When the mortgage bubble burst, the topic was the housing crisis. Before we elected a president, it was who were we going to elect as president. After we elected a president, the topic shifted to how do you feel about having a black president. When stocks went tumbling, news coverage of this topic soared. And now the latest question posed to the national conscience that has overtaken the airwaves - should we or shouldn't we bail out the auto industry?
My sister and dad both work in the Detroit auto industry - my dad as a tool and dye man for 30-plus years and my sister as a mechanical engineer for the past eight. I do not take discussion regarding this question lightly. Having gotten to where I am today by way partially of a GM paycheck, I can't answer yes or no without envisioning the immediate impact of either response. Yes and my family keeps their jobs, their pensions and food on the table. No and I wonder how my parent's retirement will be hit. With a no, I feel for my sister's family who was just getting accustomed to becoming a two salary household. But I can't say yes to a bailout without thinking the obvious - aren't these companies responsible for the terrible business decisions they made? As a government (and taxpayer) should we really get into the business of bailing out businesses?
In talking to my sister about the sorry state of the Detroit auto industry, she is quick to point out that competitive foreign markets are subsidized. Japanese automakers have been on the cutting edge because the government has supported them in doing so. That is a distinct advantage and one that in some ways has created a very uneven playing field.
The playing field though has warped at our own doing. As much as American auto companies produced in mass giant, unnecessary gas-guzzling SUV's, we bought them without regard to their abysmal fuel efficiency. Yes, they were pretty, they were fancy, they hogged roads and parking spaces across the country, and we bought into it all. And now we pay the price (literally) at the pump.
This failing of the auto industry has been in the works for some time though. As a kid, I can't tell you the number of times my dad was transferred from one plant to another, put in the jobs bank, taken out of the jobs bank only to be put on midnights, then on strike, then put back in the jobs bank and taken out again only to switch to another plant. As a kid it was too much to keep track of, so I didn't. Most kids can probably tell you where their father works. I, on the other hand, growing up was surprised every few years to drive by "dad's plant" only to find out that it wasn't dad's plant anymore. I couldn't tell you the location of where he works right now. As much as I may not have understood the location, I knew enough to realize that his irregular job patterns where a symptom of the larger company problems.
That brings me back to my original question - should we bail out the auto industry or not? I say no, but only because I don't think bailout is the right word. I think the big three deserve an infusion of cash, but not so they can keep doing more of the same. Detroit and its imaginative, engineering minds need to do different, do better, do efficient and reemerge to once again be pioneers in the field they created. I know it's impossible to say 'Hey you, car makers, here's $25 million, now you go make something we can be proud of.' It's not that easy. But as one of the last industries in this country that actually makes something, I think they deserve the opportunity to try.
A favorite blogger of mine summed this up more eloquently than I ever could. As someone who's made it their mission to document Detroit, his words mean something to me. He said (and I encourage you to read this entire entry as well as the comments):
One thing I like about GM, Ford, and Chrysler is that they are companies that still make something. What do the vast majority of the Fortune 500 companies even do? What does Goldman Sachs do? What do all those companies in Silicon Valley make? They shuffle paper, sure, transmit blips of binary code, attend important meetings, and make "deals." Maybe brown people somewhere across an ocean will make whatever it is they're selling or shuffling on paper or e-mailing each other about. But in Detroit, and in plenty of other industrial cities across this country there are still people making things without exploited labor, and believe it or not that still means something.