SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER:
MODEST CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE FORMULATION OF POLICY
What is the sound made by a tree falling in the forest if there is no one around to witness it?
But the answer to that question is little different than the old standby of the Buddhist monk
teachers' query of the sound of one hand clapping. It does beg consideration of what the
purpose of all of our efforts is if they seldom bear fruit. However, as a teacher in secondary
and post-secondary schools for more than thirty years, I long ago came to the rationalization
or perhaps consolation that the best we can do is raise critical questions and maybe plant
seeds which we may never witness in germination. It does soothe the ego some, even
among those of us who have long ago given up any presumption of having a great impact
on the world, let along saving civilization, to see some of our efforts have some positive
impact on policy. Actually, my own ego needs little massaging. I am content to make
ripples in the pond or function as a pesky fly distressing power on occasion.
And yet, I have been fortunate to have witnessed some fruit from some of my
rocks thrown at the gods. It does soothe the frustration from years of shouting
at the ocean, even when some corrupted version of a postulation sees the light
A CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION?
In 1982, I determined to contest the Democrat nomination for State Representative
in Michigan's then 39th District. I had hopes of possible endorsements which might
have helped fund a competitive campaign chest, but I lost the vote in the local AFL-CIO
council for endorsement by one vote and by a similar margin from the MEA council.
The opponent who won both of those endorsements (and also the local UAW endorsement
which I had no pretension of even seeking) was able to fund a well-oiled campaign and
win the nomination. Even though I won the Teamsters endorsement in the contest, it
did not reach to any money for the campaign, and not too far into the primary race,
I was doing little more than going through the motions. I finished fourth in a field of four
with 667 votes, but got votes in every precinct in the district, and actually carried several
precincts, including winning that in which the mother house of the Sisters of IHM in Monroe
was located. There was at least some solace in that moral victory. The well-funded candidate
I referred to above won the nomination and went on to win the seat in the legislature,
and my political career reached its apex!
There have always been unanswered questions about some of the voting in that race,
but it would do little good to rehash that now or here in this context. Suffice it to say
that I got less votes than I had close blood relatives in at least one precinct.
The point of all of this is that a few years later, the Michigan legislature was caught in what
turned out to be a most historical moment. There had been a drive to have state legislatures
pass a call for a constitutinal convention to consider a balanced budget amendment, and it
had passed enough votes to be one state short of being mandated. In the Michigan legislature,
it was going to pass the State Senate, but the vote in the House was but one vote short of
winning. As it happened, one of the handful of legislators who was uncommited on the
measure was that same candidate whom I had lost to in the 1982 primary, Jerry Bartnik.
The measure was a horrendous mistake. Not only was the idea of such an amendment
poor policy, but it was virtually meaningless and toothless, if ratified as proposed, because
it included an escape clause with a 2/3 vote of the Congress in the budget process. Moreover,
a major concern was that once such a constitutional convention was convened, there was
no legal, constitutional, or precendential constraint on the reach of its authority or jurisdiction.
Thus, such a convention could have done what the only other constitutional convention
of record had done -- throw out the Articles of Confederation and write a new Constitution.
Indeed, there were voices of power calling for such action, including no less a force than
Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy, although his rhetoric on such matters was not
at all tied to this effort. It could have opened a real can of worms which could have done
little but be disruptive of our governmental process and society.
I cannot say what led Representative Bartnik to vote against the measure. As it turned out,
his vote put the proposal down to defeat in the Michigan legislature by one vote, and it withered
and died after that, never winning enough state votes to be called.
Without going into gory details, since they may be irrelevant anyway, I made my sentiments
known to Mr. Bartnik. It is also undoubtedly the case that my feelings were not alone in
reaching his ear. I could not suggest that I might challenge him in the upcoming election if
he had voted for the measure. There may have been such an implied 'threat,' which I cannot
believe exactly would have frigthened the member out of his boots. However, he did vote
against the call for a convention although he had been on record as undecided on his vote
and it failed to pass by one vote. Is it therefore possible to entertain the possibility that my
humble efforts saved the nation from this course of folly!
During the course of my abortive campaign in 1982, I made as much as I could of a
suggestion to create what I called a Michigan Economic Growth Investment Corporation
(MEDIC). The economic conditions of the moment are worth recollection. Interest rates
were at an all time record high. The usurious debt service extractions had been created
by Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and President Carter ostensibly to curb the
double digit hyperinflation that had brought the economy to its worse state since the Great
Depression. The country was being rocked by the severest downturn in fifty years. As a
result, investment had nose-dived, and consumption was in a deep trough. Unemployment
was also at the double digit level. That had played a major role in the defeat of Carter
by Ronald Reagan in 1980, although the liberal line was to put the blame for the
economic travails on Reagan, whose policy initiatives actually paved the way out of the
abyss, and set the US on the wave of economic advance that it has enjoyed, except
for a brief small downturn in 1991.
MEDIC was a plan to have the state incorporate an agency that would sell bonds
with governmental guarantees and put the money into productive enterprises, which
included a new Fermi nuclear power plant, to pull in manufacturing, build a high speed
intrastate rail people transportation system, fund college loans, go for housing construction,
and much more. The incentive was to be that the bonds would bear competitive interest rates,
but the loans would be at very low interest rates. The 'loss' the state would have borne would
have been offset by the economic development it seeded and the tax revenue that would
have provided to the state. It was proposed that the fund initially be in the range of $ 5 billion.
Subsequently, a number of auto finance firms began to offer low interest loans to finance
purchase of cars from their associated Big Three producers, which were heavily suffering
from the economic conditions prevalent. Governor Blanchard also introduced a plan
which can only be said to be a corrupted variation of the MEDIC concept. True to
liberal dogma, there were severe restrictions of the investment which ensued which
made the realized program quite different from that I had proposed. In sum, the
investments that proceeded were not as productive. They were directed to areas
that were most severely challenged economically, and did not entail rail or nuclear or
adequately manufacturing concerns. At best, it was a jaded version of my suggestion.
Arguably, it could have come from other sources. However, it was similar enough
to have been germinated on my proposal. There is though no question that the
governor's people had knowledge of my campaign hallmark program, albeit in
final form it could only best be described as other-directed.
CITY OF DETROIT INCOME TAX CUT PROPOSAL
In an article published a couple of years ago in an early issue of this journal, entitled
"Revin' Up Motown," two important but rarely considered factors in the economic
decline of the city of Detroit were argued. The dual tax rate character of the Detroit
city income tax was suggested as an important element in that city's economic woes
over the last several decades. The article suggested that the tax had to be revisited
and argued that it should be phased out and replaced as a source of city revenues.
The Archer administration did become aware of the article, at least in part on account
of a number of students who worked in and around the mayor's office. But whether or
not the article was the reason, Archer proposed alteration of the city income tax during
1999 that included an overall reduction and a phasing out of the business tax portion
of it, both of which were suggested in the essay. As of late 1999, however, the proposal
remained prospective only.
Much of Africa was embroiled in bloody civil war couched in ideological rhetoric
which often came down to a question of whose side you were on the cold war and,
hence, from whom you might be able to get military assistance. That much was
different from the later 20th century.
In many parts of the world, national troops under UN auspices and control were
being installed, ostensibly to contain conflict and maintain order, but also to arguably
turn the governments into satrapies of the international organization. But was this an
attempt to replace the 'nation-state' with the beginnings of a new world order? It
certainly had all the trappings as additional steps in that direction, even under the guise
But the nation state, far from being a curse, has been one of the most important
forces in the history and development of the modern world. Of course, it has
also been one of the most destructive and deadly. During the middle 1970's,
Africa was torn by civil war and little was being done to contain the conflicts.
Indeed, the most powerful nations at the UN were involved in bankrolling the
opposing sides in the conflicts. This reached comic proportions (except that they
were so deadly) in the horn of Africa when the US and USSR switched sides in
the middle of the stream from support of Ethiopia to support for Somalia when
the regimes in each country changed and their sympathies also changed.
In an incidental conversation with a minister of the Republic of Guyana, I suggested
the prospect of the formation of an international force of peacekeepers that could
be deployed into countries embroiled in such conflict which might be made up of
Third World forces instead of those of the opposing sides in the Cold War. It was
subsequent to that, that he brought the idea to the attention of Fidel Castro. The
result was that an Africa Korps was formed made up of Cuban troops, bankrolled
by the USSR which were deployed into Mozambique and Angola among other
countries, ostensibly to stop conflict in them.
It was not exactly what I had in mind, but there is little question that the idea
could have originated in my off-handed remarked to Frederick Wills. I had
in mind something that would have drawn forces from several nations, including
perhaps India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Brazil, Nigeria, Mexico, and perhaps Cuba, among
others. Nor was the result precisely what I had envisioned, because the troops
Cuba deployed were not exactly neutral in the fighting. Nevertheless, the primary
purpose was to put an end to the bloody fighting, and to a certain extent that was
acheived, as least temporarily.
During the 1970 Congressional elections, I did some substantive work for a candidate
for a Democrat candidate in the primary in Michigan's 2nd Congressional district who
was actually able to win the nomination, although in the general election, he was readily
defeated by incumbent Congressman Marvin Esch. But as part of that effort, I was
able to serve (as I did on many other occassions) as a state convention delegate
in Grand Rapids that summer.
One of the things with which delegates busy themselves at such events is what often
seems like a meaningless exercise of platform resolutions. At the convention, I approached
another delegate from another district at the convention to see if she would be willing to
support and second a resolution calling on the President to grant amnesty to young
Americans who had gone to Canada to avoid being drafted into the military to serve in
Vietnam. My purpose was not to antagonize, but more hopefully to promote healing
in a citizenry that had been wracked by debate over the war. At any rate, without going
into the wisdom of the measure or of the conflict itself, either on its wisdom or the way
it was being waged, she agreed to support the resolution and we drafted one to present
to the convention. We had copies printed up and circulated to all of the delegations at
the convention, and then presented the idea to the entire gathering of delegates.
During the debate on the resolution, things got a little ugly. Long-time Democrat and union
stalwart from the 2nd District, Neil Staebler, turned to the candidate I had worked
for in the primary, and informed him that he could not support any candidate who
had people working for him who would support such a measure. This kind of reaction
was curious from Democrats who later (and not so long after that) took positions in
vehement opposition to the war and supported such amnesty, but by then, Nixon had
been in office long enough for them to forget LBJ's role in starting the war so they could
blame it on the Republicans.
But there were those at the convention who were already in that camp. Among those
was one State Senator from Detroit named Jackie Vaughn. He rose on the convention
floor and declared that he had authored the resolution and called for its passage. I should
not complain because it subsequently passed rather handily although the convention had
some real animousity among its ranks over the idea. It would have passed with or without
his support having been so vocally pronounced. And there is no direct link between that
resolution and the subsequent granting of a blanket amnesty by Gerald Ford some few
years later. But at the time, in 1970, it can be said that such a notion was not exactly
on the front burner in policy considerations. Indeed, the war had to be concluded before
Ford would take such a step. By then, I was not convinced that it was such a good idea,
for a variety of reasons, but the story does portray the power that an idea can have.
THE POWER OF IDEAS
Only one of these conceptualizations had its origins in this e Journal, but the editor
was indirectly involved in each of the examples sighted. The purpose here is rather
to point up the power that an idea properly conceived and dedicated can possess.
Too often, we who are not directly 'connected' to the inner working of politics
are apt to feel rather impotent in that world. What is the point of making noise
if it is simply going to fall upon deaf ears? But it does not always do that. The tree
falling in the forest can have an impact far from the point of the fall. It is an empowering
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