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March 02, 2011


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Jack Lessenberry and I might disagree on politics and yet agree, on matters of taste, that Lady Gaga is silly, and that the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is serious.

Sadly for both Jack and me, Lady Gaga is wildly popular, raking in millions, and the undoubtedly superior DSO is floundering.

And so it goes in the world of "popular appeal." Glenn Beck is not a serious political figure, and it would be an equal mistake by those on the right (who might make him a false hero) and those on the left (who might make him a convenient punching bag) to give him more attention than he deserves.

But he is popular. When it comes to politics, Glenn Beck is Lady Gaga.

Jack Lessenberry, for his part, could have chosen a more thoughtful philosophical opponent. As Glenn Beck was comparing Detroit to post-nuclear Hiroshima, Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal (a former journalism fellow at the University of Michigan) was writing this about Detroit and its most visible union, the UAW:

"The UAW finale has begun. It's the beginning of the end for the union, except as administrator of its membership's retiree health-care benefits (which increasingly looks like a bone thrown the union by the Big Three to give labor honchos a reason for living).

"Let us put away our Woody Guthrie records. Detroit's 'turnaround' has come not because everyone got a warm feeling and pulled together as a team. Accurately stating matters, the New York Times recently noted that the homegrown industry's 'cost structure has been reduced substantially, first through worker buyouts and plant closings and then by eliminating debt during its bankruptcy.'

"This has the virtue of getting the chronology right. The big labor concessions all came before a government-sponsored bankruptcy that reorganized GM and Chrysler in 2009. In each case, the union gave ground because it knew the one way to outrun its all-important political support in Washington would be to drive the Big Three into Chapter 11.

"Bankruptcy came to GM and Chrysler anyway in the financial crisis, followed by a taxpayer bailout. Mr. King [UAW President Steve King] knows, in the current political atmosphere, he can't go back to playing his monopoly card to extract anticompetitive terms from the Big Three."

That's Holman Jankins in the Wall Street Journal this week. Multiply this description times Michigan's largest industrial base, and then times the State of Michigan government, and then times every major governmental and commercial interest in the City of Detroit, and you end up with a better description our region than Glenn Beck's sensational and factually loose "Hiroshima."

But is it really so different?

And there's more. Governor Rick Snyder is now trying to cobble together a grand financial package
to make sound the state's budget. Right now, he is fighting for a tax package that includes increased taxes on pensions, so that he can can pay the state's obligations to unionized state workers.

It must leave some senior, high-wage UAW workers scratching their heads. Do they stand in solidarity with their public employee union-brethren? Even though they -- and their corporate employers -- are part of the taxpaying body that must pay those state workers?

A cynic might observe, that a smart UAW retiree would get out of Michigan, retire to Florida, where they make no cars, and where they don't have a state income tax. And wonder why every business that can do so, wouldn't follow.

I don't know what the UAW will morph into or evolve into, but I wouldn't hold a funeral for unions just yet. Someone once said that the truth is the opposite of what we know. That goes along with, "I know what I know; don't confuse me with the facts."

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