Funny How the Federal Deficit Doesn’t Seem to Matter Anymore…

Funny How the Federal Deficit Doesn't Seem to Matter Anymore...

Last year, the Trump administration budget proposed eliminating the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a federal program to clean the lakes and protect them against invasive species. It was fairly up front about it, spinning it as the fiscally responsible thing to do. “We must make cuts, can’t just keep growing the national deficit, think of our children and grandchildren, etc.” That used to be standard dogma for Republicans and a President who sold himself as an expert on debt, assuring us he would eliminate the federal deficit in eight years.

This year, the Trump Administration is proposing not total elimination of the GLRI, just a 90% reduction. What’s the other difference between this year and last? Oh, yeah: THE FEDERAL DEFICIT NO LONGER MATTERS!

Enormous tax cuts followed by a giant leap in spending is going to balloon the deficit, and this is suddenly OK with the very same people who just an administration ago preached this as our financial Armageddon.

You gotta laugh. Except it’s not really all that funny.


Defying Authority to Protest Injustice

Defying Authority to Protest Injustice

Back when I was a senior at Powers Central Catholic High School in Flint, I went on a weekend religious retreat with a few of my classmates. Retreats vary in form and length, but this was fairly standard — two days away from the world to reflect and pray and to share the experience with peers. It took place on the grounds of a monastery that was also a working farm, so there were some rules. Mostly we needed to stay in or around the building that was dedicated for retreats.

It was a great retreat, and I took it seriously. At least up until the end when they had us fill out an evaluation form. For the amusement of my friends (and some girls from another school), I wrote down and then shared my less-than-serious answers. For example:

Q: What did you wish there were more of?
A: Definitely the cow rides. I really liked going out at night and riding the cows around the pastures.

Q: Are there some things you enjoyed more than others?
A: I preferred the bathrooms in the monastery to the ones in the retreat house.

The following Monday at school I was called into Mr. Reynolds office, the counselor who had coordinated the retreat. It seemed some folks at the monastery were quite upset about my evaluation, taking it at face value. Luckily Mr. Reynolds had enough insight into teenage behavior (and knew me well enough) to understand the situation and work with me to fix it. It ended up being a pretty good life lesson — just because my friends (and even Mr. Reynolds) think something is funny, doesn’t make it a good idea.

I tell you this story to contrast my goofing off with the earnest and thoughtful behavior of four Lansing Catholic High School football players who took a knee during the national anthem at football games. By all accounts these boys were serious in their protesting racial injustice (both locally and nationally) and about starting a conversation. The response it seems has been more about telling the boys and their peers what to do than about listening to what they have to say.

It’s been many years since high school, but I’ve been an adult leader on several retreats, and I can tell you that teenage boys still do dumb things to amuse their friends and impress girls. But they can also be quite thoughtful and deeply honest. And if you spend all your time trying to correct their behavior instead of working with them to understand it, it’s not going to be a positive experience for anybody.


Journalism Shines Light into Dark Corners

Journalism Shines Light into Dark Corners

A single word to summarize these Larry Nassar trials? How about, “ugh”? Well, it may not be a real word, but it’s a real feeling. Still, as stomach-churning as this experience has been, there are some, if not positive, then at least hopeful takeaways.

First and most obvious is the lesson learned. Or should I say, the lesson again learned: Organizations must have accountability standards in place to protect the vulnerable (especially children). Whether a church, a university, or a gymnastics team — there must be standards and practices that prevent abuses, and if abuses happen, stop it quickly.

The second takeaway is not as obvious but just as important. The crimes were committed, but now at least justice is being served. It required brave young women to step forward and testify. It required dedicated law enforcement and a vigilant judiciary to complete the process. And it also required professional journalists to shine the light.

Without the hard work of reporters like Michigan Radio’s Kate Wells, these awful stories could very well have remained in the dark, hiding those responsible and leaving the victims without a voice, the public uninformed.

It is especially popular these days to talk about “the media” and “the press” as a monolithic failure. And yes, it’s fair to desire quality work — we should insist journalism be as honest and unbiased as possible. But don’t dismiss the institution. There is no question that professional reporters play a critical role in a free nation. We can’t shout “fake news” whenever something violates our ideology and continue to expect journalism to stay strong.


And Now the Opposing View to Infrastructure Investment and Fiscal Responsibility…

And Now the Opposing View to Infrastructure Investment and Fiscal Responsibility

Governor Rick Snyder delivered his final State of the State address this past Tuesday. It was, well, pretty much what we’ve come to expect from Snyder — a vaguely corporate PowerPoint presentation. That of course is in keeping with “business nerd” shtick, so no big surprise or disappointment.

The part I found remarkable was his emphasis on investing in our state (roads, education, etc.) and the need to commit to those investments by being good financial stewards. I know. Not exactly words that set your heart ablaze with passion, but still notable for their intention. We’ll see how it goes — Snyder’s past seven years of delivering on intentions can charitably be described as a mixed bag.

Still, his apparent desire for infrastructure investment with fiscal responsibility seems noble. In fact, if you were to ask me a few years ago the definition of conservative governmental policy, “infrastructure investment with fiscal responsibility” would be pretty close.

These day, pfffftttttt! (That’s me making a raspberry sound.) Conservative governmental policy has morphed into a groupthink that views all government as the enemy, as some sort of occupying force that needs to be dismantled and rendered unresponsive. This ideology has proven to be remarkably effective in benefiting its donors but also remarkably effective in starving our infrastructure while shirking fiscal responsibility.

This is what Governor Snyder is up against. The question is, in this last year in office, will he be a leader who delivers?


Jorge Garcia

Jorge Garcia

On Monday this week, while our nation celebrated the life and principles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., immigration officials were actively deporting a family man from Lincoln Park, Michigan. Jorge Garcia came to America 30 years ago when he was a 10 year-old boy, brought by undocumented family members. He built his life here: a wife and two teenage children (all US citizens), a home, a career as a landscaper, and a law-abiding, tax-paying member of the community. The last piece of that American Dream puzzle was full citizenship, which he pursued for years spending $125,000 in legal costs. But it wasn’t enough to keep him from being deported.

You can read a full story from the Detroit Free Press.

Many people would consider this story a tragedy. Many others would certainly not feel great about it, but point to the fact that the law is the law. (A few lost all empathy at reading the hispanic name “Jorge Garcia.” Let’s just leave them out of this.) The issue then is one of alignment. Are we a nation that exemplifies Reagan’s “Shining City upon a Hill” or are we a nation of dedicated rule followers? Well, in fact, we are both. And we need to be both. We need to have ideals and virtues and lofty goals. We also need to respect the rules and laws we have created.

But they need to align. And clearly in Mr. Garcia’s case, we are way out of alignment. The laws need to be updated so we can say we are the best nation in the world and actually be the best nation in the world.

It’s deeply unfortunate that every worthwhile movement in our nation’s history seems to require martyrs. Dr. King certainly was one for the civil rights movement. Mr. Garcia and his family now find themselves candidates for the immigration reform movement. Let’s pray that a brief separation is all that is required from them to achieve reform.


Flint at the Purple Rose

Flint at the Purple Rose

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner used to do a routine called “The 2000 Year Old Man.” In it, Reiner was a reporter interviewing Brooks, a man from ancient times. It was largely adlibbed with the reporter deftly setting the premise with genuinely curious questions and the old man providing outrageous answers (in a thick Yiddish accent).

One of my favorite bits was the question of a national anthem. The old man claims to have created the very first national anthem, clarifying that they didn’t actually have nations at that point — just groups of people who lived in caves.

The reporter: “Do you remember the national anthem of your cave?”

The old man: “I certainly do. I’ll never forget. You don’t forget a national anthem.”

The reporter: “Well, please, let us hear it.”

The old man (singing without hesitation): “Let them all go to hell, except Cave 76!”

It’s just a brilliant, brilliant piece of satire that lampoons the dark side of our natural inclination toward tribalism and (by extension) nationalism. I was aiming at the same target with the cartoon (fully aware it would fall well short of Brooks & Reiner).

There are plenty of preconceived notions of why Flint is the way it is. And tribalism solidifies these notions, pushing us to identify with our type, our group, our team. Alignment becomes the first priority and soon we are forming opinions about experiences before actually having the experiences.

In the press release for Flint, Jeff Daniels describes his intention for the play: “Flint will bring you up close and personal with the play’s four characters. I want you in the room with them. I want you to feel what they’re feeling.” It’d be a shame to miss out on understanding the Flint experience better because we think that we already know everything about it.


How Do We Know This Isn’t a Nuclear Winter?

How Do We Know This Isn't a Nuclear Winter?

My Dad let me use a car for the winter term of my senior year at Michigan Tech. It not only was a generous thing to do, it was also very smart, saving him from making multiple trips between Flint and the hinterlands of the Upper Peninsula to drop me off and pick me up. It did, however, come at a cost.

One day in the spring soon after I came home, Dad was in the driveway puzzling over the car. He called me over and asked, “John, what are all these nicks in the paint?”

I said, “What do you mean?”

“Well…,” he paused, “I can see if you got behind a gravel truck or something that these little cuts would be on the hood and maybe the roof, but they seem to be all over. What happened?”

I had to think for second, but then I remembered, “Oh! They’re from the snow shovel.”

“Um, snow shovel?”

“Yeah. I didn’t need to use the car while I was at school, but I made sure to drive it at least once a week like you told me. By the weekend, it would be completely covered in one big mound of snow, so I’d take my shovel and poke around in the drifts till I found it.”

Dad just stared at me.

I pantomimed holding a snow shovel and jabbing downward, “Kush, kush, kush, ting! Kush, kush, kush, ting! And sometimes I didn’t remember exactly where I parked it, so I’d have to dig enough to see the paint color.”

Dad laughed and gave me a pat on the back. Possibly the only positive reaction ever for a son who reduced the value of his father’s automobile.

I tell you this story for two reasons. First, to establish my credibility in understanding the potential harshness of winter. So even in a “best case” scenario where the United States nuked North Korea without them nuking us, there would still be horrific consequences (a possible nuclear winter among them).

And second, to avoid having to think about a President of the United States who would brag of such things.


Hope for the New Year

Hope for the New Year

Whether you were delighted with the politics of 2017 or devastated, we can all look forward to expressing ourselves in 2018. An informed and engaged electorate is the catalyst that makes this grand American experiment work. Thank you for reading — Happy New Year!


Classic Christmas Stories 2017

Classic Christmas Stories 2017

Sorry. I tried to come up with a positive, hopeful holiday message. But as was often the case in 2017, cold, harsh reality won out. It’s a shame, because truly, this is the one time of year where a cynical editorial cartoonist gets a pass at being openly optimistic. Not so much after this week, this month, this year…

But you know, now that I think about it, maybe I am being hopeful. The messaging in Christmas stories would seem to be pretty straightforward: good prevails over evil, kindness over meanness, love over hate. Thus, the Grinch heart grows two sizes that day. Scrooge keeps Christmas in his heart all year long. The Peanuts gang rallies around good ol’ Charlie Brown and his poor little tree. I mean, I’m not making this up, right? These are arguably the intended lessons to be learned.

And yet, in this new bizarro world, the lessons are clearly not learned. All that time and energy spent trying to teach people to be good, kind, decent — well, that’s out the window. It doesn’t seem to matter. It’s all about self-interest and winning and doubling-down regardless.

So maybe, maybe drawing the opposite of what we should be striving for will help to get us back on track. Or maybe it’s the end of the year, and I’m just very, very tired.

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Trammell and Morris in Baseball Hall of Fame

Trammell and Morris in Baseball Hall of Fame

When I was a 20 year-old college student, I got a summer intern job at a GM foundry in Saginaw. I was a second shift supervisor. For the three months I was there I had various assignments and was responsible for anywhere between 8 and 16 workers. It was this type of job: Thankful for having the experience, thankful for never having it again.

Already the cards were stacked against me: I was a skinny kid with very little experience. Because of seniority rules, everybody was at least a dozen years older than me. Training for the job was pretty much “sink or swim.” But my biggest problem was that I really didn’t have much to do. After I got jobs set up and time sheets squared away, I basically just had to wait for something, anything, to happen.

After I figured out what some of the rules were, I noticed that a few workers would occasionally break them. I’d ask them not to do that. Some would say OK. Some would yell at me. (It wasn’t any fun, but at least a little bit interesting.) A very few would go right ahead and continue breaking the rules. I was told I needed to “write them up.” My boss or fellow supervisors didn’t bother to tell me exactly how this worked, so I did the best I could.

Eventually I made it to the shop steward to introduce myself and tell him my intention. He looked me over, gave an annoyed sigh, and said, “Fine.” He motioned me to follow him back to his office. On the way we passed a chalkboard where one of the testers who had a radio would write the score and current inning of the Tigers game. When we got to his office, I started talking about Detroit baseball and his mood brightened considerably.

We discussed many things Tigers, but settled on Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and what a joy they were to watch. He appreciated Trammell’s steadiness and efficiency. I marveled at how Whitaker could go deep in the hole at second to backhand a grounder then smoothly spin and flick the ball to first to beat the runner by a half-step. Then he explained to me that my efforts to write up anybody were really pointless and that I should be careful in challenging him. But if I felt it necessary, he’d help me with the paperwork.

So, yeah, I’m thrilled that Jack Morris and Alan Trammell are going to the Hall. I’m disappointed that Whitaker isn’t (at least so far). But mostly I am happy to have learned at an early age that being on opposite sides of an issue doesn’t mean it has to be unpleasant.


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