The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.—Paul Simon
There's a great scene in the movie Enemy at the Gates, about the Battle for Stalingrad. The Nazis are winning, and the Soviet leaders are desperate to find a way to make their troops fight better. What about shooting cowards to make an example of them? Tried that. Hmmm. Threaten their families? Tried that too.
Finally, a junior commissar musters the courage to speak up: "We could try giving them hope!"
What? Give the men hope for a better future? What an extraordinary thought! However, they've run out of other ideas, and have little left to lose. They try it, and it works.
That wasn't the case in the election campaign that just ended. Nobody really offered us very much hope. Stripped of all the fancy graphics and rococo bullshit, the slogans for both parties really came down to something like, "Vote for me. The other guys are worse." I'll bet that got a lot of people really excited about voting.
Three days before the election, I found myself squatting in an emergency veterinary clinic in Madison Heights, after my Australian shepherd puppy helped their economy by eating a large zinc screw.
While waiting for vomiting and my bill, I talked to the some of the other two-legged clients. They were worried about the future, about educating their kids and getting or keeping a job themselves. None of them mentioned politics, the candidates, the president, anything. They were merely trying to scratch out decent lives.
My sense was that, whether they voted or not, they saw politics and politicians as largely irrelevant to their everyday existence.
Well, we've just voted, a scattering of us anyway, and we've picked a new crowd of leaders. Thanks to the Metro Times' deadlines, I had to write this before knowing who they would be. But what I do know is that when the new governor takes over on Jan. 1, he will be faced with a huge looming deficit in next year's budget — at least $1.6 billion. Worse, he will have made promises that, if he sticks to them, will send that deficit even higher.
Plus, the current year's budget will turn out to be really out of balance — and money will have to be found to close that gap too. There's no more stimulus and no more "fat" to cut. The new governor is going to have to make some hard choices, and do it fast, without any time for a learning curve.
What's even harder is that no governor can do this alone; anything has to be passed by both houses of the Michigan Legislature. Next year, this will be amateur hour. Thanks to our moronic system of term limits, the majority of the lawmakers who take office in two months will be new. Depending on final tallies, as many as 100 of our 148 lawmakers may be new to their jobs.
None of the "experienced" ones will have been there more than four years. They will face a series of hard choices. Ultimately, they can choose to raise taxes on those still working, and/or extend the sales tax to services in what has become a largely service economy. The new lawmakers could raise fees for things like hunting licenses, and boost the beer tax for the first time since they lowered it in 1966.
They could revamp the prison system, saving hundreds of millions by releasing or tethering inmates who are no longer any threat to society. Or they could slash road repair and education, crippling our state's ability to reinvent our economy and compete.
Figuring out both budgets and trying to plan coherently for the future in a complex society isn't easy, even if you aren't blinded by ideology. It's especially hard when times are tough and you've never done this before. Plus, the new lawmakers are certain to encounter all sorts of helpful lobbyists eager to persuade them that the future hinges on protecting some particular special interest.
Fortunately, there's a new road map available to help. Michigan State University Professor Charley Ballard is that rarest of economists — one who is also an excellent writer.
He's just published a short new book which is the best thing there is on our state's economy: Michigan's Economic Future: A New Look (MSU Press, $19.95) ought to be required reading for everybody in state government, as well as for every intelligent citizen.
Ballard knows this state exceptionally well. Born in Midland into a Dow chemical family in the 1950s, he grew up mainly in Texas, after his father was transferred there. He came back in 1983 to teach at MSU, and has been there ever since. He's a personable man, neither an elitist ivory-tower type nor a tax-and-spend liberal.
What he mainly is selling is common sense. He quotes approvingly the report the governor's emergency financial advisory committee issued three years ago: "Solving the state's budget crisis requires a combination of revenue increases, spending cuts, and reform of how public services are delivered.
"No single silver bullet incorporating only tax increases, only spending cuts or only government reform will work."
Those words are truer than ever now. Ballard's book is valuable in part because it shatters lots of myths. We are in fact paying far less in taxes than we once did. Local governments are especially tax-starved. The money in the state's general fund, which pays for higher education, prisons, social services and Medicaid, has declined by an astonishing 40 percent in the last decade. "The tax system is being slowly eaten away, like a house full of termites," Ballard says.
His book lays out the problems in less than 250 pages, and offers possible solutions. Extending the state sales taxes to services would help. Repealing the state constitutional ban on a graduated income tax would be even better.
But regardless, the state needs more revenue to do its job. Ballard notes that he himself would be certain to pay more, as a highly educated economist with a good job.
However, he knows, as do I, there is more to quality of life than lining the pockets of a few successful middle-aged men.
When Ballard was writing Michigan's Economic Future, a student told him that it would be "political suicide" to suggest raising taxes. Ballard's response: "If it is political suicide to do what needs to be done for the future of Michigan, then we're dead already." The more people read this book, the better our chances of revival may be.
Maybe this is the problem: Politicians once believed that nobody really paid attention to elections until after the World Series. That was in a civilized era when baseball's fall classic ended in the first week of October, as God intended. But in these evil greedhead times, they play major league baseball from March until November. This year's Series was going the day before the election.
I'm not sure whether Sarah Palin or the idea of playing the World Series in the snow is a greater abomination to Our Lord.
Fortunately, as Saint Jon Stewart told us last weekend, "We live in hard times, not end times," which means that Commissioner Bud Selig — and the political system — may have another chance.