Now Lansing Politicians Want a Poet Laureate!

What rhymes with "that's not your job"?

Maybe it’s something in the water. In recent weeks Lansing politicians have proposed laws mandating an official poem for Michigan and forcing taxpayers to buy a state flag for the survivors of current or former legislators when they die. Now comes yet another piece of institutional grandiosity: a bill to create an official state poet laureate.

Never mind pension underfunding and damaged roads, to name two issues crying out for legislative solutions; members of our full-time Legislature seem to have both the time and the sense of entitlement to designate an official state poet.

Alas, given the usual political incentives, were the measure to become law (unlikely) the candidates would probably sound less like the ancient Greek Homer of “Iliad” and “Odyssey” fame and more like a modern namesake — Homer Simpson. Doh!

The description of House Bill 5853* reads:

Introduced by Rep. Sarah Roberts, D-St. Clair Shores, on Sept. 23, 2014, to authorize the appointment by the governor of a state poet laureate, who would serve at the pleasure of the governor (meaning the governor could withdraw the appointment at any time). The bill authorizes no compensation, but does allow government money to be used to reimburse the individual’s travel expenses.

According to Wikipedia, the first such poet positions were created in Europe in the 1300s. The tradition started in Italy but it exists in other nations as well, including within the United States federal government and several of its independent states.

That’s no excuse though: As mom often told us, “Just because Johnny does something foolish doesn’t mean you have to do something foolish.”

Alas, these latest examples of legislative self-absorption are hardly new or unique. An earlier version of that flag bill in 2009 would have required a State Police escort for deceased legislators’ final ride to their grave. State politicians have named public highways, laws, buildings and other state assets after each other.

The political incentives for such institutionalized self-glorification — the desire of political careerists to avoid ever having to return to the private sector — also explains fluff bills intended to associate politicians’ names with symbols dear to certain interest or affinity groups. Examples include bills to establish an official state Scottish Tartan (see the video testimony here), enshrine in statute that Iosco County (and no other county!) shall be the “birding capital” of Michigan, or resolve the simmering controversy over which frog shall henceforth and always be the official state amphibian.

While a constitutional amendment prohibiting such puffery and self-promotion is probably excessive, residents should certainly not reward such behavior with any response other than hisses and sneers.

Lansing politicians should stick to their knitting: Protect residents and their property; provide efficient courts to adjudicate contractual disagreements, provide other true public goods and otherwise just stay out of the way.

Now there’s a concept worthy of a poem.

*The measure has 12 Democratic cosponsors and one Republican, Rep. Al Pscholka, who also is maneuvering to be the next Speaker of the House. The Democrats are Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Jon Switalski, Henry Yanez, Scott Dianda, Jeff Irwin, Tim Greimel, Tim Kelly, Marcia Hovey-Wright, Adam Zemke, Sam Singh, Andrew J. Kandrevas and David Rutledge.