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Opinion

Metropolitan Detroit is famous for many things, but one we haven’t heard much about lately is the near-total lack of anything resembling mass transit.

I can’t think of another major city in the country that has no regular mass transit of any kind from the airport to the downtown.

The reason for this, of course, was that in the Motor City, everyone was supposed to own a private car as a matter of civic patriotism. Today that is badly outdated.

Every survey shows millennials aren’t nearly as enamored of cars as earlier generations were.

Lit Kurtz

The Next Idea

 

Homelessness is a complex problem with no one easy solution. In Michigan, the needs are enormous. People experiencing homelessness see our state as more like a Third World country than like one of the richest areas in the world.

 

Normally I have little or no patience with those who demand elected leaders resign or be recalled or impeached every time they disagree with them. I also think Governor Rick Snyder has had two great successes during his five years in office.

The badly needed Gordie Howe bridge would be nowhere near reality if it wasn’t for Governor Snyder, and he did a a masterful job shepherding Detroit through the bankruptcy process. Yet none of this makes up for Flint.

Yesterday was extraordinary because of two things no one could have foreseen a year ago. Michigan Republicans are now fully engaged in a desperate and probably doomed struggle to prevent their party from nominating Donald Trump for president.


Michigan has been so preoccupied with our own environmental disaster in Flint that we may have missed the announcement that Canada last week indefinitely delayed a decision about whether to bury low-level nuclear waste near Lake Huron.

That is bound to be seen as good news by virtually the entire environmental community – though there is a caveat or two that I will get to in a bit.

Seven years ago, our biggest concern in Michigan was the domestic auto industry. The question was, could it possibly survive? Three years ago, our worries centered on Detroit which was about to plunge into emergency management and bankruptcy.

These days the Detroit Three are no longer the Big Three, but they are thriving and making billions. Detroit is out of bankruptcy and is perceived as dramatically improving.

According to police, the Uber driver arrested in Kalamazoo admitted to the shooting spree that killed six people and wounded two more on Saturday night.

They do not, however, have any idea why he did it. Frankly, I have no interest in why he did it, regardless of whether he was mad at his wife, wanted to impress ISIS, was in love with Taylor Swift, or any other of a thousand meaningless “reasons” such people give.

Joe Gruber

Katrina Watkins stood on her front porch in Detroit’s McDougall-Hunt neighborhood staring at the vacant, overgrown stretch of land across the street.

“I have been trying to get the city out here to cut this for years,” she said.

Well, it now seems that the race for the Republican nomination, which once had more candidates than a baseball team, is down to three real contenders.

The Democrats are down to two, and something suddenly occurred to me over the weekend. I’m a baby boomer, born in the 1950s.

When it comes to education issues, the crisis facing Detroit’s Public Schools is now the elephant filling the room. The question is whether the state House of Representatives’ ideological fanaticism and hatred for unions will prevent a sensible fix of the troubled district.

If it does, and the schools topple into bankruptcy, it could cost government --meaning us -- twice as much as the governor’s proposed plan.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/michigan-engineering/24292873512/in/album-72157662996114550/
Joseph Xu, University of Michigan Office of Communications and Marketing

The Next Idea

In a past life, Sile O'Modhrain edited audio for BBC radio.

"At the time I was working," she says, "I could edit using a razor blade and tape" to physically piece different sections of a recording together. But when audio editing processes switched from tactile to digital, she found herself out of a job.

 Suppose you came from fairly humble circumstances and had struggled to earn a college degree. You decide to become a teacher yourself, because that’s the only way poor and disadvantaged children have any chance at achieving a successful life.

You wind up teaching in a building that is falling apart, that is infested with mold and rodents, where the heat doesn’t work well in the winter, and it is like an oven in the late summer. You have to worry about fights, some involving kids bigger than you are. Guns and gangs are very real problems.

There are four larger-than-life cement statues on the lawn outside my office at Wayne State University. They are of Cadillac, LaSalle, Marquette and Gabriel Richard, the early French explorers who discovered Michigan and helped found Detroit.

They are magnificent, but they shouldn’t be there. They should be where they were intended to be – a couple miles away, high above the street, looking down from Detroit’s magnificent, baroque old early Victorian-era City Hall.

The news these days is full of examples of where our systems have failed, sometimes disastrously, as in Flint. We have had incompetence and corruption at virtually every level. We should be seeing bumper stickers which say, “if you’re not a cynic, you aren’t paying attention.”

But there are occasional stories of officials striving to do a good job, and there was one last week you may have missed.

Photo by Marcin Szczepanski

The Next Idea

There are lingering fears that nothing will be the same in Flint. But maybe things shouldn’t be the same. What if there is a better way for Flint and other cities to harvest and deliver life-enhancing water?

People across the nation are judging Flint as an epic failure of leadership and poor choices. There is no doubt that Flint’s water crisis is an unqualified failure of democracy, but it is also a century-old failure of design and systems thinking.     

Replacing Scalia

Feb 15, 2016

When I learned Saturday night that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died, I talked to a number of legal experts who weren’t necessarily in tune with his thinking.

Robert Sedler, a distinguished professor of constitutional law at Wayne State University, spoke of his brilliance.

We are in the middle of what is officially black history month. These days, so far as I can tell, that mostly means elementary school kids have to do a report on Martin Luther King Jr., and read a few paragraphs from the famous speech.

The rest of us mainly ignore it. Which is too bad, because black history is filled with fascinating and untold stories, and I want to tell you about a riveting new book about one.


I doubt that anyone who is listens to or reads my commentaries would think of turning to me for dating or relationship advice, but I am going to give you some anyway.

If you are single, and want to meet someone, you probably don’t want to go to the bar with a copy of the governor’s budget request and say, “Hey, there’s some really interesting stuff in here.”

That probably wouldn’t even work in Lansing.

There’s a famous old saying that man proposes, God disposes. Maybe, but in state politics, governors propose, legislators dispose.

The legislature has the power of the purse. Governor Rick Snyder today is unveiling a budget that a year ago, conservatives would have compared nastily to a Christmas tree.

It includes more money – lots of money – for Flint, of course, but also for higher education, community colleges and elementary schools. Higher education would get more, and so would the Healthy Kids’ Dental Fund. There’s even money here to pay for new drugs to treat Cystic Fibrosis and Hepatitis C.

It hasn’t been very easy to defend Governor Rick Snyder lately, but I think he did absolutely the right thing in refusing to testify before a committee of congressional Democrats about the scandal involving the lead poisoning of the water in Flint.

In all likelihood, this would have been nothing but a partisan witch hunt. He would have been asked questions along the lines of, “when did you stop poisoning children on purpose?”

Flickr/Astrid

The Next Idea

In the 122 years that Michigan has been making cars, the automobile industry has taught us that it’s not about having the parts but how you put them together that makes all the difference. A disassembled car is just a pile of 20,000 or more pieces of dull metal, washers, connectors, nuts and ugly wiring piled in your driveway. But put them all together and you get the most transformative technology of the 20th century.

A week ago I mentioned that Jordan Development, a major oil and gas exploration company based in Traverse City, wanted to drill a well on a church property in Southfield.

Southfield is a well-settled, bustling middle-class suburb of 75,000, and the idea of an oil well in such a community seemed unbelievable to some.

It seemed unbelievable to me as well, so did the idea that the city couldn’t stop it.

There’s no question that some of the wilder criticism of Governor Snyder has gone too far. There’s absolutely no evidence the governor, or anybody else, deliberately set out to poison the people of Flint as some sort of racist plot.

Accusations of that sort are inexcusably irresponsible. However, there are legitimate questions about what he knew and when he knew it. And yesterday, new information surfaced proving that, at the very least, the governor’s staff failed to properly inform him.

Last weekend Cindy Estrada took her twin twelve-year-old sons Jason and Jesse to Flint, to do what they could to help. What they saw shook them up. Knocking on doors, delivering water, they met a grandmother who dissolved in tears.

She felt she was responsible for poisoning her grandchildren by bathing them in water that state officials had told the residents was safe.

Back in the bad old final years of the Soviet Union, when the economy and the infrastructure were falling apart and the government was mostly non-responsive, there was a sour little joke that reminds me of Michigan today.

In the Soviet story, Stalin and Konstantin Chernenko, one of his increasingly ineffectual successors are going across Siberia on a train. Suddenly, it breaks down. There are, of course, no spare parts.

If you’ve turned on any TV news channel today, my guess is that you saw experts talking about the meaning of the Iowa caucuses.

I watched more of that than I intended to, and discovered that the single best assessment did not come from one of the glamorous talking heads, but from a former congressman who is going to be 90 years old this summer.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/chriskantos/2351716097

The Next Idea

Reducing dependence on fossil fuels through alternative energy may seem like an expensive goal, especially in an era when even traditional utilities need major investments to keep running. Add to this Michigan’s cloudy, snowy environment, and using solar energy might seem impractical, if not impossible.

If anyone doubts the danger of not appropriately considering environmental hazards, they need only to consider Flint.

To try to save a little money, the state allowed thousands of people to be poisoned, with consequences that will cost us far more in money, let alone human tragedy, than continuing to spend a little more for clean water would have.

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.


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