The Detroit Lions were thrashed, as usual, in their annual Thanksgiving Day football
game, bringing their record for the season to 0-11. This prompted some sports fans
to wonder why the Lions' owners tolerate such consistent failure. But then, the
Lions are owned by the Ford family.
This column is about the automobile industry. But I want to begin it with three
numbers, because they define the environment in which the fate of the Big Three must
The first is $13.84 trillion. That's the estimated value of all the goods and
services produced in the United States last year.
The second is $7.6 trillion. That, according to the Bloomberg News Service, is the
current amount for which taxpayers could be on the hook for the bailouts to date of
financial institutions. It's more than half the value of the gross domestic
The third is $4.6 trillion. That, according to Jim Bianco of Bianco Research, is
the inflation-adjusted cost of World War II. The potential liabilities our
policymakers have imposed upon the taxpayers in the last two months are nearly twice
as much as what we spent in nearly four years fighting the Germans and the Japanese.
Compared to what we've already shelled out to wealthy Wall Street bankers whose
greed and stupidity are chiefly responsible for the mess we're in, the $25-$50
billion the auto makers are seeking now seems a mere pittance. It might even be a
bargain, argued former Michigan senator Spencer Abraham in the New York Times.
"Nearly three million jobs would be lost in the first year if all three companies
closed and their suppliers absorbed the shock, according to the Center for
Automotive Research," Mr. Abraham said. "That would mean tens of billions of
dollars in pension liabilities would be transferred to the Pension Benefit Guarantee
Corporation, the federal insurance fund that protects the pensions of nearly 44
million American workers but already has a $10.7 billion deficit."
So if we're going to bail out Wall Street, why shouldn't we bail out Detroit? There
are two reasons, the lesser of which is that at some point the taxpayer cow is going
to run out of milk.
The more important reason is because a bailout will only postpone bankruptcy, and
raise its ultimate cost. We say we "can't allow" the auto companies to fail. But
that's hubris. The truth is, we can't prevent it.
Soaring gasoline prices in the summer and the stock market crash in the fall have
made their illness acute, but the "Big Three" have been losing money for years. The
chief reason for this is their higher labor costs make their cars about $2,000 more
expensive than comparable foreign models.
General Motors (19 percent) and Toyota (18 percent) have about the same share of the
U.S. car market. But Toyota has enormous efficiency advantages. GM has eight
product lines, Toyota three. GM has 7,000 dealers, Toyota, 1,500. Toyota pays its
workers in the U.S. an average of $48 an hour. GM, Ford and Chrysler pay their
employees an average of $73 an hour. For GM to have a chance to become competitive,
it must cut its product line by at least 50 percent, its dealer network by at least
50 percent, and its labor costs by at least 30 percent.
But any bailout that's acceptable to the United Auto Workers and thus to the
Democrats in Congress will be designed to avoid the pain such cutbacks would
The current environment for auto sales is toxic, and is likely to remain so for at
least a year. This means that ever more and ever larger subsidies will be required
to keep the doors of the Big Three open. Eventually taxpayers will run out of
patience, or milk. To avoid discomfort now, we court catastrophe a short distance
down the road.
If the Big Three sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection now, one strong company
could emerge from the wreckage. Surely the United States would be better served by
having one healthy car company instead of three terminally ill ones. But good
sense, alas, rarely makes political sense.