Page last updated at 16:50 GMT, Sunday, 21 December 2008

Dim Christmas spirits in Detroit

By Paul Eisenstein
Bureau chief, The Detroit Bureau automotive news

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas. At least it should, by now.

Dealership in Detroit
Detroit's dim Christmas lights do little to lift the mood

But the holiday lights - the ones people have bothered to put out - seem dimmer than usual, reflecting the mood of the few folks you see at the department stores normally packed wall-to-wall in the final days before the holidays begin.

Even the snow itself seems gray and brittle, like the tempers of rush hour drivers, who relish any opportunity to unleash their frustrations.

It is, to maul Shakespeare, the winter of our discontent, here in Detroit.

Suffering badly

It wasn't supposed to be that way.

General Motors which once employed 850,000, will hand out pay checks to barely 90,000 Americans by mid-2009

Going into 2008, there was a clear sense that the good years, the record sales of the decade's first half, were over.

But no one, not even the most ill-tempered pessimists, knew what was coming.

According to the old saying, when the economy gets the sniffles, the auto industry catches cold.

But this time, it seems, Detroit's Big Three are labouring in intensive care with a dose of double pneumonia and a still uncertain outlook for survival - in spite of Friday's intervention by George W Bush.

Going, going, gone

The folks who run the auto companies like to talk about the "wellspring of good will" that the rest of the country feels towards us here.

The exodus from Detroit is picking up speed

After all, the Motor City put America - arguably the world - on wheels.

It was the "arsenal of democracy" during the world war.

And where would the music industry be if it didn't have great cars to sing about?

But, as the rest of the US has so rudely advised us, in recent weeks, that well has run dry.

And if Detroit and the Big Three disappeared tomorrow, that would be just fine, thank you.

Until late last week, it seemed the automakers just might vanish.

If not immediately, then sometime in the weeks to come, after a bail-out bill was rejected by Congress, largely because of the resistance of some Southern Republicans who'll have a fine Christmas of their own thanks to the foreign-owned assembly plants that have opened up in their districts.

In the end, President Bush pushed through a $17.4bn (11.6bn) loan, most of it short-term financing, from the $700bn Wall Street bail-out.

It is too early to say whether it will work.

But one thing is certain: even if it does, there'll be an even smaller US automotive industry made up of fewer people earning a lot less than they have done in the past.

Mass exodus

Life without the auto industry might have seemed ludicrous not that long ago.

But the makers have been rapidly shrinking.

General Motors, which once employed 850,000, will hand out pay checks to barely 90,000 Americans by mid-2009.

A hundred years ago, there was a mass migration to Detroit, the fast-growing Silicon Valley of its day.

Now, the exodus is slowed only by the difficulty Motowners face trying to sell their unwanted homes.

Low spirit

Even in the best of years, Winter in Michigan can be bleak and gray, with harsh winds driving deep snow blown off the Great Lakes.

But Detroiters like to think of themselves as a hardy lot, and the promise of another bright summer is as fortifying as a warm breakfast.

It was this rugged spirit that carried the community through the economic meltdown of 1980, and the recessions that followed.

But this time, that survival mentality is notably absent.

Maybe we'll pull through, is the best folks can muster, maybe some of us, anyway.

As for the rest? It makes it difficult to share the holiday spirit.

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