Times that try men’s souls 

The country is falling apart, the state of Michigan’s falling apart and the city of Detroit is in the worst shape of all. And your leaders and your media are doing their best to keep you from paying attention.

It’s working amazingly well. We’re engaged in a war we cannot win with a foe we do not understand. Our economy is being propped up by massive loans from, of all places, Communist China. We’re borrowing more than $2 billion a day from foreign nations to keep up appearances and to keep buying Hummers, and it can’t go on.

Do you think what I’ve just said is an exaggeration? If anything, it’s an understatement. The national and world pictures are hard to wrap your mind around, but consider this: For most of our history, we sold far more stuff to the rest of the world than they sold to us. Once upon a time, we even built world-class cars we exported to other countries — imagine that.

That started to change in the 1970s. Two years ago, our “current account deficit” with the rest of the world was $519 billion. Last year it was $668 billion, and we’re zooming toward $800 billion this year. That’s the total of how much more goods and services we’re buying than selling.

Meanwhile, the federal government is running something like another $500 billion deficit. That means the government has to borrow that much money in order to operate. That’s money that, as a result, isn’t available for you to borrow to go to college or start a business.

Partly, that’s because of the massive tax cuts the Bush administration has given, mostly to the super-rich. As The New York Times ably documented in a series earlier this month, there has been a massive transfer of wealth from the poor, and what used to be called the middle-class, to the mega-rich, i.e. those earning more than $350,000 a year.

You probably don’t know very much about all of this, or how it affects you, because what most of our national media have been giving you is the Michael Jackson trial. Before that it was the Runaway Bride, and then the Scott Peterson trial, and next week or next month there will be some new officially sanctioned pervert news. Don’t believe me? Watch.

Incidentally, the only time since 1969 that the federal government ever balanced its books was during the last term of that immoral and evil old devil, Bill Clinton. You may not have realized that, either, because the media were all taken up with something of vastly more world importance: the pseudo-sex he had with a plump young woman.

Now let’s turn to the state of Michigan. Do you have any idea how bad things really are in automotive land? Far worse than you probably suspect. General Motors and the Ford Motor Co. are in such bad shape that last month, Standard & Poor’s, the respected credit-rating agency, knocked their bond ratings down to “junk” status.

Basically, what they’re saying is that if you invest in these companies for the long term, you’re a fool. The Detroit Free Press quoted Mark Egan, the head of another credit-rating firm based in Philadelphia, as saying, “This is the beginning of the end of the U.S. auto industry as most people have come to know it.”

Any guesses what that might mean for those retirees who think their health care and pensions are totally secure? Any guesses on what this might mean for the next round of auto negotiations, or those who’re at mid-career level in auto industry jobs, or depend on them?

Nobody downgraded Chrysler’s bonds, since what was once the weakest of the Big Three was sold to the Germans some years ago.

Last week, The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, one of the world’s most respected journalists, wrote that “having Toyota take over General Motors — which based its business strategy on building gas-guzzling cars ... scoffing at hybrid technology and fighting higher mileage standards, would not only be in America’s economic interest, it would be in America’s geopolitical interest.”

Whether that’s true or not, the condition of the auto industry should be the most important story in the Detroit area, period. You might expect blanket coverage of the kind the national media gave us for some days or weeks in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. You could even argue that, for people who live in this part of the world, this is even more important.

Have your local media sufficiently explored this story? Do they keep it in front of you every day, making sure that you — and the people whose responsibility and job it is to make the hard decisions — can’t put off thinking about it? Or have they given you the Pistons instead?

You know the answer. We’re in a world where our business decisions, our media priorities, our very lives are largely driven by short-term profit motives. Long-term planning, temporary belt-tightening and sacrifice are out, and social responsibility is, if anything, a joke.

Once upon a time, it was thought that our government was supposed to have the public’s long-term interests at heart. That same government also used to require the broadcast media to schedule a certain amount of public service programming, including responsible news, and the print media mostly felt a similar obligation.

Last week I was reading David McCullough’s magnificent new book, 1776, about the beginning of the American Revolution. None of the Founding Fathers would have had anything to do with the rebellion if they’d been thinking about their immediate interests.

They were a bunch of brilliant but flawed human beings, capable of greatness and selfishness and pettiness and even sex scandals, believe it or not; Alexander Hamilton made Clinton look like a rank amateur.

But they thought they ought to rise above being petty. And most important of all, they were capable of learning from their mistakes, and they believed reason was superior to blind belief.

Today we have a government led by men who seem dangerously incapable of admitting to ever having been wrong, perhaps even to themselves. Last week, the autopsy report on poor Terri Schiavo was finally released. Remember how the right-wing nuts, including President Bush, used her case as a political football, and tried to prevent her poor husband from letting her die? Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a disgrace of a medical doctor, looked at a videotape and said she was responsive to stimuli, and others said they thought she was alert and treatable. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said, “she talks and laughs.”

The autopsy revealed that she was a brain-dead vegetable, totally blind, and that nothing could have improved her condition at all. It also showed there was no sign her husband ever abused her.

Naturally, a spokesman for President Bush said this didn’t change his mind one bit. Frist ran and hid and later essentially denied saying what he’d said. And the worst scumbag of all, little pretender Jeb Bush, Florida’s governor, called for a new investigation into how long Michael Schiavo waited to call 911 the night his wife collapsed in 1990.

Nobody, of course, called for an investigation into the collapse of the auto industry, or the economy, or suggested we ask the Communist Chinese to invest a few billions to rebuild Detroit, while we take care of Fallujah. Perhaps if you’re brain-dead too, you’ll understand why.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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