"If you haven't lost your job yet, keep buying imported cars."
That sentiment has echoed throughout the U.S. in recent years, in one form or another, as General Motors, Ford Motor Company and Chrysler LLC have continued to lose market share and post big losses.
And it's not just in car-building states like Michigan. That refrain can also be heard in other states that are home to manufacturing and assembly plants owned and operated by Detroit's Big Three automakers -- not to mention in other states where many consumers believe that "Buying American" is just plain patriotic.
But the volume and intensity of that refrain, and variations on it, have heated up even more in the last few months, ever since General Motors and Chrysler posted huge, record losses and announced they were in danger of burning through their cash reserves if they didn't receive federal loans. So, the "Buy American" sentiments are now being expressed more loudly than ever, especially in Michigan and those other Big Three havens -- on talk radio, on bumper stickers, and in the online comments by readers of newspapers and auto-industry websites, including this one.
Some of the remarks made in December by southern Republican senators -- remarks that many felt were anti-union and anti-Detroit -- served to inflame the debate into a full-on war of words. This was a difficult argument to make sense of, especially since those senators represent states that are home to state-subsidized plants and other facilities owned and operated by Japanese, Korean and European carmakers, but have little or American-carmaker facilities in their states.
Those who are most emphatic in their "Buy American" battle cry literally see it as an act of economic patriotism. And, in Michigan, that passion is also fueled by an understandable and very real fear that the state's already-devastated economy will completely collapse if just one of the three companies that comprise the state's biggest industry were to fail. Indeed, Michigan has already lost more than 300,000 of its manufacturing jobs since 2000 -- and the state's January unemployment rate of 11.6% was the worst in the nation.
On the other side of the debate are those who cite "choice" -- stressing that, in a free country, they should be able to buy what they want, without being pressured by neighbors, co-workers, friends and family members.
Those who are strongly "Buy American" don't argue with the "freedom of choice" stance. They're just frustrated because they think that import buyers -- at least, those who firmly believe that imports are higher-quality vehicles -- don't have accurate or current information.
Recent studies and surveys conducted by research groups like Consumer Reports and J.D. Power & Associates have reported that the quality of American-made cars has improved so much in the last several years that, at this point, the quality differential between Detroit products and imports is so small as to be negligible. And many American vehicles have actually earned higher quality marks than imports in those studies. So, in part, the Big Three is battling a problem of perception lagging behind the reality.
And today's "Buy American" exhortations resound in a very different context than they did 25 years ago, when, during the early '80s recession, some Detroit radio stations organized demonstrations inviting angry, laid-off auto workers to take sledge-hammers to Datsuns and other Japanese models.
Today, many states, including Michigan and neighboring Ohio, are home to "transplants" -- Asian and European-owned manufacturing plants, offices, tech centers or other facilities that employ American workers.
But, as many "Buy American" advocates are quick to point out, revenues from those transplant operations obviously go into the coffers of Toyota, Honda, Mercedes, Audi, etc. -- not into those of Ford, GM and Chrysler.
On the political and governmental front, the state of Michigan is doing its part to stanch the Big Three's flood of red ink. In December, the governor's office accelerated orders for Detroit-made vehicles for the state's fleet, to help boost the Big Three's '08 year-end sales figures. But in today's global market, even political leaders in Michigan know they can't be too parochial. In January, at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm told reporters that while she thinks it's important to support Detroit's carmakers, state leaders were "also grateful to the international automakers who have invested here, because they're hiring our people."
One emphatically "Buy American" advocate is Karen Winchester, a lifelong Michigan resident who retired from General Motors in November after 33 years with the company -- 18 years as a blue-collar worker tradesperson, and another 15 years as an engineer / process-control manager. A native of Owosso, near the state capital of Lansing, Winchester now lives in Lake Orion, an outlying Detroit exurb. So, she has seen, close-up, the economic devastation in Michigan.
"Buyers need to be educated"
"Even before the current crisis, I always thought Americans should buy American-made cars, especially after the free-trade laws went into effect," says Winchester. "We need to keep America employed. The quality of American-made vehicles has quadrupled since I started working for GM, 30-plus years ago. So, 'better quality' is not a valid excuse for people to buy imports. And if we as a country want to get back on our feet, economically, we need to support the Big Three and buy American-made vehicles.
"If people are able to buy a vehicle at this time, given the current credit crunch, then their consciences should compel them to buy American." Winchester agrees "people should absolutely be free to buy whatever they want. That's what America is all about. But why are people buying imports? It's not because they're cheaper, and it's not because they're higher quality. I think the media needs to educate the public more about the reality, which is that today's U.S.-made cars really are high-quality products."
She also takes a dim view of what she thinks were "union-busting" comments made by those southern Republican senators in December. "Some politicians and car buyers in other states don't have a clue what the UAW or Big Three are really about," she asserts.
Meanwhile, Jim Kuzava is a "transplant" of a different sort. He grew up in Lincoln Park, an inner-ring, mostly-blue-collar Detroit suburb, but has lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico since 1994. And he's been a Toyota man since '91, first choosing a 1991 X-Tra Cab, and then a 2006 Tacoma pick-up truck. He cites quality as his primary reason for going with imports at the time.
Top 20 Selling Vehicles
Sales data shown is of top 20 selling cars and trucks as compiled by Autodata Corporation.