Detroit! Home of the greedy, mismanaged, incompetent dinosaurs of the American automobile industry!
After decades of building giant gas guzzlers, of failing to anticipate a predictable future of sky-high gas prices and collapsing demand for their antiquated SUVs and pickups, not to mention coddling their unionized, over-entitled and overpaid work force, The Big Three have the effrontery to beg for a government handout??!!
And these welfare-state Democrats just gave ’em billions to waste?
We should’ve just let ’em go down!
So what if millions of Americans get thrown out of work, if tens of thousands of dealerships close, if G.M., Ford and Chrysler disappear into history with AMC, Studebaker and the Stanley Steamer?
Isn’t that just capitalism at work, Schumpeter’s mighty engine of creative destruction sweeping away inefficient enterprises to make room for a bright new future?
That’s fine, except it ain’t exactly so.
Twenty-five years ago, I bought my first SUV. Such vehicles were relatively uncommon back during the early 1980s, even in Colorado. But I had kids to haul around, mountains to climb, ski areas to visit on weekends, and I wanted four-wheel drive, comfort, power and safety.
I could have bought a fuel-efficient sedan from a foreign automaker, but it just didn’t make sense. I sang the praises of the SUV to anyone who would listen — big, roomy, solid and particularly comforting to drive during a snowy night on Interstate 25.
Detroit didn’t force me, or anyone else, to buy these big, honkin’ pieces of American iron. We bought them because we liked them and because we wanted to be safe on our absurdly dangerous highways.
Toyota, Nissan and Honda established small footprints in this uniquely American market, and enjoyed a degree of success. But they couldn’t compete with Detroit’s strongest products, the brawny, powerful pickups and SUVs from The Big Three. Detroit charged plenty for these big boys, and profited accordingly. And those of us who bought them knew we were getting a quality product, one which would serve a succession of buyers for many years.
And so Detroit muddled on, despite a far-from-level playing field.
Competitors unencumbered by union contracts, legacy health/retirement costs or aging capital equipment erected factories in the South and benefited from lower costs and flexible work rules.
Far from ignoring the changing landscape, Detroit began the slow process of shedding workers, restructuring health care obligations, consolidating brands and creating more fuel-efficient vehicles. That process was aborted by the economic firestorm that swept across the world, a firestorm to which Detroit was particularly vulnerable.
Want to buy a big pickup? Unless you have 40-grand in your pocket, you need a loan — and you’d better be ready to make frequent visits to your friendly local gas station. But combine a credit freeze with soaring gas prices, and buyers disappear, particularly the hard-pressed working-class and middle-class folks who need and want SUVs and pickups.
The automobile companies could have had better, more prescient, more agile management. The United Auto Workers union could have been less obdurate in protecting jobs and benefits that would eventually have to go. And many years ago, Washington policymakers could have designed an industrial policy which would have gradually leveled the playing field for the domestic automobile industry — just as they could have reined in the speculative excesses of the financial industry.
Coulda, shoulda … but they didn’t, and now we have to pay the bill.
Watching our smug, silver-haired elected officials badger the sleek, silver-haired CEOs of the automobile companies, I conceived a modest plan.
Let’s take all 535 members of Congress and let ’em trade places with 535 auto workers. The workers get to live in Washington, hold hearings, have a staff, get chauffeured around and get taken out for dinner by lobbyists. The members of Congress have the privilege of getting up at 5:30 a.m. and driving to work on a cold Michigan morning, after scraping half an inch of ice off their windshields.
Let’s see how Congress does on the assembly line. Such work is noisy, repetitive, exacting, dangerous and just plain hard. Years on the line ruins your health — like the NFL’s grizzled, limping veterans, retired auto workers are often stiff and sore, popping painkillers and enduring rather than enjoying their retirement years.
After a month of toil the honorable members might adopt a becoming humility, and better understand the country they pretend to govern.
And speaking of humility, I’m glad to report that my previously weak credit has been magically restored by the government! I thought I was broke — but it appears that the government has thoughtfully allowed me, as a taxpayer, to help shoulder the burden of multiple bailouts.
And this good news affects all of us!
Yes, we’ve all qualified for a loan that would pay for that shiny new pickup — the bad news is that we get to make the payments, but we don’t get the pickup.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.