Opinion

We spend far more money on prisons than on higher education in this state, and the old saying is true. You really do reap what you sow. Michigan lags behind our neighboring states when it comes to percentage of highly educated young adults.

But we lead the nation in keeping people locked up. The average Michigan inmate serves 4.3 years, almost a year and a half longer than the national average. We are locking them up, and going broke doing so. We’re spending an average of $34,000 a year to keep each of our forty-three thousand inmates behind bars. 

To be fair to the Department of Corrections, it could be worse. Six years ago, there were fifty-one thousand inmates. If that were still the case, and if the department had not privatized food service and adopted other cost savings, the figure would be close to three billion.

But what we are spending is too much, and one courageous and conservative state representative is trying to do something about it. Joe Haveman, a Republican from Holland, is one of a number of lawmakers interested in possibly shortening sentences.

I travel to Toledo once a week, and if you make that trip, you know how wretched the roads are in some places.

The governor does too. For two years, he’s been trying to get the legislature to come up with new money to pay for the roads. Unfortunately, I can now report that our lawmakers have gone from doing nothing about Medicaid to doing nothing about the roads, unless moaning and finger-pointing count.

Yesterday, the Gongwer News Service produced a story which said there was finally optimism something would happen. Unfortunately, there was little evidence of it.

It did quote Speaker of the House Jase Bolger literally whining, “It is true the House Democrats have failed to offer any solutions for transportation funding, but that is par for the course.” The Speaker  added, “Some people might get the idea that Democrats would rather complain than cooperate.”

What happened yesterday in Detroit was truly astounding on a number of levels. More than half of the voters ignored the fourteen mayoral candidates on the ballot, and wrote in a name.

Detroiters are voting today in one of the strangest and yet most important primary elections the city’s ever had. Those they send to the November runoff will be fighting for jobs which at first will have no power. That’s because everything is now in the hands of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr, and U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Stephen Rhodes.

For years, we’ve heard a lot about the Ambassador Bridge, and the battle to build a second span across the Detroit River. What didn’t ever seem to get in the news was the Detroit-Windsor tunnel.

Yesterday I talked about Washington’s offer to expand Medicaid to many Michiganders who currently have no health insurance. The government has offered to make the program available to many poor, but not officially poverty-stricken, Americans.

States who participate will pay only a fraction of the cost. This would immediately provide health care to hundreds of thousands who don’t now have it, and be extremely beneficial to virtually everyone, including employers, who would have a healthier work force.

Though some states sensibly ratified this almost immediately, Michigan has dragged its feet, largely because of bitter ideological opposition to anything that seems to be “government” health care. I said yesterday that this was irrational and was harming our state.

But while I heard from many people who agreed, not everybody did. One woman said I just didn’t understand that this would be terrible because it would be an expansion of government. In fact, the Tea Party has denounced more Medicaid as tyranny.

Well, I think that’s nonsense; I don’t think extending an already existing benefit to more people is expanding government.

Many months ago, the federal government offered the states an astonishing deal.  Washington would extend eligibility for Medicaid insurance to people who make up to a third more than the official poverty rate. We aren’t talking people who are well off.

Currently, Medicaid is available for a family of four making twenty-three thousand a year or less; this offer would enable the same family to be covered if they make up to a little over thirty-one thousand. That would mean almost half a million folks in Michigan now without health insurance would have it.

The cost to the state would be nothing at first, and never more than ten percent of the total. Economists say even when the state is paying ten percent, Michigan will actually save money, thanks to the benefits of having a healthier work force.

Michigan may be, in many ways, the most diverse state in the union. California and Texas are much larger. Alaska is out-of-the world vast, though fewer people live there than in Macomb County.

Politicians are falling all over themselves in Washington and in Lansing to oppose spending any money to, as they put it, “bail out” Detroit.

Last week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette did something many found startling, especially those politically liberal. Schuette announced that in Detroit's bankruptcy filing he intended to intervene on behalf of those who have pensions coming.

If there was anything Detroit didn’t need, it is something else to makes the city and its residents a national laughingstock.

But sadly, that’s just what the city got yesterday, and this time, it seems that a part of the news media is to blame.

Here’s what happened. While for the last few months the spotlight has been on Detroit’s emergency manager, and its impending bankruptcy, there still are city elections this year. The expectation has been that after the emergency manager leaves, the people selected in November will eventually take over.

So whoever becomes mayor is important. There’s a primary election eleven days from now, when voters will determine which two candidates face each other in a November runoff. Though there are fourteen candidates on the ballot, much of the attention has gone to one man who is not, but who until yesterday was regarded as likely to make the runoff anyway.

  If you just arrived from some exotic place like the planet Mars, or maybe the city of Marquette, you would have to be puzzled about the twofold aspect of what’s going on in Detroit these days.

Take a look, for example, at today’s newspapers. Half the stories are about the city’s looming bankruptcy filing. Yesterday, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes told state courts to get lost and forget about getting involved in any matters regarding all this.

It is “within this court’s exclusive jurisdiction,“ Rhodes said, and since one of the few completely clear things about all this is that federal law always outranks state law, that settles that.

Many years ago, I had an unscrupulous high school algebra teacher, and the misfortune to have him the last hour of this day. His passion was horse racing, and his deal with the class was this:

He would give us a bunch of problems to solve, breeze through the basic concepts, and then take off for the race track. The understanding was that we wouldn’t squeal on him and everyone would pass. Somehow, he got away with this.

I have no idea if he ever got caught. Now most teachers aren’t like that. For years, I was married to a woman who was ranked one of the nation’s three best AP History teachers. Nor are teachers the only factor in educational achievement, But finding a way to distinguish good teachers from bad is important, and the Michigan Council for Educator Effectiveness has just submitted new recommendations I think are worth considering.

Today and tomorrow are anniversaries of two of the most important events in Detroit’s history, events almost never mentioned in the same breath.

Tomorrow it will be exactly three hundred and twelve years since a hundred Frenchmen scrambled up the riverbank, started cutting down trees, and establishing a fort they called Pontchartrain du Detroit.

There was an immense celebration of that anniversary a dozen years ago, a celebration virtually forgotten today. Nobody celebrates today’s anniversary, though we grimly discuss it.

You probably know by now that legendary journalist Helen Thomas died over the weekend, in her apartment in Washington.

She would have ninety-three next month. She spent her forty-first birthday in the place she worked for half a century, the White House, covering President Kennedy.

Kennedy was the first president Helen covered full time, and I am sure she had no idea that on that long-ago Tuesday, the last President she would cover was being born in far-off Hawaii.

detroit1701.org

The day before Detroit declared bankruptcy, I was driving with Jack Dempsey, president of the Michigan Historical Commission, along a weed-choked Detroit street, next to a forbidding fence.

“There it is,” he said, pointing to a battered old two-story wood frame house. The windows were boarded up; one of the slats was falling off the sides. “Know what that is?“ he asked. I did. It was the home of Ulysses S. Grant, the eighteenth President of the United States, the general who won the Civil War for the North.

Grant was the only president ever to live in Detroit, back when he was a young army officer, spending his time racing horses up and down Fort Street. Anywhere else, this house would be a tourist attraction and a shrine, but instead, Grant’s house sits there, decaying, as the historical commission scrambles to try to figure how to move it before someone firebombs it.

Keith Oppenheim

Public health should be about facts, but let’s face it -- it’s often also about perception and emotion.

The Palisades plant is located not too far from where I live in West Michigan -– but before I go there, allow me a quick digression.

I recently gave up diet soda.

I’m trying to be healthy and have been convinced by what I’ve read and been told that aspartame, the sweetener in diet pop, is really not a good thing to consume.

Is the evidence conclusive?

I don’t think so, but I certainly feel a whole lot better about myself now that I’ve kicked my addiction.

The emotional factors may not be so different with the Palisades nuclear power plant.

If I were young, single, and wanted to score, my guess is that I wouldn’t go to some hot place and say -- “have you been following what’s going on with the farm bill?”

No. Well, the farm bill may not sound too sexy, but it is, especially perhaps for Michigan. My guess is that few people have been following the farm bill wars. Those politically aware may know the U.S. Senate passed one version of the bill, the House another.

This sort of thing happens all the time, and then a conference committee, really a compromise committee, haggles and then puts something together both houses then pass.

Except that today’s is a rigidly polarized world. Democrats control the Senate, Republicans the House. After an earlier attempt failed, the Republicans passed an ideologically driven bill which completely eliminated funds for what in Washington jargon is called SNAP -- the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Most of us know this simply as food stamps.

America always has had strange outliers on the margins of our politics, from half-secret movements like the Know-Nothings to the left-wing crazies of the late 1960s. My eighth grade teacher referred to those on the farther shores of our politics as the “lunatic fringe.”

In more recent times, most of the nuts have been right-wing nuts. When I was young they opposed putting fluoride in the water, seeing that as a Communist plot. Indeed, they saw Communist plots everywhere. The head of the John Birch Society wrote a book claiming that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was an active agent of the Communist conspiracy. Asked about this once in Hillsdale, William F. Buckley Jr., said Eisenhower wasn’t a commie, but a golfer.

Well, classic communism is gone. Nobody talks about fluoride any more. But we still have a conspiracy-haunted fringe, and in Michigan today their latest cause is fighting what are called the Common Core Curriculum learning standards.

More and more of our local school districts are in financial trouble, and State Superintendent of Schools Mike Flanagan has a couple ideas as to what we can do about it.

As I discussed briefly last week, he is proposing either going to a system of county-wide districts, or, if that won't fly, at least consolidating and centralizing administrative and some academic functions at either a county or a regional level.

Eighteen years ago, I was teaching a large “survey of the media” class at Wayne State University when word came that there was a verdict in the O.J. Simpson case. I put television on.

This was a Wayne State University class with almost equal numbers of black and white students. When it was announced that OJ had been acquitted of the murders of his wife and her friend, the reaction seemed almost Pavlovian.

The white students were openly disgusted. The black ones, pleased. Times have changed. Today, we have a black President. 

But my guess is that if I had been teaching a similar class when the Trayvon Martin verdict was announced, I would have seen something like a mirror image. Certainly the African-Americans would have been outraged; though I am not sure the white students would have been all that pleased with George Zimmerman’s acquittal.

For years, I’ve been struck by something John F. Kennedy used to say when he was running for president: “The immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warm-hearted in different scales.

“Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.“ In fact, JFK was actually quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Well, times have certainly changed.

Today, we seem to have a government frozen and paralyzed in the ice of ideological divide, at both federal and state levels. And if you aren’t outraged and worried, you either have a heart of stone or you aren’t paying attention.

I have nothing against the Theater of the Absurd. I was taught French years ago by an odd method based on the comedies of Eugene Ionesco, the master of irrational dialogue. But absurdity doesn’t work very well as a guide to life, unless, say, you are an infant, or have only months to live.

Two plus two is, after all four. If you want your children to be successful in life, they generally need to know reading, writing and arithmetic. However, we seem to have a set of leaders, both left and right, who have made careers out of denying reality.

Let’s take education, first of all. The non-partisan, respected Education Trust, Midwest released a report yesterday showing that Michigan students are performing below the national average in every category. That’s worse than thirty-five other states.

During the last year of World War II, as millions died in history’s most sustained orgy of violence, other men quietly and secretly planned what to do after the war was over. They worked out the details of the division of Germany and the administration of Japan even before those countries had been occupied. Doing that in advance was essential.

Historians agree that was a precondition for Europe’s eventual recovery, and Japan’s rebirth as a prosperous democracy.  This advance planning also went a long way to prevent a new world war breaking out in the rubble of the old.

I mention this because I hope somebody is thinking about what to do when Detroit declares bankruptcy, and even more importantly, when that process is over. Planning how the city will begin the process back to some form of prosperity.

Last weekend I went to a dinner party on Mackinac Island at the home of a longtime state office holder, who is a Democrat.  Nearly all guests were dyed-in-the-wool Democrats, and they began discussing next year’s race for governor.

They agreed that Governor Rick Snyder, whose policies they all loathed, was almost certain to be defeated next year.

I didn’t say anything, till someone asked. “The election is a long way away” I said, “but if I had to bet, I would say there is a seventy percent chance Snyder will be reelected.”

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, what we call Independence Day, and a lot of politicians will say a lot of things, much of it nonsense, about what the Founding Fathers supposedly believed in 1776.

What is pretty clear, however, is that all of them thought we should have the freedom to determine our own destiny, and to be responsible for our actions. I know they were thinking mainly, if not exclusively, about the rights of property-owning white men.

Governor Rick Snyder has launched a common-sense offensive aimed at getting the state senate to pass a Medicaid expansion bill that would give health insurance to hundreds of thousands of Michigan citizens who aren’t now covered.

His strategy is to get people to put pressure on their vacationing state senators to return to Lansing and vote. 

For the last year, former Detroit Medical System czar and long-time Wayne County political fixer Mike Duggan has been gearing up to run for mayor of Detroit.

The 55-year-old candidate was seen by many movers and shakers, both black and white, as perhaps the one politician who could actually run the city, once it emerges from control by Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr.

But Duggan’s candidacy was derailed when a circuit judge ruled him off the August primary ballot because of an odd technicality.

Well, we’ve just about made it halfway through the year.  In fact, for most businesses and most states, Monday is the start of a new fiscal year. Michigan, however, starts its fiscal year October 1.

Why?  Well, it has to do with an accounting trick to deal with a fiscal crisis back in the nineteen seventies. Yes, the more things change, the more some things stay the same.

But this has been a pretty momentous six months. On New Year’s Day, elected officials were still fully in charge in Detroit.  Today, the city is being run by an emergency manager. Six months ago, while everybody knew Detroit finances were bad, nobody dreamed the total debt might be near twenty billion dollars.

 If you are a liberal, you were probably dismayed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act Tuesday, and thrilled by the justices’ ruling on same-sex marriage Wednesday.

If you are a conservative, you probably feel exactly the opposite.  Yet things are seldom as black and white as they seem, and like everyone else, Michiganders are apt to see just how complex the effects of these rulings really are, as the consequences of these decisions play out in coming months and years.

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