After the fall

Everyone — conservatives, liberals, head-bangers and even columnists — needs to get pretty real, pretty fast. By the time you read this, Chrysler will have likely decided to merge with Fiat, to declare bankruptcy, or quite possibly, decided to do both.

General Motors has signaled that it has pretty much settled on declaring bankruptcy by the first week of June. What does all this mean? Nothing immediately good. More jobs lost, more anxiety, more upheaval, yes. But not necessarily the end of the world either.

The Detroit News's Nolan Finley asked last week: "Can Michigan survive the failure of one or both of these companies?

"Nope," he answered, adding that "losing either company will ... leave Michigan a wasteland." That might be welcome news for Ottawa and Chippewa Indians living in the suburbs. They could then slip back in and resume partying as if it were, say, 1633, and the white eyes hadn't shown up yet.

But alas, ol' Nolan, who usually has more common sense about things, is being a bit too dramatic. Filing for bankruptcy doesn't mean the end of life as we know it; it means, in these cases, reorganization and a chance to revive.

But it does mean a lot more people will lose their jobs. It does mean Michigan unemployment will go up even more, and the state, which is running an enormous budget deficit, will soon have an even worse one. But in the long run, this might be good.

Yes, you read that correctly. This could be a good thing. That's because it might be the bucket of ice water in the face on Monday that forces everybody to face reality. This state and its key industry have suffered from a creeping cancer for a long time, and pretty much everybody in positions of power and positions of influence has avoided facing the need to do something. They instead hide in their ideological caves.

Conservatives have acted as if the government-mandated emissions standards were the only reason the auto industry is losing billions, ignoring the vast and well-documented legacy of mismanagement at all the Big Three.

Liberals are mainly putting their heads in the sand, blaming George W. Bush, dithering and calling for more bailout money. Attempting to fix the blame may be interesting to someone. Indeed, there are also those who still debate whether Pickett's charge on the third day of Gettysburg could have been successful if the Confederate artillery had adequate ammunition, but none of this is very useful for solving our present predicament right now.

President Obama and our leaders in Washington have to do the best they can to give Chrysler and General Motors a reasonable chance to restructure themselves and survive.

Michigan's politicians need to help with that where they can, true. However, the main thing they have to do is make sure the rest of us survive and the state can still function. Right now, the idiots in Lansing are fooling around and pushing us toward total catastrophe.

The Citizens Research Council of Michigan, the most highly respected, nonpartisan outfit we've got, warns that we are heading over a cliff — their word — unless the state fixes its budget problem Though they don't openly say so, this could involve a total and prolonged shutdown of some or all state services, as early as this October, possibly next year, and certainly the year after that.

The longer the politicians wait to fix it, the worse it will be. The more they use stimulus funds to avoid addressing their real problem now, the worse things will be. (Giving an addict a shot of heroin is not the way to start the cure.) What's most chilling is this: The coming state crackup will occur even if the auto companies miraculously right themselves and don't have to lay off one more worker.

We have to face our very real difficulties now. We have to balance the budget for the next two years, and do it by cutting out billions of dollars in services. Then our lawmakers and alleged leaders have to try to figure out how to get us through the next couple years.

Along with that, they have to make some permanently hard choices, and involve us in them. We have to construct an entire different model for how the state takes in and spends money.

Do we want to spend much, much less on education and environment and the prison system, and get many fewer services?

Or do we want to pay considerably higher taxes? Those are the choices, and there are no other alternatives. We've ignored reality for a long time, because it was easier to mask the truth in good times. Now we can't do that anymore. We can make things better, eventually. We've got a lot going for us if we put it together and package it well. We can, hopefully, attract new jobs and industries, make the auto companies competitive again and make things better.

Yes, it will be a hard struggle — one that we can yet win if we believe in ourselves and work hard and smart. But things get only harder and worse unless and until we admit and face up to the truth.

Taking a drive: I ate lunch at a tamale joint over on Bagley on Saturday, and decided to drive back to Wayne State on Grand Boulevard, once a very lovely street indeed. You should take that drive, and look at the unbelievably sad specter of avoidable decay.

I saw well-kept houses next to a pile of rubble, splendid homes in ruins and a once-grand house with dogs roaming the upper balcony. Why do we tolerate this in this still very rich country? Why does Oprah think we ought to send our spare cash off to Haiti?

The mayor's race: Detroit voters will go to the polls Tuesday to elect either Ken Cockrel Jr. or Dave Bing to serve the rest of the year, to fill out the unexpired term of the expelled felon.

Frankly, this election should never have happened. The city charter needs to be changed. Lieutenant governors fill in for departed governors; vice presidents for presidents. When Kwame Kilpatrick resigned, the council president should have just automatically filled out the little over a year remaining in his term.

Nor is there any reason to make a change now. The Detroit papers are hot to elect Bing, saying a fundamental break with the past is needed. They have a point, and Cockrel could sometimes have been more decisive. But he has been less than a fully elected mayor, and he's had a council president trying to sabotage him every step of the way. He knows how the system works.

Bing has done a lot for this community. But he has never had a day's experience in any kind of elected arena, let alone the shark tank of city politics. Plus, I have real problems with his making up a master's degree he doesn't have from a university he never attended.

Detroiters have all summer and fall to decide whether Kenneth Cockrel Jr. is the right man for the next four years. But the city doesn't need the further disruption of immediately installing a new and inexperienced mayor in a job that lasts less than eight months.

I'd play it prudent, and for the rest of this year, stick with Ken.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]
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