No outsider could have felt any more awkward, watching the gentleman use his public bully pulpit to pound the representative of the auto parts manufacturing firm that was about to close its Milwaukee operations and send those American jobs forever to Mexico. He even turned to the cameramen, who were there solely to film the preplanned confrontation, to point out the maker’s auto parts profits over the previous three years. And yet, in spite of those huge profits, he railed, they were still letting Americans go and moving their jobs south of the border —where the pay would start at 80 cents an hour.
If this scenario sounds familiar, it is. Although it’s not our new president chiding our auto industry for moving to Mexico while closing factories here in America. No, it’s uber-Leftist Michael Moore, in his 1997 documentary The Big One, covering the previous year’s book tour for Downsize This! — Random Threats from an Unarmed American. In the segment just described, Moore had cornered the PR staff at Johnson Controls in Milwaukee over their then recent announcement to close one more plant and move south.
The most obvious question is how, when Michael Moore was covering the exact same ground as our current president 21 years ago, it was considered left-wing, liberal tripe; and today it’s considered the mainstream platform of the opposite end of the political spectrum. But what’s truly amazing is that hundreds, if not thousands of newspaper column inches — in everything from the Detroit News to the Wall Street Journal — have covered just this current issue of confronting U.S. corporations trying to move more production south of the border. And yet not one of those columns points out that this is Michael Moore’s shtick from the mid-Nineties. (Inside that documentary he promoted his 1996 book, Downsize This!)
Of course, the connections don’t end there. After all, on February 9, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the president wants to see more American cars sold in Japan. According to that article, Trump believed the Japanese were throwing up regulatory barriers and rigging the currency system to favor their automakers over ours. The article went on to say that, last year in Japan, consumers purchased around 15,000 American-made vehicles, with Jeeps accounting for around half of those sales. But, by and large, the overall Japanese auto market is a fraction of what it once was. And, while car shoppers here cherish our full-sized trucks and SUVs, the Japanese continue to venerate the micro-city-car that their roads and high-priced fuel and parking space demand.
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But again, this entire story of “the Japanese aren’t playing fair in the car market” is also a rerun from the mid-Nineties, when former President Bill Clinton pulled out all the stops to force Japan to purchase more American-made auto parts and start acquiring our automobiles, too. And so we watched the ads on TV where we put Dodge Neons and Saturns onto boats and shipped those autos to the Land of the Rising Sun. Not to mention that Japanese car companies agreed to buy even more auto parts from our companies; and the next thing we knew, Ford and GM both sold their parts divisions because they didn’t like the margins they were making, while the rebadged Toyota Cavalier (not a misprint) had its price cut in half to get rid of the last ten thousand of them in Japan.
In the end it was a big PR stunt, and it accomplished nothing. Detroit couldn’t have cared less about selling cars in Japan, or they would have taken it more seriously. They also couldn’t have cared less about selling more parts made by their in-house divisions, either, or they wouldn’t have sold those divisions off.
Oh, and China happened. True, early on Bill Clinton took the position that he was going to talk tough on trade policy, even at one point stating he was not happy with our “uneven trade relationships.” Again, sounds familiar; but this one was more interesting, as Wal-Mart started its “Buy American” campaign back in 1985. In fact, Sam Walton’s autobiography was subtitled “Made in America.” More important, that ad campaign suggested that America’s most popular store was a tireless promoter of all things American.
But, sure enough, in the same year that Clinton took the presidency, Dateline NBC did an exposé and showed that many of those “American-made” products on Wal-Mart’s shelves were in fact imported from Bangladesh. Wal-Mart immediately ended its Buy American campaign, and the floodgates for cheaper imports opened completely.
But it was a two-way street. Again, Detroit’s automakers may have had a tough time selling their cars in Japan, but China awoke from its multi-century sleep and wanted a huge, homegrown auto industry. True, Beijing Jeep was the first outside joint venture in China, followed by far more successful moves by Volkswagen. Still, by the mid to late Nineties, Chinese officials were negotiating with Chrysler over minivans (they passed at the time, furious that China wanted to allow its automakers to make counterfeit copies without payment); but Rick Wagoner of General Motors had no problem cutting deals to take GM back to the Far East.
And in that case, the Chinese demanded GM build Buicks there, for no other reason than because, before the communist takeover of the late Forties, Buicks had been seen as the finest luxury cars in China. Talk about nostalgia. But hey, let’s be fair: Honda, Toyota, Ford, Hyundai, Nissan, Mercedes, Audi — everybody flooded into the Chinese car market. In the past 20 years it has not just been the fastest growing market worldwide, but also is not much larger than America’s car market. China has moved more people into the middle class in this period than there are people in America. All while our presidents stand and shake their fists at China and the world and shout, “I’ll show you who’s the boss during these trade negotiations.”
If closing factories in America and moving them to China, trying to force the Japanese to buy more American cars, buying American-made goods at our department stores, and threatening to level the playing field for all Americans in international trade sounds familiar, it’s because it’s just another rerun on TV. You get it when it’s a 20 year old return of Friends, the one where Joey gets the show with robot, but when the rerun is the news, people miss the connection. The only thing even slightly humorous about all of this is that in the Nineties it was Clinton and Moore doing this stuff, before the issue reversed political polarity again, from left to right, in this decade.
Oh, well, they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again, expecting a different result. In our case, everyone forgot we’ve done all of this before; not to give away the ending, but the long-term result is always the same.
© 2017 Ed Wallace
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, conferred by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA. He reviews new cars every Friday morning at 7:20 on Fox Four’s Good Day and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org