Getting a recession preview in Detroit

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I awoke this morning in my Birmingham, Mich., hotel room to the dulcet tones of my old friend Jamie Samuelsen (I used to babysit the guy!) talking about the interminable Les-Miles-Michigan saga on his WDFN radio sports call-in show.

Then he moved on to an article in Tuesday’s Detroit Free Press about how the Red Wings can’t seem to sell out Joe Louis Arena these days, even though they have the best record in the NHL. I know, I know, Jamie started out, everybody’s going to say it’s the tough economy. But the Tigers set attendance records this year, so that can’t be it. After which pretty much every caller proceeded to say, Hey, money’s tight (and Tigers tickets don’t cost as much).

The economy of metropolitan Detroit has been in downturn mode for a while. Michigan’s unemployment rate, at 7.7%, is by far the highest in the country (and no, it’s not that unemployment is always high there; in 2000 it was below the national average, at 3.7%). It’s not the 1980s all over again or anything (Michigan unemployment hit 16.9% in November 1982), but it does look an awful lot like a recession. So now that the rest of the country may be on the verge of tipping into one of those, too, what can one learn from a 24-hour visit to Detroit?

Well, first, that there may be tough times ahead for second-tier sports like hockey. Soccer, too, I’m afraid.

Second, the people I dealt with in stores, my hotel, etc. were bend-over-backwards nice. Not just regular Michigan nice, but on a new level. So those who still have money to spend should expect excellent service over the next couple of years.

Finally, and more seriously, a recession or even just a slowdown brings major government money problems. The Detroit papers have been full for months now with stories about school funding cuts, budget battles in Lansing, and the like (not so much today, actually; there was a some really juicy murder-trial testimony from a German au pair that took up all the space). Expect to start reading similar bad news soon from Sacramento, Tallahassee–and Washington, D.C., where the big gains in federal income tax receipts over the past couple of years seem to have plateaued and are likely to plunge if the economy really does shift into reverse.