I mentioned a while back that I’m writing for a car blog. I haven’t posted a link to it yet, mostly because my work isn’t up to speed (no pun intended). Soon, though. Maybe.
Anyway, although I’m not that into “things”, learning about cars and consumers and the auto industry has been thoroughly engaging. Also: challenging, and not at all what I’d expected–and I mean that in the best possible way. I am 100% totally enjoying myself.
However, my crash course in auto industry history has raised a number of larger questions I’d never really considered, including this doozie: given today’s global economic turmoil, why are governments around the world so intent on saving the manufacturing sector–specifically auto manufacturing? Put another way: do we really need manufacturing to survive? Is that what makes for great nations?
Historically speaking, I’m not sure. Is manufacturing what made Greece and Rome great? Or England? Or France? Or Japan? Maybe. On the other hand, what makes New York great now? Not manufacturing, but the arts, media, finance, tourism. Assuming for the moment that it’s important for America to remain a major economic force, how many rungs down the ladder would we tumble if we lost manufacturing?
These are not rhetorical questions. I don’t have answers.
It’s fascinating to watch this ginormous issue play out in little ways from my new vantage point. Most of America hates the idea of bailing out the Big Three: “Laissez-faire economics!”, they shout. Folks on the other side of the fence yell the same thing–but with a caveat thrown in for automakers. It’s hard to tell if that caveat stems from concern for Middle America’s families or from nostalgia for America’s storied automaking past. In general, the auto industry supporters seem to loathe the idea of nationalized programs and bureaucracy–despite the fact that bureaucrats (i.e. Democrats) are the very folks coming to their rescue. Normally business-friendly Republicans are ready to let Detroit drown, mostly so they can get back at labor unions.
These conundrums become really apparent when the subject of healthcare comes up. Some pundits insist that healthcare is the cause of Detroit’s problems. (FYI, the automakers and their unions spend big bucks on healthcare for employees.) But the mere whiff of a nationalized healthcare system sends Detroit’s supporters into panic–even though to me, it seems that in the long term, such a program would reduce the companies’ cost of doing business and the employees’ cost of living. Of course, then we’d probably have to bail out the insurance folks…. Oh, wait: we already did.
In short, each side is arguing for a free-market system. One side just wants to make a tiny little exception for auto manufacturers. It’s fucked, I know, and fascinatingly so.
In defense of those pushing to bailout Detroit, the domestic auto industry is a huge one, and its failure would affect hundreds of thousands of people who work at factories, dealerships, suppliers–not to mention the media. (Pay attention to how many car ads you see next time you watch TV.) Also to be fair, the industry is heavily regulated–some might say hamstrung. I’d argue that it’s not so hamstrung that it hasn’t found ways to make mighty profits in boom years, but it’s still pretty restricted.
I really don’t know where I stand on this. My nonprofit, philanthropic instincts are at odds with my deeply Protestant work ethic. But what’s best for the public good?