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"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.
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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.
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"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.
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"I put 276,000 miles on my X-tra Cab, which I think speaks for itself," says Kuzava. "The bottom line is I want a vehicle that doesn't break down. For someone that doesn't particularly like wrenching around on vehicles, I want something that's dependable. Toyotas have been nothing but dependable for me.""
But Kuzava is also aware of the quality improvements made by Detroit's carmakers in recent years. "And as a Michigan native, with many family members and friends still living there, I do feel the urgency of the state's economic situation. So if I was a betting person, I'd imagine my next vehicle will be a Ford."
Leaning in a protectionist direction
Another longtime import buyer is Tim Campbell of Dallas. His "main ride" is a '91 Honda Accord with 205,000 miles on it. "I've been driving imports for years, including an MG and a few BMWs." He also owns a 2000 Ford F250, however, which he bought before going to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when he worked there as a Victim Relief Ministries chaplain, counseling survivors and the families of hurricane victims. "We used the truck to haul people, clothing, food, water, ice, and other supplies," says Campbell.
"But, mostly, I've been 'driving foreign' for so long it would require a significant mind-set change to buy a product from companies that persisted for so long on what appeared to be a wrong track," stresses Campbell. "But, although I never thought I would agree with Pat Buchanan on anything, in light of the the present circumstances, I am leaning in the protectionist direction and would consider an American-made auto product. Because, if (insurance giant) AIG is 'too big to fail,' then General Motors certainly is."
Like the aforementioned Kuzava, Dave Dempsey is also a transplant, but a more recent one. He grew up in Dearborn -- right in the heart of Ford Country -- and lived in Michigan his entire life until 2004. So he was still there when the Big Three began losing substantial market share and posting big losses.
He now lives in Minneapolis, and says that he "always bought American cars, faithfully, until March of 2003. Then, as we were about to go to war in Iraq, at least in part to secure our oil supply and the right to drive gas guzzlers, I took a difficult leap, and bought a Toyota Echo, which I still drive and which has been a remarkably reliable car."
Dempsey says that, when talking to his relatively-new Minnesotan neighbors, he vigorously defends the federal government's loans to GM and Chrysler. "Auto companies make something tangible and useful," unlike Wall Street banks, he adds. "A lot of my acquaintances here say, 'Let 'em go bankrupt.' But the human toll of a bankruptcy would be awful -- and intolerable for people I know and care about. Given the current plight in Michigan, I will buy an American vehicle when I'm next in the market -- if the company I buy it from is not lobbying (Washington) to make more gas guzzlers, and if it's reliable."
For Brian Fredline, president of United Auto Workers Local 602 in Lansing, buying American vehicles during this time of economic crisis boils down to "patriotic purchasing."
"And if ever there was a time to practice that, it's now," he says. "And we have a historical precedent for that kind of thing. During WWII, people invested in America by investing in war bonds. But it's not like they'd be making a sacrifice by buying American vehicles. We're making some of best products on the planet," says Fredline, pointing to aforementioned studies like the J.D. Power customer satisfaction index, as well as "several other quality metrics, like the Harbour Report."
Fredline agrees with GM retiree Winchester -- that there's just too big a gap between perception and reality in the minds of many consumers, when it comes to the quality issue. "That's frustrating to me, because these days, with the Internet, consumers have all kinds of information at their fingertips, so they'll do all kinds of research when they're shopping for something like a flat-screen TV, to see which one has the highest resolution, and all that -- but too many of them won't spend the same amount of time to find out which vehicles are now getting the highest quality marks.
"If they did, they'd understand that, these days, many our cars are just as good as, if not better than, cars built by the Asian and European carmakers."
Paul Bensman, an entrepreneur in Farmington Hills, an upscale suburb northwest of Detroit, is a Big Three booster all the way, and he echoes Fredline's sentiments.
Bensman currently drives a Lincoln MKS, which he effuses is "a great car, and very stylish. When I first drove it, I felt like I was in a commercial -- people kept asking me, 'What kind of car is that?' And as a businessman in this city, I've strictly bought American for the last 12 years. When we watch the Olympics, we cheer for the American athletes and teams -- so whatever happened to cheering for American companies?"
The primary issue for American carmakers, says Bensman, is not poor quality. "I was in the import business in the 1970s and '80s, and I knew back then that America would have a problem down the line, due to the economy becoming more global and labor being so much cheaper in other countries. "Too many people blame unions and the Big Three for their current plight, but the big problem is the current money supply," offers Bensman. "Although, it is true that the Big Three probably didn't respond fast enough when the industry fragmented, and their piece of the pie got smaller.
"But this is a global crisis we're in right now, and the whole world will be in bad shape if the U.S. loses its auto-manufacturing base, given how many other American jobs depend on the auto industry" -- about 3 million, according to several estimates.
"So it's really important for Americans to buy American-made vehicles if we're going to dig ourselves out of this crisis."
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