Facing the new year

Jan 3, 2001 at 12:00 am

Well, the remnants of the champagne are totally flat and we’re all trudging back to work or school to face the brave new year. And the way it looks now, we’ll need to be more than a little brave. The immediate future doesn’t look so good.

David Littmann, chief economist at Comerica Bank, is the man with the numbers, and he says the city is headed for at least a mild recession. Car sales are slowing, and most people have enough home-computer clout to last them awhile.

Unemployment in the city fell from 13 percent when Dennis Archer took office to 6.8 percent by the end of 1999. But by last quarter that had inched up to 7.4 percent, and Littmann thinks we might see a 10 percent jobless rate by midyear.

That doesn’t come close to the Great Depression-level 22 percent we had in the early 1980s. But in some ways, it is a bit more scary now. Welfare reform, translated, means for most, there isn’t any. The folks who could reinvent themselves as computer programmers or move to Texas to get rich (mostly not) in the oil ‘bidness’ did, long ago. Most of the rest of us are here for the long haul.

And now it is slowly dawning on the troops that the new order in Washington, more than likely, won’t give a rat’s ass. During the depths of Monicagate someone sent me a bumper sticker that says “Clinton! At least he cares!” Well, he did. And as mad at his moronic behavior as we got, he was still, annoyingly perhaps, one of us.

The puppet president isn’t, and I’d bet he’s mightily pissed off at Michigan. Consider: Fat John Engler promised to deliver in the primary. Bush was humiliated. Not to worry, his rotundity said; we’ll win in the fall. So Shrub spent many a day campaigning here, and it wasn’t even close. He even lost Oakland County.

Detroit delivered a truly amazing 94 percent of its votes to Al Gore. Dennis Archer’s one truly (and naturally, unintentionally) hilarious line came when, after Florida was finally stolen, he announced he wasn’t interested in serving in Bush’s cabinet. I took myself right out of the Olympic track trials the next day.

We can resign ourselves to no more empowerment zones and other special favors for at least the next four years, and on top of that, the census shows that Michigan unexpectedly loses a seat in Congress; naturally, to Florida.

Which means that Bush will figure he doesn’t need us, and hopes we feel the same. And as we head into the storm this year, we are also facing a mayoral election, which will be both a referendum on the recent past and a vote for the future.

Dennis Archer is not a natural politician. He comes off stiff and pompous, and even his stoutest supporters wince when he tries street talk. No one has criticized him as intensely as this column, in part because for many years the newspapers functioned essentially as his press agents. Nevertheless, he has, in many ways, done a good job — a better job, certainly, for Mike Ilitch than for the poor guy trying to make it in a decaying house on the East Side, but he has done his best to revitalize downtown.

Psychologically, his greatest service has been to stop bashing the suburbs and blaming them for everything from icy streets to sickle-cell anemia. Correspondingly, even polyester-wearers no longer think it impressive to publicly brag that they never cross Eight Mile Road. Things are better. But the one thing that hasn’t changed is that when the national economy catches cold, Detroit’s ends up in the ICU, stat.

This year may be the real test of Archer’s leadership. Interestingly, Littmann, whose personal philosophy is libertarian, thinks the best way to help Detroit would be to drastically ease regulatory requirements. “If someone wants to start a jitney cab service, let ’em.” There may be something to that, but as far as I can tell, the city’s entrenched bureaucracy is about as consumer-unfriendly as ever.

Charlie Beckham thinks the problem is a lack of mayoral leadership. “There is none,” he says genially. While other potential candidates are waiting to see whether or not Dennis, with his vast campaign war chest, runs again, Beckham is in, regardless.

Long ago, he was a rising young engineer at General Motors who left for a much lower-paying city job. Many patriotic young black men did that, back in the early years of the Young administration. He rose to become head of Water and Sewerage before being caught in a federal sting, probably designed to entrap the mayor. He did two years. Coleman, interestingly, always believed Charlie was framed. “I’ve got to be up-front about that, but I think people should also look at what is a 30-year record of public service,” says Beckham.

Some of his criticisms of Archer’s lack of “vocal leadership” and failure to provide city services seem near the mark, but Beckham has yet to make the case that he could do it better. He may or may not, but what is really important is how we use this campaign.

What our New Year’s resolution should be is that we force every politician to turn this election into an honest debate about where this city needs to go, and how to get there. That’s something we should all think about, if the snow ever melts and we celebrate, in July, the 300th anniversary of this sometimes bizarre place. Just think ... Cadillac could have landed in Toledo. Sacré bleu, and Happy New Year.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]