So here we are at the door to election day. In the nation it all comes down to Ohio. In Ohio it all comes down to the auto industry. And Mitt Romney is betting his marbles on TV ads that say he's the one who wanted to save the industry and President Obama's the one shipping jobs to China.
Man. As a former black-tagger -- that's a term for migrating Michiganders, sort of like Okie -- this moment is freighted with irony. I can't believe auto workers are important again.
I moved to the Sun Belt from Detroit in 1978. I worked in the car plants as a young man off and on during a five-year stretch when I was a member of the United Auto Workers. But I was kind of a bogus member, not the real stuff. I was working my way through college. You get it.
When I moved here, the term Rust Belt was new. The auto industry had a terrible name, richly deserved. In his seminal 1973 book The Company and the Union, Bill Serrin, then a fellow reporter of mine at the Detroit Free Press, now at NYU, showed how car company management and the UAW joined hands to form a lazy, arrogant monopoly that cranked out crappy cars and bet all its own marbles on protectionism.
A decade earlier, Mitt Romney's father, George, was Detroit's outlier, running American Motors, the only Detroit car company whose strategy for meeting the competitive threat of small foreign cars was to build better small American cars. By the time I became a black-tagger in the late '70s, you could have made a good argument that Detroit auto workers would never have been forced to become black-taggers if Detroit had followed the American Motors model.
Well, I was kind of a bogus black-tagger. I was a newspaper reporter by then, not an auto worker. You get it.
But I felt their pain. State of Michigan automobile license plates back then were black. On talk-radio in Dallas people complained about the hordes of black-taggers on the freeway in their ramshackle station-wagons loaded up like Steinbeckian refugees.
The thing is, the world is now an entirely different landscape. The auto industry has become globalized. The UAW is the second-biggest shareholder in Chrysler. And Romney is talking to autoworkers like they're still a bunch of economic refugees who don't know how the world works.
His latest ad blitz in Ohio was launched by Romney himself who told an audience that Jeep, a big Ohio producer, is "... thinking of moving all production to China." That remark was buttressed by TV ads saying President Obama "sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China."
The ads kind of danced around the truth a little better than Romney himself did, but the basic argument is a lie, according to Chrysler, the owners of Jeep. Chrysler, in fact, has gone to extraordinary lengths to prove the Romney line is a lie, even calling it, "a leap that would be difficult even for professional circus acrobats." Chrysler has said that, far from moving production out of Ohio and into China, it is about to expand its Ohio production.
But, wait. There are some wrinkles. Apparently Jeep is also planning to revive some Chinese production that got shut down back during the bankruptcy. China maintains such high tariff walls against American cars that cars built here can't compete over there. The only way to get into that market is for foreign companies to partner with Chinese companies and build the cars over there.
The Romney campaign has countered that reviving Chinese production will create auto jobs in China that could have been created here. Therefore American autoworkers are getting screwed.
But American autoworkers aren't a bunch of black-tagger refugees any more. This is a new generation in a new world. They own 41.5 percent of Chrysler. They know how things work. They know that they benefit as owners of the company if the company finds a way to make money in China -- money that would otherwise be left on the table.
There's something enormously retro about the whole Romney appeal to the autoworkers. The auto workers know how the bankruptcy worked. They know the Romney solution would have shipped the entire industry off-shore. They also remember the legacy of too much protection and of companies and unions that think they don't have to compete globally. Life's complicated.
Even if the Romney appeal really is not aimed at auto workers, even if it's really aimed at non-union workers who are jealous of the auto-workers, it still depends on people not knowing how the world works. I just don't think that's the world we live in any more.
Hey, guess what else? I just found a vintage black Michigan auto license plate on eBay. I think I'm going to get it and turn it into a hood ornament.