Opinion

By now, everyone in the nation knows about Flint, the aging industrial city that was switched to water that turned out to be toxic, by an emergency manager whose main priority was to balance the books and save money.

But while this wasn’t technically a failure of infrastructure, there is no doubt that in many cities, especially older industrial towns like Flint, things like ancient water and sewer pipes, not to mention roads and bridges, are wearing out.

Forty-odd years ago, when I was in college, I worked in factories and warehouses, and there was a sign I saw posted in at least one of them:

“Fix the problem, not the blame.”

That was a good idea then, and still is now. Unfortunately, the Flint water crisis seems to have entered a new unhealthy phase that involves the exact opposite.


America always has been, as most of us learned in elementary school, a land of immigrants. Officially, we’ve welcomed them with open arms, since virtually all our ancestors came to this land at some point in the last 500 years, voluntarily or otherwise.

That’s the bright side of our legacy.

The dark side is that once our ancestors got here, they too often wanted to keep any more immigrants from coming, especially from ethnic groups different from theirs. 

Back in 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools, the old “separate but equal” notion, was unconstitutional.

 Now what would have happened if after that ruling, some state attorney general in Mississippi had argued: “Well, we understand that applies to the future, but we’ve got some schools that were segregated before that ruling, and they should stay that way.”

Flickr/roel1943 / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The Next Idea

Business, political and media elites are increasingly advising kids not to pursue four-year degrees. The conventional wisdom is that unless you get a four-year degree in a STEM field, you are likely to end up underemployed and unable to pay off crushing student loans. Far better, according to this logic, to get a two-year degree or occupational certificate in a skilled trade.

Program Director Tamar Charney departs Michigan Radio after 19 years for a new position at NPR.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

It's so easy to think that the big important news stories are the ones happening in cities like London or Washington DC or countries like Syria and China.

I’ve heard many people dismiss local news as parochial “not in my backyard” disputes or worse, merely coverage of the latest house fires. But there are many local stories that should, and do, become national and even international news when they are told right.

The water crisis in Flint is an example.

No matter how bad you might have thought the state messed up Flint, the reality is worse. Yesterday, a flood of revelations made that shockingly clear.

Ten months ago, a consultant for the city recommended adding corrosion control chemicals to the water, because it was causing metal to leach out of the pipes. Apparently the governor, who is setting a new standard for clueless, never saw it, and Jerry Ambrose, then one of Flint’s revolving door emergency managers, ignored it.

It’s now clear that the crisis that is Flint is going to go on and on. Yesterday’s release of a large batch of the governor’s e-mails restarted the blame game – and as anyone who knows history could have predicted, brought demands for even more emails.

Think “White House tapes” and Watergate. Meanwhile, President Obama dropped by Detroit yesterday, exactly a year to the day before he leaves office.

Now what in Flint?

Jan 20, 2016

You may think this bizarre, but towards the end of Gov. Rick Snyder’s emotional State of the State speech. what popped into my mind was a scene from the epic movie Braveheart.

William Wallace, the medieval Scottish hero, has just eloquently rallied his men to take on a vastly superior British army.

“Fine speech,” one of his lieutenants said. “Now what?”

The governor’s future, as well as that of Flint, will be determined by the “now what,” of this crisis. In the movie, the hero tells his men “Just be yourselves.”

Every year the governor of Michigan gives an annual State of the State address, modeled after the State of the Union given by the President of the United States.

Usually these are much ballyhooed, televised, and instantly forgotten. Do you remember what either President Obama or Governor Snyder said last year?

The Next Idea

When most people think of university researchers, they think of scientists. They imagine people wearing white coats and plastic goggles, conducting experiments in a lab or making observations in the field, often working with a team of colleagues and students. Eventually, the results of that research might go into producing new computer technologies, performing life-saving medical treatments, or passing informed environmental policy.

For years, there has been a huge contrast in this state between election outcomes on the state as opposed to the federal level. Republicans haven’t carried Michigan for a presidential nominee since before the Berlin Wall came down.

They have won only a single U.S. Senate race in the last 44 years. But they dominate every branch of state government.

If this were the nineteenth century, people would compare life in Flint to the troubles of Job, the Old Testament hero who God allows to be tortured by the devil to test his faith.

We don’t use Biblical allusions as much as we used to, but there’s no question that for Flint, the agony just keeps increasing. Actually, it’s more correct to say that we keep discovering more about what’s been happening.

Flash back to Friday, June 24, 1972. President Richard Nixon goes on national television to apologize to the nation for the break-in and attempted bugging at the Democratic National Headquarters a week before.

“I had no knowledge of this in advance, and am totally appalled that people working for me would do such a thing,” he said. 

Well, the governor is finally paying attention to the water scandal in Flint, and there seems to be general recognition that the state really screwed up. Even Rick Snyder said as much yesterday, though in convoluted language.

Children were poisoned because of actions taken by state government, and finally, belatedly, there’s an effort to do something about it.

But children are being irreversibly harmed in Detroit, too, and we’re not willing to do anything about it. I’m talking about the more than forty thousand kids who are still enrolled in the Detroit Public Schools. This time, this is not the governor’s fault.

First-ever Michigan Design Prize now taking entries

Jan 11, 2016
Jennifer Guerra/Michigan Radio

The Next Idea

At more than 4,000 strong, Michigan has the highest concentration of industrial designers in the nation.

Yet few people know about it unless you live here, says Jeff DeBoer, chair of the Michigan Design Council and a principal at Sundberg-Ferar, a Michigan design firm.

Founded early last year, the Michigan Design Council has been tasked with a mission to change all that.

 

If you read either of the Detroit papers, you’ll find them filled all week with coverage of what is officially called the North American International Auto Show.

Some old-time Detroiters still call it what it used to be: The Detroit Auto Show. It’s been going on every year for more than a century, with one long timeout during and after the Second World War.  Back in the early days it was held in a city park at a place named Beller’s Beer Garden, which seems charming and appropriate.

This has been an intense first week of the year in Michigan politics, with Governor Snyder signing deeply controversial bills, the Flint water crisis, and renewed concern over the impending financial collapse of the Detroit Public Schools.

Where do the truly great innovations lie?

Jan 7, 2016
https://www.flickr.com/photos/phm_sinan/1364979311

The Next Idea

Cool, shiny, sleek:  These are the qualities we associate with top-shelf innovations.

That’s because we’re constantly confronted with magazine and Internet lists of the most innovative companies that are essentially just beauty contests. At the top of all these shimmering lists are blustery bands and glitzy gadgets and chic designers.

There were a lot of people – some of them Republicans -- who were shocked yesterday afternoon when Governor Rick Snyder signed a bitterly controversial campaign finance bill.

Many insiders expected he would veto it. In fact, The Detroit News, whose editorial page is sort of a house organ for the Republican Party, urged a veto.

Yesterday was not a good day for Governor Rick Snyder.

First, he signed the bill outlawing straight-ticket voting. There was never any real doubt he would do this.

Those in politics were surprised he didn’t sign it between Christmas and the new year, when most people are paying little attention. 

President Obama yesterday announced a series of executive orders aimed at enforcing existing laws and lowering the death rate. You might think that was common sense policy.


Steady decline in wetlands endangers Great Lakes

Jan 4, 2016
Flickr/barbaragaillewis / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The Next Idea

In Michigan and across the country, wetlands are known as marshes, swamps, bogs, fens and pocosins.

They are also known as threatened.

A recent study by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, which used data collected by our (Ducks Unlimited) mapping experts, points to staggering losses.

Well, Happy New Year. I like to catch up on movies during the holidays, and the first one I saw this season was Spotlight, the film about how The Boston Globe exposed the Roman Catholic Church’s sex scandal 14 years ago.

Dozens of journalists I know raved about the movie, and they weren’t exaggerating. Spotlight is clearly the most important film about journalism since All The President’s Men 40 years ago. Like that film, it is largely a documentary with Hollywood stars reenacting the roles played by actual, less photogenic journalists.

The Way it Was

Dec 23, 2015

Well, the holidays are upon us, and my guess is that you may need some last minute present and that you also might be guilty of reading books, even when you don’t have to.

So I want to tell you about the best book I’ve read this year, one you can easily find at any bookstore: David Maraniss’s Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story, published by Simon and Schuster. Maraniss is a Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post writer.

Ten years ago, George Clooney starred in and directed the most socially significant film he’s ever done. Good Night and Good Luck was about the famous journalist Edward R. Murrow and his confrontation with Senator Joe McCarthy, the demagogue who ruined lives and careers by recklessly accusing people of being Communists.


I have a little bit of good news to start the week. The United States managed, barely, to avoid crippling sanctions that would have cost Michigan farmers hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years.

Several years ago, Congress passed a law that required “country of origin labeling,” known as COOL, for all meat products, no matter where they were from.

Well, we are ending the last full week before Christmas with two pieces of good news: The biggest is that Washington approved a waiver that will enable six hundred thousand relatively poor people in Michigan to continue to get medical coverage under the Healthy Michigan Medicaid expansion program.

We barely managed to qualify for this program two years ago after the legislature was dragged kicking and screaming to approve it, even though virtually all the costs are borne by the federal government.

Flickr/Penn State / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

The Next Idea

It’s that time of year to reflect on what worked and what didn’t this past year here in the Great Lakes State, and to give due consideration to potential adjustments to improve our situation.  

Considering the essays and interviews of our guests here at The Next Idea, other credible news sources, and adding some of my own observations, I see three general areas for innovation to consider for review:

On April 25, 2014, Flint officials toasted each other as they flipped the switch to the Flint River.
WNEM-TV

I don’t blame the governor’s press secretary for not understanding exactly who made the decision to have Flint pump its drinking water from the Flint River. It was a complicated decision making process with multiple key players that lasted at least a few months.

Back in the spring of 2013, when this decision was made, Governor Rick Snyder’s press secretary, Dave Murray, was one of “us”; a journalist working for The Grand Rapids Press/MLive.

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