Who has the better idea?

Imagine that you are feeling a little down, nothing terrible, but you decide to go to the doctor and get things checked out. The news is stunningly bad. Turns out that you have cancer. Bad cancer.

You will soon be very sick, much sicker than now, no matter what you do. Your only hope of survival lies in having a couple of your limbs cut off. Then the rest of you will have to endure years of awful radiation and chemotherapy.

That's still no guarantee you will live. Even if you do, you will never be the same again, and your family will need another major breadwinner. How would you feel, as you walk out of the doctor's office into the bright sunshine?

Well, guess what. That's us: the state of Michigan.

Yes, we have about the highest unemployment rate in the nation, and yes, houses aren't selling very well. But we are going to see these as the good old days. The domestic auto industry has cancer; it is dwindling, maybe even ... dying.

Last week the leadership of Ford Motor Co. went before the cameras. Remember those gloomy forecasts last January? Well, they were too optimistic.

More layoffs are coming; more plants being closed. Ford will shed something like 44,000 jobs — last week, they announced that another 10,000 salaried layoffs were being added. General Motors is eliminating almost as many jobs, and there is no guarantee they are done.

And here's something to think about. Almost none of these jobs have been lost yet. The Wixom plant doesn't close till next year. The 1,250 workers there now are walking dead. Two plants in Windsor go next year; two plants in Ohio, one in Maumee, near the Michigan border, shut the year after that.

What happens when all those people lose their good-paying jobs? Where are they going to work instead? What will become of the stores where they shopped? Some won't be able to make their house payments.

There will be a snowball effect. And this is not your father's recession-based round of auto layoffs. This is forever. Ford now admits it will no longer be the nation's second largest automaker. From now on, that will be Toyota.

There was something almost pathetic about the speech Ford executive vice president Mark Fields gave Sept. 15. He said, guess what? People don't want to buy our boring, large, fuel-inefficient cars. Who knew?

Gosh, well, we are going to make more Mustangs! Lots of 'em. And ... we are going to design some spiffy new cars. And crossover vehicles. We'll have those too. And we plan to stop losing tons of money in 2009.

That's a parody, but not much of one. The spiffy new cars are not even in the pipeline yet. They have yet to design them. They are at least three years away.

Before that, the Chinese will have started selling small, cheap, fuel-efficient vehicles here. While Ford was dropping the bomb on its investors, DaimlerChrysler took the occasion to quietly admit that it, too, would lose more than expected — $1.5 billion this summer.

That's chicken feed to Ford and General Motors. General Motors lost $10 billion last year. They are still losing loads this year. Ford may lose $9 billion this year. One has to wonder how long the hemorrhaging can go on.

What really matters, however, is what this means for us.

Nothing good, in the short run. There may be a silver lining, however, if this gets our attention and that of our leaders — especially, if it gets us some new leaders.

The Democratic Party hasn't always been a solution. But it is clear that the Republicans stand for everything, pretty much, that is wrong with our economy, our society and our nation. For months, I've thought that they were going to lose the U.S. House of Representatives this November, a belief that now even an increasing number of conservatives share.

I think there are going to be some major upsets this fall — possibly even in Michigan. Here's one that I would have dismissed as impossible a month ago, but which now just might be a possibility.

Few imagine that Nancy Skinner can defeat the man they used to call "Toilet Joe" Knollenberg in Oakland County. But I think there could be a surprise — if she can get some money and get on television.

Four years ago, a Democratic lawyer named David Fink spent $2 million-plus in an effort to beat Knollenberg, and got creamed, 58-40. But that was a Republican year. Fink had a lot of commercials, but lousy ones; he wasn't charismatic, and he was, well, named Fink.

Nancy Skinner has potential; she is clearly the most appealing candidate the Democrats have ever run here. For one thing, she has movie-star looks. That ought to be a plus, especially since she comes across as a woman with a business and financial background, not as a Democratic answer to the congressette formerly known as Sonny Bono's wife.

Republicans are trying to dismiss her as a carpetbagger and media celebrity from Illinois. Now 41, she did move to Chicago for a time after earning a business degree from the University of Michigan.

Later, she became a radio talk show host, and subbed on a number of national cable TV shows. But she has middle-class Oakland County roots; she grew up in Royal Oak, the daughter of Chuck Skinner, the longtime high school football coach at Hazel Park and Birmingham Seaholm.

Politically, she'd do well to talk more about that. Her ideas about the future of the auto industry, however, are her best feature. She wants the feds to form a partnership with the auto companies to speed up the development of hybrid vehicles, something one of her constituents, Stan Ovshinsky, has been working on for decades at Energy Conversion Devices.

"There is no reason the auto industry can't lead the way to energy independence," Skinner likes to say. No reason, perhaps, except that the federal government makes it easy for them not to wean themselves; the oil and gas companies get $6 billion in federal subsidies, which she would try to end.

Some of her ideas probably need more development, but she is making this a campaign about Michigan's economic and environmental future. Her opponent is a man who, ironically, is originally from Illinois.

Knollenberg, a former insurance salesman, was born in 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, and has voted on the side of the people ruining us ever since he arrived in Congress in 1993. Originally he said he would leave after no more than a dozen years, but later broke his promise.

He has done everything he can to prevent the federal government from fighting global warming, as the Detroit Free Press once sagely noted.

Early in his career, "Toilet Joe" was obsessed with getting more gallons per flush; hence the nickname. In later years, he's been better known as a friend to big oil, an enemy to alternative fuels and a happy supporter of the Iraq war.

That might be fine in the Texas panhandle, but Oakland County voters are fairly sophisticated and generally more liberal than Knollenberg on social issues and the environment. This could just be a race to watch, given the current revulsion against Bush, and the economic crisis in Michigan.

That is, if Skinner can manage to get people (the media) to pay attention.

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