Opinion

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."

We’ve been thinking a lot about Detroit lately, for obvious reasons. Opinions differ, but pretty much everyone agrees on this: There are too few jobs and not enough money. Unemployment is high, the tax base is low. The city is officially bankrupt.

Yet there’s a project out there that should be a huge shot in the arm: The New International Trade Crossing Bridge. Estimates are that it will create at least 10,000 good paying jobs that will last four to five years. Ripple effects from those jobs will create thousands of others, some of which will be permanent. 

Canada is going to pay nearly all the costs of the bridge and all Michigan’s costs, pumping nearly four billion dollars into the economy. Exactly what the doctor ordered. So … what’s holding things up?

When I was growing up in the 1960s, there was a popular genre of fiction: Novels about the world when and after the presumably inevitable nuclear war happened.

One that I remember was set in rural Florida, one of the few places that avoided total destruction. The survivors set up what amounted to a working subsistence and barter economy. 

But for some, the psychological adjustment was impossible. The town banker sat among piles of paper money that he had always revered as sacred, and which suddenly had no value whatsoever. Unable to adjust, he kills himself.

Things are not nearly that bad in Detroit. But yesterday, there were clear signals that sacred cows really are going to be sacrificed. Public pensions were thought to be sacrosanct, protected by the state constitution. Well, they aren’t, according to Federal Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes. Federal law trumps state law. 

Today, virtually all eyes are on Detroit, where U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes rendered his historic decision this morning. That’s exactly as it should be. There is no more important story in the state right now, and our futures are all tied in with the Motor City. But that’s not the only thing happening.

I always feel uneasy when the media’s attention strays too far from the legislature. That’s a bad idea, for the same reason leaving a two-year-old unattended in the kitchen is a bad idea. There are sharp objects, and they can hurt themselves and others.

Tomorrow morning, Federal Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes will announce whether or not Detroit can file for bankruptcy. If, as expected, he does authorize this, it will mean grim times ahead.

The city almost certainly will lose some assets; creditors will get paid only a fraction of what they are owed, and elderly and retired city workers may lose at least some of their pensions.

None of this will be easy, or fun. But we all have to hope that is exactly what the judge does. Otherwise, the city will be in the position of a dying lamb among a flock of turkey buzzards.

The city has close to 100,000 creditors who together are owed probably more than $18 billion. If the judge rules Detroit is ineligible for bankruptcy, then that will take the freeze off all the lawsuits creditors filed against the city before the Motor City asked for bankruptcy protection back in July. 

 CORRECTION: The headline was changed to avoid an inadvertent pun.

There are about 350 in Michigan who screwed up badly when they were teenagers. Most took part in murders. All are serving life without the possibility of parole.

Some of these young killers are probably vicious psychopaths who should never be allowed back into society. Others, however, were scared and stupid kids who, in some cases, did nothing except be there when an older friend, or, in a number of cases, a boyfriend, committed some terrible crime.

But they were all sentenced under Michigan law to life without the possibility of parole, and two years ago, you could have said, that was that. Except that isn’t the law anymore.

Seventeen months ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled that laws automatically requiring a life sentence without the possibility of parole for kids under 18 are unconstitutional.

Why hunt wolves?

Nov 26, 2013

As you probably know by now, Michigan last year declared wolves a game animal, and, for the first time in more than 40 years, is allowing hunters to shoot them in some parts of the Upper Peninsula.

Hunting has become a controversial sport. But I don’t think I’ve seen any hunting issue as controversial as this year’s wolf hunt.

Jill Fritz, the Michigan state director of the Humane Society of the United States, is the informal leader of the anti-hunting forces, but she isn‘t alone. Professor John Vucetich, for example, a forest and environmental expert at Michigan Technological University, says flatly, “There is no scientific evidence to suggest that wolves need to be hunted.” He added, “It’s not common sense to spend decades bringing the wolf back from the brink of extinction only to turn around and allow them to be killed for sport.”

Everybody pretty much hates baby boomers, the most numerous, obnoxious and self-indulgent generation on the planet. I should know: I am one. Well, if you are a college student, or recent graduate, here is one more reason to resent us: The cost of higher education.

In my time, it was possible to get a good summer job, live at home and almost make enough to cover the next year’s tuition and room and board. To make up the difference, scholarship money was far easier to come by.

I don’t remember people graduating saddled with debt. Law and medical school grads got out owing sizable student loans, but those degrees were viewed as a license to print money.

Half a century ago, America suffered one of the most traumatic events in our history: The assassination of President Kennedy. But while it is important to remember that, it might also be good to consider that there is a bunch of good economic news today. Good news, especially for Michigan.

Yesterday, University of Michigan economists presented their annual November forecast. They saw good things ahead, with the national economy growing almost twice as fast over the next two years as now.

Two experts from the Research Seminar in Quantitative Economics predicted five million new jobs over the next two years. Unemployment, they predict, will fall from just over seven to about six percent.

Meanwhile, they predict the automakers will sell half a million more units next year than this, more still in 2015, and the housing market will also grow.  Inflation will stay low and oil prices will remain steady. This is all very good news, if true.

Tomorrow, the media will engage in a vast commemoration of the assassination of President Kennedy. In fact, there have already been a flood of TV specials, magazine covers, and newspaper series. Everyone is once again debating everything from the single bullet theory to the merits of his presidency. And my guess is that pretty much everyone under the age of 40, maybe even 50, wonders what all the fuss was about.

Well, here’s something that may help you put it in perspective. When the assassination happened I was in seventh grade Spanish class. The principal came on the public address system. Overcome with emotion, he said only, “The President is dead.” Someone said, “Our President?” The teacher said no, she thought it might be Chile. They were having a lot of unrest there, she said. Of course, they would probably not have interrupted our class in Michigan if all of Chile had sunk into the Pacific Ocean.

But the fact that our young and vigorous and unbelievably charismatic president was dead was inconceivable to her, and pretty much everyone else. That afternoon I remember cars pulled over, drivers listening to the radio and crying. I’ve never seen that again.

There was a little bit of good news about Detroit’s public schools this week, perhaps the first good news in a long time. The Michigan Department of Education is formally taking the school district off so-called “high-risk” list. This means, essentially, that the state will no longer have to approve virtually everything the system does. It also means the system won’t have to put purchases over $25,000 out for bid.

But I think too much is being made of this. Yes, it is a good thing. We should think of this, however, more as if Detroit Public Schools were a patient in the hospital. Their condition has just been upgraded, but only from extremely critical to critical.

How would you like to work 40 hours a week, every week of the year, for an annual income of $19,240 dollars? I didn’t think so.

The good news, if you could call it that, is that Mark Schauer, the Democratic candidate for governor next year, wants to raise the minimum wage to that level. Which would be, precisely $9.25 an hour. The bad news is that our current minimum is a lot worse at $7.40 an hour. 

Someone working for it full-time makes only a little over $15,000. And the worst news is there is little chance of the minimum being raised to the level the candidate wants.

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