Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Michigan Ranks 19th Nationally for Annual Agricultural Exports

The upside of global economy?

Michigan's Department of Agriculture announced this good news today (press release).
According to the USDA Michigan’s agricultural exports generated more than $1 billion and supported nearly 13,000 jobs.

Michigan's top five agricultural exports in 2006 were:

* Soybeans & Products - $233 million
* Feed & Grains - $216.6 million
* Vegetables - $114.3 million
* Fruit - $97.6 million
* Dairy - $70.9 million

“Through MDA’s International Marketing program, the state not only has been able to maintain its top three export markets, but is looking to grow and expand to other areas,” said MDA Director Mitch Irwin. “We are currently exploring emerging markets in Central America, Africa, India, China and elsewhere to increase Michigan’s visibility in the international arena.”

Well, just don't send all the tart cherries abroad. Okay?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Garage Sale as Economic Indicator

I threw an impromptu garage sale today piggybacking on my neighbor's sale. Our signs boasted "2 Sales" suggesting bountiful synergy.

But the bottom line is that even in Michigan's dismal economy, I cannot compete with China. I cannot compete with the dollar store (also China). I cannot compete with Walmart (China). And Ann Arbor's Salvation Army Store is in a wholly other league.

My neighbor and I had assorted goods--furniture, toys, electronics, guy-oriented gadgets, sporting goods, bizarre kitsch, flower vases, small appliances, clothing, a few books. We were not skewed toward any typical garage sale demographic (single mothers, young mothers, new mothers, marginally employed immigrants, retired couples, college students, laid-off workers, professional resale "cherry pickers," mothers with small children looking for a cheap Saturday activity, elderly survivors of the Great Depression, the nattily dressed luxury car drivers). We were not overpriced.

What can you learn from a garage sale? Is it in any way an informative economic indicator? On a microeconomic level, yes. Things are only worth what someone will pay for them. And expectations in the United States have been conditioned by abundant, cheap things made in China. Shoppers wanted to pay 25 cents for things that would command $25 in a discounted retail environment. And when asked if they could go to 50 cents they balked. Was 50 cents really too much for them? After all, Michigan's economy is in dire straights. Were they hoping that I needed to sell these things, so they could get a mean bargain? Did they need me to be more desperate to sell than they were to purchase?

Monday, I will take all that remains to the Salvation Army where I will be compensated with a receipt for tax purposes. Next time, I will skip the nickel and diming and just go for the tax receipt.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Consumer Confidence Index--July Highest in Five Months

It's official. The Reuters/University of Michigan final figure for July consumer confidence is 90.4 up from 85.3 in June.

What does this tell us about our financial future? Nothing really.

The survey was completed before this week's market turbulence sparked by Countrywide Financial's truth telling. The mortgage giant's 2d quarter net income declined 33%. Prime rated borrowers are slipping on making their payments. And this on the heels of the hedge fund wake up call last week. The deeper worry is the likely tightening of credit for everyone. Yes, everyone.

The question now is: will those happy upbeat consumers, accustomed to treating home equity like lottery winnings, continue to spend with reckless abandon? Or will they get a grip and understand the limits of their means?

Let's wait and see.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Child Poverty Increases in Michigan

The Annie E. Casey Foundation released the 18th Annual Kids Count Data Book earlier this week. Michigan's child poverty rate has increased dramatically. Booth News reported that "Michigan's troubled economy contributed to a 36 percent jump in the number of children living in poverty between 2000 and 2005, as an additional 116,000 children slipped below the poverty line." The national rate of increase for the same period was 12%.

Now 19% of children in Michigan live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. (The data do not account for "people in military barracks, institutional quarters, or for unrelated individuals under age 18 such as foster children). According to the Kids Count report, 19% is the current national rate.

This is bad news for children and families in Michigan. It's symptomatic of our ongoing economic trauma--unprecedented manufacturing job loss over the last decade.

As bad as things are here, they could be worse. New Hampshire, Nebraska, Maine and Colorado all saw steeper increases in child poverty.

Curiously, the states with the highest child poverty rates are all "red" states that swung for Bush/Cheney in 2004. Here are the top 10: Alabama 25%, Arkansas 25%, Kentucky 22%, Louisiana 28%, Mississippi 31%, New Mexico 26%, Oklahoma 23%, South Carolina 23%, Texas 25%, West Virginia 26%.

Consumer Confidence in the Global Village

The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research has been conducting consumer surveys since 1946. Earlier this year, UM entered a partnership with Reuters to disseminate the results of their consumer surveys. The gold standard of such surveys, the Index of Consumer Expectations portion is an official component of the U.S. Index of Leading Economic Indicators.

The final numbers for July are due out tomorrow morning. Drum roll please. The preliminary numbers for July were unexpectedly high--92.4 up from 85.3 in June. But domestic economic news has been mixed in the meantime.

On Tuesday Countrywide Financial Corp., the nation's largest mortgage lender, reported a 33% drop in second quarter net income. It also reported that prime borrowers are showing payment difficulties on home equity credit lines.

At 3:30 today, the Dow was down by 350 points, with analysts citing concerns about credit as catalyst for the meltdown. And this had a global impact, as the SanDiego Tribune online site reports:"The declines triggered a global sell-off in stocks, causing minor losses in Europe to accelerate rapidly along with the Dow's drop. In Europe, Britain's FTSE 100 closed down 3.15 percent, Germany's DAX index dropped 2.39 percent, and France's CAC-40 fell 2.78 percent."

To prepare for Friday's release, have a look consumer and business confidence assessments from the global village:

South Africa--Consumer Confidence Still Positive-MasterIndex survey commissioned by Mastercard.
India--India Tops Consumer Confidence Index--AC Nielsen survey for the first half of 2007.
Turkey--Consumer Confidence Drops by .82%--survey by Turkstat and the Central Bank of Turkey.
China--Consumer Confidence Rebounds in July--survey by Xinhua Finance and eziData.
Germany--Business Confidence Falls Slightly in July--survey by Ifo, Munich.
France--Business Confidence Near Six Year High--from Insee, Paris-based national statistics office.

The official release of the Reuters/UM Consumer Confidence Index is around 10a.m. Brace yourself.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Defending the New Gilded Age--The Audacity of Privilege

Cross posted at the Huffington Post

Yesterday, New York Times columnist, David Brooks (A Reality-Based Economy) gave us a peek at the rhetorical and semantic tricks that will be used against Democrats' persuasive populist message. The Dems must be on the right track, because Brooks tries so hard to discredit the message. And what is the message that must be demolished?

Brooks' summary of the supposed deceit:
"C.E.O.’s are seeing their incomes skyrocket while the middle class gets squeezed. The tides of globalization work against average Americans while most of the benefits go to the top 1 percent."

Trick Number One: Lead with a dismissive grabber.

"If you've paid attention to the presidential campaign, you've heard the neopopulist story line."

You thought neoconservatives were full of it selling another oil war with fear and deception? Just wait for the neopopulists. They will sell you a simplistic bill of goods to advance their deceitful ambitions for power. They will seek support from the vast cohort of people not in the top 1% of earners with a "storyline" not "facts." Brooks and other reasonable conservative opinion shapers can be trusted to supply facts.

Trick Number Two: Defend the indefensible and frame it as utterly reasonable. Be sure to use numbers.

"The bigger a company gets, the more a talented C.E.O. can do to increase earnings. Over the past two and a half decades, the value of top U.S. companies has increased 500 percent, according to Xavier Gabaix and Augustin Landier. The compensation for the C.E.O.’s of those companies has also increased 500 percent."

Much can be done to increase earnings and it needn't be legal or ethical, just effective because at the end of the day all that matters are increased earnings. If the earnings increase, well, so should the pay of the silverback at the top. And hey, it's proportional (500% increase in company value, 500% increase in CEO compensation). So simple a child can understand.

"As Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution noted recently in The Washington Post, between 1991 and 2005, 'the bottom fifth increased its earnings by 80 percent, compared with around 50 percent for the highest-income group and around 20 percent for each of the other three groups.'"

80% of $15,000 really doesn't compare to 50% of $150,000. But the point is everyone is seeing an increase, so quit complaining if inequity persists, you whiny neopopulists.

Trick Number Three: Don't forget to blame the victim and shove a wedge between potential allies.

"...inequality is also rising in part because people up the income scale work longer hours. In 1965, less educated Americans and more educated Americans worked the same number of hours a week. But today, many highly educated people work like dogs while those down the income scale have seen their leisure time increase by a phenomenal 14 hours a week."

Those layabout, slothful poor actually have more free time than hard-working, highly educated types busy working their way to the middle. You more educated people know who you are. You are better than the poor. You are different. Remember that as you hear Democrats tell stories about the economy--stories that might motivate you to work for equity during our current gilded age.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Canadians Get Neonatal Care in Michigan, Montana, Washington, and New York

What would Michael Moore say? Sometimes the Canadian health care system can't meet the needs of its patients. Still the government finds a way to provide the needed care. The Globe and Mail reports that "women with high-risk pregnancies in three provinces have been sent at taxpayers' expense to give birth in the United States, where fragile infants spend weeks to months in hospital neonatal intensive-care units."

Pregnant women from British Columbia, Ontario, and Alberta have been cared for in four states, including Michigan. The practice stems from a nurse shortage, increase in premature births and an overburdened health care system in Canada. The women receiving US care typically begin labor before 32 weeks gestation. Babies that young need the highest level of neonatal care, which Canadian hospitals do provide. But when neonatal units are filled to capacity, women are sent by air ambulance to the US.

Once the babies are born, they stay here for extended periods receiving care in US hospitals. This creates a burden on the mothers who must find housing at their own expense in the US or commute across the border to be with their infants.

The babies are also entitled to US citizenship.

The Canadian priority seems to be providing care for its citizens. This situation points up weaknesses in the current Canadian system and may even be used to bolster arguments for privatization. Or, cooler heads may see it as a chance to improve a system that works fairly well. We in the US should not feel smug that our resources are being utilized by Canadians. On the contrary, we might learn from their commitment to public health and universal health care.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Baseball in Motown--Tigers Win in Extra Innings!

Last night, Detroit squeaked by Kansas City in the bottom of the tenth when Inge nailed a two-run homer for the 10-8 win. It wasn't a pretty game (Verlander threw three wild pitches early on), but in the end our guys won.

I'm not a baseball expert, just a fan. I know just enough to enjoy a game from start to finish. The huge scoreboard showing player stats, rosters, and a running tally of plays helps.

At Comerica Park you can't miss Detroit's car culture. You are steeped in it from the General Motors Fountain that erupts for home runs and strikeouts to the incidental music -- Car Wash, Glory Days, Rock the Casbah (unofficial anthem of U.S. forces during the first Gulf War), Love Shack ("...I got me a Chrysler as big as a whale and it's about to set sail!"). The park is situated so that Detroit's skyline--with the GM Renaissance Center directly to the right of the scoreboard--completes it.

Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie--all American. But there is more to that litany--oil, nearly a century of European and American meddling in the Middle East, giant gas-sucking cars, suppression of alternative energy technology. Michigan finds itself in an identity crisis. As does Motown; The Big Three, displaced by Toyota's ascent to number one in 2006, became The Detroit Three. These rankings matter more than baseball team stats because as our guys lose market dominance, Wall Street loses confidence and workers lose jobs.

But this week there was some encouraging news from General Motors. According to GM and Toyota (source), GM sold more cars in the first quarter of this year than Toyota. It would appear that we are in extra innings.

From the Wall Street Journal online:
"Through the first six months of the year, GM's global sales were up 1.7% to 4.67 million, and the auto maker said it's on pace to have its second-best annual sales performance world-wide in its history."

That is, emerging markets (Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East) are hot for GM's cars.

Good news for investors. Good news for Motown. For American workers, not so much.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Michigan Unemployment Hits 7.2% in June

Yep, we lead the nation in unemployment. We're number one again. This marks the highest rate for 2007--a full .5% higher than June 2006.

That's the bad news. But it could be worse. 208 of the state's 250 prisoner work crews (about 1500 workers) will be "laid off" by the Department of Corrections in a move to save $6 million. (source) That's right, the prisoners who cut grass, shovel snow and do other menial labor for the DNR and MDOT for next to nothing cost too much.

Actually, the prisoners don't cost too much. The Ionia Sentinel-Standard reports that the costs associated with the program include corrections officers' salaries, the leasing of vans and equipment and fuel. Agencies and municipalities only pay $15 per day per worker.

Which begs the question: who is going to do this work? And who could do this work for less?

Maybe scout troops across the state need to step up and earn some merit badges. They could even create a new one--The Other Invisible Hand Badge for literally cleaning up the messes left by the invisible hand of laissez faire capitalism, which should have been slapped a few more times along the way and is utterly incapable of picking up after itself.

At least the prisoners won't be included in the next unemployment figures--unlike workers at Pulte Homes, which announced Tuesday it is bracing for a huge second quarter loss. Tuesday's announcement didn't include news of more layoffs. The company already is in the midst of a massive restructuring announced in May cutting 16% of its workforce. Standard and Poor's has issued a strong sell recommendation on the second quarter news.

On a positive note, DeVry University will be setting up shop in Southfield as worker retooling is a booming growth industry in Michigan.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ann Arbor Art Fair

If you live in Ann Arbor you either love or hate the annual Art Fair. There is no middle ground on this issue. It brings commerce, but it jams up the city. Thousands of people from around the country converge on downtown and the University of Michigan for four days in July. They shop, amble, eat, listen to music and soak in Ann Arbor's coolness.

The corporate and the non-profit collaborate to put on the Art Fair. As a result, there is much more than art at the event. Thursday and Friday Survivor will be having a casting call; visit the booth near the corner of University and Thayer.

Be sure to walk the gauntlet of non-profit organization booths on Liberty. Participants include: Draft Al Gore, the Republican Party, NOCIRC (an anti-circumcision group), Right to Life, Dingell for Congress, Michigan Atheists, Mott Children's Hospital, Planned Parenthood, Parents Without Partners, the ACLU and more.

And you can't avoid the many food courts. Your menu choices will include enormous portions of funnel cakes, sweet potato fries, gyros, ice cream, shish-ka-bob, elephant ears, Thai stir fry, hamburgers, chicken on a stick, and much more that you should eat only in moderation.

And good news for animal lovers--dogs are welcome.

P.S. If you find parking in a metered spot with a one or two hour limit, don't sweat. The $10 ticket you get will still be cheaper than special Art Fair Parking.

Monday, July 16, 2007

A Sense of Place: Michigan Summer Reading

Guest post by Jennifer L. Walters, longtime part-time Michigan resident, and a dean at Smith College.

It’s mid-summer and time to put down whatever you’ve been reading to improve yourself and take a vacation. If you think all politics is local and aim to buy local and eat local, why not read local, too? There’s some great “Mich-lit” that will take you from Gogebic to Gratiot, from Lake Superior to River Rouge.

For fans of gritty urban mysteries, there’s nothing better than Elmore Leonard’s novels. Like David Mamet, Leonard advances the action through terse, economical “hard-boiled” dialogue. He’s written over 30 novels ranging from westerns to mysteries, and makes a little go a long way. Up in Honey’s Room, Out of Sight, Pagan Babies, Freaky Deaky, and Mr. Paradise will satisfy your taste for a walk on Detroit’s wild side.

Another Detroit dick, Amos Walker, from author Loren D. Estelman is also beach-worthy. Thrillingdetective.com describes Walker as “unapologetically old-fashioned, [and] defiantly politically-incorrect.” Nicotine Kiss, Retro and Poison Blonde are only three titles in that series of nineteen. Jon A. Jackson's books featuring Detroit homicide detective "Fang" Mulheisen are also a good bet.

Heading head west of Detroit you’ll find Lev Raphael’s mysteries. Raphael sheds a little light on academe’s underbelly with his crime-fighting untenured literature professor Nick Hoffman. Raphael’s first book in the Hoffman series was The Edith Wharton Murders. It now includes Tropic of Murder, Burning Down the House, Death of a Constant Lover, and Little Miss Evil.

If the U.P. is your preferred locale and you like sexy middle-aged former athletes with a history of failure and some old Detroit connections, you’ve got your choice of two PIs. Grady Service, Joseph Heywood’s DNR officer in the “Woods Cop” mystery series is a gritty fly-fishing former hockey player with a love of the deep woods. Service is an charming gumshoe in waders who’s happier tracking bear than bad guys. Heywood’s prose evokes the natural beauty of upper Michigan and its rich Native history and ethnic culture. Try Chasing a Blonde Moon and Blue Wolf in Green Fire.

The other U.P. detective is Alex McKnight – a former minor league catcher, former Detroit cop, and a PI who’d rather be doing something else, but doesn’t know what. His territory is the Soo. Steve Hamilton’s successful series is a quicker read than Heywood’s novels, with a focus more on plot than place, but you still get a feel for the north. His 1998 debut, A Cold Day in Paradise, won an Edgar and a Shamus award making Hamilton the first to win both for a first novel.

If mystery isn’t your genre, try Charles Baxter’s novels. Feast of Love, (a finalist for a National Book Award in 2000) is a quiet sweet novel about love set in contemporary Ann Arbor. To most people Michigan Stadium is Ann Arbor, but Baxter’s affection for the neighborhoods and its quirky inhabitants shines. His next novel, Saul and Patsy, tells a story of a young east coast couple who finds themselves in a small Michigan community named “Five Oaks.” Baxter is a mid-western writer – quiet, economical, and tender toward his characters.

And if you’re looking for some new Detroit fiction, Cass Tech and Wayne State graduate Cheryl Robinson’s R&R novels (romance and relationships) are garnering some attention. Try If it Ain’t One Thing, It’s Like That, and Sweet Georgia Brown.

This summer, while you’re looking for something to read on the back porch or at the beach, reach for some “Mich-lit” and rediscover something more to love about your state.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Detroit Three and UAW Prepare to Talk

The Globe and Mail reports that the UAW and GM, Chrysler and Ford will square off in talks that could result in massive off shoring of North American jobs.

According to the article, pressures on the Detroit Three include health care obligations to retirees and current employees, high hourly labor costs, and reduced demand for pickups and SUVs. Unions can expect to be asked to take large cuts in wages and to assume greater responsibility for funding health care and retirement.

Sounds grim, but it really isn't news. In the context of global competition and production, well-paid American workers have much to lose and have been losing for years. The former Big Three, now the Detroit Three, will ask workers to make greater concessions than ever before in order to remain viable.

Did it have to be this way? We have known since the early 1970s that our excessive use of oil would create economic vulnerability. Yet, here we are in 2007 producing gas guzzling cars, trucks and SUVs. And why? Because, say the auto makers, "consumers wanted them." Who are these consumers and how could they have been so short sighted? Are these consumers also workers?

What happened to Henry Ford's idea that workers who produced cars should be able to afford them? It seems today's auto manufacturers have a different vision for their workers. Workers are workers; consumers are consumers. And producers are producers.These days, it is a lucky worker who can also be consumer.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Consumer Sentiment Index--Wishful Thinking About Other People's Money

Friday the Reuters/University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index came in at 92.4, an increase from 85.3 in June. This unexpected leap is believed to predict increased consumer spending ahead. Good news if you have stuff to sell. Sometimes reports summarize with the shorthand "consumers are upbeat." Like little Eloise, shoppers are ready to spend, spend, spend, and charge it please! Thank you very much. It's the perfect marriage of PMA and OPM (positive mental attitude and other people's money).

The index measures consumers' expectations about spending and saving, but the Bloomberg article covering yesterday's preliminary number explains things mostly in terms of spending.

"Rising confidence backs forecasts that spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the economy, may pick up from a second-quarter trough."

Translation: People feel o.k., so they expect to spend more. Is it possible that their confidence is misplaced? Or is it simply enough that they feel confident? And is this confidence fact-based, belief-based or just wishful thinking?

"Economists forecast spending will accelerate to a 2.5 percent pace this quarter from an estimated 2 percent rate in the second quarter, according to the median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists this month. Spending rose at a 4.2 percent pace in the first three months of the year."

But how are people accomplishing this spending? Largely through consumer debt and tapping home equity, which by the way is shrinking nationally. Nationally, not just in Michigan.

And here's a fun tidbit toward the end of the article:
" The National Association of Realtors said June 6 that it expects the U.S. median home price to drop 1.3 percent in 2007. The last time the national median price fell was during the Great Depression in the 1930s, according to Lawrence Yun, an economist for the real estate group in Washington."

Take a moment with that last bit. The Great Depression. What characterized the lead up to the big one? Speculative "investing" run amok. A vast gap between the richest and poorest. Downward pressure on prices. Widespread use of credit. Hmm.

From Bloomberg:
"Added to the higher gas prices, a drop in the amount of equity homeowners can extract from their houses is hurting consumers' spending power."

Now this last sentence is quite revealing because it assumes consumers' spending power comes from tapping their assets, which are now and always have been vulnerable to a fluctuating real estate market. Consumers' spending power results from depleting their assets--from sucking the yolk out of their nest egg. But even as they spend against their future, they are confident and the numbers prove it.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The World is Not Flat

Gas prices in Michigan are the highest in the nation. According to a brief Detroit News article, the reason is our unique geography. Michigan is a peninsula at the "northern end of the country," placing the state at the end of pipelines. I'm sorry. I don't buy that. Why doesn't everything in Michigan cost more then?

Lots of products are shipped to every stinking inch of the US and the prices are fixed at "suggested retail" amounts. They may be priced higher or lower at the discretion of a store, but could all be sold for the same price. And think of all the cheap products from China. In addition to being shipped to our peninsula at the northern end of the country, they first travel thousands of miles from China.

Take a look at the USA National Gas Temperature Map at GasBuddy.com and see if you can discern a pricing pattern based on geographic remoteness. I just don't see it. As for remote northern peninsulas, what about northernmost Maine?

Gas prices are the highest in Michigan, because they can be. Flatworld technology can't save you, where gas is concerned. Go ahead try to network or blog your way to cheaper gas. You can't because you live in Michigan--a peninsula in space and time and your car's wheels roll on the terra firma portion of the sphere we call home.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

International Tabloid News from Michigan

Judge ignores husband's wishes, charges woman with attacking him with a fork in Michigan restaurant (International Herald Tribune, France) Why should this be noteworthy in France? Don't the French get passionate over food? Anyway, this was a married couple--you know, one man and one woman, protected and privileged by our state constitution. Perhaps the judge is fulfilling his duty to uphold the ideal of marriage; stabbing your husband with a fork is not a spousal right--not even in Michigan.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

UM Study: Organic Farming Can Feed the World

Lookout Monsanto, ADM, Cargill, ConAgra...a new UM study reports that "organic farming can yield up to three times as much food as conventional farming on the same amount of land—according to new findings which refute the long-standing assumption that organic farming methods cannot produce enough food to feed the global population."

From the press release:

According to lead researcher Ivetta Perfecto,"Corporate interest in agriculture and the way agriculture research has been conducted in land grant institutions, with a lot of influence by the chemical companies and pesticide companies as well as fertilizer companies—all have been playing an important role in convincing the public that you need to have these inputs to produce food."

"Organic farming is important because conventional agriculture—which involves high-yielding plants, mechanized tillage, synthetic fertilizers and biocides—is so detrimental to the environment, Perfecto said. For instance, fertilizer runoff from conventional agriculture is the chief culprit in creating dead zones—low oxygen areas where marine life cannot survive. Proponents of organic farming argue that conventional farming also causes soil erosion, greenhouse gas emission, increased pest resistance and loss of biodiversity."

Ionia County Commissioners Vote to Fund Strong Families/Safe Children

The Ionia County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously "to spend up to $20,000 on a complex family services program designed to keep troubled families together." The Ionia Sentinel-Standard reports that Community Mental Health stopped funding the Strong Families/Safe Children program July 1, due to budget problems.

The County will provide $5000 to make up the current budget shortfall, and will pay $15,000 toward next year's program costs.

The program provides services, through as many as nine agencies, to families at risk in order to keep them intact. From the DHS website:

"State legislative intent is focused primarily on the reduction of out-of-home placement numbers. This coincides with the federal intent of funds to keep children safe in their own homes, prevent the unnecessary separation of families, return children in care to their families sooner, and to find permanent alternatives for children who cannot return home safely."

Commissioners understood the cost effective nature of the program, comparing the county's contribution to the cost of foster care or annual expense of providing for a prison inmate.

Helping children and families makes sense. It is good public policy. It is fiscally responsible and provides longterm benefits to families and communities in which they live. The Ionia County commissioners could see this. Their sense of "we" included the least among them.
Kudos to those commissioners.

Monday, July 9, 2007

New Traffic Information Website from MDOT

Great news for Michigan drivers--the Michigan Department of Transportation and the state Department of Information Technology have launched a website to provide traffic and road construction data to the public. The site will provide information about lane closures and various construction projects on state highways (M, I and US roads).

MI Drive has nifty features like MDOT's 2007 Construction Map; a search feature by regions, counties and routes; and links to gas prices and consumer protection information.

In Michigan there are two seasons: winter and road construction. Now, we have an internet resource to help us in the warm months.

90,000 Hens Killed in Allegan County

A barn fire Sunday morning killed 90,000 hens and caused $2 million damage in Overisel Township. The fire was contained to one barn on a farm with eight barns and nearly a million chickens. The AP reports that the barn and chickens were insured.

One million chickens. Here is a photo of my grandmother from the 1930s. She kept poultry to provide eggs and meat for her family. Some geese and chickens--countable on two hands, enough during the Great Depression. Each bird was fed and slaughtered by her hand for the sake of her family. The poultry was the insurance.

Today, we are cut off from the truth of food production and the fact of our vulnerability. We are separated from the struggle to provide for ourselves and our obesity proves it. We are "shoppers," "consumers," and "customers"--half of the production/consumption equation, rather than wholly self sufficient persons who understand the power of enough.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Blue Angels Over Willow Run

Today the Blue Angels thundered over Willow Run in a show sponsored by the Yankee Air Museum. The full title for the event was: 2007 Chrysler Jeep Superstores Thunder Over Michigan Air Show, an ironic name given the presence of the GM Powertrain facility in the former WWII bomber plant just west of the airport.

I hadn't planned to see the show, but stopped on the way into Detroit. Joining the dozens of other cars parked along the service road north of the airport, I was amazed and awed by the spectacle.

Admiring the excellence, precision, and daring of the pilots, I pondered our unending involvement in Iraq--the lives lost, bodies maimed, hearts broken, psyches permanently altered by battle trauma. These jets were breathtakingly beautiful flying low and high, defining the space above us.

The website for the event offered free tickets for youth between the ages of 18-24, plus an opportunity to meet the pilots. The show served as a Navy recruitment opportunity, of course.

If you see the Blue Angels in action, you will admire them. You must. They are athletes, artists and warriors commanding powerful machines defying gravity -- and they are loud. Their speed booms in your ears and chest. You want them to be fast, to shake you to your core. They will and you will be safe because this is not war. This is a demonstration event for the Navy.

Along the road, with airplane enthusiasts, veterans, families with small children, shirtless nascar fans, I thrilled at the raw might above. I was completely drawn in by the engineering marvel and flying prowess.

If only it were a demonstration of excellence and mastery for peaceful purposes. But we are fully engaged in Iraq, doing something variously called fighting, rebuilding, occupying, reconstructing. Fighting there so we don't have to fight here. It's rather a blur at this point. We now understand that the war was unjustified--that the conflation of 9-11, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, alleged yellow cake deals and Saddam's tyranny was a stone soup of excuses and lies. We broke it; we own it. That was Colin Powell's warning (read his account of trying to talk Bush out of the Iraq war in the Times Online, 7/8/07). I've always heard a different version, more apt: if you break it, you pay. We're going to pay for this for many years to come.

The Blue Angels are amazing and worthy of admiration--like so many of the soldiers and support staff serving in Iraq--performing whole heartedly. The servicemen and women in Iraq must believe in their work, for their sanity and survival. We at home have the privilege and responsibility of discernment from a safe distance. Hate the war, love the warrior.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

20 State Forest Campgrounds Closing

At the peak of the summer season, Michigan is closing 20 state forest campgrounds in the eastern U.P. and the northern lower peninsula. The closures will take effect Monday and last at least through the end of the fiscal year in September, the Traverse City Record Eagle reports.

The closures are a response to a $75,000 cut in this year's appropriation from the general fund.

The DNR press release contains the complete list.

Seventy percent of Michigan's tourism is from Michigan residents. The general fund is state revenue. There is only so much money to circulate. Think of it like the hydrologic cycle and lake levels. Water evaporates, clouds form, rain falls, rivers flow into lakes. Repeat. Business thrives, workers get paid, taxes are collected, the general fund is distributed, campers take holidays and buy stuff in small towns. When the system is in balance and stable, times are good.

But climate change can affect lake levels. Higher water temperatures mean less ice cover in winter and more evaporation year round. Lake levels get lower. And drought does its part. Human activity, decisions, priorities and choices influence the climate.

Now we have climate change, economically speaking. Large businesses leave for cheaper labor, Michigan workers get paid less or lose jobs altogether, local economies struggle, revenues are lower than expected, the general fund shrinks, camp grounds close, mom and pop supply stores up north get less of the green at the very moment they were expecting a seasonal financial boost.

Our economic system is a web of interdependencies and symbiosis. The little guy matters. The candy bar you buy in Marquette could be the dollar that helps a shopkeeper make payroll.

Your smoked fish dinner feeds more than you.

7/7/7 Luckier than 7/6/7?

It comes, but once in a century...so? Last year it was 6/6/6, next year 8/8/8. Does anyone remember what they did on 5/5/5?

People seem to have an endless capacity for superstition. Today, will be popular for weddings and casinos. Hell, Michigan is celebrating with a Lucky Sevens Festival. And Lake Huron Campground in Port Sanilac has chosen today for its Grand Opening complete with fireworks and a marriage/commitment vow renewal under the stars.

Will today be appreciably different for the homeless, hungry, poor? Will today be any different for the unemployed, downsized or discarded workers? Any special luck today for youth finding a higher education out-of-reach?

A lottery ticket is never the answer to intractable injustice--not even on 7/7/7. Do something nice for someone today. Give a little. Try it tomorrow, too.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Tabloid News from Michigan

Michigan man arrested, accused of selling pot from company ice cream truck (France) Did you ever get a funny feeling about an ice cream truck? The creepy, evil clown feeling? Maybe it was merely second-hand pot smoke from the driver.

The Farmer File: Michigan counters our Skunk Ape with its own (Florida) In this global economy, states vie with each other for all commerce. In this case, Floridians are concerned that the U.P.'s Bigfoot tourism of late will take business away from the sunshine state.

Jogger trips up Detroit robbery (Canada) An anonymous jogger in Ferndale simply stuck out her foot, tripped the thief, sent the wallet flying and kept running. Although the the crook hopped on a bike and attempted a get away, the police caught up to him, crediting the jogger with giving them a critical few moments of time.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Tourism on the Sunrise Side

How can Michigan become a national and global tourism destination? That depends on whom we are trying to lure to this splendid land.

I just visited the town of Lexington for a few days and stayed in a cottage community on Lake Huron. The place was pleasant enough with a sense of rural neighborliness that harkened back to my childhood--dirt roads, hand-painted lawn ornaments, grandparents and babies, meat-laden grills, smoky fire pits, barefoot children, lots of barking dogs, men drinking beer, fireworks on the beach. Clearly, families had spent the Fourth there for generations. It felt familiar and comforting, but not quite a national destination. More like anywhere U.S.A. on the Fourth.

Sitting on the beach was different, though--a combination of sand and large rocks, inhospitable to beach volleyball, yet good enough for sitting in the wind with a book. We saw lake freighters pass on their way to and from Port Huron. These are huge vessels, 600 to 1000 feet long--spectacular sights as you glance up from your trashy summer beach reading. When the weather was especially clear and the wind low, we could see across Huron to Kettle Point in Ontario, about 35 miles east.

Lexington's downtown has shops and restaurants in a small area near the harbor. The official brochure describes Lexington as "the charming little Harbor Village on the shore of Lake Huron." Clearly, the Lexington Business Association is working hard to develop the downtown. There is a sense of budding tourism and an effort to create a festive destination atmosphere. Family-oriented, inexpensive restaurants predominate--Lakeside A & W, The Flying Taco, and Wimpy's Place, to name a few. Just south of town, on M25, you can find the very hip Oasis Coffeehouse complete with Wi-fi for a dollar, vast permutations of coffee, and good eats. Try the blended iced coffee for a real treat.

But Lexington feels in transition, like so much of our state. There is the old economy--cottages handed down in families, the bounty of good-paying auto industry jobs. And there is the new economy--the same cottages changing hands in a soft real estate market, becoming rental properties of a new class of owners. There are remnants of the old economy--vacant retail space along M25--boarded-up auto repair shops, restaurants, and farm stands. And there are signs of the new economy--For Sale signs on practically every other building.

The shore of Lake Huron, Michigan's sunrise side, has a beauty that cannot be bought, sold or enhanced by any commercial human activity. Facing east across Huron's shifting blue greens, for a moment, you are complete-- complete as the Great Lakes are without the temporary human presence of politics, commerce, industry, or shipping. The Great Lakes, a natural wonder, need no improvement. It is our economy that begs for help.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Things I Learned from Travel Brochures

Sometimes travel brochures promise more than you find upon arrival at your destination. But I have found some interesting details to enhance a brief Fourth of July trip to the Thumb, as well as my general appreciation of our state.

From "Welcome to Vacationland 2007: Official Guide for the Blue Water Area":

Michigan leads the nation in number of state parks and campsites.
Michigan was the first state to establish roadside picnic tables.
No matter where you are in Michigan, you are within 85 miles of a Great Lake.

This year is Port Huron's Sesquicentennial. It was incorporated on February 4, 1857. Visit www.ph150.org for details.

The 83d annual Port Huron-Mackinac Island Yacht Race begins July 21st. The starting area for the race will be located on the west side of the shipping channel in lower Lake Huron approximately 4.5 nautical miles north of the Blue Water Bridges near the U.S. shore.

From "Lexington, Michigan 2007 Visitors Guide":
Lexington is 112 miles from Ann Arbor, 194 miles from Grand Rapids and 139 miles from Lansing.
Lexington was incorporated in 1855. Shingles were the currency in the early days of the settlement. One thousand dollars bought a barrel of flour and 20,000 shingles bought a barrel of pork.

From "Michigan Travel Ideas--Michigan's Official State Travel Guide":
Between South Haven and Ludington, there are 130 miles sugar-fine, sandy beaches on Lake Michigan.
South Haven will host the National Blueberry Festival August 9-12.

Seul Choix Point Lighthouse, 20 miles east of Manistique, has guided ships since 1892 and is the only working light left on northern Lake Michigan.

Get out and explore. Michigan is an amazing place.