Need a Break from the Election Season?

Need a Break from the Election Season?

Listen, if you got yourself a big ol’ pot of roiling outrage going right now, I’m not the one to tell you to take it off the heat. It’s election season and who am I to talk you out of the delicious indulgence of indignation? I’m an editorial cartoonist, for crying out loud!

It’s fine to be appalled, exasperated, horrified. Perhaps you detest a particular candidate so deeply your very soul is in danger of choking on your own bile. Lovely. Feel your feelings. I’d advise against acting on them, but, certainly, go ahead and feel them. Right down to bitterest loathing and utterest disgust.

However, if you want a breather you might consider coming to Grand Rapids in the next couple of weeks and checking out ArtPrize. It really is quite remarkable — an inspiring mix of public art, entrepreneurship, governmental coordination and cooperation, and civic pride. Oh sure, you can find negatives if you look hard. Some people get in a snit over the founder being an Amway scion. Others have had issues with how the prize money is awarded.

So it may not be all rainbows and unicorns. But there is art and lots of happy people. You can even vote for something, not against it! And also there is beer. It is Grand Rapids, after all.

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Reviewing Todd Courser

Reviewing Todd Courser

Who else thought when you first heard Basket of Deplorables: “That’s the perfect name for a punk rock band”? Well I definitely did, and it got me thinking.

Punk rock was in general a reaction to what rock and roll had become by the mid-1970s. It had more or less bypassed its original audience: the young and the disaffected. Radio stations had become categorized, playlists were standardized, established acts were given every advantage over the new and different. There were people who wanted to take rock and roll back, make it great again (to borrow a phrase).

Along came the Sex Pistols. Or more precisely, an awful person named Malcolm McLaren caught the punk rock wave and ruthlessly promoted the Sex Pistols. He was really quite ahead of his time in leveraging media for free, viral publicity. For McLaren, the music was secondary to the packaging. The well-being of band members was inconsequential. Infamy was the product.

The Sex Pistols only ever had one studio album and one very short train-wreck of a United States tour. At the end of the last song of the last concert, lead singer Johnny Lydon (known then as Johnny Rotten) famously asks to the audience, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” and dropped the microphone.

It was a moment of stunning honesty. At that point, Lydon and the fans were all disillusioned. They had wanted to believe they were part of something meaningful (and maybe they were), but now it was pretty obvious that they had been totally used along the way. I’m wondering if there’s going to be a “mic drop moment” with the Trump campaign.

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Another Consequence of Student Loan Debt

Another Consequence of Student Loan Debt

My first instinct was to draw the weighty Student Loan Debt object as an anvil. You guys know what an anvil is, right?

An anvil is a block with a hard surface on which another object is struck. The block is as massive as it is practical, because the higher the inertia of the anvil, the more efficiently it causes the energy of the striking tool to be transferred to the work piece.

Yeah, that’s not very helpful for me, either. How about this:

An anvil is the very heavy hunk of metal that falls from the sky onto the head of guys like Wile E. Coyote and Yosemite Sam in Warner Bros. cartoons.

Better? Because I grew up watching those cartoons and apparently anvils are actually used for blacksmithing, which I was not aware of till much later. But then, most millennials probably have not seen those cartoons, so I went with the big boulder.

In a similar way, young people today are having a difficult time imagining starting off their adult life without significant debt. Earlier this week a study was released by the Michigan League for Public Policy that showed Michigan college students who graduated in 2014 had $29,450 in student loan debt on average. It’s a complicated issue, and there is plenty of blame to go around. I didn’t want to go down that road. I simply wanted to point out that crushing student debt has specific consequences for us Michiganders and our dependency on the auto industry.

Another report came out this week showing that Americans are borrowing more than ever for new and used vehicles.The total balance of all outstanding auto loans reached $1.027 trillion between April 1 and June 30, with 30- and 60-day delinquency rates rising.

Hmmm… More young people need to watch those old cartoons — I’ll definitely be wanting to use that “anvils falling from the sky” metaphor.

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We Need More of the Black Vote

We Need More of the Black Vote

Telling the wife of your boss at a dinner party that she is a racist is not a career enhancing move. Turns out, people don’t like to be called racist — even if they are.

Let me explain. Many years ago my boss at the time generously hosted a holiday dinner for his three employees and their spouses. I was sitting next to his wife and in the course of conversation she mentioned growing up in Grand Rapids and her not-so-positive experience with school integration. She had some lingering issues and asked me my assessment.

In a very academic (maybe even Aspergerian) way I told her, yes, I thought she was racist, but qualified it with my mini-thesis on what that means: There are three degrees of racism. First degree is a negative view of somebody else because of their race and openly acting on that negative view (think Archie Bunker). Second degree is a patronizing view of somebody else because of their race (think of kindly people of previous generations, “I feel sorry for colored people.”) Third degree is simply letting a person’s race affect how you treat that person, however small that effect may be.

I told her, like most Americans (including myself), she was probably a third-degree racist. Only the very young and the exceptionally pure are not racist. Still, it didn’t go over well. Also, I had a hard time hiding the fact that I really didn’t care for the mutton that was served, so that didn’t help.

If you are ever faced with a similar situation, my advice would be to avoid rolling out a mini-thesis. And if you can’t deflect the issue altogether, have a discussion instead of forcing a “teaching moment,” which is what I tried to do with this week’s cartoon. How’d I do? (If you feel compelled to call me an idiot, please qualify with what degree.)

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Bill Schuette Occupations

Bill Schuette Occupations

If you spend more than a few moments with my wife’s family, there is a pretty good chance you’re going to hear a Caddyshack reference. That is, a quote from the 1980 film will work its way into the conversation — sometimes in context, always funny. So coming off a week’s vacation with them, it’s not hard to find the inspiration for the punch line in panel three of the cartoon. “You’ll get nothing and like it!” is of course how Judge Smails shuts down his grandson, Spalding, as the teen lists off what he wants to order at the snack shack.

Dang if that doesn’t capture the essence of the Attorney General, Bill Schuette, who in his tenure has made a habit of actively shutting down the desires of his citizenry. The straight-ticket ballot issue is the latest example. Michigan voters have demonstrated their preference to support a political party’s entire slate of candidates with a single mark on a ballot. Schuette is fighting with particular zest to uphold new legislation that bans straight-ticket balloting, and it feels like more for political advantage than out of a sense of duty.

I know. Shocker. Politics affecting the office of Attorney General! This is certainly not unique to Republicans or Bill Schuette. (Goodness knows that Democrat Jennifer Granholm leveraged the heck out of being AG to get her governor gig.) And I absolutely don’t support the idea that the AG should automatically endorse whatever the majority opinion happens to be. I think American history has proven just how wrong the majority can be.

But that doesn’t mean Schuette shouldn’t be called out for Smails-like behavior. It was actually a different scene from the movie that inspired the cartoon, but I couldn’t figure out how to work it in. It’s the part where Judge Smails is trying to impress young Danny Noonan with the need for laws and righteousness.

Danny, Danny, there’s a lot of, uh, well, badness in the world today. I see it in court every day. I’ve sentenced boys younger than you to the gas chamber. Didn’t wanna do it. I felt I owed it to them.

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I Don’t Believe in Public Transportation

I Don't Believe in Public Transportation

There is nothing quite as annoying as the overenthusiastic zeal that comes with the recently discovered — especially when it has been commonly known and readily accessible for years and years. So I apologize in advance, but, OHMYGOSH, YOU GUYS! HAVE YOU SEEN THE SOO LOCKS?! THEY ARE AWESOMINGLY AMAZING!!!

Last month, I finally made my first visit to Sault Ste Marie to see the Soo Locks. You just can’t fit the scale of a freighter being transferred from one great lake to another in your head until you actually see it. It’s absolutely magnificent. And the tour is even better. A ferry takes you through the locks — up from the American side and down on the Canadian.

It was all so very impressive, but there was one fact that made a particular impression on me. It’s free. That’s right, free. I had no idea. Whether you’re a freighter fully laden with taconite and heading for the steel mills or a pleasure boat on you’re way to Pictured Rocks, you pay nothing. All of us taxpayers foot the bill. And it makes a lot of sense. For the sake of commerce and industry, to promote transportation, to eliminate overhead costs of collecting fees, it’s free to the actual users.

Look, it’s no secret that traditional public transportation is lacking in Michigan, especially Metro Detroit. And I’m not trying to make a direct parallel between a commuter bus/light-rail system and the Soo Locks. But I am saying that they share a common benefit: they are good for business. Yes, it takes some capital investment, but there can be a much greater return on that value. And isn’t that how business is supposed to work? We have underfunded our roads for years, and see where that has gotten us.

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A Toast to Limited Regulation

A Toast to Limited Regulation

In the cartoon series South Park, there is a classic episode titled “Gnomes.” In that episode, a high-strung, over-caffeinated boy named Tweek is freaked out when gnomes repeatedly sneak into his bedroom at night to steal his underpants from his dresser. Tweek tells his fellow grade-school friends about the gnomes, but they don’t believe him.

Then one night when some classmates are all over at Tweek’s house very late working on a school report, they all witness the gnomes in action. They follow the gnomes back to their underground operation and ask the obvious question: Why are you stealing underpants? The gnomes tell the boys that they are business experts and collecting underpants is the first step of a three-phase plan:

Step 1: Collect underpants
Step 2: ?
Step 3: Profit!

The boys are curious to know, “What is Step 2?” The gnomes discuss this among themselves and conclude they don’t really know. There is a pause, but then they reaffirm that they are in fact business experts and cheerfully get back to working on their plan.

Earlier this week, Donald Trump was in Detroit to give a speech on his economic plan. Hillary Clinton was in Michigan Thursday to lay out her plan. I can’t address Clinton’s speech directly (it was after my deadline), but I can assume that like Trump’s, it was short on “Step 2” details. I get it. There are few motivations for presidential candidates to provide specifics — they will get picked apart.

But the Trump speech sounded very much like the gnomes’ plan, especially by including that old “let’s put a moratorium on regulations” chestnut. In fact, his whole campaign has been extremely lacking in how he plans to do the things he says he wants to do. (“Believe me, believe me” doesn’t count as a plan.) To be fair, in his business world Trump does sometimes have a Step 2, which is “declare bankruptcy.”

But in Michigan, Flint’s water has shown us what can happen when politicians skip over Step 2.

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Why Is There Trump?

Why Is There Trump?

There are few universally shared experiences these days. The ability to indulge our varied interests makes points of intersection increasingly rare. One of the few exceptions is layoffs. Whether you have direct experience with the swinging axe or just near misses, we are all familiar with the type of “right-sizing” recently announced at Dow in mid-Michigan.

Layoffs are never pleasant. Some are reasonable (sales are down, costs are up, something has to give). Some are anything but reasonable (the CEO pooped his pants and the company needs to create a distraction, stockholders want to build indoor pools at their beach houses, somebody said we might save tens of dollars if we move the whole works to Uzbekistan). I’m not ready to judge the Dow layoffs. (Oh, I will most definitely judge; I’m just not ready.)

What I am ready to do is propose a challenge: I would like somebody to quantify the psychological cost of things like layoffs at Dow, Flint’s water crisis, and our lousy infrastructure. We hear all the time from economists about the positive effects of companies streamlining. What about the negative effects?

My unit of measurement would be a gut-punch. A gut-punch by itself is not inherently bad. It might wake you up — make you take stock and plan ahead. But continuous gut-punches wear people down and make us desperate: You’re laid-off your good-paying job. Ooof. You retrain, get a new job, and someone else is laid off, leaving you with five times the responsibility but at the same pay. Ooof. You work hard, develop new efficiencies, but then you’re laid-off. Ooof.

So what’s the collective number of gut-punches that tip the scales toward desperation? If we knew that, maybe we could avoid the recklessness of having Donald Trump as a viable candidate for President. Ooof.

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Mayor Duggan Speech at the DNC

Mayor Duggan Speaks at the DNC

In her later years, my wife’s grandmother suffered from dementia. She was the same extraordinarily sweet, wonderful person she always had always been, but her short-term memory faded and her filter disappeared. For a time she lived with my wife’s family. Their formal dining room became her bedroom — it was easy to keep tabs on her from the adjacent kitchen.

She would go to her room to watch the TV news, and as my wife did her homework in the kitchen, she could hear Nana talking to the news anchor or reporter as she watched. “That’s not your real hair…. That cannot be your real hair…. That’s gotta be a wig…. That can’t be your real hair….” <pause, when apparently a new person appeared on screen> “Boy, you are fat…. You are really fat…. Fat, fat, fat….” <pause> “That’s not your real hair…. That cannot be your real hair….” And so it went. Not hearing a single word of what the anchor was saying.

I couldn’t help but to think of Nana when watching Mayor Duggan’s speech. Folks outside of Michigan (and many within) probably would have guessed that the mayor of Detroit was a black guy named Kwame McColeman or something and got stuck on the fact that Duggan is white (completely missing the point of his speech).

It’s the irony that got me: Duggan trying to de-emphasize racial differences only to have people pay attention solely to his racial difference. But talking about race in America is tricky. It can be awkward, feel uncomfortable, even seem counter-productive. And often, people do completely miss the point. (President Obama can’t get near the subject without being accused of “playing the race card.”)

But if you listened to the speech I think Duggan is on the right track. The most important thing is to keep the conversation open so that all can be heard. Set goals where “everyone will be equally valued and everyone will have real opportunity,” but realize that it’s a process. And maybe one day when all of our filters have disappeared, we will be focused on Duggan being a pudgy bald guy and not the color of his skin.

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Running Government as a Business

Running Government Like a Business

I’ve worked in the business world for quite some time now. From private to public companies, startups to established corporations, employee to contractor. I even had my own company for a dozen years. So I think I have a fairly broad understanding. Still, I’ve never really bought into the idea that being a successful business person necessarily will make you a good public servant.
Sure, things like the desire to be in charge, being a good steward of resources, knowing when to inspire and when to delegate — those are going to be helpful whether you’re CEO or governor. But functionally, the two jobs are very different animals. An elected leader needs to embrace the integrity of a purposely restricted system (laws); private business owners are ultimately only responsible to themselves.
It scares me when those promoting the idea don’t seem to be aware of the differences (or willfully ignore them). Ironically, many of Donald Trump’s standard business practices align more readily with the worst behaviors of a government bureaucrat: reneging on deals, aggressive deficit spending, opaque and authoritarian rule.
I just don’t see how “I will run the government like a business” would be an easy sell to Michigan voters. Especially when Governor Snyder already seems to have, um, poisoned those waters.

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