In Praise of the US Auto Industry
| Peter Klein |
The proposed bailout of GM, Ford, and Chrysler overlooks an important fact. The US has one of the most vibrant, dynamic, and efficient automobile industries in the world. It produces several million cars, trucks, and SUVs per year, employing (in 2006) 402,800 Americans at an average salary of $63,358. That’s vehicle assembly alone; the rest of the supply chain employs even more people and generates more income. It’s an industry to be proud of. Its products are among the best in the world. Their names are Toyota, Honda, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes, Hyundai, Mazda, Mitsubishi, and Subaru.
Oh, yes, there’s also a legacy industry, based in Detroit, but it’s rapidly, and thankfully, going the way of the horse-and-buggy business.
I pulled these numbers from Matthew Slaughter’s fine piece in yesterday’s WSJ, “An Auto Bailout Would Be Terrible for Free Trade,” which points out that the US is one of the the world’s largest recipient of Foreign Direct Investment and that an auto industry bailout would surely reduce the flow of FDI, at the expense of the US economy. “Ironically, proponents of a bailout say saving Detroit is necessary to protect the U.S. manufacturing base. But too many such bailouts could erode the number of manufacturers willing to invest here.” Bailouts may also spur retaliatory actions by governments in US export markets, doing further damage to free trade. In short, what the Big Three and their supporters want is the most crass form of protectionism, a blunt demand that US taxpayers, consumers, and producers fork over the cash, now and in the future, to prop up an inefficient, failing industry.
NB: In 2001 I was part of a delegation of US officials visiting Singapore in advance of negotiations over a possible bilateral free trade agreement. The issue was Singapore’s Government-Linked Enterprises (GLCs), nominally private firms partially owned by the Singaporean government. Did these links constitute a trade barrier, putting US firms doing business in Singapore at a competitive disadvantage? We interviewed US executives based in Singapore and learned that the government did not seem to offer the GLCs special favors in input or output markets (though they did benefit from a lower cost of capital). Anyway, as I read Slaughter’s piece I imagined myself as a Singaporean official visiting the US, interviewing foreign executives in the financial-services and, perhaps, automobile industries, asking if they thought US companies got special government protection. To ask this question is to answer it.