over, and Republicans did badly. GOP leaders are now saying openly that they need to pass a tax bill or face losing the House of Representatives next year.

Well, a year can be a long time in politics.

Thirty-five years ago, in Ronald Reagan’s first mid-term election, Democrats made huge gains, and the experts predicted Reagan might be a one-term president. Instead, two years later, he won 49 of the 50 states.

So you never can tell. But I am more interested in what President Trump’s tax bill would mean for all of us. So I turned to Economics Professor Charles Ballard at Michigan State, a man who for many years has specialized in the Michigan economy.

A year ago today, Michigan and the nation stunned the world by electing a President whose platform essentially repudiated a bipartisan legacy of steadily increasing international ties on issues from military affairs to the environment to trade.

graffiti saying "vote"
Flickr user H2Woah! / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Michigan Radio's Morning Edition host Doug Tribou, and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss some of yesterday's election results.

Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Today is Election Day, though less than one-fifth of eligible Michigan residents are likely to vote. Most of all, I am morbidly curious to see whether Detroiters will elect Virgil Smith Jr. to their city council. He’s the former state senator who recently did time after he physically attacked his ex-wife and shot up her car in a residential neighborhood.

There are also a few mostly one-sided mayoral races and a whole bunch of local millage elections. There’s a special election to fill the seat of one Democratic representative who resigned after being convicted of many felonies, and a hotly contested contest in the Upper Peninsula, to replace another state rep who tragically killed himself this spring.

Fliker User: Fuzzy Gerdes

Several listeners wrote to me after yesterday’s shooting in Texas to ask if I was going to talk about it today. I had no intention of doing so.

Long ago, and certainly after the massacre of the elementary students in Sandy Hook, it became clear to me that our society doesn’t care enough to do anything about this.

True, the money and the power of the National Rifle Association over our elected representatives has been enough to thwart the mildest and most sensible gun safety measures.And we also seem so attached to a distorted and wrong-headed view of the Second Amendment that a mass murder or two a month, and losing thousands of people every year in senseless shootings, seems normal.

car accident
Daniel X. O'Neil / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Mike Duggan is the most powerful mayor of Detroit in many years, and probably the most popular one statewide in our lifetimes. Republicans, on the other hand, have overwhelming control of the state Legislature.

You’d think, then, that if the Democratic mayor of Detroit were to team up with the Republican Speaker of the House, you would have an unstoppable coalition of immense power.

You’d think that, but you’d be wrong.

After both men worked their respective constituencies for weeks, the State House of Representatives held a vote on an auto insurance reform bill that both Duggan and Speaker Tom Leonard desperately wanted.

The bill was designed to give people options for drastically lowered car insurance rates, especially in Detroit, where rates are the highest in the nation, and many people can’t afford and do not have coverage of any kind.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette hasn’t hesitated to launch investigations into a number of agencies whose behavior he’s found questionable.

So he might want to seriously consider looking at potential corruption at the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, where there are indications some board members may be putting their own private interests ahead of the needs of those they are supposed to help.

arrow sign says voting
Flickr user justgrimes / https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Election Day in Michigan is Tuesday, November 7. Michigan Radio's "Morning Edition" host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry preview some of the issues for voters around the state: 

Logo
flickr user DonkeyHotey / http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

A year ago, I was talking to Matt Grossman, the pollster and political scientist at Michigan State University. Like most of us, he didn’t expect Donald Trump would win. But he told me that if he did, 2018 would be a horrible year for Michigan Republicans.

Traditionally, the party holding the White House does badly in midterm elections – look at what happened to Democrats in 2010 or Republicans in 2006. On top of that, Michigan Republicans have their own special problems, Flint being only the biggest.

Handguns
user Joshuashearn / wikimedia commons

I’m not big on ideology. I’ve known communists and Ayn Randers, and both live in closed systems that are substitutes for really having to think.

The communists are pretty much limited to a few websites these days, and I don’t get the sense that middle-class teenage boys still read The Fountainhead as often as they did.

The Statue of Liberty
Celso Flores / Flickr - http://j.mp/1SPGCl0

Last night, the main ballroom was filled to capacity at the Atheneum Suite Hotel in Detroit’s Greektown, a place designed partly to attract higher-stakes gamblers.

But no one among the hundreds present was there to do anything except gamble that this nation could still live up to its promise.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan (left) and State Sen. Coleman Young II (right)
DugganforMayor; Lester Graham

To his credit, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan agreed this summer to a single televised debate with State Senator Coleman Young II, who ran far behind in the August primary.

Duggan, in fact, got more than two-thirds of the vote in a seven-candidate field. Many cities don’t even hold a runoff when one candidate gets a majority in a primary. Other Detroit mayors in similar positions have refused to debate their opponents. But Duggan did.

Workers repair the water main break in Farmington Hills.
Tracy Samilton / Michigan Radio

More than a quarter of a million people in Michigan’s richest county have to boil their drinking water this week. If you haven’t heard, that’s because a four-foot wide water transmission line apparently broke in Farmington Hills Monday night.

sunrise fishing on Lake Huron
U.S. Department of the Interior

A new study says African-American kids in Michigan fare worse than children of color anywhere else in the country when it comes to education and other benchmarks. Some advocates say that means it’s time to start acknowledging we need policies that give extra help to minority children.

Michigan Radio's "Morning Edition" host Doug Tribou and senior news analyst Jack Lessenberry discuss what that approach might look like.

UAW sign.
UAW

You don’t need a master’s degree in labor relations to know that America’s labor unions have been declining for years. In the early 1950s, more than a third of all private sector workers were unionized; in Detroit, that number may have been over half.

But the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that last year, union membership nationally fell to 10.7 percent, the lowest it’s been since before the New Deal and the Wagner Act gave workers the right to organize. In fact, union membership is far less in the private sector.

Whatever you think of his policies, Senator Bernie Sanders did something politically smart. Sanders, who had been scheduled to open the first-ever Women’s Convention in Detroit next week, announced that he wouldn’t be able to attend after all.

“I want to apologize to the organizers,” the senator from Vermont said, “but given the emergency situation in Puerto Rico,” he felt his leadership was needed there next weekend instead.

Someone once wrote that if you keep a diary and look back at what you wrote 20 years ago, you often find the stuff you thought was peripheral actually turned out to have been the most important. For example, you may have filled pages mooning over a now-forgotten Ralph or Susie, and just noted in passing a job that began your professional career.

News is like that too.

We don’t always see what’s most important. Most of us, so far as I can tell, are so focused on the daily clown show in Washington, that we are paying little attention to tremors in our nation’s growing relationship with China.

Jocelyn Benson announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state yesterday. She has actually been running for the job for many months, though not as long as Bill Schuette has been running for governor; he is, after all, almost a quarter century older.

Photograph of Downtown Detroit
Ifmuth / FLICKR - HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

As you may know, Amazon is looking for another city in which to build a vast new headquarters that could mean billions in investment and up to 50,000 jobs.

Not surprisingly, just about every city wants that. But the place where it might make the most difference for the local economy is, of course, Detroit.

Dan Gilbert, the Quicken Loans czar who many regard as Detroit’s capitalist savior, is heading a task force that will submit a bid in the next two days to the giant mail order retailer. Mayor Mike Duggan would do just about anything to lure Amazon.

Newspaper
Zoe Clark / Michigan Radio

I think I can say that I have some professional credibility as a journalist. I have a master’s degree from a major university, a national Emmy award, work in all forms of media, and am in charge of journalism at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Yet legally, I have the same standing as a journalist as a high school dropout who writes a blog in his grandmother’s basement, and that is exactly the way it is supposed to be.

Plumbers are licensed by the state. So are doctors, lawyers, and every other profession great and humble. But I am granted the right to do what I do by a greater authority, the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. That’s as sacred a secular document as they come.

Rick Snyder
Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Senator Howard Baker uttered his immortal words one summer 44 years ago when Rick Snyder was about to become a high school sophomore.

“What did the president know, and when did he know it?”

Thirteen months later, we had enough of the answer to force Richard Nixon to resign the presidency, ending a long national nightmare we thought we’d never see repeated.

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

Peter McPherson, one of the best presidents Michigan State has had in recent years, told me once that when he was a student at MSU, there was a controversy over whether to allow a Communist to speak on campus.

This was back in the early sixties, we were at the height of the Cold War, and the administration didn’t want to allow a perceived enemy of America to speak. Eventually the Communist did get to speak… and the students who went found him mind-numbingly boring.

Jack Lessenbery
Michigan Radio

I took a trip back in time yesterday, sort of, to Plymouth, Michigan – a tidy, mostly gentrified Wayne County town 26 miles and at least that many light years from the city of Detroit.

I turned on Main Street, and stopped in the law office of John Stewart, who has practiced there for more than 30 years. When I looked around, I expected to see Atticus Finch, or Jimmy Stewart, the folksy yet brilliant country lawyer from Anatomy of a Murder.

The offices were in what had been a comfy private home built nearly a century ago. There were bookshelves everywhere, lined not just with law books but biographies of Lincoln, Jefferson, and other books you might actually want to read.

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