How (Not) to Develop Public Health Policy

How (not) to Develop Public Health Policy

Ideas for cartoons can come from the oddest places.

This past Sunday, I was working on setting up our hammock in the backyard for the summer season and went down to the basement to collect the pieces.

Of course, instead of doing the sensible thing and taking multiple trips, I gathered as much as I could hold and made my way up the steps.

As I emerged by banging through the basement door — burdened by metal weight and clanging chains — my startled wife turned to look at me. All I could say was, “I feel like Jacob Marley.” (I know. A semi-obscure literary reference to A Christmas Carol on Father’s Day weekend — is there no end to the uproarious mirth at the Auchter household?)

But that triggered the idea. As I trudged out to the yard, I was literally thinking, “If Ebenezer Scrooge is the poster boy for a life (almost) lost to miserly greed, Mitch McConnell is surely the poster boy for a life lost to partisan politics. What could save him?”

I didn’t think a Christmas-themed cartoon in June would work, so I substituted the citizens of Flint for the “Ghost of Christmas” role — past, present, and (unfortunately) future.

By the time you read this, McConnell is scheduled to have rolled out his Senate health care plan (Trumpcare 2.0, the Son of ACHA, the “Tax Cut for My Wealthiest Friends” Plan — whatever they are calling it). And the focus will of course turn to its contents.

But let’s not forget about how it was created: with limited input and almost no visibility. Clearly, when this method was used for managing the water supply (and the lead poisoning and Legionnaire disease crises that followed), it ended in disaster for the citizens of Flint.

What are the chances of McConnell coming to his senses and repenting before it’s too late?

God bless us, every one.

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Lansing Puppet Show

Lansing Gun Legislation Puppetry

Last week the Michigan House of Representatives passed a bill to allow most gun owners to carry concealed weapons without a permit or training. The legislation is being pitched by proponents as an efficiency effort to align with constitutional rights. But it is widely opposed by law enforcement as a potential danger to communities.

I will leave it to the discretion of readers to jump into the viper pit of that debate. The very specific point I wanted to highlight is this: Gun manufacturers and NRA leadership have a disproportionate influence over our state legislators and the consequence of their brilliant but incredibly dangerous marketing effort is weapon sales to many Americans who are either not willing or not capable of being responsible gun owners.

It is, of course, in their best interest to do so.The decline in outdoors activities means falling sales of traditional hunting equipment. And the unfortunate durability of their product doesn’t help either. Unlike, say, modern household appliances, guns don’t have a planned obsolescence. With even rudimentary care, they last a long time. To sell more, they need new markets. To open new markets, they need to streamline the process. But is that necessarily a good idea for our state and nation as a whole?

I am asking the question, not trying to provide the answer. Obviously the topic is divisive. I actually got the idea last week when the House passed the bill — well before the awful incidents in Alexandria and San Francisco — and decided it would be needlessly contentious. (Ironically, I chose instead to draw a cartoon that touched on abortion issues.)

So, anticipating reactions, I don’t think my timing here is either “spot on and proves the point” or “a disgusting display of opportunism.” I’m hoping it’s more “seriously now, how can we reduce gun violence?”

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Choose Life …on Michigan Roads

Choose Life ...on Michigan Roads

The Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan is an organization that serves as a go-to resource for mental health awareness and education. A special area of focus is teen suicide prevention, which it addresses through an anti-bullying initiative called “be nice.”

For a number of years, my wife and I have played on a volleyball team that uses “be nice” apparel as our uniform. Endorsing such a wonderful cause has been a satisfying experience. Mostly. Only mostly, because there are times when my competitive nature kicks in, when our team may not be playing well, when a call goes against us, when the other team celebrates one of my unforced errors just a little too enthusiastically. And then I think, “Why the heck am I wearing a freakin’ shirt that says ‘be nice’?!”

The answer, of course, is: That’s exactly the reason to wear the freakin’ shirt. At a time when my inclination is not to be so nice, the shirt and its messaging is a nudge in the right direction — a positive reminder (remember, this is how we become a better person) and a negative reminder (you don’t want to be a total hypocrite, do you?). Both are pretty effective.

In a similar way, I thought that if Governor Snyder ends up signing the bill on his desk that allows Choose Life Michigan to be a state license plate option, it could certainly be a helpful reminder on the roads. June 7th marked the one year anniversary of the Kalamazoo County biking tragedy in which five riders were killed and four were seriously injured. And as Michigan Radio has noted in its recent Sharing the Road series, a total of 38 bicyclists died in Michigan in 2016, a ten year high.

At the deadline for this cartoon, it was still in question whether Snyder was going to sign the bill. I have some misgivings, mostly with the consequences of reducing divisive, complex issues to slogans on state license plates. But I can certainly relate to the passion for the cause.

So if this opens the door for me being able to eventually get an official Michigan “be nice” license plate with proceeds going to the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, well, I guess I could be fine with it. The extra reminder to be nice would also help the cause for safer roads.

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GOP Go To: Slashing Budgets

GOP Go To: Slashing Budgets

My wife and I have a Japanese maple we planted several years ago as part of our house landscaping. It’s been a nice little tree — generally healthy, somewhat sturdy (our cats like to climb to the top and pretend they’re vultures), but it’s never really grown. It’s in good soil, it gets plenty of water, we even treat it to some Miracle-Gro on a semi-regular basis. We considered transplanting it, but from what we knew, it’s current sun/shade location was well suited for the breed.

So last fall, my wife decided to prune it back some and hope for the best. This spring, holy cow!, the tree is thriving. New shoots, new leaves, new branches. We plan to continue the care and feeding and hopefully it will grow taller and stronger to help it withstand our cat vultures.

All that to say, I do understand that sometimes pruning is the best solution. I just don’t think it is the only solution. (Indeed, we have killed other plants by cutting them back too much.)

But pruning seems to be Plans A, B, C, D, and so on for the GOP these days. Brian Calley announced a “high-tech” ballot initiative to cut the Michigan legislature back to part-time status. Michigan’s Betsy DeVos defended before Congress her plan to slash funding for public education. Arlan Meekhof continued with his crusade to eliminate benefits for the working class of Michigan. And then there is President Trump’s proposed budget, which seems not so much to trim as to exterminate (the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, for example).

Somewhere under a thick layer of ideology I imagine there to be the more sensible solutions — a mixture of caring, feeding, watering, and pruning.

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Memorial Day Visit

Memorial Day Visit

Freedom is essential for a happy life and true success. I don’t think most would argue with that. But like most good things, freedom can be appropriated for self-serving purposes.

Fifty years ago, this sort of appropriation was something that tended to be associated with the left. Freedom to have sex without any responsibility, freedom to take drugs without personal or social consequence, freedom to market and sell to youth without ever providing anything of real value. Creates a certain picture, right? Dirty, filthy, commie, godless, hippie, scumbag. (The specific character that pops to my mind is Wesley, Jenny’s abusive boyfriend in Forrest Gump.)

Today, however, the appropriation of freedom for self-serving purposes seems much more associated with the right. Freedom to remove environmental safeguards without any real thought to the consequences. Freedom to finance tax breaks for the very rich by denying healthcare access to the working poor. Freedom to propagate unapologetic lies as long as they create a political advantage. (A whole host of non-fictional characters pop to mind for this.)

In both cases, the selfish march under the banner of “freedom” — and freedom becomes merely a means to an end.

Is that a reasonable parallel to make? I hope so. Because on Memorial Day weekend I not only appreciate the freedom to express my opinions, I also try to be mindful of the responsibilities that come with it.

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Good Jobs for Michigan

Good Jobs for Michigan

My inner dialogue for this week’s cartoon —

Rational Me (RE): Let’s please do something without Donald Trump in it. There’s just so much going on with him right now, our cartoon might just get lost in the news swirl.

Emotional Me (EM): Absolutely. I’m on overload with that and besides drawing him kinda make us queasy.

RM: Right. So what’s been going on in Michigan this week?

EM: THE ROADS! FIX THE ROADS! I HATE DRIVING ON OUR BROKEN, LOUSY, POTHOLE-RIDDLED ROADS!!!

RM: That’s all you ever want to talk about. How about cars, though? It looks like vehicle sales are leveling off in North America. The automakers are looking to cut back.

EM: Which means some dedicated Michiganders are going to lose their jobs to protect profit margins and stock prices.

RM: Well, yeah, but the companies need to protect themselves. Competition is fierce. Pruning some workers now might just just save more jobs later.

EM: Sure, sure. Absolutely. At least there will be plenty of good paying jobs with incredible benefits once the coal mines open.

RM: Um… there aren’t any coal mines in Michigan. There isn’t even any coal.

EM: Exactly.

RM: Oh, I see where you’re going with this. Not bad. But I thought we agreed to avoid Trump this week.

EM: Yeah… you’re right. Let’s check the news and see what else we got.

RM: Right. Okay, this just popped up: “No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly.” Guess who?

EM: Are you kidding me? That’s what he has to say to future leaders at a commencement address?!

RM: I mean, I understand that he talks in hyperbole, but I think he honestly means it! Does he have no real understanding of history? Geez louise, how thin-skinned can you get?!

EM: So, what do you want to draw?

RM: Oh, it’s on.

EM: Yep, let’s do this.

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Benefits Race to the Bottom

Benefits Race to the Bottom

Ugh! This again! So earlier this week the story broke that Senate Majority Leader, Arlan Meekhof, and Speaker of the House, Tom Leonard, were making cuts to teacher retirement benefits a top priority in the state budget. Specifically, they want to transfer what is now a state-backed pension into a 401k plan.

The underlying reason is pragmatic enough — the state would pay much less money for public school employee retirement costs.There might be some token matching funds thrown in and a happy, shiny roll-out gleefully touting the empowering opportunities of personal investment. (Oh, boy! I know I love it!) But the real aim is to save the state money through cuts (and not investment).

This, of course, has been the unrelenting game plan for 21st century Michigan — cut our way to prosperity. Now within the context of the recessions we’ve been through (including that Great one), many cuts made sense. Because of revenue drops, they were necessary to meet the requirement of balancing the budget. And in some cases, they were a means to realigning our priorities as we went from a manufacturing state to …whatever it is that we’re becoming.

But now? Really? At some point it would seem reasonable to try to attract talent to professional positions. Instead, the Republican leadership in particular appears to be in a race to the benefits bottom for the average citizen.

Full disclosure: The cartoon is actually a variation on a similar theme I did several years ago — that one was specifically about medical benefits: “We can only be truly happy when we all have lousy medical benefits.” *Sigh*. I just want to let you guys know that my intention has always been to be a satirist, not a prophet.

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Great Lakes Funding Plan

Great Lakes Funding Plan

None of what Donald Trump does should surprise anybody. His behavior is erratic, certainly, but highly predictable. He has spent a lifetime demonstrating in a very public way that acting in his own self-interest is his default mode, his plan B, his alternate route, his “upon further consideration,” and so on. Look it up — it’s right there in his books, his shows, and his copious media coverage.

And yet, how can it be so disappointing when he goes ahead and does something that you know was entirely probable? Pick your example over the past 100 days (or, indeed, over his lifespan), but what recently kicked me in the mouth was his unprompted embrace of two brutal strongmen, Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.

After “winning” a recent referendum that will allow Erdoğan to further consolidate his dictatorial powers in Turkey, President Trump made a point of calling him to congratulate him on his victory. This while Erdoğan has been busy jailing journalists, including editorial cartoonist, Musa Kart, for doing what journalists do. If you’re interested in knowing more about Mr. Kart, go to the Cartoonist Rights Network International website: http://cartoonistsrights.org/

Duterte also has been ruthless with journalists. But he is perhaps best known for a brand of supposed law and order where he has encouraged summary execution as a preferred method of achieving justice. Heck, he’s even bragged of murdering people himself. President Trump has reached out to Duterte with kind praise and an invitation to visit at the White House.

Another common thread with these two? There are Trump Towers in Istanbul and Manila.

So… not surprising, but deeply disappointing.

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Dear Flint…

Dear Flint...

After three years of the Flint water crisis, fatigue may have set in — first and foremost, for the citizens of Flint who have had to live with the daily grind and persistent worries. But also for Michiganders living outside and looking in. The fatigue for us is different — it’s trying to stay engaged with a story that may not seem to affect us, at least not directly. Three years is a long time to hold somebody’s attention.

This week Michigan Radio presented several stories from a number of angles to mark the anniversary. In fact, the reporters and staff have done yeoman’s work from the start to keep this very real and worthy story relevant to those outside of Flint. They have done such a wonderful job that I found myself hard pressed to come up with something new to say in a cartoon.

I finally got the idea of writing a thank you note because, well, my mom taught me the importance of writing thank you notes. When somebody has done something for you, it’s important to acknowledge the gift. And having grown up in the Flint area and lived in Michigan since, Flint has taught me (and continues to teach me) plenty.

Sometimes the lesson has been what to do, for example, witnessing the grace and resolve with which many of its citizens have handled this ongoing crisis. Sometimes the lesson has been what not to do, for example, building an amusement park without roller coasters or electing a self-serving, egotistical businessman named Don as your leader. (Sorry, those are inside jokes for Flintoids.)

But what may ultimately be the best reason to be thankful is this: If we can work with Flint to help it prosper, we can certainly handle any problem Michigan faces.

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Make Isle Royale Great Again

Make Isle Royale Great Again

Back in high school, one of my friends had an older sister who spent a summer on Isle Royale doing research work. She made the mistake of trying to have a conversation about this with a bunch of 16 year-old boys.

Because we were from Flint, we all had a difficult time with the concept of gainful employment outside the context of a General Motors factory or a Halo Burger grill. (“You get paid money to walk around the woods?!”) Also, testosterone poisoning rendered us without any real social skills for conversation with an older girl.

But where she really lost us was when she mentioned her work involved counting wolf and moose droppings to assess the size and health of the herds. It was pretty much an endless series of poop jokes from that point.

I found out from a Michigan Radio story earlier this week that counting the wolf herd on Isle Royale is much more straightforward these day. There are only two left.

It was interesting to hear from experts why this might be important. We are often a country of 16 year-old boys when in comes to science. Experts don’t always have the answers and often they can be wrong. But considering the thoughts of those who have actually studied the issue is a great way start a conversation.

(And a belated apology to Linda Hasselbach wherever you are.)

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