Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Every morning, at about a quarter to six, my daughter and I have breakfast together. It’s a ritual. I stand at the counter, chug bitter black coffee and watch the clock on the stove- don’t want to miss the car pool - while she slurps down a bowl of sugar cereal and tells me about her exploits at school. All the while, in the background, the radio bleats out an invariably despairing account of the world’s condition. This is our unhealthy way of kicking off the new day.

This morning the news was dominated by the woeful tale of the so-called Big Three. If you recall, GM, Chrysler and Ford have their figurative backs to the wall. And so, the CEOs of America’s auto manufacturers have returned to Washington for some more corporate panhandling. It seems the first $17.4 billion of tax-payer’s money loaned to GM and Chrysler was not enough. Boy, I didn't see that coming. Surprisingly though, Ford has not needed to take advantage of its $9 billion life line. The night, however, is young.

It now appears that GM and Chrysler need another $21.6 billion. Congress has imposed conditions, or else the American public might think that this is all a great big handout. One of Washington’s stipulations is that the automakers present restructuring plans to congress that navigate the Big Three back to the land of viability. The deadline for these plans was yesterday.

The plans are broad, vague and light on details, but they do outline changes, some of which are predictable, some of which are drastic. There will be lay-offs and factory closings. Lots of people will be out of work. Those who retain their positions will lose benefits. Product lines will be altered, certain models will be dropped and - in the case of GM - weaker brands will be phased out. This bothers my daughter because the radio correspondent lists Saturn as a brand slated for oblivion.

Recently, she has re-discovered her love for my ‘94 Saturn SL. See, a few weeks back I implanted a “wild-berry” air-freshener under my little car's passenger seat to cover up it’s otherwise pungent odor. This particular freshener can be bought at any Advanced Auto Parts store. Just look for these urinal-cake-shaped air-fresheners at the counter. They'll be next to the Snickers bars and below the row of dollar tools. They come in a variety of scents including vanilla and “new car.” You won’t be disappointed.

Previously, due to environmental conditions beyond my control, my beloved Saturn had taken on an compound odor comprised of a cocktail of smells with ingredients including - but not limited to - bilge water, rock salt, mold, animal dander and sweat socks - think low tide crossed with wet dog. Hey, carpooling is a nasty business. This, of course, soured my daughter’s opinion of an otherwise fine automobile. Now, that the car smells like a fresh stick of juicy fruit bubble gum, she’s willing to forget the past and forge ahead into the endless future with a newly instilled fondness for all things Saturn. That was, until that jerk Rick Wagoner - who, by-the-way, earned a base salary of $2.2 million in 2008 - gave Saturn the ax.

“Julia,” I comforted, “ No one’s going to come take our Saturn. Besides, the junkyards are full of them, we’ll always be able to find used parts, even if GM and all the third-party suppliers stop manufacturing new parts.”

This seemed to sooth her. I, however, could not stop a certain feeling of dread from creeping deep into my bones. These restructuring plans detailed the closing of an additional five manufacturing facilities and the destruction of more than 50,000 jobs worldwide.

I’m a child of the Cold War. My grade school was a fall-out shelter. I grew up watching movies like Red Dawn and reading books like Red Storm Rising(for the record, Jack Ryan was kicking pinko ass while Jack Bauer was still slurping grape juice from a sippy cup.)

Throughout my childhood the fear of nuclear war was pervasive. The unimaginable consequences of a nuclear holocaust was on everyone's mind. They called it the Nuclear Winter. It is a scenario where the mass discharge of nuclear weapons kicks up enough dust into the sky to choke out all sunlight. This in turn sparks a rapid cooling of the Earth that makes the entire world uninhabitable. Those that survived the initial holocaust and the radioactive fall-out would die due to drastic, world-wide climate changes.

The Nuclear Winter, of course, never happened. But, it seems to me that we now face an Economic Winter that is every bit as real as the Nuclear Winter was abstract. The initial collapse of the financial services industry did not immediately destroy the economy. This collapse, which certainly imploded with a ferocity akin to multiple nuclear detonations, instead set off a cascade of financial events - including the constricting of credit, the mass loss of personal retirement investments, a reduction in consumerism and manufacturing and a massive weakening of confidence - that is not dissimilar, in terms of process, to the devastating chain of events that might follow a nuclear holocaust.

Presently, the economic atmosphere is burthened by a noxious miasma that is one part dread and one part fear. If the air isn't cleared of this financial stink, the economic world, as we know it, may be rendered uninhabitable. What we need now, for the short term, is an economic air freshener to, at least, mask the stench of fear and loathing. What, you ask, could freshen this foul economy? The truth.

Americans are justifiably angry with Wall Street and the financial tycoons who lived lavishly while gutting the economy and leaving the bill for the working class. Further infuriating the masses, is the realization that the only way out is to pump more money into the very institutions that caused the economic meltdown. This is the truth, and hesitating to do what is, oh so aberrant, but obviously necessary could bring on, as it did some seventy-years-ago, a great depression. If we accept this truth, and get on with it, then, we can clear the air of dread and fear and, eventually, make ready for the day when optimism returns.

Oh well, at least my old Saturn smells fruity fresh.

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