Commentary: Auto industry cuts across American dream

American workers in Detroit's auto industry.
American workers in Detroit's auto industry. Regina H. Boone / Detroit Free Press / MCT

Yes, we're all looking forward to Thanksgiving, and our reasons to give thanks will again be manifold. Mostly, they'll involve our families, the relationships that endure through thick and thin.

But speaking of thin, the question has to be asked: Has the American economy gone fundamentally kerflooey? This is an economy, after all, that's built on our two most precious material possessions – our houses and our cars. That's right, houses and cars. The last time anything cratered that badly, the dinosaurs knew it was all over.

Home ownership is said to be at the heart of the American Dream. For too many, it's now the bogeyman in the American Nightmare. When you can't pay, you can't stay, as the saying goes, and innumerable families have had to pack up and leave. Equity? Down the drain.

Falling home values – not to mention dwindling retirement funds and the dangling sword of layoffs – make consumers retract into their shells like besieged box turtles. Even ordinary folks, when their houses were appreciating along with their 401(k)s, could begin to feel just a little bit rich. Was it really pride we were feeling, setting ourselves up for the inevitable fall?

A housing market in the throes spells trouble across whole fields of business: construction, building materials, furniture, appliances. The symptoms of an auto industry in crisis are similarly dire.

Detroit may still be the industry's U.S. heart, but auto manufacturing and its related supply activities are spread throughout the country. In North Carolina, as was reported the other day, a quarter of all manufacturing jobs have a motor vehicle industry tie-in. Just think of this sector's sweep. The construction of roads. The production of fuel. The mining of iron and other raw materials. The manufacture of steel. Fabrics. Rubber. Then, there's the business of selling and servicing.

Activities at the core of our daily lives all depend on being able to crank an engine – getting to work, getting to school, getting to the store, getting products to the store so we can buy them.

But car sales have fallen off a cliff as people have seen their disposable incomes shrink and as credit has dried up. GM, Ford and Chrysler are reduced to begging Uncle Sam for handouts to try to forestall bankruptcy.

Perhaps their misfortune would be the gain of Toyota, Honda and other foreign-owned car companies with large U.S. operations – companies that have done a better job sorting out marketability and profitability. The South, where the Japanese and European companies have tended to set up shop, would logically benefit from a shift in the industry's center of gravity. Still, a bankruptcy bomb exploding in Detroit would mean unpleasant fallout from coast to coast.

Detroit – that's where my father grew up. He did some part-time work in an auto plant, I think it was Dodge, to help pay for college. Then he left, heading east to work for the federal government. He was an only child who had immigrated when he was 10, and his only kin in this country besides his parents was a cousin.

She was married to an auto worker. Their last name was Skyzinsky or something close to that. We visited them a few times; they had kids about the same age as my two sisters and I.

Their walls were bedecked with religious art. Displayed just as prominently as a portrait of Jesus was a large framed photo of Walter Reuther, the sainted UAW leader. This family understood its debt to the union, to the labor champions who had endured the strikes and the goons and the beatings.

My mother's parents also had an auto industry foothold of sorts. My grandfather, settling down from a job as a traveling tire salesman, became the proprietor of Beechley's Tire & Battery Shop, the place to go in Nappanee, Ind., for auto supplies, repairs or a tank of gas. (The brand, now defunct, was DX.) When my mother, also an only child, became old enough, she would pump gas for customers while her dad went home for lunch.

A NAPA store was operating on the site the last time I visited Nappanee, which is not too far from South Bend – host not only to Notre Dame but also to the Studebaker National Museum. Go if you can. It showcases in the Studebaker company's home city some of the most distinctive American cars ever built. Luxurious Packards, too – the companies merged in the mid-1950s to try to stave off disaster at the hands of the Big Three. What goes around ...

Have we come to the point where we can anticipate a General Motors National Museum, or Ford Motor Co., or Chrysler, memorializing all those Corvettes, Continentals, Chargers and 'Cudas of the glory years? In Detroit, naturally – I'd buy a ticket. But to see our auto industry turned upside down and inside out, as could be about to happen, would inflict grievous economic pain on millions of Americans and their communities. Be especially thankful if you're not likely to be among them.