Topic: Trade and Immigration

GM’s Nationalization and China’s Capitalists

GM’s restructuring under Chapter 11 includes plans to sell off the Hummer, Saab, and Saturn brands. Well, just one day after GM’s bankruptcy filing, a Chinese firm has come forward with a $500 million offer to purchase Hummer. The prospective buyer is Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co Ltd, a manufacturing company in western China, which hopes to become an automaker.

Not only is the Hummer offer the first bid for a GM asset in bankruptcy, but the bidder is foreign. Not only is the bidder foreign, but Chinese. And not only is the bidder Chinese, but the Hummer was first developed by the U.S. military. Thus, this is certain to be characterized as a national security matter, and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) will have to review the proposal. There should be little doubt that the economic nationalists will be out in full force, warning CFIUS against transferring sensitive technologies to Red China.

Let me offer two quick points, as the bulging veins in my temples pulsate with disdain for official Washington.

First, if this deal is rejected (even if the bidder is scared away by detractors), any remaining credibility to the proposition that the United States will once again become that beacon on a hill, exemplifying for the world the virtues of free markets and limited government, will vanish into the ether. There has been too much U.S. hypocrisy on free trade and cross-border investment and too much double talk about the impropriety of government subsidizing national champions, that another indiscretion in a high profile case will blow open the already-bowing flood gates to economic nationalism worldwide. Considering that U.S. companies sell five times as much stuff to foreigners through their foreign subsidiaries than by exporting from the United States, investment protectionism is as advisable as nationalizing car companies.

Second, the willingness of this Chinese company to purchase Hummer serves as a stark reminder of what could have been. Had George W. Bush not allocated TARP money to GM last December, in circumvention of Congress’s rejection of a bailout, then GM likely would have filed for bankruptcy on January 1. At that point, there would likely have been plenty of offers from foreign and domestic concerns for individual assets to spin off or for equity stakes in the New GM. There would have been plant closures, dealership terminations, and jobs losses, as there is under the nationalization plan anyway. But taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook for $50+ billion, a sum that is much more likely to grow larger than it is to be repaid. It is also a sum that will serve as the rationalization for further government interventions on GM’s behalf.

And Your Freedom to Travel Takes Another Step Back

Yesterday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it would begin a further attempt to implement the Western Hemisphere Travel (Restriction) Initiative.

WHTI is a congressionally mandated program to increase the documentation required for travel to and from neighboring countries. It’s a classic example of self-injurious overreaction to terrorism. The costs we incur for this program vastly outstrip the harms it averts. I have blogged about it here before. In a turn of phrase Orwell would love, a DHS blog post on the topic characterized the goings-on as “Boosting Border Security and Efficiency.”

In January 2008, I wrote about the border bedlam that would ensue when the DHS implemented WHTI as it had threatened to do, but the DHS was bluffing. A post on the Identity Project has a bevy of links and information, and an interesting take on things. It’s called “Today We’re All Prisoners in the USA.”

GM’s Last Capitalist Act: Filing for Bankruptcy Protection

It’s not as if we didn’t know this was going to happen to GM for a long time now.

GM’s bankruptcy announcement today is perhaps the least shocking news we’ve heard about the company in more than seven months. It might well be remembered as the company’s last act of capitalism.

If GM emerges from bankruptcy organized and governed by the plan created by the Obama administration, it is impossible to see how free markets will have anything to do with the U.S. auto industry. With taxpayers on the hook for $50 billion (at a minimum), the administration will do whatever it has to – including tilting the playing field with policies that induce consumers to buy GM or hamstring GM’s competition or subsidize its costs – in order for GM to succeed.

Thus, what’s going to happen to Ford? With the public aware that the administration will go to bat for GM, who will want to own Ford stock?  Who will lend Ford money (particularly in light of the way GM’s and Chrysler’s bondholders were treated).  Who wants to compete against an entity backed by an unrestrained national treasury?

Ultimately, if I’m a member of Ford management or a large shareholder, I’m thinking that my biggest competitors, who’ve made terrible business decisions over the years, just got their debts erased and their downsides covered.  Thus, even if my balance sheet is healthy enough to go it alone, why bother?  And that calculation presents the specter of another taxpayer bailout to the tunes of tens of billions of dollars, and another government-run auto company.

Iraq’s Refugee Crisis

George W. Bush’s misguided attack on Iraq has had catastrophic consequences for the Iraqi people.  Although the removal of Saddam Hussein was a blessing, the bloody chaos that resulted was not.  Estimates of the number of dead in the ensuing strife starts at about 100,000 and rises rapidly.  The number of injured is far greater.

Moreover, roughly four million people, about one-sixth of the population, have been driven from their homes.  The most vulnerable tended to be Iraq’s Christian community and Iraqis who aided U.S. personnel – acting as translators, for instance.  Yet the Bush administration resisted allowing any of these desperate people to come to America, since to resettle refugees would be to acknowledge that administration policy had failed to result in the promised paradise in Babylon.

This horrid neglect continues.  Reports Hanna Ingber Win:

Of the millions displaced, the United States will resettle about 17,000 new Iraqis this coming fiscal year. While that is a relatively small number of arrivals compared to the number displaced, about a third of them will end up in El Cajon and Greater San Diego. More than 5,000 new Iraqis will arrive in San Diego County during the fiscal year ending September 30, 2009, according to Catholic Charities in the San Diego Diocese. Getting jobs, homes and visas to reunite the families of the new arrivals — many of whom put their lives and their families’ lives at risk by helping the U.S. military — is a monumental task.

As the Iraq War played out, the Bush administration seemed to do everything in its power to ignore the refugee crisis. Former President Bush, reluctant to admit to a failed war policy, never mentioned the plight of the refugees and for years refused to allow Iraqis fleeing the war zone to resettle in the U.S. Only after significant political pressure from members of Congress and advocacy groups did the administration’s policy begin to change, and refugees began gaining access to the United States.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged to address the humanitarian crisis caused by the war. He vowed to increase the amount of aid given to countries like Syria and Jordan, which harbor most of the displaced people, as well as expedite the process of resettling refugees here.

“The Bush administration made every effort they could to try to minimize the issue [of Iraqi refugees] in the debate on the war,” Amelia Templeton, a refugee-policy analyst with Human Rights First, says not long after the presidential election. The Obama administration, on the other hand, she says, has made the issue an explicit policy priority. “Obama has said this is a major problem, that we are responsible for this problem and we will try to change this.”

Whether the Obama administration will live up to its rhetoric is still to be seen.

Immigration is an emotional issue at any time.  But there is no excuse for not accepting more persecuted peoples who are fleeing violence sparked by U.S. military action and attacks sparked by their aid for U.S. military forces.  If America refuses to act as a haven for these people, then yet another light will have gone out in what was once a shining city on a hill for the world.

E-Verify: The Surveillance Solution

The federal government will keep data about every person submitted to the “E-Verify” background check system for 10 years.

At least that’s my read of the slightly unclear notice describing the “United States Citizenship Immigration Services 009 Compliance Tracking and Monitoring System” in today’s Federal Register. (A second notice exempts this data from many protections of the Privacy Act.)

To make sure that people aren’t abusing E-Verify, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Verification Division, Monitoring and Compliance Branch will watch how the system is used. It will look for misuse, such as when a single Social Security Number is submitted to the system many times, which suggests that it is being used fraudulently.

How do you look for this kind of misuse (and others, more clever)? You collect all the data that goes into the system and mine it for patterns consistent with misuse.

The notice purports to limit the range of people whose data will be held in the system, listing “Individuals who are the subject of E-Verify or SAVE verifications and whose employer is subject to compliance activities.” But if the Monitoring Compliance Branch is going to find what it’s looking for, it’s going to look at data about all individuals submitted to E-Verify. “Employer subject to compliance activities” is not a limitation because all employers will be subject to “compliance activities” simply for using the system.

In my paper on electronic employment eligibility verification systems like E-Verify, I wrote how such systems “would add to the data stores throughout the federal government that continually amass information about the lives, livelihoods, activities, and interests of everyone—especially law-abiding citizens.”

It’s in the DNA of E-Verify to facilitate surveillance of every American worker. Today’s Federal Register notice is confirmation of that.

Labor’s Waxing Political Influence

It has long been recognized that many capitalists are the greatest enemies of capitalism.  They want free enterprise for others, not themselves.

Unfortunately, organized labor tends to be even more statist in orientation.  Unions now routinely lobby for government to give them what they cannot get in the marketplace.

Labor influence is greatest in the public sector.  And as government’s power has expanded during the current economic crisis, so has the influence of unions.  Observes Steve Malanga in the Wall Street Journal:

Across the private sector, workers are swallowing hard as their employers freeze salaries, cancel bonuses, and institute longer work days. America’s employees can see for themselves how steeply business has fallen off, which is why many are accepting cost-saving measures with equanimity – especially compared to workers in France, where riots and plant takeovers have become regular news.

But then there is the U.S. public sector, where the mood seems very European these days. In New Jersey, which faces a $3.3 billion budget deficit, angry state workers have demonstrated in Trenton and taken Gov. Jon Corzine to court over his plan to require unpaid furloughs for public employees. In New York, public-sector unions have hit the airwaves with caustic ads denouncing Gov. David Paterson’s promise to lay off state workers if they continue refusing to forgo wage hikes as part of an effort to close a $17.7 billion deficit. In Los Angeles County, where the schools face a budget deficit of nearly $600 million, school employees have balked at a salary freeze and vowed to oppose any layoffs that the board of education says it will have to pursue if workers don’t agree to concessions.

Call it a tale of two economies. Private-sector workers – unionized and nonunion alike – can largely see that without compromises they may be forced to join unemployment lines. Not so in the public sector.

Government unions used their influence this winter in Washington to ensure that a healthy chunk of the federal stimulus package was sent to states and cities to preserve public jobs. Now they are fighting tenacious and largely successful local battles to safeguard salaries and benefits. Their gains, of course, can only come at the expense of taxpayers, which is one reason why states and cities are approving tens of billions of dollars in tax increases.

The government’s increased power over the economy also gives organized labor a new hook to lobby for more special interest privileges.  For instance, the AFL-CIO is arguing that the federal bailout of the auto industry should bar the companies from moving factories overseas.

Explains the union federation:

The pundits and politicians inside the Washington Beltway don’t get: If the United States continues to send its manufacturing jobs [1] overseas—as [2] General Motors and Chrysler are now proposing—the result will be more low-income U.S. families.

So today, workers, economists, academics and business and union leaders, fresh from the “[3] Keep It Made in America” bus tour through the nation’s heartland, brought that message to the policymakers’ doorstep as part of a teach-in on Capitol Hill.

The 11-day, 34-city bus tour showcased the ripple effect on communities of the lost jobs in manufacturing. ([4] See video.) Today, during the teach-in, those who took part brought the stories they heard along the tour and presented principles for revitalizing the auto industry to members of Congress and the press. 

Labor officials have been making similar arguments about bank lending.  If you got bailed out by Washington, then you have an obligation to keep funding bankrupt concerns.  Never mind getting paid back, and paying back the taxpayers.

Markets are resilient, but can survive only so much political interference.  If the American people aren’t careful, they might eventually find themselves living in an economy more appropriate for Latin America than North America.

An Overdue Reckoning in the Auto Sector

Bloomberg reports:

General Motors Corp., facing a probable bankruptcy filing by June 1, is telling 1,100 “underperforming” U.S. dealers they will be terminated as the automaker starts shrinking its retail network.

Most of the closings will occur by October 2010, and none are happening now, Detroit-based GM said today. The targeted outlets will have until the end of the month to appeal the decisions, GM said, without specifying the stores on the list.

The shutdowns are the biggest U.S. automaker’s first step toward paring domestic dealers to a range of 3,600 to 4,000 from 5,969 by the end of 2010.

To be sure, it is a very sad day for thousands of workers and businesses around the country.  But we’re in the midst of a deep recession, which may be nowhere deeper than in the auto sector.  Demand for cars and light trucks has absolutely tanked, which means the economy has an excess supply of inventory, productive capacity, and retail capacity.

Dealerships are closing, as they should be. Chrysler’s in bankruptcy, as it should be. GM is headed for bankruptcy, as it should be.

But this all should have happened long ago…

…long before President George W. Bush had the chance to circumvent the wishes of Congress to give Chrysler and GM more than $19 billion (not including GMAC) from the TARP allotment,

…long before President Obama had the chance to promise billions more and assume a large operational role for the U.S. government in Chrysler’s and GM’s future operations,

…long before President Obama had the chance to create a huge moral hazard by strong-arming Chrysler’s preferred lenders into taking pennies on their loan dollars, while giving preference to claimants of lesser priority,

…long before Ford, Toyota, Honda, BMW, Kia, and the rest of America’s automobile industry were implicitly taxed by the government’s insistence on preventing two firms from exiting the market or substantially reducing their presence in accordance with established bankruptcy provisions.

And most certainly, long before other businesses in other industries started to get the idea that failure is the new success.