Detroit and Off Year Elections

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing is a breath of fresh air from Kwame Kilpatrick.  He’s predictably boring.  He doesn’t have the charisma or the oratorical skills of his predecessor, but neither does he seem to have the ethical problems that decimated the Kilpatrick name.  He took office in 2009 when expectations were set so low that it would be nearly impossible to disappoint, a feat, unfortunately, that he’s been able to pull off.

His disappearance during the budget negotiations for the city was pretty lame.  It was arguably the most important moment of his administration, and he basically had to hand the ball over to his deputy mayor, Kirk Lewis.  Today is his first day back in the office since he took leave.  This was far from an instance of leadership carrying the day.  On top of it, this was a situation that Bing knew he had to contend with, and he waited until the last possible moment he could, making the situation much worse.  Speaking with friends in Detroit, it seems like Bing doesn’t enjoy being mayor.  He came from the private sector, where what he said went, which is a huge change from the business of politics.

So what does his future hold for Detroit?  Hard to tell.  As it appears he doesn’t really like being mayor, or his health may not allow it, he  may well not run again in 2013.  Were he not to do so, that would open the door for Detroit Medical Center CEO Mike Duggan, a restructuring expert in his own right, to possibly run for mayor.  Duggan recently moved from Livonia to Palmer Woods, and while he initially denied interest in running for mayor, reports indicate that he’s begun discussions with key players in the city as to how he might go about doing just that.

I think Duggan would be a candidate worthy of consideration.  He’s a product of the McNamara machine, but he seems to have emerged from it without the taint of scandal, a notable advantage.  His experience in both the public and private sectors is pretty impressive, and he has the credibility to mount a plausible campaign.  But, this being Detroit, we have to talk about race, because if we don’t, we’re ignoring the elephant in the room.

Duggan wouldn’t be able to run against Bing.  To have a rich white guy who just moved in from the suburbs against a black incumbent is going to ignite racial sensitivities.  Simply put, the optics of the situation are just too inflammatory to the black voter base of Detroit, regardless of merit or potential, to allow Duggan a run at the city’s top office.  However, were Bing to bow out, as he may well, Duggan would have a clear path to what would likely be a successful campaign to become mayor.  So after the general election this year, we’ll have to start paying attention to yet another election.

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When Life Imitates Art

The Tribeca Film Festival is a New York institution.  Founded by Robert DeNiro, it takes place in the neighborhood of the same name, and it highlights standouts amongst new films.  This year, actors from Cuba starring in Una Noche, a film about teenagers trying to flee the communist island, were en route to receive their accolades at the festival when they, in fact, defected.

Javier Nunez Florian and Anailin de la Rua were to land in New York to meet the producer of the film, but they never arrived.  They made a layover in Miami, the center of the Cuban exile community in America.  Upon their arrival in Miami, they defected.  It’s been some time since the heyday of the Cold War, when Russian dancers and cultural figures were attempting to leave the USSR in droves, but artists are still seeking to leave behind them the conditions of oppression that prevent them from fully practicing their craft.  Not to mention, a much higher standard of living.

When public figures from another country voluntarily leave their home, food, literature and families behind, in some cases never to see them again, they do so at great personal peril, and tremendous cost to themselves.  But I think that it’s telling that people still seek refuge in the US, the freedom to be who they are, without controls, without interference and without official government sanction.  Here, they can do what they want, more or less.  And that’s a hell of a lot better than what they could hope for back in Havana.  Javier and Analin, bienvenidos.

Amsterdam Bound?

If so, and for reasons other than visiting the Anne Frank House or the Rijksmuseum, you may want to cancel your trips.  This week, Dutch courts upheld a government ban on selling marijuana to foreigners, decreeing that the substance may only be sold to Dutch subjects.  Alas.  Poor college juniors travelling to the land of tulips.  I’m sure at least a few of them will make it all the way there only to realize that they’re out of luck, and will have to do the exact same thing that they’d have to do in the US, which is, buying the substance illegally.

I don’t like how the US pursues its drug policy.  I think overt criminalization is detrimental to society, and extraordinarily expensive to boot.  But, having tried outright legalization, the Netherlands, admittedly a far more laid-back place than America, has tried it, and found that at least in terms of the drug tourism that legalization sparked, that didn’t work either.  Like many policy questions, I think that this is one that’s best served by a moderate course.  Let’s not demonize the users and try to lock as many of them as humanly possible up in jail, but at the same time, let’s not go so far as to say that legalization is a good idea and ought to be the only answer.

The best policy is to curb demand, and that means getting people off of drugs.  We’ll never be entirely successful, but that shouldn’t prevent us from pursing a reasonable policy of looking at this as a matter of public health rather than criminal activity.  However, one of the strongest forces in the human psyche is denial, and admitting that your country has a (policy) problem is usually the hardest part on the road to (public) recovery.

Suing Big Beer

The 1980s witnessed an onslaught of litigation against American cigarette manufacturers.  Collectively, they became known as ‘Big Tobacco,’ and were on the receiving end of a tsunami of legal actions that ended up producing hundreds of billions of dollars in legal settlements to various government agencies, states and localities, the feds and individuals.  The lawsuits were predicated on a few main points, namely, that tobacco was addictive to everyone, and that Big Tobacco lied about it to the American public.

Now, members of the Ogala Sioux tribe living in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are suing four liquor stores right next to the reservation in White Clay, Nebraska, demanding $500 million in damages not only from the four stores in question, but also their distributors and the breweries.  Sound familiar?  It should, because the lawsuit is taking a page right from the playbook Big Tobacco litigants used.

Alcoholism is rampant on the reservation in question, which is banned from  having liquor stores of its own.  Average life expectancy is between 44 and 52 on the reservation, a huge difference from the US national average, which is 77.  Booze is admittedly killing these communities, but there’s several important differences between breweries and tobacco companies.

First, beer, for most people, isn’t addictive.  If the product is used as intended, you shouldn’t have any adverse consequences.  As opposed to cigarettes, which are addictive in and of themselves, and will result in death for about half of the people who buy them.  Simply put, the impact that the two products have on consumers is very, very different.  Second, there haven’t been any major revelations about the impact of alcohol on human health in years.  We all know, and have for decades, that chronic drinking to excess damages human health significantly.  There hasn’t been any new scientific findings that haven’t told us what we already know about alcohol.  The bottom line is that we know, accurately, and have for a very long time, what drinking does to us.

Alcoholism is a public health issue, and it should be treated as such.  This shouldn’t be a cause to litigate, but to foster tried and true public health campaigns that deal with the underlying problem of alcoholism itself, rather than identifying the supply of alcohol as the culprit.  What’s happened to Native Americans in this country is tragic, and along with slavery, I’d say that it constitutes the original sin on the legacy of America.  But if we want to truly tackle the issue itself, rather than enriching a bunch of trial lawyers, suing a few party stores in Nebraska for half a billion dollars misses the point entirely.

Old People and the Truth

Ever notice that old people say exactly what’s on their minds?  I envy them.  I think that they’ve basically gotten to a point where they simply don’t give a shit anymore, and will say damn near anything that pops into their wizened brains.  Congressman John Dingell (D-MI), who is 85 years old and has served in the House since Eisenhower was President, is a classic case in point.  As a Democrat, he’s no fan of the Tea Party, and usually refers to them as ‘Teabaggers,’ unaware that there is a different meaning to the word.

Well, at one point, before he was set to go on the Daily Show, his staff finally decided that they ought to bring him up to speed on what the word meant, certain that he should at least be aware.  He was first amused.  Then mildly disgusted.  Then he decided he was going to keep using it.  There are indeed benefits to getting old.

Pay Up, Or Die

Nobody likes getting sick.  And nobody likes paying bills.  So when you get sick and find yourself in a hospital, you may find yourself on the receiving end of rather aggressive attention from bill collectors embedded into hospital staffs before you even receive your treatments. Hospitals are increasingly finding themselves holding the bag for unpaid healthcare bills when patients are either unwilling or unable to pay.  And they have taken steps to ensure that they get paid.  The problem is that the steps they’ve taken may be illegal, and they’re certainly unethical.

Say, for example, you get sick and don’t have insurance.  You go to the ER, as any normal person would, only to find yourself sitting down with someone you assume is on the staff of the hospital, only to start receiving demands for payment upfront.  Odd?  Yes.  This is a new tactic.  And it’s one that’s starting to appear in hospitals more and more.

As far as I know, the US is the only country in the world that profits from people getting sick.  The fact of the matter is that as a society, we don’t let people die when they need healthcare, simply because they’re not able to pay for it.  Hospitals need to get paid, yes.  But installing debt collectors into hospital staff is not the way to go about it.  One reasonable avenue to pursue would be to let the Affordable Healthcare and Patient Protection Act take effect, compelling everyone to have insurance coverage.

It’s a mandated market-based initiative that would be cost effective, and would, over the long term, probably save trillions of dollars.  Why?  If everyone has insurance, then they’re not going to be bankrupted by simply getting sick, more likely to get preventative care that forestalls more serious health problems from becoming particularly severe and requiring ever more expensive treatments and interventions.

But for now, as the country continues to rehash the constitutionality of a bill that clearly falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government that would solve this problem, thousands of Americans will find themselves in hospital beds, sick and in pain, wondering what their future holds for them, only to find themselves speaking with undercover debt collectors, on the receiving end of an interrogation as to how they’ll pay for the services that they’ve just received or are about to receive.  What kind of a country have we become that we find this acceptable?  I, for one, hope that we do not find this acceptable.

From Across the Pond

The phone hacking scandal in Britain has thus far been contained to that country.  In a nutshell, journalists from publications and media outlets controlled by Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp hacked into the voicemail accounts of individuals who were of interest in news stories.  The scandal eventually broke, after long having been stymied by lawyers and politicking.  But once it did, it did so with vehemence, and the scandal is probably the biggest the UK has seen in decades.

Enter Michael Moore: he’s convinced that Fox News probably has done something similar in the United States, and that claim has actually been backed up by claims made by several family members of 9/11 victims.  Moore is going on a combination of basic evidence and gut instinct, but his reasoning, in my opinion, is fundamentally sound: why would the practice be confined to the UK alone?  It’s highly unlikely that a decision was reached in the upper reaches of the Murdoch empire that what was acceptable in one domain of the media conglomerate was acceptable in Britain but not in the US?

The phone hacking scandal has been playing out for a while in Britain now, and it’s going to take some time for this to play out in the US.  And while Moore is going on little more than anecdotal evidence and a hunch, that’s how some of the most important news stories have ever been broken.  We may be on the cusp of entering a process that may fall the giant that is Fox News.