Ford, GM, Chrysler Announce Losses; Can the American Middle Class Survive a Big Three Meltdown?

Can the U.S. economy possibly get any scarier or more complicated?

The short answer is yes, it can. The longer, more complicated answer is that the looming (potential) failures of Ford, GM, and Chrysler present long term sustainability problems for a middle class that is already clamoring for short term, emergency solutions.

Ford recently announced third quarter losses of $129 million but admitted to having burned through $7.7 billion in operating costs during the same period. GM announced a staggering loss of $2.5 billion. Chrysler, by all accounts, will be belly up by the start of 2009 if the government is unable to broker a merger with GM, and all three are begging Washington for a second $25 billion in low-interest loans to keep them all afloat until the current economic crisis passes.

The announcement of these stunning losses and the request of additional federal money came alongside industry announcements of even more lay-offs and possible suspension of the plans for research and development of new, more fuel-efficient American cars. Without a more competitive product than the big trucks and SUVs of the past 15 years, it’s hard to see how and when things will get much better for the U.S. auto industry, but unfortunately the problems go much deeper than that.

Retail sales fell of a cliff in October across the board, with the exception of Wal-Mart, which saw a 2% increase in sales. Even sales of luxury items fell; items which in the past have been fairly recession-proof. Stores like Saks and Bloomingdales posted some of the worst figures of all. Job losses for October came to just under a quarter of a million, bringing the unemployment rate to a 14-year high of 6.5%, and this, by general agreement, is only the beginning of the labor effects of the recent credit crunch.

All of this bad news is hitting right before Christmas, a time when retail stores generally expect to be ramping up for the November and December sales that will carry them through the rest of the year. This year, those sales may not materialize at all. Circuit City is shutting down 120 stores for good, right before Christmas, just to stay solvent, and other big box stores that usually hire extra help for the holidays are actually terminating permanent workers to reduce costs.

The fact is that people are not buying anything right now. Even if the Big Three could produce a car that runs on air and then start shipping it to car lots tomorrow, most Americans would be unable to qualify for loans to buy these magical air cars, even if they had jobs or money to put down on them, which fewer and fewer people do with each passing day. The recession is looking like it will be long and hard, with many analysts seeing a turn-around no sooner than 2010.

When Henry Ford first started to build automobiles in the U.S., he made the radical decision to pay his assembly line workers incredibly well. He did this not out of a sense of altruism or social justice, but rather to expand his business plan so he could market his cars to everybody, thereby making more money for himself. In making this decision, he not only enabled his workers to buy the cars they were building, he also ended up creating a thriving American middle class.

Over the course of the past 30 years several developments have increased profits for U.S. corporations and their stockholders, while at the same time putting downward pressure on the mostly industrial middle class. Changes in U.S. trade agreements allowed industry to flee the U.S. rapidly and dramatically, forcing formerly middle class workers into low-wage jobs in the service sector.

As the good industrial jobs disappeared, corporations also began to eliminate middle-management white color jobs with middle class salaries. Most of the corporate jobs left in the U.S. today are entry level service sector jobs, often in call centers or tech support, with little opportunity for advancement or career development. Not much remains between the bottom of the corporate pyramid and the CEO, and what does remain is under constant pressure to produce more profit for less reward.

In fact, in most of these workplaces (the classic cubicle farms of the ‘Dilbert’ comic strip) a management style designed to turn over employees in one to two years remains firmly in place. While this rapid turnover keeps labor costs low, it also creates a very unstable, low-paid workforce with no special loyalty to any one job and not enough annual income to commit to a four-year auto loan.

In other words, the middle class jobs that created the ‘consumer economy’ are largely gone with the decline of the Big Three and the loss of myriad other U.S. industrial jobs, both related and unrelated. Steel, textiles, electronics, computer chips—all of these items are made overseas now. When people don’t have good jobs and can’t get credit, they can’t spend money. When people can’t spend money, more people lose jobs.

Short term, the U.S. will have to find a way to keep people in their homes, keep them warm and fed, and stabilize housing and financial markets. Those challenges would be daunting in and of themselves for even an economic Mozart. Deficit spending seems unavoidable at a time when the national debt is already completely out of control.

But long term, the U.S. will have to find a stable job base that can support a middle class and do whatever is necessary to keep those jobs here. If that doesn’t happen, if we don’t see something on the horizon to replace the dead industrial base, then all the stimulus packages Congress can dream up won’t prevent a long and painful period of poverty and contraction in America.

Gas prices are finally coming down.

Unfortunately we’re running on fumes and our credit cards are being declined.

What happens next will have long and lasting effects, not just on the economy, but on the health and security of the nation.

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