In his new book, "The Great Inflation and Its Aftermath," Newsweek and Washington Post columnist Robert Samuelson recalls that in 1950, when GM signed a five-year contract with the UAW, Fortune magazine celebrated this as the "Treaty of Detroit." Under "pattern bargaining," Ford and Chrysler struck similar bargains, thereby eliminating competition in labor costs. In 1950, the Big Three's share of America's domestic auto market was about 95 percent, Japan's and Germany's war-smashed economies were feeble, and the VW Beetle was a barely discernible harbinger of a huge threat. The Big Three and the UAW probably did not doubt the immortality of their oligopoly.
Six decades later, a "rescue" without bankruptcy will make those four entities wards of government. Doing so would make the five entities (including Washington) collaborators in unfair competition with America's thriving automobile industry that employs 113,000 Americans making vehicles containing many American-made components, but with foreign, mostly Japanese, nameplates. As Detroit continues to shrink, many American jobs "lost" will be regained in this industry, and its American suppliers, as Americans continue to buy cars. (Disclosure: Mrs. Will, who drives a GM product, is a public relations consultant for the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association.)
The Economist reports that as recently as 2005, Americans bought more cars than did China, India, Russia and Brazil, combined. This year those four will buy more than Americans buy, but that is, potentially, good news for Detroit. In America's saturated market, there is almost one car for every person of driving age; in China there are three for every 100, and fewer than that in India. The Economist reports that in the next 40 years, the world's automobile fleet will surge from 700 million to 3 billion. After being restructured through bankruptcy, the Detroit Two, or One, might flourish. Let's find out. The ruinous alternative is to squander, in a doomed attempt to "save jobs," more scores of billions of scarce capital that will then be unavailable for job-creating investments in rising industries.