The administration didn’t save the auto industry. The stronger case is that it damaged the auto industry along with several important institutions vital to capitalism’s proper functioning. However, it should be granted that President Obama’s commandeering of GM’s and Chrysler’s bankruptcy process saved jobs at those companies and elsewhere in their supply chains (and provided an opportunity to dole out spoils for politically favored interests). How many jobs were saved is impossible to determine because it’s not clear what would have happened to GM’s and Chrysler’s assets had a normal, non-political bankruptcy process been allowed to unfold.
Yes, jobs were saved for the time being in Michigan, Ohio, and a few other industrial states in the Midwest. That is what can be seen. And politicians are hardwired to tout the benefits—and only the benefits—of their policies.
But an informed citizenry should insist on a proper accounting of the costs of those policies, as well—not just the losses put on the taxpayers’ tab (right now taxpayers’ “investment” in GM is $27 billion, but the public’s 500 million shares of GM stock is worth only $10 billion), but the unseen costs.
Sure some jobs were preserved in some locations, but what about the less visible consequences and ripple effects? What isn’t so easily seen, but is every bit as important to assessing the auto interventions is the effects on the other auto companies and their workers (i.e., the majority of the U.S. auto industry). Will the public remember or know enough to attribute layoffs of American workers at Ford or Toyota or Kia during the next downturn in auto demand to the fact that a necessary reckoning on the supply side was precluded by the interventions of 2009?
The auto industry is plagued with overcapacity, which is a problem that demands a thinning of the herd. GM and Chrysler, through their own relatively poor decisions with respect to labor relations, product offerings, and quality management were failing by the market’s judgment and were the rightful candidates to be thinned. But that process was forestalled. In 2013, auto workers in Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Indiana, and even Michigan and Ohio may lose their jobs because GM and Chrysler workers’ jobs were spared in 2009.