Brace for impact

Nov 26, 2008 at 12:00 am

These are doubtless the most uncertain times we have faced in the state since we started forecasting the Michigan economy [in 1972] ... the hard times are here to stay for a while —George Fulton, economics professor, University of Michigan.

Worse and worse. That's the outlook for Michigan's economy, with virtually every bit of new data seeming to magnify the gloom.     Every year, the University of Michigan releases an annual forecast for the economy, both nationally and in Michigan. My perception has been that they tend to be a shade on the rosy side. If that's true this year, we should all go down to the bunker with Eva Braun. Professor George Fulton, who is the director of the study, discussed it with the press last week. He confirmed my fear that we may come to remember this grim month as the good times.

The forecast is that our unemployment rate, now tied for worst in the nation at 9.3 percent, will soon zoom into double digits. Next year will be worse than this year, with the state losing another 108,000 jobs, half of them in the critical, highly paid manufacturing sector. That is on top of the half-million jobs we've lost since 2001. The following year, our bleeding will slow to a mere 24,000 or so more jobs lost. The year after that (2011), U-M thinks there could be some modest job growth, but it is hard to see what that is based on, other than wishful thinking and hope for the future.

That means less money for the state, less money for schools, lots of hardship. The housing market is projected to stay in the potty as well and domestic car sales will continue to decline.

But that bleak forecast, as grim as it is, also may be wildly optimistic. It assumes that at some point the government will bail out the Not-So-Big Three auto companies before it is too late. If they don't ... "The potential consequences are impossible to predict at this point, but none of them is any good for Michigan," Fulton said. Even if they do, he sees Ford, Chrysler and General Motors' share of the domestic market declining within a couple years to barely 40 percent.

This follows a week of humiliation for Detroit on Capitol Hill that was unlike any other week in our history. The automakers arrived to beg for a bailout. Pasty and blank-faced, looking alike and lacking a clue, they flew in on their corporate jets. That's something like renting a top hat and tails and showing up at Cass Corridor mission and asking for Thanksgiving dinner.

They looked like jackasses, in short. They tried hard to add to the perception: Alan Mulally, the hired gun Ford brought in from Boeing, said his $21 million a year was about right. (Lee Iacocca asked for a salary of $1 a year when Chrysler was seeking a bailout.) None of them was willing to give up the corporate jets. And Rick Wagoner said changing the leadership of these companies wasn't necessary.

No sooner were they sent back home than the U.S. House stripped our own John Dingell of the chairmanship of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. (Up yours, Detroit.) That was a move orchestrated by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who helped her fellow Californian Rep. Henry Waxman knock off the once-invincible truck, with a small assist from the small-minded Carolyn Cheeks-Kilpatrick. (Still wonder why Pelosi came here to campaign for the jailed mayor's mama last fall?)

The auto barons will come back next week. We better hope they succeed, not because they deserve it, but because a bankruptcy by one or more of them would do vast damage to poor people who don't deserve any worse. We should hope Congress ties any money to conditions, however. From what we've seen of their business savvy, these guys might use the money to try to buy Land Rover again.

Don't count Freman out:
Three years ago, everyone, including yours truly, thought that Freman Hendrix was a cinch to beat Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick in that year's mayoral election.

While the full extent of Kwame Korruption was not known, it was clear that he had been behaving in a manner that would make your average Cadillac-hustling pimp ashamed. But His Dishonor managed to wax eloquent at Rosa Parks' planting ceremonies.

Freman never could sew up the corporate guys, in part because it wasn't clear that he'd do their bidding. He had the respectable, educated voters who put Dennis Archer over the top back in 1993. But many of them now reside in Southfield.

So when Kwame astonished pollsters with 53 percent, I thought that would be the end of Freman, as far as elected office goes. But what a difference Kwame in the can makes.

The first of an insane four 2009 elections for mayor will be held Feb. 24 (a primary to fill the seat for the end of the felon's term). Naturally, there is a swarm of candidates, some of whom may or may not be human, or really living in Detroit. There are famous, or infamous, names like Coleman Young Jr. and Sharon McPhail.

Conventional wisdom forecasts as May runoff between Ken Cockrel Jr., interim mayor, and Dave Bing, basketball player turned businessman. Warren Evans, the Wayne County sheriff, is also running, and has the talents of the city's premier political PR firm, Berg Muirhead and Associates.

However, people still think of the sheriff as, well, a sheriff. And while there is good feeling toward Cockrel, he does not seem to have established himself as "The Mayor" in the hearts of Detroiters. Bing is a sports legend and respected businessman — but it's a mystery what he'd do as mayor.

He also has yet to show that he has mastered the issues; on one interview show I heard, he appeared to be reading talking points in an alarming, almost Sarah Palin-eque way. Nor is it clear if he has a clue how to work with other politicians to move the city forward.

But Freman Hendrix is deeply rooted in the neighborhoods, especially in northwest Detroit. He has an appeal with seniors — and an organization designed to get them to the polls.

Some Detroiters may feel embarrassed that they snubbed him last time in favor of the con man. And this time, Hendrix's pedigree may work in his favor. There was a loud whispering campaign last time to the effect that people shouldn't vote for "Helmut" Hendrix because his mama, an Austrian war bride, was white.

Yes, indeed she was. Hendrix, now 58, had one white parent, a parent from another country. He worked his way through college and then became a successful community organizer, reviving Little League baseball in Detroit, among other things.

He learned he had talent as a political operative, and went on to enter big-city politics. Funny, but I heard a rumor about a year ago that another light-skinned black guy with a somewhat similar background thought he could get elected president.

What a crazy idea, eh? A lot crazier than the notion of Freman Hendrix rounding up enough citizens to make it through a primary in the dead of winter and make the runoff for mayor of Detroit.

Much more on the mayoral follies to come.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]