Howes: We’re ‘Here for America,’ foreign automakers say
The online ad can’t help but catch a Detroiter’s eye.
“It’s morning again for auto manufacturing in America,” it says, evoking the Reagan-era campaign slogan from 1984. “Learn More. HereForAmerica.com.” Click: “We’re here for America. We are American made. We are exporters. We are local. We are growing.”
“We” is not General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., each of whom — along with Italian-controlled Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV — have invested billions in Michigan and surrounding states since the end of Great Recession and the ignominy of bankruptcy and bailouts.
We is the foreign-owned automakers operating plants across the United States. They say they employ 130,000 Americans building cars and trucks, bending metal and making parts to compete in U.S. showrooms with Detroit’s automakers; they generate another 110,000 supplier jobs; and the vast majority of them are non-union.
They used to call themselves the NAMs, for “New American Manufacturers.” That’s until decision makers wised up to the fact their rhetorical misdirection did none of their lot any favors by trying to persuade people they’re something they are not.
They are — accurately — “International Automakers in America,” 31 brands from Acura and Audi to Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo that are building plants and adding jobs in large numbers. And as politically incorrect as it is to say so in this town, they sell more cars and trucks to American buyers than Detroit’s three automakers (and tiny Tesla Inc.) combined.
Namely: 55 percent of all cars, trucks and SUVs sold last year in the United States were built by foreign-owned manufacturers, according to Autodata Corp. They sell the top three compacts, the top three midsize cars, the top three “lower luxury” cars — all of which, and more, makes them a target of President Donald Trump.
They’re also feeling the sting from the Hectorer-in-Chief’s on-again, off-again volleys about employing more to build more in the States. The underlying economics, the implications for shareholders and bottom lines are less important to a president demanding more jobs and investment in exchange for promised tax cuts and regulatory reform.
The feel-good ad and “Here for America,” a glossy 30-page report, stand as potent reminders of the foreign-owned auto industry’s collective contribution to the American economy and the auto industry in the United States — including Michigan, which claims 11 research and development facilities operated by seven foreign automakers.
“This is not your grandfather’s car industry,” John Bozzella, CEO of Global Automakers, said in an interview Thursday. “Policymakers, especially today, need to know what the auto industry looks like. This isn’t an us-versus-them argument. It’s an us-versus-us argument.”
It’s also politically expedient to tout automotive American-ness in the era of Trump. His campaign reached the White House with a powerful assist from voters in the industrial heartland, where Trump’s message of economic restoration resonated far more loudly than his coastal Democratic rivals appreciate, even now.
He promised what amounts to a revival of a bygone era, an American-owned industry building American brands for American buyers free of pesky foreign entanglements like the North American Free Trade Agreement, now in its 23rd year. A revision? Maybe. A rollback to Detroit’s Golden Age of the 1960s? Ain’t happening.
That’s not because the politicians have spoken. It’s because the people — car and truck buyers — have spoken, and what they’re saying is they want choices, competitive prices and even more competitive products. Detroit pickups and SUVs; Japanese and Korean compacts and midsize cars; German, British and Italian luxury brands; American-made electric cars from Tesla and GM.
Oh, sure: the folks who make their living in the Detroit-based industry, or who depend on pension checks from them, tend to take a more parochial view. I’d guess I’ll even hear from one or two within the next day or so: foreign brands can never be American no matter where the vehicles are produced if a) they’re built in non-union plants and b) the profits go overseas.
Familiar arguments, those, that will only be resolved with time, fatigue and the actuarial tables. But they are ill-suited to the American automotive world as it is, not as the president or the people who thrill to his message want it to be.
Thirty years of Detroit’s decline and foreign ascendancy in the U.S. market has changed irrevocably the auto industry in America. The very good news is that Detroit is again a formidable competitor, and that’s preferable to the alternative.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him at 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.