Monday, April 30, 2007

A Reminder to Legislators

Several points from February's bi-partisan, Emergency Financial Advisory Panel report titled Michigan's Defining Moment:

"...A convergence of forces has brought about the most serious financial crisis in many years for Michigan’s state and local governments. This is a structural challenge, not simply the result of an economic downturn...We will not economically grow our way out of it. We cannot solely cut or tax our way out of it. Fundamentally, Michigan must reform its spending and taxing and must reinvent the way state and local governments deliver services to be more efficient and productive..."

"After careful study and considerable discussion, this bipartisan panel believes that Michigan

  • needs fundamental reform of both spending and taxes;
  • must create a modern tax structure that abandons the focus on the economic system of the 20th century and looks to the developing economy of the new century;
  • must end the disinvestment in education and those other assets that define the quality of life that knowledge-based workers seek—cultural offerings, natural resources, and vibrant cities; and
  • must develop a fiscal plan that includes a combination of revenue increases, spending cuts, and reform of how public services are delivered."
That was the memo from February: a bipartisan plea to work together on behalf of our beloved state. To make cuts and increase revenues. To cut spending and raise taxes. It's not an either /or situation. It hasn't been for months. End the obstruction and get the process moving, please.

Monday, April 23, 2007

1851 Was a Great Year in Michigan

"Michigan has five Colleges, one of them a State University, without fee for tuition, and connected with it a free medical department, with free lectures to all that will attend. An ample University and School Fund, with organized school districts all over the State, and district libraries."

"Michigan was never in a more prosperous condition than present--never more inviting to the farmer, the mechanic, the business man; in short, to occupations of all classes."

From Matters in Michigan, New York Daily Times, September 23, 1851

It seems that good libraries and public education with a shot at free tuition to University were a drawing card for business of all sorts. Hmm...

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Our Michigan versus My Michigan

If Michigan were a person, she'd be unable to get a mortgage or car loan. She's the only state with a negative credit outlook, according to Jim Weimken of Standard and Poor's. Next month, she may be shutting down government offices, due to lack of funds. Her children are shoeless and hungry. If only she could increase her income. Relocating to find more lucrative work is out of the question.

If she were a person, she could get a second job or ask for a raise. She isn't one person, though. She is ten million; we are all Michigan. The Republicans, the Democrats, the unions, the car companies, the prisoners, the police, the teachers and students, the Walmart greeters, the intellectuals and the wrestling fans, the artists, the tool and die makers, the banks and the homeowners facing foreclosure, the political activists and the couch potatoes--we are all in this thing, everyone of us complicit. There is no "them" only "us."

Even so, there are people in Michigan who despise government. Schools should be privatized, artists should find market support, poor people should quit complaining and get jobs. And the homeless? Well, faith-based initiatives can help them find redemption in a bowl of soup with a side of scripture. According to this model, government enables those too lazy to help themselves. Michigan is filled with hapless slobs unwilling to do an honest day's work and looking for a hand out. (Well, except for the people who hold this opinion!)

Such we/they thinking is the fallacy that created our present mess. Our state police, our schools, our social services, our natural resources, our infrastructure, our arts, our economic development--all hang in the balance. For the sake of Our Michigan, reach out to your legislators and urge them to get mature, look across the aisle and see "us" in each other.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Administrative Matter

Recently, I have begun to moderate comments. And my first efforts have been clumsy. You will see several deleted thus far. These were either duplicate comments or spam. Thanks for your understanding.

Friday, April 20, 2007

When Ann Coulter and I Were Children

Ann Coulter and I are just one year apart in age. We grew up in the same United States, she on the east coast and I in the midwest. I was taught that our government was created of, by and for We the People. That the Constitution protected our freedom to worship or not worship a god. I was taught that the United States is fundamentally a pluralistic society. That with the exception of native Americans, if you dug far enough, we were all transplants to this amazing land and owed a debt of gratitude to the people who were here first and to the land itself. That unity in our diversity of belief, practice, and origins was our source of strength even as bloody conflicts played out between various groups (north vs. south, management vs. labor, second and third generation citizens vs. new immigrants).

We were a democratic republic with a free press, free speech, freedom of religion, and freedom to make as much money as you could. I trusted my teachers and parents and came to embrace that vision for my country. Turns out, Ann and I didn't really grow up in the same country.

Ann came to embrace a wholly different vision for the United States through the life experiences that formed her. Her vision is one with distinct winners and losers. One where losers deserve to lose because of their own stupidity, weakness and mistakes. To her, our inevitable cultural conflicts reveal the worthy and the unworthy, the leaders and the wimps. If you do not win, you are a moron. She has mastered an inflammatory recipe for bestselling books and guaranteed national media coverage. She has maximized her Michigan Law training in adversarial sparring to convey her vision to the world.

But here's the critical difference in our vision and approach: she lacks heart. Her intellect is shiny, fast and nimble; but lacks awareness of its own humanity. It is assertive, but lacks humility. It is purposeful, but unkind. It is creative, but immodest. Diligent, yet merciless.

She's a winner. I am human.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

People, animals and the land

"We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive." Aldo Leopold, Round River.

Apparently, Leopold was right. In Michigan, we are still struggling to coexist with creatures who do not consent to participate in our economy, yet inhabit land we claim as a resource. Take the pregnant coyote in Detroit for example. She was released into the "wild" of northeast Oakland County. Oakland County has wilderness? Up north, where elk-vehicle collisions happen, the Michigan Department of Transportation is making an effort to reduce accidents by replacing deer crossing signs with elk crossing signs. But, does changing the image on the warning sign really improve the odds for the elk crossing the road? Elk and coyote are native to North America. But feral swine are a problem of our own making.

Feral swine have been reported in 32 Michigan counties. According to the piece linked below, the animals ranging about today are "escaped or neglected domestic swine, Eurasian wild boar originating from farms, and privately owned breeding and shooting operations." Kudos to the Departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources for recommending a ban on all recreational shooting of swine behind fences, and prohibiting the sale, importation or transfer of swine for recreational purposes. Unfortunately, these are just recommendations, not yet laws.

Here is an assortment of news stories from the last month featuring our uneasy relationship with animals and nature in Michigan.

4/5/07 Successful hunters agree, Turkeys not as dumb as they seem
3/25/07 Michigan DNR still figuring out UP Moose count
3/28/07 Elk crossing signs coming, Elk overpass deemed cost-prohibitive
4/18/07 Coyote found in Detroit is pregnant, released in the wild to give birth
4/19/07 State recommends aggressive action to eliminate feral swine

"When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world." John Muir

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

U.S. Supreme Court Denies Michigan's Effort to Protect Consumers

Wachovia wins. Consumers, beware.
From Reuters coverage: "The U.S. top court ruled on Tuesday that states cannot regulate lending by mortgage subsidiaries of national banks, blocking Michigan's efforts to enforce strict consumer protection laws on these subsidiaries."

All 49 other states supported Michigan's effort on behalf of consumers.

And here's a surprise from the dissenting opinion.
"It is especially troubling that the court so blithely pre-empts Michigan laws designed to protect consumers," Stevens wrote. He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Antonin Scalia.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Virginia Tech Event Incomprehensible

I was determined not to write anything related to yesterday's shooting. But I found a time line of school violence in North America--the United States and Canada from the London Free Press in Ontario. Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine suggested that such violence was unique to the United States, but this long list demonstrates otherwise.

In fact, youth violence is a global problem.
3/27/07 France: Youth violence throws major Paris train station into chaos
4/10/07 New Zealand: Youth violence increases by 10%
4/26/02 Germany: School Shooting Leaves 17 Dead
6/4/06 Britain: Knives rule the playgrounds as inter-racial violence soars

Health organizations the world over are working on this.

The World Health Organization "World Report on Violence and Health" (2002) begins,"No country or community is untouched by violence. Images and accounts of violence pervade the media; it is on our streets, in our homes, schools, workplaces and institutions. Violence is a universal scourge that tears at the fabric of communities and threatens the life, health and happiness of all of us."

The Pan American Health Organization links gang activity in the Americas to lack of employment and education.

The Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control organize youth violence risk factors by categories: individual, family, peer and community. Among their list of risk factors--authoritarian child rearing, history of victimization, low parental involvement, social rejection by peers, high emotional distress, diminished economic opportunities.

The CDC funds numerous activities aimed at mitigating youth violence using a public health approach: "define the problem, identify risk and protective factors, develop and test prevention strategies, and assure widespread adoption of prevention principles and strategies."

What happened yesterday is incomprehensible and complex. It cannot be reduced to a handy single cause--weak gun laws, bad parenting, mental illness, cultural alienation. It is beyond comprehension, a source of immeasurable suffering at once local and global.

U. of M. Study: Chimps More Evolved than Humans

Rings true.

Here is the press release from University of Michigan.
Check out coverage in this article from the Times Online.

“Our results show that the number of positively selected genes is substantially smaller in humans than in chimps,” said Jianzhi Zhang, who led the study. “These observations . . . refute the anthropocentric view that a grand enhancement in Darwinian selection underlies human origins.”

Hope for Howell

Children are our future...The Howell High School Environmental Club will be hosting the 2nd Annual Livingston County Earth Day/Arbor Day Celebration on April 21, at the Howell Courthouse. Earth Day, founded by Senator Gaylord Nelson, was first celebrated in 1970.
Show support for the progressive youth of Howell and visit their event.

Monday, April 16, 2007

That's Entertainment: Coulter in Livingston County

Is Coulter being brought in as a lecturer or an entertainer by the Livingston Economic Club and Cleary University? And does this distinction matter?

Here is a troubling hybrid: verbal abuse and propaganda merge with news and entertainment. And there you have the Imus problem, the Coulter problem, the O'Reilly problem, and more.

This communication approach presumes a single correct point of view for any issue and is utterly repulsed by dialogue. It has no use for other view points than to be foils for its own aggrandizement. If it really is entertainment, it aims to satisfy our demons not our better angels. Its central deceit is to portray hateful words and attitudes as playful articulation of beliefs held by a reasonable, but silent majority. (Glenn Beck does us the courtesy of self identifying,"Hey! I'm just saying what we're all thinking.") You all know who you are, apparently. And a number of you have already bought tickets for the Coulter event.

So, Coulter seems still to be commercially viable and politically useful.

From the Cleary website: "We at Cleary University have a strong past and proud tradition as a specialized business university and we remain committed to the enhancement of society through the many successes of our alumni and their employers."

Maybe for Cleary bringing in Coulter is an object lesson titled "Profitable Controversy: Hateful Sound Bite as Unforgettable Hook."

Friday, April 13, 2007

U. of M. Speaks; Wall Street Reacts

Stocks Drop on Consumer Confidence

No, they don't just interview Michigan residents.

From the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia website:

"Consumer confidence surveys measure individual households’ level of confidence in the economy’s performance.
The monthly Survey of Consumers is a nationally representative survey based on approximately 500 telephone interviews with adult men and women living in households in the co-terminous United States (48 states plus the District of Columbia). For each monthly sample, an independent cross-section sample of households is drawn. The respondents chosen in this drawing are then re-interviewed six months later. A rotating panel design results, and the total sample for any one survey is normally made up of 60 percent new respondents and 40 percent being interviewed for the second time."

Interestingly, "Exclusive distribution from Reuters - Effective January 1, 2007, Reuters has the exclusive right to distribute the headline survey index numbers through its news and media services, reaching an estimated 1 billion people a day. Additionally, Reuters is offering a more in-depth view of this important consumer opinion data exclusively to its customers, building on the strong base of current subscribers. The new media partnership and distribution model via Reuters establish a stable source of funding for this important survey and also provide greater transparency and disclosure of the survey results."

So really it is: Michigan Speaks; Reuters Distributes; Wall Street Reacts.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Back to the Future: Local Resilience in a Global Economy

Hanging Mountain Farm in Westhampton, Massachusetts presents a case study in clashing global and local economic forces and sensibilities. It is a story of outsourcing, enterprise, niche-making, community, state support for family farms, innovative "green" architecture and landing on your feet. We in Michigan can learn from the experience and perseverance of the Aloisi family in western Massachusetts.

Owned and operated by Nita and Leo Aloisi, Hanging Mountain Farm specializes in maple products and features the Strawbale Cafe, a unique straw bale structure, designed by their daughter, architect Missa Aloisi, and built by friends and family over a three year period.

The Aloisi family's connection to the farm goes back to 1930 when Leo's father began work there. He purchased it in 1947 and Leo acquired it in 1983. According to Leo, the sugaring operation dates back at least to 1917.

In 2002, the family began construction of the cafe while Leo was still employed fulltime in IT with Dow Jones. But late last year, after 16 years with Dow Jones, Leo was "downsized." His job was sent to New Jersey. Other colleagues were "outsourced," their positions being sent to India.

Fortunately, Leo and Nita had been working to diversify their sugaring business to include a cafe. Although they had planned to develop it at a slower pace in retirement, downsizing compressed their timeline. They originally planned to serve pancake breakfasts during sugaring season, but neighbors urged them to remain open year round. Now they serve breakfast and lunch Wednesday through Sunday. This has proven a boon to the farm and created a community gathering place.

The Aloisis were able to obtain state start-up funding for the building and most recently, Leo attended a business course geared toward small farms and sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Farm Viability Program. Leo said, "It allowed me and others to develop a business plan for where we wanted to go with our individual farms. There were 15 in that class and there were 15 different plans."

A big issue for farmers in Massachusetts is determining a niche product or market in order to sustain viability. Leo described the situation of dairy farmers as a case in point: "Farmers need to become competitve with products from across the country and are doing so with products that are specialized, locally grown or unique to an area. In order to remain competitive, milk producers are selling raw milk and organic raw milk. Organic raw milk is one of the cornerstones of the new dairy market in Massachusetts. It is sold locally on the farm or delivered to customers' homes." Instead of trying to beat Big Ag at its game, small producers are creating something that Big Ag cannot produce--a specialized locally-based product with the added service of home delivery.

I told Leo about the economic difficulties in Michigan and asked him what advice he might have for workers who have been downsized or outsourced. His words were encouraging and action- oriented: "Small business is the backbone of the U.S. economy. The innovations that small businesses create are necessary to the country's economy. Find a niche. Small businesses can find and develop a unique niche more cost-effectively than large businesses can."

As for the challenges of starting a new small business, Leo emphasized the importance of a positive attitude,"The one thing that has always helped us is trying to keep a positive attitude about what is going on. It really helps you keep moving forward. Lots of things happen that can definitely throw a monkey-wrench into what you are doing. And all you can do is just smile at it and keep going forward and try not to let it overwhelm you."

Chin up, Michigan. Get local. Be positive.

And wipe that darn frown off your face. . . .

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A New Attitude

Last week, I read an opinion piece that was simultaneously realistic and optimistic about the role of attitude in Michigan's economic turnaround. For a few minutes, I had hope for our state.

"Nonetheless, the tie between prosperity and attitude seems to be strong, even symbiotic. As we remained walled in our rust-belt prison, we might remember that we have the will, the brains, the drive and the money to turn our state around and reclaim our position of global pre-eminence. We might expedite the process of recovery by talking loudly about our dreams, our prospects and our new love for risk taking."

The author, Jim Hettinger, is a Michigan native and has been CEO with Battle Creek Unlimited , a private, non-profit economic development organization since 1978. We spoke today about Michigan's economic prospects in context of its past and present conditions.

Regarding the pervasive negative press about Michigan, Hettinger said this is quite harmful and just adds fuel to the fire where attitude is concerned. I asked if he had suggestions for creating a new vision for Michigan. He responded that such a vision needs to come from Lansing, but that we aren't well served by "getting swept up in big trends. Communities need to find their strategic local competencies; to find a niche--what nobody else is doing." Cultivating local identity is a part of this. He added, "Finding the niche needs to happen at all levels."

But as Michigan transitions away from primary dependence on manufacturing, former factory workers will need to find their way to personal empowerment, independence and responsibility for their futures. "We have been in a giant paternalistic environment for the last 50 to 60 years," Hettinger said. This was cultivated by corporations, big unions and now, in part by large foundations. The antidote, he added is to, "get people on the edge where creativity and survival instincts come into play."

He believes Lansing needs to play a role in this, as well: "We need to create arranged spontaneity by bringing together different people and groups with similar interests and then let nature take its course."

BCU KnowledgeNow!
, a business information portal created by Battle Creek Unlimited, endeavors to do that by gathering and making available information resources to facilitate economic development.

Hettinger works and lives in Michigan by choice. I asked him what gives him hope for Michigan's future. He listed three key elements. He said that with strategic deployment of new technology, a fast turn around is possible. Although our education system needs updating, he estimates that it is still globally competitive. And last, the Great Lakes are an asset beyond tourism, that he believes need protection.

Don't lose hope, Michiganders. Reach out, help each other, take some risks, and believe in your ability to create sustainable communities. And stop being so partisan.

Monday, April 9, 2007

WIRED Weighs in on iPod Controversy

Michigan to Buy iPods for Every School Child

There has been quite a fuss over this proposal to provide iPods to Michigan public school students. Once again Michigan's profile in the national media features poor judgement, even stupidity on the part of legislators. Just last month, Standard and Poor's reported that Michigan is the only state with a negative credit outlook and here we are considering toys for the children.

I'm not a professional economist, but I am a parent and head of a household. So, in a common sense way I am an economist. If my household budget is running a deficit, I have two options: increase income and/or decrease expenses, both in the short term and long term. I will try to do both simultaneously. It's not rocket science. I have overhead that cannot be eliminated (utilities, medical expenses, transportation). I have secured debt that can be serviced (mortgage). I have operating expenses that can be finessed by purchasing fewer or cheaper versions of things (clothing, food). And while I'm dealing with these concerns, I'll be cultivating clients for my business. But, I won't be buying iPods for the kids. Period. No matter how great an idea. No matter how sweetly they ask. Even if it is Christmas! Which right now it is not.

If my financial situation does become critically endangered, it forces me to consider my core values--to ask "what must we have and do to continue to live?" Food, shelter, clothing, medical care, education. These are essentials. Does an iPod in every backpack support education of Michigan's youth? Does an iPod in every backpack teach fiscal responsibility? Does it reflect the budgetary reality in the state?

At this critical moment the schools should ask every public student to give something to their communities, to teach empowerment and social engagement--to challenge the youth of Michigan to become agents of change for the future wellbeing of their state, not consumers in search of more novelty, status and distracting entertainment.

Will Ferrell Movie to Bring Michigan Jobs

Economic development, jobs, arts and entertainment coming to Michigan.

500 Extras Needed in Michigan as shooting begins for Will Ferrell movie later this month.

Extras! Extras! Read All About It!

Friday, April 6, 2007

The People, Yes

From The People, Yes (1936) of Carl Sandburg

"...The people is Everyman, everybody.
Everybody is you and me and all the others.
What everybody says is what we all say.
And what is it we all say?

Where did we get these languages?
Why is your baby-talk deep in your blood?
What is the cling of the tongue
To what it heard with its mother-milk?

They cross on the ether now.
They travel on high frequencies
Over the border-lines and barriers
Of mountain ranges and oceans.
When shall we all speak the same language?
And do we want to have all the same language?
Are we learning a few great signs and passwords?

Over the ether crash the languages.
And the people listen.
As on the plain of Howdeehow they listen.
They want to hear.

Two countries with two flags
are nevertheless one land, one blood, one people--
can this be so?
And the earth belongs to the family of man?
can this be so?..."

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Art and Ethanol in Blissfield

Blissfield, known for farms and antique shops, is also home to two unlikely neighbors--Flatlanders Art Galleries and Great Lakes Ethanol.

I spoke with Flatlanders owner, Ken Thompson, about his work and his perspective on the Michigan economy. Thompson said he situated his operation in Blissfield because the real estate was so affordable. That was twenty eight years ago.

An artist and entrepreneur, Thompson runs several enterprises out of his Blissfield location. Midwest Sculpture Initiative works to "raise the visibility of Midwest sculptors nationally and internationally, promote cooperation among various art and civic organizations." Flatlanders Sculpture Services can custom fabricate, install and restore large sculptures. And there are the art galleries currently showing works of Jim Cogswell, Kevin Schroeder and Cathie Royer (Feb. 11-April 15).

When I asked Thompson for his thoughts on the Michigan economy, he said he would like to see a more favorable business climate and development of a more diverse range of businesses. He thinks Michigan needs to be more than cars and farms.

Yet, cars and farms are driving the economic development just southwest of the Flatlanders location. Great Lakes Ethanol, operated by Lakota, Iowa-based Midwest Grain Processors, is the second ethanol plant in the state. According the MGP website, the plant will produce 57 million gallons of ethanol annually. The website also states that, "All of the corn for the plant will be purchased in the local area. Demand from an ethanol plant typically increases local corn prices as much as 5 cents per bushel."

If Michigan is to diversify beyond cars and farms, Thompson suggests greater support for arts and artists. As he summarized, "Artists move where property values are cheap; they rejuvenate an area and then the galleries move in. After that come the restaurants. Then real estate values rise, which eventually prices out the artists who move on to other cheap rents." He recommended Richard Florida's work, The Rise of the Creative Class, for further reading on the influence of creatives on community and economic development.

Even though the ethanol plant bodes well for development in the Blissfield area, it still takes more than corn and cars to build a diverse and thriving community.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Daily Affirmation: Michigan is More Than Cars

Just in from Bloomberg: GM, Ford, and Chrysler's March sales fell, Toyota and Nissan's rose.
"GM said its sales declined 4.2 percent from a year earlier to 349,867 cars and trucks. Ford's dropped 9 percent and DaimlerChrysler's fell 4.1 percent, the automakers said today."
Deep into the text, you'll find explanation that almost looks on the bright side.
"There were 28 selling days in March, one more than a year earlier. The analysts' estimates for GM, Ford and Chrysler are adjusted for sales days. Bloomberg will report unadjusted sales figures, which would be about 4 percentage points higher."
As this was explained to me by someone at Bloomberg, some auto makers and analysts make a "sales days adjustment" by dividing total sales by sales days and comparing those results. Bloomberg does not make that adjustment, in part because many dealers have extended their hours and cars are also sold on the internet. Bloomberg reports and compares straight sales numbers.

Okay, that was an interesting and helpful explanation, but it doesn't really take the edge off.

Just remember, Michigan is more than cars.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

April First on Main Street, Ann Arbor

Bullying: Political Strategy in Time of War

Anti-bullying legislation passed in the Michigan House, but may die in the Senate. Most opposition to the bill is due to it prohibiting bullying on the basis of sexual orientation.

And do we really need it? Civility and decency are values and practices inculcated in childhood, yes. But you cannot legislate tolerance or civility. These are community values, family values, the province of parents raising children, not legislators in Lansing.

Let's get real.

Kid tested, spin master approved, bullying happens on the playground or at the $100-a-plate political gathering. If you are Ann Coulter, you just skip the niceties, coyly tilt your head and with a smile say,"faggot."

Haven't we evolved? Aren't we beyond this? Nope. Bullying still works. It's the grown-up version of screaming "cooties!" at the top of your lungs. It's meme planting as a high art form, rhetorical deceit, basic propaganda 101.

Here's the condensed version that you will notice on the national level:

"Unite, for we're all Americans. Unite in this time of war. Unite for the sake of our soldiers in the field. Unite against the terrorists. Report all suspicious activity. Unite against those who hate our freedoms. Unite against the evil among us. Unite to hate sin. Unite against the immorality that weakens our resolve to win the war. Unite against the queers, because they threaten our way of life."

What the Michigan Senate needs to realize is that the pending law would only restrict behavior in Michigan public school districts and charter schools--not in churches, not on television or at fund raising dinners, not on the street or public transportation, not on blogs or in newspapers, not in most workplaces. While it might provide some safe space in schools, it'll still be open season just about everywhere else.