…Are Ruining Everything!

...Are Ruining Everything!

It is so, so, so deliciously easy to hate somebody without even knowing them. In fact, not knowing somebody as a person but as part of a group is a great help. As an example, many Americans feel very comfortable these days communicating their less than favorable views on immigrants — economic burdens, dangerous criminals, existential threats. You know, the same basic take Americans had on the 19th century Irish or 20th century Italians.

This got kind of turned around on me when the college admission scandal broke this week. My immediate reaction to those wealthy and famous people bribing their kids’ way into marquee universities? Frickin’ rich people! Overly privileged bastards, all of them! Lousy, stinkin’…

Wait a minute…I know several thoroughly honest, morally sound people who also happen to be fairly affluent. Plus, by most world standards, I myself could be considered rich. (And I’m delightful!) So perhaps it’s not the healthiest thing in the world to fall in that trap.

I’m still upset with those parents who lied, cheated, and stole. Even more so as details emerge. I look forward to their prosecution and justice being served. But I will try to be more careful with open declarations of loathing for entire groups of people. (I still, however, reserve all rights for individuals.)

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Raise the Gas Tax?!

Raise the Gas Tax?!

One of my pet peeves is when somebody with a good paying, white collar job chooses a ginormous pickup truck for their commuter vehicle and then complains bitterly when the price of gas goes up. The world is not conspiring against you, Karen! You made your choice — deal with the consequences!

So when Governor Whitmer floated the idea this week of raising the gas tax, I imagined that the Karens of Michigan were going to be quite put out. A brief workplace and online sampling confirmed this. To be clear, I don’t begrudge those on fixed incomes or with lives that require a pickup truck for not being happy with potentially higher gas prices. Taxes with such a direct and obvious economic impact are especially unlikable.

To that end, I’m guessing our Michigan-based automakers are not terribly thrilled with the gas tax idea. All three have now clearly gone all in on a pickup/SUV future. It’ll be interesting to see if they weigh in on what they would perceive as a more fair revenue source.

But that leaves us with the question of what would be more “fair.” We’ll find out soon enough as Whitmer negotiates the budget with the Legislature. Initial reactions from Republicans have been positive. They’re leery of such a large gas tax and expressing displeasure with potential adjustments to corporate taxes. But nobody is denying that our roads have been neglected for so long that significant spending will be required to fix them.

No tax is ever completely fair. But whatever gets negotiated should be as evenhanded as possible. So for those hybrid and electric vehicle owners who are a little too satisfied with sticking it to the gas guzzlers: You won’t get off so easy, Chad! We’re all expecting you to pay for fixing the roads, too!

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Assembly Plants and Misplaced Nostalgia

Assembly Plants and Misplaced Nostalgia

In the late 1970s, Detroit was desperate for a new automobile assembly plant. GM was closing its plant on Clark Avenue and the land for the previously closed Dodge Main complex was available in Hamtramck. The only problem was that additional land was needed that reached into Detroit’s Poletown neighborhood.

In those pre-Great Recession times, any new auto facility — but especially an assembly plant — was almost universally considered an economic blessing and a community savior. Lots of good stable jobs, a magnet to suppliers, a taxpaying engine — no downside! Except, as it turns out, there were huge downsides. Detroit Mayor Coleman Young conspired with GM (as well as the Catholic Archdiocese) to acquire the land it wanted using a number of methods, grabbing it through eminent domain when necessary. It totally destabilized Poletown and never came close to delivering the promised number of jobs and tax dollars.

This week, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) announced plans for a new Jeep assembly plant in Detroit, probably at the site of the former Mack Engine plant (plus some additional land). It seems very similar to 40 years ago, but it is really quite different. First, everybody involved seems keen to avoid the Poletown mistakes. Second, the city no longer has eminent domain power. Third, I think all Michiganders are much much better at moderating expectations around any new auto facility — we’ve seen enough come and go to know there are always tradeoffs. 

Nostalgia can cloud our assessment about what was good about the good ol’ days. Some things were, in fact, better back in the day. (I sure do miss being able to dunk a basketball!) But that doesn’t mean everything was better.

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Walls and Bridges

Walls and Bridges

It’s true. Michigan is building a new bridge with Canada — the Gordie Howe Bridge between Detroit and Windsor. And Canada is indeed paying for it. In fact, credit where credit is due, that’s how Governor Snyder made the deal happen — with his own kind of end run around a legislature reluctant to fund it. (The legislative branch constitutionally must appropriate funds, but Canada is taking care of the up front costs.)

That’s mostly where similarities end between the bridge and the wall with Mexico. The bridge is a bridge: a forward-looking, economically positive structure designed to promote commerce and connection among neighbors. The wall is, well, it’s hard to tell what the heck that is. A 30 foot concrete barrier from “sea to shining sea”? A series of steel slats in specific locations? A metaphor to stoke dread and fear? Whatever, a wall is generally not intended to promote commerce and connection among neighbors.

I juxtapose the bridge and the wall not for the parallels, but for the differences. With the President intent on pursuing a decidedly negative agenda, elsewhere in America (specifically here in Michigan) forward-looking efforts continue to develop. And not only forward-looking, but fully constitutional as well! Oh there is so much we can help you with, Mr. President. I guess we’ll see you in court so we can talk about it.

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The Promise for Michigan Government Transparency

I can tell you that the cartoon this week is not partisan, but that’s really for you to decide. On the surface, it’s me quoting the current Democrat leader directly and without comment, then dinging the two previous Republican leaders. But I had a deeper aim. It all started with Governor Whitmer’s state-of-the-state address this week.

As far are “state-of” speeches go, it was pretty standard fare — a laundry list of goals and intentions. For an editorial cartoon, that’s really not much to work with. But the one point that really resonated with me was her promise (and I heard it as a promise) to make the executive and legislative branches accountable to the freedom of information act (FOIA).

It occurred to me that the disasters Michigan has faced in the recent past have all been made much, much worse from leaders trying to manage and hide information: Flint Water crisis, Detroit schools, campaign finance laws, Larry Nassar, to name a few.

And while former Governor Rick Snyder former Senate Leader Arlan Meekhof are obviously not solely to blame, they were certainly among the least transparent leaders Michigan has ever had. And that’s what I’m calling them out on — not their party affiliation, but their actual record.

So let’s make a point of remembering the FOIA part of Whitmer’s address. Because often the one making the promise turns into the worst offender. (“Drain the swamp” anyone?) If the governor is ambitious enough to promise transparency, we need to be ambitious enough to hold her accountable.

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An Analogy for the Trumpian Political Culture

An Analogy for Our Trumpian Political Culture

It appears the snow has finally stopped falling here in West Michigan. In a day or two it is supposed to turn reasonably warm enough for me to attend to the non-priority snow removal issues — the roof, patios, walkways. Before the rains come. And then the next freeze cycle. Oy!

In the meantime, the driveway and the front walk aren’t gonna clear themselves. This has been proven out over and over this week. If you need me, I’ll be outside.

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And That’s the News

And That's the News

I was listening to a podcast with comedian W. Kamau Bell. It was recorded previous to the incidents on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial last weekend, but there were some very timely insights.

One story Bell told was about him stopping by a coffee shop to see his wife. Bell (who is black) approached the table where his wife and friends (all of whom are white) were sitting. The owner of the shop came by and began shushing Bell away, assuming he was harassing his customers. In the moment, Bell didn’t know quite what to do or say. He hadn’t woken up that morning anticipating the situation and was not, as he put it, prepared to deliver a Denzel Washington-level social justice speech to correct the situation. He simply left with his wife. “I wasn’t my best self in that moment.”

“Wasn’t my best self.” Does that phrase perfectly capture this past week or what?

Here’s the thing: In this instance walking away may not have been the most satisfying decision, but it was probably the best. And Bell pretty much said as much, “It’s too late to figure out a strategy during an emergency.” Which is sage enough, but he continued with, “I think sometimes people think that if I wasn’t my best self in that moment then the moment is lost. And that’s just not true. After an incident, you have the opportunity to initiate a new conversation. Talk with colleagues, loved ones, members of your community. Don’t bury it deep inside you. Prepare yourself for the next time. It’s not what you do but what you do next. And then next and then next.”

I think that also goes for how news is reported. The initial reactive stories last weekend were obviously not good. And if you are inclined to blame “the media,” well, I would agree. But I would hasten to add it was social media and cable news that were by far the worst offenders, and they are hardly actual journalism. The stories reported by reliable news sources (NPR included) were certainly incomplete, but they were quickly followed-up and fleshed out — and continue to be as the story develops.

Life surprises us all the time, and yet we’re still rarely ready to react exactly the way we’d like. So it’s likely that, in the moment, we may lash out at a smirking teenager or repost conspiratorial memes. But the real question is: What are we going to do after that to be our best selves?

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Solving the Michigan Auto Insurance Puzzle

Solving the Michigan Auto Insurance Puzzle

The TV program “The Good Place” is about…. Well, actually, it’s one of those shows where the less you know at the start, the more enjoyable it is. So for those of you who haven’t started or are not quite caught up, I will say only that the term “good place” is a synonym for “heaven.”

And this brief anecdote: In a recent episode, several souls arrive in what they believe to be the good place, but in a very unorthodox, backdoor sort of way. It appears they have not been detected, and there is some concern that when found they might be kicked out (and sent to the bad place).

One of the characters protests the idea, saying, “We’re refugees. What kind of messed up place would turn away refugees?”

This, of course, is some biting social commentary on ongoing US immigration issues, not Michigan’s auto insurance rates. But it is what got me started on this week’s cartoon. It reminded me of a very similar question I’ve heard (and said) with equal exasperation: “What kind of messed up healthcare system lets people go bankrupt just because they got hurt?”

In Michigan, if you get hurt in an auto accident, your medical expenses can be covered. And if you are on Medicare, you also enjoy a great deal of financial protection. But that leaves a lot of holes and seems like an awfully random (and inefficient) way to insure people.

The state legislature is currently looking at ways to reduce auto insurance rates. One perennial target is the MCCA fee (currently $192 per year per driver), which funds the unlimited lifetime coverage for medical expenses resulting from auto accidents. There are certainly improvements to be made. (Greater transparency on how rates are determined would be a great start.) But as the legislators consider capping or eliminating the MCCA fee, I hope they are also considering the bigger picture, like fixing the messed up healthcare system.

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The Detroit Wall

The Detroit Wall

Not too long ago when I would draw a cartoon related to the city of Detroit, a good portion of the feedback I’d get included suggestions to build some sort of wall around the city to seal it off from the rest of Michigan. At the time, I recognized these not as legitimate proposals, but folks either venting their frustrations or mongering their fears. Now I’m not so sure they weren’t perfectly serious.

I mean, their argument was that Detroit was different and dangerous. We had made bad deals and they were soaking us, taking our money. Worst, they were invading our land and bringing their drugs and crime. Rapists. I’m sure many were fine people, but….

You see where I’m going with this, right?

To be clear, I am not trying to make an apples-to-apples case for Detroit circa 2013 and the Mexican border circa 2019. There are lots and lots of very obvious differences. What I am saying is that there are lessons to be learned.

The first: The desire to build large physical barriers is reactive — a seemingly simple solution to a complex problem. But you have to ask: Functionally, practically, financially, how would it work? The honest answer is: Not well, even in the unlikely event it could be completed.

The second: Think about how much better off Detroit and Michigan are today by working cooperatively, not punitively. Everything is certainly not sunshine and rainbows — there are still (and will always be) real issues. But we should look to solve problems, not mask them.

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Michigan New Year Goals

Michigan New Year Goals

As always, I leave the cartoon open to your interpretation. (My intention is not to tell readers what to think — it’s more a nudge to get them to think.)

Also as always, these little essays that follow are not supposed to explain the cartoon. The cartoons should stand (or die) on their own. And no amount of “Don’t you get it? It’s funny because…” can revive a dead cartoon.

Mostly the essays are here to add a little context, provide more depth. Sometimes they explore a different view or present additional axes for me to grind.

Right. So. All that said, I’m going to go right ahead here and explain the cartoon and tell you what you should think about it:

It’s actually meant to be hopeful. Yes, it is disheartening that drivable roads, drinkable water, and functioning schools should be fairly simple to achieve. But they aren’t. And we Michiganders have been fooling ourselves for far too long to think that it should be easy. There is no magic solution. We can’t cut taxes or throw money or political gimmick our way to where we need to go. It will take planning and commitment and real work. I think Governor Whitmer set the right tone with her speech at the swearing in ceremony this week. Let’s hope that it carries through 2019.

(Next week I promise to get back to not telling you anything.)

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