Friday, December 31, 2010

Planting Trees at the Center of the Universe

I've been trying to write up a good send-off for the Governor, and found that it's hard to sum up in words the eight years we just experienced. Items pulled out of context can't portray the enormous changes we have seen - so I decided to tell the story of how one corner of my little world has changed for the better.

I don't live at the Center of the Universe, but I can see it from my house. This is the timeline of how one piece of land very near my home went from a contaminated and trash-filled gravel and dirt vacant lot, to a thriving retail and community action building and green space that showcases the best of today, while featuring all the promise of tomorrow. It is a very fitting tale for the last day of Governor Granholm's time as leader of our state, for her initiatives had a big hand in shaping what happened here. You know how she has been fond of the phrase, "Sometimes leadership is planting trees under whose shade you will never sit"? Well, the trees she helped to plant at the Center of the Universe are already bearing fruit.

The little lot that sits at the corner of Lake Drive and Diamond in Grand Rapids was a Shell gas station up until the mid-80's. I only have very vague memories of it, for example I could tell you it was a Shell, but actually recalling how the station looked is lost to time. (And in a real odd twist, I found out just recently that it was once owned by a good friend of my father. Small, small world.) The building structure and pumps had been removed, and all that was left was a gravel/dirt space, ground contaminated with industrial waste. That's how I visually remember it. Surrounded by a fence for a time, until eventually they took that down as well. I was glad for that. I used to walk by the lot often, and once the fence was gone I could cut across to get to wherever it was I was going. Never thought much of it - just another empty spot of blight in the city, collecting bits of trash and the occasional used car for sale.

It has this great sign though. A local artist named Reb Roberts painted a colorful picture that became the focal point of the neighborhood....

centerLike so many stories of urban revitalization, the one about East Hills begins with decay. Years ago, an abandoned gas station lot strewn with overgrown weeds and surrounded by a chain link fence symbolized the blight at the doorstep of a nearly forgotten neighborhood.

That’s when artist Reb Roberts took matters into his own hands. He painted a vivid sign that read simply ‘East Hills: Center of the Universe’ and fastened it tightly to the fence encircling the vacant lot. Once perceived as a black hole sucking the vitality of an area increasingly void of life, the dreary lot suddenly became viewed as a bright and welcome opportunity to reverse the downward slide with new ideas, investment, and passion.

... and I would wistfully chuckle when I saw it, thinking "Oh great. The Center of the Universe is a dirty vacant city lot." Still, it was my neighborhood, my home ground, and the sign was a symbol of why I wanted to live in this southeast section of town; it always has been filled with the artists and the dreamers and the working class and the hippies that turned into yuppies that wanted to make the world a better place.

In late summer of 2002, MSHDA gave a $40,000 grant to the East Hills Council of Neighbors to put towards developing the lot into a retail space. They wouldn't own the land, but in time it helped them recruit developer Guy Bazzani, who had redeveloped other inner city properties in Grand Rapids. He conducted a feasibility study, and the city of Grand Rapids threw in $10,000 for environmental tests.

Plans started to form. After all the testing, it was a go for development for the following year. In mid-June of 2003, heavy equipment began to remove the contaminated soil on the lot, and city officials held a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate. The building would be a 7,000 ft L-shaped "green" building that would house retail stores and a restaurant. And apparently this public/private partnership was a first, with officials calling it "precedent-setting" for a community-initiated redevelopment of a brownfield site.

They had hoped to have it built and open by the end of the year, but it took a little longer to remove the contamination than they thought. They stopped for the winter, and started back up in the spring. Because of the delay, one business slated for the building pulled out, things started to get complicated - but they still proceeded ahead with the plans. In the summer of 2004, the building, as well as the whole neighborhood, got another boost from Governor Granholm's "Cool Cities" program - and that helped put it over the top.

Granholm said she sought projects that would create a vibrant street life and enhance neighborhoods or downtowns with a mix of residential, retail, entertainment and other commercial ventures. High-density, pedestrian-friendly projects were given priority.

In Uptown, funds will be used to renovate business facades and for the Center of the Universe retail and office building being built at Lake Drive and Diamond Avenue SE.

Developer Guy Bazzani, who wrote the grant applicant, said his $1.3 million private project met Cool Cities criteria because it will serve as "the core of revitalization of the neighborhood."

hope 039
Taken with my first digital camera, 2004

"Cool Cities" provided a $50,000 grant toward the building, and they worked through the summer and fall to finish it. On December 2nd of 2004, they held a very happy grand opening. Marie Catrib's, a popular restaurant and deli, was one of the first occupants, and they are thriving there today. (Quite literally thriving, when I went to take a few shots today, the line was out the door. It's always crowded.) There is an art studio/gallery next to the restaurant. The West Michigan Environmental Action Council opened its office in the building the following spring of 2005. They were made for this spot, for this building is as green as can be, named in 2006 one of the "first double-gold LEED-certified buildings in the universe".

leed"This symbolizes the best of all worlds," said Guy Bazzani, whose Bazzani Associates Inc.'s design and restoration work can be seen around Grand Rapids.

"This hits what I call the triple bottom line: the social aspect of putting up a building that is sensitive to neighborhood surroundings, is environmentally sensitive, and all those costs influence the economic side.

Though it will not be accessible to the public, an observation deck was built for people to look at the "vegetated green roof" that manages stormwater runoff.

The roof is a garden of maintenance-free, drought-resistant flowering sedum planted in four inches of soil that sits atop layers of insulation. A mat made from recycled plastics collects moisture, and tiny "cups" collect rainwater and disperse it over time. A gravel-filled area channels rainwater to the planted area.

The building also will boast "light shelves" affixed to outside windows that heat the building from sunlight in the winter and help keep it cool in the summer, and a rain garden in the parking lot to collect stormwater there.

As a result, no runoff from the site will go into the city's sewer system, a feature that also hit Bazzani's triple bottom line.

The finished building in May 2010

It's a tree-hugger paradise alright, with a "Green Jobs" poster in the window, and spaces in the parking lot for "alternative fuel vehicles only". And just recently, a very fitting piece of the puzzle was added to this ground that once was a former gas station. The parking lot received one the area's first ChargePoint stations for electric cars as part of Consumers Energy's new “SmartStreet” program. "SmartStreet" came about due to Michigan's 2008 energy legislation that directed Consumers to offer energy efficiency programs to its customers. The Center of the Universe is part of a pilot program that Consumers hopes to expand across the state.

chargepointThe charging station installed in the Grand Rapids neighborhood East Hills is part of a Consumer Energy's “SmartStreet” program, which will include adding 60 “smart meters” to homes and businesses in 2011 to track energy usage on a daily basis. The idea is to encourage consumers to use their energy during non-peak times when rates are lower.

"We selected the East Hills neighborhood to launch SmartStreet because we want to demonstrate that engaged customers can save money when they apply new energy efficient technologies," said John Russell, Consumers Energy's chief executive officer.

Having the city's first charging station next to the West Michigan Environmental Action Council office makes sense because the organization's office has served as a demonstration site for many sustainable green technologies, said Nicholas Occhipinti, the group's policy and community activism director.

Since there aren't a lot of electrics on the road yet, I'm not sure that the charger has been used as of now - but we are ready for when they show up, the autos of the future that will feature batteries made right here in Michigan. And you know who had a very big hand in making all that possible.

That's how Jennifer Granholm changed the Center of the Universe. From the rebirth and development efforts in inner cities, to the focus on and legislation for renewable energy and energy efficiency, to her efforts on behalf of the saving the domestic auto industry and bringing us the batteries that will power the electric car - all those things are featured in one small spot in my world, a spot that went in eight years from a desolate and deserted bit of land, to one that is thriving with jobs and leading the way into a green economy for Michigan.

And that, among many other reasons, is why I am a very proud supporter of Governor Granholm. Thank you Governor, you certainly did change my world, and it has been an honor and a privilege to write and shoot and bring these ideas to everyone who wants to see a better future for us all. There are those who can't get past the hard times right now, but it is my hope and belief that eventually time will show the true legacy that you gave us - and it's one that you can be very proud to call your own.

Sturgeon River Panorama: Happy Birthday Mom!

In honor of Mom's birthday today, the banner above has been replaced with a panorama shot of the Sturgeon River near Norway, MI - one of Mom's favorite places. It's a gorgeous spot where a dam has been removed and rocky rapids and wilderness remain. My limited lens range wasn't wide enough to capture the entire vista, but this comes pretty close. Click here to see the 1000 px version at Flickr.

And here's a little Garth for you too. Apparently Capitol of Nashville hasn't yanked this one down yet, so enjoy it while it lasts. :-)

Love you Mom - Happy Birthday!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

WKAR Video: An Evening with Governor Granholm

The Skooby Interview. It's the one I've been waiting for:

One of the better interviews, simply because Skubick has been so close to the situation for all this time. He knows the deeper questions that take Governor Granholm out of her standard talking points, ones that she had become very practiced at over the course of the other interviews (One exception: Rick Albin's interview does that as well). Although Tim loves his "gotcha" questions and will tend to focus on the fodder of sensationalism over substance, he can and does tie some of the more controversial moments to how they can affect governance, which in turn affects us all. So, I try to give Skubick a pass on some of his sillier transgressions because, as he says in this interview - substance doesn't sell papers. And that's not his fault.

Maybe that's what he has been trying to do all along, hook people in with the drama so they stay for the policy. I honestly don't know. I feel his frustration though. People would rather indulge in the political games that are played rather than talk about the work that needs to be done. I've certainly seen that happen on the ground level, you know you are seeing it at the state and national level, and that's probably been true since the beginning politics in of our country. Unfortunately that is the very thing that distracts us from the important work. Republicans know this very well, and they exploit it.

The reason I tie this interview to the ongoing battle is that the obstruction policy of Mike Bishop make an appearance here, and I feel it's important to note, for the future of the party, that this tactic will continue to work as long as there are no penalties attached to the behavior. Democrats continue to struggle to define to the public exactly what it is they are willing to fight for, and that allows the Republicans to get away bad behavior. It needs to stop.

During the 94th Legislature, Bishop made progress as difficult as he possibly could. Remember there were three separate budget battles during 2007; the mid-year shortfall and cuts, the writing of the MBT, and the final tax battle that shut down the government in one big, serious game of chicken in the fall. During these exit interviews, the Governor has been asked a few times why she didn't fix the structural deficit problem we have with our budget - and what these interviewers are forgetting is that she did give it a shot, and she tried it more than once. What happened during 2007 though set the tone for the rest of her tenure when it came to progress on this issue, as well as many others.

Most states are gradually shifting their revenue base to include services. As of 2007, Michigan ranked near the bottom in number of services taxed. Governor Granholm introduced a plan that would "lower the rate and broaden the base" - which would have helped shore up our deficit problems from there on out. (Note: No one escaped the Crash of '08, but it wouldn't be surprising to find that the states with a broader tax base fared better with budget difficulties than those who were concentrated in a few specific areas. The CBPP suggested such a thing in 2009 when states started to raise some service taxes to deal with the recession)

It was at that point that the Democratic Party's Achilles heel was exposed - and parallel these next two paragraphs to what is happening today at both the state and national level. Here is Peter Luke, March 18th, 2007.

At a Senate Finance Committee meeting Thursday convened to pretty much trash the 2-percent tax, Sen. Nancy Cassis, R-Novi, echoed emerging conservative GOP talking points that maybe Michigan spends too much on education already, given high teacher pay.

The move might wake up Democrats, who are being viewed by the GOP as too timid to raise revenue for a broken budget. House Speaker Andy Dillon, D-Redford Township, pretty much dismissed Granholm 's proposals for long-term funding for new education spending when he told a Detroit radio station that any tax increase could be temporary. Tax cuts worth billions of dollars would stay permanent.

Eerie coincidence? No. It's been the plan all along. We just saw it here first. And we are about to see it on a national scale in Washington.

After the bruising fights of 2007, during 2008 Mike Bishop dragged his feet on everything for as long as he could. The energy legislation was the battle; they watered it down, fought the RPS, threw up all the roadblocks they could think of. It finally got done towards the end of the year. There were some other fights as well, over the primary, etc, but the budget at that point wasn't an issue because of what was accomplished in '07, and the effects of the recession hadn't yet hit the bottom line. The budget was done, the energy legislation was done, and we focused on the election.

It's a bit of a miracle those things got done, considering what came next.

After the resounding Democratic victories in the fall of 2008, for the 95th Legislature, Mike Bishop decided that his job was to obstruct the will of the voters by blocking any and all progress for the Democratic House and the Governor. He simply said "no" to everything - and mind you, this came at a time when Michigan and the rest of the country were facing the worst economic downturn since the Depression.

Is that sinking in to anyone? At the time of acute crisis, he refused to help. He became fanatical about his ideology, to the point where he justified hurting the very state he took a vow to serve. When we needed lawmakers to pull together for the good of our citizens, Mike Bishop choose to put himself and his party first - and that has stopped a lot of progress for Michigan for the past two years. The Democrats admitted they were unwilling to take a stand, and the Republicans admitted that they would shut down the government before they would compromise on anything. And now Mike Bishop is bragging about it.

Freep: The thing about (Republican Senate Majority Leader) Mike Bishop is ...

Granholm: He wears his obstructionism like a badge of honor.

So what did we learn from this? We better figure it out, because I believe that we will see the same thing happen in Washington over the next two years. We are already seeing it now, with a record number of filibusters from the US Senate Republicans in the previous Congress, to the new Republican-controlled House changing rules that will allow even bigger tax cuts for the wealthy while they demand further cuts to public services. This is at a time where states are still struggling with record deficits that will force major cuts at the local level because we will not see any further help from DC.

Big pain is coming, and the Democrats are going to need to be bold if they are to revive the magical "voter enthusiasm" that we sorely lacked in 2010. Compromise is a good thing. Showing that you are willing to compromise goes a long way. But at some point, you have to show also that you are willing to take a stand, to fight for the things that are important to people. To fight for the people, period.

And that brings me back to my most favorite Jennifer Granholm moment ever. Before there was Mike Bishop, in 2003 there was Betsy DeVos, running around and intimidating Republican lawmakers who dared reach for compromise with our popular Democratic governor. DeVos has managed to escape scrutiny during these exit interviews, but she was a huge presence at the beginning, demanding loyalty to "party principles" from Republicans, running frivolous legal investigations on the Granholm administration, you name it, the whole Gingrich playbook was being employed.

Governor Granholm took a stand when she said this:

Gov. Jennifer Granholm unleashed a blistering attack against Republican lawmakers Friday, saying they'd rather resolve a budget deficit by cutting heating aid for seniors and assistance to homeless shelters than delay an income tax cut.

"I am not going to stand for cutting out the legs from the social safety net, balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable citizens because they (Republicans) don't have the guts to pause a rollback in an income tax that equates to $11 a person," Granholm told reporters.

She said an effort by the state Republican Party to discourage GOP lawmakers from supporting the tax cut delay "is irresponsible and cruel."

And then she threw the Bible at them. Whoa. I was hooked from that point on. It was a very bold move, one that drew some criticism, but one that set Betsy back on her heels. In the end, a compromise was reached that paused the tax cut, and also gave business a tax cut as well. It was brilliant. Granholm defined what it was that she would fight for, and then she moved to compromise.

President Obama would do well to take a lesson. Democrats in general would do well to take a lesson. After the losses of the last election, there has been plenty of discussion as to where the Democrats go next. In the interview above, Governor Granholm talks about expanding the appeal of the party, to reach out to the voters that we saw in '08 and get them back again. Well, the only way you can do that is define just what it is you stand for.

And then show you are willing to fight for it.

One of Governor Granholm's greatest accomplishments is that no one was cut from Medicaid during her tenure. We may have nibbled around the edges, but that safety net was kept intact during a time when we were cutting billions from the budget. She won that battle, it started by taking a stand years ago, and there is no doubt in my mind that it saved lives.

And that's why I got as deeply involved as I did. If the Democrats show that they are willing to stand up and fight like that, they just might be amazed at all the enthusiasm they will see from the voters in 2012.

One battle is over, and another one begins. The faces may change, but the goal remains the same - and that is to create a better world for us all.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

And In The End...

Govenor Granholm is hours away from freedom.

LANSING — Just before noon today, a jeans-clad Gov. Jennifer Granholm took her scrapbook in arm, said final goodbyes, and walked out of her Lansing executive office.

For the last time.

Granholm turned over the keys to Gov.-elect Rick Snyder’s staff, who will begin his move-in this weekend. He’ll be sworn in Saturday at noon to become Michigan’s 48th governor.

Granholm clutched a scrapbook of her eight years as governor, compiled by her staff, as she said her final farewells to the remaining transition staff. The executive office is in the Romney Building, across the street from the Capitol.

And the 95th Legislature comes to a close.

Sine Die Session Goes Out With A Whimper

The House and Senate were both in session Wednesday for the last day of the term, Sine Die, but there was no last-minute flutter of activity.

The battle is finally over.

Give It Back For Jobs

It has been shown that tax cuts for the wealthy are the least effective form of stimulus available because the already rich tend to simply sock that money away in the bank instead of increasing investments that are needed to create jobs and help the economy. Three professors have decided to remedy that little problem, starting a website that will allow those who can to give it back, creating a "shadow fiscal policy" that leads to a stronger society.

Upset the federal government recently extended tax cuts for the rich, three professors at Yale and Cornell universities have created a website that encourages wealthy Americans to give their tax savings to charities and send a political message in the process.

The professors started to allow Americans "who have the means" to calculate what their tax cut would be and donate that amount to a charity. They recommend groups such as Habitat for Humanity, Children's Aid Society and Salvation Army that they say promote fairness and a strong middle class.

These groups also create jobs. Habitat certainly creates jobs. So does the Salvation Army. All charities do, in some form or another. And your tax cut donation is tax deductible. Win-win. From the site:

America’s shared prosperity is under threat. Even as the Great Recession devastates the American middle class, the wealthy continue to prosper.

The tax cut deal, while perhaps the best the President could get, will not end this crisis of American democracy. It does too little to help the middle class. And it expects too little support from those who can afford to give the most. Ordinary citizens can, by acting together to create a shadow fiscal policy, correct this failure of government and set the country moving toward a just prosperity.

Americans who have the means should collectively give back our Bush tax cuts by making donations to organizations that promote fairness, economic growth, and a vibrant middle class. Such joint action, by all visitors to this site, will begin to replicate good government policy, outside the government and free from the grip of obstructionists within it. Because contributions to all of the selected charities are tax deductible, donations made through this site draft the government as a partner in funding the projects that they support.

We can, in this way, begin to redeem candidate Obama’s promise that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

Maybe this will encourage those wealthy Republican Congresscritters to spend their ransom money on something good for a change. Maybe they will encourage their friends to do the same.

Ha ha ha! OK, probably not, but it's worth a try.

Maybe We Should Elect the Lobbyists

How would that work? Perhaps with the "partisan" and "non-partisan" sections on the ballot, we could add a "corporate" section as well. List what companies or organizations are involved in hiring lobbying firms, list their main issue, and we could base the number of lobbyists they could have on the number of votes cast. Or something. Sound good?

One thing that Governor Granholm has mentioned a couple of times now in these exit interviews is the "disproportionate" influence of lobbyists on legislation in Lansing, and, with the upcoming budget and proposed business tax cuts, it's worth bringing this to the forefront once again. Sure, we talk about it, we know it is happening, but I don't think we can stress enough the difficulty lobbyists are adding to the mix when it comes to solving the tough budget issues. Here is the Governor with Kyle Melinn of MIRS:

MIRS: What’s been your experience with lobbyists here in Michigan? What would your postscript be on lobbyists here?

G: I think lobbyists have too much power. Every loophole in our tax code has a lobbyist that’s attached to it. The lobbyists become personal friends with people and therefore it’s difficult for legislators to vote against somebody that has been a friend or has helped to fund their campaigns. The lobbyists have a huge amount of influence over the legislature, and I think that’s unfortunate. Not that they’re not nice people, but they have a disproportionate - far disproportionate - impact over legislation than everyday citizens do. That’s why, those who come to Lansing should be the voice for everyday citizens and not end up being the voice for the lobbyists, but, time spent here in Lansing means you end up socializing with lobbyists, and that’s unfortunate.

I’ve never gone to lunch with a lobbyist. We’ve made it a policy… I bring my own lunch everyday to work, I don’t allow lobbyists to buy meals for me and I haven’t spent a lot of time with them. It’s one of the reasons why in Lansing, I’m not that popular among the lobbying community because I haven’t spent personal time with them.

But they have a far greater impact than everyday citizens would imagine.

MIRS: Is there anything we can do about that?

G: Well I think transparency in who is funding campaigns is critical. The lobbyists, they’re doing their jobs, they are doing a good job at it. They represent companies and those who want certain benefits. Those companies, corporations who want certain benefits, a tax provision written on their behalf, they can give unlimited amounts of money, undisclosed, to a political party, and have the political party run ads on their behalf. Unlimited amounts of money. And they can come directly from the corporate checkbook. that is wrong. That is not a way that the citizens can feel that their elected representatives are really representing them, and not representing the interests of a lobbyist.

Campaign finance reform is definitely something we need to do, but probably won't come outside of a citizen's ballot proposal. (Someone want to finance that? Please?) But that won't happen before the next budget is written, and the next budget is going to be the problem. Snyder seems to be flying in the face of recent Republican obstruction when he calls for a look at trimming tax credits that the above mentioned lobbyists worked so hard to get.

First of all - and this one has to be like chewing tinfoil to some of our better Republican spinmeisters out there - Snyder correctly labels tax breaks as "spending".

"Tax expenditures should be looked at," Snyder said at a news conference Wednesday when asked if he favored closing tax loopholes.

"I don't know if I would describe that as new revenue or less spending."

Hint: Go with "less spending". But we aren't sure either, because the former Republican Senate wouldn't even dream of considering the idea.

Treasury Department reports have pegged the cost of "tax expenditures," which include credits, deductions and exemptions, at more than $30 billion.

When Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm sought to close certain tax loopholes, many Republicans in the Legislature denounced the move as a veiled tax increase.

"It's tough for the Democrats to get them through; it's tough for the Republicans to get them through," Craig Ruff, a senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants said of eliminating tax loopholes.

"Behind every tax expenditure is a potent lobby."

Yes, we've heard. And given that our elected officials are now threatened with removal from office in the form massive campaign spending should they anger the wrong corporation by trimming a tax credit, does Snyder even have a hope of getting Republican votes to pull this off? The wail of "lost jobs" will loom large from the business sector, to be sure. But chances are, they will go after the low-hanging fruit in the form of the EITC credit and the film credits first. Is anyone lobbying for the poor and the creative class?

Snyder is calling for "shared sacrifice" in the face of a 1.8B deficit and a $1.5B plan to cut business taxes. It appears that public employees are going to be doing a lot of the "sharing" here - but the tax breaks are coming up as well.

Administration officials say they’re combing through Michigan’s business tax code to identify tax breaks and loopholes that can be eliminated to provide the revenue necessary to pay for it. Lobbyists for the firms that benefit from those breaks, however, say Snyder risks creating another round of winners and losers that resulted from the 2007 tax debate that produced the MBT.

And then they might stop buying lawmakers lunch. That would be a shame, wouldn't it?

Hope that the media stays on top of the "winners and losers", because something tells you that the best lobbyists are going to be on the winning side of any new business tax code that comes about. It's something to watch for, that's for sure.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Want a Small Car Yet? You Will Soon

USA Today, 12/9/2010. Yes, this report was a under three weeks ago. Shows you how quick things can change.

Ford FiestaAutomakers are offering more conventional cars that cross the 40-miles-per-gallon threshold in highway driving, but relatively low gas prices continue to hold off buyers.

In past years, few models were able to get a 40-mpg rating without using more expensive hybrid or diesel technology. Now automakers are starting to show they can hit that mark with improved conventional gasoline powertrains for a smaller price premium — or none.


But getting buyers to sweep them off the lots hasn't been easy. Gas prices averaged $2.968 a gallon nationally on Wednesday for regular, AAA reports. While that's up 33 cents a gallon from a year ago, it's still short of the $3-a-gallon threshhold.

"When gas is cheap, no one is going to be rushing out to buy a small car," says Gabriel Shenhar, senior auto test engineer for Consumer Reports.

But automakers are keenly aware of how many were caught short in 2008 when gas prices shot up to a $4.14 per gallon peak in July, so they are adding 40-mpg cars as a hedge.

"We don't get fooled again". Even though the nay-sayers scoffed, it looks like that was a good bet to make. My local Speedway is now at $3.19 a gallon, just like that - and there are some dire predictions about gas prices floating around the news today. Michigan Public Radio:

Patrick DeHaan is an analyst with He says demand for gasoline is up five percent over year-ago levels, and supplies of crude oil have dropped.

"We typically see prices increase in spring as we approach summer, anywhere from 30 to 50 percent," DeHaan says. "So we could be looking at new records, at least four dollars a gallon come springtime. It's not going to be a pretty picture out there."

Four? That's nothing. The former president of Shell Oil is predicting $5 by 2012.

The former president of Shell Oil, John Hofmeister, says Americans could be paying $5 for a gallon of gasoline by 2012. In an interview with Platt's Energy Week television, Hofmeister predicted gasoline prices will spike as the global demand for oil increases.

"I'm predicting actually the worst outcome over the next two years which takes us to 2012 with higher gasoline prices," he said.

Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst with Oil Price Information Service predicts $5 in the next decade, but probably not by 2012. Cold comfort.

What this does to the national economy? Unknown at this point, but it can't be good. The last time gas went over $4 in 2008, we were in the middle of the national Great Recession due to the housing collapse/credit crunch. Michigan unemployment shot up like a rocket and slow sales contributed to the downfall of the Big Three by the end of the year.

This time around, we are still dealing with the housing problem, but credit is easier to obtain, and the economy seems to have stabilized for now. And this time around, the Big Three are ready with new models of smaller cars and hybrids that get great mileage. So, if the consumer is still in the market for a new car, we should be OK - but keeping the consumer in the market might be the next problem we face.

That Chevy Volt looks better all the time...

The Tectonic Shift in Michigan Economy 2000 - 2010

A picture is worth a thousand words. You've heard all this before; seeing it visually helps you understand it better.


The Senate Fiscal Agency released their latest report on Michigan's Economic Outlook and Budget Review on Dec. 21st, and in it, they lay out exactly what has happened to Michigan's economy in the past 10 years, how that relates to our budget difficulties now, as well as how it affects our revenue forecasts and employment outlook for the future. It's an interesting and at times blood-chilling read when you try to wrap your head around the fact that we just went through what can only be described as a tectonic shift to the foundation of Michigan's basic economy - and realize that the shock waves from that shift continue to this day, and will continue well into the future.

We entered the year 2000 a manufacturing state that was a 100 years in the making, and then we were hit with 10 years of severe contraction that was due to forces beyond our control. Here is the chart above, in their words:

Michigan's economy has spent the last 10 years in recession, largely driven by the same fundamental restructuring as that affecting manufacturing globally. Manufacturing has experienced a significant surge in productivity, driven by increased competition in the economy. For Michigan, the effect of productivity improvements was substantial, particularly given that there was more room for improvement in the durable goods and motor vehicle manufacturing sectors than in many other sectors, that Michigan is very disproportionately concentrated in motor vehicle manufacturing, and that the motor vehicle industries have become one of the most competitive sectors of the economy.

For Michigan, those factors were complicated as General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler lost market share over most of the last decade, leaving Michigan to lose employment from both productivity and reduced demand. The impact on the Michigan economy was exacerbated by the rapid and drastic decline in automobile sales in late 2008 and during 2009, reflecting national collapses in sectors such as construction, real estate, and finance.

When you see the word "productivity", think computers and robots and any other automation that has streamlined modern production and eliminated the need for humans to man those positions. It's the great unmentioned factor when it comes to job losses in manufacturing. And, when you add that to increased global competition, throw in the "most severe economic contraction in more than 70 years" during the Great Recession of 2008-09, and our economy being "very disproportionately concentrated in motor vehicle manufacturing", you end up with the chart above.

The SFA report indicates that the manufacturing job losses have stabilized, and are actually showing a slight increase at this point...

However, the drag from the manufacturing sector on Michigan's economy appears to have bottomed out and the recovery in vehicle sales nationally has helped Michigan's economic situation. Manufacturing employment in Michigan rose by 33,100 jobs (7.6%) between June 2009, when the U.S. recession ended, and October 2010. Employment in the transportation equipment manufacturing sector increased by 18.2% over that period, accounting for 20,000 of the manufacturing jobs Michigan gained. Michigan payroll employment declined for 12 consecutive months between July 2008 and June 2009, but has risen in seven of the last 16 months (with manufacturing employment rising in nine of the last 19 months). The unemployment rate declined from a high of 14.5% in December 2009 to 12.8% in October 2010, although a portion of that decline represents the departure of individuals from the labor force.

... and note the part about Michigan's performance in the past decade as it relates to other states.

While over the last 10 years Michigan's employment situation has fared worse than the national average, and, in some cases or time periods within that range, worse than any other state, Michigan's performance is not particularly inconsistent with other states when Michigan's economic composition is considered. Generally, states with higher manufacturing concentrations (particularly in the transportation equipment manufacturing sector) have experienced weaker job performance over the last 10 years, both because of the economic changes occurring in that sector and because of the dependence of other sectors within those states on manufacturing activity. As indicated earlier, productivity gains have made American manufacturing firms more profitable and more competitive, but have reduced the need for hiring additional employees to meet increased demand.

What does all this mean for the future, both immediate and long-term? It means that, although we still are tied to the domestic auto industry and manufacturing and we should continue to work on growing those industries - the old Michigan economy is never coming back.

Weak markets for housing, credit, and employment, coupled with high energy prices and substantial debt burdens, are expected to exert a dragging force on any increases in demand over the forecast period. Vehicle sales are expected to remain substantially below the levels experienced over the last two decades, although the Detroit 3 share of the sales mix is expected to remain fairly stable. Michigan's economic fortunes historically have been very closely linked with sales of domestically produced light vehicles. Despite the improvement forecasted in vehicle sales, and the renewed profitability of domestic automobile manufacturers, much of the additional demand can be met with existing employees and the low cost of capital means there will be few incentives to increase hiring significantly. As a result, although as of October 2010, Michigan had lost nearly two-thirds of the jobs (63.1%, a decline of nearly 223,100 jobs) in transportation equipment manufacturing that existed during the peak in July 2000, the majority of those jobs will never return and any gains in employment in the near future are likely to be muted. As identified in versions of this report prepared for earlier forecasts, even with something approximating normal employment growth in Michigan, it is unlikely that Michigan will reach the level of employment reported in June 2000 again until some time near the year 2035.

2035. And funny how "business taxes" never enter the conversation when it comes to job losses or forecasted job growth, isn't it?

Also note from the chart above that the job growth we have seen in Michigan in the past decade has been in education and health care, the latter having overtaken manufacturing as our number one employment sector. Unfortunately, those are the very areas that will likely face job losses in the next few years should the Republicans follow through with their plans to cut-off aid to state budgets at the national level, cut business tax revenue at the state level, and also try and deal with a FY 2011-12 budget deficit that is now estimated to be in the range of $1.85 billion - with no help coming in the foreseeable future. And, while they may claim that lower taxes will increase hiring, evidence shows that just isn't true. As a result, we are probably looking at severe cuts to services that will only exacerbate job loss in Michigan.

We still have a mountain ahead of us, Michigan, and the road looks rocky ahead, given that certain factions still stubbornly cling to the notion that wage reductions and more tax cuts will somehow bring us prosperity - but at least we know now where we have been.

Eventually, we will learn the lessons from this past decade. It just may take a little longer than we think.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Pure Michigan Campaign Returns in January

Sign on US 141 at the Niagara, Wisconsin border

WKAR brings us the good news:

The "Pure Michigan" winter ad campaign will air regionally in January. The television campaign was almost lost because of a deadlock at the state Capitol over funding. But lawmakers came to a deal and approved $10 million for "Pure Michigan" a couple weeks ago.

Travel Michigan vice president George Zimmerman says the ad campaign is a winning investment for Michigan that pulls in more money than it costs.

But this next statement is a bit startling:

"You know, ever since we've had that data that demonstrates the return on investment, it's been a bit of a no-brainer to us, because that makes money for the state," says Zimmerman. "But saying that I mean legislators, there are going to be a lot of new members, they don't really know the story of 'Pure Michigan,' they don't know the research. So we're going to have our work cut out for us I'm sure educating them."

The battle over Pure Michigan has been a focus in the media for quite some time, although they rarely tell you that it was the Republicans who repeatedly refused every attempt at funding the campaign and insisted that it be cut. Nevertheless, it was a high visibility issue, and one that really shouldn't require a Master's degree as to its importance to the tourism industry and how that applies to the state's bottom line. It also is incredibly popular with the public and has won numerous awards from industry professionals.

No-brainer? That would describe any legislator that needs "educating" on this campaign. If they can't grasp this simple and often-discussed issue, how could you ever trust them with the deeper complexities of legislation that concerns the budget and tax code?

Stop scaring us, Mr. Zimmerman. We are hoping we didn't hire a bunch of idiots here.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Amash Claims Ignorance on DADT

First of all, as predicted, Gary Glenn got a case of the vapors over the DADT vote from Ehlers.

Not everyone is content to let U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers ride quietly into the sunset. Following the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military, the American Family Association of Michigan blasted Ehlers for being the only Michigan congressional Republican to vote for “the misguided and immoral policy.” The Midland-based group is headed by Gary Glenn, who touts his military background in attacking the repeal.

Ahem. Apparently Gary "didn't tell". The AFA was again listed as a hate group in the Southern Poverty Law Center's 2010 winter report, by the way, citing their "propagation of known falsehoods" about LGBT folks.

Here is Vern's take on DADT:

“If someone is willing to go into combat, it shouldn’t make any difference what their sexual orientation is,” he said of the change in policy for homosexuals. “I think five or 10 years from now people will look back and say, ‘What was all the fuss about?’”

No doubt. Repealing DADT was supported by 77% of the public in a recent WaPo/ABC poll, and the issue has certainly been in discussion for quite some time. So what was Justin Amash's position on the repeal?

He says can’t say for sure without hearing the testimony from the military commanders and others who weighed in.

Really. Oh, Grand Rapids. You may have made a big mistake with this one. It's already starting to show.

And what does Vern think of Amash?

As to what kind of congressman Amash will be, Ehlers said: “I have no comment on that. That’s up to the public to decide.”

Yeah, it will be. Someone put a tether on Pat Miles, we may be needing him again in the very near future.

Traditional Media, Meet the Trolls

I have to chuckle when I see stories like this. And I see them all the time nowadays, from all over the country, as the traditional media, some of whom used to bash blogs for being moderated, discovers that opening up your site to anonymous comments ain't all it was cracked up to be.

The GR Press is one of many that recently decided that they have had enough, thankyouverymuch.

As I venture out into the community, I repeatedly hear how the comments on offend our more thoughtful readers.

We feel your pain - every reporter and editor in our newsroom has been offended at one time or another by the online bullies we call trolls. Most reporters have suffered personal attacks for stories they've written. Being a journalist has always required a thick skin -- now more than ever.

It's too bad that commenting intelligently on an MLive story also often takes a thick skin nowadays. You risk being berated by commenters whose anger is so virulent that I have to wonder what's behind it.

Really? Reporters are suffering personal attacks? Wow. That is alarming. It's gotta hurt when you are just offering a story or honest commentary and people instantly judge you and repeatedly accuse you of having some nefarious ulterior motive. Please, do tell more.

We get hundreds of thousands of users every day and I'd like to think that less than 1 percent are trolls. But boy, are they a noisy and nasty minority. They make subtle and not-so-subtle racist comments, ridicule the unemployed, paint anyone who disagrees with their politics as idiots, and sling sexual innuendo worthy of a seventh-grade locker room.

If you see yourself in that description, please leave. Really. I'd prefer you never come to MLive again.

That sounds harsh, but we're pretty fed up with the negative conversation. And I'm concerned our most thoughtful users are getting fed up, too.

I've been involved in online political discourse for 11 years now. "Wizardkitten" as a political commentator was born in April of 1999, when I joined a bipartisan politics board at Turns out it was excellent training for what was to become known as "blogging" - community norms were that if you couldn't back up your opinions with citations (and it had to be legit, no Buzzflash or World Nut Daily), you were laughed out of the place. And yes, you got personally attacked from time to time. It was a pretty good group of folks though. There were about 30-40 of us on and off, and we could discuss the events of the day. My one shining moment was getting a staunch right-wing Republican to agree with me that Medicare for all was the best way to go to deal with the health care issue. That was a fun debate.

That would never happen now. Or when it does, it's pretty rare. The world has definitely changed since then. Don't get me wrong, there was plenty of back and forth over Clinton and things got pretty heated at times, but after 9/11, and the "you're with us or you're with the terrorists" meme began, it became impossible to discuss anything rationally on a bipartisan basis. People moved into rigid camps. They created their own forums through a site called Delphi (it's still around), or they just disappeared, never to be heard from again.

It was at that I first learned how internet sites can devolve when the nasties show up and take over. And it wasn't just partisan differences at work; the darkness creeped into everything, even the "happy" stories. When every comment thread is dominated by pure vitriol, one-by-one the thoughtful people started to drift away as they simply get tired of dealing with the constant negativity. And when there is no moderation what so ever, look out. One guy moved from continuous rants about Hitler and Satan (complete with blood-filled graphics) and started posting pictures of child pornography. Last I heard, he ended up with a visit from the FBI. That's how bad it can get.

So moderation is a necessity - and it's amusing to watch the traditional news sites catch up and learn how to deal with a problem that the bloggers have known about and struggled with for quite some time. And if it's a big site, you are going to need the community's help.

MLive recently provided us with a tool to go after such bullies. A team of "sweepers" ultimately makes the decision on the commenter's fate, but I've directed my staff to become much more aggressive in flagging vulgarity on the web. Offensive users could be suspended or banned from MLive.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: We need your help. I get criticized for that plea. People say we shouldn't put the burden on the users. The fact is, we need to work together to clean up our comments. So yes, we need your help.

That's how the Kos rating system came about years ago - and when it comes to political or ideological comments, it's a very fine line to draw. Once you get practiced at it though, you can usually spot the ones that are there to simply cause trouble soon enough. It's not easy, especially at a big site like MLive where it is technically bipartisan, and I wish them all the best as they stumble about and try to draw those lines. Straight-up news may be a little easier to patrol; political commentary can be very tricky.

And for those who want to scream about censorship - you need to get real. You can start your own site, for free, and rant to your heart's content. Be as nasty as you want to be to everyone, and about everything. It's not our problem that no one wants to listen to you. You don't get to walk into a restaurant and start screaming at the top of your lungs, but you certainly can do it in your own home. You aren't guaranteed an audience though. There are societal norms of behavior in public, and that can apply to sites on the internet as well. Deal with it.

Some sites are requiring a Facebook sign-in, which is one way to address the issue. Putting a real name behind the words tends to force people to be a little more careful about what they say. Some news sites have closed comments altogether, or will close them when things get too rough. One paper in Cleveland is facing a lawsuit for "outing" an anonymous identity, others have had to consider whether some comments have crossed the line into the legal definition of libel. One newspaper in Maine has taken to calling people to verify identities before they will publish your comments. Eventually there may be a uniform way to deal with the problem; until then you will see a patchwork of rules from site to site, as they try and cope with the craziness.

Seriously, good luck MLive. I know all too well what you are up against. Have fun!

The Gulf Oil Spill Motors Away

The term "sustainable consumption" keeps running through my brain lately; turns out the greenies had already coined the term and are one step ahead of me, of course. They sounded the alarm early and often, and it's great to see the rest of the world catching up to the fact that we can't keep consuming all our natural resources and expect to have any sort of quality of environment left when we are done. The act of recycling has been growing my entire lifetime now, and so much so recently that we see major companies touting their efforts with pride. One example made the news this past week:

Oil-soaked plastic boom material used to soak up oil in the Gulf of Mexico is finding new life as auto parts in the all electric-powered Chevrolet Volt.

General Motors has developed a method to convert an estimated 100 miles of the material off the Alabama and Louisiana coasts and keep it out of the nation's landfills. The ongoing project is expected to create enough plastic under hood parts to supply the first year production of the extended-range electric vehicle.

"Creative recycling is one extension of GM's overall strategy to reduce its environmental impact," said Mike Robinson, GM vice president of Environment, Energy and Safety policy. "We reuse and recycle material by-products at our 76 landfill-free facilities every day. This is a good example of using this expertise and applying it to a greater magnitude."

Recycling the booms will result in the production of more than 100,000 pounds of plastic resin for the vehicle components, eliminating an equal amount of waste that would otherwise have been incinerated or sent to landfills.

The parts, which deflect air around the vehicle's radiator, are comprised of 25 percent boom material and 25 percent recycled tires from GM's Milford Proving Ground vehicle test facility. The remaining is a mixture of post-consumer recycled plastics and other polymers.

Taking the waste from a disaster and using it for good. And I highly doubt GM is doing this for a feel-good press release; if it were cost-prohibitive, they wouldn't bother. No, my guess is that GM and other manufacturers are finding that it may be better to reuse existing material rather than purchase new. And if they can't use it for a part or material, they convert it to energy.

GM is dedicated to reducing its waste and pollutants, and recycles materials at every state of the product lifecycle. It uses recycled and renewable materials in its cars and trucks, which are at least 85 percent recyclable. Used tires, old plastic bottles, denim and nylon carpet are all redirected from landfills and reused in select GM vehicles.

GM facilities worldwide recycle 90 percent of the waste they generate. The automaker recently announced more than half of its worldwide facilities are now landfill-free – all manufacturing waste is recycled or used to create energy.

The knuckle-draggers may still be chanting "drill, baby, drill", but the captains of industry are moving on, and converting to their production methods and products towards a more sustainable form of consumerism. And, if industry leaders are doing this, the rest of us will surely follow in the long run. You can see evidence of increased recycling awareness everywhere now. It's become a part of the national consciousness.

Game over. We win. It may take a while to get the rest of the world on board, but eventually it will happen - and it's great to see companies like the Shiny New GM leading the way.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

EGR Xmas Eve

Still my favorite Xmas picture.

Hope you and yours have a Very Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Michigan Goes Shopping

There is a certain bit of cognitive dissonance that sets in when you have stories about high unemployment and the great need that exists in our state, and then you see a story such as this that shows a major jump in consumer spending... it hurts your head. And again, I don't really want to promote rampant consumption of more "stuff" - but this confidence shows recovery is taking place out there, slowly but surely.

After improved sales in November, Michigan retailers reported "upbeat" forecasts for the 2010 holiday season, which the Michigan Retails Association said “might turn out to be the best holiday shopping season in several years.”

The Michigan Retail Index for November experienced the best year-over-year sales gain of any month since 1999, the association reported today. Last month, the sales index jumped to 68.1, compared to November 2009’s 39.7.

November’s index also was up significantly from 51.0 in October 2010 and 56.7 in September. Sales increased in all regions of Michigan and across most trade lines.

Retailers are giddy, and expect this to continue into the next year.

The sales outlook index — which reports predictions for December through February — is strong, as well, at 73.2, up from 67.4 in October and 56.3 in September. Last November, the sales outlook index was at 56.7.

“The Michigan economy is showing signs of life,” Hallan said. “Consumers appear to be feeling more confident about the future and making purchases they had put off in recent years.”

This equates to more $$ towards the state's bottom line, and it showed in the November revenue report from the Senate Fiscal Agency yesterday. While business and real estate tax collections were down and that is dragging overall revenue collections down (not good - it's complicated, go read the link for an explanation), income and sales tax collection saw a significant increase last month.

Net income tax revenue totaled $588.3 million in November, up 4.5% from the November 2009 level. Income tax collections have risen above the year-ago level for four consecutive months and were $30.9 million above the monthly forecast. Income tax withholding payments rose 3.1% above the year-ago level in November, to $595.5 million, as stable employment and increases in the average number of hours worked have improved withholding tax collections.

Sales tax receipts totaled $569.7 million in November, 9.0% above the November 2009 level. It was the eighth out of the last 11 months that sales tax growth has exceeded growth in withholding. Sales tax collections from motor vehicle transactions were 13.3% above the year-ago level, the third consecutive month that sales tax collections from motor vehicle transactions have exceeded the year-ago level.

Because of the problems with the MBT, we are taking a hit to the General and the School Aid Fund for FY2010-11, November being the first month of reporting on the new budget. And, who knows what Snyder has in mind on his plan to cut revenues even further, but whatever that is, it's going to hurt schools, public safety and health care. There isn't any fat left to trim, and already he is threatening "painful" cuts that he wouldn't tell you about when he was campaigning - so stay tuned. Massive cuts could upset consumer confidence, and we could go back to negative territory when people snap those wallets shut out of fear.

So for now, go shopping and help out the team. Yes, that is such a Bush thing to say, I know, but what choice do we have at this point?

Michigan Ranks 7th Nationwide in Online Transparency of Taxpayer-backed Business Incentives

The way that Nancy Cassis was running around with her hair on fire screaming about "transparency" all the time, you would think the state's economic development team was involved in some massive cover-up of epic proportions, lighting cigars with $100 bills as they boarded the taxpayer-funded yachts or something. No, it was just Nancy being annoying; turns out we are one of the best states in the nation when it comes to online disclosure of business tax incentives.

Michigan ranks seventh nationwide in online transparency of taxpayer-backed business incentives in a review of state government subsidies.

Washington, D.C.-based Good Jobs First this month released Show us the Subsidies, a report that evaluates online disclosure of jobs figures and economic results from state subsidies.

Michigan's "C-" score is based on information it provides online for Michigan's brownfield redevelopment credit program, film-tax incentives, Michigan Economic Growth Authority credits, advanced-battery credits and renaissance-zone program.

The highest grade in the report was a "B," given to Illinois, and lowest grade to Hawaii, which received a "D-." Consequently, Illinois is listed as most transparent, and Hawaii least transparent.

A grade of "F" was reserved for states that didn't provide any online reporting of subsidy programs

A C- sounds harsh, but it looks like the grading is pretty tough if the highest state was only a B. The Michigan report can be found here. Once legal boundaries are worked out, chances are "transparency" will keep getting better with time. Companies don't particularly want their financial information splashed out over the airwaves for competitive reasons, but as we come to some uniform disclosure methods across the country, it should get easier to do. Michigan already has a leg up on the others:

The Michigan Economic Development Corp. received kudos in the report for its interactive Web site, which allows users to map subsidy use by type of industry. The map displays reported numbers of jobs created, facility addresses and a link to project summaries.

Michigan is the only state in the country that provides such an interactive map, Good Jobs First reported.

The Web site can be viewed at

Governor Granholm signed Cassis' film credit transparency bills yesterday, and from the Michigan report it looks like the Film Office has been doing a good job, considering how this business has exploded since we expanded the credits just a few short years ago.

Film tax credits are disclosed in an annual report listed above. Points are awarded for including the award amount, the actual number of jobs created and covering all years since the program began. The 2009 report contains project names only and not company names, but company names can be found on the Michigan Film Office website at

Transparency is a good thing. Nothing wrong with it. But there is a fine line between honest communication to the taxpayers, and using the issue as a weapon to score political points. Something tells you that the time for political grandstanding on incentives has passed though, and starting next year, we will hear nothing but applause for how "transparent" we are. Call it a hunch.

Just remember where it started.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I'll Follow the Sun

Solstice music.

The sun comes back starting NOW...

Monday, December 20, 2010

US Clean Energy Manufacturing Vulnerable to Rare Earth Shortages

Since I started down this road here and here, it's only right that I bring you the latest on the rare earth story. As a brief recap, basically the Chinese have cornered the market on these minerals, they are playing games with export taxes and quasi-embargoes by slowing shipments to the rest of the world's manufacturers, and suddenly we've officially discovered that might be a problem for domestic clean energy manufacturing as well as national security. Duh. This was reported last week:

The United States is too reliant on China for minerals crucial to new clean energy technologies, making the American economy vulnerable to shortages of materials needed for a range of green products — from compact fluorescent light bulbs to electric cars to giant wind turbines.

So warns a detailed report to be released on Wednesday morning by the United States Energy Department. The report, which predicts that it could take 15 years to break American dependence on Chinese supplies, calls for the nation to increase research and expand diplomatic contacts to find alternative sources, and to develop ways to recycle the minerals or replace them with other materials.

We also use this stuff in guided missile technology, an important fact this story doesn't mention. 96% of the "most crucial types" of rare earth materials are produced in China, and guess what folks - surprise, surprise, the price is going up again!

And on Tuesday, China’s finance ministry announced on its Web site, and the official Xinhua news agency later reported as well, that China plans to increase its export taxes on some rare earths next year. The ministry did not say how much the taxes would increase. Although World Trade Organization rules ban export taxes, China has imposed them on rare earths for the last four years.

Rare earths that sell for "several dollars" a pound in China shoot up to over $40 a pound overseas when the export taxes are added. When you add it all up...

That is among the reasons, along with cheap labor and extensive Chinese government subsidies, that many clean energy manufacturers have found it cheaper to shift production to China.

And that means we are falling behind.

Mr. Sandalow said that wind turbine manufacturers were capable of building very large turbines without rare earths. But using rare earths could reduce the per megawatt cost of wind energy and improve its competitiveness through savings on other materials, like steel and copper.

He cautioned that the United States had been putting far fewer resources than China into exploring ways to use the powerful magnetic and other properties of rare earths.

“There are thousands of rare earth researchers in China and dozens in the United States, and that underscores both the challenge and the opportunity,” he said. “Their expertise in this area is significant.”

While the Chinese government keeps shifting rationale for its rare earth export policies, the rest of the world is starting to look to alternative sources. Molycorp, an American company that closed operations in 2002, is set to reopen a mine in California in 2012. Another mine in Australia plans to do the same. Other smaller mining companies are looking to operate in the US - but those will take financing and permits to get rolling, and that takes years.

Don't want to advocate that we continue to destroy the environment in pursuit of these materials - but until synthetic substitutes or alternative production methods are found, we are in a jam here. Chinese turbine manufacturers are planning a major push into the US wind energy market, and putting a cost squeeze on these materials will leave our manufacturers at a disadvantage - and then we can wave bye-bye to the jobs. And profits. Something tells me that is exactly what they have in mind.

So the question remains: Do we want millions of clean energy jobs in this country, or not? If so, we are going to need a federal energy and industrial policy that addresses this and other issues, and we are going to have to start playing hardball with countries that manipulate trade laws to create unfair advantages for their own manufacturers. Good luck with that last one, but it's in our power to do something about the first.

My hope is that President Obama is serious about creating a clean energy economy, whether or not he can twist Republican arms in the House to make it happen is another story altogether. Something tells me a trade for nuclear and/or more domestic drilling will be the hostage if and when he does. Whatever happens though, we cannot afford to keep falling behind the curve. Other countries are rapidly moving forward with energy policy - 73 countries already have renewable energy targets in place. Our individual state targets do help, but industry experts are increasingly calling for a national policy to signal to the world we mean business.

Bottom line: The United States needs to seriously get in the game - before we get left behind.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Sunday Paper: December 19, 2010

January Snow Trees
An oldie but a goodie, from 2006. I don't have many Michigan winter pictures simply because I'm not fond of going out in the cold and it's always cloudy over here by the big water - but once in awhile we get some great scenes like this.

A short one this week, got lost in my own head again (hate it when that happens!) and have been distracted - here are a few items I noticed:

  • A rare Winter Solstice total lunar eclipse will happen Tuesday night. So, if you are up and outside and it's clear at 3:17am, take a picture, would ya? This hasn't happened since 1638, and won't happen again until 2094.

  • "Michigan seems like a dream to me now". Someone is running around Saginaw and spray painting the lyrics to Simon & Garfunkel's "America" on abandoned structures. If you don't know the song, the lyrics are here. Now you understand. And you gotta admit, it's more creative than gang tags. Paul Simon wrote the song during a stay in Saginaw in 1966.

  • The Chevy Volt is now for sale. 45 Volts rolled out of Hamtramck last Monday afternoon headed to the east coast, and the first delivery was to Jeff Kaffee of Parsippany, N.J. on Wednesday morning. Kaffee traded in his '05 Toyota Pruis, saying, "The Prius is a fine car, but this is definitely the next step forward." 160 total left the factory last week; Michigan sales will come sometime in the spring. (hey, wait a minute...)

  • We may need to get Mr. Kaffee one of those honking bulb bicycle horns - Congress has declared that electric and hybrid cars are just too quiet for safety's sake, and they are going to mandate that the cars make some sound so blind pedestrians, kids, joggers, and I'll throw in animals, can hear them coming at speeds below 20 mph. As of now, the Volt has a "chirping" sound that the driver can activate, but new regulations will make a sound mandatory. Hope they can all get together and find something uniform - next thing you know we'll have "car ringtones" or something if they don't.

  • Ford announced that they will build three electric or hybrid vehicles at Wayne's Michigan Assembly Plant, and when you throw in the regular gas powered version of the Focus, it will be "the only plant in the world to build vehicles with four different powertrains on the same assembly line". Pretty impressive. Production on the Focus Electric will start in 2011.

  • The Flint Police Department is now closed on weekends to walk-ins following the latest round of cop layoffs. The city, ranked #4 in the "most dangerous cities" by CQ Press, has laid off a total of 66 officers this year due to its budget deficit. Certainly "more tax cuts" are called for here.

  • Businessman Jim Shaban of Windsor has the right idea - he is going to sell power for a solar rooftop installation back to the Ontario grid, and use that money to finance a film studio. "We're going to take any revenue that we take from green energy, and we're going to put it back into creating film jobs." Ontario has its own film tax credits, and the Windsor area is hoping to capitalize on Michigan's credits and proximity to attract more projects.

  • Magglio! Welcome back. Stay healthy please. Tigers line-up is starting to look pretty good for next year....

    Got your shopping done? As usual, I don't, and I'm starting to panic a bit. Anything big I missed? Throw it in the comments...
  • Senate Cloture Vote on Repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Passes 63-33

    Oh my. I do believe we will have to pass Gary Glenn the smelling salts.

    The United States Senate gets one right, and equality takes another step forward.

    The Senate has passed a major procedural vote on the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, making it extremely likely that the military's controversial ban on openly gay service-members will end soon.

    Congratulations to all those that want to serve their country with honor and honesty - pretty soon, you will be free to do so. And thanks to all who fought so hard to make this happen.

    Progress comes slow sometimes, but it will come if you persevere. Always remember that.

    UPDATE: Must-read diary at Kos: The Triumph of a Movement! that shows the history behind this victory - a long, long time in the making. Also, the final vote for passage will be held at 3PM today. Let the celebrations begin!

    UPDATE II: Final vote 65-31. It's off to the President for signature.

    Friday, December 17, 2010

    Detroit to Get First US Regional Patent Office

    For a state that is said to have a problem with lack of college graduates, we still have some wicked smaaart folks running around and inventing stuff and applying for patents. That could be the reason why Detroit received the first US Patent satellite office in the country, which will create 100 jobs and be open by next summer.

    The U.S. Patent and Trade Office is to open its first satellite office in Detroit in the summer and will hire 100 patent examiners to help reduce the agency's vast backlog of requests.

    Commerce Secretary Gary Locke -- whose department includes the Patent Office -- made the announcement Thursday evening, saying Detroit will be the first in what could be a few satellite offices around the country.


    Because of research and development done by the auto industry, Michigan has more applicants than most other states, said Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who, along with the state's congressional delegation, lobbied for the office in Detroit.

    Detroit beat out more than a dozen cities across the nation to get the office. Site selection is under way, and Commerce Department officials expect to sign a lease as soon as February, with hiring to begin in the spring.

    For example, did you know that Michigan is No. 1 in the country for clean energy patents? (Yes, I know that Sen. Stabenow said we were third, but a new study puts us in first) Or that we rank seventh in patents issued in the United States? Although Rick Haglund recently reported that overall Michigan's share of patents has declined in the past three decades, it's "innovate or die" according to CAR's Dave Cole, and we have seen a resurgence in applications in the past decade.

    The state saw a 20 percent rise in numbers of patents granted between 2000 and 2006, the most recent data available, compared with the seven-year 1993-99 period, according to the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

    The state is among the leaders in intellectual property protection. The 3,758 patents granted to individuals or companies in Michigan in 2006 trailed only Massachusetts, California, New York and Texas. And for the period stretching from 1963 through 2006, Michigan's 123,595 U.S. patents trail only six states: California, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas.

    The licensing of intellectual property to competitors is often seen as a major revenue source by automakers and suppliers, many of which have cross-licensing agreements with each other, Halan said.

    And that was before the battery technology/renewable energy companies started growing in this state, and those industries will certainly keep us as one of the leaders in the nation in innovation for some time to come.

    The Patent Office has a backlog of 710,000 applications and a three-year wait for review, which is unacceptable for anyone trying to recruit investors for a new product or process. New offices will help speed things up and hopefully lead to quicker job creation - glad to see that they are starting right here.

    Let the Trickling Begin: Tax Bill Passes Congress

    Supply-side Santa visited last night and stuffed the stockings of the rich with wads of cash. The first line in the NY Times story sums it up pretty well:

    Congress at midnight Thursday approved an $801 billion package of tax cuts and $57 billion for extended unemployment insurance.

    To start off, this is very good news for the unemployed, to be sure. The Michigan UIA had asked that people continue to call and keep your claim current with MARVIN while this debate was going on, and the agency will probably be slammed today with people wondering about retroactive benefits and when they can expect to see the checks start again. Be patient with them as they get this running, also be warned that they were planning to close for four days over the upcoming holiday stretch - the two days before Xmas and New Year's - so staffing might be thin. They suggest you keep calling MARVIN during those days, but now that this deal is done maybe plans will change as they rush to keep up with demand. Keep watching the news for updates.

    Besides the unemployment extension, we did get the renewable energy credits. Good to see. Other than that, this next summary comes from the WSJ, just so you understand the slant:

    The measure includes retention of the Bush-era tax rates and breaks for all earners for two years, as well as protection through 2011 from the Alternative Minimum Tax for more than 20 million mostly middle-class households. It includes a new payroll-tax credit for virtually all workers, as well as a 13-month extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed. The wealthy won a lowered estate tax rate for the next two years of 35% on estates of more than $5 million.

    Middle-income Americans fared best from the deal, due in large part to the new payroll-tax holiday, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Those with the largest average gain in after-tax income, compared with current tax policies, earn between $35,000 and $64,000. They gain about $613, or 0.9% of their income.

    Lower-income earners will benefit from continued expanded availability of the child credit and other breaks. But the substitution of Mr. Obama's Making Work Pay break—a tax subsidy for lower income people—with a payroll-tax holiday will be a net loser for them.

    Higher-income people took the most cash from the deal. The average gain for households with $500,000 to $1 million in income was $3,859 compared to current tax levels. Democrats had wanted tax rates for this group to rise.

    Businesses gained a number of provisions Congress usually extends for a year or two, including a big research credit, a range of subsidies for alternative energy and a slew of targeted breaks for motor-sports tracks, restaurant buildings, railroad maintenance and corporate donations of food and other items.

    Some provisions that didn't make it, from the WaPo:

    Negotiators, in fact, excluded more than 70 temporary programs from the bill, including federal subsidies for state and local borrowing known as Build America Bonds, a sales tax deduction for new cars and trucks, a property tax deduction for people who don't itemize on their tax returns and an exemption from taxes for the first $2,400 of unemployment benefits. All those provisions will be allowed to expire.

    The Build America Bonds were financing state and local construction projects, so kiss those jobs goodbye. Better hope that the wealthy decide they need to invest in America again, or this tax bill will only provide a short-term boost to the economy and create a very long-term revenue problem for the country - because you know there is no way these guys will fight for fiscal sanity during a presidential election year. Already the Republicans are complaining about "spending", even as they add earmarks for their districts and promptly turn around and oppose them, even as they try to deny that cutting revenue is a form of "spending" that will eventually come out your pocket in the form of cuts to Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, aid to state budgets - which are about to take a major hit over the next two years - and other various quality of life programs.

    Was it worth it? Stay tuned. Maybe that Republican drown-government trickle-down voodoo that they do will work this time. It's worked so well this past decade, hasn't it? Or, maybe when things get real, real bad, we will find that we need to get off the "more tax cuts" path, and start to invest in our people and our country again.

    Just hope it won't be too late when that happens.

    Thursday, December 16, 2010

    A Living Portrait of Governor Granholm

    Nice video that talks of the accomplishments of Governor Granholm, featuring testimonials from the familiar faces that have been a part of this journey. This is a "living portrait", commissioned by the group that is handling the official painted portrait for the Capitol. From the Michigan 2010 Foundation:

    It is tradition that upon leaving office a Michigan Governor has a portrait painted and hung in the State Capitol. The portrait is typically unveiled at the Capitol after the Governor leaves office.The Michigan 2010 Foundation was established in part to fund the commission of Governor Granholm’s portrait to be hung in the Capitol Building’s rotunda. This portrait will serve as a reminder of Governor Granholm’s accomplishments in office and will be on display for the next several decades.

    I've been more interested in what the Govenor has had to say in her own words. She has been holding exit interviews with all your favorite Michigan media folks, from print last week, to TV and radio this week. So far the one I like the best is the raw-cut interview from WDIV - unfortunately they don't have an embed feature, so you will have to watch it there. It's good stuff.

    I've also been watching the critical editorials coming from the "usual suspects" who always were looking for the dark side, looking for perfection where it couldn't ever exist - and the funny thing is, I just don't care what they have to say anymore. Just doesn't seem worth the time to refute the nitpicking from those who refuse to look at the whole picture. Anyone who has observed the events of this past decade, and has tried to absorb just what happened here, really wrapped your head around the numbers - the things she did accomplish, while at the same time handling crisis after crisis after crisis, is pretty amazing.

    I'm still coming to grips with it all myself. Anyone who has followed me on community blogs these past five years (or at my own blog for the past seven years) knows how I feel about this Governor, and right now I'm having a hard time summing up just what I want to say as she leaves....

    Ehlers Votes to Repeal Don't Ask Don't Tell

    One of those real old-school Republicans was our Vern. Gonna make Amash look like a real wingnutty wingnut. Not that that would be hard to do or anything.

    U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers is one of only 15 House Republicans to vote for repealing the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy for gays in the military. Now all eyes are on the Senate where Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe is the latest to say she would vote for repeal.

    I believe this might make it through. It had better, because it won't come up through Congress again for at least another two years.

    Thank you Congressman Ehlers. You did the right thing here, and it is appreciated.

    Wednesday, December 15, 2010

    Mackinac Center Using Courts to Push Privatization Agenda

    Just watch the video for the explanation - and note the part where the Mackinac Center "recruited" these five taxpayers to file this suit. They are simply tools being used to further the Mac's anti-union agenda, for it's not likely they would have spent the fees necessary to file on their own. And funny how we have yet another example of where the anti-tax crowd will gladly use taxpayer money in the form of legal system when it comes to furthering their own goals, isn't it?

    From the print version:

    The legal arm of free-market think tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy is planning to take 10 Kent County school districts, their school boards and their unions to court on behalf of five taxpayers, alleging the school systems broke the law in blocking privatization in their districts.


    The planned suit challenges this language in the contract of the Kent Intermediate School District and nine other districts: "All districts agree not to privatize any KCEA/MEA unionized services for the life of this agreement."

    Kent ISD Superintendent Kevin Konarska explains in the video that it came about because the 10 districts collaborated on contracts - saving taxpayer money by not having to hold separate negotiations for every district. "I would think that they would be applauding our efforts", he says. And Kent ISD assistant superintendent Coni Sullivan is scratching her head and going "huh?" at this lawsuit, pointing out that the contract doesn't violate any laws, and was simply a line added to the agreement to acknowledge concessions made by employees on health care and other areas. Here is the most important legal fact of the matter:

    And districts would be free to privatize despite the clause, she said.

    When reporter Tony Tagliavia pointed out the irony of the Mac Center using taxpayer money to further a so-called agenda of "saving taxpayer money", they claim that they just want that one line stricken from these bargaining agreements, but then they just have to add in the real goal behind this - that they think there are "greater savings" if the districts would just move forward with privatizing services anyway. "Those savings would greatly outweigh the costs of these legal fights", is how Tagliavia paraphrased the threat implied here.

    Basically, districts better do whatever the Mackinac Center says they should do to "save money", or they are going to have to spend money on lawyers to fight the Mackinac Center when they file these frivolous lawsuits. Got it? Follow our orders, or we'll see you in court. You don't get to run your district in the way you see fit.

    Maybe it's time for the Mackinac Center to disclose who is funding their efforts. Maybe it's also time for the media to stop treating them as if they are some unbiased public policy experts. Probably should start adding the qualifier on every story where they are consulted, so the public knows where they are coming from (and to give a little credit here, the press is getting better about that). It's pretty obvious that the Center is willing to do whatever it takes to see their right-wing, anti-union agenda enacted in this state - no matter what it costs the taxpayers.