Trump’s Crime Policy Comes to Lansing

Rhetoric about US cities’ “serious violent crime problem” is misleading and distracting

The federal justice department has launched a new Public Safety Partnership that aims to help 12 U.S. cities, including Lansing, Mich., with what Attorney General Jeff Sessions calls “their serious violent crime problems.”

Sessions announced the program on Tuesday, June 20, at a criminal justice summit in Washington, D.C. He cited a “staggering” increase in the national violent crime rate and touted the PSP as fulfilling President Trump’s promise to “make America safe again.” The program will make additional federal resources available to help cities fight violence. A U.S. Department of Justice spokesman explained that to be considered for inclusion in the program a city “must have levels of violence that far exceed that national average.”

But Lansing is far from a dangerous city. “I disagree with the Attorney General on that,” Lansing Chief of Police Michael Yankowski said. “Violent crime in Lansing has gone down by 30 percent over the last 30 years, and property crime has gone down by 50 percent. We have a violent crime reduction plan that’s seen tremendous success.”

In fact, the Trump administration’s narrative on crime and criminal justice does not line up with the facts. Crime rates both in Michigan and nationally have steadily declined over the past couple decades to near-historic lows. To sustain this momentum, it’s critical that politicians and policymakers have a correct understanding of the true nature and extent of the problems on our streets and in our justice systems. Overstating the issue of violent crime could result in knee-jerk reactions to a perceived “crisis,” while diverting attention from other issues that are long overdue for successes like the one we’ve had in reducing the violent crime rate.

In the meantime, Lansing is poised to proceed with this federal collaboration. Chief Yankowski attended the summit in D.C. and said he expects federal help in the form of diagnostic services, not necessarily cash.

“We haven’t been guaranteed any money,” he said. “We’ll continue strengthening our relationship with the federal government and will always be open to learning best practices and how to fight the root causes of crime.” The LPD might get additional technology or training, assistance with grant writing or a consultant to help with data collection and analysis. The particulars won’t be known until a site visit is completed and an action plan written.

One thing, at least, is clear – Lansing has joined the PSP because Yankowski wants to be proactive, not because the city is overrun by violence. Trump and Sessions should stop misleading the American people with headline grabbing rhetoric about “serious violent crime.” Instead, they should get serious about expanding the success and attention of this issue to other areas.

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Michigan would join the vast majority of states in freeing prospective painters from needless government licensing requirements and fees if it passes proposed changes. That’s a good move, and would be another step towards right-sizing regulations.

The state requires anyone who wants to earn a living as a painter to complete 60 hours of courses, pay nearly $300 in fees and pass an exam. The would-be painter must be at least 18 years old — meaning two high schoolers can’t legally team up to paint barns for the summer.

By any standard, this is unjustified. Painting has virtually no impact on public health and safety, knocking down the usual argument used to justify state licensing. According to the Institute for Justice, only 10 states require licenses for painters. If unlicensed painters were a harm to society, we’d have heard about it by now from our neighbors in Indiana and Ohio.

The state licensing agency isn’t doing much to enforce the state-mandated licenses anyway. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are nearly 4,000 professional painters in Michigan – but according to the state, only 425 of them are actually licensed. Not all of the people painting in Michigan without a license are earning a living illegally (you can work under the supervision of a licensed painter), but many are. Yet the state has not cracked down on any unlicensed painters in the past two years, according to an open records request. That means painters who follow the law are competing with those who don’t.

House Bill 4608, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Noble, R-Plymouth, recently passed the state House. When the Legislature returns in the fall, the state Senate should pass it.

Michigan’s overbearing licensing laws cost approximately 125,000 jobs and $2,700 per family in higher consumer costs, according to one estimate. Removing the state requirement that painters be licensed is a positive step on the path toward comprehensive reform of our occupational licensing laws. Learn more at

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House Bill 4323, State budget for fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 2017: Passed 26 to 11 in the Senate

The non-education portion of the state government budget for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1, 2017. This would appropriate $39.9 billion, compared to $38.7 billion authorized the year before. Of this, $21.2 billion is federal money. When combined with the education budget (next bill), the state will spend $56.5 billion next year, vs. $54.9 billion last year, or a 2.9 percent increase.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4323, State budget for fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 2017: Passed 64 to 43 in the House

The House vote on the budget bill described above.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4313, State education budget for 2017-18: Passed 23 to 14 in the Senate

The final K-12 school aid, community college and university budgets for the fiscal year that begins Oct 1, 2017. This bill appropriates $16.608 billion, of which $1.838 billion is federal money. Of this total, $14.580 billion would go to K-12 public education, compared to $14.161 billion approved last year. Another $1.629 billion is for state universities, compared to $1.582 billion the prior year. Community colleges would get $399 million, up from $395 million last year.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4313, State education budget for 2017-18: Passed 72 to 35 in the House

The House vote on the education budget bill described above.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4427, Regulate access to police body camera images: Passed 37 to 0 in the Senate

To establish that police body camera recordings taken in a private place are exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. Individuals whose image is captured, owners of property seized or damaged in a crime and some others could still request a copy of the recordings subject to privacy exemptions. Police body camera recordings would have to be kept for at least 30 days, or longer if there is an related investigation.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4557, Authorize prison for bringing 26 cases of beer or wine into state: Passed 36 to 1 in the Senate

To authorize up to four years in prison and a $5,000 fine for bringing more than around 26 cases of wine or beer into the state without all the required licenses mandated by the state. Smaller quantities would be subject to 93 days in jail.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4213, Require court order to breathalyze minor who says no: Passed 37 to 0 in the Senate

To establish that a police officer must get a court order to get a breath test for alcohol from a minor who objects. This is not related to drunk driving or vehicles, but to enforcement of a state law that bans minors from being in possession of alcohol. Recent court cases have suggested that doing this without a court order is unconstitutional.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

Senate Bill 245, Repeal switchblade ban: Passed 106 to 1 in the House

To repeal the state law against owning, selling or possessing a switchblade knife, “the blade or blades of which can be opened by the flick of a button.” Reportedly the ban is outdated and unevenly enforced.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

Senate Bill 94, Accelerate vehicle trade-in “sales tax on the difference”: Passed 88 to 19 in the House

To accelerate the 24-year phase-in of a 2013 law that exempted from sales tax the value of a trade-in when buying a new vehicle. This would save buyers $28.7 million in 2021, which would gradually increase through 2028.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4608, Exempt residential painters and decorators from licensure mandate: Passed 62 to 45 in the House

To exempt painters and decorators from the licensure mandate imposed residential maintenance and alteration contractors.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

Senate Bill 249, Ban government discrimination against charter schools in property sales: Passed 60 to 47 in the House

To prohibit a school district or local government from refusing to sell property to a charter or private school, or taking other actions designed to keep these potential conventional public school competitors from using property for a lawful educational purpose. Prohibited actions could also include imposing deed or zoning restrictions. A number of local governments and conventional school districts have adopted such restrictions in the past.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

SOURCE:, a free, non-partisan website created by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, providing concise, non-partisan, plain-English descriptions of every bill and vote in the Michigan House and Senate. Please visit

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Free Press Omits Key CREDO Charter School Finding

Students learning more from most Michigan for-profit operators

As the Detroit Free Press tells it, Michigan should be concerned about a new study that finds for-profit charter operators get worse results than their nonprofit counterparts. But an in-depth analysis of the data used for the study actually shows most Michigan for-profit operators doing significantly better than average.

Last week Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes released the latest in a series of studies on charter school performance. Earlier studies found that attending a charter school in Michigan and in Detroit specifically delivered on average an extra two months of learning in math and reading. Many more charters outperformed neighboring district schools than did worse.

The newest study assesses how much more students learn based on the school’s management structure. CREDO researchers wanted to see how well charter schools perform that are part of a network of schools as opposed to those that are run independently. This is important because networks can be a useful way to scale up improvements and reach more students quickly.

On average, CREDO researchers found that network-affiliated charters increase student learning more than self-managed charters. They also observed that all types of “charter schools are having a positive impact.” Of course, these high-level results can obscure a great deal of variation among individual networks and schools, as well as differences among states.

Unfortunately, the Free Press’s coverage left out key distinctions in the report to create a misleading conclusion. First, the newspaper focused only on a national finding that the larger sector of nonprofit charter operators has better outcomes than their for-profit counterparts. Then they extrapolated the finding to imply that Michigan’s comparatively large for-profit charter sector must be faltering. (Roughly half the state’s charter campuses provide instruction through a for-profit management company.)

Yet that implication clashes with the study’s own findings. CREDO did not break down the relative success of for-profit vs. nonprofit at the state level. But the method they used is a close approximation. A group of schools that CREDO designated as “Vendor Operated Schools,” or VOS, represents nearly 80 percent of Michigan’s for-profit charter campuses. Michigan’s VOS charters do not include any nonprofit or independently managed schools.

According to CREDO, Michigan’s VOS charters have the strongest record in the state. They provide about 45 to 50 extra days of learning in both reading and math. The Free Press story attributes to Michigan Association of Public School Academies president Dan Quisenberry the belief that “Michigan’s for-profit run charters would buck the national trend.” But it omits the CREDO report’s evidence that strongly backs him up.

As Quisenberry is quoted in the Free Press, a school’s for-profit or nonprofit status “is irrelevant.” It’s about whether schools are meeting students’ needs and helping to put them on track for success.

While waiting for the promised analysis of the Michigan Charter School Research Project, CREDO’s reports remain the best evidence we have of how well Michigan charter schools are doing. And their latest data show Michigan charters, particularly those with for-profit management, are doing a better job.

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Kids Experience Entrepreneurship at Detroit Children's Business Fair

Second annual event provided opportunities to learn, grow and earn money

On May 13th, children from around metro Detroit gathered at the Detroit Historical Museum for the second annual Detroit Children’s Business Fair.

The event, hosted by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and Junior Achievement of Southeastern Michigan, allowed children to sell goods to customers for real money. Testing their hand at being an entrepreneur, kids could win prizes for creativity, originality and business potential, and to get advice from a panel of expert judges on ways they might improve.

John Mozena, the vice president of marketing and communications for the Mackinac Center, encouraged sign-ups during an on-air interview with WJR Detroit radio host, Frank Beckmann.

“Entrepreneurs built the Detroit that we think about” Mozena said. “It’s great to tie into that history and for kids to realize that they can be the next Henry Ford.”

Comparing it to a combination of the traditional lemonade stand and a science fair, Mozena enthused about the possible implications of such an event.

“It’s good businesses that create good jobs, and good jobs make for good communities.”

The Michigan Chronicle, who also encouraged children to sign up for the fair, called it a “great place for kids to try their hand at entrepreneurship.”

Following the fair, the Chronicle published a follow-up article.

As more than 100 shoppers visited the nearly 20 youth-owned micro-businesses, an important dynamic became apparent, as participants grasped the bigger business picture. They embraced the value of hard work, increased their self-esteem and were eager to share their good fortune and commit a portion of their sales to philanthropic and charitable opportunities.

According to WDET radio, 14-year-old Zena Nasiri and 12-year-old Mena Nasiri brought their business – EenaArts – to the fair. Students from Morgan Lantz’s fifth-grade class from Escuela Avancemos also participated. These two groups alone sold everything from jewelry and scarves all the way to lava lamps, candy apples and ice cream.

“We just started realizing that we were actually selling a lot,” Zena told WDET radio. “At first it was kind of a casual thing and then it got more serious. And now I think we’re running it like an actual business.”

The Mackinac Center and Junior Achievement plan to host a third Detroit Children’s Business Fair next spring, with hopes that it will continue to grow and provide children with an educational and fun experience.

You can watch a recap video of the fair at the event’s website.

Read more:

Michigan Chronicle: Business booming for kids at Mackinac Center marketplace
Mackinac Center: Support Young Entrepreneurs at the Detroit Children’s Business Fair
WDET: Youth Businesses Step Into the Spotlight
WJR: John Mozena Interview about the Detroit Children’s Business Fair
Michigan Chronicle: Young entrepreneurs wanted for Detroit Children’s Business Fair

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A Plea for Fairness, Transparency and Intellectual Honesty

Testimony prepared for the Michigan Travel Commission

Photo from Flickr

The following is testimony prepared for the Michigan Travel Commission at its June 22 meeting in Muskegon, Michigan. The Commission is charged with the mandate to “promote, maintain and develop the orderly growth of the Michigan travel industry” and is required to take testimony regarding policy adoption or adaption “from a broad cross section of travel interests.”

Good morning, my name is Michael LaFaive. I am an economist and director of fiscal policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, with which I have been associated now for 25 summers. I am here today to call upon the Michigan Travel Commission to demand greater fairness, transparency and intellectual honesty in state and industry dealings.

I have written many scholarly studies during my time with the Mackinac Center, but one of the most recent involves state tourism promotion. My study, co-authored with professor Michael Hicks, looked at tourism promotion by 48 states over 39 years. We found a huge negative rate of return.

As one prominent example, we found that for every $1 million increase in state promotion efforts there was a corresponding $20,000 in extra economic activity in the average state’s accommodations industry. That’s a mere 2-cent increase for every taxpayer dollar spent. Other sectors we looked at fared no better. The Pure Michigan program is ineffective and should be shut down. I ask that the Travel Commission to do the following:

  1. Call on the state of Michigan to repeal its failed Pure Michigan program.

    Not only does the program not work, it is fundamentally unfair to every other taxpaying business in the state not lucky enough to have its advertising subsidized by government. If the Commission and larger industry truly believe that these programs are effective, then they should have no problems self-assessing to finance the Pure Michigan program.

    Doing so would provide observers with what economists call a “revealed preference,” where the actions of a person or group reveal far more than vocal testimony alone. The state claims that Pure Michigan generates more than $8 in tax revenue for every $1 spent on it. If everyone believes this to be true, the travel industry should want to happily invest in its own well-being.

    If only that were true. In the industry’s strategic plan for 2007-2011, titled Michigan Tourism Strategic Plan, the authors write:

    There is absolutely no industry support for a broad-based industry self-assessment approach to generate sufficient monies to fund Travel Michigan. Last year, TICOM (Tourism Industry Coalition of Michigan) created a special task force to explore such an approach. Without exception, representatives from a variety of tourism industry segments indicated their members and/or Boards would strongly oppose such an approach.

    The hostility to such self-assessment suggests that members of the travel trade group fully understand they would not enjoy the benefits that the state has claimed occur when it runs Travel Michigan at someone else’s expense.

  2. Call on the state to find a vendor willing to publish a transparent review of Pure Michigan’s return-on-investment number.

    The state currently hires Longwoods International to make return-on-investment calculations, but that company’s officials refuse to explain precisely how they generate their claims, specifically the one that says Pure Michigan generates more than $8 in tax revenue for every $1 spent on out-of-state advertisements. These are the figures used to sell the program as a success to lawmakers and others, especially during the appropriation process.

    Why anyone takes such pronouncements seriously is beyond me. The vendor and proponents at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and elsewhere are basically saying, “Hey lawmakers and taxpayers, trust us, we are right about this; now please appropriate more public money to the cause of private industry’s profits.”

  3. Demand that the industry’s association (Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association) back its assertions with evidence.

    Last spring the president of this organization, Deanna Richeson, wrote in an email that an unnamed think tank had published a “study … that has already been discredited.” Curious that someone somewhere may have discredited our work, I emailed, faxed, called by telephone and mailed a letter to Richeson asking her to explain who had done so and where I could locate any takedown of the Mackinac Center’s tourism work. I’m still waiting for her answer and her silence speaks volumes.

    The answer won’t be forthcoming because our study is the most scholarly and comprehensive in existence today.

  4. Ask Richeson and Travel Michigan Vice President David Lorenz to publicly debate me and my colleague Michael Hicks in a public forum.

    Public officials and industry spokesmen have made inflated claims about the effects of this taxpayer-supported program. They ought to be transparent on their views and accountable for them.

    We asked them to debate ourselves and they refused our request. Perhaps they may reconsider.

It is clear to us that the state and the industry want to keep the status quo. But it should not come at the price of fairness to other industries, state secretiveness or a refusal to support public statements with actual evidence or a real debate.

Thank you for your time.

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Traverse City Should Avoid Risky Public Internet

Most municipal broadband projects losing money

Traverse City is exploring investments in public broadband internet. Past experience teaches us that it should be very cautious about doing so.

Initially, a public entity was reportedly thinking about building a fiber internet line and becoming an internet service provider. The chairman of Traverse City Light & Power says the organization is still in the process of making that decision. New evidence suggest there are many ways for these types of deals to go wrong.

First, a report came out last month from the University of Pennsylvania that found public broadband to largely be a failure. The report looked at the 20 most recently built fiber networks across the United States for which the authors could get records. It found that most projects were already cash-flow negative and likely to continue needing taxpayer subsidies just to survive. Many of the other projects are barely making money and not likely to recover the costs of their initial build-up. Only two of the 20 networks were financially viable.

Second, news just broke that Lake County, Minnesota, will be selling its network. In 2010, the county received nearly $70 million in federal loans and grants to build a broadband network while putting in an extra $10 million from local taxpayers. But it wasn’t enough, despite governments paying $22,000 per subscriber in subsidies.

In Michigan, Traverse City isn’t alone. Holland is also considering a risky broadband project and the small community of Laketown Township in Ottawa County narrowly rejected doing so.

These deals don’t pass the “yellow pages” test, which says if you can find it in the yellow pages, the government should not be doing it. The government should be finding ways to encourage broadband investment by removing obstacles – not getting in the way with unfair competition.

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June 16, 2017 MichiganVotes weekly roll call report

House Bill 4647, Overhaul school employee retirement system: Passed 55 to 52 in the House

To replace the current school pension system with one that requires more cost-sharing by new employees, and contains provisions intended to limit state management practices responsible for the $29.1 billion of unfunded liabilities in the status quo system. New employees could choose instead to receive substantial employer contributions to 401(k) accounts. If the overhauled defined benefit component is not properly funded then enrollees would have to pay half the cost of correcting this, and if underfunding exceeds specified levels this option would be closed to new hires.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

Senate Bill 401, Overhaul school employee retirement system: Passed 21 to 17 in the Senate

The Senate vote on the identical pension reform provisions as in the House bill described above.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

Senate Bill 401, Amendment to impose unfunded school pension liability costs on charters: Failed 14 to 24 in the Senate

Curtis Hertel amendment to require charter schools to contribute to the cost of paying down the school pension system's $29.1 billion in unfunded liabilities, even though their employees do not get benefits from the system. The amendment was supported by all Democrats and by Republicans Emmons, Rocca and Schmidt.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4636, Criminalize female genital mutilation of minors: Passed 38 to 0 in the Senate

To make it a crime subject to 15 years in prison to perform a clitoridectomy, infibulation, or other female genital mutilation on person less than age 18. Claims that the procedure is required by custom or ritual would be explicitly excluded as a defense to prosecution. Related bills would ban transporting a girl for this purpose, authorize lawsuits from victims, and permanently revoke the license of a medical professional convicted of this.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4013, Allow electronic vehicle registration in car instead of paper: Passed 38 to 0 in the Senate

To allow the vehicle registration document motorists are required to have when driving to be an electronic picture of the document on their smartphone or other device.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4215, Repeal rule banning car running in driveway: Passed 30 to 6 in the Senate

To repeal a ban on leaving an unattended vehicle running other than on a public street or highway. This would allow warming up the car in the driveway in winter.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4613, Create process to restrict expansive court cost levies: Passed 38 to 0 in the Senate

To create a state commission to recommend changes to trial court funding in light of a Michigan Supreme Court ruling that questioned charging defendants for costs that are unrelated to their case and instead cover routine court and municipal operations. The Senate also passed House Bill 4612 to extend the current (possibly excessive) levies another three years.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4407, Require opioid abuse training in schools: Passed 102 to 5 in the House

To require public schools to include instruction on prescription opioid abuse in required health classes. House Bill 4406 requires a state commission to develop a lesson plan.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

House Bill 4403, Include opioid addiction treatment in Medicaid benefits: Passed 105 to 2 in the House

To include acute treatment services and clinical stabilization services for opioid addiction among the medical services the state has assumed a duty to provide through its social welfare system, including Medicaid.

Who Voted "Yes" and Who Voted "No"

SOURCE:, a free, non-partisan website created by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, providing concise, non-partisan, plain-English descriptions of every bill and vote in the Michigan House and Senate. Please visit

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Vitti’s ‘Student-First’ Agenda Faces Early Test

Pay limits for incoming teachers an unnecessary obstacle

New Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said he wants to pursue a “student-first state and local policy agenda” for the troubled district. Renegotiating the teachers union contract gives him an early opportunity to work toward a truly student-first agenda.

Vitti wants to make teacher raises a budget priority. But district leaders also ought to insist on concessions from the union that give them more flexibility to fill shortages with effective instructors.

A new Bridge Magazine article identifies one easy place to start: removing stringent rules on how much teachers can be paid when they transfer in from another district. The terms of Detroit’s current contract only permit “credit on the salary schedule for up to two (2) years of outside teaching experience.”

Bridge’s Mike Wilkinson offers an example of why this sort of policy is unproductive: “Say you’re a teacher with 10 years’ experience at Utica schools, which had layoffs last year. To work in Detroit, you’d have to accept nearly $36,000 less, going from more than $78,500 to just under $43,000 because eight years’ of experience wouldn’t count.”

The collective bargaining agreement does allow some transferring teachers to get eight years of experience credit. According to Detroit Federation of Teachers President Ivy Bailey, the exception applies to special education and other positions that are harder to fill.

Bridge’s quick analysis found other districts have agreements with similar restrictions, but it also found districts that operate without the restriction. One large suburban district, Walled Lake Consolidated Schools, reached an agreement with the local union to remove the offending provision a few years ago, showing it can be done.

But there’s good reason to question how far Vitti’s team will go to attract more teaching talent. The Detroit schools’ spokesperson told Bridge the district has no interest in hiring qualified experts who lack state certification. This option provided last year by state lawmakers could help alleviate some shortages.

A teacher’s first two years of performance more accurately predict future success than whether she is certified. Further, the average teacher doesn’t improve after her first five years on the job, while earning advanced degrees bears no relationship with overall performance. Nearly all public school districts pay teachers based on seniority and credentials and little else, including performance. That’s convenient to administer but out of step with rewarding results.

To its credit, the district already gives out modest merit-based bonuses, so a basis exists for more fundamental reforms. Ultimately, though, Detroit community schools could enhance teacher quality much more by phasing out the conventional salary schedule and basing teacher raises primarily on meaningful measures of effectiveness. Then administrators need to get out of the way and give teachers more tools and opportunities to succeed.

As transformative as these policy changes might be, Detroit’s new superintendent doesn’t need to be that ambitious in his first few months to show he is serious about a student-first agenda. Lifting the restriction on pay levels for new teachers with outside experience would represent a modest step. But it also could send a signal of more changes to come.

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George Orwell and Humpty Dumpty Economic Policy

Michigan must remember warnings to not corrupt the English language to give businesses 'free' money

George Orwell photo from Wikipedia

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."

Lewis Carroll, “Through the Looking-Glass”

“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”


Our state Legislature is considering even more ways for the people who run government to pick which businesses get free money. These are largely reheated versions of failed programs, dressed up in new language.

The debate over these programs pits decades of history, consistent academic research results and fundamental principles of economics versus the flowery language of “economic development” promises. And just as Orwell warned us, the language is doing an excellent job of obscuring the facts.

To combat this, it’s important to recognize how some carefully chosen words don’t mean what they should:

  • Government “economic development” schemes aren’t held accountable for developing the economy. That’s because they can’t; the resources in play are overwhelmed by every other economic factor in the real world. In a state of 10 million people with a $468 billion GDP, Michigan’s programs in this space are roughly 1/1000th of the economy and their impact on it is proportionally insignificant.
  • “Refundable tax credits” can dwarf a company’s actual tax bill, meaning the company cashes a large check from the state. It’s a way of disguising a cash handout through the tax code, since the money never shows up as an appropriations line item.
  • The “Michigan Economic Growth Authority” had no authority over economic growth in Michigan. Instead, it awarded refundable tax credits (see above) to select businesses. Even though the MEGA program is gone, it will still cost taxpayers $660 million this year, and it continues to hurt the economy.
  • The “Michigan Economic Development Corporation” doesn’t have the ability to develop the state’s economy and isn’t an actual corporation. It’s run largely by advocates for big government and big business and makes its decisions accordingly.
  • The “Michigan Strategic Fund” was created in 1984 in response to a recession that had already been over for two years. In more than 30 years since, it has failed to identify a strategy that can deliver a return on the resources it expends. Rather, its governing board rubber-stamps whatever deals are brought before it, without any analytic rigor.
  • The legislation called “Good Jobs for Michigan” isn’t about creating jobs. Rather, it makes tax money flow to some companies, rather than from them. The state’s own Auditor General found that only one out of every five promised jobs is ever created through these kinds of deals.
  • “Transformational brownfield redevelopment” means building something new where something else used to be. In other words, it’s what humans have done since we invented cities, and for millennia people did it without getting free money from the government to do so.

We have a term for these sorts of terms – doublespeak – thanks to Orwell’s “1984.” But before he introduced us to the power of “doublethink” and “Newspeak” in that novel, he published his essay “Politics and the English Language” that still reads true today. “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible,” he wrote. “When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms.”

The way to fight this, he said, is to recognize and avoid the temptation to act like Humpty Dumpty and make our own words mean what we choose them to mean. “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful … and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” Orwell concluded. “One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits.”

For those who oppose efforts by would-be central planners to interfere in the market and pick winners and losers through the political process, remember Orwell’s warning: “A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.”

We do know better. But until we regain control of the language being used, simply being right isn’t going to be enough.

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