March 20, 2008

What is "American"?

West Herr Honda was welcomed into Lockport and Niagara County yesterday amid the usual fanfare of a ribbon cutting, the Chamber and some elected officials. West Herr is a phenomenal organization that treats it's customers with respect. I know this because I've visited several of their showrooms over the years, including the newest location a few weeks ago.

I didn't buy a car at that time, but really, I have no problem buying a Honda. Or a Toyota or a Nissan. I think, however, that I am in the minority in Western New York. In much of our area, if you don't drive an "American" car, you're looked upon as a pariah. I say "American" because these days, it's hard to know what is actually made where. Here’s a quick quiz. Which one of the following is a foreign-made vehicle?

B) Mazda 626
C) Mitsubishi Eclipse
D) Nissan Quest
E) Mercedes ML320
F) Cadillac Catera

The correct answer is the Cadillac Catera, which is built in Germany by General Motors. All the others are built in the United States. GM also produces nine of its other current car and truck models in Canada or Mexico. Ford produces three models in Canada, and DaimlerChrysler produces at least five models in just Mexico and Canada.

On the other hand, the U. S. is now home to nine foreign-owned auto companies (Honda, Isuzu, BMW, Mercedes, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, and Toyota) that build well over three million cars per year in this country. More than 40 models of foreign cars, minivans, SUVS and pickup trucks – are rolling off assembly lines at 15 plants in the United States so rapidly that last year brought an automotive tipping point.

For the first time, more foreign-brand cars sold in the United States were built here – 3.7 million – than were imported – 3.4 million – according to the Center for Automotive Research, a nonprofit auto analyst in Michigan.

The transplants are not just assembling cars here with foreign parts. The domestic content of the vehicles built here by foreign car companies is now 69 percent, only slightly less than the 78 percent domestic content of cars built in the U. S. by the Big Three.

In this global car market, it is getting harder and harder to tell the difference between an "American car" and a "foreign car." Is a Cadillac Catera built in Germany foreign or American? What about the Toyota Corolla built in California by UAW workers? What about the vehicles that will now be produced by DaimlerChrysler? What about Jaguars built in England as a division of Ford Motor Company?

If myths die hard, nowhere do economic myths about international trade die harder than in Flint, Michigan. Despite the increasing senselessness of trying to accurately define a "foreign car" in today’s global economy, several organizations in Flint have policies that accommodate "American cars" but strictly prohibit "foreign cars."

For instance, the UAW Local 659 in Flint has the following sign in the parking lot: The parking of any foreign made autos on Local 659 property is absolutely prohibited. Violators will have their auto towed at their own personal expense. Woodrow Stanley, when elected mayor of Flint in 1991, announced a similar policy for the underground parking ramp below Flint City Hall.

Would the UAW or the city of Flint actually tow or ban Cadillac Cateras from their lots because they are "foreign cars" from Germany, or Buick Regals because they are built in Canada, or GMC Suburban C1500s because they are built in Mexico?

It is hard to imagine that the UAW would really tow one of the 26 models built by U. S. workers for international auto makers, especially UAW-built vehicles like the Isuzu Hombre truck, Mazda 626, Mazda B-series truck, Mitsubishi Eclipse, Mitsubishi Galant, Nissan Quest, Toyota Corolla, and the Toyota Tacoma truck. If you can not precisely define what a "foreign car" is any more, how can you ban them or tow them away?

Parking lot restrictions against foreign vehicles should be seen for what they really are: modern, automotive Jim Crow laws that discriminate against certain Americans based on the national origin of their vehicle. Although these restrictions may have made sense to some people in the past, they have no place in a global economy where trying to even define a "foreign car" can drive you crazy.

Drive through the Lockport Wal-Mart parking lot. It is filled with American cars. Walk into a Wal-Mart. It is filled with Chinese products. People who would never in a million years buy a Chinese car are filling their carts with Chinese products.

Those who believe that Delphi is an American corporation are living in a dream world. They would cease their U.S. operations in a heartbeat if they could, while moving all operations abroad. The lines between domestic and foreign become more and more blurred with each passing day. That, my friends, is why I would have no problem buying a Honda.


Fawn Leibowitz said...

WNY still is living in the Stone Age when it comes to cars. Take a drive through virtually any city outside of our area. The majority of cars are not American "brands". I'm not saying foreign is better, but there is not stigma associated with buying a "foreign" car like there is in WNY. People should be able to buy what they want without getting their car "keyed". Esspecially by people who champion American products then go shop at Wal-Mart - it's hypocritical.

Larry Castellani said...

Good post. Not new information but does seem to raise the question as to what this says about the nature of national politics. Rather than try to actually figure out which cars are which and made wherever, it seems we surely need to use such issues to re-define "thinking globally" and "acting locally." To me of course this means to re-define political unity at the local level. Those "Republicans" who act at the national/international level of concern don't seem to be the same kind who act at the local level, except for maybe voting for the same candidate for the presidency and such. That is, the fact is there is a new international SuperClass that doesn't act in the name of the maintenance of the integrity of all local American communities. So don’t wait for any infusion of funds from the Federal Reserve Bank to bail us out.

It seems that we ought to be seeking "unity through community" and therefore power through such unity not through partisan analytical nitpicking and dis-integrating antagonism. Possibly only the solidarity of community and the recognition of a federation of communities organized on the basis of a principle of decentralization, namely “subsidiarity,” can reconstitute a powerful democratic polity at a national level. This is conceivably what Flint is aiming for or symbolizes if we give them a big benefit of the doubt.

So the two party system at the local level modeled after the national parties really doesn’t make a real difference locally or possibly even at the level of the state(NY) but only when locally fighting over Tom Christy. Surely the slogan ‘all politics is local politics’ begins to take on more significance, doesn’t it? Why can’t we think of our political identity first and foremost in terms of one which enables taking back local resources and rights? A productively functional unity. Why destroy one another over the remaining crumbs after the Feds, Albany and the Senecas bleed the local economy dry and industry extorts our support? -- Happy Easter everyone!!

Anonymous said...

So - bottom line = you guys believe that when Delphi, Powertrain, American Axle, and all the little companies that make the bulk of their income off those big guys - It won't affect us at all! What a buch o' morons!
The reason for WalMart doing so well is that if one must buy Chinese (which they do - no more choice.) they might as well go where it's cheaper. See if West-Herr will sell you a new Toyota on Walmart wages!

rob clark said...

I for one am just glad to see a new subject for now. As we all know its rather hard to buy anything that 100 % american made.

Anonymous said...

Anon, I'm pretty sure you completely missed the point ... which is to say, what IS American anyway? Don't forget, most of Delphi Corp's products are made in Mexico and overseas. Just cause a product has an "American" name doesn't mean they actually help the domestic economy.

Rocketboy said...

Pop quiz: I have a car made in the UK, owned by a German company, with an engine from Brazil, as a joint venture between said German company, and an American company.

You tell me what the 'nationality' of the car is. I go by the 'spirit' of the car, which is British.