Opinion

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

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

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

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

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

Well – sort of.

Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

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

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

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

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

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

Well – sort of.

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

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

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

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

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

So what can we do?

Oct 16, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staring at default

Oct 14, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell to Kwame

Oct 9, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Pages