Bailout or Bust: How to Save the Big Three From Themselves
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The American automobile industry occupies a near-mythic status in the nation's cultural and economic imagination. President-elect Barack Obama echoes the sentiments of many when he says that Detroit is "the backbone of American manufacturing." If it is -- Detroit's economic importance is great but now occupies a lesser role than it did before it entered a slow-but-steady decline in the 1970s -- then it suffers from acute and advanced damage that will require major surgery. And like any major surgery, treating Detroit's malaise will be a complicated affair with no assurance of success. However, doing nothing may be worse, especially for the state of Michigan.
According to Bureau of Labor Statistics' figures for September 2008, Michigan's labor force was about 4.9 million, with about 4.5 million holding jobs. That's a significant decline from September 2007, when the labor force numbered just over 5 million, with 4.6 million employed. The state lost roughly 149,000 jobs in the period and saw unemployment rise from 7.3 percent to 8.7 percent, which is 2.2 points higher than the national average. The rate would have been even higher if people hadn't dropped out of the labor force altogether.
The Big Three trimmed thousands of jobs in the state during that period, which no doubt triggered additional job cuts among automotive subcontractors and suppliers, various retailers, and even homebuilders and home improvement firms. These job losses keep politicians, business leaders and citizens up late at night. As Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm recently quipped: "Forget 'Drill, baby, drill.' Here it's 'Jobs, baby, jobs.'"
All told, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler employ somewhere around 500,000 people, many of them outside Michigan. However, these figures underestimate the total employment impact, since at least 3 million Americans rely on the U.S. auto industry for their jobs, with the highest concentration in and around Michigan. The Center for Automotive Research calculates much higher estimates: about 7 million jobs directly and indirectly tied to the industry, with 2.5 million hanging in the balance in the event of a 50 percent contraction in output from the Big Three.
This brings us to a simple cost-benefit analysis: $25 billion in loans for the industry that will save millions of jobs and about $150 billion in economic activity in 2009 alone. So it's a no-brainer, right? Well, not exactly.
There is no guarantee that throwing money at Detroit will save these companies and the network of jobs that they sustain. Even if the companies do survive, we can almost certainly anticipate steep job losses anyway. Job losses will be increased if GM and Chrysler's parent company, Cerberus Capital Management, merge. But will cutting jobs now spare jobs in the long run? That question dominates all others in the conversation.
Focusing on jobs moves us from an argument about nostalgia for American manufacturing prowess and bailouts of large, and largely incompetent, firms to the more meaningful conversation about livelihoods. Doing so takes us beyond purely economic analysis, since the value of a job exceeds its economic value to individuals, their families and their communities. Livelihood includes paying for basics like food and shelter, but also touches upon important, if hard to measure, assets like one's sense of identity and the health of neighborhoods and towns.
Applying a cold, hard economic calculus would probably throw cold water on the idea of a bailout for Detroit. First, the companies may well be beyond hope. They have been slow to change, they repeat the same mistakes and they turn out products that too often do not compete successfully with imports. Quality, safety, durability and customer satisfaction numbers remain spotty. Moreover, the so-called "bridge" funding that Detroit hopes to receive may be a bridge to nowhere: It will take years to work off the debts that weigh down consumers and governments, which will constrain spending for several quarters, if not years.