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I didn’t initially intend to write an overtly political column this month. I actually had something nice all framed out, about how to talk politics civilly with friends and family. Then Matty Moroun took to hammering me daily with his pro-Prop 6/Prop 5 craziness, and I just went totally bat-shit insane.
Here’s the skinny, in case you’re bailing on me here: A billionaire is hijacking our state constitution in order to lock-in his near monopoly on commercial access to the nation of Canada. This is a for-real super-villain-style power play. Odds are you are on the verge of inadvertently helping this one-tenth-of-1-percenter screw us all for generations to come.
Your action on Nov. 6: Vote NO on Proposals 5 and 6.
If you can’t stomach another political jeremiad this ballot season, I respect where you’re coming from. But please give me 12 minutes to convince you that no sane Michigander who doesn’t already own a bridge to Canada would ever want Prop 6 to pass.
Detroit-Windsor is one of the busiest trade corridors in the U.S. Something like a quarter of all merchandise trade between the U.S. and Canada goes over the Ambassador Bridge – and that’s just a slice of total U.S.-Canada commercial traffic, 60–70% of which rolls through Detroit. If you’re taking freight through Detroit, then the Ambassador Bridge is essentially the only way to get to Canada. The tunnel accommodates only passenger vehicles; no commercial traffic will fit.
There’s a ferry that can carry commercial traffic, but offers pretty low throughput and is largely used for hazardous loads that can’t go across the bridge. If you’re hauling freight, your only real option is an 83-year-old bridge owned by an 85-year-old man. The bridge’s age isn’t a problem – bridges are built to last – but it’s an already overburdened bottleneck built for early-20th century volumes of international trade, and it’s seeing more traffic each year .
Our neighbors to the north want a new bridge so badly that they are picking up the entire tab to build one – a project called the New International Trade Crossing (or NITC). Detroit-native Manuel “Matty” Moroun – who privately owns and operates the existing Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit and Windsor – would prefer to maintain his near-monopoly on commercial trucking between the U.S. and Canada via Detroit (which includes the lion’s share of North America’s international commercial trucking).
That’s the issue. On their respective sides of the bridge are a nation of 35 million very nice bilingual people with gravy on their french-fries and their 10 million peninsular pals who could really use some work. In the middle, opposing both, is a chubby Monty Burns who is such a dick and so actively antagonistic to the state, his nominal business partner for decades, that he was actually jailed for it. This is a white billionaire – one of the richest one-percenters in the United States – who was actually put behind actual bars for being a belligerent asshole.
Proposal 6: A Crazy Amendment With Crazy Claims
This belligerent asshole so badly wants to keep his monopoly on his bottleneck that he dumped millions into getting Proposal 6 on the ballot: An amendment to our state constitution mandating that voters approve any bridges or tunnels that might compete with him . He, of course, gets to keep his private bridge – you know, like a troll in a fairy tale.
Moroun has gone on to spend an estimated additional $14 million on a TV/YouTube/Hulu/radio/direct mail ad campaign to convince you to vote to amend our constitution to protect his kinda-crappy, overburdened river crossing. His basic claims are:
- The NITC bridge will cost Michigan taxpayers lots of money.
- The NITC bridge will be made by foreigners using foreign steel.
- Besides, we really ought to spend our tax dollars on stuff that matters, like teachers, police, and firefighters.
Responding to these claims are the state of Michigan and Canada. Unfortunately, Michigan’s government is legally barred from spending taxpayer dollars (i.e., basically any of the money it has at its disposal) on any sort of political advertising. Foreign nationals – like Canada – are federally banned from meddling in U.S. elections. Prop 6 has boiled down to a political debate where only one party has the de facto legal right to speak, and it’s a corporate political action committee. Corporations really are people! More so than We the People, in this case. 
Canada Is Paying For The NITC – For Reals!
Moroun’s shenanigans have been driving poor old Canada nuts. At the beginning of summer it was announced that Canada would pick up the entire $2.1 billion cost of building the NITC bridge (which includes Michigan’s theoretical $550 million share for a toll plaza on our side, among other features). As quoted in the Freep, Canadian Consul General Roy Norton has bent over backwards to address the spurious “concerns” trolled by Moroun’s “The People Should Decide” Ballot Committee PAC:
We [Canada – a totally separate country with its own economy and currency that you guys constantly make fun of, but who are really good natured about it, eh?] will pay for the interchange on the U.S. side, we will backstop the private-sector builder of the bridge. If there are cost overruns, ultimately, they are on us. If tolls are insufficient, that too will be on us. The State of Michigan pays nothing for this project and faces no liability.
The NITC bridge project by itself – just the part where we join forces with Canada and build a damned bridge – will create 11,000 construction jobs over the course of its four years. As an added bonus, getting in on this deal will allow us to capture an additional, unrelated $2.2 billion in federal money that we can use anywhere in the state (like, for example, to fix up our own damned bridges here in Ann Arbor). And those are just the immediate benefits of the project. Long-term, a better international crossing will expand trade passing through southeast Michigan, raising our revenue base and spurring economic growth for everyone. None of this will require any Michigan tax dollars.
Newer Moroun ads (including one that came in my mail last week) imply that this project will use Chinese steel (and possibly Chinese workers, Christ knows why). Quoth Canada (in the person of Norton): “For that lie, and it is a lie, … frankly they should be ashamed of themselves.” How badly do you have to fib to get a Canadian to call you out? 
The mailer I received today – while drafting this very column – claims that we’re wasting money on a bridge “instead of investing in things we do need: better schools, more police officers, more firefighters.”
On the one hand, we do need to invest in those things . But the thing is:
Canada is paying for this bridge.
Canada likes us fine, they think we’re good people, but they aren’t putting up money for teachers, schools, cops, or firefighters; they are putting up money for a bridge. Our options are: (1) Money for a bridge (and all the jobs and economic growth, short and long term, that bridge creates); or (2) No money and no bridge. We aren’t investing in anything here; we are simply accepting a gift.
Prop 5 Hogties The People
Moroun also wants to cripple our ability to collect taxes in the form of Proposal 5, which would amend our state constitution so that new taxes could not be levied without 2/3 majority support by the state House and state Senate, or support by a majority of the voters statewide during a November election. With Prop 5 in place, just a baker’s dozen of legislators will be able to prevent increases in funding for just about anything.
For Moroun, this makes sense: Remember, he’s been actively antagonistic to the state – his nominal business partner – for years. Robbing us of the revenue we need to pursue him for breach of contract, civil contempt, and assorted other fuckery is sort of a rational choice – if you are a super-villain. Next thing you know he’s gonna blow up the moon – or dump a coupla million bucks into amending our state constitution so that he has a monopoly on blowing up the moon, or who knows what.
Now, in contrast to Prop 6, rational folks could, in abstract, disagree about Prop 5. The capacity to levy taxes – how that power is exercised and how those funds are invested – is central to a functional state. But this particular proposed amendment is opposed by nearly everyone other than Moroun himself, on both sides of the aisle.
It’s endorsed by fewer than 20 individuals (mostly legislators or legislative hopefuls), and opposed by more than 60 groups and individuals, ranging from such radical leftists as the American Federation of Teachers, Michigan Catholic Conference, League of Women Voters of Michigan, and Sierra Club of Michigan, to such rabid socialist tax-and-spendocrats as the Michigan Bankers Association, Business Leaders for Michigan, and our own Republican Governor.
That’s because this particular tax proposal does little, apart from exposing us to harm as individuals by hamstringing our capacity to function as a group. And it’s only on the ballot because an elderly billionaire put it there; we should reject such a brazen maneuver just on general principles, folks.
How Government Protects The Little Guy
This brings us to the core folly of these ballot initiative constitutional amendments. They are presented to us as a balancing feature, a way for us “Little Guys” to check the power of those Fat Cats in Lansing. Heck, Moroun is doing all his pro-Prop 6 advertising under the name “The People Should Decide.” That sounds super-duper patriotic and democratic as heck. But by short-circuiting the political process, ballot initiative amendments all too easily become avenues by which the empowered seek to prevent progress and abuse Average Janes and Joes.
Consider the filibuster. You were no doubt taught in civics class that the filibuster is the bulwark of the embattled Average Joe – quite likely after watching the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But, at the federal level, the damned filibuster has more often been a drag on change than a protector of the weak. Filibusters have been used to obstruct countless pieces of civil rights legislation. Segregationist (and Democrat) Strom Thurmond personally rattled on for 24 hours and 18 minutes in order to bog down the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Filibusters have blocked bills aimed at preventing lynchings and workplace discrimination. Filibusters have kept pork projects in defense budgets. Most often, filibusters delay or prevent the completion of regular business – routine job nominations, budget adjustments, land transfers between different government entities – that only effect minuscule, monied interests. In 2009 Matthew Yglesias wrote a tidy piece on filibuster reform, and much of what he says goes for Prop 5 supermajority requirements, too.
In sum: A three-branch government with a bicameral legislature using simple majorities already makes governance cumbersome enough to protect average citizens from those who are more powerful. Mechanisms like the filibuster (or, really, any super-majority requirement – which is what the filibuster essentially creates) shift power into the hands of self-interested parties who know how to game the system. We don’t really need extra mechanisms like filibusters or ballot initiatives to empower the people.
Closer to home, look at what we the people managed to accomplish with a ballot initiative in 2004: Fifty-nine percent of the Michigan voters who showed up to the polls in 2004 chose to amend our state constitution to forever assure us that it’s fundamentally OK to discriminate against homosexuals here in Michigan. What the hell were the Fat Cats in Lansing up to that we needed the Michigan Marriage Amendment (MMA) to protect us? I’ve lived in Michigan my entire life, and recall no period during which homosexuals overwhelmed their fellow Michiganders with demands for wedding showers, shared healthcare benefits, or options for filing their income tax jointly.
In point of fact, some of those Fat Cats had very successfully prevented attempts by small, influential interest groups to legislate this bigotry. That’s why those bigots spent $1,930,431 gulling 2,698,077 voters (which is about 26% of the state’s population) into making it impossible for same-sex couples to live as equals in this state.
Meanwhile, 1,904,319 Michiganders – myself included – called bullshit on this amendment. In essence, a plurality of just 793,758 – less than eight percent of the state’s population – got to make the call on marriage equity in Michigan. How is that “letting the people decide”? It seems a lot more like letting a very small number of very hateful people spend a ton of money in order to force their misguided religious practice on a very large number of indifferent people.
Like the MMA in 2004, Moroun’s Prop 6 this year isn’t his first attempt to get his odious business done; he’s failed on several occasions to sway lawmakers to do his dirty work (just like the MMA bigots failed on countless occasions to get their anti-equality laws passed). Our lawmakers were successful in protecting us from this insanity, until such time as a monied interest took an end run around them with a ballot initiative.
Thank God there’s a mechanism to keep those Fat Cats in Lansing from protecting civil rights, negotiating openly with Canada, making decisions about road construction, or doing anything that might question the troll’s absolute right to rule our river crossings!
Cynicism, Political Discourse, And You
All of this aside, in and of itself, Prop 6 is sort of insane. Consider the basic premise: Why the hell should voters decide where and when bridges are built? What do I know about bridge construction? What do you know about international trade agreements? Why are we micromanaging our government?
What Moroun is preying upon is our knee-jerk “common sense” conviction that government – which is the subset of ourselves that we charge with the job of keeping the house tidy so the rest of us can earn a living – is essentially incompetent. More so than mudslinging in political ads or lies during debates, it’s this core cynicism – a cynicism we each individually carry in our hearts and reproduce over and over again with pithily captioned pictures posted to Facebook, and re-shared links to spurious infographics, and caps-locked screeds – that’s poisoning us as a nation.
Listen, I love you, so I feel like can say this: Cynicism is the mechanical thing that dumb people do to seem wise. It’s a display of our most fundamental weakness: the ardent desire to be right.
Knee-jerk anti-governmentalism is the equivalent of thinking you’re precognizant because you can look at the succulent, exquisitely prepared dinner that’s been set before you, turn to your host and confidently claim: “In the next several hours, this luxurious banquet will be rendered into fecal matter by the action of our digestive systems.” That doesn’t make you a reliable forecaster of human events; it just makes you a boor. I don’t think any post-adolescent needs constant reminders of the basics: people lie, humans are fallible, puppies become stinky old dogs, and everyone dies. We do need to remind each other that we can and should live our lives, wash that dog, help each other recover from our failures, and correct the liars.
Of course cynics are usually right: Humans really are predictably weak and petty. But being proud that you hammer on that – making it central to your understanding of collective human endeavors like government – that’s the deepest folly, and guarantees that cynics will continue to be right when they wager on the worst in us.
That Matty Moroun may well sweep this one by relying on our cynicism – that he feels it’s a worthwhile $14 million bet – says a lot about us, none of it flattering.
Let’s Save Ourselves: Talk, Email, Tweet, Share, Vote
Obviously, we should VOTE NO ON PROP 6; it’s totally whack. More importantly, tell your fellow citizens about how screwed-up Prop 6 is. There’s literally no money for the People to push back against the Troll; we need to do the talking and emailing and forwarding and Facebooking. Moroun is successfully stealing our new bridge with his ads. Set your family and friends straight now. Please. VOTE NO ON PROP 6. (I also think Prop 5 is bad governance, and you may agree. Tell folks about that, too. We should VOTE NO ON PROP 5.)
But don’t take my word on any of this. We have great resources for getting an unbiased perspective on the ballot initiatives. Here are three I’ve found really handy this election season:
 I’d argue that the truck ferry is only economically viable because the Ambassador Bridge is so screwed up, but that’s open to discussion. Reasonable minds differ.
 A recent study estimates that such special votes would cost $10.5 million each. As a bonus, the amendment itself is so poorly worded that it might accidentally require voter approval for the construction of any bridge or tunnel in Michigan.
 Want a really fine-grained analysis of just one of Moroun’s manipulative ads? Check out this breakdown from the non-partisan Michigan Truth Squad.
 To address Moroun’s “concern” directly: Will this project possibly use “foreign” steel? Yeah; that steel will be from Canada. Steel is one of Canada’s most important industries, and its production is largely clustered in Ontario, near their shared border with Michigan – you know, where they want to build this bridge. Since they’re picking up the tab, howzabout we let them buy whatever damn steel they want; they’re giving us the bridge, after all. Did I mention the free bridge? The 11,000 jobs?
 Which is why I’m voting YES on Prop 2; that’s a separate issue, but still important.
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