Gotta serve somebody

Here’s how politicians differ from ordinary people: Last month, my wife leased a new car, which was fine, except for a small request from the dealership. They want us to pay them several hundred dollars a month for it. Matter of fact, they insist on it.

What I was hoping for was a version of George W. Bush financing, which means that we would pay nothing, but that our grandchildren would have to pay several times the cost after the car was worn out. This was especially appealing, because I have no children. But no deal.

Now here’s a lesson in economics, Michigan government style: I have two friends who I will call Alice and Jim, mainly because their names are Alice and Jim. They have two young children, and while Alice intended to be a stay-at-home mom for a while, expenses increased when their 7-year-old started playing hockey, which seems to cost parents several thousand dollars a week. So Alice went back to work weekends, to try and scratch up a little more revenue.

Had they turned their problem over to our leaders in Lansing, the Republicans who run the Legislature would have told them that the only people who should play hockey are those who are already rich. On the other hand, Jennifer Granholm, our governor, would have been warmly emotional, and then would have suggested in a memo that Alice stay home from work, but that they gradually starve the children so they could afford the little guy’s hockey lessons.

That’s a parody, but not an inaccurate one. Here’s the truth: For a dozen years (1991-2003) we had a governor, John Engler, who was a brutal powerhouse. The day he was sworn in, old George Romney told him, “Be bold.” And Engler was. Though I opposed most everything he wanted, nobody, but nobody, could deny that Big John ran things.

Fast forward to today. For the last two-plus years, Michigan has had an extremely weak executive, our weakest, in fact, since the 1940s. Jennifer Granholm is unwilling to spend any political capital on addressing the hard choices. Granted, Republicans control the Legislature. Yet she hasn’t even fought for her agenda, perhaps because, until recently, she didn’t seem to have one. That might not be bad if everything was peachy keen; as the doctor’s oath says, “First, do no harm.”

But things aren’t swell. The state doesn’t take in enough money to meet expenses, and consequently Michigan has been in a terrible and perpetual budget crisis since Granholm took office. Every year, the budget comes up a billion or so short, and the governor flutters around, cutting bits here and there.

Unlike the federal government, the state is not allowed to run a deficit. Every year, it has to balance its budget, and in recent years, that’s meant painful last-minute slashes. Among other things, the governor and the Legislature are steadily pinching the state’s great research universities to the danger point. And without thriving world-class universities, you might as well forget trying to make Michigan economically competitive again.

What we need to do is figure out how to pay the bills without starving the children. That clearly means getting more money. Yet neither party has the political will to do what’s needed, which is to revamp the entire tax system.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, a famous conservative U.S. Supreme Court justice, said long ago that “taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.” Yet nobody has the guts today to stand up and proclaim that this is true. Yes, we need to pay taxes, and we probably need to pay more taxes, for the right things and the right purposes. What we need are state leaders who have the courage to say that, and the foresight to propose a rational new tax system.

Nobody, including me, is willing to pay more taxes for unnecessary frills, like expensive cars for government employees. But we should all be willing to pay whatever it takes to see that the next generation has a good education and a shot at decent lives and careers in this world.

Wouldn’t you be willing to pay more so that your roads didn’t look like the surface of the moon, and to make sure the air and water are clean? What we need to do is invest in the future, and that takes money and guts.

We’ve had a shortage of both lately. There are a lot of myths about state taxes and state government; a good place to start learning the truth is an excellent article on the Michigan Prospect’s Web site, In “Michigan’s Tax Cuts and the Current State Revenue Deficit,” Paul Rozycki, a political science professor, expertly demonstrates the truth, which is that “with many of the recent tax cuts we are shortchanging our state’s future.” He shows that the state, perhaps assuming this is still 1955, is still relying way too much on taxing a shrinking manufacturing sector.

The state, which the right wing likes to depict as having a vastly bloated bureaucracy, has in fact gone on a diet Oprah would love. Revenues in the all-important general fund have fallen by nearly $2 billion over the last five years, which is even more when you factor in inflation. The number of people who work for the state has fallen dramatically too, to a total no larger than in 1974.

Rozycki does not really discuss whether taxes need to be raised. What he is sure about is that they need to be changed. One quick statistic: Since 1990, Michiganders’ personal incomes have risen by 27 percent, after factoring out inflation. Nevertheless, the money pouring into the general fund has fallen by 22 percent. How can that be?

Because the state is dipping in the wrong wells. Bottom line: “If Michigan is going to be able to deliver the services that our citizens have come to expect, we need a dependable and fair tax system that will provide a solid revenue stream and prevent the perennial budget crisis.”

Wouldn’t you love to see Jennifer Granholm throw down the gauntlet and challenge the Legislature to come up with a creative new tax system? You do have to give her a tiny bit of credit; this year she stood up and asked for a $2 billion bond proposal that would finance a transformation of Michigan’s economy. But she also asked for it to be on the ballot for a special statewide election this fall, an off-off-year election.

Political experts know that means the turnout will be tiny, and the bond proposal almost certainly doomed. You have to wonder how serious the governor really is. Wouldn’t you love to see Granholm instead ask the Legislature to enact the bond, and while she’s at it, send them a true Democratic budget, one designed to help the people who elected her, and dare them to shoot it down? Well, don’t hold your breath. She’s thinking about being re-elected next year.

Yet once there was a president of the United States who did just that to a Republican Congress, and when they refused, took his case to the people and made it the centerpiece of what everybody thought was a hopeless campaign. He won triumphantly and came back with huge Democratic majorities in Congress. His name was Harry Truman, and the night he won, a bold new young Democrat everyone called “Soapy” Williams was elected governor of Michigan.

Our governor may not know all that. But she does know who Bob Dylan is, and she might even have heard a song he wrote the year she turned 21:


You may be a business man or some high degree thief,
They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You’re gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

“Gotta Serve Somebody,” Special Rider Music, 1979.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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