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Government Handouts for Hollywood: Remember When Businesses and Workers Had Pride?

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Today's story in The New York Times about Hollywood coming to Pontiac, Michigan, is one long sad letter from home for me. I could almost laugh if I could just get over the temptation to cry.

I worked at Pontiac Motors as a young man, in the Fisher Body plant. Long long time ago. My most salient memory is of a day working on the seat assembly line, hog-wiring sound-proofing battens to seat springs with a heavy compressed-air wire gun. I let my mind drift and hog-wired a seat to the web of flesh between thumb and forefinger of my left hand. Didn't hurt that bad.

But I dropped the gun and cradled the seat, now a part of me, in both arms. My foreman approached with a pair of needle nose pliers. My United Auto Workers committeeman sprang forward to say I had the right to go to the infirmary. The foreman, steamed but out-argued, pocketed his pliers and sent me off with an angry wave.

I was in violation of the main ethic of the plant -- that you never, ever, for any reason short of death did anything to slow down the "the line." Death was frowned on.

A male nurse in the infirmary saw me coming. Before I even got to him he ran out of his wire-cage room to the assembly line, plucked a pair of needle-nose pliers from the hip-holster of a repairman, intercepted me and snipped the seat loose from my paw. I dropped the seat to the floor. The nurse poured some alcohol on my hand, slapped a bandage on it, slapped me on the back of the head like a fight trainer and sent me stumbling back to my work station.

Shouting over the noise of the line, my foreman said, "Where's my goddamn seat, asshole?" I got written up for leaving it behind.

Pontiac was always a tough place. But it was an honest place. The work was hard. The pay was good. You knew where you stood.

So in today's Times I learn that someone had the bright idea of turning my old long-abandoned factory into a gigantic sound stage for movies, giving away tens of millions of dollars in tax incentives to Hollywood producers. That image alone -- Hollywood comes to Pontiac Motors -- would have been enough to bring me to the floor, but there was an even more improbable notion involved. They allowed the producers to borrow money through public bonds and then somehow cosigned the pension funds of state employees to the note.

Why is it always the pension funds they want to fleece? Is it because pensioners are the only people in this country who have saved any money?

I also have some experience later in life -- fairly desperate, utterly unglamorous, not worth detailing here -- working with movie people. In despair over ever getting paid, I asked a friend much more experienced in the movie business than I why it was so difficult to get movie people to live up to their contracts or pay what they owed. His words ring in my head today:

"Jim, you will never go wrong with Hollywood if you always act on the assumption that all of the people you are dealing with are pimps and whores on dope."

His own policy for collecting from them was to roll up to a set with his trucks, roll down the window and tell the producer, "Cash now, or I leave."

The end of the story in Pontiac is so miserably predictable. The movie people are defaulting on their interest payments on the bonds, so the pension funds are having to make up the payments for them. Who could have seen that coming? Today's story is not unrelated to yesterday's story in the Times about Dallas' own Brint Ryan, a man who has amassed mountains of personal income by winning generous government handouts for business clients. In spite of the way he got rich, Ryan had the temerity to tell the Times in an interview, "Frankly, I never got one single government handout."

So, if those tax giveaways to your clients were not government handouts, what would you call them, Mr. Ryan? Hand jobs?

Whatever. The Brint Ryan story and the Hollywood-comes-to-Pontiac story are the same sad tale told twice: a nation stripped of its post-war pride, taught to starve and beg, falls to its knees to do what it must, however humiliating, in order to survive.

I think this is the part in the screenplay where the instruction says: "PIMPS AND WHORES ON DOPE ENTER STAGE RIGHT."

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