Sunday, June 17, 2012

If You Build It They Will Cry, or The Bridge to Direct Democracy

The Ambassador bridge connects the US to Canada between Windsor and Detroit.  It's a private bridge, so every time you go over it you pay a little to a guy named Manuel ("Matty") Maroun, and if you shop at the duty free, you put a little more in his pocket.  Here is the bridge:

Nothing overly remarkable, and in fact, inadequate to its job as the busiest border crossing between Canada and the U.S.  People wanted a second crossing to be built that would be bigger and more convenient.  But Maroun did not want that.  What happens next is a story of lobbying, deception followed by sleight of hand, and a dubious call for "the people" to decide.  From David Frum:
Shippers have long urged the construction of an entirely new border crossing that could connect U.S. Interstates 75 and 94 directly to Ontario’s Highway 401. On the eve of the 2008 financial crisis, those shippers finally got their way: The new crossing gained approval from the Michigan and Ontario highway departments.
...Plans for the new crossing failed, however, to reckon with two characteristics of the increasingly dysfunctional U.S. political system: Its extreme and intensifying tax aversion — and its vulnerability to manipulation by wealthy entrenched interest groups.
...Maroun has mounted a furious lobbying campaign against the second river crossing. He has gained some unexpected allies, including Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party group headed by Dick Armey. The Michigan chapter of AFP posted convincing-looking (but fake) eviction notices on homes near the proposed crossing route. The group acknowledged that the tactic “was meant to startle people.” 
Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap!  That's pretty low even for lobbyists.  Well, perhaps not as low as telling people that they didn't need to vote if they had previously signed a petition, or sending people to the wrong place on the wrong date to vote.  But pretty low all the same.   The latter tactic was also apparently produced by Americans for Prevarication Prosperity.  But I digress.
Bridges cost money: In this case, almost $4-billion. The state of Michigan’s share of the cost would have been $550-million, with the balance to come from the province of Ontario and the U.S. and Canadian federal governments. That $550-million sounds like a lot of money, but put it in context: Almost $500-million in traffic crosses the river every day. Yet the Tea Party Republican majority in the Michigan legislature — perhaps influenced by their friends, allies, supporters and donors at Americans for Prosperity — has objected to the cost, and passed a law forbidding the state to spend any money to build the bridge.
On Friday, Michigan governor Rick Snyder (also a Republican) announced a last-minute reprieve: Michigan would borrow its $550-million contribution from the government of Canada, with the money to be repaid from a bridge toll. It’s a creative solution to an embarrassing problem. But it’s also an excruciating demonstration of the global consequences of the special-interest domination of the U.S. Congress and the state legislatures.
So now you have Michigan politicians and pundits reassuring Michigan's voters not to worry, they won't be taxed to pay for the bridge.  Well, not upfront, anyway.  Will the tolls be enough to pay the principal and interest?  Maybe, if the bridge draws enough traffic away from Maroun's empire.  No wonder then that Maroun now wants to put the question to a referendum.  Here's the petition, which is called "The People Should Decide."  Call me a fool, but I thought that is what "the people" did do, by way of their duly elected governors.  The petition reads as follows:
The people should decide whether state government may construct or finance new international bridges or tunnels for motor vehicles.  Consistent with this policy, and to shield the people from unnecessary burdens, the State shall not undertake ownership and development of or use state funds or resources for new international bridge or tunnels for motor vehicles unless first determined to be necessary and appropriate by majority vote of the people.
Just in time for Rousseau's 300th anniversary, the bridge debate brings the direct vs representational democracy issue into focus.  This is not something I have studied, but maybe it is time, because I see this theme a lot and it seems connected to taxation in so many ways.  Over the years many of my students express feelings that their distrust of government might be lessened if only we had "real" democracy, i.e., direct democracy, rather than representative democracy which in their minds is mostly corruption and cronyism and definitely not representative of them.   Rousseau of course did not believe in majority rule but in governing by the general will of the people i.e. via common sense.  Any of my students who have been paying attention will know my reaction to that is negative, since common sense is constructed, and too often in politics that is about money, power, and influence, and not at all about sense, common or otherwise.  That seems to describe the bridge project.  Here's a blog with some interesting commentary on the subject.

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