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Silver spoons and rusted wrenches

November 22, 2005|Dean Bakopoulos | DEAN BAKOPOULOS' novel, "Please Don't Come Back from the Moon," about the disappearances of unemployed men in a working-class Detroit suburb, will be released in paperback by Harcourt in January.

THE AMERICAN auto industry is dead. With General Motors announcing, days before Thanksgiving, 30,000 more layoffs and nine plant closings, the Rust Belt just got the final strike of the sledgehammer. When GM finally goes down for good, all the rusted remains of that region will crumble.

My grandfather was a UAW man who slapped dashboards into Mustangs at the Ford Rouge plant just outside Detroit; my grandmother sweated out the first shift at Cabot tool and die. Immigrants with no formal education, their union wages allowed them to provide their family with a nice home, two cars and, for my mother, a college education, paid for in cash.

Later, my grandparents' savings helped my family buy a home. After my parents' divorce, those resources were instrumental in helping my mother maintain a car and pay unexpected bills, school tuition and property taxes. A decade later, when my wife and I bought our first home, my grandfather's long-saved UAW wages gave us much of our down payment.

Most citizens of the Rust Belt -- that center of American manufacturing and a longtime Democratic stronghold -- can thank relatives who toiled in exhausting factories for their current blessings.

But for my generation, born at the end of America's Golden Age (I was born in 1975, post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, post-energy crisis, post-labor), life in the Rust Belt has been a steady process of downward mobility. I was lucky enough to write a novel about the Rust Belt that got me out of debt and low-wage work; most of the people I write about have not been so fortunate.

In times of crisis -- natural disasters, terrorist attacks, economic collapse -- the federal government develops a relief plan. Now the Rust Belt is in serious crisis and needs relief.

My native state of Michigan leads the nation in unemployment and has a pitifully low tax-base; Wisconsin, my adopted home, does not fare much better. Cities ringing the Great Lakes -- Buffalo, Cleveland, Gary, Milwaukee -- weather not only the brutal winter but scores of plant closings and thousands of lost jobs each year. The holidays get bleaker and bleaker. This year, even our beloved Green Bay Packers -- facing their worst season in memory -- seem affected by the general malaise of the region.

Christmas miracles will not occur this year. The Big Three, and all the industries that grew up alongside them, will not have amazing recoveries and send out callbacks to hundreds of laid-off workers.

GM will be sick for a long time; it's silly to think otherwise. We have to quit whispering optimistically outside the dying patient's door. We have to plan for death.

We need a New Deal for the Rust Belt because the old deal has gone sour. Even the coveted auto industry pensions face imminent demise.

There are three things that only the federal government can do -- must do -- to restore American dreams to the heartland. Or else we will truly face, as Ronald Reagan said in 1981, "an economic calamity of epic proportions." But, with deference to old optimistic Dutch, trickle-down tax cuts aren't the answer. Tax cuts have had more than two decades to trickle down; they remain frozen at the top.

First, we must implement a system that guarantees universal healthcare. American industry -- from National Steel to Starbucks -- would benefit from having the burden of health insurance lifted off its back. Why else would GM be aggressively investing in nationalized-healthcare Canada while U.S. plants shut down? Without having to worry about health insurance for their families or their workers, a whole new generation of entrepreneurs just might take risks -- opening small businesses and inspiring innovation across the region.

Second, we must provide concrete steps for workers seeking to retrain and acquire new job skills. When George W. Bush was campaigning in blighted Ohio in 2004, this was his mantra: Retrain, retrain, retrain. It makes no sense for debt-ridden, jobless Americans to take out more student loans on an economic wing and a prayer. The government needs to subsidize community colleges in high-poverty areas so that workers can go back to school for free.

Finally, we must reinvest in the infrastructure of crumbling cities and towns. A new public works program needs to be implemented. But the states of the Rust Belt don't have the resources to pull off such a plan. Only the federal government has the resources to put thousands of Midwesterners back to work repairing roads and bridges, demolishing vacant buildings and rehabilitating the nation's urban centers so that they have usable, developable and livable spaces.

Our current leadership in Congress and the White House will not take any concrete steps toward these kinds of remedies. Those born with silver spoons rarely come to the aid of those born with rusted wrenches. We're either going to continue the ridiculous trend of tax cuts that essentially pad the trust funds of the wealthy or we're going to reinvest in the region that helped the United States win its many wars and made us the world's sole economic superpower. Otherwise, this region will soon rust to dust and ash.

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