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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Is There Hope?

Is There Hope?

A cop shoots a man dead. Is your first thought to want to know their racial profiles?

A man uses a military assault rifle to kill multiple people. Is your first thought to hope for a reason that won’t conflict with your political views?

A neighborhood teen takes his own life with a handgun. Is your first thought to wonder why a handgun was available to him at a moment of despair?

A young woman is gunned down in Chicago. Is your first thought to consider how this might affect gun control statistics?

A homeowner uses a gun to kill somebody on his property. Is your first thought to feel gratification for justice served?

A little girl finds a loaded gun in her house and shoots her younger sibling. Is your first thought to ask whether the gun was legal?

Do you see where I’m going with this? When your life intersects with stories of guns and death, is your first instinct to align the news with your politics? Or is it to consider the loss of human life?

It’s the politics, right? Me, too.

But maybe making the loss of life our first thought would be a real starting point for reducing gun violence.

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State Flag of Michigan Redesign

State Flag of Michigan Redesign

Last month, Rick DeVos complained aloud via Twitter that the state flag of Michigan was “ugly” and “non-useful.” Well, sharing needlessly judgmental observations is what Twitter is for, so we likely would have all moved quickly on to the next snark if DeVos wasn’t (a) the founder of ArtPrize and (b) offering $500 to the best three redesigns. At the time I was going to do a cartoon with three of my own submissions. But as is often the case, a different idea came along and overtook it. I figured this one had missed its opportunity.

However… that absolutely gorgeous, thoroughly enjoyable Independence Day weekend messed me up. I found myself happy, refreshed, and generally pleased with life, which is like kryptonite for editorial cartooning. From the void of my contentment, the flag idea resurfaced. When I realized that the winners have not yet been announced, I thought it might still have a chance.

I didn’t want to do the three submissions thing, though — that definitely seemed past its freshness date. The strongest gag idea I had was the “what’s Latin for ‘crumbling infrastructure’?” bit. (The second best: “If you seek a perilous pothole, look around you.”) With the theme established, I was inclined to bring in our Governor Snyder and have an underling take a jab at him for his abysmal performance on infrastructure issues. A quick reflection on the money my family sinks into car repair every year because of said infrastructure issues, and I was no longer happy (and therefore ready to draw).

As for the current flag — yes, it is a design mess with its mishmash of odd choices and conflicting ideas, but it also has a unique beauty. I think that’s a pretty good description of Michigan.

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Fourth of July — Explained

Fourth of July — Explained

I was trying to work up some righteous indignation about Michigan’s fireworks laws and the decision in 2011 to allow in-state sales of the loud, semi-dangerous variety. Maybe it was being awoken at 1:00AM Tuesday by somebody’s sudden need to express their patriotism very close to my bedroom window. Maybe it’s the messes left in the park and cemetery next to my house by people who apparently don’t like to explode things on their own property. Maybe I’ve begun my official decent into grumpy old manhood. I dunno. It’s hard to tell — I’m still kinda sleep deprived.

Whatever the case, I couldn’t seem to sustain a good righteousness or indignation. Truth is, I’ve done my fair share of setting off “Chinese explosives of questionable legality.” Not recently, but certainly in younger days. (I bonded with my eventual brothers-in-law by repeatedly strapping a hapless plastic army soldier we called Fritz to bottle rockets.) And fireworks are only the surface of a very deep pile of stupid things I’ve done.

I think that’s the thought that stopped me: We live in a free country, but freedom doesn’t necessarily align with smart.

So I wish you all a happy and safe Independence Day! We are all free to decide our own level of stupid (but let’s try to keep it to a minimum).

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Thirsty for the Great Lakes

Thirsty for the Great Lakes

Remember the comedian Sam Kinison? It’s fine if you don’t. In fact, I would advise against YouTubing him. (And I disclaim all responsibility if you do.) But back in the 1980s he had a particularly edgy standup bit about world hunger and Western popular reaction to it (Feed the World, USA for Africa, etc.). As was his style, Kinison suckered you in with a low-key, seemingly reasoned assessment of the situation, then, BANG!, smacked you upside the head with a loud, audacious screaming rant. In this case, he went from sympathetically describing the plight of starving people suffering in deserts to highly suggesting they were stupid for not moving to where food can be grown: “WE HAVE DESERTS IN AMERICA, TOO, BUT WE DON’T LIVE IN THEM!!!”

This routine was one of the first things I ever heard described as “politically incorrect.” It most definitely was. But unlike some politicians who “tell it like it is” and “say things others are afraid to say,” Kinison was crossing lines for laughs, not votes. I think that’s an important distinction.

The bit is also funny because it’s wrong. Americans do in fact live in our deserts, and we’ve done nothing but accelerate that population over the past 30 years. Unlike poor countries, we have been able to beat nature with air conditioning and water pumping. Continuing to condition the air is not a big problem. But deserts are deserts by definition because of limited fresh water supplies. It’s no wonder that the parched southwest would cast its thirsty gaze toward our abundant Great Lakes.

I say too bad. We’ve already been kind enough to share our Vernors with the rest of the country. If they want water, they’re gonna have to move here.

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Compromise? Snydermise!

Compromise? Snydermise!

There is a scene in the movie Raising Arizona where a couple of delinquent brothers go to rob a bank. They feel pretty confident about their plan because they fancy themselves sophisticated criminals. As they bust in the front door of the dusty, country bank, one of the brothers shouts out, “All right, ya hayseeds, it’s a stick-up. Everybody freeze. Everybody down on the ground.”

There is a long awkward pause as the tellers and farmer clientele stare back at them. The criminals are flustered. Finally one of the farmers says, “Well, which is it, young feller? You want I should freeze or get down on the ground? Mean to say, if’n I freeze, I can’t rightly drop. And if’n I drop, I’m a-gonna be in motion.”

The rest of the robbery does not go well.

This scene was the first thing to pop to mind when I heard that Governor Snyder had signed the House version of Detroit Public School legislation. Because, correct me if I’m wrong, but hadn’t he previously been telling us that his version with more money and charter oversight was the only effective solution for the DPS? And now he’s telling us the very different House plan is just fine? Well, which is it, young feller?

In the end I figured not enough people have seen (or nearly memorized, as I have) Raising Arizona, so I decided to go with the dictionary definition bit for this week’s cartoon. It’s much clearer what I’m calling the governor out on because he’s Snydermised before — the infamous Michigan Roads legislation being the last best example.

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