Opinion

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.

Something good happened yesterday, something smart and rational that will help improve people’s lives. This was not typical of the day, mind you. Actually, yesterday was a day of supreme irrationality in federal, state and local government.

Nationally, the government shutdown continued, with Republicans vowing to take the nation over a cliff unless Democrats agree to defund the Affordable Care Act. This happened on the same day that millions rushed to sign up for health insurance plans.

A former student who shares my appreciation of history told me last night that he had found one high-ranking Republican who would have opposed the government shutdown. That gentleman, who once made a famous speech in Kalamazoo, told fellow Republicans in New York “I see that some, at least, of you are those who believe that an election being decided against them is no reason why they should sink the ship.“

That’s a good and reasonable philosophy of government. Unfortunately, the man who said that, himself a former Congressman, is Abraham Lincoln, and he happens to be dead. Lincoln said those words while struggling to save the nation from breaking apart just before his first inauguration. The fault was with Democrats then.

To an increasing number of people, the shutdown of the federal government today is the fault of the Republicans. To me, the nature of what is happening ought to be pretty frightening regardless of who is to blame.

Republicans in Congress are saying they won’t allow the government to be funded unless the President and Congress agree to stop the Affordable Care Act from taking effect this year.

If you’ve ever read Oliver Twist, or maybe even if you haven’t, you may remember the famous quote about a kink in the judicial system. “If the law supposes that, the law is an ass, an idiot.” Dickens wrote those lines in another country 175 years ago. But things aren’t much different here and now, and as evidence, consider two nurses in suburban Detroit.

Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer are Michigan-certified foster parents, and the state is lucky to have them. DeBoer is a nurse in an NICU unit: Neonatal Intensive Care. Rowse, in an emergency room.

They indicated they were willing to foster the hardest cases, babies born premature, drug-addicted, who were either abandoned or taken away from the women who bore them.

My guess is that 30 years ago, the so-called Common Core education standards wouldn’t have been controversial at all.

As State Board of Education President John Austin told me yesterday, Common Core is not a curriculum. It doesn’t dictate what classes are to be taught. It doesn’t come from the federal government, and it is not being imposed by the federal government. Nor does it allow Washington or the United Nations to track students, or give outsiders any say in their education. 

Common Core is merely a set of standards designed to try to make sure that students in Michigan get both an adequate education, and approximately the same education as students in Florida or Indiana or Oregon.

The Common Core standards actually grew out of conservative, standards-based ideas. They came about because of widespread realization that many schools were just not doing the job, and were graduating students who weren’t adequately prepared for modern jobs or any kind of higher education.

The Detroit Tigers won their division championship last night, and there’s good news for Democrats in that. This year, they can root for the team to win the World Series. Last year, that wasn’t the case.

You see, there’s an odd quirky way in which baseball correlates to national elections. When the American League wins the World Series, that‘s generally good news for the Republicans. National League wins; good for the Democrats.

Detroit‘s last two World Series triumphs came in 1968 and 1984, years when the GOP won presidential elections. The Tigers lost the World Series seven years ago, and less than a month later Democrats recaptured Congress. When the Tigers were humiliated in last year‘s series, we knew it meant curtains for Mitt Romney.

These days everybody in Detroit is in awe of Dan Gilbert, the Quicken Loans czar who moved his operations from the suburbs to downtown, and has been buying up millions of square feet of city real estate. Some have joked that the cure for Detroit’s problems is just to get through bankruptcy and sell him the rest.

But we sometimes forget that before there was Dan, there was Pete. Peter Karmanos Jr, that is. Ten years ago, he was the first Detroit-area CEO in modern history to move a major corporation downtown -- Compuware, which he founded with two other guys forty years ago, and built into a powerhouse.

There’s no denying that some elements in the so-called Tea Party have been scaring moderate and independent voters away from the Republicans. But if Democrats think it is going to be easy to defeat Governor Rick Snyder, and make big gains in next year’s statewide elections, they may be guilty of self-deluding themselves.

I didn’t go to the Republican Party’s annual leadership conference on Mackinac Island last week, though I followed it closely. And I think that there were hints at Mackinac of two major stories emerging on the horizon.

Tea Party follies

Sep 20, 2013

If you’ve been following politics, you know the Tea Party, or various people who say they represent the Tea Party, have had their sights on throwing Lt. Gov. Brian Calley off the Republican ticket next year.

Three years ago, Calley, now still only in his mid-30s, was seen as one of the more conservative members of the legislature. Conservatives were in fact happy when Rick Snyder chose him as lieutenant governor. Now, however, they want him off the ticket. Why? Because he’s supported Governor Rick Snyder’s policies.

Well, supporting the governor is what lieutenant governors are supposed to do, just as it is what vice-presidents do. Like presidents and vice-presidents, governors and lieutenant governors are elected on the same ticket. Governors, like presidents, traditionally get to pick their lieutenant governors. But there‘s been a move to force next year‘s GOP state convention to dump Calley.

Probably everybody in Michigan knows that the federal government saved General Motors and Chrysler less than five years ago, by pouring $80 billion in cash into them to keep them afloat. Afloat, that is, till both went through cushioned bankruptcies. They were soon reborn as leaner, meaner, and now highly profitable companies, though Chrysler is now part of Fiat.

The so-called government bailout was highly controversial at the time and bitterly opposed by Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Two presidents went around them, however, and it is worth remembering that the bailout was begun by former President George W. Bush, though President Obama continued it.

Well, the bailout turned out long ago to be highly successful, and a lifesaver for the state and regional economies. The folks at the non-profit Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor have numbers to prove this; their estimates are that had there been a total collapse and a bankruptcy liquidation of GM and Chrysler, that would have meant the loss of more than 1.3 million jobs in 2009 alone. That never happened.

The bailout was so successful that the government, which at one point was the major owner of GM, is now close to selling off the last of the shares the treasury owns.

Just about everyone has at least heard of Hamtramck, the little, deeply Polish-American enclave city embedded within Detroit.

When you ask people what comes to mind when they think of the town, they say “Packzi,” the giant jelly donuts everyone eats on Fat Tuesday. They remember the triumphant day twenty-six years ago, when Pope John Paul II came to visit and say mass.

Old-timers remember legions of workers, lunch buckets in hand, trudging to jobs at the now-vanished Dodge Main or Poletown plants. Some even remember when Hamtramck was a wide-open town, with gangs and bordellos, and it was common for residents to make their own whisky in basement stills, a practice that continued long after Prohibition. Back then the Bowery was the happening nightclub, and you were liable to bump into anyone from Jimmy Durante to Sophie Tucker if you hung around into the night.

Secretary of State Ruth Johnson yesterday announced a new effort to crack down on car insurance fraud. Specifically, she, with the head of the State Police and Michigan’s Financial Services Director, are going after those who sell or use fake insurance.

Evidently this turns out to be a far bigger problem than anyone imagined. The state chose one day -- in this case, July 31st -- and reviewed all the paper insurance certificates it collected. In Wayne County, where nearly one fifth of all Michigan residents live, more than one-fourth of all insurance certificates were phony.

But before you say, “What else would you expect from Detroit?” consider this: In far-way Chippewa County, in the Upper Peninsula, 60 percent of certificates were fraudulent. Statewide, the figure was 16 percent on that day.

Doctors and lawyers can’t practice medicine without a license, and plumbers and electricians have to be certified.

But anyone can call themselves a journalist. There are no rules, licensing or regulations, and anyone who understands the First Amendment to the Constitution knows it has to be that way.

Journalists are free to write and publish, thanks to the First Amendment, which says that Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.“ In other words, nobody can legally define who is a journalist or who can call themselves one.

There’s a little good news both from and about the Michigan Supreme Court. Yesterday, the court announced it is ordering all courts in the state to provide interpreters for people who have limited or no English-speaking skills.

This was followed by a joint press conference starring Chief Justice Robert Young, one of the state’s longest-serving and most conservative justices, and Justice Bridget McCormack, who is both the court’s most recently elected member and one of its most liberal.

Though they have often voted differently when deciding cases, the two justices clearly had a warm camaraderie yesterday, and that was notable. There have been times in recent years when some justices have launched personal public attacks against each other, which did nothing for the court’s reputation.

The order to provide certified translators is a huge step in the right direction, especially given our ongoing influx of Spanish-speaking and Middle Eastern immigrants.

A few days ago, Michigan Radio’s Sarah Cwiek reported a story worth thinking about. The market for municipal bonds has nosedived since Detroit announced its intention to file for bankruptcy in July.

Now, if you would like a clear and concise explanation of how the bond market works … good luck with that. But essentially, communities sell bonds to raise money, bonds they pay off gradually with interest over time. They are a traditional and time-honored way of raising money for civic improvements.

There’s also been an understanding, at least since the Great Depression, that money owed to bond holders -- especially the holders of general obligation bonds -- was sacrosanct. No matter how hard things were, the bond holders had to be paid. Well, that’s not happening in Detroit, which, as all the world knows, has filed for bankruptcy.

Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr isn’t honoring Detroit’s general obligation bonds. And that has investors across the state spooked. Battle Creek and Genesee County have pulled back from plans to sell new bonds. So has affluent Oakland County. In fact, the value of all the municipal bonds sold in the state last month was the lowest in ten years. Something is clearly going on.

There’s something fascinating about the period in which two cultures or technologies clash. Usually, it is clear after a few months or years which side is going to win. But there are always holdouts. Sometimes these struggles are intense, short and complete, as when the VHS format for videotapes defeated the Betamax technology back in the early 1980s. It took somewhat longer for DVDs to beat out videotapes, but it was again clear which would win.

Sometimes the old technology hangs on, at least with a small minority or a set of hobbyists. People still ride horses, and there is somewhat of a retro boomlet in vinyl records. Print is clearly giving way to online, but I suspect some dead tree publications will remain.

Interestingly, much the same sort of thing happens in terms of culture. There is little doubt that marijuana for recreational use will eventually be completely tolerated, if not legalized.

Those of us over 60 can remember when it was scandalous for a young couple to live together before marriage. Today, it’s widely seen as normal, outside some conservative religious circles.

But I don’t think I have ever seen a faster sea change in terms of cultural attitudes than in issues involving human sexuality.  Nearly one-fifth of all Michiganders now live in communities with ordinances protecting LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered) citizens from housing or employment discrimination. Nearly all have done this in the last few years, and more are certain to follow before this year is out, according to a report in the Gongwer News Service yesterday.  

Detroit is in the news a lot these days, and will continue to be, for obvious reasons, as the city goes through the agony of the bankruptcy process while simultaneously conducting an election. An election, that is, for a new mayor and City Council who will be essentially figureheads until Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr leaves, something that will probably happen a little over a year from now.

But while the media is concentrating on the bankruptcy itself, I sense that we aren’t asking the really important questions. For me, the most important of all is simply this: What happens after bankruptcy is over?

There are streets in Detroit that bear an uncanny resemblance to Germany at the end of World War II. The shells of red brick buildings stand, most of them burned out, roofless, some with homeless and destitute people squatting in the ruins.

Looking at a street like that the other day, I was struck by the thought that throughout the last year of the Second World War, as vast armies raged across Europe, there were teams of planners in Washington and elsewhere working on how to govern the conquered nations after the war; How to lead them on an eventual path to a return to normalcy and democratic self-government.

One of this week’s more sensational stories involved a Michigan State University professor who was removed from teaching after delivering an inflammatory rant to a large lecture classroom, remarks somebody videotaped.

When the video surfaced, Republicans went ballistic. Many demanded that William Penn, a tenured professor of creative writing, be fired. Michigan State officials didn’t do that, and probably couldn’t. Originally, the whole point of tenure was to prevent someone from being fired for unpopular opinions.

However, State did yank Penn out of the classroom. He will continue to be paid, and presumably expected to continue his research and committee work, but someone else will teach his courses. The question is, how should we feel about this?

Tobacco, somebody once said, is the only product that, when used as directed, kills you. Though smoking rates have declined, more than a 150,000 Americans each year die of lung cancer, nearly all directly killed by smoking.

That doesn’t include the thousands who die of other smoking-related diseases, from heart failure to emphysema.

We also know that with rare exceptions, smokers start the habit -- addiction, really -- while they are legally too young to smoke. Have you ever met anyone in their 30s who spontaneously decides to start?

State Senator Steve Bieda of Warren knows this; like many of us, he has seen relatives die in great agony as a consequence of smoking. Unlike most of us, however, he is in a position to try to do something about it. He’s introduced a bill to double the penalty to anyone selling tobacco to a minor to $100 for the first offense, and $500 for subsequent offenses.

They finally certified the result of the Detroit mayoral primary election yesterday, almost a month after the vote.

Unfortunately, what went on demonstrates conclusively that neither the county nor the city can be trusted to run elections. The state, if not the federal government, needs to come in and run Detroit’s general election in November.

The primary result itself was stunning, as we learned on election night. More than half the voters wrote in the name Mike Duggan. For any candidate to win as a write-in is almost unheard of.

But in this case, Duggan is a white man who moved into a nearly all-black city to run for mayor. I figured his ego had gotten the better of him. But I was wrong, and the most inspiring thing is this: Detroiters proved all those who said they were incapable of rising above race prejudice are dead wrong.

During the debate on Medicaid expansion, one of the program’s biggest foes said something worth consideration.

State Senator Patrick Colbeck of Canton is a Tea Party favorite who is about as firmly anti-government as anybody. Especially, that is, when it comes to the federal government.

Colbeck firmly opposes any tax increases for any reason, including fixing our roads. He not only wanted to stop extending Medicaid, he wanted to get the state out of that federal program altogether.

He proposed a state-financed version that would cost the state more and insure fewer people. Even most of his fellow Republicans voted against that.

But one of Colbeck’s objections is worth thinking about. Of Medicaid expansion, he said, “If this goes into effect, 30 percent of our population is going to be on Medicaid, and then 70 percent is going to be paying for 30 percent.“ 

Indeed, that is a version of the nightmare that has haunted conservatives for decades: That our nation is becoming a place where a shrinking group of hard-working, self-sufficient Americans are cruelly taxed to support a huge parasite class. 

  There’s a bumper sticker I occasionally see that says: Unions: The People Who Brought You the Weekend. For most Americans, that is certainly true. Unions created not only the weekend, but the modern middle class, something we tend to forget these days.

Yes, unions became complacent and some became corrupt. Some did not do enough for women or minorities. But all in all, they did far more good for America and the American worker than harm.

Unions are, however, widely unpopular with a sizable section of the public these days, and an even larger percentage of politicians.

The Republican majority in the Michigan legislature seems to have essentially declared war on unions, especially public sector unions. Unions have been in a long membership decline, something that may accelerate as the effects of becoming a Right-to-Work state kick in.

You know by now that the Michigan Senate has finally voted to approve expanding Medicaid benefits.

The vote, which came Tuesday night after months of struggle, means that eventually nearly half a million of our citizens will have at least basic health care, people who don’t have it now.

The cost to the state itself will be nothing for three years, and only a pittance afterwards. The benefits in terms of human decency and a healthier workforce, enormous.

Those who opposed Medicaid expansion said they didn’t think we should burden future generations with another “entitlement cost.” Many of them also admitted their opposition was based on their hatred of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which they continue to oppose even though it was passed by Congress, passed Constitutional muster with the Supreme Court, and essentially ratified by the voters in last year‘s presidential election.

Something historic happened last night. The Michigan Senate finally cast a vote that means that nearly half a million citizens without health care will be able to have it. And they will be able to do so at no cost whatsoever to our state for three years, and only a pittance afterwards.

I thought of the former students I know with chronic pains they have to ignore because they can’t possibly afford a physician. Some of these people now clog our hospital emergency rooms for problems they should be taking to a neighborhood doctor.

You might have thought there would be dancing in the streets. But no. Most of the attention went to Tea Partiers and other sore losers snarling bitterly over “Obamacare,” which is not what this is.

Fifty years ago Wednesday, Martin Luther King Jr. stood before the Lincoln Memorial in Washington and gave what would become one of the most remembered speeches in American history.

We know it, of course, as the “I have a dream speech,” and many of us in Michigan also know that he gave an earlier version in Detroit just two months before. They celebrated the anniversary of the more famous version in Washington last weekend.

To me, the most significant celebration of that speech came on the anniversary five years ago, when another powerful young black orator recited parts of it before an TV audience. That time it was not the quarter of a million people who heard it in 1963.

I just learned something important I thought I should share with you. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare,” is unconstitutional after all.

Yes, I know that the United States Supreme Court, in a majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, said it was constitutional, and that they have the ultimate legal authority to decide that.   But Joan Fabiano says they are wrong, and some media outlets think her views are worth repeating.

Fabiano, who is often described as a “prominent Tea Party activist,” isn‘t exactly a lawyer.

State Senator Bruce Caswell of Hillsdale is a military buff – he attended West Point for a couple years, before transferring to Michigan State – and he’s a former high school history teacher.

Now, he has a new project he would like people to donate money for. If you are about ninety, and spent a lot of time at the State Capitol when you were young, you may remember there used to be two old Civil War cannons out front.

Otherwise, I suspect you never heard of the so-called Loomis cannons. They weren’t especially famous cannons; they didn’t batter down the defenses of Richmond, and people in the 1940s thought so little of their importance that they were apparently melted down during a World War II scrap metal drive.

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