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Government Motors?

William Anderson
Foundation for Economic Education
April 2, 2009

It is fitting that this column is being published near April Fools’ Day, for the government is playing a hoax on Americans in basically nationalizing General Motors (now “Government Motors”) and Chrysler. For Chrysler this is the second bailout in a generation; the company should have been sleeping with the fishes long ago.

For all the tough talk about responsibility, the Barack Obama administration should not go into the automobile business (or the banking business, or the insurance business, or the mortgage business). We can be assured that the automobile industry in this country will be thoroughly politicized, the last thing the American economy needs now.

Beyond the consternation about the “loss of jobs,” we need to understand why GM and Chrysler are in their present fixes and why permitting them to experience bankruptcy – real bankruptcy – actually will save jobs. Second, we have to point out why saving these companies through government directives actually will damage the U.S. economy and make things worse, and potentially much worse.

While GM and Chrysler are at death’s door, we cannot say that for every automaker. Honda, Nissan, Toyota, and other companies with operations in the USA are doing fine, and while times are hard everywhere, they are not candidates for the undertaker.

Government critics of GM and Chrysler claim that they did not build the right kinds of cars: the small, fuel-efficient vehicles that people on the left want to force us to buy (when they are not trying to force us to take public transportation). The reason GM did not build those cars was that they could not make them profitably thanks to their labor contracts, which guarantee the highest industrial wages paid anywhere. (And that includes pay given to people who don’t work at all, per the United Autoworkers contracts.)

Unfortunately, GM and Chrysler (and Ford to a lesser extent) could not compete with other auto manufacturers when gasoline prices skyrocketed, which were brought about in large part because of concern about the strength of the rapidly inflating U.S. dollar. Furthermore, because of their bloated labor contracts, the Little Three (formerly the Big Three) had fewer profits squeezed out of automobile sales, which is a nice way of saying they were paying more for production than their foreign competitors. Start multiplying this times the numbers of cars sold and a definite pattern arises: Domestic companies were uncompetitive because they and their unions chose a higher cost structure.

One of the enduring myths in economics is that the higher the cost, the greater the wealth created. People still insist that Henry Ford “created the American middle class” when he doubled the pay of his autoworkers from $2.50 to $5 a day. That is nonsense. Higher costs do not create more wealth. Increased productivity does. On the other hand, higher costs imposed through government or coercive union contracts destroy wealth. The infamous UAW contracts required that the Little Three use more resources than were necessary to build cars and trucks, which meant those resources couldn’t be employed at their highest-valued uses, making everyone else poorer.

Even though the government is talking responsibility and even bankruptcy, nonetheless the market already has spoken on GM and Chrysler. At present the sum of the parts is greater than the value of the whole, which means these companies would be worth more by having their physical assets sold in a bankruptcy proceeding than kept together by government fiat.

By artificially keeping GM and Chrysler alive, the government not only is wasting scarce resources and forcing lower-income Americans to create “make-work” for higher-income people, it is also placing a hardship on those U.S. subsidiaries of foreign auto companies. Given the realities of American politics, I can imagine that sooner or later the government will take aim at those subsidiaries in hopes it can damage them in order to protect its “investment” in GM and Chrysler. Stay tuned.

William Anderson is an associate professor of economics at Frostburg State University. He received a doctorate in economics from Auburn University, and is an adjunct scholar with the Mises Institute and the Mackinac Center. He has written for The Freeman since 1981, and also has had articles in Reason Magazine, Forbes On-line, The Free Market, and a number of refereed journals. He is on the editorial board of The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, the Journal of International Business Disciplines, and the Journal of Economic, Social, and Political Studies.

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