Sunday, September 7, 2008

With A Little Help From My Friends ...

What would you do if I sang out of tune,
Would you stand up and walk out on me?
Lend me your ears and I'll sing you a song
And I'll try not to sing out of key.
Joe Cocker's famous interpretation of this classic at the Woodstock festival has certainly been a source of inspiration for millions of eager listeners. Quite inspiring are also the vast amounts of money Washington has decided to raise in order to bail out major failing players on the US market, especially if you're a major failing player yourself. This is probably what Detroit's Big Three had been thinking all along, and indeed, now they've come out of the closet.

The last line of the article is, in my opinion, the most revealing:
But he added that "our trading partners give us no choice. Every other major auto manufacturing country protects their industry so we may have to do the same."
This ties in perfectly with the song lyrics posted above. He might as well have said:
Well, they may have done some malinvestments, yes, they kept producing gas-guzzlers for an increasingly shrinking market, maybe they didn't care too much about future planning, but everybody makes mistakes, no? You don't want to leave them alone right now, do you? After all, they're uniquely American car manufacturers. Just lend them a few billions and they'll honestly try to get in touch with customers again.
But seriously, he does make a point. Shouldn't we protect our domestic industries when foreigners do the same for their manufacturers? After all, foreigners will be able to export cheap cars, thus undermining our own efforts. Wouldn't it make sense to face "market realities" and fork some money out for a couple of minor subsidies?

First of all, there is no point in having "domestic car producers" if foreign car producers do the job more efficiently. Whether or not this is the case should be decided by customers and not by central bureaucrats. Now one might argue that tax-subsidized foreign car producers are being advantaged since they can make cheaper offers or include more features for the same price or whatever. To this I say, good for the customer. Taxpayers in a far-away land had to give their earnings to allow for such a great bargain, and Americans would only be disadvantaging themselves if they did the same or refused to take the subsidized offer.

Furthermore, subsidies lower the incentive of producers to improve price and quality conditions. Faced with below-market price competition from abroad, domestic car producers would have a huge incentive to implement even the smallest improvements, thus constantly pushing for the most efficient ways of production, the highest gas mileage, the most economical transportation routes and so on. In short, they'd be working for the customer which is what free markets are all about.

Subsidies, to the contrary, would set an incentive to hire more and better lobbying personnel to make sure the next bailout won't be all too troublesome to get. Car quality would be degraded to second rank, in spite of what all those neatly dressed spokesmen will tell you in the next few weeks.

However, there's still one concern left: jobs. Not subsidizing failing companies may result in a temporary unemployment rate hike. But there's no reason to believe that a) no new car producers would fill the gap (think, for example, of Tesla Motors, pretty much pioneers in mass-producing electric cars [thanks to Opponent for pointing me to this]) and b) people wouldn't find employment outside the car industry. Instead of producing cars that don't sell, people would engage in more profitable endeavors and would thus be doing society a much greater favor than by clinging to (at least for the moment) low-demand industries and products.

And for those (including myself, American trucks and SUVs are sure to draw my attention) who fear their "tough-built big block wonder machines" might stop being produced: there's always room for niche markets. If one of the Big Three, for example, decided to specialize on building heavy vehicles, they'd probably have to cut down on their production lines, but might be able to sustain doing "big car business" on a smaller scale, always according to market demand.

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