There is a little brouhaha currently in Michigan over the building of an additional bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario that’s being pushed by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Of course we already have a bridge, and that’s the issue.
The interesting twist is that Detroit was once such an economic powerhouse that private investors pooled their money and built the current Detroit – Windsor Ambassador bridge in 1927, the age of big industry and big projects. In fact, the sitting mayor at the time ran against the privately financed bridge because it would always operate at a profit, made from the users. He lost and the private span, the largest suspension bridge at that time, opened in 1929. It has been a private bridge ever since.
The current owners of the bridge don’t want a competitive public bridge. Even in the best of times this would be problematic, but currently the Ambassador, like many of the spans between the US and Canada, operates at about 35% of capacity.
So how does our fearless sportscaster Doug Karsch, seen above, figure into the debate? On my way home recently from a golf outing I heard Karsch on the radio talking about the bridge brouhaha and he was incredulous that a private corporation could own a public asset like a bridge. Karsch’s show is not one that I would go out of my way to listen to, but frankly it’s about the only thing on the radio in the later afternoon. It’s not an insightful or creative show by any stretch, and these same characteristics came out in the political discussion. Karsch was unable to specify why a private corporation could not own a public good, but he knew it was wrong. This episode serves as an excellent example of what happens to political discourse when people are not willing to question their assumptions. They simply stammer out opinions.
Listening to Karsch’s afternoon program came back to me recently as another brouhaha blew up: The Detroit Metro Airport severance pay and in-dealing fiasco. The airport is owned by Wayne County and there is a board of directors, appointed in parts by the Wayne County Commission, the Wayne County Commissioner and the Governor, that oversees contracts and other administration at the airport.
What we have learned is that there is an incredible amount of in-dealing between the Wayne County Commissioner’s office and the airport commission. You appoint me and I’ll appoint you; you fix me up with an excellent contract and I’ll make sure you get a board seat, on one board or another (there are now so many board seats around that a person can make a damn good living just sitting on boards). Now members of the board are under investigation for unethical practices. It’s pathetic to look at.
They are all public employees working for a public good and not a whiff of profit anywhere. They can’t even run the airport at cost; they are down almost 20 M this year alone. But they have three different entities that appoint directors, so no one can ever pinpoint the elected official who’s responsible for the nonsense. Taxpayer money down the tube. Why not sell a long lease of the airport to a private concern and let them manage it profitably? Well, no we couldn’t possibly do that. Meanwhile the bridge operates at a profit, has no self dealing controversies and has not been under FBI investigation. I’ll take a profit seeking enterprise any day.
Think about the history here for a moment. In the 1920s a mayor who opposes a bridge financed, owned and operated by private interests gets voted out of office. And here we are in 2011 and people cannot understand how a public asset could be owned and operated by a private concern, even with public assets causing a constant stream of ethics violations. So Mr. Karsch, how did we get from there to here? Maybe your t-shirt is upside down, dufus.
Update: Now the self dealing Chairwoman of the Airport Authority Board has resigned, and the there are several more resignations on the way. Excellent article by Daniel Howes. Here’s a snippet:
The incestuousness of it all — and the glaring lack of experienced business people more attuned to actual performance and potential conflicts of interest — speaks for itself. No wonder this board plumped for Turkia Awada Mullin, Ficano’s economic development director, to become CEO of the airports over more qualified applicants.
She’s one of them, an accomplished government climber who leverages a $200,000-a-year gig (plus a $75,000 annual kicker) into a $250,000 gig running the airports. In the process, she collects $200,000 in walking away money (until the ensuing outrage sparks a bonus clawback and her firing).
Time for Ficano — with an assist from Gov. Rick Snyder, if the opportunity presents itself — to reshape the airport authority board with business types who actually know how to run a business, to recruit and select talent, to avoid the county’s embedded culture of cronyism because their livelihood doesn’t depend on it.
But you’re welcome to have the 50% of the city that’s functionally illiterate. Or if you have a large kettle, please help yourselves to the vast multitude living in poverty. They’re a little bony, but might pass for soup. No worries about sleeping outside; we have thousands of empty homes where, like many residents, you can squat tax and rent free!
It’s nice to indulge yourselves in useless fantasies isn’t it? Michael Moore has made a career of it, after all. He blamed GM for closing factories in his hometown in the worthless “Roger and Me.” He never got around to explaining how making cars that no one wanted to buy was going to work, but no matter. He sold a lot of tickets, and anyone who challenged his thinking was deemed a hopeless dud who had not figured out that we need “new ways of thinking.” That whole supply and demand thing is so passe.
The folks of “occupywallstreet” are of the same mind. They are the unhappy inheritors of the greatest society in the history of the world. But let’s face it, a society like ours that offers everyone the opportunity to realize their dreams is going to have the perpetual malcontents; people with inflated ideas about themselves who never achieve a day dream much less a life dream. The world has no need of whatever they are trying to supply, so of course it’s our fault. We should all hire a gender studies major today. They have spent some of the most important years of their young lives wasting time with impractical studies that start from nowhere and lead to nowhere. Sad. They should really take their protest march back to whatever liberal arts college took their loan money in exchange for zero marketable skills and then, when they were deemed educated, threw them into the heartless, capitalist maelstrom. A six figure education with no future – only in America.
My elderly neighbor, who’s a bit of a character, maintains that the movement is called “octopiwallstreet.” He’s convinced, the marchers simply want to get their many hands on his money. He’s right, of course.
Unions are all about expectations, and expectations are often harmful when they go unchallenged. In Michigan, we have learned the hard lessons of great expectations unmet.
I have lived all over the country, even spent a couple of years in Paris, during my youth. But I came back to Michigan because it’s beautiful here. The spring, summer and fall are great. Weather is temperate and outdoor activities are plentiful. Winter is, well I’m sure you’ve seen it on the evening news at some point in your life. The wind can blow 4o miles an hour and it does in fact snow sideways quite often. And winter here, let’s be honest, last from November 1 through March 31. That’s 5 long months, folks. We count every day.
The other thing you probably associate with Michigan is the auto industry and the unions. There are actually lots of industries in Michigan, though fewer now than in the past, but the one everyone knows is autos. We also have, or used to have, food processing (Gerber, Kellog), pharma (Upjohn and Pfizer), chemicals (Dow), furniture (Steelcase, Herman Miller, Haworth, among many), appliances (Whirlpool), etc. The list goes on and on. Michigan was once the home of the American dream. Unlike New York or Chicago with their walk ups and apartment buildings, Detroit, and all other Michigan cities, were built with single family homes. Job at the plant, a house, a car, a family. That’s how we live.
But the good times have come to an end. Why? We expected the lifestyle we love to never end, and then over time we felt entitled to this lifestyle. The unions fought hard and there were stories on our own local news about people on the Big 3 lines earning over 80 grand a year (in the 90′s). Even we were amazed. When you can earn money like that right out of high school, why bother with college? You can’t blame people really for forming the expectation that life in the factories was better than almost anything else a middle class person could hope to achieve: Great benefits, unparalleled really, with really good wages, plus working conditions that are far and away better than anything you might imagine for a factory.
The upshot is that the population simply gave up on education. Not just college education, but high school as well. Kids graduated from high school in Michigan without ever reading a book, cover to cover. Why bother? To have an upper middle class life you don’t need to have ‘no stinkin’ education. It was the triumph of the dolts; the greasers finally ascended to the throne.
In a culture like this entrepreneurial activity is not only lifeless but incapable of resuscitation. You can count the number of new Michigan companies that have come online in the last 30 years and really made a national or international impact on one or two fingers. How did a state that produced so many of the great companies of the last century come to produce so few for the 21st century? How did we lose the risk taking culture that obviously pulsed through Michigan at the beginning of the 20th century?
The answer is that the union culture eventually gave way to an entitlement culture. We not only had grand expectations of a union lifestyle, but we started to think we were entitled to the good life indefinitely. Micheal Moore’s hideous “Roger and Me” was the first indication that not only were factories closing, but their closing was ripping out our sense of entitlement as well. Moore and a lot of other people were shocked. The finger pointing started.
While Michigan thought that, like Woody Allen, all you had to do was show up for the good life, the world was changing. People across the country and around the globe wanted a better life, too, and for them half of what the UAW offered was a big step up. So did we huddle and come up with a new play? No of course not, because we are convinced, to this day, that the life to which we had become accustomed is our entitlement. You hear this all the time when we defend the past with outlandish ideas. People, we don’t have the best, most productive workers in the world, workers who deserve wages and benefits 200% greater than the average US manufacturing worker. That’s simply not true, and we all know it.
Let’s also be honest about a couple of things. First, most auto factories don’t pay like the Big 3 assembly lines. While the stories of the 80 granders ran on the evening news, I personally knew of parts plants that were paying $10/hour, and that was under a UAW contract (and those were stamping plants, the worst factories). The boys at the Big 3, in other words, were taking such a large chunk of the available costs of producing a car, that the downstream workers were getting pinched harder and harder. This is why Ford, GM and Chrysler divested their parts divisions; they simply could not afford to contract a living wage at a parts plant when the assembly lines were costing them $28/hour/person in wages alone. Not that it ended up doing them a lot of good. So the Big 3 assembly lines can be accused of the same unfettered greed as the car companies and their management often are.
Also, we must mention that the loss of union jobs has now engendered a sad cottage industry of factory nostalgia. One of the ideas they’ve belted out is that we were all eager to find union work back in the day. I’m calling b%^&&@$%t on that. When I graduated from a Detroit area high school in 1978, I knew of no one who wanted to work in a factory, especially a UAW shop. Of course this was during the reign of Jimmy Carter, so that explains a lot. At any rate, there were times when Michigan came to its senses and realized that factory workers, even Big 3 workers, were not going to live a upper middle class life forever; that it was not sustainable. We occasionally saw the writing on the wall.
But as soon as the cars started selling again, all the bad times were forgotten and it’s back to the factory. Every time I hear someone start to carry on about how great the old economy was, I make a quick turn and #eyeroll. It would be a good exercise for Michiganders to take a more realistic view of our industrial past once in a while. Constantly lamenting the loss of union factory jobs denies fully one half of the reality of the union legacy; we ended up with an uneducated population and an entitlement culture. It has, so far, cost us at least three and possibly four lost decades. It’s time to be honest. Yes, the unions helped Michigan progress into the post WWII world, but since the 1970s that have largely been a drag on our lives. Factory work can and should dignify the people who do it; but let’s stop kidding ourselves that it can sustain a 21st century upper middle class lifestyle. In a competitive economy, unions actually add little to the worker’s bottom line. If we want to have a strong manufacturing sector in Michigan, and the US as a whole, then we need a more honest assessment of union culture and its problems.
Some recent news from the ‘D’ helps to focus the mind on our current economic struggles. An article this morning talks about a long known and little discussed issue in the city: Squatters in abandoned homes. The issue is what to do about it?
In a city with more than 100,000 vacant properties, city officials and residents say they’re increasingly seeing people take over empty houses and call them their own. Once they’re in, it’s tough to get rid of them: Michigan law places the burden of proof on rightful owners, and the eviction process can take months.
Only in Detroit is this an issue. In any other place in America, when people openly, brazenly break the law there are consequences. But in Detroit there is instead a lot of hand-wringing and head shaking but little action to curb the violations. There are always “tough times” that contribute to these problems, so we do nothing and the problem becomes worse.
Then we have the issue of urban farms. There is now so much open land in Detroit that it’s possible to envision, in one project, 2400 contiguous acres of farmland close in on the city center. There are still a few residents left in the area and many more who live along the projects borders. They are not thrilled with the notion of living next to a farm, and they harbor deep suspicions about their new potential neighbors:
The nonprofit SHAR Foundation wants to provide another path: an elaborate, $220-million farming project that would bring fresh food, thousands of jobs, dozens of small businesses and hope to a neighborhood where that’s been rare for a while.
But despite optimism that urban farming could be one answer to Detroit’s ills, many neighbors aren’t embracing the project known as RecoveryPark. In fact, they’re skeptical and often scornful, with some calling it a glorified sharecropping operation that could force out longtime residents; one neighbor referred to it as a “plantation.”
“I think they have a hidden agenda,” said Butts, 30, who lives on a stretch of East Kirby where most houses are occupied, just outside the project’s footprint on Mount Elliott.
“The people who have been here all these years will be pushed out. I think if they make it a farm, it won’t stay a farm for long. They will eventually make it something else, upscale housing. “
Project backers deny that’s the case. They say they want to help the neighborhood. But the project could offer clues to the obstacles facing large-scale agricultural operations in Detroit.
Academics and media outlets including the New York Times and the BBC for years have touted farming as solution to a city with nearly 101,000 vacant parcels. But major projects, including Hantz Farms’ plan for a $30 million operation, have struggled to get off the ground.
One hurdle is a restrictive state law that makes it tough to regulate urban farms. Another is longstanding bias among some residents against large commercial farms. The Rev. Jesse Jackson last year dismissed them as the solution, telling the Detroit City Council urban farming is “cute but foolish.”
But residents are equally upset about ongoing unemployment. In the city the unemployment rate has reached levels approaching the Great Depression. At a recent townhall meeting, Congresswoman Maxine Waters challenged the crowd about how they want her and other elected officials to respond. Here’s what it looked like: Representative Maxine Waters Townhall. By the way, notice the look Waters give Hanson Clarke, a Detroit Congressman on her left, after the audience reaction. Clarke looks back like a deer in the headlights.
You get to the point that you don’t want to watch or listen to the local news anymore, it’s so depressing. Huge problems, oddball solutions and elected officials who, after creating most of the problems, make it worse not better. If Detroit had had no representation in Washington D.C. these last 60 years, it would undoubtedly be better off than it is today. And it’s remarkable that from every side of the political spectrum the public is saying to the politicians “we no longer believe you.” “Political credibility deficit” indeed, with no change in sight. Hanson Clarke is not the only person in government with that look on his face.
We stop by RealClearPolitics once a day to get a sense for the national conversation. Sometimes you find something interesting there, and honestly we have found some of our favorite writers there over the years.
Yesterday however was not red star day at RCP. We found two articles that were so mindbendingly retrograde that we had to pinch ourselves to remember what decade, er century, we are living in. What’s even sadder is that the two organizations publishing these opinion pieces are The New York Times and The Washington Post. One might hope that if nothing else we could get modern thought in one or both of these publications. One might be disappointed.
First up was a hit job in the Post about Governor Rick Perry’s Texas record. Here’s a taste:
Consider the Texas that Perry holds up to the rest of the nation for admiration. It has the fourth-highest poverty rate of any state. It tied with Mississippi last year for thehighest percentage of workers in minimum-wage jobs. It ranks first in adults without high school diplomas. Twenty-six percent of Texans have no health insurance — the highest percentage of medically uninsured residents of any state. It leads the nation in the percentage of children who lack medical insurance. Texas has an inordinate number of employers who provide no insurance to their workers, partly because insurance rates are high, thanks to an absence of regulations.
You get the point? If you consider yourself a fair, decent, kind-hearted person you must cringe to read this, right? How could anyone vote for a person who wants this uneducated, uninsured, uninspired life for their fellow human beings?
Well, my family wanted it for ourselves, actually. Yeah, we came over in steerage and made a beeline for pre-WWI Detroit. There were loads of manual work jobs from farms to factories. We were young, completely uneducated and had no idea there was such a thing as insurance. In 1925 we owned a business, had a brand new 2 story brick home built, with a car in the driveway, and raised our family. There were millions more like us, making a life for ourselves without a single progressive helping hand. Amazing, right?
Yet here we are in 2011 and a writer from the Post thinks it all smells a little off, a little rancid. (Just a guess, but I think his grandparents met my grandparents in steerage.) The great defenders of illegal immigration, their poor hearts bleeding for their fellow man, look at Texas, a state that has absorbed more immigrants than any other state in the nation, and see nothing but the unwashed, the sordid, the illiterate. Just mouths to feed and backs to clothe; never minds to create, or dreams to fulfill. If you are a middle class suburbanite from the Northeast, you despise Texas now. Your name might be Finnegan, or Gugliamatti, or DeBusschere but the 20th Century is long forgotten now, and you’re appalled that a place like Texas exists. Just appalled.
By the way, when Perry for President rumours first started, Paul Krugman, who is a Economics Nobel Laureate in case you forgot, took a swipe at Perry’s record on education in Texas. Same slant as the article in the Post. But the hilarity was just starting. David Burge at Iowahawk completely disemboweled Krugman’s article on Krugman’s turf. If you haven’t read it, you really must.
But the Post has competition for the hearts and minds of the progressive nation. Over at the Times, they were not going to sit idly by, or lead from behind. They were going to get out in front with a Field of Dreams reference. Yeah, yet another reference to the romantic, day dreamie movie from 1989. The writer thinks the President hasn’t been Obama enough. Just a little more fight in that Obama and we could dream again. It’s not the progressive agenda, pushed so hard by Obama, Pelosi and Reid, that’s to blame; only that the President is insufficiently aggressive. They said the same thing about Jimmy Carter.
The thing that strikes you about both articles is that either of them could have been written at several other points in our country’s history, and nobody would have noticed. The article from the Post could have been written by a progressive from 1918, looking at the problems of any American city. The article from the Times could have been written after any recession since WWII, and especially after Carter’s presidency. Who would know? Both writers we sense came of age in the 1970s and they carry that template with them everywhere they go. Nice suburban kids trying to figure out why the world doesn’t seem as orderly or organized as they would like.
The problem is that the President is not their Mom, and the economy is not the lunch they forgot. The President and his party might sit on the economy, but they can’t deliver it. Economies are built by the very people that the Post finds so disturbing, when the progressives the Time’s so admires get out of their way.