Wednesday, November 19, 2008

NaBloPoMo Day 19: Motor City

One of the very finest writers that I have ever known is Jim Griffeon at Sweet Juniper. I went to high school with him and have a son who is several months younger than his own Sweet Juniper and I admire his writing and his photography and his creativity and his principles very much.

Jim is a resident of the city of Detroit and a close-up observer of the place. He, unlike the vast majority of people who live there, lives there by choice and by design, which makes him both an oddity and a perfect advocate for the place, which has its detractors.

And probably for good reason. Detroit's reputation is, in many ways, well-deserved. It's a troubling place and has been for many years, and as our economy has, in recent months, headed south, there has been an increase in the discussion about what's to become of the Big 3. It's an important discussion and one that, frankly, people should have had years ago, decades ago really.

Jim's written a fascinating and extremely significant post about a proposed bailout of the auto industry. Read it here.

I understand the urge to blame corporate greed and shortsightedness for the current situation. I was troubled by the government bailout of the banking and insurance industries last month, and I am increasingly troubled in an I-Told-You-So kind of way by the lack of oversight and accountability in regards to the bailout that's now being reported on a daily basis, but Jim articulates perfectly why it is that I was so uneasy about the banking bailout and why I feel the auto industry bailout is important and needed and necessary.

The banking bailout is about people who move paper from one folder to another and who send each other emails and move numbers from one column to another column. Yes, I understand how banks work, and I understand why insurance is important--as someone who worked for two years in a non-profit arena dealing with credit and housing, I would humbly say that I think I have more insight into the subject than, say, Joe the Plumber. But I'm more than a little troubled by the idea that a guy in a suit that costs more than my monthly mortgage payment needs to be bailed out. I would complain further about the fact that it's my tax dollars that are bailing him out, but what the fuck, this is the government of the United States, not the government of the people that agree with the government all the time. I get my pound of flesh in the shape of student financial aid and tax breaks for the middle class and what-not, and we really can't just let the economy collapse, so I'm willing to suck it up. Mostly.

The auto industry is about people who make things, and people who make things and who make things work and who make the things that make things work. They're people who do things that are critical to who and what we are as a nation, what we do and how we function on an hour to hour basis. Should they have been more forward-thinking when it came to innovating? Very much so. Is hindsight 20-20? Same as it ever was.

We don't hold people who make things and who make things work in very high regard anymore. Just ask my husband, who teaches kids English to kids who are uniquely suited to making things, whether it's by aptitude or interest or conditioning or personality. These are kids who aren't special education students to a degree that they need to be in a special education classroom--they're kids who, like my husband, have learning disabilities. Some are emotionally impaired. Some come from backgrounds of such abject horror--my aunt, who's a public school counselor, said it best when Dan was beginning teaching. She said, "It's kind of hard to give much of a damn about enriched math when your mom's a crack whore." My husband has taught children whose stories would make people with a stronger stomach than mine throw the fuck up, and I am not exercising my over-developed sense of hyperbole when I tell you that.

Of course there are inspiring stories about kids who rise above their station. I am married to a man who not only overcame dyslexia to have a successful military career but has completed two college degrees and is pursuing a master's degree as well. But the educational environment is such that kids aren't encouraged to do anything but go to college and become that guy in the suit, sending the emails and moving the paper from one folder to another.

Look, I think if a kid wants to go to college and can possibly be successful in doing so, nothing should stand in their way, especially not their ability to pay for it. But I also think that we need to throw out the notion that everyone should go to college. I think we need to get used to the idea that we need auto workers and plumbers and electricians, people who make things and fix things. I think we need to prepare the people who want to be those people as thoroughly as we prepare our doctors and lawyers and teachers and support them as thoroughly.

Yes, I think we should bail out the auto industry, not because I think that the auto industry is so great, but because I think that the auto industry is about real people, doing real work and producing something concrete that we need. I think the people who do that work are a dying breed in a dying industry, and I think it's important that we not let it die. It matters in the short run and in the long run, it matters for my kid and your kid and their kids. The thought of Detroit becoming more and more like a modern day goldrush ghost town breaks my heart, because of the real people who live and work there, who are raising their kids under circumstances that I can't even fathom. We've had it good for a long time, and I think that how we weather this storm will define the next century the way that the Depression and the World Wars defined the last one. I hope that we get it right.

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