Dec 17 2008
It's been driving me nuts, this whole bailout debate. My frustrations are definitely appartent to my students, who have had to put up with my occasional rants about the insanity of the whole affair since the issue came to the media forefront over a month ago. Here are some of the issues that just don't add up from the perspective of a high school economics teacher:
The three companies asking for a bridge-loan supposedly want the money so that hundreds of thousands (some reports say as many as 2.6 million) jobs can be saved. But how could Ford, Chrystler and GM possibly maintain their labor force in a time of a recession when nobody is buying new cars in the first place? In the parlance of AP or IB Economics, automobiles are normal goods, ones for which demand falls as incomes fall. By definition, a recession in the United States means falling incomes. A government loan may allow the Big Three to keep making cars for the time being, but WHY WOULD THEY KEEP MAKING CARS when falling incomes point to falling demand in the immediate future? Making cars that nobody will buy represents a gross misallocation of the nation's productive resources, not to mention taxpayers' money. What is required of these industries is precisely what the government loan will prevent them from doing, DOWNSIZING, meaning the shrinking of their labor force as well as the number of plants in operation.
The US recession can not be avoided by allocating the nation's scarce resources towards a bailout of the auto industry. In fact, it will be worsened because the capacity of any nation to emerge from a cyclical downturn requires the flexibility of the country's labor force to adapt to the structural changes the country is experiencing in the era of globalization and free trade. America's future does not reside in labor-intensive manufactured goods, especially in the production of a very expensive durable good for which demand falls drastically during recessions; specifically, automobiles.
The Finanacial Times Economists Forum approaches the issue of long-term falling demand for automobiles from another perspective. One of the conditions of the Big Three accepting a loan from the federal government is the mandate that Detroit will begin producing more fuel efficient automobiles to assure Americans more affordable, more environmentally friendly alternatives to the gas-guzzling SUVs that have dominated the industry for the last two decades. But here's the problem, gasoline has fallen to a price as low as it was when SUVs were at their peak popularity back in the early 2000s! As any high school economics student knows, gasoline and SUVs are what we call complementary goods, or two goods for which demand and price are inversely related. As gas prices fall to their 2000 levels, demand for SUVs promises to rise once again, while demand for fuel-efficient automobiles will likely decline, creating market pressures for the Big Three to make not more fuel-efficient cars, but more SUVs instead! From the Financial Times:
The basic problem is that Americans like to drive sport-utility vehicles, minivans and small trucks when gasoline costs $1.50 a gallon…
Consumers may have regretted their behaviour when gasoline prices soared above $4 a gallon, but as gas prices descend, there is no reason to believe that left unchecked they will not return to their gas-guzzling ways.
Indeed, there is a distinct possibility that if they really do increase their small car production, in a few years the big three will be back asking for more help, on the grounds that they are losing money by doing exactly what Congress asked.
The only reasonable solution to this dilemma? If Congress DOES begin mandating that Detroit increase its production of fuel-efficient cars and phase out its manufacture of SUVs, any such requirement should be accompanied by a government-set price floor on gasoline. Several months ago, my colleague and fellow blogger Steve Latter blogged about a proposed price floor of $4 per gallon on gasoline. Such a scheme would likely prove nearly impossible to initiate politcally, but may be exactly what's necessary to add legitimacy to any government requiremens of Detroit to manufacture fuel efficient automobiles. The FT appears to support such a scheme:
Congress should put their mouths where their money is. They should make binding commitments to ensure higher US oil prices and thereby sufficient demand for fuel-efficient cars and trucks in the future.
- What message does falling demand in the auto market send from buyers to sellers, and what contradictory message does a subsidy from the government send to auto makers?
- If the auto makers receive a low-interest bridge loan (subsidy) from the government, how will this actually undermine the efficient functioning of markets in America?
- Why would a price floor on gasoline be needed to accompany a government requirement that the Big Three make more fuel efficient automobiles after receiving a government loan?