Opinion

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.

Yesterday, the Democratic leader in the Statehouse held a news conference that convinced me his party is basically decent and civilized. And if they keep it up, they are going to lose next year’s  elections.

Here’s what I am talking about. Over the past three years, Republicans have been doing things that once would have caused people to march on Lansing with pitchforks.

They have rammed through Right to Work. Cut and starved higher education, and did their best to undermine public elementary and secondary schools as well. Within the last week, the Republican majority enacted a new law forbidding insurance companies from automatically writing policies that protect women’s right to have an abortion in the case of rape, incest or a dangerous pregnancy. 

They passed a bill doubling the amount fat cats can openly give to political campaigns. Worse, the same law says special interest groups can secretly spend unlimited amounts on so-called “issue-oriented ads,” taking away any accountability in campaign spending.

If you pick up either Detroit newspaper, you will find story after story about the fact that the city’s mediocre football team lost to another mediocre football team last night. This insignificant event is analyzed as if it were a major peace treaty in the Middle East.

But buried deep in those papers are a few paragraphs on a story that the editors thought much less important. Which is, that hundreds of thousands of Michigan children are hungry, impoverished, and living in families investigated for abuse and neglect. Hundreds of thousands, and the number is increasing.

Yesterday, the Michigan League for Public Policy released its annual Kids Count report. The results show a devastating and persistent pattern. The number of young children qualifying for federal food aid has jumped by more than 50% since 2005, Nearly two-fifths of all children now qualify for nutritional help because their families are so poor.

The Michigan Legislature passed some dramatic bills before adjourning for the year last week, bills that got a lot of attention.

There was the so-called “rape insurance” law, which prevents health insurance from automatically covering abortion even in cases of rape, incest or the mother’s health.

There was also a highly controversial campaign finance bill that doubles the amount the rich are allowed to give to political candidates, and allows special interest groups to spend vast amounts on so-called ‘issue ads” without disclosing the source of their funding.

But there were also things the lawmakers did that got lost in the shuffle. And the state senate did something guaranteed to help criminals in Detroit, and keep destroying the buildings that are left. They destroyed a bill that would go a long way to thwart scrap metal thieves, who are an immense problem.

Though Glenda Price has been in Detroit barely 15 years, it is hard to imagine the city without her. A Philadelphia native, she first came to town as president of Marygrove, a small, struggling Catholic college on the city’s west side. Now in her mid-70s, Price is both a skilled fundraiser and a visionary who can see around corners.

Though neither Catholic nor a Detroiter, thanks to development skills and an ahead-of-its time distance learning program, she helped revitalize Marygrove before retiring seven years ago. She could have gone anywhere after that.

She'd had careers in medical technology and as provost and dean of prominent universities. But she had fallen in love with Detroit, and elected to stay. You may not know her, but those who run things do.

MSU

Every university has got its giants, of course. But those schools born around the Civil War needed bigger men than most to carve these campuses out of forests and fields, then build them to rival the world’s greatest institutions. And they did it all in just a few decades.

At Michigan State, that man was John A. Hannah.

Hannah was a proud graduate of Michigan Agricultural College in 1923, earning a degree in poultry science. Eighteen years later, he became the school’s president – at the ripe age of 39.

Hannah’s timing couldn’t be better.

I would like you to raise your hand if you think that what our state really needs is more money influencing our politics. More campaign donations, but especially more so-called dark money -- money secretly given by shadowy, anonymous, often out of state donors to try to influence the way we vote.

Somehow I don’t think many of you raised your hands.

Now one more question: Would you like the Legislature to pass a new law that would make it impossible to ever find out where those huge anonymous contributions come from?

My guess is … no.

Well, here’s the bad news. Lawmakers did all that anyway.

The state House passed a bill yesterday that would double the maximum contribution citizens can give to candidates and political action committees. The state Senate finalized the measure today. 

For Democrats, Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema really is the gift who keeps on giving. Agema, a former airline pilot and state legislator, seems morbidly obsessed with gay people.

He loathes them, and seems creepily fascinated by his mythical version of their lives. Earlier this year, he made headlines by posting a scurrilous, wildly inaccurate, and bizarre article about what he likes to call “homosexuals” on Facebook.

The article, by some mysterious figure who claimed to be a doctor, would have been hilarious if it hadn’t been so filled with hate. It claimed that gay people commit up to half the murders in large cities, and are all horribly diseased because of their filthy sexual practices. It also claimed that gangs of lesbians march through the streets chanting “recruit, recruit, recruit.”

Unless you are reading this in Monaco, you know it has been prematurely cold and bitter in much of our state. Yesterday I went to check on one class of poor Detroiter who can’t complain.

They do, however, have one spokesperson: Jennifer Rowell, one of my personal heroes. Jen runs the Michigan Humane Society’s shelter in Detroit, which is located in a century-old machine shop along I-75 as you approach Midtown.

Every year, about 12,000 animals, mostly dogs and cats, come through its doors. That’s probably more than the humane society’s other two shelters in suburbia combined.

Remarkably, many find new homes. Not necessarily in the lap of luxury. When I stopped by yesterday, the lobby was full of people there to get free food and straw for their animals.

Let’s suppose for a minute that liberal activists win solid control of Michigan government in next year’s elections. Once they take over, they introduce a bill that says: No insurance policy can protect anybody who has an accident on the way to or while attending a Tea Party or Republican Party meeting.

If those people want to be covered, they need to pay extra and buy a special rider, and they can only do that before they attend such a meeting.

Well, if anyone were to propose that, I would hope you, me and everyone else we know would be screaming bloody murder at this outrageous violation of democracy and human rights.

Yet the Michigan Legislature seems to be about to do something just as bad, if not worse. The State Senate has already voted to make it illegal for health insurance plans to cover abortion -- even in the case of rape, incest, or to protect the mother’s health. Anybody who wanted that kind of protection would have to buy an extra supplemental rider.

There's money to be made around the passion for Michigan football at Michigan Stadium.
Anthony Gattine / Flickr

I’ve often joked that some Michigan football fans aren’t happy unless they’re not happy.  But after 11 games this season, even they could be excused for having plenty to be unhappy about. A week ago, the Wolverines were 3-and-4 in the Big Ten, with undefeated Ohio State coming up next. 

The Wolverines had been surprisingly bad all season -- until the Ohio State game, when they were suddenly, surprisingly good, falling short by just one point in the final minute.  It was the first time I have ever seen Michigan fans feeling better after a loss than before it. 

Still, the heroic performance was bittersweet.

Where was that team all year?  Which team will return next year – the one that got crushed by Michigan State, or the one that almost beat the Buckeyes?

But Michigan’s bigger problems are off the field, not on it.

Not many people remember it now, but there was a day in the remarkable life of Nelson Mandela when he came to Detroit. The Motor City went, predictably, wild over him. They filled Tiger Stadium to see him at 10:00 on a Thursday night in June.

He was welcomed by Mayor Coleman Young, and enthusiastically hugged Rosa Parks. He met stars of Motown, politicians and labor leaders, and visited workers on the line at a Ford assembly plant.

How many people know that Nelson Mandela, leader of a revolution, international icon of freedom, once went to an assembly line in Dearborn and told workers, “I am your comrade."

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