Saturday, October 27, 2007

Inconvenient truths taint blogosphere

"Blogs are nothing more than writing on the bathroom wall," so says my former editor, Jack Lessenberry.

The avowed curmudgeon, who ironically serves as patron saint of several left-wing blogs, has a point. If you want to read mind-numbing, inscrutable "analysis" of everything from Britney Spears' baby drama to Barack Obama's choice in underwear, then the blogosphere is for you.

Nowadays, truth is where you find it.Witness the explosion of the term "truthiness" — what you know in your gut without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts — coined by satirist Stephen Colbert.

That's the biggest draw of political blogs. They'll tell you what to be outraged about for the day — no research, interviews or objectivity required. It's all the news that fits within the ideological prism of your choice.

Tired of thinking for yourself? Blogs can be a huge time-saver, like joining Right to Life or

If you consider reporting on troops killed in Iraq a violation of the Alien and Sedition Acts, for heaven's sake, don't read the newspaper. Just scroll right-wing blogs to reassure yourself liberals (who control the media) hate those soldiers, as well as freedom, America and all that is good and holy.

If seeing George W. Bush's face is too much to bear, turn off the news. Turn to left-wing blogs, which unlike conservatives (who control the media), only depict the president as a diabolical Alfred E. Neuman caricature, hell-bent on destroying children, the elderly and all that is holy and good.And of course, there's plenty of room for the tin-foil hat crowd to vent. (Yes, Hillary Clinton really does want to poison your guinea pig.)

The Internet's echo chamber is a dream come true for political operatives and party hacks. Sweet-talk a sympathetic blogger, and get your talking points or shaky video commentary posted instantly and unchecked.

Even better, you can now find a home in cyberspace (instant credibility, baby!) for that whisper campaign you started portraying your opponent as a gay, dog-molesting, illegal immigrant-lover who hates America and all that is good and holy.

Sure beats that pesky mainstream media that insist on fairness, facts and filtering out partisan crap.God forbid you be forced to read opinions that differ from your own. It's only a critical part of relating to others and understanding the world in which we live.

I know it's not politically correct to blast bloggers. They're the extreme reporters of the new millennium, too cool to follow old-school rules like journalistic ethics or basic grammar.

And besides, who wants to invite chronically misspelled hate mail?

Well, like anyone who's graduated from elementary school, I've survived playground taunts. Liberal bloggers already have anointed me "Wanker of the Day," and I'm also a "liberal socialist facist," according to some reactionary poster in desperate need of a dictionary.

I field complaints from self-important politicians and their overbearing flacks every week.So I suppose I'm not terribly impressed by bloggers who sport porn star-worthy pseudonyms instead of owning up to the dribble they spew. If you're so proud of your work — you know, finding the truth we in the evil mainstream media conspire to cover up day after day — pony up your name, address, e-mail and phone number.

Because when we in the media mess up — and let's be clear, we have — you know where to find us. In the Enquirer, corrections are front-page news because that's our commitment to accuracy and accountability.

That's the way it should be. Blogs need to wise up to those standards if they want to be taken seriously.Like any good Gen Xer, I spend hours online and am impressed by a handful of bloggers — those who go by their actual names and have experience writing sans emoticons.

I enjoy Andrew Sullivan's dry wit and contrarian conservatism and Eric Alterman's accessible, yet professorial liberalism. But they are rare voices of reason in the wilderness.

Most bloggers really aren't breaking new ground. They're just the progeny of 18th-century pamphleteers who viciously libeled political foes under the guise of anonymity. Savvy, flush folks will always find a way to game the system, so now it's open season online.

Sincere citizen journalists protest they're heirs to "Common Sense."I wish.

Because you have about as much chance of reading a Thomas Paine in the blogosphere as you do bumping into a Thomas Jefferson beneath the Capitol dome.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Long-term thinking still lacking in Lansing

"Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today/ And don't worry 'bout tomorrow, hey, hey, hey."— Grass Roots lyrics, 1967, and unofficial motto of the Michigan Legislature

Who knew that a risqué ode to sweet lovin' could so perfectly encapsulate the state's ongoing budget fiasco?

No, it ain't over yet.We still don't have a 2008 budget, and there are only 13 days left until the Halloween deadline — which, for the superstitious or policy wonks among us, are very bad signs, indeed.

When the Capitol gang held their Oct. 1 slumber party (House Speaker Andy Dillon forgot the beer), they only finished half the job. At least legislators were true to the work ethic they brandished when going on holiday for most of July.

Lawmakers finally swallowed $1.35 billion in new taxes, prompting Gov. Jennifer Granholm to sign a 30-day budget extension. But nobody had the stomach to send programs and jobs to the guillotine that night (witness once-slash-happy Republicans surrender their plan to cleave $600 million.)

Since then, the Legislature has gone on a great treasure hunt to find $440 million to cut, which probably will mean prisoners being let out, fewer poor people seeing doctors and fewer child abuse investigations.

Gotta find the money somewhere, and the state budget office says the departmental bleeding can't be absorbed solely by attrition and efficiencies.

The budget battle begins anew next week when bills come to the floor.Oh, and here's the bad news. We're fewer than four months away from having to do it all over again for 2009.What's worse, the nonpartisan Citizens Research Council estimates we'll have a $200 million to $500 million hole to patch.

How's that possible? You can almost hear the sound of seething taxpayers surrounding the Capitol, pitchforks in hand.

After all, you now have to pay taxes on all your astrological and escort service needs. That wouldn't be so bad if we could stave off future draconian cuts to schools, health care and police.

It could work if we were investing in what would grow jobs and modernize Michigan — higher education, culture and natural resources. It would be worth it if Lansing finally licked the state's structural budget deficit.

If you're going to ask people to sacrifice, do it right.Here's the hard truth: They didn't.Extending the sales tax to some services isn't a bad idea, since our economy increasingly has shifted in that direction. Problem is, our tax system remains out of touch, said Tom Clay, former deputy state treasurer and the council's emeritus state affairs director.

The key is to draft a less capricious list than lawmakers cobbled together at the last minute. (Forget about fees to tee off, but pay up for phrenology, that staple of 19th century pseudoscience.)

Meanwhile, the economy and the auto industry are still in shambles — though there's some hope on the horizon for the Big Three with recent union contract talks. Still, there's little chance we'll see a boost in tax revenue for a while, especially if more people lose their jobs.

The new bump in the income tax to 4.35 percent doesn't stabilize revenues, Clay said. What's more effective is to raise the rate even more, and increase taxpayers' personal exemptions.

There's also initiating a gradual income tax rate, as most states have. Of course, that would take a constitutional amendment.

"This stuff is pretty straightforward," Clay says. "But it's pretty tough politically."

And there's the rub.Politicians have flaunted their "live for today" mantra since term limits kicked in, knowing they could shun unpopular reforms and pass unsustainable tax cuts to ride to re-election and sweet lobbying jobs afterward.

They no longer have $4.2 billion in reserves to raid, but lawmakers have done their damnedest this year to avoid tough choices anyway.All except Dillon, who truly gets it, but has been bogged down by the partisanship of his peers.

Like that of Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, who's busily plotting a gubernatorial bid, and Minority Leader Mark Schauer. who's picking out curtains for his new congressional office.

Though there's little love lost between the two, they might well break into a soulful Grass Roots rendition betwixt fundraisers:

"We were never meant to worry the way that people do/ And I don't need to hurry as long as I'm with you/ We'll take it nice and easy and use my simple plan ..."

Simple plans often carry heavy price tags. The bills are coming due for Michiganders today, in more taxes and fewer services.
But unless politicians shed their tunnel vision, you can bet you'll keep paying more in years to come.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Want to save our state? Here's how

It's been 31 years since rumpled newsman Howard Beale ordered a generation to fling open the windows and declare:

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

That's the line from the Oscar-nominated film "Network" everyone remembers, as it launched a thousand parodies and at least an ad campaign or two.But few people can recall the beleaguered Beale's soliloquy beforehand:

"I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's work, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter.

"Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TVs while some local newscaster tells us that today we had 15 homicides and 63 violent crimes, as if that's the way it's supposed to be.

"We know things are bad — worse than bad. They're crazy. It's like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don't go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.'

"Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad!"

Substitute an iPod, TiVo and Xbox, and it all sounds eerily familiar, if not a smidge apocalyptic.

In the past few years, I have had scores of conversations with Michiganders who have touched on these themes. There is a palpable frustration, even anger.

One thing almost everybody can agree on: Our state is in trouble.

But nobody knows how to change it.Enter the Center for Michigan, which is recruiting people from Benzonia to Battle Creek to brainstorm an action plan for the state in 90-minute community conversations during the next two months.

They're guaranteed to be more constructive — and productive — than screaming out your window.

The center, a bipartisan, nonprofit "think and do tank" outside Ann Arbor, calls this "Michigan's Defining Moment." After all, we have the worst economy in the nation, an abysmal rating with Wall Street, a shrinking population, threats to the Great Lakes, an ailing auto industry, a crumbling core city and a structural budget deficit that still hasn't been resolved even after last week's last-minute deal.

More than 80 forums will take place statewide, with Kellogg Community College, the Kellogg Foundation and Battle Creek Unlimited throwing their muscle behind the effort locally.

The center's approach is one of pragmatism, not dogmatism, aimed at bringing the left, right and center together to set firm goals to revitalize Michigan before the 2010 election, when most state leaders will be booted due to term limits. Conversations will be underpinned by civility, something sorely lacking in cable news talk shows, the blogosphere or even the Capitol.

Rather than being bland spitballing sessions, the center wants residents' feedback in three key areas: how Michigan can grow, retain and attract a skilled workforce in a global economy; invest in our economy and quality of life; and reform government at all levels to be more efficient, modern and accountable.Organizers also want to inject some much-needed pride into our state.

After all, we live in a place of unparalleled beauty nestled between four Great Lakes, which is home to some of the best universities in the world and has given birth to a slew of innovations from Corn Flakes to cars.

That is fertile soil for a new, modernized Michigan to grow.

But how, you might ask, do these conversations differ from other periodic powwows to set the state straight?

Well, the forums aren't just for the usual suspects — politicians, CEOs, union bosses — though everyone's invited. But as center founder Phil Power stresses, this round of sessions is aimed at all residents, especially those who feel their voices are never heard.

Groups will meet again in the winter, and then the center goes full throttle for the election cycle, presenting the plan to legislators, holding state House race debates and even issue potlucks.

Sounds great. But as a cynical columnist, I had to ask: What if nobody cares and nobody shows?

"You gotta stir people," said the center's Executive Director John Bebow, himself a cynical former journalist. "People have great interest in public affairs if you ask them to participate. But who's been asking?"

After the budget fiasco, it's clear Lansing has a rather remedial understanding of our state's problems. Now's the time for the people to lead — and our leaders can follow.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Readers deserve better government reporting

Ladies and gentleman, your leaders have failed you, and we in the media have failed you.

This Richard Clarke-esque epiphany crystallized somewhere in a 3 a.m. haze at the Capitol on Monday against the backdrop of infantile threats and finger-waving on the floor of Michigan's greatest deliberative body.

Afterward, everyone was left to bemoan what had gone wrong in our great state to make us shut it down for five hours, costing us upward of $1 million, when we were already almost $2 billion in the hole.

Culprits were, quite correctly, fingered as term limits, hyper-partisanship and gerrymandering.

Our neophyte legislators clearly had no concept of what it took to piece together a $42 billion budget without the aid of accounting tricks, even though they had 10 months to learn.

Thanks to term limits, which remain wildly popular, there are no old bulls left in the chambers to help steer the state from disaster. Former House Appropriations Poobah Don Gilmer paced helplessly on the sidelines Sunday night as he watched tadpole reps flail about.

Few, if any, lawmakers bothered to consult the erudite Emergency Financial Advisory Panel headed by former Govs. Bill Milliken and Jim Blanchard.

Pols would rather play the game of poisonous partisanship than make policy, pushed by the two parties and lobbies entrenched on both sides.

It's a dysfunctional system bolstered by redistricting, which is controlled by the party in power at the time of the census. Amazingly enough, the GOP last time managed to sketch state and federal districts that secured majorities, just as the Dems had before.

But enough about them. Flog the media, too.

We are your last line of defense against politics run amok. When the people are informed, it's a lot harder for leaders to run roughshod over us.

Sadly, too many media outlets view politics as a horse race and lack basic understanding of policy, so we figure you don't have to get it, either.

As an ignorant former editor of mine put it, "I view politics like baseball. The exciting time to cover it is during elections, like the playoffs. Otherwise, it's pretty much the off-season and no one's paying attention."

Wrong. I know poodles with a more nuanced take on public affairs.

You deserve to read about the history of the budget crisis, dating back to the '90s, when legislators — many who did know better — capitulated to what was easy and politically expedient. They slashed taxes to unsustainable levels to win elections. They raided $4.2 billion from reserves so they wouldn't have to make real reforms.

You deserve to read how budget cuts and higher taxes affect your life — how much you pay, how much you gain. That means connecting the dots from the state budget to all those local millages you've been asked to OK, program cuts at your local elementary school and the business that didn't open in your neighborhood because a tax structure wasn't in place.

You deserve to read about bills when they're introduced, not after they're law — from HPV vaccinations to pop-up tax reforms — so you know what your lawmakers are up to in Lansing and can be involved in the process.

In the last month, Michigan's press has been a model on all counts. But as soon as this crisis evaporates, so will our policy coverage.

Because just as the Legislature doesn't look like it did in 1983, neither does the Capitol press corps. It's been downsized by at least half, often the first victim in newspaper and affiliate cutbacks. Most media only run copy from wire services, which have taken big hits, as well.

What kind of message do we send to you, the people, when we don't do justice to the most important issues of the day?

In part, that's what's led to the explosion of political blogs, but most just litter the hyper-partisan wasteland. Anonymous posters at Right Michigan and Michigan Liberal routinely run propaganda the mainstream media normally wouldn't (and shouldn't) touch, such as the unbiased (ahem) state GOP poll showing Democrats are doomed with a tax hike or the Senate Dems whining about not being allowed to snap pics for political gain of the tax-hike tally.

We at the Enquirer, a small but scrappy paper, try to do our part, and I think we succeed more than any other in our weight class. But all journalists need to do more.

Because the stakes are too high in Michigan right now for us to fall down on the job.

Cowards and courage: I took aim in Tuesday's column at Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland, for stalling on a vote for immediate effect of the new services tax. But Anderson did vote for it, though not for the actual bill, a move which could cost the freshman his seat.

That's what lawmakers are paid to do. But it's worth contrasting that with Rep. David Agema, R-Grandville, who decided embarking on a Russian hunting excursion was far more important than voting on Michigan's fiscal future.

Anyone who thinks the sheep slayer deserves another term should volunteer as his target practice.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

What was the budget war good for? Absolutely nothing

LANSING — It was about 56 minutes into Col. Mike Bishop's quixotic last stand at the Capitol early Monday when one of his GOP foot soldiers crossed enemy lines.

John Pappageorge marched over to fellow Sen. Tupac Hunter on the Senate floor and bellowed, "C'mon, let's go home."

But the Democrat didn't budge, and he didn't vote on the budget."Tell him to stay on the other side of the aisle," he hollered, just a half-hour after the last near-fisticuffs on the floor.

It would be another 26 minutes before the last vote hit the board at 4:18 a.m., much to the chagrin of yawning staffers and reporters.The skirmish was over a new services tax, the first shot Gen. Jennifer Granholm had fired when negotiations commenced in February.

The Democratic governor finally marshaled the troops, first twisting the arm of Republican Rep. Chris Ward on the income tax. Her next target was AWOL Democratic Sen. Glenn Anderson, who was quivering in the back room as a blue-jean-clad Granholm strutted across the chamber.

"Where is he?" she demanded with the moxie of Douglas MacArthur.

She got her man. Seconds after Anderson pushed the button for the service tax, Republicans fell in line and our long state budget nightmare was over.

In bleary-eyed hindsight, Granholm looked to have executed a flawless strategy.

Even consternated conservatives conceded victory after the Dems triumphantly impaled the GOP's no-tax mantra, hoisting a bounty of $1.35 billion in new revenue.

Granholm didn't even bother to hold a news conference right afterward, letting the results speak for themselves.

In reality, she got lucky after months of bitter brinkmanship. And to the victor go the political spoils.Truth is, Republicans couldn't pull the trigger.

Even the GOP-controlled Senate could only muster up $600 million worth of cuts — a far cry from the $1.8 billion deficit. In the end, Bishop had an easier time selling income- and sales-tax boosts to his soldiers than even that level of cuts.

Proving that although Republicans hate raising taxes, they hate cutting spending even more.

Everyone is gung-ho for cuts until they hit home. Then lawmakers aren't so keen on moms, teachers, seniors and CEOs banging on their office doors.

Take the $500 million the House cleaved from business tax breaks. Sounds great until you read the fine print, that without exemptions, Battle Creek's Duncan Aviation would high-tail it out of this state.

The reality is, no one in Lansing truly was itching to raise taxes. It was simple arithmetic. After more than a decade of cutting taxes and raiding funds while the state's economy tanked, the bills came due this year.

Proposals to gash spending fell far short of the deficit, like paring welfare and employee salaries, or were deemed unfeasible, like slashing prisons and schools.

That's because, year after year, we've already chopped higher ed, community health, K-12 schools and child-protective services. State government has the fewest employees since the 1970s.

Michigan's budget doesn't work like the feds', packed full of pork (or earmarks when they're in your district) and can (and does) run in the red year after year.

We don't have that luxury.

Maybe legislators finally had an attack of common sense in the blue hours of Monday morning.Or maybe they were just sick of sleeping in their cars after 17 straight days of battle.

Whatever the reason, Michigan dodged a ruinous government shutdown with the extreme last-minute budget deal — and that is good news for all.

The bad news is, legislators passed a hodgepodge of bills no one's even bothered to read, and they'll now have to spend the next 30 days working out the kinks. We can only hope the flaws won't mean the Wolverine State will face another critically out-of-whack budget next year.

For now, bruised lawmakers have left the battlefield in search of showers and Scotch.They said they were fighting for Michigan — but their backbiting and infighting has only further jeopardized the state's future.

"In a true compromise, no one can claim victory," Sen. Mark Schauer said without a hint of a smile late Sunday night.

After this debacle, no one in Lansing should.