|This is how the U.S. auto industry is feeling about now. Wait! What’s that German car doing at the top?|
But what could be worse if you live and work – or worked – there now that unemployment in “the Motor City” is north of 18 percent and about to spill past 10 percent throughout Michigan?
Journalists and politicians speak of “Detroit,” meaning not just our beleaguered “automobile capital” but the entire embattled U.S. auto industry, whose influence reaches well beyond Michigan.
|There’s not a lot of ho-ho-ho on the lots of car dealers this Christmas|
Tier One companies make parts and trim for Chryslers, General Motors brands, and Fords, down to the ashtrays and buttons on the radio. Tier Two companies, in turn, supply them. In a warped variation of “trickle-down economics” not stressed in business school, when an automaker founders or bites the dust, unpaid bills, job losses, and closures spread quickly to the little companies that feed off it.
That doesn’t count the thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on selling and repairing American cars. Or the owners of the deli on the corner that sells most of its sandwiches to those who work at the plant or dealer. Or the dentist who built a practice from the same clientele – and so on, on down the block.
|Congress and the White House are having about as much luck as this farmer, pulling the auto industry out of the mud|
On top of all these dark developments, Michiganders, like almost all Americans, have also been buffeted by bad news from their stockbrokers and mortgage lenders. But not every town or every person in Michigan is despairing. Most folks in western Michigan -- around Grand Rapids, where the health-care and furniture businesses retain some vigor; and up north, around Travers City, where resorts and vacation properties and ordinary homes are still being built -- don’t greet the day with dread, as do a lot of people in “car country” to their south and east.
Great Migration of the early 1900s, an estimated 7 million African-Americans, plus uncounted rural whites, poured into Michigan and other rapidly industrializing northern states. These places dangled good, steady jobs with benefits – a far cry from unrelenting, poorly rewarded toil under the hot sun in the fields and piney woods down South.
Good but not glamorous jobs in the auto factories turned Michigan into a “cash and carry” state: workers brought home a decent paycheck, paid their bills, put their kids through school, and splurged on only one or two modest pleasures, say a cabin at the lake or a nice driving vacation out west each year.
They were frugal, but there wasn’t much left over to save. Besides, why bother? Social Security and a good Ford pension would see you through your retirement years. And the parish church wouldn’t charge much to bury you.
|The auto companies and the United Auto Workers are on the same side of the table when it comes to seeking help from Washington|
We admire these “salt of the earth” people who are some of our last countrymen, or so it seems, who still actually “make stuff” with their hands and backs. They don’t deliver things or trade things or sell can’t-miss paper schemes. They go to work each day and make stuff. If we lose the auto companies and these automakers, we wonder and worry what America will make any more.
If the answer is not much, what does that portend?
|This extra-long Chevy Suburban sport-utility vehicle, and millions like it, played a role in the Big Three’s “fat years” and now, in in its lean ones|
` With 15-percent profit margins on SUVs, what was not to like about life in the Wolverine State?
An Unsettling Precedent
|Timber was once to Michigan’s economy what the auto industry is now. The car folks hope their next chapter does not resemble the loggers’ last one|
No one, not even the auto industry’s naysayers, is saying that tumbleweeds will whistle down the streets of Flint and Detroit any time soon. But whole slum neighborhoods in some parts of the latter already resemble what one Michigander described as “Dresden after the bombings” – a reference to the German city destroyed by Allied air attacks during World War II. (It doesn’t help that already-frayed tensions in a city where racial unrest has simmered for decades and occasionally ignited that 95 percent of Detroit City is African-American and mostly poor, and – until recently, when upwardly mobile blacks earned enough to get out – 97 percent of the surrounding suburban population was white.
|There are dark clouds over Ford, all right. Even darker ones over GM and Chrysler, which have fewer funds in reserve to weather a storm|
So the already downcast people of Michigan are a little fearful, too, about what the volatile combination of despair and widening unemployment could bring.
Slumped Shoulders, Eyes Averted
“You know how you pass someone you know on the street and say, ‘How ya doin?’” Ronald Dzwonkowski asked me. He directs the editorial board at the Free Press.
“We don’t do that here anymore. We don’t want to hear the answer.”
|This statue on Woodward Avenue in the Motor City has no official name, but locals call it “The Spirit of Detroit.” Right now, spirits are low there|
Did I mention that the state of Michigan just announced that it will cut its budget by $200 million? That’s hardly surprising. Many other states that rely on sales tax revenues have done likewise as Americans zip up their wallets in response to the ongoing recession. But the loss of good government jobs on top of hemorrhages in the auto industry is a crippling body blow.
|Things are anything but OK right now in Michigan and in the homes of autoworkers|
“These are historical times, I’m afraid,” she continued. Not grand ones, either, by a long shot. “Everyone knows someone who has been laid off,” John Gallagher told me. “We had nine people to dinner the other night. Three had lost their jobs.” Mirthful banter was at a minimum. Instead, he says: “Lots of gallows humor.”
Help for Fat Cats
|There will be plenty of imports to eat if one or more of the Big Three goes under|
“For God’s sake,” one man in Michigan muttered to me. “This was a bridge loan, a lifeline, to be paid back, not a bailout.” A loan complete with a “car czar” to scrutinize the industry’s every move. On the way to work, I heard a Detroit autoworker tearfully react to the notion that it was they, the unionized labor force, that fouled the deal by refusing to accept deep wage cuts. “I can’t afford a pay cut,” she said. “I’ll lose everything.” She may anyway if there’s no paycheck at all.
There was no “stock czar” or “bank czar” on the case when financial houses gobbled from the federal trough, another worker complained, bitterly. “They used a lot of that money not to get loans going again to the little guy, but to prop up their own portfolios and buy more banks.”
And here’s something else that grinds Michiganders: It’s not as if they are making manual typewriters or rotary-dial telephones for which there clearly is no use any more. The Big Three still make half of the eight million new vehicles that sell each year in the United States. Or I should say, sold, before worried Americans began bypassing even the foreign makers’ dealerships. Ford still produces the best-selling small truck, and it and General Motors still bring in $200 billion a year or so apiece. (The figures at Chrysler, which is privately owned, are not public, but they are estimated at half of Ford or GM’s figures.)
A Few Regrets
Yes, our own companies’ greed trumped need as they kept rolling out the SUVs, the people of Michigan admit. Yes, we should have joined the “green revolution” far earlier, with smaller, more efficient products. But do we deserve to be beaten like the proverbial “red-headed stepchild”? Do those in power hate us, or our unions, so much that they’ll allow a century-old industrial giant of an industry to crumple and die?
|There’s a vacancy at this motel, and many vacancies to come, perhaps, on the assembly lines of Michigan’s automakers|
So many Michiganders are heading to relatively prosperous Texas that a joke describing them is making the rounds:
“What’s the last thing that a Texan wants to see?”
“A Yankee with a U-Haul.”
There’s irony in that, because 20 years ago or so, the stampede of rented U-haul trailers carrying families’ every possession, was heading in the other direction, out of Houston. But by 2003, according to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, “U-Haul trailers leaving Michigan for Texas exceeded those making the return trip by a ratio of 100 to 1.”
The “black-tag people” were back. (For years, Michigan license plates were black, and the watch was out for them in Texas.)
See You Later
This is not yet a Great Migration in reverse, but it has the makings of one, especially among the young. Already, Michigan’s newspapers are bemoaning a “brain drain” of young people who are leaving, likely never to return. They simply can’t find work in Michigan, or don’t want to, given the gloom.
|Those were the days. New American car. Happy carmaker (here called an “autobuilder”). Satisfied customer|
So on the outside, people are “bucking up” as best they can – whistling past the graveyard, in the view of others who foresee decline and death for the auto industry ahead.
Inside, people are not doing so well. In many homes, dejection has turned to quiet desperation and feelings of failure, even though it wasn’t the rank and file that flew corporate jets to Washington to beg for handouts.
Dr. Craig says his patients “look to me for a lifeline, as a drowning man cries out for a lifeguard.” But if the nation’s greatest economists do not have answers, could Steven Craig have any?
Mad as Hell Inside
Mental health professionals like him describe a growing, generalized anger. “We played by the rules and did all that was asked of us,” their patients tell them, in return for what they hoped was a sliver of the good life: a sturdy little home, a ballgame or two, that place at the lake.
Once, too, families in trouble could lean on their elderly parents for emotional support and, if need be, a roof and a bed for a time. Now Mom and Dad are despairing, too, because of the Wall Street collapse that sucked the life out of their pension funds. The old folks, too, are asking, “What about us?”
|An image of days to come? An abandoned assembly line after a plant closing. This one was in Illinois and made tractors. But...|
Down in Ohio, in my hometown of Cleveland, which has been buffeted by its own waves of steel plant closings over the years, Case Western Reserve University's Mark Chupp, a professor of social work, knows the drill. “Probably the worst long-term effect of economic downturn and hardship in a Rust Belt city is cynicism about the good life,” he says. “People are pessimistic and have been lowering expectations of the good life for a long time.
|Unrelenting stress has no upside|
Back in Michigan, there don’t appear to be hard figures on the suicide, drunk-driving, domestic abuse, and divorce rates these days, but the sense from those with whom I’ve talked is that they are higher. Perennial stress, as a whole state contemplates the loss of a way of life, is a killer –of the depressed and of others.
And yet there a gritty reserve of hope remaining in Michigan. As Dr. Craig explains it, the economic fortunes of the auto industry have been cyclical. And in the past, the tough-it-out, weather-the-storm, this-too-shall-pass resolve has prevailed.
I talked with a woman in the little town (800 people) of Lyons, Michigan, which is now a bedroom community outside Lansing. Not only are four out of five people in Lyons still tied to auto-industry work in Lansing or Grand Rapids or elsewhere, but the old timers in town know what it’s like to have the economic rug pulled out from under their lives. Lyons once had an auto plant that produced interior trim for Chryslers. It closed tight in the 1970s during a corporate reorganization.
“I grew up on a farm. Life was hard, but we always made it through,” the woman told me. “My parents and their generation made it through the Depression. With faith, we’ll weather this, too.”
Faith in the Lord, she meant, not in Detroit or Washington.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the great automobile industry, others in Michigan tell me. So the fix for the auto industry will take a while, too.
If there is a fix.
Here’s what Dr. Craig tells his patients: “Do something. Take control of something, even a little thing like definitely deciding to send the kids to summer camp next year, or definitely deciding not to.” Dithering, indecision, hoping for better days, he says, are recipes for deepening disillusionment – and physical dissolution.
Storm Clouds Brewing
|Then-candidate Barack Obama was all smiles at a Chrysler plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan, in May. He’ll have more serious work with the industry come January|
Long-term, the people with whom I talked envision a less-populated but more economically diverse state. Ron Dzwonkowski thinks Michigan’s future should be hinged to its abundant natural resources as a source of energy, enjoyable retirement, and recreation. Michigan has more fresh water, and not just from the three Great Lakes that touch it, than any other U.S. state, including neighboring Minnesota, the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Michigan may not have 10,000, but it has so many that everybody in the state lives within 75 kilometers of a good-sized one.
The lakes aren’t going anywhere. But, especially if one or more of the auto giants collapses, some of the people who own cottages on them could be.
TODAY'S WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)
Disillusionment and dissolution. The former means disenchantment. Even idealists can get disillusioned during hard times. The latter means decay or disintegration. Disillusionment can foster psychological and physical breakdowns.
Rack and Ruin. Utter decay. “Rack” is a variation of “wreck” or “wrack.” This is another phrase that always appears in this order. One doesn’t, for some reason, go to ruin and rack.
Red-headed stepchild. This wretch is always being severely beaten in a popular phrase. Stepchildren often get short-shrift when there are natural siblings around. Read the “Cinderella” story. As for why redheads get a double dose of trouble is not clear, except that they, too, are not as common in most families as are blonds and brunettes. No one is sure who first called attention to the plight of red-haired stepkids.
Wolverine. A foul-tempered, musky-smelling, burrowing weasel after which both Michigan and its largest public university’s sports teams decided to nickname themselves. Wolverines don’t back down from a fight – a welcome trait in the state’s current economic morass.
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