Opinion

We still don’t know how Detroit’s bankruptcy is going to play out. We don’t know how much pensions will finally be cut. We don’t know whether the state will kick in the funds needed to save the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

But we do know two things.

In the end, a lot of people – pensioners – who don’t have much money now will have even less.

And we also know this: Bankrupt, poor Detroit and the state are going to spend more than $250 million to build a new hockey and entertainment arena for Mike Ilitch, who owns the Detroit Red Wings.

That’s more than half the entire cost of the project.

This is the second arena the city has helped build for the Red Wings. The team now plays in Joe Louis Arena, which was built 35 years ago.

They give a small cut of their proceeds to the city – about $7 million a year for Detroit, but once the new arena is finished, know how much the taxpayers will get? Nothing.

In an apparent attempt to pander to voters, the Michigan Legislature is rushing to pass an election year income tax cut. This is a little baffling, because the voters don’t want one.

The state has a budget surplus – on paper, anyway – of a little less than a billion dollars. Two weeks ago, an EPIC-MRA poll found only 11% of the voters thought a tax cut was a good idea. The rest were divided about evenly between those who wanted it to go to schools and those who want it to go to our roads.

Earlier this week, the newspapers and airwaves were full of tributes to John Dingell, who announced this term would be his last.

Dingell, who turns 88 this summer, is the longest-serving Congressmen in history, and when I first met him, was one of the physically most powerful men in Congress.

Today, he is hard of hearing and frail, but nobody has ever said he wasn’t mentally able to do the job.

This hasn’t always been the case with long-serving congressmen. During his last campaign for the U.S. Senate at age 94, South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond spoke of the brave defenders of the Alamo, and added that they had held off “three thousand Russians.”

Thurmond’s handlers didn’t let him speak much in public after that. He won reelection, but spent most of his final term in Walter Reed Hospital, except when they brought him to the Senate to vote.

Nobody likes to talk about this, but there seems to have been a universal consensus that Dale Kildee, who decided not to run for reelection two years ago, needed to leave.

There’s a reason you haven’t seen him interviewed or commenting on issues since he left. He is, in fact, younger that John Dingell, but not all of us age at the same rate.

I know a woman in her 60s who no longer knows who her husband is.

I have very few inflexible notions, but one of them is this: It is better to learn than be ignorant. Unlike many dogmas, this one passes the practical test. Those who are better educated generally make more money and have happier and more fulfilled lives.

There’ve been a lot of crises in education in recent years. Most have been about money. But this year, it’s weather. This brutal winter has meant many schools have been closed for more “snow days” than usual. Legally, schools are allowed to miss up to six days. After that, they have to make up the time, or lose some of their school aid money. None of them want that, of course.

As most of the world knows by now, yesterday, the longest-serving congressman in our nation’s history announced his retirement.

I wasn’t the least surprised. After a long lunch with John Dingell last fall, I had become convinced this was going to happen.

Ten years ago, I would have bet that he would die in office. In fact, that’s what he told me he intended to do. Told me more than once, in fact.

“Do you know your history, young man? He asked me long ago. “Do you know about John Quincy Adams?”

Yes sir, said I, and I think that pleased him.

Adams was the only president who returned to the House of Representatives after the White House. He served there till he collapsed and died on the floor.

(Editor's note, this commentary was first published on August 13, 2013. We shared it again today in light of Rep. Dingell's announcement that he will retire.)  

You probably know that this year, John Dingell became the longest-serving member of Congress in history. Legendary Speaker Tip O’Neill’s autobiography was called “Man of the House.” But Dingell deserves that title more.

80 years ago, shortly after his father was elected to Congress, the first John Dingell took his six-year-old son to work.

Yesterday, the congressman told me, “We walked through the biggest doors I had ever seen into the biggest room I had ever seen.” For young John, it was the beginning of one of the longest love affairs in history.

Well, the shoe finally dropped last Friday, or maybe it was a hammer. At any rate, we now know the details of Detroit’s proposed bankruptcy “plan of adjustment,” and they include pension cuts. Pretty massive pension cuts. Most pensioners would see their monthly checks cut by 34%. Police and fire retirees, whose pension fund is in better shape, lose 10%.

For many, this would be devastating. Devastating, and unfair.

There’s no doubt that Detroit’s pension funds were poorly managed. There’s also no doubt that the city was too liberal in its pension policy.

There are some folks who spent 30 years in a low-stress clerical job, and then were able to retire, move to Florida and collect a pension for life starting at age 52. That policy doesn’t make any sense even if the city of Detroit could afford it, and it never could.

My guess is that in the future, there won’t be any pensions for new city workers, just a defined contribution savings plan.

They used to say that the definition of chutzpah was the boy who killed his parents and then asked the court for mercy since he was an orphan. But that was improved on twice this week.

First, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan began talking about making a bid for the Democratic National Convention two years from now.

That’s a nice “comeback kid” idea, but there are two major problems.

The entire metro area probably doesn’t have enough hotel space. Detroit could barely host the Republican Convention in 1980, and Democratic conventions have more delegates.

Plus, conventions are expensive.

The city of Detroit actually has a person whose title is Director of Community Engagement. Yesterday, her job was to tell people to go out and clear ice and snow away from the drains on their streets to prevent flooding.

The city no longer has enough manpower to do this, she explained. They’ll be lucky if they can keep the drains open on the main streets. So the residents need to do it, and while they’re at it, clear the hydrants in case there is a fire.

Nothing wrong with that. I’ve done the same with both snow and leaves from the drain on my suburban street.

But it indicates in a small way one of the big problems Detroit is going to have after the bankruptcy is over.There is not enough money to provide basic services or to maintain basic infrastructure.

Bankruptcy isn’t really designed to fix that. It is designed to get rid of debt. We are still waiting for emergency manager Kevyn Orr’s plan to get there. He does talk about directing more money into basic services, such as police and fire and removing blight.

Congresswoman Candice Miller understands the importance of the Great Lakes. She grew up on the water in Harrison Township. She is a proudly conservative Republican, not crazy about government spending.

But she knows that if the Asian carp get into the Great Lakes, the waterways may be largely destroyed. Destroyed, that is, as a center of recreational and commercial fishing and boating, activities worth billions every year.

Two species of Asian carp, silver and bighead, have been working their way up the Mississippi River ever since escaping from catfish farms in Arkansas in the 1980s. They suck up vast quantities of food, starving out native species of fish. Silver carp, which can weigh 60 pounds, also have a nasty habit of jumping, injuring people and damaging boats.

I heard something startling last weekend from a woman with whom I used to work. “So Matty Moroun is going to build a second bridge after all!” she said.

To which I said a very profound “huh?” 

Oh yes, she said. She had read it in the newspaper. She said the Canadians had given him the go-ahead to build a second span, next to his Ambassador Bridge.

That didn’t make any sense to me, since I have talked to Canadian officials and diplomats about this for years. Suddenly, I realized what she was talking about.

There was a story in the papers on Valentine’s Day saying that Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Company had gotten environmental clearance from Canada for a new span.

Actually, it quoted officials of the bridge company as saying this. However, there were two problems with most versions of that story.

The minor problem is that what Moroun claimed – a claim reflected in the headlines – wasn’t quite true.

The Windsor Port Authority and Transport Canada did indeed issue a decision saying that a replacement for the Ambassador Bridge was unlikely to do serious damage to the environment.

If the United Auto Workers Union was ever going to succeed at organizing a non-traditional plant in the South, the Volkswagen facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee should have been it.

The company stayed strictly neutral and did not try to block the union. UAW officials said they were open to creating a German-style council that would give workers a say in important plant decisions.

Yet the results were a crushing blow. When the vote was announced on Valentine’s Day, more than 53 percent of Chattanooga workers rejected the UAW. This is bound to raise questions about the union’s long-term survival.

Today is Valentine’s Day, and Jayne Rowse and April DeBoer hope that it will be the last they spend unmarried, and without both being the legal parents of their children.

They may not have long to wait. Eleven days from now, a trial in federal court in Detroit could determine the constitutionality of the two key laws that stand in their way: Michigan’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and Michigan’s adoption code, which prevents any two unmarried people from jointly adopting a child.

Ten years ago this would have been a national sensation. Today, the question may be: Is this trial really necessary? Our legal system functions largely on precedent. Most of the time, judges look to other legal decisions as guides for how they should rule. In this case, the train is leaving the station at incredible speed.

I thought the wolf hunt last year was unnecessary and barbaric, and was forced on the public by underhanded means.

I think hunting wolves for sport should again be outlawed. But I have to say I disagree with the way those against hunting wolves want to get a proposal put on the ballot, and I hope they lose in federal court.  I’ll explain in a few moments.

Back during the Great Depression, some radicals were strongly against helping starving people at all. They believed that when only their condition was so bad and so hopeless and they couldn’t stand it anymore, they would finally revolt and bring about a new society.

That never happened, of course, in part because the New Deal kept people alive and gave them hope in the future. For a long time, I thought the idea that you could get people to do the right thing only by making them suffer terribly was heartless.

If I could have dinner with any corporate executive, I’d choose Mary Barra, who I think is fascinating.

She rose through the ranks of the highly macho culture at General Motors to become its first female CEO. And she didn’t do it as a transplanted financial expert, but as the first honest-to-goodness automotive engineer to lead the company in more than 20 years.

Were she male, she’d be called a “car guy” by the press.

Once, when Ronald Reagan was president, I was one of a group of writers and editors who were invited to lunch at the White House. The president wasn’t craving our company.

He was trying to gain public support for a new and controversial defense program. I was not in favor of that particular program, and hadn’t voted for President Reagan. Still, it would never have occurred to me to turn down an invitation to meet the president, or any president, no matter what their policies.

Whatever else you may think of any individual, the president of the United States is the freely elected leader of this nation, and a symbolic representative of the country, and this democracy.

Today may just be the most triumphant day of Debbie Stabenow’s 13-year career in the U.S. Senate.

President Barack Obama flew to East Lansing this morning to sign the farm bill, which will guide federal agricultural policy over the next decade. The bill finally made it through Congress this week, after being stalled for two years by partisan battles.

Afterward, both parties gave Stabenow, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, credit for coming up with a formula to break the logjam. But there was plenty of criticism too, mainly from Democrats, for $8 billion in cuts the bill made to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Here’s some pretty safe advice: If you go to a party and see someone who looks interesting, try not to say,

"Have you studied the details of Gov. Snyder’s latest state budget proposal?"

Unless you are with a bunch of politicians in Lansing, it's a pretty sure bet that you’ll end up talking to the potato chips.

Gov. Snyder’s budget is interesting, however, in a number of ways. There are two important things to remember, however. First, this is clearly the budget of a politician running for reelection.

Eight years ago, Republicans were smirking with glee. They thought they finally had an image to destroy U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow. They posted video on YouTube showing an unflattering picture of her in the senate, standing next to a sign reading "Dangerously Incompetent." It was followed by all sorts of sniggering comments,many of them essentially misogynistic.

Stabenow, they claimed then, was one of the most ineffective members of the U.S. Senate. I talked to smug Republicans at the time who felt sure she was going down.

Well, that fall she won reelection by 600,000 votes. Suddenly, Democrats were in the majority in the Senate. Soon Stabenow, the daughter of a car salesman from Clare, was chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Yesterday, I talked about the challenges the University of Michigan’s new president faces. One of those is, of course, the fact that it is becoming increasingly difficult to afford an education.

That provoked a lot of reaction, and I was surprised by the tone of a lot of it.

Specifically, many people feel that especially with the lagging economy, it makes no sense for students to study things that won’t clearly pay off in a job.

"There's nothing wrong with art appreciation. There are plenty of books, DVDs and YouTube clips out there," one man said. But he thought it was outrageous that someone would spend a vast amount of money on something "that will turn out to be a nice hobby," and then "complain about the lack of job opportunities."

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*.”

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