Sunday, May 24, 2009

Unemployment: Who's to Blame? (1980s)


The problems began in the auto industry. The Big Three automakers -- Ford, Chrysler and General Motors -- built 9.3 million vehicles in 1978. Three years later they built only 6.2 million. Their losses were the worst in the industry's history. There were two culprits: a severe nationwide recession and cheaper imports from Japan. Between 1978 and 1981, 300,000 auto jobs were lost. With fewer cars sold, fewer parts and less steel was required. By the end of 1981, Michigan's unemployment rate stood at nearly 13%, while the national average was 8%. Business and personal bankruptcies tripled. Mortgages went unpaid, medical bills mounted, soup kitchens proliferated. Laid-off workers were hard-pressed to find any kind of employment. Living in the Rust Belt proved impossible for many, who packed up their families and migrated to the Sunbelt. At times there seemed to be as many Michigan license plates as Texas ones on the streets of Houston, only one of several southwestern cities that boomed in the first half of the decade. (Living in the Rust Belt)


This is a piece I wrote in 1982. Ronald Reagan was president, interest rates and oil prices were high, outsourcing had begun, and nearly the entire country was in a recession. But in Michigan it was an all-out depression. We were one of the Rust Belt states and thousands of our auto workers were leaving the state looking for work, mainly in the Texas oil country. Our State Joke was "Will the last one out of Michigan please turn out the lights?" Others took it up as their own, but I remember it starting in beautiful, devastated Michigan:

Unemployed: Who's to Blame?

I didn't catch all of "Donahue" the other day, and maybe it was a good thing, because what I did catch really threw me.

His entire audience was made up of unemployed workers. His entire panel, likewise. As near as I could tell, Donahue was the only person in the group who had a job. But that wasn't what threw me.

What threw me was where those out-of-work auto and steel workers laid the blame. They didn't blame management for greed and stupidity. They didn't blame the government for greed and stupidity. They didn't even blame the Japanese--much.

They blamed welfare cheats.

They could barely control their rage as they talked about them: The so-called "men" who would rather be on welfare than do an honest day's work; the mothers who kept having babies so they could make more money off of the taxpayer; young people getting married and starting families without a thought to where the money was coming from.

They went on and on--the gist of it, if I got it right, being that the entire economic breakdown of this country came about because of welfare cheats.

The men talked about their lives now. About what it felt like to stand for hours in an unemployment lines. What it felt like to sit around and do nothing. What it felt like to watch their wives go off to work for a half or even a third of what the men could make if they could only get their jobs back. Some of them, as they talked, were close to tears.

Nobody could take away their right to be mad. Nobody wanted to. But what sat me upright was the direction it took. They weren't mad, for instance, at the heads of the corporations for whom they had formerly worked. They saw no problem with the fact that, though they were out of a job--due, supposedly, to declining profits--those same corporations still showed colossal end-of-year profits, and the corporation heads--the very same who had decided the out-of-workers' fates--still wined and dined in splendor and had no intention of giving up even one little country club membership.

They saw no problem with the fact that out-and-out greed kept the interest rates so criminally high that, even with a job, they couldn't afford a house or a car or any big-ticket item.

They placed no blame on the powers-that-be who decided on a staggering $10,000 as a nice round figure for a brand-new, no-frills, no-nothing standard mode of transportation. (Remember, this is the 1980s!)

None of that, even though it was discussed, was important. What was important to them was that there were people out there getting money from the government who didn't deserve it.

If it weren't for them taking money that wasn't rightfully theirs, one man said, therw would be more money to go around for the people who really need it.

"Why don't they go out and work?" the unemployed-man-with-no-prospect-for-a-job wanted to know.

Did those unemployed workers feel that, unless they made it clear, we would think they were one of them? Did they somehow think that, even though the money they were collecting while being out of work was money earned and due them, they were still "cheating" in some way? Or did they honestly think the poorest of the poor were really the bad guys in all of this?

Is that the American way of life now? The rich get richer and the poor get the blame?

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Images - January 20, 1981

This column first appeared in a suburban Detroit newspaper chain
, where I had a weekly column for more than two years. When I look back on the events of that day it still seems surreal. . . First, that Ronald Reagan, of all people, was actually going to be President of the United States, and second, that the Iran hostages were going to be released on Inauguration Day, after 444 days in captivity. We had heard rumors all morning that the hostages were likely to be released, and we kept hoping that if it was going to happen it might mercifully happen before noon, on Jimmy Carter's watch.

But of course it didn't happen that way. There are some who still maintain that Republican operatives worked behind the scenes to guarantee the dramatic timing of the release. The talk was out there as I wrote this, and I wholeheartedly believed it, but I kept the snarkiness to a minimum--something I probably wouldn't do today. (I would probably write it better, as well, but this was about as good as it got for me back then.)

Otherwise, this is how I saw things transpire on that day:


It is mid-morning and Walter Cronkite is announcing that the hostages are about to be released: "There is no truth to the rumor, however, that they are in the air."

Walter doesn't sound very excited. Why isn't Walter excited? "They are reported to be in two buses, waiting to board the two Algerian airliners a few feet away on the tarmac. . ."

Walter is talking through his teeth; terse, almost angry. This day--Inauguration Day, Liberation Day--was to have been Walter's finest, final hour. On a par with lift-off on the launching pads in the old days, Walter's favorite reporting assignments. All is finally right with the world, and Walter--Walter is mad.

Why? Walter, ever the professional newsman, isn't saying. Partly though, it has to be because this was to have been Jimmy Carter's final finest hour, too, and the barbarians have cheated him out of even that. (Cronkite was forced by CBS to retire. That may explain it, now that I'm looking back.)

We wait with Walter all morning, hoping they will be released before noon--swearing-in time. Please, let Jimmy Carter have this one last moment of glory. Let it happen during his presidency.

We watch the platforms being built, the parade preparations, the sleek, black limousines coming and going through the gates at the White House. We switch back and forth to reporters at separate vantage points to make sure they're ready. We talk about what a beautiful spot this is, on the south lawn, looking out at the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. We wonder why no other president before Reagan has chosen it as a place for swearing in.

Every now and then we quit the small talk to question the motives of the kidnappers in Tehran who chose this very moment in American history to cause another historical event. Who was it to bother? Jimmy Carter? Ronald Reagan? We Americans in general?

Just before noon we switch to Tom Brokaw. He is announcing that momentarily Ronald Wilson Reagan will be sworn in as either the 39th or 40th president of the United States, depending on how you look at it--but first this from Kimberly-Clark. (I don't remember why the question came up. Couldn't find an answer to this.)

NOON. The swearing-in. Nancy is wearing a bright red dress, clearly visible even from the helicopter overhead. Rosslyn is dressed in beige and has not smiled once. The camera swings by her, never to return. Ronald Reagan introduces, for the last time, President Carter and Vice-president Mondale. He is raising his right hand.

The weather in Washington is an enchanting 50 degrees and sunny, as every commentator on every channel relentlessly reminds us. Many minutes of reportage are spent watching for an impending cloud cover.

At lunch, less than 20 minutes after the ceremony, now-President Reagan makes the announcement that the hostages are over free air space. He does it in fine actor-politician style and everybody cheers. No one asks where Jimmy Carter is. No one thinks to stand him in front of a camera to get his reaction.

Someone asks Barbara Walters how she feels about the hostages being released, and she says, strangely, "I feel guilt." Nothing more. Just "I feel guilt".

The interviewer doesn't ask why. Was it because the media played the incident up too much? Not enough? Does she feel guilt because all of her usually effective powers of persuasion might as well have been so much marshmallow for all the help she was to the hostages? Or is it because one newscaster is asking another newscaster how she feels instead of asking someone whose opinion might have mattered?

Never mind, Barbara. Jane Pauley is doing that. Jane is asking hostage family members, "How do you feel now that the hostages have been released?"

The family members each smile and say variations of "Wonderful! Just wonderful!"

Jane's next question is, "What will you do when (fill in the blank) comes home?" The loved one has to think about that. Finally he or she grins and says, "I really don't know--just go back to a normal life, I guess."

Jane grins, too. There isn't much more to say. Back to you, Tom.

Then someone says, "We mustn't forget the seven Americans who died trying to rescue the hostages. They mustn't have died in vain." The mood is spoiled. Back to earth. . .

Now someone is asking why didn't we do the yellow ribbon bit for the POW's? Well, we did--sort of, someone on a panel says. We had I.D bracelets, remember? But, look--you can't compare the two. The POW's were soldiers. They are subject to that kind of stuff--even trained for it. These hostages (the 52) were trained for diplomacy. Makes a difference.

Someone else asks, "Why are we calling them 'heroes'?" But then the trailer carrying the Mormon Tabernacle choir rolls to a lurching stop in front of the reviewing stand. They are singing "Mine eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord". Tears glisten in the new president's eyes. An American smile crinkles his face. The camera never wavers.

Moments later the local cameras take over and we see the front door of the [Joseph Subic, Jr.] home. The Subics, however, choose to remain indoors, away from the cameras. We become quickly bored with watching a front door and move on to other things.

Robert Ode's people are "just folks". Michigan gothic. We love them.

Earth mother Mattie Jones is holding the phone and crying. We love her, too. (Please, Mattie--don't let us in again.) (Mother of Charles A. Jones, Jr.)

The scene shifts once more and --is it?. . . It is! Yes! There they are! They're coming down the steps of the Algerian airliner, passing through a gantlet of people--only this time the people are smiling and patting them on their backs.

Former hostage Richard Queen is doing the roll call for us as each hostage comes past the cameras. Barbara Rosen is in the studio. She tells which one is her husband, Barry. "There he is. There's Barry," she says, barely smiling. It is almost an apology.

But, yes. . .we can breathe easy now. We see them and they're smiling. They're free.

This is the day we've all been waiting for. Now the emotions, checked for so long, can flow. Soon the tears will come. . .

Incredibly, they do not. It's not the way we wanted it to be. We didn't want to share the day with even a new president. We wanted Jimmy to leave happy, feeling fulfilled. We wanted Walter to leave happy. We wanted it to be like the year the Tigers won the World Series. We wanted to open doors and hear the shouting and the cheers. We wanted to decorate our cars, our trees, our houses with symbolic yellow ribbons.

It happened too fast. We didn't have time. The thugs, with their on-again, off-again promises--their malicious timing--robbed us of even that.

A psychiatrist is telling us that it is absolutely essential that we allow the 52 a speedy return to normal life, else we will have 52 basket cases on our hands.

An entrepreneur is showing the camera several styles of hostage tee shirts, hostage buttons, hostage bumper stickers. "It is just our way," he says, "of showing how much we care."

Suddenly we're exhausted. It's been a long day . We'll sort it all out tomorrow, but now--we can't turn the TV off fast enough.