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Nationalize GM -- Or At Least Think About It

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With the U.S. government offering trillions of dollars in supports for the financial sector, it is startling to witness the casual way in which many policy makers and opinion leaders suggest the U.S. auto companies should be allowed to go bankrupt.

In considerable part, this attitude reflects an anti-union and anti-blue collar animus. It also reflects the diminished economic power of what was formerly known as the Big Three (General Motors, Ford, Chrysler).

The stakes are too high for policy to be influenced by misinformation and ideological bias. The auto companies need to be saved, on terms that protect workers and communities, and advance public objectives. Congress and the country should be debating those terms, not dithering with unrealistic discussions of bankruptcy or demands to reduce already shrunken union wages and benefits.

How can we look at these issues sensibly?

First, one must note the awesome disparity in treatment for the auto industry and Wall Street. Government agencies have thrown literally trillions of dollars at the financial sector, with very light conditions, and virtually no discussion of industry salary structures (aside from limited restraints on top executive compensation). By contrast, there has been endless fulmination about supposedly excessively generous wages for unionized auto workers (see here, here, here and a critique here), and much more severe financial and oversight conditions proposed for an industry bailout.

Second, the costs of inaction to support the auto industry dwarf the cost of a bailout -- even if much more than the requested $25 billion is needed. The industrial Midwest has already been hollowed out by deindustrialization. Auto industry bankruptcy would be a crushing blow. A complete collapse of the U.S. auto companies would cost 3 million jobs -- about 240,000 employees of the companies, a million supplier jobs, and 1.7 million jobs lost from the overall economic effect -- according to the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research. In this scenario, the federal government would lose $60 billion in tax revenues and other costs in the first year alone. Even assuming something less than a complete collapse, costs would be devastating. And, as economist Thomas Palley has noted, industry bankruptcies would dramatically worsen the financial crisis.

Third, the idea that United Auto Worker members are receiving exorbitant wages putting the U.S. auto companies at competitive disadvantage is a lie.

In general, the Japanese plants in the United States ("transplants") pay wages comparable to those at unionized U.S. facilities. This has been central to their anti-union strategy. In some recent years, workers at the transplants have actually made more than their counterparts at the Big Three, thanks to profit-sharing deals.

The Big Three employers do have nontrivial healthcare and pension "legacy" costs for retirees, and this is the main employee-related difference in cost structure (the other is more generous healthcare for current Big Three workers).

It is true that, historically, auto industry jobs have paid well. Going forward, however, this will be less and less true. The concessionary UAW 2007 contracts call for many new hires to start at $14 an hour, and the UAW is preparing to offer even further concessions.

Fourth, manufacturing wages and salaries don't contribute much to the cost of a car. Total labor costs are less than 10 percent of list price. If UAW workers donated their time and all savings were passed on to consumers, it would only lower the cost of a car by $2,400.

Fifth, although the Big Three have done just about everything possible over the last decades to undermine their strength -- including making disastrous long-term product mix choices, and fighting against fuel efficiency standards -- but the proximate cause of their desperate status is the economic crisis. It is not true, as has been frequently suggested, that the Japanese companies are doing just fine. Overall auto sales in the United States have fallen by more than a third in just a year, and Toyota, Honda and Nissan have seen drops of 27 percent, 22 percent and 35 percent. It is true that the Japanese companies have a stronger base and are better prepared to weather the storm. But the storm is pouring rain on everyone.

Sixth, bankruptcy is no answer for fixing what ails the industry. It is almost certainly true, as the industry argues, that consumers will refuse, or at least be very reluctant, to buy cars from a company in or recently emerged from bankruptcy. Would you?

But at least as important for those who want to see the industry aggressively adopt fuel efficient and zero carbon emission technologies is this: Bankruptcy would limit the automakers' flexibility, and make it much harder for them to make expensive, long-term investment decisions. This is particularly true while oil prices are depressed. Things were different six months ago (and likely will be again in the not-distant future), but right now the market signals are wrong for investments in energy efficiency.

Focusing on the imperative to rescue the industry, there are two rational policy responses.

One is to give the industry loans and other supports, with tight conditions. Under consideration now in Congress is an oversight structure that would give the government authority to veto any investment over $25 million. In contrast to the free hand given to Wall Street, this would help ensure government funds are not diverted into inappropriate purposes. The existing proposal would also require the government be paid back with interest, and/or the right to benefit from subsequent improvements in company share value.

But more should be done. There should be requirements that the bailout beneficiaries invest in energy efficiency and safety technologies, with demands that they do much more than required by existing law. To give them a level playing field, these improved standards should be adopted as law, and required of all auto companies. And protections should be built in to protect workers' interests -- a key objective should be to preserve good-paying jobs, not drive everyone to Wal-Mart wages.

But more should be done. There should be requirements that the bailout beneficiaries invest in energy efficiency and safety technologies, with demands that they do much more than required by existing law. To give them a level playing field, these improved standards should also be adopted as law, and required of all auto companies. And protections should be built in to protect workers' interests.

The second rational policy approach is simply to nationalize the companies. General Motors now has a market capitalization of $2.8 billion. Ford's market value is $6.1 billion. These are relatively small amounts compared to the $25 billion the companies are requesting -- and they are likely to come back for more later.

The government has certain advantages over the companies. It can access capital more cheaply, for example.

The biggest advantage of buying the companies is that it would enable the public to exert control over the companies commensurate with its investment. There would be no need to negotiate with management, or carefully monitor managerial actions, to review 9-point plans for viability, or create incentives to have them invest in fuel-efficient technology. It would make it possible to undertake long-term, transformative investments in R&D and new transportation technologies, irrespective of today's oil price.

It is true that nationalizing the companies implies a commitment to support them despite unknown future challenges. But a commitment of $25 billion itself implies a readiness to do more if necessary, as it likely will be.

On the other hand, nationalizing the companies would entail many complications and difficulties, including managing relations with workers and plants around the world, fair dealing with suppliers and workers at suppliers, and the inherent complexity of running multinational auto companies.

Is a true nationalization the best option? Maybe, maybe not.

But the public would be a lot better off if there could be a serious discussion of the reasonable policy choices, and a lot less breath wasted on overt and disguised attacks on unionized blue-collar workers.