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.

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