Will We Take the “Mo” Out of Motown?

So Mitt Romney not overcome with sentiment about saving the Big Three automakers, but plenty of others are. I find myself with mixed feelings. At play in  the mix:

1. Nostalgia, always big with me. In fact, I can hardly wait for something to be over so I can start missing it.  I even miss things I was never part of, like saying the mass in Latin–and by the way, how could the Dodgers desert Brooklyn?   I have an emotionally conservative temperament, so the fact that anything has been around for a while gives it bonus points for me. (Yes, I’m aware that slavery, mosquitoes and other bad things have been around for a while.)

2. The Three are part of American history, remnants of a time when  A) we actually made things in America,  and B) we did it better than anyone else. Recall that’s how the “Mo” got in “Motown,” which was a city nickname long before it was a record company.

3. If the car makers go, it’s more than sheet metal and wheels going. The Big Three also represent the high tide of the union movement in America, giving us that iconic image of Joe Lunchbucket supporting a wife and 2.5 kids on a high school education and one nice salary. Adios to all that; in fact,  newer workers at the plants have already given up many of the union-born perks, though I was amazed to hear the other day that they still enjoy health plans with no co-pays and no deductibles. Geez.  When it comes to such perks, I, like many I suspect, feel both proud (it’s nice that working stiffs have a good deal) and envious (hey, where’s my union?).

4. But what about cold, hard economic reality?  The evaporating power of unions (which not even the friendliest Dem administration can reverse) recalls the core meaning of “flat” in Tom Friedman’s The World is Flat. He’s not just writing about globalization, in which barriers of time, space and education that once protected closed markets have fallen, so that the tech guy telling you to unplug your modem and re-install your operating software now lives in  Bangalore, not Boston.   The “flattening” of the world also means the eventual removal of any forces that stand between buyers and sellers, or between management and laborers.

In the old economy, at least in some parts of the country, unions grew up to protect workers and make demands on their behalf, causing wages and benefits to rise. This was a good thing despite the inevitable corruption.  However, in the new economy, in which employers can reach across the globe for workers and “foreign” companies can locate in the U. S., the union model is no longer tenable. The Big Three chieftains, who now have two weeks to come up with some rationale for snagging $25 billion of taxpayer money, know this, but of course they can’t say it  or they’ll offend one of the Dem Party’s staunchest allies.  This adds to the unreality of the Bailout Ballet we’ve been watching.

 As Romney notes, the only way for Detroit to stay competitive with its foreign rivals is to  adopt the same anti-union policies that the foreign automakers live by, paying workers less and giving them less generous benefits.  Right now, there’s about a $2,000 difference between the price of a union-built car and the price of a comparable non-union model. 

Not to get too sentimental, but there’s a lot of American history wrapped up in that  $2,000. It might be called “The American Middle Class Price Differential,” and it’s one of the last remnants of the postwar world that America bestrode like a colossus, a time when we ran the show.  Now the world is flat, and unsentimental consumers can easily bypass the union price bump and buy cheaper  non-union cars, just as we do when we buy a $39 Korean DVD player at Target.  It’s sad and it’s hard to like, but this seems to be the new world we live in.


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