Monday, May 15, 2006

Who gets your car dollar? Depends on your point of view

Monday, May 15, 2006

Daniel Howes

Who gets your car dollar? Depends on your point of view

In the "who's more American" sweepstakes, this much is indisputable:

Detroit's automakers and suppliers employ vastly more Americans than their foreign rivals do.

Detroit's No. 3, the Chrysler Group, may employ Americans, produce American brands and sell them mostly in North America, but it's German-owned.

Detroit's hottest new midsize sedan, the Ford Fusion, is built in Mexico, the Chrysler Crossfire comes from Germany and General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Aveo hails from South Korea. But they're American models.

Toyota, Honda and Nissan, the leading creators of automotive jobs in the United States and Canada over the past five years or so, are not American companies -- and never will be. Their headquarters are not here. Their CEOs don't live here. Most of their shareholders aren't here.

Catching the Detroit pitch

Why is any of that debatable?

The Level Field Institute, a creation of retirees from Detroit's traditional automakers that is modestly supported by Ford, wants Americans to understand the importance of Detroit's automakers and their suppliers to the American economy and how some foreign-owned rivals are bigger American job creators than others.

"It is, in the end, a buy Big Three pitch," concedes Jim Doyle, president of Level Field. "But it's also a buy Honda over a Hyundai message." Among foreign automakers, "Honda has got the highest number of American employees per car. If you can convince someone who's going to buy a Hyundai to buy a Honda, jobs are served."

OK. But extend the logic.

Does buying a Honda built in Ohio by non-union labor trump buying a Ford Fusion from Mexico? Solidarity House wouldn't think so, even if American jobs are created.

Economic self-interest rules

Is a BMW SUV from South Carolina more politically correct than a Land Rover from the U.K.? Land Rover parent Ford gets the profit, but America gets the BMW jobs.

Would a Texas-built Toyota Tundra, coming soon, be more preferable to Detroit diehards than a Canadian-built Chevy pickup? Don't answer that.

As the global auto industry's tentacles reach deeper into the lives of every American and muddle a commercial landscape that few outside the industry pay much heed, two things are clear:

First, economic choices have consequences. Just as buying cheaper steaks at Costco helps drive your neighborhood butcher out of business, what you drive from the showroom impacts your local economy. The only question: Do you care?

Second, economic choices are selfish. If you buy Detroit because you live in the Midwest (and get a discount), that's self-interest. If getting the best minivan (the Honda Odyssey) trumps Detroit's automakers, that's self-interest, too.

Waving the flag or hoisting the union banner to sell cars and trucks is a lame argument when the products can -- and often do -- stand on their own. For the Detroit companies, it says desperation. For the foreign-owned, it smacks of political positioning and good ol' deception.

Daniel Howes' column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Reach him at (313) 222-2106 or


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