The end of 'trickle-down'?

  • Gavin Hewitt
  • 15 Oct 08, 04:22 PM GMT

DETROIT: I woke up this morning, staring at Canada. It's where I used to live and Detroit's high-rise hotels offer you a glimpse of a long, receding horizon.

Sunset in DetroitThe hotel itself is half-showroom. There seem to be cars in the lobby and black and white pictures of models with gleaming metallic fins. Looking at them now, these cars are bursting with optimism.

The present seems so different. We've stopped here en route to Hofstra university in Long Island for the third and final debate. We wanted to get a snapshot about the economy.

The television vox-pop is a curious animal. It is often little more than a visual punctuation. It is certainly unscientific but every so often it draws you into a fascinating conversation and that happened last night.

We stopped off at The Bar on Michigan Avenue, Dearborn, not far from the Ford plant.

The lighting was low inside. A place for a quiet reflective drink. We joined three men who had spent a lifetime in the auto industry, working for Ford. In their view, they had seen the best of times. Everyone, they said, feared the possible merger between General Motors and Chrysler. Job losses usually follow mergers.

The men were bitter about the economy. Norman Tomkowski said "most of the people you talk to think it sucks."

Another man looked into his beer and said "it's not good at all. People being laid off, losing their jobs. People can't afford to live anymore."

When they spoke of the election the economy trumped everything, but it's what they said about the conditions at the car plant that caught my attention. In their day, they had health insurance; they were compensated for inflation. There were other benefits. Most of them have been pruned back.

It connected to what I've heard elsewhere, that for millions of Americans the last few years have seen a cut in real income. Wages have not increased and many working Americans feel less off. Benefits have been squeezed.

It nags away at basic beliefs, that hard work can lift you up. It challenges the much quoted belief in a "trickle-down" theory, that if those at the top are pulling in the high salaries and bonuses, the wealth trickles down. In conversation after conversation, I find people doubting this and it feeds into the mood that America is on the wrong track.

We're off to the airport and the debate in New York. Our brief encounter in Detroit underlines the difficulty for John McCain - how to answer this feeling that America is heading in the wrong direction.

Some people are reminding the voters that in 1980 Ronald Reagan was behind in the polls with just a few weeks to run but won by a landslide. He looked into the camera, slightly tilted his head, and asked, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" The question hit the spot but it's a question John McCain can't ask.

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