I think that one of the most significant stories in America is also one of the most neglected by both the politicians and the media. Over the last thirty-five years, there has been a massive redistribution of income in this state and country from the poor to the rich. There are mountains of economic data confirming this. According to a study by best-selling economist Thomas Piketty, the share of the nation's income captured by the top one percent went less than 10 percent to almost 24 percent just before the Great Recession. Since the recovery began, the inequality has become even more pronounced. In Michigan, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, the top one percent captured 82 percent of all income growth. That was actually not quite as bad as the national average. But it's bad enough to be a significant long-term threat to democracy. Yet – is there anything an individual state can do about this? Isn't income inequality the result of national and, to some extent, global policies? I asked Michigan State University economics professor Charles Ballard about this. He's the author of Michigan's Economic Future, and one of the top experts on the economy in this state. To my surprise, he told me that while this was indeed a national problem, there were things an individual state could do about it, and some things Michigan has been doing right. Perhaps the most important is the resources we've been pouring into early childhood education. "That won't have an effect that will show up in the income data for a long time," he said, but it will have positive impact decades from now. Expanding the number of people eligible for Medicaid is also huge, far more than the statistics show, he told me. That's because while it makes a big difference to those who have it, it doesn't show up in the normal definitions of income. Ballard also thinks the increase in our minimum wage is positive. Yes, it may make it harder for some marginal and young workers to find work, but that will be outweighed by the positive effect on low-wage workers, whose spending causes a ripple effect through the whole economy. But we are making some big mistakes too, the economist said. He likes the Snyder administration's skilled trades initiatives. But he thinks what he calls a policy of systematic disinvestment in higher education is and will be a huge long-term disaster. Ballard would recommend reversing those cuts and making it easier for kids to attend college. He also would extend the K-12 school year to two hundred days. He said "the evidence is overwhelming that the long summer break is bad for educational outcomes." That's especially true for the poor. He feels strongly that Michigan and its citizens would be better off if we had a graduated state income tax, and he would also extend the sales tax to services and entertainment, since these are more often consumed by higher income groups. There may not be a lot of political will to do these things, but the lessons of history make it clear vast income inequality is a threat to any society, and perhaps to democracy most of all. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.
If you don't live in the Flint area, you may be wondering what on earth is going on with the politicians and the water. For many years, Flint, like many other communities, bought its water from Detroit. Then, less than a year ago, they switched to save money. The city contracted with the Karegnondi Water Authority to supply it with water from Lake Huron. But the system to do that won't be complete until sometime next year. In the meantime, Flint began taking water from the Flint River. That is when the problems broke out. Some residents who drink and bathe in this water say it makes them sick and gives them rashes. They report it has an oily film on it and stains their drains. Mayor Dayne Walling has said there's nothing wrong. But General Motors disagrees. They say this Flint River water almost immediately began rusting and corroding their pipes. And GM promptly abandoned the city water system and connected to one run by a nearby township. Tests have shown that Flint water is free of coliform bacteria, which is a good thing. What's not so good is that the water also carries low levels of a by-product of the disinfectants used to sterilize it. Years of exposure to it could cause an elevated risk of cancer, plus damage to the liver, kidneys or central nervous system. So it probably isn't any great surprise that earlier this week, Flint city council voted, seven to one, to switch back to Detroit's water system. However, they have no real power. Flint is currently under the city's fourth emergency manager, Gerald Ambrose, and he opposes the move, as does Mayor Dayne Walling. The opponents are essentially legally powerless. But that doesn't mean politically powerless. There will come a day when local control will be restored. Yesterday, I talked to Pat Clawson, a former investigative reporter for CNN and a civic watchdog who lives near Flint. Five years ago, he discovered that former Governor Jennifer Granholm was giving nine million dollars in tax credits to a convicted embezzler out on parole with a phony scheme to sell sanitary supplies to Africa. Clawson told me that the Flint council was right to attempt to switch back to Detroit water, that their unhappy city was the victim of years of incompetence and corruption. He'd like to see a new emergency manager without any ties to the existing factions or any stake in the game. Clawson said that while Detroit indeed wants to charge Flint twelve million dollars a year for water, he thinks the city is paying an equivalent sum to treat what comes out of the Flint River. You have to feel sorry for Flint, a once-bustling metropolis filled with people holding good-paying General Motors jobs. But we also should give some thought to the nature of water. Should it be a human right, something as free as fresh air? Do we have the luxury of allowing every community to decide where and how to get and treat its water? The only thing I am sure of is this: Flint isn't going to be the last community with a water problem. We might want to think about a statewide plan for how to proceed. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.
Years ago, when we had a governor from one political party and a legislature controlled by the other, we often saw epic battles over spending priorities, otherwise known as the state budget. Back in pre-term limit days, compromises would eventually be reached, often at meetings of what was called the "quadrant," the leaders of the house, senate and the governor. By the time Jennifer Granholm was governor, ideology had replaced institutional memory and common sense, and we went through yearly chaos and two brief government shutdowns. Now, however, you'd think everything should be a piece of cake. After all, Rick Snyder is a Republican, and his party is in solid control of the legislature. Well, think again. The legislature mostly went along with the governor's priorities during his first term, largely because he was asking them to do things they wanted to do anyway. But things are different now. For one thing, Snyder is a lame duck who was reelected by a narrow margin, often running behind many Republican legislators. Few, if any, owe their elections to him. For another, the current crop of lawmakers is a more deeply ideological bunch than the last. Many couldn't care less about embarrassing the governor. We saw that yesterday when a state House education subcommittee flatly refused to fund most of the governor's education initiatives. Though Snyder is not popular among teachers, most education experts support his major initiatives, including funding targeted to improve third-grade reading levels, and more money for schools especially at risk, as well as for districts, like Detroit's, that are in extreme financial distress. The House education committee rejected the governor's requests for all of those, plus money for adult education and bilingual education. The subcommittee did earmark slightly more total money than the governor did for education. But they want to just give the money to the individual school districts and let them decide how to use it. Representative Tim Kelly, a Saginaw-area Republican who is the chair, said, "I'm trying to kick out as much money as I can with as few strings as possible." In other words, if they want to use it to boost reading skills, fine. If they want to use the money instead to beef up football, well, presumably they could do that too. This was greeted with dismay by policy experts. Gilda Jacobs, a former legislator who now runs the Michigan League for Public Policy, called the move "extremely shortsighted." She noted that "Michigan is not reaching anywhere near enough of the working age adults who lack basic skills," and added, "too many of Michigan's children can't read by the end of third grade." Third grade reading proficiency is, by the way, an important predictor of future success. What happened yesterday is not the final education budget. It still has to pass the full House, the Senate will have its own version, and some things may be restored. But I wonder sometimes if our lawmakers realize that there aren't any more good paying jobs on the line at Oldsmobile for people who can't read. Michigan can either strive for a more educated workforce, or race to the economic bottom. Paying attention to what our lawmakers do about this would be an extremely good idea. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.
I spent some time yesterday with Douglas George, the Canadian consul general in Detroit. We often take Canada pretty much for granted, which is precisely what we shouldn't do. We sometimes half-forget that it is, after all, a major foreign county stretching across our entire northern border, and which actually has more land area than we do. Most Americans don't realize that Canada is, by far, our largest trading partner. Even many Detroiters don't know that the Ambassador Bridge is the financially most important border crossing in the world. On average, well over a million dollars in goods will cross that bridge in the time it takes you to read to this essay. That's nearly a hundred and fifty billion worth a year. If something happened to that bridge, we'd all be in major trouble. Yet if we don't always realize how important Canada is to us, the Canadians never forget how important we are to them. They operate what amounts to a mini-embassy housed in Detroit's Renaissance Center, with a staff of experts responsible for diplomatic, cultural and trade relations with Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. Consul General George himself is a major diplomat who most recently was ambassador to Kuwait. But he is also sort of a local boy, who grew up in Sarnia, right across from Port Huron; growing up, he and his friends often came to Detroit for concerts. His father was an attorney who was deeply involved in running the Blue Water Bridge, so George understands bridge and border issues, and knows how important it is that a new one is built in Detroit. Diplomats are usually not given to criticizing the nations where they are stationed, and George is circumspect in what he says. But his government would be entirely justified if they were completely frustrated with us. This is nothing new, by the way. Years ago, I read a fascinating book by journalist Lawrence Martin called The Presidents and the Prime Ministers, which documented a history of American high-handedness and insensitivity to Canadian concerns. Americans have overlooked Canada, treated it as a poor stepchild, or just ignored it. During the Reagan Administration, this non-benign neglect was so bad that the wife of one of Canada's ambassadors caused a sensation when she suggested that to get our attention, "Maybe we should invade South Dakota, or something." These days, relations seem particularly bad, especially between President Obama and Prime Minister Steven Harper. Consul General George, who knows oil issues, thinks the President is making a mistake in rejecting the Keystone pipeline, something he believes offers us the promise of liberation from dependence on Venezuela and OPEC. Canada also would be justified in resenting that not only is Lansing not putting up any money for the New International Trade Crossing Bridge, Washington wasn't even willing to pay up front for the customs plaza any international border crossing needs. Decades from now, Canada will supposedly be paid back out of our share of the tolls. Yet our nation needs this bridge as much as they do. Canada is unlikely to ever "invade South Dakota or something," to get our attention. But when it comes to America's most important bilateral relationship, I am glad that one nation is being a grownup. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.
What are the biggest issues facing Michigan residents?
Democrats in the Michigan House of Representatives are introducing bills to repeal the state's ban on same-sex marriage. This has about as much chance of becoming law as I have of becoming starting forward for the Detroit Pistons. Republicans have large majorities in both the house and the senate, and they'd never support this. In any event, the most Democrats could do is put this on the ballot, since same-sex marriage is banned by the state constitution and a repeal would take a statewide vote. In any event, this is almost certain to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this year. I do not often agree with Senate Majority Leader Arlen Meekhof, but for once I do. He said last week that we all should wait to see what the nation's highest court does. Democrats aren't the only party capable of beating their heads against the wall. In Washington, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have wasted their time and taxpayer money by repeatedly voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Even though they now also control the Senate, President Obama is certain to veto any bill repealing his signature achievement, and the Republicans don't have nearly enough votes to override him. Now I know that in these cases what's going on is symbolic. I know both parties are doing this to please and rally their core constituencies. But this reminds me of something else, too. Almost exactly one hundred and fifty years ago, Jefferson Davis was sitting in church in Richmond, Virginia when he was handed a note from General Robert E. Lee. He could no longer hold the Confederate capital, and Davis needed to flee. The Civil War was essentially lost, and there was nothing meaningful Davis could do about it. So what he did do was this. Before fleeing, he went back and carefully tidied up his office. We live today in a far different world. But it sometimes seems that our lawmakers have also lost the ability to do – or at least try to do — anything really significant. Instead, they play political games, or "tidy up their offices" by devoting their energies to relatively minor points. This weekend I saw State Representative Jeff Irwin on the public TV show "Off the Record." He is an intelligent man who was pushing two issues: Legalizing marijuana and repealing Daylight Savings Time. Neither of those things is going to happen either. But a better question is: Are these really the biggest issues facing Michigan? We are spending far more on prisons than on higher education. Higher education is becoming more and more indispensable – and less and less affordable. This is an economic crisis bearing down on our state with the velocity of a demographic freight train. Beyond that, our nation has had a vast and steady increase in income inequality since 1981. Alan Greenspan, of all people, said last year that he thought this was the most dangerous trend in America. Yet few politicians dare mention it, lest they get accused of trying to start a class war. Well, I am mentioning it, and I'm not running for anything. But I am heretical enough to suggest that marijuana and marriage might not be the biggest issues facing us today. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.
If you aren't worried about education in Michigan, you just flunked the common sense test
Virtually everyone who doesn't have a political reason to pretend otherwise would agree that the Detroit public schools are a dreadful failure. More than three-quarters of its students have fled the district in the last 14 years. Test scores remain appallingly low, and a succession of emergency managers has failed to stabilize the finances. Most children in the district now go to charters, private schools or schools in the suburbs, a clear vote of no confidence by Detroit parents. Those of us who live elsewhere may think we don't have to worry about our schools, but we should. This week, the Pacific Research Institute, which calls itself a non-partisan think tank, released what it said was a ground-breaking new study of schools in Michigan. They looked at 677 schools in which no more than one-quarter of the students were listed as low-income. Their study found that in nearly half these schools, more than half the students in at least one grade level failed to meet proficiency on the MEAP and the Michigan Merit Exam. Performance in math seemed to be a particular concern. Now this study is unlikely to be taken seriously by much of the education establishment, because the Pacific Research Institute does have an agenda: School choice. They want to make it easier for all students to flee the public schools, and hope these results will cause our politicians to help them do so, by enacting education savings accounts and tax-credit programs. Personally, I think this is wrong-headed. I think the key to our coherence and salvation as a society lies in fixing the public schools. I think the key to our coherence and salvation as a society lies in fixing the public schools. I would like to be able to assume that my college students leave high school with a certain common body of knowledge and abilities, and the current education chaos means I can no longer do that. Many of them really don't know when the Civil War was or what it was about, something I learned in fourth grade. But I think we disregard studies like this at our own peril. If my worst enemy tells me that I have a flat tire, it would be stupid of me not to check on that. And education in this state is leaking air fast. Tom Watkins, who was once state superintendent, often says that the education establishment in this state is too much concerned with politics and adults and not enough focused on kids and education. That was certainly on display this week in the battle over naming a new state superintendent. The board eventually selected Brian Whiston, now superintendent of the Dearborn schools but who is better known as a lobbyist for the Oakland County Schools. Whiston seems to have been few state board members first choice, but they deadlocked. What they seem to have liked about him is that he was a lobbyist and maybe could relate to the Legislature. He has reportedly not, by the way, ever been a full-time teacher. And as all this was happening, the governor yanked the school reform office away from the state department of ed and put it under management and budget. If you aren't worried about education in Michigan, I think you just flunked the common sense test. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.
When you devalue teachers, you cheat your children
've said more than once that it isn't fair to expect teachers to solve all the problems of educating our kids. When a child is hungry, or has a chaotic living situation and no support at home, the best curriculum and the most effective teachers may not be able to make enough difference. However, having said that, it is clear that without good teachers, our children have little chance of ever being successful, and virtually no chance of living anything other than a poverty-stricken life. That is, unless they turn to crime, or have very rich parents. The days in which someone could get out of school without any skills and get a good-paying secure job on, say, an assembly line are over. There is not even much margin of error for kids these days who screw up just because they are kids. I have one friend who is worry-stricken because her son, who is in high school, is too interested in sports to keep his grades up. I know a single mom who is desperately concerned because her 14-year-old son is being, well, a 14-year-old and not studying. Once upon a time, both these kids would have had plenty of time to get their acts together. These days, not so much. All of which ought to mean that we should be realizing more than ever that effective teachers are worth their weight in gold. That's almost literally true, when you compare the average lifetime earnings of a college graduate to a high school dropout. You would think communities would offer bonuses and large salaries to teachers with proven records of success. But we are doing exactly the opposite. For the last few years, the Michigan Legislature has been waging war on teachers' unions and benefits. Many lawmakers now seem determined to completely eliminate teacher pensions and force them instead to rely on 401k plans. This may, in one sense make sense for the state, which, if this happens, would save on pension obligations. But looked at from a big picture standpoint, it doesn't. For years I was married to a woman who won awards for being one of the best AP history teachers in the country. She worked 12-hour days, nights and weekends, and planned new courses in the summer. Her recommendations got many students into the University of Michigan, Harvard, Yale, and other world-class schools. The services she and her colleagues rendered to Michigan's future more than earned their pensions. But today, they'd be offered inferior pensions and health care. Many of them have told me they would go into other professions. If we were facing an emergency, I don't think many of us would turn to cut-rate brain surgeons for our children. But we want to develop their brains on the cheap, and by cutting teachers' benefits and pensions, send them the message that we place less and less value on what they do. And yet, we pretend to care about education and our children's futures. Michigan today is a place where we spend far more on our prisons than on higher education. Some would think that says something about our priorities and our future. My guess is that they would be right. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.
Will Gov. Snyder's latest move on failing schools help?
The education community was all a-flutter yesterday over the news that Governor Snyder had moved the school reform office from the Department of Education, which he doesn't control, to the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which he does. That may not sound like the most exciting development in the history of American government, but it is significant in this sense. This is the office that oversees the state's worst-performing schools. Basically, the governor is saying he doesn't have any confidence in the education department's ability to fix them, and so he is going to take charge. "Improving our schools is a Michigan priority, regardless of where you live," the governor said. "Kids in chronically failing schools are at significant risk," he said, adding, "we must ensure that all schools are meeting high standards so that our children are on the right path for success and quality of life." Well, it's impossible to argue with that. Nor can anyone say that the present system is working. The only question worth asking is: Does what the governor is doing make sense? And will it make the schools work better? Unfortunately, it does seem that the Department of Education has been failing to adequately make school reform work. But there isn't a lot of evidence that the governor can do it any better. You have only to look at his signature program, the Education Achievement Authority for failing Detroit schools, which yesterday was described as having "mixed" results. In fact, that's probably too kind. Most reaction to the governor's move fell along predictable lines. The charter school people loved it. John Austin, the normally mild-mannered president of the State Board of Education, hated it. In fact, he called this — "unfortunate and counterproductive." The board is in the process of picking a new state superintendent to replace the retiring Mike Flanagan, and Austin said the mere threat that the governor might do this caused a couple high-powered candidates to drop out. And Austin also raised this legitimate question: Can moving the reform office to a state agency with no educational abilities or mandate be a good thing? However, even the school board president said he shared the governor's impatience with the pace of reform. And the governor did find some support from one unusual ally: Democrat Tom Watkins, who was state schools superintendent when Jennifer Granholm was governor. Watkins paraphrased what Franklin D. Roosevelt said during the Great Depression: "Do something. And if that does not work, do something else, but for God's sake, do something!" Watkins told me, "we have schools and a society that have been failing kids for generation, and little or nothing changes. When there is an alignment and focus on doing right by kids, good things happen." What he fears is that our focus will now be on "power, control, politics and adults, not teaching, learning and children." I think he's right about that. But my fear is that all of this may be just rearranging the deck chairs. Unless children have a home that encourages learning it may not matter who their teachers are, or what the curriculum is. And I don't know what Rick Snyder or John Austin or, indeed, anyone can do about that. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.
I don't know if you know this, but journalists don't have any more right to seek out information and publish it than the guy selling Slurpees in the Seven-Eleven. And we wouldn't have it any other way. The right to know and to express ourselves is guaranteed to all Americans by the First Amendment to the Constitution. We don't want government saying who can be a journalist because that would imply that it could say who can't be, and that would be the end of freedom of speech. But since we have no special rights, that means we can't ignore subpoenas or refuse to testify, and according to the ethics of our profession, that means we sometimes may have to risk going to jail. If we promise to keep a source anonymous, we are bound by that. That means, when a judge says reveal an identity or go to prison, we are obligated to go to prison. And many journalists have. Government usually threatens this only in cases that they perceive as having extreme national security implications. A New York Times reporter named Judith Miller went to jail during President George W. Bush's time for refusing to say who in the administration leaked her information blowing the cover of a CIA agent. When it was all over, the government ended up looking pretty bad, as it usually does when it attempts to intimidate the press. But history has a way of repeating itself, with tragedy turning into farce. And Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette made a fool of himself two days ago, filing subpoenas against Michigan Radio and the Huffington Post, demanding the notes a reporter took after she interviewed inmates inside two state prisons. Schuette looked even stupider a few hours later when he then suddenly withdrew the subpoenas, after wasting taxpayer money sending someone following the Huffington reporter, Dana Liebelson, across the state. He had a spokesman put out a statement saying "after further review Attorney General Schuette has determined that information necessary to defending the State of Michigan can be obtained in other ways and will direct department attorneys to withdraw the subpoenas." By the way, while these stations air my commentaries, I am not an employee of Michigan Radio, nor have I talked to its executives about these events. But it is clear that there are only two possible interpretations for Schuette's behavior. One is that he is incompetent. The other, that he is attempting to create what is called a "chilling effect," intimidating journalists into not doing their jobs. The stories that upset him, by the way, have to do with sexual abuse in juvenile prisons. You might think the attorney general would be more interested in investigating what it actually happening in these prisons. Some, however, think his main concern is polishing his right-wing credentials for the Republican race for governor next time. Yesterday, the Toled0 Blade had an editorial about another of Schuette's antics, his decision to oppose the ballot proposal to repair the roads. The newspaper said "Mr. Schuette should concentrate on being a full-time attorney general," since "Michigan doesn't seem to have run out of crime." That sounds like rather good advice. But I wouldn't bet that he'll take it. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.
Politicians never like to admit that life will go on if one of their programs is rejected. Many years ago I remember seeing Richard Nixon asked what he would do if by some chance he wasn't elected president. "I have no contingency plans," Nixon barked. So it is natural to be skeptical when Governor Rick Snyder says, as he did yesterday on Michigan Radio, that there is no other way to fix the roads, if the ballot proposal doesn't pass. Snyder is not a very eloquent speaker, and politicians seldom like to be direct. But he was more direct yesterday than usual. What he said on the air was, "I always like to have backup plans. This was one of the cases where, because of the legislative process, there isn't a good Plan B. That's why it's critically important to pass this." Unfortunately, the governor is exactly right. The May 5th ballot proposal is not the ideal way to fix the roads. It represents an evasion of responsibility and a dereliction of duty by the legislature and one lawmaker in particular, former Speaker of the House Jase Bolger. Bolger refused to allow the lawmakers to raise revenue in a responsible fashion to fix the roads. Instead, they passed the buck to the voters. If we want better roads, the only way to do it is to raise the sales tax by one percent. But this is indeed, better than nothing. Yes, you will pay $300 more on that new thirty thousand dollar car you will be buying. But that's less than the cost of two flat tires or a broken axle. Proposal One has also been faulted because it is not a "clean" proposal, by which I mean it isn't just about the roads. Some of the new money will go to local government and schools and mass transit. Some will go to fully restore the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor. Because of that, this proposal has been compared to a Christmas tree. Normally it is not a good idea to junk up any proposal with other unrelated things. However these are all things worth doing. Possibly the worst thing the Snyder administration has done was to cut the Earned Income Tax Credit, an idea Ronald Reagan called "the best anti-poverty, the best job-creation measure," there was. This is probably our only shot at restoring it. And it's really our only chance to fix the roads. There are those who say they are going to vote against this to force the legislature to fix the roads in the right way. Well, that would be nice, but that's not realistic. It's not only that this legislature is even less apt and less willing to do the right thing than the last one, which is certainly true. It is that even if this wasn't the case, politically it would be just about impossible for any lawmakers to enact a tax increase for the roads once the voters have turned one down. Politics and government are the art of the possible. This is the only way we can get better roads in the foreseeable future, and voters need to make this choice with open eyes. Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.