Opinion

It’s been ten days since the University of Michigan announced that Mark Schlissel would be the school’s new president.

I did not comment then, because I did not know enough to have an opinion, and because I knew Michigan Radio’s news department would do a superb job covering the selection and the new president himself.

I should say, by the way, that while Michigan Radio is a part of the University of Michigan, I am not an employee of the university, and I neither speak for the university or the station management.

But I can tell you that in the 10 days since the new president was announced, I have talked to, or been talked to by a lot of people about it. Roughly speaking, they had two main areas of concern.

The biggest was the rising cost of an education.

Last night I talked to Mary Lou Zieve, who is well known in Detroit as a marketing executive and supporter of the arts. I found out that we had something unpleasant in common.

During the last week, we’ve each had a tire destroyed by a pothole. Not on some unpaved road out in the country, but on suburban surface streets. I was driving forty miles an hour on Woodward Avenue in Royal Oak or Birmingham, when – bang.

This cost me $250.

Our roads and streets are bad and getting worse, and our lawmakers have refused over and over again to appropriate money to fix them.

But they are now eagerly signing up for something that from a good government standpoint is the height of insanity. They want to give us a tax cut, which means the state will have even less money to do the things it is failing to do.

Jack Faxon was a 24-year-old government teacher in Detroit back in 1960, when the state voted to call a constitutional convention.

Partly egged on by his students, he ran for delegate, and surprisingly, won. When the convention began, he was the youngest member. Republicans had a two-to-one majority, but that didn’t matter so much, Faxon, still trim, fit and healthy, told me. 

“Things weren’t like they are now. Actually, there were really three parties – the old guard Republicans, the progressive Republicans, led by (George) Romney, and we Democrats.” 

Faxon may have been a very junior delegate, but said he played one key role. Early on, he was approached by the head of the Detroit teachers’ retirement system. 

This is an election year, and if you haven’t noticed, you'll soon be engulfed by an inescapable tidal wave of advertising that will make that clear. Last night’s State of the Union speech was, in one sense, a campaign platform.

So were all of the various Republican responses. We’ve seen precious little bipartisan cooperation in Washington or in Lansing these last few years, and unless the martians invade, you can probably count on even less this year.

But regardless of your politics, there is one area in which we need to cooperate to make changes. Not in for whom we vote, but in the mechanics of how we vote.

There’s a new group called the Economic Justice Coalition which is seriously considering trying to get a proposal on the ballot to raise the minimum wage in Michigan.

You might think that would make Democrats happy. Their gubernatorial candidate, Mark Schauer, came out in favor of a minimum wage hike two months ago.

But Democratic leaders aren’t thrilled with a ballot campaign, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. Now, it’s not that they don’t want a higher minimum wage.Virtually all of them do. Schauer said if elected, he would try to raise Michigan’s from the present $7.40 an hour to $9.25 an hour over three years.

The last three years haven’t been great ones to be in the legislature – if you are a Democrat. Republicans are in control, and they’ve rammed through bills whose passage would have been unimaginable five years ago. Right to work, for example.

Two years ago, Democrats hoped to win control of the state House of Representatives, to gain some leverage. They did gain five seats, thanks in part to a large turnout and President Obama winning Michigan by nearly half a million votes. But they still fell short, thanks in part to redistricting. More than 400,000 more votes were cast for Democrats, but gerrymandering meant when the dust had settled, Republicans had 59, Democrats, 51.

There was a lot of rejoicing yesterday at the news that the governor had signed on to a so-called “grand bargain” to help save the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Detroit is, of course, going through bankruptcy.

Creditors want as much as possible of the money owed them. Those counting on city pensions want to make sure they get their money, even if the DIA’s world-class collections have to be sold.

Selling the art would be devastating not only to art lovers, but it might deal the city a cultural blow from which it could never recover.

The good news is that there seems to be increasing interest in mental health issues at all levels of government.

Yesterday, the Michigan Health and Wellness Commission released a new report on improving mental health services in this state. This was a special, bipartisan commission including four legislators, chaired by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.

The study, “Improving Quality of Life by Supporting Independence and Self-Determination” is available online.

It is short, straightforward, and easy to understand.

It calls for legislative action, and calls on all of us to reassess the way we view, as well as treat, those with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

I’ve been a faithful subscriber to and reader of The New Yorker for years, though I have to confess that some weeks I only have time to look at the magazine’s wonderful cartoons.

But if you had asked me last week who in Michigan was most likely to be profiled in The New Yorker, I’ll bet I would have offered 20 names before I came up with L. Brooks Patterson.

Patterson, who has been a fixture in Oakland County for more than 40 years, is being raked over the coals today for his Detroit-slamming remarks in this week’s New Yorker interview.

He is quoted as saying:

“Anytime I talk about Detroit, it will not be positive. Therefore, I’m called a Detroit-basher. The truth hurts, you know? Tough *bleep*.”

  Today, of course, is the day we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday. And if you know your history, you know that the event that brought him to prominence was the boycott ending segregation on public buses in Montgomery, Alabama. That was the only form of mass transit available to the working poor in many places then. What’s shocking is that nearly 60 years later, metropolitan Detroit lacks any kind of reliable transportation system. Detroit has bus service, but it is not very reliable.

Think for a minute and tell me what you remember about the governor’s state of the state speech last year.

Don’t feel bad. I don’t remember much either, and I write about these things for a living.

Actually I do remember that last year Snyder proposed spending $1.2 billion on the roads to keep them from falling apart.

The Legislature did nothing.

Corey Seeman / Flickr

Since I review the year in sports each December, my editor thought, “Hey, why not preview the year in sports in January?!?”

Why not? Because I have no idea what’s going to happen. Nobody does.

That’s why we watch sports: We don’t know how it’s going to end. It’s also why we shouldn’t watch pregame shows: everybody is just guessing. 

That said, if Michigan Radio wants to pay me to make wild, unsupported guesses – then doggonnit, that’s what I’ll do. 

Let’s start at the bottom.

I have a lot of respect for Joe Harris, a man who knows the numbers, does what needs to be done and doesn’t try to sugarcoat the facts. He isn’t much of a politician, and he knows it. He tells it the way he sees it.

Harris, now 69, was one of the first dozen or so black CPA s in the state of Michigan. He quickly gained professional respect, and a major accounting position at Domino’s Pizza in Ann Arbor. Then, back in 1995, Harris became auditor general of the City of Detroit. That’s an appointed position which lasts 10 years.

Harris very quickly saw vast inefficiencies and people doing things in outmoded ways. “They weren’t bad people,” he told me over lunch last week. They, and their bosses, had never worked anywhere else. There was no incentive to change.

I have to wonder sometimes how our elected leaders in the Legislature sleep. They spend vast amounts of money getting elected to jobs, the whole purpose of which is to serve the citizens. Then they don’t do that –selling out to special interests, or pandering shamelessly to voters – so they can cling to power for another couple years.

If they were in Congress, I still wouldn’t approve, though it would be easier to understand. Congressmen, after all, can stay in office until they are legally dead, accumulating power and seniority. But if you are a member of the Michigan House of Representatives, you can serve six years maximum, for life. State senators can serve a maximum of eight years.

Now – if you are going to be gone anyway soon, why not do the right thing while you are there? Sadly, that isn’t the way most legislators seem to think. I’ll give you one huge example:

Forget anything morally controversial, like abortion insurance or wolf hunting. Forget anything where there is a legitimate public policy debate, like what to do about failing schools. Instead, let’s talk about the most obvious example: Our roads.

Ever since Detroit’s bankruptcy filing was announced last summer, there has been one major concern in the art world.

What will happen to the Detroit Institute of Arts and its world-class collection, something previously assumed to be untouchable and priceless? When emergency manager Kevyn Orr said the collection needed to be inventoried and appraised, it caused greater shock in some circles than the bankruptcy itself.

At first, I assumed this was a bluff, possibly designed to demonstrate how deep the city’s crisis really was.

But it quickly became clear that the creditors want their money by any means necessary. And for many, art takes a back seat to their stomachs. One former council member, a highly educated woman and a single parent, told me “I am tired of hearing that the pension I worked for is less important than your right to drive down here and see a Van Gogh.”

If you own a hotel, this is a good week to be in Detroit, where thousands of journalists and auto industry people are flocking to town for the North American International Auto Show.

Hopefully this will bring some good publicity for the city, which badly needs it. Last week was a setback, especially in terms of city government. But I think most people don’t realize how damaging it was. More on this in a moment.

But first, this will be the first time ever that the auto show will be in a Detroit where the mayor is not the most powerful figure. Today, that would be emergency manager Kevyn Orr.

A week ago, we would have figured this was an anomaly, and that next year, Mayor Mike Duggan would be ready to welcome the auto buffs to a normal city where the elected officials were fully in charge. Now, however, that’s not so certain.

Destroying things is easier than building them. It takes months to build a house, but you can destroy one in an afternoon. What’s baffling is that we always seem more willing to destroy than to build.

It is far easier to get lawmakers to approve money for war than to build things. For example, we spent at least $2 trillion on our 10-year war in Iraq. It would be interesting to try and explain what we got for it, other than about 200,000 dead people.

Congress easily approved that money. But imagine trying to get our elected representatives to approve anything like that sum to rebuild our nation’s roads and bridges and major cities. No one would even dare try.

I am mentioning all this because of a report released this week – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report on the options for keeping Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. If you don’t remember, we are talking about two species of fish, bighead carp and silver carp that escaped into the Mississippi River more than 20 years ago.

Well, it is an election year, and there seems to be something of a state budget surplus, or so projections show. Now, if you’ve been around, and have lived through a crisis and a recession or two, you know that January surpluses can disappear faster than forsythia blossoms in spring.

But politicians, including Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, are falling all over themselves to bellow that the billion-dollar surplus is a good excuse to give voters a tax cut. To his credit, Gov. Rick Snyder isn’t one of them. At least today, that is.

Two years ago, there were three truly national presidential candidates on the November ballot. Two were Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But who was the third? Give up? It was Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate.

Like Obama and Romney, he was on almost every state ballot, except Oklahoma and, ironically, Michigan, where more than 7,000 people did write in his name. Part of the reason most of us don’t remember Johnson is because, in the end, President Obama got about 66 million votes. Romney got about 61 million. Gary Johnson got a little over a million and a quarter, or just under one percent.

Why did he do so poorly? Were his ideas that repellent? My guess is, not really.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

If you haven't been online in the last 24 hours, or you didn't watch it being done on Anderson Cooper's show over and over last night, then you're in for a treat.

It used to be a something kids in Alaska or in Canada's Northern Territories did for fun.

But with the combination of cold weather and social media, those of us in the Lower 48 can play too (and some of us are burning ourselves).

Life in the polar vortex allows you to do this:

So why does the boiling water suddenly turn into what appears to be a cloud of steam?

Well, it's not steam. They're just tiny ice crystals. LiveScience had Mark Seeley, a climatologist at the University of Minnesota, explains:

Most people in Detroit yesterday were understandably focused on the bone-chilling cold, on attempts to get the streets cleared of snow, and to get those without heat to warming centers.

But something else happened that sent a chill through those trying to manage the city to a brighter future. The newly elected City Council chose its two top leaders yesterday.

I can tell you that virtually without exception, those trying to remake the city counted on Saunteel Jenkins being elected City Council president. Saunteel knows politics and people.  She came from the mean streets, where her 14-year-old brother was shot dead by someone stealing his jacket.

If you haven’t noticed that much of our state has been semi-paralyzed by the snowstorm, then I assume you are reading from Florida. That actually happened yesterday. Someone called while I was shoveling to ask if we had any snow. When I sputtered with amazement, it turned out my caller was in Naples, where it was 82 degrees.

He had once been in politics, and while my hands froze, we talked briefly about politics and the weather and a man few remember today, Michael Bilandic. He had been elected mayor of Chicago in 1977, after the legendary first Mayor Daley dropped dead.

He was at first very popular, and his political future seemed assured. But exactly 35 years ago this month, Chicago was hit by a record blizzard. Think what we’ve got is bad?

Chicago was hit with more than 20 inches in less than two days, and the city wasn’t up for the challenge. Snow wasn’t cleared, people couldn’t get to work, and the mayor couldn’t keep his promises to clear parking lots and keep the airports open. Unfortunately for him, he had to face an election that spring, and with the weather disaster as the main issue, he lost.

I thought of him because Gov. Rick Snyder also mishandled a weather situation last month, when hundreds of thousands of people lost power, light and heat. The governor was nowhere to be seen.

There was a lot of attention yesterday to the fact that when tens of thousands of Lansing-area customers lost power for days at Christmas, the head of the capitol city’s utility got going.

To New York City, on vacation. Yesterday, J. Peter Lark, the president of the Lansing Board of Water and Light, finally apologized for leaving when his customers were freezing.

Lark, whose compensation is more than $300,000 a year, said “There are times when we are called upon as leaders to make personal sacrifices in the line of duty,“ and then admitted he didn’t do that. He said. “I humbly and sincerely apologize.” Did he offer to resign?  No, no, no.

Does he think his utility needs more oversight? Why, of course not!  However, he said he might have some “community forums” to get consumer input about this. And he added, “I am prepared to ask the commission for a rate increase,“ evidently so the suffering people can pay even more for lousy service. 

Well, the good news is that we’ve all survived to see another new year. The days are slowly getting longer, and we can now at least say confidently that spring will come this year.

Of course, it is still cold and dark in the morning, there are mountains of snow, and the holidays are officially over. Some of have to worry about getting back on our diets and all of us have to face the fact that this is an election year. Which means campaign commercials soon will be coming to a TV set near you.  

Regardless of your politics, for a number of reasons, this is bound to be a fascinating year.

Consider this: While we don’t know how it will all turn out, Detroit is going to go through bankruptcy. Before this month is over, Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr will file his proposed “plan of adjustment” with the federal court.

Well, I would like to take this opportunity to stage a preemptive strike and wish everybody a Merry Christmas. If you aren’t Christian, don’t be offended; neither am I. However, I do believe in honoring any holiday that is a good excuse to eat and celebrate with people you care about.

There are also the less fortunate, which this year, sadly includes tens of thousands of Michigan families who lost power in the ice storm and apparently won’t have it back before Christmas.

My guess is that we think too much about football and not enough about mental illness, especially perhaps at holiday season.

But the fact is that millions of us are trapped in our own private hells. According to a report last year from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Association, about one in every five Americans suffer from some sort of mental illness. For 5% of us, the suffering is severe.

The association estimated that more than eleven million adults suffered from severe mental illness in one recent year. Nearly nine million had serious thoughts of suicide, and a million actually tried to kill themselves. Yet we tend to take insufficient notice of the mentally ill, at least until someone walks into a school and begins shooting.

Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland.
Detroit Tigers

The year in sports started out with the Detroit Lions missing the playoffs, and hockey fans missing the entire National Hockey League season.

The NHL lockout started the way these things usually do: The players thought the owners made too much money, and the owners thought the players made too much money.  And, of course, both sides were dead right.

Well, Christmas is almost here, and 43,000 Michigan citizens are getting a very unwelcome present this week. The state is notifying them that their extended unemployment benefits run out in eight days.

Since many of these folks have dependents, this is likely to be a huge blow to something like 100,000 people who are struggling to keep food on the table and the heat and electricity on.

This isn’t the result of a state policy, but a national one. There’s been considerable celebration over the recent federal budget deal that will avoid the threat of another government shutdown over the next couple of years. But that deal did not include any extension of federally funded Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

There’s no way they can reconsider this before the New Year, since the U.S. House has gone home. This is going to mean considerable hardship for more than a million people nationwide.

A few years ago, I had a student named John Carlisle who graduated and got a job as a reporter and then editor for a bunch of weekly suburban newspapers. He was very good at it, and he was also bored. So in his spare time, he began roving around Detroit, boldly going to places where nice suburban white kids have almost never gone before.

He met a guy called Jay Thunderbolt who had his own personal strip club in his house. He met a blues musician who kills and eats raccoons, and a civil rights icon who runs her own chicken farm in the old Irish neighborhood of Corktown.

Carlisle was fascinated. These stories had no place in the little newspapers he edited, so he began writing them for the Metro Times, an alternative paper in Detroit. To avoid any conflict with his day job, he wrote them under the pseudonym “Detroitblogger John."

Just last year, when I brought up the Common Core to my non-educator friends, I would usually see a furrowed brow and a tilted head.

They’d never heard of it.

That’s certainly changed. Most people have at least heard of Common Core by now. 

Still, I find very few folks have anything more than the vaguest notions about the Common Core. They seem to know that most states are a part of it, but not much more.

Pages