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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. Providing safe, sustainable...

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 i n 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?”

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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 20 th century. Leveraging the intersections of your parts is where all of...

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.

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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. But a group of volunteers in Ypsilanti is unfazed by the prospect of thick clouds and thin funds. In fact, SolarYpsi thinks this post-industrial, Southeast Michigan city can...

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. Yet, incredibly, some people still don’t seem to get it. In Monroe County’s Summerfield Township, not far from the Ohio border, local officials...

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. Of course, if this advice were accurate, you might expect that the affluent would also want their kids...

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. Michigan Radio reporters have been...

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. However, not all researchers are scientists....

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. Yesterday, for example, we learned there was a huge spike in cases of Legionnaires’ Disease...

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. “Nevertheless, I take full responsibility, and apologize to the nation. I have accepted the resignation of the head of my campaign, and am appointing an ethics...

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. Made up of representatives from the state’s leading design schools, as well as from top companies like...

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