America as Used Car Dealer
Way back in the fifties Dwight Eisenhower sold America on the need for an Interstate Highway System as a defense measure. There actually were defense guys testifying before Congress and writing articles about how all those miles of straight paved roads could keep supply lines intact and serve as emergency landing strips for our airplanes should the Soviets carry out a surprise nuclear attack on the United States. Little did we know at the time that the USSR only had limited capacity to actually deliver its newly acquired nuclear weapons.
Of course, the Interstate Highways had a profound effect on America’s culture and its economy. On the one end, it spawned Kerouac, Travels with Charley, and Route 66. On the other side, it gave the GI generation the opportunity to move to the suburbs where the post World War 2 promises of a home, a car, and college educations for every family appeared to be a very achievable reality. You could build such things cheaply in the west. Suddenly, you could throw all your possessions in your car, make the trip in three days on twenty cent a gallon gasoline, buy a house for eight thousand dollars, and commute to your job, your shopping mall, and all the suburban activities that would make your child’s life safer and saner than yours had been.
A few years later, Eisenhower warned us about the dangers of the military-industrial complex, but the lifestyle so many of us identify as our American birthright was made in part possible by a socialist program, the interstate highway system.
Fast forward fifty five years or so and suddenly American car makers are in serious trouble. The American taxpayer put an infrastructure in place for them, but let’s put it simply, “Asia and Europe build better cars”. In the last fifteen years, Korea got into the act and now India has a chance to be the world’s producer of City Cars. Some blame UAW, claiming that salaries got out of control, but I’m not sure that’s true. Has anyone ever seriously looked at Mercedes salaries or the salaries of American Toyota workers?
I may be one of the few people saying this, but has anyone taken a good look at the world’s current successful car manufacturers. Ten years ago, I spent a fair amount of my time looking at school to career programs. Hedrick Smith did a documentary on how they do it in Germany. There late teenagers get government-sponsored educational programs to learn to work for Mercedew/VW etc. Where did the Toyota Prius come from? Toyota takes pains to claim that they developed the Pruis on their own, but the truth is that government research helped them develop the battery and the hybrid drive system. The truth is that the most successful car makers in the world either got there or are in some sort of partnership with their governments.
Has anyone considered the possibility that America’s car makers are failing because the partnership faded away? If you’ve read David Halberstam’s book the Reckoning, you’re probably well aware that the Japanese auto industry was not the result of companies flourishing in a pure free market. The Japanese government went into serious partnership with those companies to make them internationally competitive. One thing the workers got in exchange was long term job security. Bottom line, those who insist that the only answers in this crisis must be completely-rooted in the free market really don’t know a whole lot about the history of the automobile or the role that the highways, the oil infrastructure, government research and development, and even war have played in making the world’s car industry possible.
One other point, does it occur to anyone that there’s another serious consequence to letting domestic auto manufacturers fail on their own? Not only do we lose jobs, but we also lose the capacity to build engines for tanks, trucks, and other vehicles that make us a world military power. Say we really did get in a war with China? Do we want to have to get our parts from them for our tanks? Yeah, I know that might keep us out of wars in the future if we had a truly global economy, but I am a little surprised that the most pro-defense folk out there are all screaming “free market” and maybe not so subtly making our troops a little less safe in the process. While there are limits to American military power, the last time I checked the US won World War 2 at least partly because it could produce more stuff than its enemies. Do we really want to give up that capacity?
So, I’m not talking about a partnership that’s good for GM, I’m talking about one that’s built around making America a better place. Yes, we impose real CAFÉ and environmental standards on passenger vehicles over the next five years. We also make sure that auto-work stays as a source of middle-class jobs. Finally, we talk about infrastructure at a serious level. Is the single family vehicle really the best way to go or is a mass transit hub and spoke system built around shareable rather than single owner vehicles more sensible in the long run? The information highway supposedly succeeded the interstate highway as the model for America’s future, but how might we combine the two in the next few years?
Labels: car bailout as defense measure