President-elect Barack Obama has not even taken office yet, and already the entire world seems to be celebrating the death of the last vestiges of capitalism. With the Democrats in control of both the executive and legislative branches of government, calls for a “new New Deal” are as commonplace today as the expression “it’s a free country” once was (you don’t seem to hear that much anymore. I wonder why?). It is not as if the “Change” Obama proposes to bring will be that radical. The United States has not practiced free market capitalism since at least before the last Great Depression, despite the ludicrous claims that capitalism is to blame for the next one. However, Obama will have to come up with something original if he is to leave an imprint upon history comparable to that of the original New Dealer. Not only did FDR turn the Hoover-created depression into the ten-year Great Depression, he has now actually reached from beyond the grave to take down the world’s largest automaker. Even apocryphal stories of the holy Obama walking on water pale in comparison to that.
It is nothing less than astounding that GM can fail so spectacularly as a direct consequence of the policies of the first FDR, while the entire world not only ignores the fact that the New Deal caused it, but actually demands another New Deal as the solution. Not even O. Henry gave us irony like this.
There is actually very little debate about what has caused the destruction of the American auto industry. Occasionally, a weak attempt is made to imply that the Big Three should not have concentrated on trucks and SUV’s while foreign competitors were making more energy-efficient vehicles. However, it is very easily demonstrated that the U.S. automakers had no choice but to concentrate on vehicles that had the necessary margins to cover their huge labor costs, both for current and retired workers. Decades of concessions to powerful labor unions have driven their costs so high that they are simply unable to make an automobile that competes with foreign imports.
There are those that argue that “unregulated capitalism” caused American manufacturing jobs to migrate overseas, where manufacturing labor was cheaper. However, this fallacy refutes itself. If “market forces” truly were in play, how did U.S. labor costs get so high? Did “greedy capitalists” simply abandon their profit ambitions and decide to pay their employees more than they could afford to? Surely, this would have required not merely irresponsibility but utter foolishness from the same crowd that MADE GM the largest automaker in the world. What caused this decades-long failure of basic business sense?
Of course, everyone knows the answers to these questions, but want to pretend that they don’t. The reason that manufacturers, especially the automakers, continually promised labor unions more than they could afford to pay was because government FORCED them to do so. It really is that simple. Under the euphemism “collective bargaining,” the government made it illegal for a manufacturer to refuse a demand from a union. An illusion of choice was sustained by merely requiring the employer to “make a reasonable counter-offer,” but the courts were there to see that “reasonable” meant that if the union asked for the moon and the stars, the employer would have to at least agree to a few planets. In the end, the employer could not choose freely as far as what to pay their employees or what benefits to offer. Without free choices, market forces are suspended.
To make this as plain as it can possibly made, this game is played like this: The union demands compensation beyond what the business model will support. The employer replies that they are unable to agree if they wish to stay in business. The government says, “Just give it to them or we’ll shoot.” Another “victory for the workers,” is won and the inevitable end draws nearer.
The entire union concession/cost escalation dynamic goes back to the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and other New Deal legislation. It was these fundamental departures from capitalism that sowed the seeds of the eventual destruction of American manufacturing. What is honestly horrifying is that Americans can observe this government coercion of industry and seriously refer to it as “unregulated capitalism,” or to the series of concessions made by manufacturers at gunpoint as “market forces.” We are truly through the looking glass where a bull is stumbling through the china shop and the storekeeper is reprimanding the broken glass.
While it might seem unfair to blame a man that has been dead for over six decades for the failure of a company in 2008, one must consider the dominance that America enjoyed in the manufacturing sector to begin with. At one time, American manufacturers flooded the world with high-quality, low-cost goods, while still paying wages many times higher than their competitors overseas. There was no sector where America was more dominant than automobile manufacturing, an industry that America literally invented. It would not be brought to bankruptcy overnight. Year after year, decade after decade, the companies grew a little less profitable as government forced them to raise their labor costs IN OPPOSITION to market forces. It was not until decades later that those costs rose beyond the point where the companies could remain competitive.
However, the length of time it took for the disease to run its course does not change the nature of the virus that caused it. Indeed, the same reasoning could be applied not only to the entire manufacturing sector, but to other sectors of the American economy as well. The collapse we are experiencing is the result of an entire economy that has been rendered profoundly unproductive by systemic problems that all relate to government intervention into markets. We have still not found a cure for cancer or the New Deal. To be fair, the poisons we use to try to kill cancer before the they kill the patient are far less deadly and have a much higher rate of success than the medicine we are about to apply to our current economic crisis. The survival rates for many cancers continually improve. The survival rate for American businesses might not be significant enough to measure.
So, Obama will have to be creative to achieve staying power comparable to FDR’s. While Obama’s stated economic policies are terribly destructive, there is not much left of the American productive structure to destroy. More than likely, his interventionist and redistributive policies will merely apply the coup de grace to an economy that at this point merely retains the superficial façade of its former capitalist glory. In order to truly emerge from the shadow of the Ghost of FDR, Obama will have to find a completely new, original way to rend the fabric of our once-free society. One can only dread what that might be.