The Treasury Department has sold off the last of the government's shares in General Motors for a net loss (on the purchase price) of $10.5 billion. Even counting another $50 billion in tax breaks given to GM when it reorganized, the government is proclaiming an overall profit for the economy.
There is no question that the federal bailout of GM and Chrysler, both based in Michigan, has preserved jobs in the Midwest and helped unionized auto workers. But the math that says the economy as a whole came out ahead is at best dubious.
Still, President Barack Obama says his bet on the auto industry paid off handsomely.
"When things looked darkest for our most iconic industry, we bet on what was true: the ingenuity and resilience of the proud, hardworking men and women who make this country strong," the president said in a written statement.
During the presidential campaign last year, Mr. Obama said the auto bailouts saved a million jobs.
His claim actually seems modest compared to the conclusions of a study by the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.
That report claimed that nearly 3 million jobs were at stake. And a recent update by the industry-funded center says the bailout saved the government over $100 billion in jobless claims and welfare payments.
But both claims overstate the impact of the bailout. Even including auto-parts manufacturers and dealerships, total automotive employment before the recession was about 1.1 million according to The Associated Press. It is now a shade under 800,000, even with the bailouts.
Nowhere near a million jobs would have been at risk if Chrysler and General Motors had declared bankruptcy under normal procedures, and then undergone reorganization, according to studies at the Cato Institute.
With the bailout, though, Chrysler's investors took a heavy hit.
And Ford somehow managed to thrive without a bailout.
Meanwhile, employment at the restructured GM fell from 91,000 in 2008 to under 50,000 before rebounding to over 70,000 and rising today. Another 60,000 jobs at least were lost in dealerships the government forced to close during the restructuring of GM.
As the Center for Automotive Research concedes in its latest study: "Much of U.S. auto manufacturing employment would have recovered without U.S. government intervention by 2011 or sometime thereafter."
That study adds the observation that with the return of manufacturing jobs, "there would have been a decided shift in the location of this employment to the southern portion of the United States."
So perhaps the fairest thing that can be said about the bailout, from the perspective of the national economy, is that it saved jobs - particularly union jobs - in Michigan and the Midwest that would have otherwise moved south and away from the unions.
However, at least GM is no longer Government Motors - though its largest single shareholder as a result of the restructuring required by the Obama administration is the United Auto Workers Retiree Medical Benefits Trust.
And GM does now have a chance to regain its status as the largest U.S. carmaker under the guidance of its new CEO, 51-year-old Mary Barra - the first woman to lead the corporation.
But beyond GM's future, and the ongoing debate over bailing out automakers, lies this unanswered question as the record national debt surpasses $17.2 trillion and keeps climbing:
If America's elected leadership keeps postponing the hard calls required to restore our country's long-term fiscal viability, how long can the federal government keep bailing itself out?
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