Opinion

Yesterday, I said that if you thought your town’s pension funds were woefully underfunded, you might want to take another look. Well, somebody now has.

Last year, the non-partisan, non-profit Center for Michigan began publishing an online magazine called Bridge, which almost immediately began doing some of the best journalism in the state.

Bridge is now rolling out a series looking at retiree debt and unfunded liabilities in communities across and around the state, and it is clear that the situation is even worse than I imagined. This is not based on emotion or anecdotal evidence.

Eric Scorsone, the former chief economist for the Michigan Senate Fiscal Agency, recently did an analysis for Michigan State University.  His conclusions can be summed up in a four word quote: “It’s not just Detroit.“  Indeed not.

Historically, Detroit has often served the function of sort of a national canary in the coal mine. Miners used to take canaries down the shafts with them, because the birds were much more susceptible to dangerous and invisible gas. When they keeled over, it was time to get out, fast.

Similarly, Detroit’s boom-and-bust auto economy has been an indicator of national trends. When we got rich, the world was better off. When Americans caught an economic cold, Detroit got pneumonia.

This analogy may also apply in connection with the Detroit pension fund crisis. One reason the city is headed for bankruptcy today is that its pension funds seem to have been woefully underfunded. I’ve suggested that, if you live elsewhere, you might want to inquire about the health of your town’s pension funds, and don’t take, “oh, nothing to worry about,” for an answer.

Well, it was quite a week for our state’s largest city. Voters elected a white mayor for the first time since 1969.

Had you gone to Lloyds of London 10 years ago and bet that within a decade, America would have a black president and Detroit a white mayor, today you would be very rich indeed.

But in the city Cadillac founded, attorneys today will offer closing arguments in a trial to determine whether the city will be allowed to file for bankruptcy. While everything in Federal Judge Steven Rhodes’ courtroom is by the book, there is an element of Kabuki-theater unreality about it all.

Nobody really believes the application will be denied. If it were, creditors would tear what remains of Detroit apart with the efficiency of a pack of wolves with a lamb.

We’ve been focused so much on elections that many of us haven’t much noticed what’s been going on in Lansing.

Well, those who remember the unseeingly way Right to Work was rammed through the legislature in last year’s lame duck session, may find we’re about to get déjà vu all over again.

Republicans have just passed a bill to radically change the way in which judges are selected when citizens sue the state. Essentially, it allows the state Supreme Court to pick four judges from the Court of Appeals to hear these cases. 

The panel that hears lawsuits against the state, by the way, is called the Court of Claims. For many years, this function has been exercised by the circuit judges in Ingham County. That’s the county where Lansing and our state government are located, which has been logistically convenient. This bill will change that.

So, is there any overall meaning to yesterday’s elections, at least in Michigan? Or is it a case, as former House Speaker Tip O‘Neill said, that “all politics are local?” That it would be hard to read any deeper meaning into results from Detroit, or Saugatuck?

Usually, I’ve found that Tip was right, especially in what are called “off-off year elections;” those held in odd-numbered years. But this year, I think you can find common themes and moods.

Voters wanted change, but want to hedge their bets. They aren’t very fond of government these days; many proposals for new money were voted down, with two exceptions: Schools and roads.

Today is Election Day in local communities all across Michigan. But politicians being politicians, many are already looking ahead to next year’s statewide and congressional elections.

For everyone in the game, deciding whether to run is a matter of weighing hope versus experience; ambition against common sense. Sometimes, long shots pay off. On paper, it made no sense for a freshman senator to run for President six years ago, and not just because there was a formidable front-runner. 

The challenger was black. I thought his candidacy was hopeless. But as the world knows, I was gloriously wrong. However, back in 2000, Barack Obama was the one who was wrong. He challenged an incumbent congressman in a primary race. He lost by more than 2-1, drained his finances and strained his marriage for a time. Every situation is different.

But now, one of Michigan’s potentially biggest stars faces her own dilemma. Few have accomplished as much at a relatively early age as Jocelyn Benson. Barely 36 years old, she is already interim dean of Wayne State University law school. She has degrees from Wellesley, Oxford and Harvard Law. She has a stunning resume that includes stints working for the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP, NPR and the revered federal appeals judge Damon Keith. 

The Detroit suburb of Royal Oak is a fascinating little city which has had far greater historic importance than its size would lead you to expect. And how its citizens vote in tomorrow’s election may provide an important clue to how attitudes are changing statewide.

Royal Oak’s 57,000 citizens are going to be asked to vote on a proposed charter ordinance that would forbid discrimination based on a wide variety of factors, including sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV status. Twelve years ago, Royal Oak voted a similar ordinance down by more than 2-1. But opinions have evolved, and since then, a steadily growing group of states have legalized same-sex marriage. 

If you’ve been following what’s been going on in Wayne County government, you may be either scratching your head or banging it against the wall. There was the case of the country employee who got a two hundred thousand dollar severance to move from one well-paid job to another running the airport, something for which she had no experience. Eventually she was fired, but they then had to pay her another seven hundred thousand.

Then, there is the jail. County Executive Robert Ficano and the Wayne County Commissioners decided they needed a new one. Unfortunately, they apparently decided to allow the contractors and subcontractors to approve their own cost overruns. In June, the half-built jail was so far over budget that the county canceled the project, meaning taxpayers are out $155 million dollars.

You would think the people who approved this project would either be arrested or at least forced to resign in disgrace. But no, they’re at it again. Last night I was on a television show with Kevin McNamara, one of the commissioners. 

He wasn’t exactly hanging his head in shame, he was excited. Seems they are about to sell the abandoned jail to billionaire Dan Gilbert, the Rock Financial and Quicken Loans guy, who has been buying large amounts of property in downtown Detroit.

Well, it’s Halloween, and once upon a time the worst that could happen is that kids would rub soap, or occasionally wax, into the windows of your car. Plus the risk that you would get sick from eating too much candy. But we live in a different age, and for Detroit, this is just one more day of horrors in a long series of nightmares.

The city is attempting to file for bankruptcy, and there is a real threat that the courts will make Detroit sell off the assets of the Detroit Institute of Arts to pay some of the creditors.

Detroit desperately needs a turnaround, and a lucky break, and unfortunately, seems doomed over and over to embarrassment. The most recent example is the idea that someone would pay millions of dollars for the destroyed and crumbling old Packard auto plant. True, it is a part of Detroit history. My late father-in-law worked there as a young engineer, and helped close it down when Packard dissolved.

But that was in 1958. The plant long ago became an eyesore. Fifteen years ago, it was a popular site for drug-induced “rave” parties. Today, it is a ghastly and unsalvagable ruin.

Today’s papers are reporting the results of a new poll showing one of the candidates in the Detroit mayor’s race leading the other by almost a 2-1 margin.

But there’s another, less well-known poll that may tell the real story of this and most elections. Unlike opinion polls, this one has hard numbers. It is the money poll, and in this one, Mike Duggan is leading Benny Napoleon by almost ten to one.

That’s based on the latest reports filed by Political Action Committes, or PACs, which raise money for campaigns in this state. They usually exist to raise money for candidates for office.

The PAC supporting Napoleon, Detroit Forward, had raised $303,000 dollars, as of ten days ago. The PAC supporting Duggan, called Turnaround Detroit, $2.8 million.

We are a week away from what has been the strangest, perhaps most important, and most disappointing mayoral election in the history of Detroit. As nearly everyone knows, Detroit is under an emergency manager, and going through bankruptcy proceedings.

Whomever is elected will be largely a figurehead till the emergency manager leaves, something unlikely to happen until next fall, or later. But when Kevyn Orr does say goodbye, the new mayor will take over leadership of a city that may be shorn of debt, but which will need to get on its feet, fast.

Detroit will still be desperately poor. It cannot expect much new help from either the state or federal governments. Nor is anybody likely to lend Detroit any more money in the foreseeable future.

What Detroit has to do is find a way to serve its citizens and stay solvent. While no one man or woman can do that alone, the citizens have a right to expect the candidates for the city’s top job to tell them how they’d hope to accomplish that.

Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist who himself grew up in semi-poverty, noted over the weekend that the United States is seeing a rapid explosion of billionaires – and of children who are going to school hungry. Not surprisingly, the hungry children part of the equation is truer in Michigan than in most other states.

In fact, one quarter of our children are now below the poverty line, which, by the way, is currently $23,550 for a family of four.

If you have any idea how four people can survive on that amount, you are smarter than I am. That number, by the way, has gone up more than five percent over the last six years.

The Great Recession may officially be over, and bank profits and the stock market are skyrocketing. But there’s very little sign of that affecting those who are poor. Actually, things have been getting worse for them, and are about to get worse still in Michigan.

There’s something, believe it or not, that Tea Party conservatives and liberals have in common. They believe that  government at all levels needs oversight, and people need to be able to easily find out what their governments are doing.

And in one of politics’ great ironies, two of the most conservative state representatives have introduced bills that everyone, but especially groups like journalists and the ACLU should be doing everything they can to get behind and support.

Earlier this week I had a meeting in Ann Arbor and then went to Detroit. When I swung off the freeway onto a surface street I hit a pothole I couldn’t see so hard I was convinced I’d lose a tire.

I was lucky. Everything seems fine. But I drive a lot, and have lost two tires in similar episodes in recent years.

We need to fix our roads. Figuring out how to do so is the responsibility of our lawmakers. But they won’t do it. Which means  we are all going to pay more and more to fix damage to our cars. 

Well, today is the day that the City of Detroit goes to court. Bankruptcy court, that is. Not to settle the final details of what will happen, but to ask the judge to allow it to declare bankruptcy.

This has been going on so long now that there’s a tendency to take Detroit bankruptcy as an established fact. In fact, all that has happened is that the Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, filed a petition in July asking to be allowed to declare bankruptcy. Since then, we’ve been treated to a long series of revelations that make bankruptcy appear the only option.

Detroit has close to $20 billion dollars in unfunded liabilities, and next to no assets. It wouldn’t make much of a dent if they sold the entire collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, and then sold the building to a billionaire who wanted a mausoleum.

Well, welcome to another week. The early signs aren’t auspicious. Much of the week is supposed to be cold and rainy. We should have had the excitement of a World Series to look forward to tomorrow, but our state’s team succeeded in blowing it.

Detroit’s bankruptcy eligibility trial begins this week, and you know you’ve got problems when the best outcome you can hope for is that the judge finds that the city is a hopeless failure.

I’m sure we’ll be discussing all that and more atrocities as the week goes on. But as a Monday diversion, I thought I’d offer a bit of interesting political trivia that occurred to me this weekend.

The next presidential election is more than three years away, and our politicians ought to be concentrating on a million other things, but if you know anything about politics, you know politicians -- and political junkies -- are always looking to the next election. And there is something different about this time for the Republicans.

Government dysfunction and the shutdown dominated the headlines this week, but for some Michigan cities, crisis has been the theme for years.

Five cities -  including Detroit - are run by state-appointed emergency managers.

In Benton Harbor, the story is shifting to how to return the government back to local control.

Let me get this out– understanding some of you might start yelling at your radio - or computer screen.

I’ve been a supporter of Michigan’s emergency manager law.

Well – sort of.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

Government dysfunction and the shutdown dominated the headlines this week, but for some Michigan cities, crisis has been the theme for years.

Five cities -  including Detroit - are run by state-appointed emergency managers.

In Benton Harbor, the story is shifting to how to return the government back to local control.

Let me get this out– understanding some of you might start yelling at your radio - or computer screen.

I’ve been a supporter of Michigan’s emergency manager law.

Well – sort of.

The Michigan Senate yesterday overwhelmingly approved a bill to cut off unemployment benefits for anyone who fails or refuses a drug test. The House passed a slightly different version earlier, and within a few days the governor will be signing this into law.

This will make a lot of lawmakers, most of them Republicans, feel very righteous. They will have cut off funds to a group of desperate and poor people who apparently have substance abuse problems. I wonder what these folks will do then?

There were a lot of disappointed people yesterday afternoon. They’d expected U.S. District Judge Bernard Friedman to strike down the Michigan constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex marriage. They also thought he’d rule against Michigan’s decision to forbid unmarried couples from adopting children.

But the federal judge did neither thing -- although he hinted that he wanted to. Instead, he said the case before him would have to go to trial. “I wish I could sit here today and give you a definitive ruling,” Friedman said, adding, “There are issues that have to be decided. I have to decide this as a matter of law.”

With that, he set a February 25th trial date in the case of two lesbian nurses who want to jointly adopt three small children they have raised since they were desperately ill foster infants.

So what can we do?

Oct 16, 2013

Last night I spoke to a group in Northville, a pleasant and mostly affluent little town that straddles Wayne and Oakland Counties. Northville is about 30 miles and thirty light years from Detroit, but my audience wanted to know about the city. Wanted to know how Detroit got in the mess it is in, and what was going to happen next.

They all seemed to hope the city would come back, that someday it would be prosperous again. When I asked, I found that perhaps eighty percent used to live in Detroit; only one does now, which was one more than I expected.

They were people with varying opinions, but with good will. Besides Detroit, they were interested in the dysfunctionality and corruption of Wayne County government. I gave them as much information about the facts as I could.

But then one person, and then another, and another, asked me questions I couldn’t answer, questions along the lines of:  What can we do? What can we do about all this? How do we fix it? What can ordinary people, do?

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today on the constitutionality of Michigan’s affirmative action ban. The justices aren’t expected to announce a decision till next spring. And most of the so-called experts are betting that the Supreme Court will uphold our constitutional amendment banning affirmative action, the one voters passed by a wide margin seven years ago.

They think the vote will be 5-3, and that Justice Anthony Kennedy will be the swing vote. Well, they may be right. But none of the experts ever dreamed that the swing vote in the court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act would be that of Chief Justice John Roberts, and that he would find it constitutional on the grounds that it was actually a tax. So you never really know.

This issue is more complicated than many people on either side think.  I can sympathize with those opposing affirmative action. Giving someone special treatment because their ethnic background or the color of their skin, sounds terribly unfair. Unfair whether we are talking about discriminating for them or against them. Except -- it’s not that simple.  

Staring at default

Oct 14, 2013

Many years ago, when I studied economics, I learned that every so often, Congress has to authorize an increase in how much money the nation could borrow, meaning the national debt.

One student asked what would happen if Congress didn’t authorize a debt increase. “Something that would make the Great Depression look like a picnic,” the professor said.

He explained that the world financial system was built on the soundness of the American dollar, and the global belief that our debts, like U.S. savings bonds and the $20 bill, were backed by the “full faith and credit” of the United States of America. He also told us that the odds of this nation ever defaulting were less than a nuclear war.

Well, that professor is dead and the Cold War long over. But for the first time, there seems a real possibility that we could, at least temporarily, go into default. We aren’t talking about Detroit here, but the United States of America.

Well, it has been an odd and remarkable week in an odd and remarkable year. Large parts of the federal government are still shut down, and Detroit’s march towards bankruptcy is still proceeding, agonizingly slowly.

Yesterday, however, there was a flurry of good news, most from poor beleaguered Motown itself. The city’s thoroughly corrupt former mayor was sentenced to a record stretch in federal prison.

Everyone knows there’s a war between the parties going on right now in Congress and in Washington, a war that has shut down the national parks and large parts of the federal government.

But there’s also a war going on within the Republican Party, a war being fought on battlefields from Washington to Lansing to Canton and Grand Rapids. It’s a war for the party’s mind and soul.

Essentially, it’s a war between the Tea Party Republicans and the party’s more traditional conservatives, especially the business community. Right now, the Tea Party seems to be winning. For a while, that had the regular Republicans concerned. They know that if extremists are the face of the party, they can say goodbye to any hopes of recapturing the White House, and probably also the U.S. Senate.

Farewell to Kwame

Oct 9, 2013

Tomorrow a federal judge will sentence former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to a long stretch in prison for some of his crimes. Nearly seven months ago, he was convicted on 24 counts of corruption, including tax evasion, racketeering, extortion and mail fraud.

The airwaves will be full of this tomorrow. The newspapers will have a field day the next day. In Detroit, where chronicling Kilpatrick is a big-league sport of its own, there’s a lot of speculation as to how long he’ll get.

I don’t know, but I do know this: The worst punishment for this charming sociopath will probably be the one that starts after the sentencing is over. I intend to help administer this punishment, and hope my colleagues in the media will too. I intend, insofar as possible, to ignore Kwame Kilpatrick.  If the rest of the media does the same, that may torment him worse than anything else.

The media have never been able to get enough of Kwame. We fawned all over him when he first ran for mayor. Here was this brilliant 31 year old, an athlete, a scholar, a blazing star in the legislature come to save his city.

In four weeks, Detroit will choose a new mayor. Some people are saying this is a fairly meaningless exercise. After all, everything is now controlled by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.  Orr, and Federal Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes.

But within a year, city council will regain the power to take back control of Detroit for itself and the mayor. By that time, or soon after, the bankruptcy too should be over. So who the mayor is and what he does will matter -- perhaps more than ever.

State Representative Harvey Santana, a Detroit Democrat, thinks we need to make this a more immigrant-friendly state. He believes that could lead to Michigan becoming the leading state in the nation in job creation and economic development. Two weeks ago, something incredible happened that showed me exactly how right that is.

How would you feel if we got into an endless war that every year claimed thirty thousand lives? Not just the lives of soldiers, either. You might go to the store, and never come back. Or your children might be killed going to soccer after school. Well, we do have something going on like that, and have had for a century. I am talking about deaths from auto accidents.

Actually, thanks to seat belts and safety glass, we have far less human road kill than we used to. But there’s a new bill in the Michigan senate that promises to increase the number of highway fatalities.

The bill, proposed by State Senator Virgil Smith of Detroit, would allow bars and restaurants in so-called central business districts to keep serving alcohol till four in the morning. That makes sense only if you want more people killed on their way to work early in the morning.

I knew someone once who received a diagnosis of terminal cancer.  A few days later, after the initial shock, he told me that it was hard to believe, because he really didn’t feel that bad. Seven months later, he was dead.

I thought of this yesterday while thinking about the government shutdown. Most of our lives haven’t changed very much -- yet. We are starting to get used to this. We see the politicians squabbling on the news and are tempted to say, “A plague on both their houses.“

But to use a term borrowed from the long-ago Watergate scandal, the shutdown is a creeping cancer on not only government, but our lives. If Congressional leaders get in a room and solve it today or tomorrow, the long-term impact will be minimal. But the longer this goes on, the more it will rot the foundations of our society. 

Michigan’s budget director, John Nixon, is no screaming liberal. He is a Republican who came here from Utah. But two days ago, he made some observations that deserve attention. He told the Gongwer news service that if the shutdown lasts very long, it could throw the economy into a new recession. What he didn’t have to mention was that we’ve never fully recovered from the old one.

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