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Counting the days

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There's good news and bad news, and it is all the same news, for Sen. Barack Obama. He is almost certainly going to win. Then the grim task of tackling the economy will start.

The only way I can see Obama losing is if Track Palin marches out of Iraq this weekend, leading a personally captured Osama bin Laden on a leash. And even then, Osama would need to have a couple trillion dollars in his pocket to save our financial system. Not happening.

While you should take nothing for granted, and anyone who fails to vote is a jackass, I don't see any way the increasingly pathetic John McCain can possibly revive his campaign. He has, however, contributed two lasting positive achievements to American culture:

He has helped make the talented Tina Fey an intergalactic superstar, and he has given new life to the virtually extinct doctrine of socialism, by redefining it. We now know that in McCain World, anyone who thinks that any billionaire has any obligation to society, or anyone who thinks that government should help the little guy get ahead, is a "socialist" who "doesn't think like us."

That's enough to make you hum "The Internationale" all day, which of course I tend to do anyway. Predictions are dangerous, but I have been at this a long time and see Obama winning a solid majority in the popular vote, and between 306 and 375 electoral votes. Those numbers would probably be vastly higher if Obama were a white guy named John Adams, but a win is a win, and will send a historic, positive and electrifying message to the world.

Democrats will have solid majorities in the House and Senate, and exactly two years to do something to convince Americans that they and we can stop this nation's plunge to the bottom. That's going to take a lot of doing, and a lot of — forgive me — straight talk. The new president will need to convince people that things will probably have to get worse before they get better. The only way to get through the next few years will be to accept some pain, some belt-tightening, and lowered expectations.

Jimmy Carter tried to do this, clumsily, 30 years ago. As a result, we got Ronald Reagan, a lot of let's pretend, and the beginning of the era in which the new gospel was the belief that transferring as much of our wealth as possible to the rich was the best way to make all of us happy and prosperous. Add to that the idea, most fully developed under George W. Bush, that we should subsidize our flagrant and wasteful consumption by borrowing trillions from foreign countries.

The party seems to be just about over. The bills are coming due, and even that oddest of cultural heroes has been defrocked. Alan Greenspan, long the powerful czar of this nation's economy, sat slumped in a chair before the House Oversight Committee last week.

For years, the seemingly perpetual chairman of the Federal Reserve Board had been heralded as the ultimate financial genius of our times, the "maestro," in Bob Woodward's fawning phrase. Now, looking like a defeated enemy general, the former Fed chairman said he was in a "state of shocked disbelief" to learn that laissez-faire capitalism didn't work perfectly after all, that the "hidden hand" he had believed in all his life had let us down. Had, in fact, picked our pockets.

"I made a mistake," he said. Give him credit, at age 82, for being able to admit it. Others still haven't. There are idiots still running around, bleating on talk radio that any regulation would be "socialism." Funny, but it doesn't seem to be working. People who have lost or are on the point of losing everything aren't that frightened of socialism. Eventually, if the people who have robbed them keep denouncing it, it might even sound attractive.

Detroit is a special case, however. We have, right now, the highest unemployment in the country, and the automotive industry has been in a severe recession for quite some time.

Yet when we look back at today's conditions in a year or two, we are likely to have a name for this era: The Good Times.

That's right. The really hard times are ahead. And very, very few of us even realize what has been coming. I sometimes beat up on the Detroit Free Press, not just to hear the inmates squall, but because it has abandoned many of the traditional functions of a newspaper. But it still occasionally does some things well and has some superb talent. Tom Walsh is one of the best business columnists in the country, certainly when it comes to the automotive industry. More than anyone else in town, he's been leveling with us about what's ahead. As he's been telling us, Chrysler's extinction, or absorption into another automaker, is no more than months away.

Last week, the company announced plans to lay off 5,000 white-collar workers, most of them in Auburn Hills. That was done, probably to make the firm easier to dump, pardon me, sell. The most likely buyer is thought to be General Motors. Walsh calculates that if GM does buy Chrysler, it will have to wipe out 30,000 jobs, pretty much overnight. Many of those jobs are here in Michigan. What do you think that will do to our economy? The second most likely alternative is some sort of merger with Renault and Nissan. That would probably preserve a few more jobs, but not many more.

Speaking of General Motors — a couple weeks ago I had lunch with a real expert on this industry of many years standing. I can't quote him by name, but you would likely recognize it.

"GM has about $21 billion left — cash — and they are burning through it at the rate of a billion a month," he said. (Actually, they've been losing a little more.) "Because of rules governing international firms, they have to declare bankruptcy when they get down to $13 billion." I quickly did the math. Oops. Silent spring coming.

"Ford's in a little better shape cash-wise," he added. "They may last until the end of 2009, or almost that long."

We're headed for a world we can't imagine, comrades, and a farewell to the auto industry as we've known it. By the way, have you noticed what the foundation of this state's economy is built upon?

Down with networks: Explain something to me, somebody: Like many people, every day I get messages from people, some of whom I don't even know, asking me to "connect" with them on "networking" sites called LinkedIn or Facebook or Plaxo or even Twitter. Eventually, when badgered enough, I usually go to one of these sites and "connect" to all the people I know, so as not to hurt their feelings. (Except for Twitter. Grumpy middle-age guys don't go to sites called "Twitter," no matter what.)

But that's all I do. I do not want to "write on their walls." I do not want to suggest other people they can network with.

What I don't understand is how any of this is supposed to be useful to anyone. I certainly don't mind communicating with people if I can be of some reasonable help. Neither do most decent people. But busy people with families and jobs and, uh, lives don't have time to play virtual Parcheesi with strangers. So ... why not do like we did back in the 20th century and just send a good old-fashioned e-mail?

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com

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