Michigan’s Emergency Manager Laws Are Dismantling Democracy from Within

In her disconcerting book, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein described the way right wing economists and their acolytes have manipulated “shocks” to a government, like natural disasters or regime change, by sweeping in during the aftermath of the crisis and imposing their vision of society on the people, justifying harsh cuts in spending and public services, and installing right-wing social policy. After the tsunami hit Sri Lanka in 2004, tourist businesses were given incentives to build along the beaches that were once homes to thousands of villagers. Besides displacing the residents, they also privatized their water. Similar processes occurred in New Orleans, which ended up with privatized schools following Hurricane Katrina.

Invariably, poor people are left worse off after disaster capitalists have gone to work. Their governments provide them with fewer services. Major corporations and businesses crowd out small businesses and local proprietors. Local environments are destroyed and resources exploited. Frequently, democratically-elected governments are rendered powerless by outside financial managers such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank.

While the United States has in general been a perpetrator of disaster capitalism upon developing nations, Michigan has emerged has a virtual laboratory for the application of the shock doctrine domestically.  The shock they exploit in Michigan is the financial crisis that has hit many American cities and school districts. The governor appoints a single individual to oversee entire cities deemed to be in financial distress, usurping the power of local elected authorities. These individuals, like dictators, have free reign to break contracts with unions and others, sell off public property, and privatize services.

Some of the people behind Michigan’s disaster capitalism have been in the news a great deal lately. The American Legislative Executive Committee (ALEC) has been invested in Michigan’s Emergency Manager Laws in a number of ways. Members of ALEC, like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, have been advocating the Emergency Manager Laws for decades, and they were heavily invested in Public Law 4, which is the current form of the EM laws. Not surprisingly, the Koch brothers have funded the Mackinac Center. Their free-market platform is to see government services privatized. The current emergency manager for the city of Pontiac, MI is Larry Schimmel, who happens to be a former scholar and director of municipal finance at the Mackinac Center. He is putting his privatization ideology into practice in Pontiac, after doing it in Hamtramck, MI with poor results.

ALEC members have stated goals such as selling off public assets to the private sector or destroying collective bargaining by public employees; they have created model legislation to unilaterally meet these goals over and above the authority of local elected officials; and they have seen these laws passed through diverse campaigns of political maneuvering. And it’s been done with relatively little protest. Remarkably, when Rachel Maddow attempted to point out how alarming circumstances have become in Michigan, the Michigan press responded by essentially telling her, “Back off, nothing to see here.”

Luckily, not all of the residents of Michigan are so sanguine about their emergency manager laws. Determined citizens have recently finished a second attempt at a petition drive against the use of emergency managers in their state. The petition would put the state’s emergency manager law onto the ballot in November and allow the voters the chance to repeal the law. The petition is currently being evaluated by the Board of State Canvassers to decide its legitimacy. Three of the four board members must approve the petition to trigger a ballot initiative. Their decision is due in May.  This board also determines if any challenges to petitions have merit. Unfortunately, less than an hour before the deadline to challenge the emergency manager petition, a group called “Citizens for Tax Accountability,” filed papers with perhaps the most pathetic challenge to the petition anyone could muster: the font size and wording of the petition were not satisfactory to them.

In her investigation of “Citizens for Tax Accountability,” Maddow found that they are housed at the very same address as the strategic politic services corporation that represents them, the Sterling Corporation. It seems the Sterling Corporation created Citizens for Tax Accountability because, in the words of the Sterling Corporation’s website, the “premier Republican communications company” will use “aggressive campaign-oriented tactics”, including on ballot initiatives.  Of course, the tactic of having a corporation sponsor an allegedly grassroots lobbying group has become ubiquitous on the right, such as with the Koch brother’s Americans for Prosperity.

When they read the complaint from Citizens for Tax Accountability, obviously, the Board of State Canvassers will recognize their ploy for what it is, an underhanded attempt to circumvent the democratic process and prevent the People of the State of Michigan from having a vote on this issue. Right?  Even with a partisan Board of State Canvassers, isn’t this font size challenge to the petition ridiculous on its face?  Normally, yes, but not in this case.  Michigan’s laws for their Board of Canvassers are so poorly considered that they’re set up to allow members to rule on matters with a clear conflict of interest. In this case, a man named Jeff Timmer, member of the Board of State Canvassers and partner in the Sterling Corporation, is in a position to rule on the matter.  He apparently plans to rule on the petition despite formally representing the lobbying group through his company. Unfortunately, the state’s Democrats have little standing to complain, because conflicts of interest permeate the whole Michigan system, with union linked board members voting on union-related issues.

Republicans are pushing anti-democratic practices in which the government becomes a potent tool of the powerful. It is no exaggeration to say that the threat to democracy posed by imposition of disaster capitalism should be upsetting for not just the people of Michigan, but everywhere. In the face of some stunning tactics that appear to defy their Constitution, Michigan Republicans have circumvented democracy. The response from Democrats has not been strategic or formidable. If anything, they appear to be caught off guard by the machinery they face. The question becomes what liberals should be doing to respond to these calculated efforts to remake society in the image of radical right wing ideologues.  The best responses are pushback from the people, and the petition that would lead to a democratic vote on emergency managers, represents that effort. Now, we wait to see if it will be approved by a Board teeming with conflicts of interest.

10 Replies to “Michigan’s Emergency Manager Laws Are Dismantling Democracy from Within”

  1. This is the endocolonization C. Wright Mills warned us of over half a century ago. Where are the federal litigants? Where is the Justice Department?

  2. This is exactly what California faced if Meg Whitman won the race for governor in 2010, and why she got shown the door with extreme prejudice. The Golden State dodged a bullet, and if the rest of the nation’s voters don’t wake up, America will go the way of Michigan and with it, democracy.

  3. Lemme summarize this for myself. The tea thugs and conservatives who support Snyder and the legislature claim to be the constitution party. Yet they are throwing the constitution out the window by throwing away the peoples rights to elected official. The same are giving the right to run cities and soon the state to private entities. Meanwhile the people who are asleep for 100 years nod gracefully in their sleep with only a very few waking up but mostly forgetting they can vote these people out.

    Michigan has huge forests that can be sold off destroying some of the best hunting land in the US which will really make the NRA happy. On the bright side they can take to shooting the poor like they do in Florida now. Michigan has gas deposits, farmlands and incredibly beautiful countrysides. I bet another 5-6 people wake up when its all gone

  4. Michigan also has the Great Lakes, and a gas industry determined to begin drilling in them. With the droughts more prevalent in the South and Southwest, water will become the next oil. We have already fought with the bottled water people over sucking billions of gallons of fresh water from communities; now we have to fight for our lakes, or the country will be no more. And then what good will all that money be, Mr. Koch? Mr. Snyder? I live in Midland, and Dow Chemical just struck a deal with the devil in Texas to buy natural gas, and triple the size of their Freeport plant, because natural gas is SO cheap. And Perry smiles and nods…and Liveris gives his “I know when I’m being shown the red carpet and when I’m seeing red tape.” In other words, regulations are bad, Perry’s free for all in Texas is great for business.

  5. I’m just this little guy. I don’t have much, but I love what I’ve got.

    On this matter of corporations being allowed freedoms to poison and destroy, it makes me wonder what percentage of Americans I might represent, as far as being unhappy about it.

    If what I’ve just read above – about politicians making the way for corporate wrongdoing easier – makes even little me playfully daydream of somehow zeroing out several water bottling factories, how many are making actual plans?

    This Summer could be exciting.
    The Summer of 2012. Watch your adz.

  6. No taxation without representation. No representation, no justice. Why isn’t the Federal DOJ fighting this legislation in the courts? It is clearly unconstitutional as it goes against the fundamental tenants of representative government.

  7. What do you mean, Mr. Koch…Mr. Dow? They will be fine. A billion dollars buy a lake of their own, where the water is plentiful and clean and with a mini-filtration plant forever renewable, because there will be hyper-EPA standards will be applied, where they deny us the same.

    No. It is not the Kochs and Dows we have to worry about, but their minions: The Republican Base.

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