Thursday, December 04, 2008

What I Want to Know Is...

Here's what I want to know: Why in the world is congress giving American car makers such a hard time over a $35 billion loan, when the government has already allocated about $1 trillion for financial companies including American banks?

For instance, about $20 billion last week was allocated to Citigroup to prevent the failure of that massive bank. There was no public debate, no congressional approval... just an announcement. And make no mistake, Wall Street rallied, and it was the right thing for the government to do for the sake of America, and not for Citigroup's executives (jail them for all I care).

So why are the American car companies being publicly flogged for requesting a combined $35 billion -- less than 5% of the federal bailout law -- to get through this historical economic crisis?

Well, here's part of the answer, I think. Why does America only have 3 car companies to begin with, and all of them headquartered in the same failed midwestern city of Detroit? Isn't that odd for these modern times? There are no auto headquarters in California, or Texas, or Ohio, or Missouri? I could make a strong case for each.

If the Japanese and Koreans are going to force our industry out of business, and if we're going to let them do so, and largely with manufacturing plants even on our own soil, then why in the world can't America produce American competitors to beat the Japanese and Koreans? Maybe there's not enough competition within America and between American firms. Why would that be?

The thrust of the problem, I think, is that America has become hostile, even prejudiced, against American manufacturing. That's why it's held on in the city of Detroit, no innovation, no expansion, just old... thinking... and old... organizations.

Our primary concern as Americans right now needs to be American jobs. Without confidence in our jobs, America can never recover from this economic morass. Frankly, I don't know anyone right now who does not fear their job security at some level or another.

A rule of thumb is that a tenth of a percent of the unemployment rate equals about 100,000 jobs. Analysts suggest that a failure of "Detroit" could lead to a total loss of 2 million American jobs. That means unemployment would skyrocket by 2 entire points -- to maybe 8% (bear in mind that new calculation methods of unemployment make 8% equal to maybe twice that several decades ago).

So why is there a debate? I think Americans are tired of being ashamed of their auto industry. The truth is that Detroit has been making good cars in recent years, actually. Most people blame the unions. However if the unions did not exist at all, then Detroit would have to face the fact that their "failures" are really due to executive failures and a collective lack of imagination in design and understanding of market demand more than anything. To wit: GM and Ford decided just a couple of years ago that their best strategy was to create the big gas guzzling line of bland SUV's that had been so profitable for them. (There's not much room for a profit margin in a small, entry-level car.) Well, that was just the wrong decision and terribly short-sighted.

Global players such as Japanese and Korean firms have long marketed to European and Asian markets, of course, where highly dense metro areas require small, small cars. Even Mercedes produces the "Smart" car that is exotic in these parts but common on the streets of any major European city.

Maybe we need more than just 3 American auto companies. Maybe we need more competition. Maybe a California start-up will take a chunk of the market with advanced hybrid and electric technologies. Whatever happens, now is a time not for destroying our auto industry, but for paving the way for serious American innovation. History shows that when America innovates, the world has no choice but to follow.

I think it's time that America realizes that it's just as serious and worthy to have leading manufacturing sectors as it is to have leading technology and professional service sectors.

And congress should stop playing games with millions of jobs that underpin America's challenged middle class.

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