Conservatives Demand Special Protections at U of M

Disingenuous Outrage

The speech police in Michigan are mortified over an opinion piece authored by University of Michigan professor Susan J. Douglas titled “It’s Okay to Hate Republicans.” It appeared Monday at the website In These Times. Douglas explained her position:

“I hate Republicans. I can’t stand the thought of having to spend the next two years watching Mitch McConnell, John Boehner, Ted Cruz, Darrell Issa or any of the legions of other blowhards denying climate change, thwarting immigration reform or championing fetal ‘personhood’.”

Not surprisingly, the commentary sparked discussion over the appropriateness of her remarks — that’s fair game, but using the editorial as reason to create a double-standard for acceptable speech by abrogating constitutional protections for some, but not others, should not be an option. Was it impolitic of the professor? Definitely. However, it is not license to silence her opinions.

U of M student Grant Strobl, chair of the conservative student group Young Americans for Freedom – U of M chapter is shocked… shocked!.. that Douglas should voice such things.

“This is blatant intolerance, and the University should take action on the behalf of intellectual diversity and all of the students who are intimidated into silence. In the position of an instructor, she can intimidate and inhibit the student’s freedom of expression.”

Apparently the notion of freedom —  of the First Amendment variety — extends only toYAF pic 2 the student body. The 146 member Facebook group for Young Americans for Freedom – U of M  doesn’t seem to grasp the hypocrisy of their call for censorship of the professor in the service of protecting their delicate sensibilities, while demanding for themselves an exemption from the shackles of circumspect speech.

Here’s a recent post on their Facebook page decrying the scourge of political correctness on campus:

YAFUM FB comment

The post directs readers to a Breitbart article written by Ashley Pratte which contains a citation link to a YAF report she also penned. Pratte is incensed that U of M requires a three credit course on the topic of race and ethnicity for graduation. Her words suggest to readers that this is a university-wide mandate, as opposed to applying to the much smaller College of Literature, Science and Arts — a liberal arts school where this type of course is to be expected. Pratte’s breed of patriotism is apparently so rarefied that it can’t withstand historical fact. She writes:

“One student in weighing his options discovered that in order to graduate from the University of Michigan you must first take a course to learn how racist and intolerant the United States of America is toward minorities and different ethnicities.”

The screed goes on to posit that U of M would never require a course on capitalism and free enterprise:

“The fact that students need to take a course on [race and ethnicity] topics is absolutely outrageous-almost as outrageous as sensitivity training on college campuses.  What if there was a requirement to take a course on capitalism and free enterprise, I bet that would never be allowed at the University of Michigan.”

She’d lose that bet. They’re called Economics courses, and many a major require them.

Okay, so let’s review: Liberal Professors must exercise political correctness and therefore should be prohibited from expressing personal opinions that conservatives find offensive, but political correctness rules should not apply to those easily offended folks on the right. Plus, curricular requirements should never be tinged with politically correct notions — in this case, also-known-as, historical facts.

The cognitive dissonance must be excruciatingly painful for these young YAF members. Good thing there’s the Affordable Care Act allowing them to stay on their parent’s policies until age 26. Thanks Obama. (Plus there’s that socialist free clinic for all U of M students.)

Now, On the Question of Faculty Free Speech…

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) assert that First Amendment protections are all-encompassing, including faculty. In a current case at the University of Iowa, the organizations jointly submitted a letter to UI administrators over their decision to remove artwork displayed on campus created by faculty member Sehat Tanyolacar. FIRE reports:

[S]ome students claimed they were disturbed by its imagery, consisting of newspaper clippings reporting on racial violence printed onto a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. UI also publicly denounced the artwork, ignoring its anti-racist intent and its success in facilitating dialogue on race relations among its viewers.

FIRE and NCAC wrote to UI on December 12, criticizing the university for “effectively announc[ing] that Tanyolacar’s artwork is not protected by the First Amendment due to the discomfort it caused to some of those who encountered it”

“Purging disturbing images and ideas from college campuses in the name of protecting vulnerable groups goes against the very mission of the university as the quintessential marketplace of ideas, governed by the principle of academic freedom,” said Svetlana Mintcheva, NCAC’s Director of Programs.

Attempts to single-out faculty for special censorship also raises questions under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

red lightBy the way, FIRE has assigned University of Michigan the lowest rating for free speech protections on campus — a Red Light.

It will be interesting to see if they abide by their own policy. There will be calls for the professor’s dismissal using the argument that she committed a “hate crime.”

Just using the word “hate” does not constitute a “hate crime”, any more than saying “ribbit” makes one a frog.

According to the U of M policy, the professor should be in the clear:

What is a hate crime?
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, a hate crime is a “crime of violence,
property damage, or threat that is motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias
based on race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, gender, physical or mental disability, or sexual orientation.”

Within the State of Michigan, a person is guilty of ethnic intimidation if that person
maliciously threatens or physically contacts a person with intent to intimidate, harass or damage the property of that person because of his or her race, color, religion, gender or national origin. 

The University of Michigan also recognizes additional categories of potential bias, such as sex, gender identity or expression and age.

What are some examples of hate crimes?
Painting racial slurs on the side of a campus building, assaulting another person
because of his or her perceived national origin, or throwing a rock through someone’s
window while yelling derogatory comments about his or her religion are hypothetical
examples of a hate crime.

What is a bias-­related incident?
Similar to hate crimes, bias incidents are non-­criminal activities that harm another
because of that person’s membership in a classification, such as race, color, ethnicity,
national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, age or religion.

What are some examples of bias­-related incidents?
Depending on the totality of the circumstances, writing a racial epithet in erasable
marker on someone’s dry­-erase board, making fun of another person because of his
or her language or accent, or making insulting comments about someone’s traditional
manner of dress or geographic origin are hypothetical examples of a bias-­related

Yep, right there, in their own words.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Visionaries Elizabeth Warren & Michael Moore – Called it Back in 2009

Five years ago, Elizabeth Warren predicted the sorry outcome of our Great Recession, and Michael Moore predicted mass protests — they both hit the mark.

This past week, a chorus of commentary placed Elizabeth Warren front and center as the voice of reason for the Democratic Party. Her spot-on ability to articulate our nation’s ills, underlying causes, and overdue cures have made her the darling of the populist wing of the party for 2016, leaving Hillary grasping at support from a dwindling number of milquetoast moderates.

Warren blasted fellow lawmakers over a provision in the omnibus spending bill that rolled-back portions of the Dodd-Frank regulations at the behest of CitiGroup.

“Mr. President, Democrats don’t like Wall Street bailouts. Republicans don’t like Wall Street bailouts. The American people are disgusted by Wall Street bailouts. And yet here we are five years after Dodd-Frank with Congress on the verge of ramming through a provision that would do nothing for the middle class, do nothing for community banks, do nothing but raise the risk that taxpayers will have to bail out the biggest banks once again.”

Five years ago, as the newly appointed chair of the Congressional Oversight Committee, Warren sat down with Moore and offered the following prophecy:

“…And now, here we are, letting many of the same people construct what they say will be the solution. If the people who were directly affected, the people whose lives have been wrecked by this are not represented at the table — we won’t get the right solutions. In fact, what we’ll go back to is a world that just… just makes this worse. Yeah, we’ll patch this one together. And then, in ten years it crashes again, and crashes again, and it crashes again.”

Moore was also in the news this week. He delivered a lively commencement speech at MSU last Saturday. Speaking to a group of approximately 250 graduates, he poked a little fun at George Will who had addressed the crowd earlier.  It seems the conservative columnist did not receive the same warm welcome as Moore. During Will’s remarks, students turned their backs, or pretended to read newspapers in protest of his position downplaying the problem of sexual assault on campuses.

Much of the filmmaker’s speech centered on student loan debt. Apologizing for it, he named it the “worst thing my generation has done to you graduates.”

MSU awarded Moore an honorary doctorate of humanities.

MM selfie

Yet, Warren and Moore wove this story five years ago in a trenchant one-on-one interview.

E. Warren w: MM

It was in the 2009 documentary, Capitalism: A Love Story, that Moore and Warren sounded the clarion call for change. Last month, Moore posted the film to YouTube, and a previously posted bonus eight and a half minute interview with Warren is also available. The film’s message remains utterly, and disturbingly, relevant. Not much has changed.

Like Warren, Moore had some dead-on prognostications.

In the film, Moore focused on the growing foreclosure crisis in Detroit — calling it immoral. A Catholic himself, Moore took the unusual tactic of interviewing clergy — inquiring about the church’s position on the morality of runaway capitalism. Their 2009 condemnation has recently been formalized by Pope Francis himself. His apostolic exhortation titled The Joy of the Gospel devoted an entire chapter to the evils of capitalistic greed.

“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

He also foretold the Occupy movement. Towards the end of the film, Moore related the story of a sit-down strike at a window and door factory in Chicago. Lamenting that the bail-out had benefitted only Wall Street power players, leaving smaller main street businesses to suffer the consequences of unbridled greed, he compared the workers’ revolt to the 1936 GM sit-down strike in Flint — an event which is widely credited for creating America’s middle class.

Moore speculated of the Chicago event: “Was this the beginnings of a workers’ revolt against Wall Street?”

Two years later, it happened.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Aramark at the World Series – Get Your Moldy Hot Dogs Here!

Aramark burgerCockroaches, swarms of fruit flies, rodent droppings, unsafe food temperatures, unsanitary kitchens, food prep employees not washing their hands, moldy and expired perishables…Blech!

Yep, Aramark’s at it again. So, which prison is it this time?

It’s not. The above vermin and bacterium were found at the concession stands operated by the private food vendor during the 2014 World Series at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.

Batter up!

Jon Costa, an Aramark food safety manager at Kansas City’s Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums, threw-in the towel having finally had it with his employer constantly thwarting his efforts to clean house at the 26 stands he was charged with inspecting. So, during game seven of the series he covertly started snapping Aramark KC concessionpictures to share with the Kansas City Health Department, and unlike Aramark, they took swift action. Immediately following the game, they captured some shocking photos themselves, documenting that 20 of the stands were in violation of the health code, with 37 critical infractions cited.

It was just plain gross.

Costa also shared his surreptitious photos with local media outlets and ESPN’s Outside the Lines, where he explained his concerns:

“When we lose control over hygienic practices and we also combine that with poor temperature control — that could be a catastrophe. That is a recipe for foodborne illness… It’s very likely temperatures are abused every game. Every game.”

Aramark immediately placed Costa on administrative leave and responded with a letter to ESPN discrediting the whistleblower. (The redacted section is ESPN’s. If it contains Aramark claims against Costa, the corporation just dug a liability hole as big as Kauffman Stadium.)

Aramark letter to ESPN

Aramark FlyKansas City Health Department division manager, Naser Jouhari, expressed the danger to ESPN:

“The main concern is [inviting] all these insects and rodents to the concession stands so they [could] contaminate food service, food contact areas.”

Man, you’d have to be high to eat that food.

Perhaps that’s why Aramark employees smuggle pot into prisons — to promote hearty appetites among the inmates. It’s a do-gooder kind of thing. Surely, it has nothing to do with poor wages which encourage workers to make a quick buck from selling contraband.

Last week, Robert Edward Brenner was arraigned over charges he attempted to bring marijuana into the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Lenawee County, Michigan. Brenner faces a possible 5-year prison sentence if convicted.

Great, one more mouth to feed, (bring your pot).

Aramark spokesperson Karen Cutler trotted-out their tired response claiming this is a union conspiracy — part of a “political attack campaign.” Lenawee County Prosecutor Burke Castleberry said he intends to seek a “stiff penalty… because of the crime that was committed” — asserting he is not motivated by political or union issues.

How does Aramark get away with it, time and again?

Easy. They’re doing great — just ask Wall Street investors. Aramark’s rosy 2015 projections show no hint of problems on the ground. Their stocks are soaring — with success mostly attributed to earnings found in their top performing sector, as reported by Market Watch:

“Sales in its largest segment, North America food and support services, increased 14.6% to $2.78 billion.”

Just days after the news broke about the disgusting conditions in Kansas City, Watch List News reported that Zacks upgraded Aramark stock.

Aramark upgrade

As Democracy Tree recently reported, Aramark can hardly make it through the week without some embarrassing scandal or another. Sadly, there’s no incentive for them to clean-up their act.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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Coming Your Way Soon: Liberalism in 500 Words or Less

TNRThe flagship of American liberalism sank last Friday morning, slipping quietly beneath the waves under the steerage of new leadership operating with the notion that progressive readers can no longer survive beyond the 500 word mark.

Our click-bait culture is certainly contributing to the flotsam responsible for the dumbing-down of progressive thought, and as surely as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh created a body politic of conservative zombies — an uninformed populace seems to be trending on the left too. The vessel may be different, but the destination remains the same.

Consequently late last week, liberal policy wonks and political junkies lost a valuable resource when much of the 54-member strong editorial and writing staff walked-off the job at the venerated publication — The New Republic — one of the few remaining magazines that practiced long-form progressive journalism. This talented group of journalists abandoned ship in protest over changes in the works which ran contrary to their belief that readers are sufficiently stout of mind and body to safely deliver themselves to the end of an article.

sitting shiva

Chris Hughes, of Facebook fortune, purchased TNR in 2012 with a kiss and a promise that the century-old tradition of in-depth reporting would not only be preserved, but would remain its core mission. Yet still, it probably shouldn’t have caught the staff off-guard when the 31-year old millionaire brought on board a new, internet savvy CEO last October. At the helm now was Guy Vidra, an executive from Yahoo, charged with the task of modernizing the publication.

Jonathan Chalt, of New York magazine, speculated as to the real impetus behind the sea change:

“What changed? Hughes dumped a large amount of money into his husband’s disastrous race for Congress, and he hired a chief executive officer who finds the magazine’s incredible long-form journalism too boring to read past 500 words, and then he and that CEO repeatedly lied to and humiliated the magazine’s beloved and extraordinary editor.”

Vidra did a spectacular job of alienating editors and writers alike with his plan to transform TNR into a “vertically integrated digital media company” – code for: let’s increase revenue by banging-out half-baked content for vapid social media consumption. Page views = dollar signs.

In the spirit of that ploy — you’ll never guess what happened next…

Instead of producing “vertically integrated” content, they had The New York Times announce on Saturday that they’ve cancelled their December 15th issue, and will return in February, smelling minty fresh. Much of the stuffy old long-form content was embargoed by the outgoing writers, leaving Hughs and Vidra with nothing to publish, in print or on the web, vertically, or in any other direction. This prompted New York Times writer Josh Barro to tweet:

Barro tweet

Yes, social media did light-up with clever, and much deserved, slings and arrows directed at Hughs and Vidra. The mass resignation also inspired a chorus of editorials, tweets and Facebook posts from former TNR editors and noted writers in support of TNR’s nascent ex-pats.

Robert Reich

list of editors

This shouldn’t be a battle of long-form versus hashtag journalism. The latter couldn’t survive if deprived of the former. Without a body of knowledge to lend context to pithy 140 character repartee, Twitter would be no more, or at least it would cease to be amusing — hence the lack of wit to be found in most Republican tweets.

However, Twitter did become infinitely more illuminating when they started allowing pictures. Case in point, Nate Cohn, also of the New York Times, retweeted this clever mark-up of Guy Vidra’s “re-imagined” vision for TNR:

Cohn retweet

Ezra Klein may be the only high-profile liberal columnist holding-out any hope for the “vertically integrated” future of TNR, writing that under new leadership the publication may flourish. “But it won’t be what The New Republic was. And that’s because the thing The New Republic was has already died.” Klein qualified with the caveat that “something is being lost in the transition from policy magazines to policy web sites, and it’s still an open question how much of it can be regained.”

Democracy Tree hopes its hardy breed of readers have not slipped into a catatonic state given the vast quantity of words contained herein.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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Privatization Fail: Virtual School K-12 Inc. Gets Spanked By Wall Street

With 9 cyber school contracts in Michigan, K-12 Inc. is getting clobbered by Investors

DSCF3115The invisible hand of the market is seriously bitch-slapping K-12 Inc., the cyber school start-up launched over a dozen years ago with $10 million in seed money from billionaire venture capitalist and purveyor of junk, Michael Milken, coupled with a whopping $40 million from Andrew Tisch, among other investors. The cyber company also earned high marks from Jeb Bush, who is now poised to throw his hat into the 2016 presidential ring. He founded and chairs the pro-charter/cyber organization Foundation for Excellence in Education.

With the help of a phalanx of lobbyists from the American Legislative Exchange Council, state lawmakers across the nation introduced ALEC model legislation, termed the “Virtual Public Schools Act”, designed to expand online education through deregulation, thereby paving the way for the private sector to vacuum-up even larger amounts of the one trillion dollars spent on education annually.

From the beginning, the venture was tainted with the unrestrained lust of capitalists poised to plunder the virgin resource of public education dollars. “Junk Bond King” Milken promoted the vast opportunities for the private sector claiming “There’s no reason why eventually you can’t be educating a billion kids online.”  When the company went public in 2007, investors flocked enthusiastically to the offering. But, as it became increasingly obvious that the whole enterprise was doomed to experience a fleeting half-life, a different breed of investor moved in for the kill.

Smelling blood in the water, short sellers targeted the company for a quick profit. Bloomberg explains the mechanics of turning this particular investment trick — “In a short sale, investors sell borrowed shares, and profit when a stock falls by buying cheaper shares that are returned to the lender.” (Find a more detailed description below)

One of the marauding parties was Case Capital Management, a New York hedge fund managed by Whitney Tilson, who bragged that he hauled-in half a million in easy money from the cyber-charter mash-up’s expected free-fall. Tilson, by the way, is a former board member for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Also personally making a pretty penny, was the former CEO of K-12 Inc., Ronald J. Packard, who sold 43 percent of his shares in the company, earning him a tidy $6.4 million, although his lawyers beg to differ — claiming the amount was considerably less. What he did is not technically illegal, because it is considered normal for a CEO to cash-in prior to their departure.

As it became clear that the company had taken the concept of window-dressing their quarterlies to a new low by wildly over-stating their growth and earnings potential to smaller investors, a class action lawsuit ensued, leaving K-12 to settle with shareholders to the tune of $6.75 million. No culpability was admitted, as is the case with most settlements.

Last April, a senior analyst at Wells Fargo in San Francisco, Trace A. Urdan, talked to Education Week about the possible impact of the lawsuit:

Mr. Urdan did not think investors were likely to be rattled by the new legal action; they would probably expect it to get settled, he said. Investors are likely to pay closer attention, he argued, to K12’s performance as judged by its ability increase student enrollment, and other factors.

Urdan called it — K-12 stocks have plummeted since July of this year based on the poor academic performance of K-12 schools which triggered an exodus of students. Bloomberg described the nose-dive in an article last month.

Plagued by subpar test scores, the largest operator of online public schools in the U.S. has lost management contracts or been threatened with school shutdowns in five states this year. The National Collegiate Athletic Association ruled in April that students can no longer count credits from 24 K12 high schools toward athletic scholarships.

K-12 stock

When the already southbound stock fell off the cliff in early October, reported the downgrades:

K12 Inc. (LRN): The kindergarten-through-12th grade education outfit does indeed wear the dunce cap today. Shares are tumbling 24% as I write after the company issued disappointing earnings guidance. BMO Capital (Market Perform from Outperform) and Robert W. Baird (Neutral from Outperform, target price taken to $25 from $40) both send the stock to the principal’s office.

K-12 Inc. runs 60 virtual charter school academies in 33 states, plus the District of Columbia — all paid for out of public education dollars. In Michigan, they currently operate one completely virtual school, and contract their services with eight other schools in an increasingly competitive market. Across the nation in recent months, their enrollment has dropped by 5 percent.

In the 2012-13 school year, only one-third of their schools made the grade in states that monitored K-12’s academic performance. Bloomberg reports that in Ohio, where their K-12 virtual academy represents 10 percent of corporate earnings, only 37 percent of ninth graders are expected to graduate within four years. K-12 shrugged-off the poor showing explaining that its student population is “highly mobile”. Well, duh!

The K-12 example clearly reveals the folly of monetizing public education. It puts venture capitalists, who don’t like to show their math, at the front of the class. They have time and again demonstrated that making a quick buck is their only priority. It’s all about the quarterlies.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

A primer on short sales:

As a former commercial banker/discount broker, I still find these things terribly complex. Basically, investing with integrity is called “going long”, meaning you believe in the company and wish to contribute to its success. A short sale however, is just the opposite. It’s a sleazy opportunistic ploy, that remains perfectly legal.

Short selling as described by Investopedia: “when you short sell a stock, your broker will lend it to you. The stock will come from the brokerage’s own inventory, from another one of the firm’s customers, or from another brokerage firm. The shares are sold and the proceeds are credited to your account. Sooner or later, you must “close” the short by buying back the same number of shares (called covering) and returning them to your broker. If the price drops, you can buy back the stock at the lower price and make a profit on the difference. If the price of the stock rises, you have to buy it back at the higher price, and you lose money.

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The Exploitation and Criminalization of Poverty in America

Aramark is in the news again, and this time it’s not about their failed Michigan prison food service contract, but it’s just as reprehensible.

The Exploitation and Criminalization of the Homeless

hobo signQUESTION: Do you know what the symbol to the left means?

Unless you were a depression-era hobo, and we’re guessing you weren’t, it probably holds no significance.

In that bygone era, it was one of many “signs” left by hobos on curbs, walls and trees to alert their fellow vagabonds of local conditions — places to avoid, vicious dogs, kind ladies, and in this case, “work for food.” Frequently, farms and churches would be the ones offering the sustenance for labor exchange.

Well, apparently it’s back, but with a modern and ominous high-tech twist.

In the Tampa Bay area, the New Life Pentecostal Church, led by Pastor Tom Atchison, opened a homeless shelter in 2002 named New Beginnings. Atchison offers roof and rations to the homeless for $600 a month — and for those unable to pay cash, he provides them with what he calls “work therapy.”

The pastor feels that hard labor is just the ticket for the multiple difficulties faced by the chronically homeless — including those often suffering from mental and physical illness, frequently coupled with drug and alcohol addiction. The shelter lacks a clinically trained professional to assist those in need, but not to worry, the Tampa Bay Times reports they do employ a former motorcycle gang leader to counsel the indigent, addicted and ill.

The kinds of “jobs” typically filled by New Beginnings’ residents are positions in Jesus loves hobosconstruction, landscaping, telemarketing, moving and painting. Among them also are assignments working the food concession stands at nearby Raymond James Stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Rays and Lightening’s games.

Atchison justifies his “work therapy” approach claiming it’s modeled after a perfectly legal Salvation Army program.

Labor lawyers disagree though, citing the lack of records kept on the number of hours worked, and the dearth of documentation proving the compensation was at least equal to the prevailing $7.25 minimum wage. Plus, there’s another troubling aspect to the arrangement — as reported in the Tampa Bay Times:

The Salvation Army’s program is legal, experts said, because its members work only for the Salvation Army. When Atchison sends his men to provide labor to for-profit companies, they said, he may be breaking the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The work was farmed-out to a for-profit entity — you guessed it — Aramark Corporation.

Using labor in exchange for food and shelter, while under-compensating workers, was found illegal in a 1998 ruling in a case involving a similar program in New York. (The precedent-setting ruling was made by a federal court judge by the name of Sonya Sotomayor, who now sits on the highest court in the nation.)

So, here’s the new hobo sign of our times, found on the Raymond James Stadium website — an offer from Aramark to run their concessions for a small cut of their profits.

Raymond James Stadium

Catherine Ruckelshaus, of the National Employment Law Project told the Tampa Bay Times “This is outrageous. These workers are doing a job. They need to be treated with dignity.”

South of Tampa, the City of Fort Lauderdale has a different, but equally egregious plan for their homeless population. They recently passed an ordinance making it illegal to feed homeless people in public places. The city has twice arrested 90-year old Arnold Abbott for offering food to those living on the street. He’s not about to stop though.

Other communities across the country have been enacting laws making it illegal to sit or lie on sidewalks, among other things. The National Coalition for the Homeless describes the problem as a civil rights issue:

Unfortunately, over the past 25 years, cities across the country have penalized people who are forced to carryout out life-sustaining activities on the street and in public spaces; despite the fact these communities lack adequate affordable housing and shelter space. Ultimately, many of these measures are designed to move homeless persons out of sight, and at times out of a given city.

Some Good Shelters Fight an Epidemic of Homelessness in Michigan

Homelessness remains no small problem for our nation, with between five and six hundred thousand individuals living on the streets at any given time. And at this time of year, many are struggling with the additional burden of coping with temperatures that kill.

Shelter Temp graphic

Michigan alone, has 86,000 homeless people — most are families, and one in three are children.

The Manistee Safe Harbor program didn’t open its doors until Nov. 12th this year, on a night the temperature dipped down to 28 degrees. The program is run by volunteers from a number of churches in the county. They rotate taking-in the homeless from church to church, which makes it difficult for those in need to find the current facility. The program is the only one in Manistee County and it provides just night-time shelter, leaving the community’s homeless population to fend for themselves during the bone-chilling daylight hours of the winter months.

Traverse City has a similar Safe Harbor program sponsored by a number of churches. They too opened their doors when temperatures plummeted in early November. The city has a homeless population of 93 as of the last count. None of the participating churches possess the capacity to house that number, so program leaders are in the process of securing a permanent facility in a central location with a projected 90 bed capacity.

The Northern Michigan community has been split in an often bitter battle over the permanent facility. Residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the proposed location worry that it will attract additional homeless to the city from the five county area, which is estimated to have just under 600 people without homes.

(Breaking: Glen Burkes, a 41-year old Grand Traverse County homeless man was hit and killed crossing the street on his way to a church shelter yesterday evening. The driver was not ticketed. It is believed the victim was intoxicated, and wearing dark clothing. So, now they apparently have 92 souls in need of care.)

The Community Housing Network, a Michigan-based advocacy group, cites the following as the most common reasons for homelessness in the state: lack of affordable housing, lack of a living wage, healthcare crises, mental illness, and the ongoing foreclosure crisis. Chronic homelessness often goes hand-in-hand with mental illness and addiction.

Homelessness, Mental Illness and Bad Public Policy

Dr. Robert Okin, a practicing clinical psychiatrist from the UCSF School of Medicine, has extensively researched the homelessness epidemic in America, focusing particularly on those suffering from mental conditions. He spent two years documenting the stories of people living on the streets of San Francisco, which he chronicled in his book, Silent Voices: People With Mental Illness on the Street

Okin dates much of the current problem back to the 1970’s when a policy shift shuttered mental institutions across the nation, putting people out on the street without the necessary resources to support their transition back into the community. Okin explained to Diane Rhem in a recent interview:

“There was a promise that when institutions were closed, that the money from the institutions would follow them into the community — a promise absolutely not kept.

[They] entered communities that were not prepared to accept them — that were actively hostile to them.”

Okin is crystal clear on the point that suitable housing must come first. Those in need, especially the mentally ill and those with various addiction problems, cannot receive meaningful assistance and treatment while living underneath bridges and in doorways.

Exploitive labor practices and the criminalization of poverty and mental illness are a moral cancer spreading across our nation. It’s high time that our public policy decisions reflect a position of empathy.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Here’s a link to the Michigan Homeless Shelter Directory (HSD) database.

The above photo of graffiti was taken at Grand Traverse Commons, in Traverse City, Michigan. A homeless man, John Keena, died in the woods nearby in 2010. The building bearing the sentiment is a shuttered structure that was previously part of the Traverse City State Hospital, where the mentally ill had formerly been housed, often by force. The hospital’s residents were released around 1980, leaving many to roam the streets of the community.

Structures at the site are undergoing renovation. Included among the multiple uses is affordable workforce housing. Visit The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.


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New Ruling May Close the Black Hole of Dark Money in Michigan Politics

Judge JacksonFor the second time in three years, U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson vacated a 2007 Federal Election Commission rule which had for all practical purposes gutted the requirement for organizations who sponsor third-party campaign issue ads to reveal their donors in the run-up to an election.

Calling the FEC rule “arbitrary , capricious, and contrary to law,” Jackson’s ruling reaffirmed her prior decision finding that the stipulation to disclose only those contributors that expressly gave for the purpose of a particular ad is not consistent with McCain-Feingold, aka, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.

A little over two years ago, the U.S. District Court of Appeals overturned the judge’s prior ruling and returned the case to her for further consideration.

Jackson thought about it, and yup — it still had the stench of covert electioneering.

The case stemmed from a lawsuit filed by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), who was joined by numerous advocacy groups standing in opposition to the narrow interpretation of reporting requirements — arguing that they are not in the spirit and intent of McCain-Feingold. The 2007 FEC rule created a loophole allowing anonymous financiers to funnel millions in unreported campaign dollars into issue ads, with no fear of public disclosure. Jackson said the rule “allows the true sponsors of advertisements to hide behind dubious and misleading names.”

Jackson labeled the FEC rule as an “unreasonable interpretation” of the BCRA, designed to thwart congressional intent meant to “promote transparency and ensure that members of the public would be aware of who is trying to influence their votes just before an election.”

It is now up to the six-member FEC panel, chaired by Republican appointee Lee Goodman, to decide whether to appeal again, or abide by the court’s decision and comply with the rule of law. Goodman told the Washington Post:

“I’ve always said that I’m open to judicial guidance on this issue, and now we’ll have to study the court’s opinion to determine exactly what obligation the FEC has in response.”

The FEC, by the way, was created after the Watergate scandal — its mission was to create transparency in campaigns. (“Was” being the operative word.)

According to one of the transparency advocates on the case, lower courts are in lockstep in a call for full disclosure. The Los Angeles Times reports that Tara Malloy, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, said of the ruling:

“We are seeing a full-throated endorsement of disclosure by the lower courts. We are enjoying the victory, though I am sure the fight will continue.”

Yes, the battle will go on, but there’s at at least one federal agency on the side of disclosure.

Unlike the FEC, the Federal Communications Commission has been taking action to expose the vast sums of dark money being poured into third-party ads. Earlier this year, just weeks before the primary election, a new rule took effect requiring over 2000 television black holestations to create an online public database cataloging the documents of all third-party ad buys. Individual contributors will remain invisible, but at least now the electorate can understand the scope of the dark money problem. (Go to Political Ad Sleuth for an easy to use search engine.)

Michigan is recognized a the nation’s black hole when it comes to dark money, and their resident nonpartisan watchdog group, the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, surely appreciates the new FCC disclosure rule. Rich Robinson, Director of MCFN, reports that undisclosed sources dominated both the recent Supreme Court and the Attorney General races in the state. And the secretive spending was primarily of the Republican variety.

The Michigan Republican Party was the principal sponsor of advertising about Michigan Supreme Court candidates. Its ads touted incumbent Justices Brian Zahra and David Viviano and Judge James Redford as protectors of children. The Republican Party spent $4.2 million for its ads, which began on October 1st, but reported no television advertising to the Michigan Bureau of Elections.

Robinson explains why Michigan’s judiciary is so vulnerable:

“The problem with this unreported, unregulated advertising is that it can conceal the identity of a major campaign finance supporter who appears as a litigant before the justices on the Court. If such a supporter is involved in a case before the justices, his or her opponent in litigation is justified in asking the beneficiary of the support to recuse himself from the case.”

But, that can’t happen without full disclosure. Ditto with the Attorney General.

The Koch brothers, national posterboys for covert money in politics, are actually using dark money to fight disclosure rules. Through their front group, American Commitment, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit “social welfare” organization, they are clandestinely attempting to influence public policy by leaning on the IRS, calling efforts to disclose donors a “power grab” intended to “gut the first amendment.”

In a letter to the commissioner of the IRS, they laid-out an argument that is so tortured and contorted it defies the laws of physics. First, they admit it’s political speech, then claim it can’t be classified as such under the BCRA, next they whine that taking away their tax exempt status would somehow restrict free speech, and then put a cherry on it with the argument that dark money funded third-party ads are apparently not related to campaigns of any kind.

Painful to swallow, but here’s an excerpt (Democracy Tree apologizes in advance for subjecting readers to the following):

[The IRS]targets core political speech and association in a way more expansive and breathtaking than any governmental initiative of which we are aware. Although purporting to start with BCRA’s definition of “electioneering communications,” which the Supreme Court has already ruled cannot be used to restrict free speech, the proposed rule dramatically expands the definition to create a concept of “campaign-related political speech” that unabashedly sweeps in speech and associated activities at the very heart of the First Amendment.

Let’s hope the IRS Commissioner shows the same sense and ability to wade through bullshit as Judge Jackson. Not holding our breath.

Bonus Update: Guess which state recently took action to report dark money donors. Click here for answer.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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Things Michigan Progressives Can Be Thankful For

Yes, they do exist! Here’s a couple of things Progressives can be thankful for this Thanksgiving:

First, voter-initiated ballot questions just got that much easier, plus — as it turns-out, voters aren’t quite as stupid as claimed by Jonathan Gruber, the president’s Affordable Care Act advisor. At least not here in Michigan. (Hang on, don’t get your knickers in a twist — in spite of the recent midterms, sometimes they actually do get things right.)

Because so many didn’t bother to vote in the recent election, it will make citizen petition drives for constitutional amendments, referenda and initiated laws less of a chore. This could spell for a crowded 2016 ticket, but ballot questions are currently the only tool available to Michigan’s Progressives. Additionally, ballot proposals are among the few areas where voters of all political persuasions tend to use their heads to shape good public policy, that is, when not thwarted by obstructionist lawmakers.

The state’s constitution governs the process of ballot questions by requiring petitioners to gather certain percentages of signatures of the electorate based on the number of votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election. So, low voter turn-out translates into fewer signatures required.

GOP lawmakers have been bending-over backwards trying to make the process more arduous for citizens, unless of course, it is a cause they support — or more accurately — one their financial supporters supports. The legislature has the authority to pass a citizen initiated question or referendum into law without putting it on the ballot — as they did with the Right to Life backed “rape insurance” law last year. They knew voters would never approve of such a reckless disregard for women’s healthcare and reproductive rights. Even Gov. Snyder had vetoed a similar legislative measure the year before.

Amy in LansingConstitutional questions however, are always put to the people. They require signatures in the amount of 10 percent of the number of ballots cast in the midterm election, which is now 315,184 — down by 7,425 from the previous 322,609. To ward of challenges on the validity of the collected signatures, a citizen ballot question committee will typically collect 150 to 200 percent of the minimum required.

Citizen-initiated laws have a lower threshold, requiring 8 percent, and referenda to challenge existing laws only demand 5 percent — both still high numbers, but now thousands fewer than before. They too, will gather many more signatures than needed.

GOP lawmakers have a habit of tacking unnecessary appropriations onto controversial legislation because, by a fluke of the Michigan Constitution, they render the law referendum-proof. This occurred with the latest emergency manager law after voters repealed a nearly identical version through referendum. (To be completely fair, the new version respected the law, in that it did not create an illegal, unfunded mandate as the previous incarnation had. They set aside money to pay for the emergency manager and their staff. Although, this could have been accomplished through a separate bill.)

It’s not just elected officials that play the appropriations game. A recent citizen-initiated law funded by the Michigan United Conservation Clubs in support of wolf hunting contained a completely extraneous appropriation of $1 million to fight Asian Carp. GOP lawmakers gave it the same treatment as the rape images[7]insurance petition drive and passed it without voter approval.

The wolf hunt law is now referendum-proofBut, it’s certainly not bullet proof.

A citizen-driven initiated law to overwrite the new law is well within reach. This would require a third petition drive from the tenacious folks at Keep Michigan Wolves Protected. They’ve accomplished this herculean task twice before, and now that it’s easier, they may do it again.

This brings us to the second piece of good news to be thankful for in Michigan.

Informed voters, across the political spectrum, resoundingly rejected the two ballot proposals on wolf hunting, both of which had been rendered moot through legislative chicanery. Sure, the election outcomes on props 14-1 and 14-2 carry no legal weight, but they clearly represent the will of the people standing in opposition to the unnecessary depredation of a marginal species — one that also serves an important role in keeping Michigan’s deer population in check. Why auto insurers aren’t all over this is a mystery.

Not only did voters widely reject wolf hunting at the ballot box, but a statewide poll backed-up the general unease Michigan voters feel about the gratuitous hunting of a species so recently removed from the endangered list. From the group Keep Michigan Wolves Protected:

There is a great deal of intensity around the fact that voters want to decide these issues and were unwilling to give up their right to do so. Overall, 85 percent of Michigan voters agree that, “Michigan voters should keep their right to vote on wildlife issues and should not hand over that power to an unelected, politically appointed commission,” including 71 percent who agree with that strongly and only 11 percent disagree, overall. This sentiment is consistent across party lines with 83 percent of Republicans, 85 percent of Independents, and 88 percent of Democrats agreeing. That is a remarkable level of agreement on anything.

There is also broad agreement that the NRC and Legislature should listen to the will of the voters on wolf hunting. Nearly two-in-three voters (65 percent) agree that, “The legislature and the Natural Resources Commission should listen to the will of the voters, and should not authorize a wolf hunting season,” with 50 percent strongly agreeing and only 29 percent disagreeing, overall.

There are some that would argue that this is strictly an Upper Peninsula question, and voters and poll respondents from the Lower Peninsula should have no say in the matter. This line of reasoning calls for a gentle reminder that Michigan functions under democratic principles, and this is a constitutionally protected statewide question.

There is also a legal challenge to the wolf hunt law in the works.

True, the petition language had an appropriation attached, which rendered it referendum-proof. However, that may prove to be the constitutional undoing of the law. There’s something called the “single object clause” which governs the content of laws in Michigan.

Article IV, Section 24 of the constitution states the following:single object clauseA constitutional challenge to the new wolf hunt law could be based on the fact that, as enacted, it included both an un-related appropriation to fight Asian Carp, plus a clause to allow active duty military personnel to get free hunting and fishing licenses. The attachments provided the added bonus of luring petition signers who weren’t interested in the wolf question, but wanted to do something about Asian Carp, or do a kindness for those serving our country. More trickery.

Give thanks for these small blessings now, because the upcoming lame duck session is sure to make your blood boil.

Happy Thanksgiving  to All!

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin


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Snyder’s Skint School Budget = Unsafe Buses

GOP Budget Cuts Are Endangering Michigan’s Children

The grades are in, and they’re not good.

Under the requirements found in Michigan’s Pupil Transportation Act, as spelled-out in the Michigan State Police School Bus Inspection Manual, the state police department issues annual ratings on the condition of school buses.

The scoring falls into three categories: pass, yellow, and red:

MDE Bus safety

With a statewide failure rate of 10.2 percent, about 50 districts are in a very bad way, having a significant portion of their fleet, large or small, found to be in serious disrepair. More buses have flunked each year since Gov. Snyder took office. For the 2011-12 school year, 7.6 percent didn’t pass, and that increased to 9.5 percent the following year.

The problem is two-fold.

Michigan schools have been starved of funding under the Snyder administration. Yes, the governor can brag, as he surely does, that technically speaking, he increased education funding during his first term. But, those modest increases went towards underfunded retirement costs, and after inflation is factored-in, real school funding is flying cardown considerably.

The second contributing situation is the poor condition of Michigan’s roads, which, unless drivers possess a flying car, have put an undeniable dent in the motoring budget. School buses aren’t immune to the wear and tear brought-on by roadways riddled with cavernous potholes that would surely rival that of a war zone.

To earn a “Red Tag” from the state requires the vehicle to be in a state of gross disrepair. Some examples of unacceptable conditions are:

  • Floor pan or inner panels have perforated areas or openings. Any floor or body panel opening through to the exterior of the vehicle.
  • Absence of effective braking action upon application of the service brakes.
  • Missing or loose bolts on motor mount cross members sufficient to allow cross
    member to shift or move.
  • Any emergency door, roof hatch or window that does not open freely or completely
    as designed.
  • A fuel tank not securely attached to the vehicle.
  • Any missing window in the vehicle.
  • No operative stop lamps or tail lamps.

Too many of Michigan’s school buses are falling apart, and should be replaced, but at a cost of between $80,000 and $120,000 for a standard Type C or D school bus, districts are instead making do with derelict vehicles.

imagesCAV8XBNNOf the districts with bus fleets that require serious repairs, only two are among the 48 currently listed on the fiscal distress watch list. Hazel Park Public Schools have 7 of 12 buses either flunking, or teetering on the edge, and Taylor School District needs to send 40 out of 70 of their fleet of clunkers to the shop for critical repairs.

Many of the schools that flunked the inspection are smaller outstate districts which labor under the lowest per pupil funding apportionment, while also burdened with the greatest transportation costs due to serving larger geographic areas — add-on the physical abuse of navigating unpaved rural roads, and the school buses end up becoming a danger to the students and other drivers.

Narrowing it down further, of the approximately fifty districts with transportation troubles, half of them are seriously compromised, with 50 percent or more of their fleet not fully functional. A few of note are: the Lansing Public School District, with 72 of their fleet of 133 buses toe-tagged, and another 17 yellow-lighted; East Lansing Schools similarly can’t use 6 of their 12 aging buses; they are joined by Flushing Community Schools where only 15 out of 38 buses were deemed road worthy; and Chippewa Hills School District was ordered to park 24 of their 47 vehicles.

Bringing up the rear is tiny Vestaburg Community Schools, with their entire bus garage red-lighted by the state police. The mid-state district, with approximately 600 students, has seen its fund balance shrink from $6.5 million in 2007, to a projected balance of under $200,000 for FY 2015. Their Munetrix fiscal rating has gone from low risk to seeing deep red over the next two years. They are a likely candidate to trigger the new GOP law allowing the forced dissolution of small, fiscally distressed school districts.DSCF01761-300x195[1]

Money is the only fix for the statewide problem, and we can anticipate renewed calls from the governor’s office and GOP lawmakers for increased privatization of busing service as a means to squeeze a few extra nickels and dimes out of shrinking school funds. However, even the premier private vendor in the state, Dean Transportation, is having trouble with their combined fleet of 239 buses — 16 percent were flagged by the state police, with 11 percent of them deemed unsafe.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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The Detroit News Overstates the Value of Privatization

(In addition to watchdog commentary on public policy and politics, Democracy Tree will also be on the lookout for bias and improprieties in the media, with a particular focus on an increased blurring of the lines between opinion pieces and articles in traditional media.)

Analytics and Editorials

The Detroit News ran an analysis piece in support of increased privatization of government services in Michigan. Here’s the online headline:

DN Favor Privatization

Most readers can easily distinguish between editorial writing and reporting, but this piece falls into a third category of journalism– an analysis, which is a hybrid of opinion and article, best described by Voxygen:

There is a specific type of article called an “analysis” that interprets information. This kind of writing goes a step beyond simple reporting because it presents an opinion about conclusions drawn from the information the reporter gathered. News analysis articles aren’t just reporting; they are analyzing and offering conclusions. Usually, though, they include substantial support from experts and they give more than one opinion in the article. So, it’s a step in between the biased tone of an editorial and the neutral tone of a news article.

In this case, the Detroit News analyzes a Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS) of local units of government conducted by the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy through the University of Michigan. Their report, Most Michigan Local Officials are Satisfied with Their Privatized Services, But Few Seek to Expand Further, is just as thorough as its lengthy title implies.

MPPS conducts regular surveys of Michigan municipalities on topical issues. They are strictly non-partisan and unbiased, leaving readers to interpret the compiled data — or to cherry pick it to fit their views.

A Matter of Semantics

Drawing from the survey report, The Detroit News reached the conclusion that increased privatization is good for local governmental bodies seeking to trim their budgets, and is favored by “Michiganians.” 

First, let’s point out the obvious: The survey was not targeted at the 9.896 million citizens of the Great Lakes State. From the survey:

These findings are based on statewide surveys of local
government leaders in the Spring 2014 wave of the
Michigan Public Policy Survey (MPPS).

The survey was not conducted on “Michiganians” at large, as the News implies, instead the results were based on responses from a select few leaders in jurisdictions across the state, including mayors, city managers, township supervisors, and others in positions of authority. In all, 1856 surveys were distributed, with a response rate of 1344.

Of the municipalities reporting, it was found that few of them even bother to conduct evaluations of privatized services, with only 39 percent of larger cities monitoring their success — and of those, only 6 in 10 seek citizen input. Based on the report, it cannot be said that Michiganians favor, or not favor, privatization.

The Survey Says

MPPS makes it clear at the outset that the evidence is still out on the efficacy of privatization:

Previous research is mixed on the outcomes of privatization, finding that private sector delivery of public services may or may not boost efficiency, cost savings, and service quality. These outcomes often depend on a variety of factors, such as the types of services being privatized, the level of competition among potential service providers, and the amount of monitoring and evaluation conducted by the governments that are contracting out services. In addition, research has found that “in-sourcing”—that is, bringing privatized services back into the government for public service delivery—is also a common practice among local governments.

Now let’s take a look at the conclusions the News deduced from the 15 page report.

They start with the statewide results, touting that “Among communities that outsource any service, local leaders in 73 percent [of the units of government] say they are satisfied with the results.” However, MPPS provides a pie chart which paints a slightly different picture, with 33 percent reporting they are fully satisfied, and 40 percent showing to be only somewhat so.

munis satisfied

The newspaper analysis focused primarily on the geographic area of its core readership — Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties in Southeast Michigan, whose combined 3.86 million residents comprise slightly over a third of the state’s population. At several data points, the report breaks-out the responses based on population density, which helps provide additional insight into the privatization picture for the greater Detroit area, and the newspaper’s bending of the survey’s findings to their way of thinking.

Buyer’s Remorse

MPPS found that Michigan has an overall rate of 15 percent of units of government reporting the “in-sourcing” of public services — that means the reversal of previously privatized services. With 27 percent of larger municipalities canceling failed contracts.

jurisdictions that reverse privatization

This by no means implies that all privatization initiatives are flawed — clearly more of them work than not, or are at least functional at some level, but they certainly require very careful evaluation and regular monitoring. They are not the panacea the News portrays them to be.

So, why do municipalities back-pedal on their privatization policies? The reasons given for reversal reveal that, by and large, about half the time it’s due to a lack of savings and/or low quality of service.

reasons for reversal

Mistaken Thinking

The News article laments that only 10 percent of local units of government anticipate increased privatization of their services in 2014, calling that attitude “mistaken thinking.” 

In the five years MPPS has been tracking public sector out-sourcing in Michigan, there clearly is a new lull in the momentum. A trend that even the conservative think tank, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, understands may indicate a point of saturation. As a strong proponent of public-private partnerships, the Mackinac Center admits in their report on the public education sector, the Michigan School Privatization Survey -2014, that the rate of privatization is slowing for good reason:

It could be that school support service privatization has topped out. In other words, there may come a time when all the districts that could contract out for quality services while simultaneously saving money have.

It appears the Detroit News is the one suffering from “mistaken thinking”, especially when they further extrapolated the following fanciful notions from the data:

[T]he message is clear: These practices will help municipalities trim budget costs and operate at a more efficient level while still providing services to residents.

It would bode well for state, county and local municipalities to explore more fervently and frequently inter-government cooperation and privatization.

These are proven fiscal options that will continue to be valuable factors in balancing governmental budgets.

One can’t help but wonder if they were reviewing the same report at all.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin



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