The Orange Barrel Summertime Blues

August 29, 2016

For many of you who follow the blog and live outside of Southeast Michigan, around here warm weather is known more popularly as the “Orange Barrel Season.” It seems like as soon as the temperature has three continuous days above freezing, work begins on repairing the roads and highways of Michigan. These roads (and bridges) rival those of a Third World country in terms of disrepair. Actually, our roads may be worse. One important reason why Michigan’s roads and infrastructure are so bad is the Michigan government.

Unlike other states that have insisted on enforcing minimum materials and construction standards, along with a guarantee of viability, Michigan governments since the Engler Administration have allowed contractors to use inferior materials and construction methods to create a virtual perpetual employment machine, moving constantly from one short-term, emergency fix to another. It has also been a government that has resisted any effective public transportation system, or enforced regulation of heavy traffic vehicles.

Since all of the highway work had been unguaranteed, it guaranteed huge tax expenditures to create emergency, and short-term fixes. It’s quite remarkable to see if you are not from Michigan. Slow-moving trucks roll along at 5 mph on a 70 mph highway for miles, causing huge traffic jams while men shovel out a gravel and tar mixture to fill in monster pot holes. Then they rely on subsequent traffic to roll over the mound to compact it down, while the rest of the tar and gravel are sent bouncing off of cars in other lanes.

Well, there’s good news and bad news in this regard with the announcement of a major road reconstruction project at one of the busiest conduits in SE Michigan, at I-75 in Oakland County. The good news is that the huge congestion of traffic creating a 10-mile-long, bumper-to-bumper commute into Wayne County and the City of Detroit will be somewhat relieved. The bad news is that the project will take 12-14 years to complete! For Oakland County residents working in Detroit, it means more than a decade of finding alternate routes or commutes extended hours longer. Imagine spending 2-3 hours or longer to drive 10 miles to work.

I’m guessing that the good conservative types in one of America’s riches counties will be wishing they had approved extending the Woodward light rail pretty soon. For the thousands of people who use I-75 as their route to Northern Michigan … just think of it as an opportunity to tour the back roads instead of a costly extension of hours in travel time. There even might be some economic benefit from the fact that hotels and restaurants will have increased business once driving to Mackinac will take an over-night trip rather than the usual 5 hours.

Or maybe we can contemplate how much of a difference government can make with regard to infra-structure – for good or bad.

 


Something About Me

April 14, 2016

Bernie Sanders took time out from his campaign to walk the picket line and encourage striking workers in New York City today (The Communication Workers of America). It was exactly the right thing to do. Workers need to know that someone in Government is willing to walk the hard walk with them. I know from experience. It made me smile with a memory.
I was running to be the Democratic Party candidate for Governor of Michigan. I got into the race a month late and more than a dollar short on campaign funds and political support. It would be a guerilla campaign.
The UAW had a designated candidate, Larry Owens. I should say the UAW leadership had a candidate. Most of them had never heard of Mr. Owens. Many rank and file felt a need to get militant and respond. The Democratic Establishment wanted to play nice… appeal to the “middle ground” and make a pitch to the people of Michigan that was intended to look like a palatable alternative to the personality of John Engler, rather than a challenge to very first stages of an attack on labor. Mr. Owens was a nice man who had earned his political shot. He had raised a lot of money for the Party. He knew all the players, all the rules, and had made all the deals. He was known by everyone in the Party and very few else. I couldn’t stand it. In a moment of inspiration, or sheer madness (I still don’t know which), I decided to announce and run.
The Establishment did not like the idea of someone like me jumping in. I was not one of them. I was outspoken – meaning I said what I thought and didn’t mince words. I was not controllable. I sued Insurance Companies, Corporations on behalf of victims… in other words, I sued their contributors. I was initially dismissed, but when I produced a series of commercials that were very successful, it got their attention. The attacks from Republicans started, but so did the attacks from Democrats. Nothing new for me after representing Dr. Jack Kevorkian. I started driving around in a minivan and learning how to organize events, just walking neighborhoods… it was a guerilla campaign. I was on my own.
I remember the morning distinctly. We were walking out of the door to my Law Firm, about to get into a Pontiac minivan, and going over the schedule of stops when I noticed a headline in the Detroit Free Press – a plant was closing in Flint because GM decided to move the business to Mexico. The UAW was picketing even as they were pulling the machines out of the plant to ship to Mexico. “Those sons of bitches, this is what it is all about. We are cancelling the schedule and we are going to walk the picket line with them”. I had a friend, a driver and a “political advisor” with me at the time (someone who had run a few campaigns before and charged more than I did by the hour). The advisor and driver told me to keep the schedule. My friend told me “let’s go get a picket sign”. We went to Flint.
When we got there, I talked with a few workers on the line. I asked if I could pick up a sign and walk the line with them. After an hour or so, some UAW leader types arrived and said I couldn’t walk the line. Owens was their candidate. The workers on the line got in their faces and asked where Owens was and told them to pick up a sign. End of discussion, and the moment (I believe) I won the nomination.


R-E-S-P-E-C-T

March 28, 2016

Where is Aretha when we need her? People are so angry and polarized it seems just about impossible to have an intelligent conversation about a disagreement. The problems we are facing now in the world and in our society in particular are not unique but what we are going through may be. I mean that our ability to problem solve seems to have dissipated in a white noise of media encouragement to feel the anger or feel the fear. I honestly think that the lack of personal contact and relationship, along with a political-media complex, has so polarized our society that we are risking a breakdown of civility. Turn on one cable station and all Moslems are violent, evil people. Turn on another station and all people who criticize Moslem extremists are violent, evil people. How many people watching these shows actually know a person who is Moslem, let alone have a personal relationship with one?

It’s not just about religion either. Trump is a Nazi, Bernie is a Communist and people who support either one want to destroy the country! All Michigan fans are arrogant and all Ohio State fans are thugs. It’s pervasive in our society and if there is one thing that could destroy it, it is the extremism of the media. Try turning off cable news and meeting people you may disagree with and just hang out for a bit. Don’t talk politics, religion or anything other than things and experiences you share in common. Show some respect and get to know the person. If isolating in your house in front of a television is the petri dish for fear and misunderstanding, then personal contact and familiarity is the salve for fear and misunderstanding.

 


Brussels Attack

March 26, 2016

Let’s start out by declaring that what happened in Brussels with the ISIL attack is tragic. It is horrible, but not terrible if we don’t allow our fear to terrorize. Already the voices of outrage and hatred are rising, especially among GOP candidates for president. How does it help defeat Moslem extremism when they hear someone who may be the next president advocating banning Moslems from the U.S., issuing identity cards to Moslem Americans, closing Mosques, using torture, and the wholesale slaughter of Moslems in Syria and Iraq (aka “carpet-bombing”)? This reflexive, violent response is exactly what the terrorists wanted to accomplish: terror and irrational responses.

Hatred is a symptom of fear. If we allow ourselves to become fearful and act out of fear then they have won. When we act like them, we become them – and they have won. Our response should be guided by determination and, above all else, a rational response. Sure, we should use common sense to respond. For example, we should thoroughly vet every immigrant and if they are not cleared, then we should not allow them to immigrate. Sure we should hold the governments of the Saudi Kingdom and Iran politically and economically accountable for funding and encouraging these extremists. There are many ways to maximize our safety without compromising our freedom or principles.

Personally, I refuse to be afraid, and I refuse to allow fear to dictate my actions. I am more likely to be killed by a white man with a gun than a suicide bomber. Should we ban white males? I may not be able to physically strike back at terrorists, but the very act of defying their “terror” by refusing to comply with their desired response from me is one way to defeat them. After the Paris attack, Parisians responded by making it a point to go out to public places – restaurants and clubs – in an act of defiance. This is not a naïve position or one rooted in denial. I use common sense and stay alert, and I am not unafraid. I just refuse to give into it.


What $50 Million Will Buy You (and Not)

October 13, 2015

With the admission from the Pentagon that the program to train Syrian fighters has failed, I have to question our priorities as a nation (again). Politicians will go back and forth about policy in the Moslem world in an endless loop of rhetorical nonsense intended to accomplish nothing more than political points.

It’s clear that all the money in our Treasury, all the weapons in our arsenal, and all the talk about the wonders of democracy will have no effect there. We spent $50 million to train five fighters, four of whom are already dead, one of whom defected to ISIL! The training program had a budget of $500 million, and who knows what will happen with that money now.

It appears that President Obama has decided on a nihilistic strategy in Syria. In the past days we have dropped dozens of pallets of weapons and ammunition in rebel held areas, like some demonic Santa Claus. It seems like the only “Christian” thing to do – mortars for Muslims … I guess he decided that if we can’t create democracy in Syria we will arm them to the teeth and let them kill each other (and a few Russians too).

Since the unnecessary war in Iraq, we have spent over $3 trillion and thousands of American lives to accomplish only chaos – and that’s only the money we have been told about! That does not include the hundreds of billions in arms turned over to ISIL, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups by the troops we have spent over a decade training. That money could have created a far better economy and society on Main Street America.

It’s clear that trillions of dollars will have no net positive effect in the Middle East, but I wondered what we could have done with the $50 million (chump change, really) in Michigan. Here’s a few ideas:

• Provide housing for every homeless veteran in Michigan.
• Provide 4 year college scholarships for 1000 of the poorest students in Michigan.
• Restore drinkable water to Flint.
• Provide free dental care for 50,000 children for a year.
• Hire 800 more police officers.

Even for government bureaucrats $50 million can do some damage:
• Buy 250,000 toilet seats for the Pentagon.
• Repair ½ mile of the Lodge Freeway.
• Hire 1,562 new Legislative Aids to assist Michigan Legislators to cover up extra-marital affairs and block all legislation.


Doctors Without Borders and War Without End

October 8, 2015

I heard an interview with John McCain this morning that was troubling. He was being asked about the situation in Afghanistan, and specifically about the bombing of a hospital staffed by Doctors Without Borders. Although the details of the incident are still unclear, some things are known, and it does not reflect well on our efforts there. The hospital was specifically targeted, and not the result of an errant bomb or miscalculation. The airstrike was requested by Afghan forces not receiving immediate fire from the hospital compound, and no American troops were being fired upon.

When asked about the incident, McCain responded that there were Taliban firing on troops “in the vicinity,” and when pressed for how close the fighting was taking place he simply said “they were in the city.” McCain denounced the description of the unjustified hospital bombing as a “war crime,” saying that if the Taliban had not entered Kunduz, then this “tragic event” would have never happened. His solution was sending more American troops to help train and assist Afghan government troops. When confronted with the fact that we had tens of thousands of troops training the Afghan army for over 12 years, and asked if the troops could ever be trained given the lack of success so far, he only responded that there may be a need for a permanent troop presence akin to what we have done in Post-WWII Europe.
I know men who have served in Afghanistan, two in particular who have served three or more deployments there. They tell me that Afghan troops (unlike Iraqi troops) do have a will to fight, but they are constrained by units segregated by ethnic and tribal identities. This creates mixed loyalties when these units are deployed in rival tribal areas. They are just as anxious to fight rival tribes as they are the Taliban. Speculation is that Afghan soldiers targeted the hospital to eliminate leaders of a rival clan, much the same as Gitmo was populated in part by innocent men who were falsely identified as Taliban by their ethnic rivals.
There is an even more compelling reason to doubt that any Afghan government, let alone army, could survive a U.S. withdrawal, and it is related to how the Taliban were able to capture Kunduz in the first place. The corruption of the Afghan government is so pervasive that residents of the city either stood by, or actually assisted the Taliban. It’s not that they want the Taliban as much as they want order and an end to corruption. Drug trade, sex trade, arms trade and demand for bribes for even the most trivial transactions is widespread. In other words, like Iraq and our long history of supporting many other unpopular and corrupt governments (e.g. Viet Nam, Nicaragua), we are on the wrong side of popular support. The widespread presence of American troops restrained the corruption of Afghan officials, just as we did in the post-Sadaam, Shia’ led Iraq. As the U.S. troops leave, corruption and ethnic violence becomes endemic.
In one sense, the nonsense of McCain did led to a valid point: without a permanent, significant American presence in Afghanistan, the country will collapse just as Iraq has. Only the most intransigent Neo-Con would advocate for a permanent presence, requiring an endless drain of resources and even more tragically, an endless stream of dead Americans not so much fighting terrorists, but supporting a corrupt, unpopular government.


Hidden Costs of War

August 28, 2015

At the end of the Clinton Presidency we had a budget surplus and the economy was humming. Then neocons took control of the government and gave away our surplus to a few of the richest Americans in exchange for the false promise of jobs that never appeared. Then they put us back into debt when they borrowed money to pay for an unnecessary war. We all understand some of what happened afterwards.

The budget deficit caused by the war and subsequent destabilization of the entire region, and then the near economic collapse caused by Wall Street deregulation, ballooned the deficit to epic proportions and put millions of Americans out of work. GOP foreign and economic policies were a disaster that we are only now digging out from — and maybe that’s a good thing to remember the next election.However, the real cost of GOP incompetence in Iraq is human, and hidden.That’s the real tragedy.

After WWII the human costs of the war were understood because they were widely shared. Not so in the modern era of war. You may know that between 1999 and now, 5,273 Americans were killed in combat. Did you know that over 128,500 combat veterans have died in the same period from suicide?

Those are the costs of war just as much as destroyed equipment or spent munitions. Every veteran who has been killed or disabled, or has succumbed to PTSD and depression is a casualty. Their families also suffer economically during multiple deployments, and emotionally as well. The deaths of so many Americans from combat and combat-related problems are shared by relatively few Americans and are not covered by a news media obsessed with e-mails and anchor babies.

It’s not just veterans and their families who are affected by war. Another aspect of the human costs of that war has been the systematic looting of social safety net programs, resulting in suffering and thousands of untold tragedies, mostly among the poorest Americans and children. Poverty, hunger, homelessness … economic and political instability … all either directly or indirectly caused by our misadventure in Iraq, although rarely identified as such.

The human tragedies caused by war extend to the next generations.Just as our children will be paying for the Iraq war, some of those children will be paying a heavier emotional price … This is a reality we might keep in mind as the same group of chicken-hawks are now pushing for a war against Iran.