Time for Thanksgiving

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This has been a painful, bruising year for our entire state. Unemployment has soared past what the leading economists predicted. The state has slashed spending for schools, scholarships and cities. And when it comes to tough times, we ain't seen nothing yet. 

Hundreds of thousands of workers lost jobs this year, and lots more are worried that they are about to lose theirs too. And many will, tomorrow or next year or the year after that. Let's be brutally honest: Things will get worse in Michigan before they get better. What's not clear — and what nobody is talking about anymore — is when the economy will get better.

That's because nobody really knows. Knows when, or even if. Nobody has any clear idea what might happen to put us on the upward swing again. Yes, there are a few glimmers of hope: Stem cell research, hydrogen-powered cars, etc. But right now, the effort is mainly on trying to slow down the decline.

So let's be honest again. Do we really have much to be thankful for? The answer, astonishingly ... is yes. In many ways, things are more hopeful than a year ago. Back then, George Bush and Dick Cheney were in power; Kwame the criminal was barely in the can; and the banks, the auto companies and Congress were threatening to re-enact the Great Depression.

I'll get to more reasons to give thanks in a little while, but before that, we need a bracing dose of reality-based medicine: Our economy is in worse shape than you probably know. 

Last week, we got a look at how bad things really are, when the University of Michigan held its annual two-day economic forecasting conference. You might have seen stories in what pass for newspapers these days, or heard versions on the radio. They mainly reported that U-M was forecasting more job losses over the next couple years, but then, in typical daily journalism fashion, they countered with the "good" news: Over the next two years, the number of jobs being lost will gradually slow down.

But the reports seemed to miss or ignore most of the economic conference's most significant information. When I read a detailed summary of the proceedings, baby boomer that I am, I thought of the original Star Trek's cranky Dr. Leonard H. McCoy barking, "It's life, Jim, but not as we know it," as some monster threatened to destroy the Starship Enterprise. Usually, William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy found a way to save the ship, and sometimes the universe, within the TV hour. 

Unfortunately, Gene Roddenberry is dead. Michigan's on the rocks, Detroit's official jobless rate is pushing 30 percent, and far higher when you count those who have given up looking.

Our state is, in some ways, in the deepest trouble it's ever been. True, unemployment was far higher during the Great Depression, and there was next to no social safety net. But nobody doubted that people would want to buy cars again, if the national economy revived.

They had to buy a few anyway, even in the worst days, and there was no competition for Detroit iron. Now that's changed. Here's the most important thing to understand: The war with the imports is over, and Detroit has lost. Foreign-made or -manufactured cars have defeated the domestic ones. Here are a few statistics that emerged in Ann Arbor last week:

Thirty years ago, General Motors had more people working in Flint than GM has in the entire country today. Thirty years ago, when we thought times were tough because of the Iran hostage crisis, General Motors had 249,000 hourly workers in Michigan. Arthur Schwartz, the director of labor relations at GM, said that in a few months, there will be only 21,300 hourly GM workers left in all of Michigan. Ninety percent are gone.

Those jobs aren't ever coming back. Last year, for the first time in history, imports and transplants sold more vehicles in the United States than the Big Three did. Welcome to the new normal. Two years from now, cars made by Ford, GM and Chrysler are expected to account for a mere 39.6 percent of all U.S. sales. That's even before China enters the market.

Whatever happens next, our old economy isn't coming back. My guess is that Chrysler will eventually become mainly a distribution network for Fiat, plus a few trucks and Jeeps.

GM will survive; Ford, which looks healthy now, is sitting on a $27 billion time bomb of debt. But whether the companies make it is almost irrelevant. None will again employ masses of low-skilled labor at high wages.

Facing that openly now, however, is the best thing we could do. What's the first step to solving a problem? Admitting you've got one.

Now here's some of what we have to be thankful for: Nationally, a year ago, it looked like every one of the so-called Big Three might go bankrupt without a penny from the government. That's what a lot of Republican senators would have let happen.

That could have plunged the markets into a 1929-style crash, and plunged Michigan, and perhaps the entire nation, into a major depression. That didn't happen. Instead, Chrysler and GM were eased into bankruptcy. Lots of jobs were lost, but not all, and there was no panic.

Today, health care reform has passed the House of Representatives, and the Republicans failed to cut off debate in the Senate. Near-universal health care may actually be within reach.

Sadly, the fools in statewide government still don't have a clue. The governor and Legislature seem as vacillating and out-of-touch as ever. Nobody is making any attempt at serious reform. But when next year's monster deficit hits, they will have to do something.

What about Detroit?

Last week, I spent an hour with Mayor Dave Bing. He knows how bad the problems are, and, unlike any of Detroit's other mayors whom I've met, he did not attempt to sugarcoat them. Instead, he seems like an honest, experienced businessman, who loves this city and took this job to try to save it. He isn't taking a salary; I'm convinced he has no desire for any other office. Even if he did, and even if he turns out to be a miracle worker, he'll be 70 before his first term is complete. Can he save the city? Not by himself, and he knows it. 

Happily, most of the crazies, criminals and incompetents on City Council are gone — Monica Conyers, Barbara-Rose Collins, Martha Reeves, Alberta Tinsley-Talabi, etc. 

Freman Hendrix is chairing a commission charged with rewriting the city's badly flawed charter. The insane system of electing all the council at large is coming to an end.

Robert Bobb is trying to cut through the corruption and stupidity that ruined the Detroit Public Schools. 

The party is over, in every sense of the word. Now, we have to remake our state and our economy. We're going to need to pay higher taxes, regardless of what the Republicans say. We're going to have to make do with less, regardless of what the unions think, at least for now. Lying to ourselves clearly just won't cut it any more. That's worth being thankful for. 

They don't understand that yet in Lansing, but we've got major statewide elections next year, and a chance to carry reform further.

We've got a future to win.

So let's find a way to get it done.  

In many ways, things are much more hopeful than a year ago.

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