TPMCafé (Talking Points Memo), December 11, 2008
The Detroit automakers have made many mistaken business decisions that have been important factors contributing to their current crisis. However, they are not responsible for some of the factors that have brought them to the brink of bankruptcy.
Most obviously, they are not responsible for the collapse of the housing bubble and the subsequent loss of more than $15 trillion in housing and stock wealth. This falloff in wealth has sent consumption plummeting. The auto industry has been especially hard hit, with sales falling by more than 30 percent year over year in the last two months.
The Big Three are also not responsible for the broken U.S. health care system. If we paid the same amount for health care as Canada, G.M. would have accumulated an additional $22 billion in profits over the last decade. That would be the savings if we assumed that General Motor's health care expenditures were reduced by roughly 48 percent to be in line with expenses in Canada. Of course, not all the savings in this counterfactual would have gone to profits. Some of it would have gone to workers in the form of higher wages or to consumers in the form of lower car prices.
On the other hand, G.M. is also picking up the tab for many spouses and dependent children. It would not have to pay these health care expenses in a Canadian type system. So the $22 billion figure is probably not a bad first approximation of the additional money that G.M. might have today if the United States had a more efficient health care system.
Even with these additional profits G.M. and the other domestic manufacturers would still face serious problems. They have made some bad choices in betting their future on SUVs and other low-mileage vehicles. They also have lagged foreign manufacturers in producing high quality, reliable cars.
But the real reason that Big Three are on their deathbeds right now is the economic crisis created by the Wall Street crew and their friends in Washington. It will be tragic if the people of the Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio are made to suffer through a depression because of the failed financial dealings of the Wall Street crew.
This situation is made even worse by virtue of the fact that most of the Wall Street executives who are directly responsible for this disaster are still quite wealthy, in large part because of the generosity of Congress and the Bush administration. While they demanded that the auto manufacturers produce plans for returning to profitability in exchange for providing loans, no similar conditions were imposed on Citigroup and the rest of the Wall Street gang.
As the autoworkers at the Big Three look at their last paychecks before an indeterminate period of unemployment, they should think about the portion deducted for income taxes. With this money, they have helped to ensure that Robert Rubin and other Wall Street types continue to enjoy pay packages in the millions or even tens of millions of dollars.
Dean Baker is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. He also has a blog on the American Prospect, "Beat the Press," where he discusses the media's coverage of economic issues.