Detroit has become an urban wilderness. Only a few miles from the downtown core of the Motor City can be found once vibrant neighborhoods that are now devoid of human life. Only abandoned homes remain, extinguished of their occupants by a tidal wave of foreclosures. Recently, the local and even national media have reported on a phenomenon unique in metropolitan America; animals that had not inhabited Detroit for decades, including industrious beavers, were now reclaiming their previous habitat, as more and more areas of urban Detroit have been transformed into pastoral land. No better metaphor can exist to point out what has happened to the heart of America’s once mighty automobile industry.
As the Global Economic Crisis destroys worldwide consumer demand for automobiles, two of America’s three remaining domestic carmakers, General Motors and Chrysler, look to President Barack Obama for salvation. They, however, are not alone. The financial and banking system are first in line, while states and cities starved of tax revenues are also clamoring for help from the Obama administration. No doubt President Obama has many burdens weighing on him as he seeks to provide leadership for a national and global economy in tatters. Obama did not cause the decline of the U.S. automobile industry, and no doubt he is trying to do his best in formulating policy regarding Detroit and well as the many other ailing sectors of the U.S. economy. However, the recent decisions regarding G.M. and Chrysler that Barack Obama has made will not, in my view, do much to reverse the dismal fate that seems irreversible for the once proud car builders of Detroit.
The perspective from the White House appears to be that the two domestic auto manufacturers are in dire straits because they have not formulated a business plan that is viable in current market conditions. They have therefore, in effect, been sent an ultimatum. Chrysler is being told to merge with the Italian automaker, Fiat, while G.M. was compelled to fire its CEO, and must “restructure” radically within two months, or face bankruptcy. Washington will only provide funding for the duration of the ultimatum, with further support only available if the expectations of the Obama administration are met in full.
With respect to Chrysler, the attempt at a shotgun marriage with Fiat is just another failed automotive merger in the making. The record of foreign carmakers buying large or controlling interests in American auto companies has been universally disastrous. One need only look to Chrysler’s relatively recent merger with Mercedes-Benz, at which time the joint company was known as Daimler-Chrysler. Prior to that catastrophic union, which Mercedes-Benz management will forever regret, there was the purchase of American Motors by Renault, the French auto giant. The end result of that merger was the extinction of AMC, with its remnants bought by Chrysler. It should also be pointed out that Fiat abandoned the American car market decades ago, so it is totally unfamiliar with the dynamics of the U.S. auto marketplace.
General Motors is a much larger carmaker, with a global presence and vast overhead. Its very size defines the essence of the problem being faced not only by G.M. but also by other global car builders, including Toyota, Nissan and Ford. Currently the world has the manufacturing capacity to assemble more than 90 million automobiles a year. However, the Global Economic Crisis has created a vortex of demand destruction in the car business, reducing global demand to around 50 million units. The overhead for maintaining this complex, global manufacturing infrastructure is staggering, and can only generate profits if sales match production capacity. With worldwide sales reduced to 50 million cars, no major car company can make money.
The only solution for preserving General Motors is to provide sufficient demand for its manufacturing capacity. This demand need not be restricted to cars; during World War II Detroit became the arsenal of democracy, as its assembly lines retooled to build the weaponry that helped defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. However, in 2009, political leadership appears to lack the imagination to see the potential of harnessing the productive capacity of the auto manufacturers in other directions that can facilitate global economic development and recovery. What we are left with are ultimatums that provide only two possibilities: bankruptcy now, or becoming “leaner” with the future possibility of insolvency still hanging like a sword of Damocles.
I do not think the Obama plan for preserving a domestic U.S. auto industry, as presently conceived, will work. At most, it may preserve fragments and echoes of what was once the mightiest industrial productive capacity on the planet. Unlike the Great Depression of the 1930s, in which industrial giants such as G.M. and Chrysler did survive and eventually prosper, the Global Economic Crisis is devouring what were once seen as the pinnacles of economic and industrial might. If G.M. and Chrysler are in fact doomed, along with much of what remains of America’s industrial capacity, this will be largely due to a policy decision that establishes the financial sector as the center of gravity for the U.S. economy, reflecting the vastly more significant taxpayer dollars that have been allocated to that sector, with far fewer strings than are being attached to the paltry aid given to Detroit.
How is it possible for the U.S. to rebuild its economy if the industrial sector, epitomized by companies such as General Motors and Chrysler, is largely sacrificed on the altar of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Bank of America and their ilk?