The easiest thing in politics is to tell people what they want to hear. Republicans do it. Democrats do it. No doubt every political party since the beginning of time has done it.
The harder thing is to tell people what they need to hear, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t win many elections, which brings us to General Motors’ announcement on Monday that it will shut down seven plants—two in Michigan, one in Ohio, one in Maryland, one in Ontario and two at undisclosed locations outside North America.
Earlier, GM had announced it was closing a factory in South Korea, so that’s really eight facilities to be shuttered—half in the United States, half in other countries. That’s 11,500 lost jobs in the United States, 2,500 more in Canada—plus an unknown number overseas. This could amount to 8 percent of the company’s total workforce.
In 2016, Donald Trump ran for president on a promise to restore America’s manufacturing base and voters in the so-called Rust Belt states rewarded him with their votes. So why then—with the economy is growing at a healthy 3.5 percent—is GM instead shutting down factories in those same states?
It’s because Trump’s promises were mostly a fantasy. He promised something that was beyond his power because the economy is changing in ways that no president can stop.
Why is GM shutting down these plants? It’s because customers are buying fewer sedans and more SUVs and hatchbacks, which imperils the factories making those vehicles that are falling out of favor.
Those aren’t even the biggest changes, though. GM’s new motto is “Zero Crashes, Zero Emissions, Zero Congestion.” The future is in self-driving cars and/or electric cars. GM’s not the only car maker trying to reposition itself for a future that may not include a combustion engine; it’s just the most aggressive. This spring, Ford announced it would no longer make sedans in North America because buyers now prefer SUVs.
None of these developments make things any better for the workers who will lose their jobs, but it is a sign of just how much politicians are missing the big picture. We’re in the midst of a historic transformation from the industrial age to an entirely different economy. We need politicians who understand that, and who are willing to explain the hard facts to their constituents.
Some jobs aren’t coming back. If consumers are going to buy an entirely different type of vehicle, GM is under no more obligation to operate a car factory than buggy-whip manufacturers were obligated to stay in business when the first Model T cars started rolling down the road.
However, politicians, as public servants, are under an obligation to explain this, and then do something to prepare people and communities for that transition.
In 2016, GM paid more than $1 billion to acquire Cruise, a San Francisco company that makes technology for autonomous vehicles and will spend another $1 billion this year alone on research and development. That’s a pretty big investment in American jobs, although sharp-eyed readers have already noticed the problem. The American jobs that GM is eliminating are in the Midwest, the ones created by Cruise are in San Francisco.
That’s the bigger problem here: The jobs being created in this country are increasingly concentrated in a relative handful of technology-driven metro areas. Economists have dubbed this “the great divergence.” Some parts of the country have always fared better than others economically, but historically they were all moving in the same economic direction, just at different speeds. Now, they are moving in decidedly different directions.
Why can’t GM put its R&D in the Rust Belt? Why can’t tech companies that, to their credit, insist on using green power instead of fossil fuels, put some of their operations in Appalachia where the demise of coal has left communities decimated?
Yes, the tech workers are in Silicon Valley, but these companies owe a moral debt to the communities they otherwise would leave behind. Who has a megaphone (or bully pulpit) big enough to call in that moral debt? We can think of a few, but they’re not using it.