Measuring the mood in 2012

During one of the busy points of a debate over welfare benefits in Michigan, someone asked me, "What do I get out of my taxes going to this? What's the ROI (return on investment) for welfare?"

I replied, "You don't have to install bars over the windows of your house."

That's far too flippant to count as a relevant political analysis. But there's a fundamental kernel of truth that many of us are choosing to ignore at most moments of the day: the division of our culture.

Yes, you've heard and read plenty about the 99 percent and the 1 percent and OWS this and income inequality that and "class warfare" and "soak the rich" and ... well you get the point. It's out there, but it's not in here, in the room with those of us fortunate enough to have solid employment right now. We can skirt around it by making note of the crowded restaurants or the busy stores; these are our talismans of the status quo. Things aren't all that bad, you know.

It's comforting, but increasingly difficult to sustain. I offer two data points to contrast as you see fit.

In late November, the New York Times reported, "In the eight decades before the recent recession, there was never a period when as much as 9 percent of American gross domestic product went to companies in the form of after-tax profits. Now the figure is over 10 percent."

Today, Matt Yglesias at slate.com highlights a chart on the job prospects for Americans by career. Every sector has more unemployed workers than it has open jobs. As Yglesias writes, "We're not seeing a transition out of some sectors and into others, with elevated unemployment happening because the transition is slow. Instead we're seeing a transition out of all sectors and into the ultra-low-productivity unemployment sector."

In Michigan, we are somewhat buoyed by the news that the auto market is growing and that manufacturing jobs are popping up again. But let's not kid ourselves; the situation remains grim for thousands upon thousands of Michigan families.

In 2012, all 110 seats in the Michigan House of Representatives are up, though the vast majority of them will not really be contested in the November general election due to the gerrymandering of election districts AND the sorting citizens have done in choosing to live amongst neighbors who share their general outlook. Gerrymandering isn't creating the world of one-party districts, it merely intensifies existing dynamics.

I am curious to see the results of the meeting of the irresistible force of Michigan's employment malaise with the immovable object of Michigan's political culture. Looking at national and state polls, anyway, one would think that Michigan incumbents are in trouble. And that would be bad news for Republicans who dominate the House. But in dozens of House districts this year, as in past years, the real choosing of a representative will occur in August, not November, and be made by a few thousand voters who constitute a fraction of the overall population.

I've been told repeatedly by someone with plenty of experience in the Legislature that GOP House members have been voting in 2011 with one eye fixed on how votes might be used against them -- not by Democrats in the general election, but by opponents in GOP primaries attacking from their politcal right flank.

The tax and spending changes wrought by Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican Legislature are not playing well with many voters. (I thought some of the changes were necessary, some of them were justifiable and some of them were foolishly handled.) But will that discontent result in any material change of direction in state government in 2012-2014? I have my doubts.

And if there isn't a change -- if the general direction set in 2011 continues in 2012 and beyond -- what will that mean to the mood of the state?

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