Economy

Michael Moore's Advice for the Auto Industry Is Far Too Cavalier for Such a Serious Issue

Moore likes to complain about Detroit's 'gas-guzzling, inferior products,' but he's ignoring the great achievements of millions of its auto workers.

This is a response to Michael Moore's essay, published yesterday on AlterNet, "Save the Auto Industry and Kick Its CEOs to the Curb."

Obviously, we were all curious to see how Michael Moore would weigh in on the Big Three’s trip to Washington. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at the loose, rambling and fairly thoughtless way he has addressed the issue. He’s never really been a details kind of guy. But it is disappointing, if only because it comes at such a serious and critical time.

First of all, while the Big Three are actually quite different from one another, they do share a few important things:

(1) They are unionized, which is why the Republicans are lined up against them (remember the UAW? The guys who helped elect Obama? Thanks Ohio! Thanks Michigan!).

(2) They share a lot of suppliers (we’ll get back to that).

(3) They are stuck in one enormous credit crunch that was absolutely none of their making -- your aunt who’s been flipping condos in Boca is far more responsible than they are.

Over the last few years, these three companies have risen to meet some incredible challenges. But instead of pointing any of those victories out, we get Moore complaining about "big, gas-guzzling, inferior products."

And of course the only problem with that is that it isn’t true.

Right now, Chevy offers more models than Toyota or Honda with mileage of 30 mpg or better. This year, Consumer Reports rated Ford’s quality on par with Toyota and Honda. Last week, it was announced that Ford has more vehicles with five-star safety ratings than any other manufacturer. And while Moore paints a picture of the domestics as terminal losers, the vehicle with the biggest increase in sales last month was actually the Chevy Malibu (the vehicle with the biggest decrease in sales was the Toyota Prius.)

But still, they’re an easy target for Moore. The biggest problem facing the Big Three is that they’re like the beautiful girl in the teen movie who’s hidden behind the glasses and the thick braces. Nobody looks at them. Despite their many successes, most of us stopped shopping American, even considering American, a long time ago. You may love the fact that the UAW helped elect Obama (Thanks again Michigan! We love you Ohio!) but chances are you're not supporting those workers when you shop for cars. And if you happen to see a "Country First" bumper sticker while driving around out there, odds are it's on an import.

You can complain about the fact that the domestics make SUVs and trucks, but the fact is Toyota would much rather sell a high-profit Tundra truck than a Prius any day of the week -- if you don’t believe me, just look at the hundreds of millions of dollars Toyota spends marketing Tundra versus what it spends on Prius. In fact, it takes the profits from the Prius and uses that money to sell more tundra-melting Tundras. And, guess what, its trucks have a lower mpg rating than Ford’s.

We can say we don't want to our government to lend money to the Big Three because they sell big vehicles, but that’s a little hypocritical since that same government was once perfectly happy to take in tax revenue on the sale of those same big vehicles.  And we can say they don't deserve a $34 billion loan, yet Wall Street gets $700 billion of our money to toss around like a bunch of blind, drunk monkeys.

There are a lot of Monday morning CEOs out there right now. There’s the hypocritical Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., who doesn’t believe in government subsidies for companies and yet whose home state offered Daimler AG [maker of the Mercedes-Benz] $253 million to move there (sounds like a subsidy to me!). And now there’s Moore saying the government should solve the problem by just, oh, buying GM. Really? That’s his answer? How many people do you think would buy a car made by the government? Seriously.

The manufacturing base of our country is as complex as AIG, Fannie Mae and the Lehman Brothers all put together. For instance -- to go back to the subject of suppliers for a moment -- if GM goes bankrupt, many of those suppliers will go under as well. Then the other companies those suppliers work with, companies like Nissan, Toyota, etc., will see their costs rise dramatically, as well. So then there’s a good chance they will stop manufacturing in the United States. After all, they’re mostly here for political reasons anyway. More jobs lost. More foreclosures, etc., ad nauseam.

Don’t get me wrong, despite his half-baked notions, I can’t argue with Moore’s ultimate goal. Clearly, for many reasons, we need to adjust our transportation infrastructure. We can and should develop policies that lessen our dependency on fossil fuels while still protecting our manufacturing base. I, for one, am hopeful our new president will attempt to do so soon after taking office.

But Michael Moore has hundreds of thousands of people listening to him. He is a man with an audience. So why can’t he mention all the blue-collar line workers who have taken their game to a higher level?  Why doesn’t he acknowledge the engineers who have made such enormous strides forward? Come to think of it, I didn’t hear anybody say anything about them this week. It doesn’t seem like too much to point out, thank or even celebrate the working men and women who have made the cars we travel in safer, smarter and more reliable.

Right now, at this very moment, we need to step up and protect the jobs of millions of workers, those very real, very hard-working people whose families and communities are on the brink.

After all, that’s why we have a government, to help us through times of crisis.

And this is a crucial moment.

This is no time to screw around.

Toby Barlow is a writer who lives in downtown Detroit. His critically acclaimed novel, "Sharp Teeth," is currently available from Random House in the U.K., HarperCollins in the U.S.
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