Michigan’s time to face facts

Nov 22, 2006 at 12:00 am

Last week, in one of the most important events since the Ten Commandments or at least the invention of the Veg-O-Matic, George W. Bush met with the leaders of what used to be called the "Big Three."

Of course, they aren't so big anymore. Two are losing billions the way my '70 Chevy Impala used to burn oil. The other, Chrysler, is headed by Tom LaSorda, who, of course, is really the local lieutenant for a German multinational firm.

Anyone who knew anything could figure out quickly that this meeting was sure to be nothing. Bush, who cares little or nothing about Michigan and the auto industry, had postponed it more than once before.

When you are lower on this president's priority list than the NAACP, it ought to tell you something. His past comments included a statement that the auto industry would be fine if it built "relevant" vehicles.

Bush also went out of his way to rule out a "bailout" of the auto industry, which was odd because one hadn't been asked for. He probably wanted to get together with the automakers less than he wanted to see his proctologist. Yet finally, after political pressure and a lot of whining, he agreed to see them. The three auto leaders, all in blue suits, crowded into the Oval Office with their assistants.

Der President, looking even more than usual like Alfred E. Neuman's dumber brother, was attended by two cabinet members, an economics adviser and various side boys. Detroit's increasingly small-town broadcast media acted as though the Starship Enterprise were feverishly negotiating to save the planet.

All this fuss was about a one-hour meeting. There wasn't a whole lot of time for heavy-duty discussion after they made statements, handed out position papers and exchanged pleasantries. But even if this had been a real meeting — how much could George W. Bush do to help these men?

Could he make people buy more cars that they really don't want to buy? Could the Shrub make Detroit build vehicles that are truly competitive with the Japanese? Could he solve their health care and pension costs?

The one thing a president conceivably could do was something about the currency manipulation everyone agrees the Japanese engage in. And about the only thing we know about this meeting is that the prexy apparently indicated he doesn't have any interest in doing that.

So that was that. Ironically, the meeting was a year too late anyhow. President Bush is losing control of Congress, and the agenda is slipping from his grasp. The rest of his time in office will be spent fighting over withdrawal from his disastrous war. Detroit's agonies will be very low on his priority list.

The automakers know this at some level. They plan on coming back to Washington next month for a more important — if less publicized — meeting, one with the new leaders of Congress. One of those guys, House Energy and Commerce Committee chair John Dingell, does know a whole lot about their issues, and also happens to care. They'd be better off talking to him.

The fact is, however, that the best-case scenario is that the domestic auto industry will continue to shrink, and employ fewer of us, not more.

Any honest discussion of our future has to start right there.


Back in Lansing, however, the dust has settled, and some vitally hard and important work is ahead. Last fall, before they took off to campaign, the legislators did something even more irresponsible than usual.

They abolished something called the Single Business Tax, without setting anything up to replace it. This is the "I quit my job, screw the rent, let's party!" school of government. Supposedly, how to replace the dough was going to be solved uh ... right about now, in a lame-duck session of the lawmakers.

That tax was flawed, but it produces $1.9 billion dollars a year. (It expires after December 2007.) Without that money, the state, which has been barely able to cover its bills in recent years, would have to stop funding higher education, or prisons, or maybe both.

What the greedhead business community wants is to replace only part of it, giving themselves a vast new tax cut in the process. Before his execution, chucklehead Dick DeVos mumbled vaguely about replacing only half of it. The smarter pirates are really planning on a $500 million annual tax cut.

That leaves the state without that money. That would certainly further cripple education in this state, and the opportunity for many to go to school.

That might also hit Medicaid, and force the state to cut back on prisons. Without a doubt, we'd end up even less competitive than we are now.

Here's what the pasty-faced right-wing think-tank types don't get: These days, new-economy, high-tech businesses don't move to a new state just based on lower taxes. They want the finer things in life, like schools that really work, an educated work force and roads unlike the heavily shelled ones in Iraq.

What the newly re-elected and strengthened Gov. Jennifer Granholm needs to do is develop nerves and take a stand. She's a lot stronger now; she was re-elected by a landslide, and Democrats captured the state House.

So fight for something progressive — or at least sensible. When people know the facts, they will be willing to pay for a decent standard of living.

Obviously, the best and fairest solution would be a progressive state income tax. But people still break into hives at the sound of "income tax."

What might be easier to sell would be extending the state sales taxes to services, other perhaps than medical services. Haircuts, for example. Why should you pay sales tax on a muffler but not on the labor to put it on?

Something like that has to happen. What about the argument that this is just not politically feasible? Last week, Phil Power's relentlessly moderate new Center for Michigan had a series of town hall meetings in which they explained the economic facts of life to 14 groups of business and community leaders.

Eight of these groups voted to raise taxes. None of them thought taxes should be lowered. The fact is that Michigan taxes are now lower than those of most other states. When people have the facts explained to them, they usually will make the right decisions. Helping them get there is what leaders are for. And times like this are when we find out what our leaders are made of.


Impeachment revisited: Some readers of last week's column were unhappy that I said we should forget about impeachment, that it was a "diversion" from the real work of stopping the war. "Isn't Bush guilty of impeachable offenses?" someone asked. Well, yes, I think he probably is.

Yet we will destroy our nation if we try to impeach every president we don't like. We can stand, at best, one impeachment a century. Richard Nixon needed to be impeached. Impeaching Bill Clinton for lying about a bad blow job disgraced our nation. Constantly evoking impeachment risks turning us into a parody of a banana republic. Plus — face facts. There is not enough time left in Bush's term to impeach him. The votes aren't there to convict him.

And— if you did remove George W. Bush, who would be president? You want to toss the puppet and face the puppet master? Think about it.

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