Bailout Reason Two. We Failed Them As Much As They Failed Us.
Our response to the new competition that started in the 1970’s was ill considered at best. In order to maximize our corporations’ ability to compete, we bet it all on the trifecta of deregulation, union-busting, and free trade. This created, and is still creating, a global “race to the bottom” in terms of everything we would call “responsibility”. We move jobs to anywhere in the world where workers are willing to work for less. OK. Fair enough. But we also move jobs anywhere in the world more willing to take advantage of workers and the environment than we are.
Over the decades, and despite the distance we still have to go, America has really, really, significantly cleaned up a lot of industrial mess. The Great Lakes that were dead by the 1960’s are alive again. Our air quality still suffers from our cars and reliance on burning fossil fuels, but it is greatly improved even on bad days from what it was several decades ago. You know all those Superfund sites? The word Superfund says it all. Environmental protection has gigantic benefits but it comes at a cost that we all acknowledge.
Our working conditions in this country are among the safest in the world. They aren’t perfect, and some places may be even be safer, but we have largely stood behind OSHA regulations. We paint a lot of yellow lines that sometimes seem silly, we wear safety goggles and hairnets in places that don’t seem to always warrant it, and we try our best to make sure lock-out / tag-out procedures are always followed. When a sugar refinery exploded and killed workers because it didn’t follow safety regulations it was supposed to, we imposed a stiff penalty. Safe working conditions come at a cost that we all acknowledge.
We also have decided that all children in America should have the opportunity to be educated. We have decided that all Americans have a right to at least some basic, minimum level of health care coverage (in emergency rooms and clinics if nothing else) and that most working people should have outstanding health care coverage. When a bad cow gets slaughtered or a pissed on tomato gets served somewhere, all the stops are pulled out to find the problem, eradicate the problem, and try, again, to prevent the problem. This comes at a cost that we all acknowledge.
Our government hasn’t done these things for us or to us. In this country, whether you agree with these things or not, we are our government. We do have the ability to change things through elections and by running for office, our elections do matter, and we always get exactly the government we deserve, and we have opted over the years to have a government that imposes certain costs on our businesses in order to improve our environment, our safety, our quality of life, etc.
Unfortunately, “free” trade undermines all of that. Any country that is willing to have its people live in industrial filth, that is willing to allow its workers to climb around in huge grinding machines that can be inadvertently turned on at any time, any country that is willing to not educate its children, or not provide even the pitiful level of health care that we provide, or worry about diseased cows in their food supply, or make sure that even the poorest of the poor and remotest of the remote have at least emergency phone service… gains a competitive advantage and our work flows to it.
Hence the trifecta. First we open up all of the markets, then we bust the unions so that wages can be pushed down to compete with the third world, then we deregulate everything under the sun so that our environment, our safety, our education, our health care, and everything else that we had agreed we are willing to pay for can be competitive with Guatemala, Ecuador, and Bangladesh.
There is another way!
If instead of “free” trade, we made our mantra “fair” trade, and allowed any country that provides greater worker protections, greater environmental protections, greater educational opportunities, greater health care, greater retirement benefits, more vacation, shorter work weeks, higher wages, etc. to charge tariffs to level the playing field, suddenly every country in the world would have an incentive to race to the top instead of the bottom! The more we protect the environment, the more competitive our products would be in the global market! Countries that allow corruption to undermine their worker and consumer safety results, or that don’t even bother to try, would find themselves penalized in the global economy instead of rewarded! Countries that provided their investors with the best, safest, most accurate accounting controls would be rewarded instead of punished.
And we wouldn’t go broke! Our investors wouldn’t get poor! They would be fine because all any investor ever needs in order to make a fair profit is a fair and level playing field. If everybody has to pay to protect workers, if minimizing worker safety can’t be used as a competitive weapon, then investors pass along the cost and they do fine.
Would there be costs? Of course there would! We already acknowledged that safety, education, health care, investor protections, etc. do not come free. The cost of improving our lives in all of these ways will be that we, all of us, globally, will have fewer, more expensive “things”. Which sucks. We as consumers will pick up the cost. But should we be buying toys with lead in them, that was extracted from its ore by power generated by a plant that turns its city black, and is fed by coal mined by a 9 year old? We have to make the decision to forgo goods that are made that way, or at least to eliminate the inherent cost advantages of that kind of production, because the only alternative is for that power plant to be here and that 9 year old to be ours.
Because we have not yet done that, our companies are competing against competitors that have lower costs, in many cases, because their governments do not take care of their people, their environment, or their investors as well as our government does. This is not the auto companies fault. It’s our fault for voting for free-traders instead of fair traders.