Monday, September 24, 2007

Detroit Free Press Thinks Everyone Else Ought to Be Courageous

"A plague o' both your houses" (Romeo & Juliet, Act I, Scene 1), is easy enough a position for the Detroit Free Press (from the comfort of their non-legislative offices) to stake out.

What makes it so easy, is that it demands so little real analysis -- only instinctive reaction. And, by merely validating and reinforcing the gut-level reactions of the vast majority of readers who don't think much (rather than exhorting readers to spend some extra time in thought and contemplation -- which exhortation most readers inevitably will resent like schoolchildren resent homework), the newspaper probably boosts -- rather than risks -- sales, and its own revenue stream.

"Hard-hitting?" Self-serving is more like it. The Free Press is just as guilty of putting its own interests ahead of the public interest as are the legislators that the Free Press self-servingly claims to have the moral authority to criticize.

In order to have the moral authority to level the criticisms it makes, the Free Press needs to exhibit the courage that it claims Michigan's legislators lack. What it really needs to do, if it wants to claim moral authority, is to publish the editorial (you know, the one that actually tells the real truth and that does not resort to easy and mindless platitudes) that will actually put some of its own advertising revenue -- and even, perhaps, some of its subscriptions -- at risk.

Until the Free Press has the courage to take the kind of risk that it claims legislators ought to take, then it has no business pretending -- on the safety of its own front page (the content of which the Free Press controls) -- to be more courageous than any of the people it shamelessly calls cowards.

That said, do you actually expect Grand Rapids voters (for instance) to throw *THEIR* bums out, and to elect more responsible, less-ideological, Legislators to go to Lansing? Should we expect the same from any other voters in this state, for that matter?

Sure, there appear to be a handful of gutless wonders in the State House, who are afraid to go on record voting to raise taxes. (Then again, their approach is demonstrably rational. After all, if such a vote is pre-destined to fall flat once the measure gets to the Senate, anyway, then who really wants to take an action that accomplishes nothing other than to fuel the other party's patented Slime Machine for the next election? Ask Julie Dennis (in Muskegon) if voters are more inclined to punish -- or to reward -- candidates who employ underhanded and deceptive "Slime Machine" tactics. Dennis lost in a close race -- and the last-minute intervention of the "Slime Machine" was decisive in securing her opponent's victory. The choice that the Free Press appears to criticize House members for not making, is what is known as a Hobson's choice. Is the newspaper's criticism really fair?).

So, what can the Free Press say to trigger real progress and to start fixing the crisis?

Presumably, if the Free Press bothers to look beneath the surface, it should quickly become apparent that the incentives for individual Republican state Senators (who don't have much time in office, as it is, to make their mark) are all in the opposite direction from compromise.

The way for a Republican state Senator to line up the financial resources to mount a campaign for his or her next job (and which of them is not looking, constantly, for the next job?), is to behave as aggressively as possible in manufacturing a budget confrontation. That approach: "We can have 'unity' -- but only if it is solely on the terms dictated unilaterally by the Senate Republicans and by their campaign-fundraising sponsors" -- ought to be quite familiar now to anyone watching the national political scene. And the beauty of this phony rhetoric is that it makes it so easy (even for people as smart as the Free Press editorial staff) to start blaming the other side -- the people who respectfully decline to accept the "unity" position unilaterally dictated by the Senate hold-outs.

Even if some Republican state Senators lose their jobs in the next election, and cannot manage to line up the resources to run for some new office, the question is worth asking: Will it be easier for them to "cushion the blow" of being voted out of office, by lining up a new job (presumably, using the connections of generous party donors) if they take a hard line, or if they compromise? Presumably, it is easier to find a job (and to find one that pays better), if one remains loyal to the party agenda. The possibility that the opposite might be true would certainly seem counter-intuitive.

Also worth asking (though ignored by the Free Press) is this: Where do the policy prescriptions of the Senate Republicans' money-masters actually threaten take the State of Michigan, if adopted? We've seen this same experiment run many times before, and the results are remarkably consistent -- when one looks at the actual numbers and not the P.R.

An immoderate and anti-centrist package of fiscal austerity, unreasonably low taxes, regressive taxes (lotteries, sales taxes, liquor and cigarette taxes), and deregulation, has been prescribed again and again in various places by the same group of people -- Chile, for example, on September 11, 1973 (the day Augusto Pinochet seized power, and Salvador Allende was killed); Argentina; the "five tigers" of Southeast Asia; Bolivia; the list could go on and on. And it has been tried domestically, too: Mississippi, Alabama, and other notoriously low-tax states.

Who, in their right mind, would not prefer to live (and to send their children to school, and to look for a job) in such high-tax, "Blue State" jurisdictions as New York or California (or, internationally, take your pick of Scandinavian countries that are out-stripping the United States in quality-of-life measures), than in Mississippi? In fiscal experiment after fiscal experiment, the prescription offered by the people who pay Republican legislators to run for office, has been shown repeatedly to be a dismal failure. That prescription, with apparent uniformity, does more harm to the patent than good. And yet, they keep pushing the same tired and ineffective policies over and over and over again.

In this regard, if you get a chance to pick up a copy of Naomi Klein's new book "The Shock Doctrine," which just became available at bookstores. I think it is quite helpful in putting certain much-discussed policy proposals in a larger historical and economic context. See <>. She's done an admirable job at separating myth from reality, when it comes to evaluating the real impacts of Milton Friedman's (and his disciples') policy prescriptions on real populations.

Isn't it time for the Free Press to stop pretending (as it knows is false) that the "neutral" or "objective" or "centrist" position can be summarized as "a plague o' both your houses?" That argument presupposes that both sides in the argument are equally wrong, that they are equally interested in compromise, and that the truth is necessarily equidistant between the extremes. I respectfully suggest that all three presuppositions, if you think about it, are simply wrong, and the reasons why all three are wrong should be so obvious as not to require further elaboration.

In some arguments -- say, between absolute command-economy Marxism and pure deregulated laissez-faire capitalism -- the "truth" might arguably lie somewhere close to the midpoint between the extremes. In other debates - such as the "intelligent design" controversy, one side (evolution by natural selection) has all the facts, while the other side is not even wrong, because its position does not even qualify as science in a manner to justify opening debate in the first place. I'd respectfully suggest that the current budgetary impasse in Michigan has much more in common with a debate between faith and reason, than it does with a policy debate between two equally-unreasonable, reasonable opponents (where the truth lies more-or-less at the midpoint between the extremes).

Perhaps it is time to call a spade a spade, and to reveal "faith-based" policymaking (this time knee-jerk "faith" in Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, by their economic disciples) for what it really is -- a recipe for disaster.

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