Monday, January 14, 2008

Primary Blues in Michigan

Michiganders will be treated to a presidential primary on Tuesday and to tell you the truth, people here are really glum about it for many reasons.

First, the Democratic ticket lists only Clinton and Kucinich. Party leaders are encouraging people favoring other candidates to mark the “uncommitted” spot on their ballots or to “do mischief” in the Republican primary.

Second, Mitt Romney is predicted to win Michigan probably because his father, George, was governor here in the prosperous 1960s.

Third, our state party chiefs tried to move our primary closer the beginning of the year in order to put Michigan in a more influential position for selecting a general election nominee. Instead they managed to have the candidates and the media practically ignore us.

Fourth, Michigan citizens have many issues the candidates are not addressing.

For example, racked by a 7.4 percent and rising unemployment rate, our state lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs since mid-2000 with more to come through 2009. October housing starts were down 46.4 percent from the peak two years ago and home values plummeted 18 percent. A record 70,000 homes face foreclosure.

Last year 30,500 more residents left the state making us Number One in the nation for out-migration. This rate even outdistances the 1981 auto recession exodus.

Graduates from our colleges and universities are leaving the state because they can’t find work. More than half of the graduates from the prestigious University of Michigan leave. Seventy-five percent of our new teachers leave. That’s a brain drain at a time when we need all the creative power and youthful energy we can get.

However, it gets worse when you consider what has happened to us politically.

Our former governor, a Republican, passed 26 tax cuts over his three terms in office (1991-2003) and the results of his work have plunged the state into hopelessness. For example, he cut off social services to the very poor. He hated and hassled teachers and their unions. He demonized the environmental protection agencies and made them powerless against corporate interests intent on plundering our natural resources. He defaced Lake Michigan with slant drilling operations in order to capture the small amounts of oil and natural gas that lay there.

Now we have our first woman governor, a Democrat and a dynamic, charismatic and hope-filled enthusiast for the state. However, like so many politicians who only want to be elected, she has played it safe since she was first elected in 2002 and offers few solutions and many excuses.

Last fall our state registered a billion-dollar deficit and that came after cutting government to the bone.

Our state legislature is comprised of a bunch of bumbling amateurs who protect their $80,000/year paychecks and lifetime health care benefits as they attack our public school teachers’ pensions and health care plans. They also squabble over the crumbs of our state economy and they do it rather anonymously because their six and eight-year term limits barely give them time to know their jobs let alone become acquainted with their constituents.

Michigan has been whipsawed by one-issue groups who pound out their ideology with a vengeance. Right to Life has been able to edge out moderate pro-choice candidates in favor of tax-cutting extremists for a couple decades. In a 2004 ballot initiative, the Roman Catholic Church spent $750,000 to campaign against gay marriage.

Economics and politics aren’t the only things troubling Michigan. We are beholden to the power and influence of the automobile industry, which is dependent on the nation’s ability to acquire cheap oil. Michigan politicians are therefore afraid to touch any oil or environmental issues lest they lose their financial backing from the auto industry.

However, Michigan is not alone in this “catch-22” oil quagmire. The whole nation is affected.

Like any business, the auto industry is focused on making profits and the industry’s survival has resulted in a series of unintended consequences that have encouraged Americans to increase their use of oil.

For example, this is the same industry that was totally unprepared to respond to the 1973 oil crisis, which resulted in supplementing our peaked out domestic reserves with foreign oil. It lagged behind Japan in developing energy-saving technology and subsequently lost market share. Then it lost interest in such technology and later re-built sales with gas-guzzling pick-up trucks and SUVs.

This is the same industry that pushed for building our fantastic Interstate system in the 1950s that inadvertently created our sprawling metropolitan areas. Now, instead of walking to work, school or the grocery store, we need our cars. Since the drivers in a family usually go in different directions, they each need a car. Great for selling cars. Not so great for reducing traffic jams, voraciously using up natural resources to make the cars, or in creating climate-changing carbon emissions.

This is the same industry that helped to deep-six a working public transportation system of electric streetcars, subways and trains so that it could sell diesel-fueled buses that pollute and prove too costly to run so services are cut.

This is the same industry that looked for cheaper, non-union labor so it left Michigan and eventually the country and ended up helping to build the monolithic global economy.

Today, U.S. automakers are nibbling around the edges to produce hybrid cars while Toyota, the world’s second largest auto producer, has been cranking out more energy-efficient cars.

Now, as more and more people acknowledge the connection between carbon emissions and global warming, we see a struggling U.S. auto industry painfully out of sync with environmental concerns and our politicians unable to grapple with this issue because they are afraid of losing voters who are afraid of losing their cars and/or their jobs in the auto industry.

Worse yet, as we come closer to peaking out in the world’s oil reserves (some say it is between now and 2037), nary a word is spoken by our presidential candidates regarding ways to prepare for that inevitability, except for biofuels. Michigan’s governor is among them.

What is missed in this biofuels solution is that urban sprawl has gobbled up land formerly used for farming over the past 50 years. What we will eventually have to face is the moral dilemma of using the land to fuel our cars or to grow food to feed our families. This dilemma doesn’t even touch our food exports, particularly to those countries who depend on our grains.

The Michigan Presidential Primary may be emblematic of what is so disconcerting about this year’s election. With our endless and expensive oil war in Iraq, global warming, peak oil, environmental degradation and the need for universal health care, what are the presidential candidates offering as solutions to these problems?

Unfortunately, we don’t know because the candidates aren’t talking and the media aren’t asking!

This article appeard on OpEdNews on Monday, January 14, 2008.

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