Our roads: Tragedy & farce

They're bringing the Third World to Michigan, potholes and all.

Long ago, I came to the conclusion that nobody who’s been a journalist for very long can ever be much of a novelist.

Why? Well, because the real world is always so much more amazing and bizarre than anything you could make up. Let’s say, for example, that in 1995 you wanted to write a trashy novel, suitable for airline reading, about a president of the United States nearly wrecking his administration over an affair.

You would’ve almost certainly made his girlfriend an alluring, but sinister spy, long ago embedded in a sleeper cell.

Alternatively, you might make her a glamorous starlet, or maybe a high-priced lobbyist for a group — the National Rifle Association, say — that wants to destroy everything the president stands for. 

What you wouldn’t do is write a novel where the president had what amounted to junior high school-style sex with a dumpy little intern. No self-respecting publisher would’ve given that the time of day.

That, however, is what really happened. 

What if you’d predicted right after Sept. 11 that the next president of the United States would be a man whose middle name was Hussein, whose father had been a Muslim from Kenya, and who, by the way, happened to be black? 

If you had gone to Lloyd’s of London, or Vegas, and found anyone to take your bet at appropriate odds, today Bill Gates and every other billionaire would be calling you “boss.”

Well, Michigan politics are sort of like that on a small scale. As Karl Marx once said, history repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the next as farce.

Think about this: Let’s say a month ago I asked you whether you thought our solidly Republican legislature would be more likely to fix the roads, help bail out Detroit’s pension funds, or raise the minimum wage by almost two bucks an hour over the next few years.

Most likely you, me, and everyone we know would have bet that the roads were the only thing that ever had a prayer of getting a dime.

But, incredibly, the lawmakers did raise the minimum to an eventual $9.25 an hour. Their intentions weren’t pure, by any means. They feared a ballot proposal that would’ve raised it to $10.10 — and required restaurant servers to be paid the same as anyone else.

And in a clear sign of divine intervention in world affairs, both houses also passed the state’s portion of the “Grand Bargain” to help shore up pension funds and save the Detroit Institute of Arts.

This happened mainly because they didn’t have to come up with any new revenue; it just comes out of the state’s rainy day fund, to be replenished later by tobacco settlement money. 

Plus, like Gov. Rick Snyder himself, a few of the GOP lawmakers dimly realized that a collapsed central city and looted art museum could’ve been bad for business. But it was a close call, to be sure.

Yet as of late last week, the lawmakers still hadn’t done anything meaningful about the issue voters care most about — our collapsing roads. Snyder, to his credit, correctly noted in 2012 that fixing the roads would cost $1.2 billion in new money every year for a decade.

Legislators did nothing. But then came last winter.

To his credit, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville finally got it, possibly after he heard from a few of the folks at the truck stops in his district. He wants to raise $1.5 billion a year by gradually raising the gas tax. Upping the registration fees on heavy trucks would be a very good idea too, but you gotta start somewhere.

But the weasels and ideologues in the state house passed only a miserable $450 million increase, not even enough to measurably stop the deterioration. Worse, some of the senators had ever nuttier ideas, especially, no surprise, Macomb County’s Jack Brandenburg, who, last time we visited him, wanted a tax cut.

Now, Brandy is only willing to fix the roads if the voters approve a sales tax increase for the purpose. But economists will tell you that this would be bad for business, bad for the economy, and it would hurt the poor.

Brandenburg, marching to his own tuba, as usual, says, “The beauty of this plan is you capture the out-of-state dollar, the out-of-state purchase.” What’s much more likely is that Michigan residents would drive to Indiana or cybercommute for big-ticket items.

Adding her touch of irrationality, Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer griped that “people at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale can’t afford this massive tax on gas.”

Whitmer, who is not starving herself, might not realize that destroyed tires and broken axles cost more.

When I was younger, one of my regrets was that I never got to join the Peace Corps and live in a Third World country. Thanks to our lawmakers, my dream is at last coming true. They’re bringing the Third World to Michigan, potholes and all, free of charge.

Can pellagra be far behind?


UAW blues: The United Auto Workers had their quadrennial convention in Detroit last week, an event as rigged and stylized as the national political conventions have become.

Delegates voted to raise members’ dues, though it wasn’t at all clear whether the rank-and-file would’ve gone for that, had they put it to a vote. In another prearranged move, the union elected Dennis Williams as their next president.

Actually, the major political parties are considerably more democratic; even Mitt Romney had to win a primary or two.

Had I been a delegate, I would’ve bitterly resisted anything the leadership wanted. The UAW is a dying union. Forty years ago, it had 1.6 million members. Now it has 391,000. Outgoing President Bob King, a man who reportedly told cronies he intended to be “the next Walter Reuther,” was probably the worst failure the union has ever had. 

He took office vowing to begin organizing the “transplants,” the non-union factories that companies like Nissan and Honda have been building, mainly in the South.

King failed to organize a single one, even failing earlier this year at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee where the ownership tacitly indicated they wouldn’t mind having the UAW there!

Worse, King blew tons of union money on futile efforts to get collective bargaining protected by the Michigan Constitution. When that lost in a landslide, the Republicans in Lansing gleefully made Michigan a right-to-work state.

That will almost certainly weaken the UAW even further. Union officials and supporters have made various excuses for their and Bob King’s failings, but the bottom line is this:

By the end of next year, it’s likely there will be more non-union autoworkers than UAW-organized ones. That’s particularly unfortunate because 2015 is also the year the UAW has to negotiate new contracts with the Detroit Three.

Not everything that’s wrong with the union is Bob King’s fault: Several years ago, in an effort to help save the industry itself, the UAW agreed to a two-tier wage system in which new hires would be paid only about three-fifths of what the older ones make.

That, I believe, would have sent Walter Reuther spinning in his grave. Recently. Sergio Marchionne, head of the Italian subsidiary formerly known as Chrysler, said he thought the new lower wage should become the norm for all future autoworkers.

We’re talking about roughly $30,000 a year. Try buying a house or a car on that. Unless that changes, it’s also hard to tell any worker that it’s worth paying higher dues to the UAW.

If King was the union’s weakest modern president, Dennis Williams’ task is to make sure he’s not its last.  

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