The apparently endless Donald Trump vs. Ford Motor Co. feud over building cars in Mexico has fallen into a familiar pattern.
Exaggerations and distortions. Gritted-teeth denials. And, most recently, breathless reporting of stuff that was largely known a year ago.
It makes for a diverting media squall, filling time in the endless cable-news cycle. But amid all the noise generated by this presidential election year, we're avoiding an important national conversation.
Whatever you may think of Trump's candidacy, there's no denying that he's hitting a pressure point with his criticism of the effects of free trade on U.S. workers. There's an unsettling wave of change hitting the country, relocating jobs and potentially wiping out entire trades.
Until we seriously address the issue of retraining laid-off workers and revitalizing hard-hit communities, the anxiety and anger we're seeing in this election will continue.
Yes, it's a broad trend, and, yes, it's global. But the auto industry is right in the middle of it. Consider these two fronts:
- As we reported last week, the North American Free Trade Agreement has created an efficient, competitive manufacturing bloc. Automakers can shift low-margin vehicles like subcompact cars to a low-cost manufacturing country. They can move components freely between countries. Vehicles are actually being exported from the United States not just by domestic brands but also by automakers such as BMW, which ships crossovers from South Carolina.
The rub is that what's good on the macro level has been quite painful for some communities -- and for workers (also known as voters).
Ford has responded to Trump's call for a 35 percent tariff on cars coming in from Mexico by pointing out that the company has kept truck production here, even bringing its big F-650 and F-750 models back from Mexico. Similarly, General Motors agreed in its tentative contract with the Canadian auto workers union Unifor -- which was scheduled for a vote Sunday, Sept. 25 -- to relocate production of one engine from Mexico to Canada.
But there's no denying that many vehicles will continue to be built in Mexico, both by U.S. and foreign automakers -- and that the jobs created there might otherwise have been in the U.S.
- Assuming self-driving vehicles become a reality, the technology is likely to throw a lot of people out of work. It's not happenstance that companies that employ drivers, ranging from trucking companies to Uber and Lyft, are exploring autonomous-drive technology. They're looking at the savings they can reap by getting rid of human drivers.
Just consider for a moment how many drivers there are in the world -- truckers, pizza delivery people, taxi drivers, tractor drivers, tow-truck drivers, and on and on. It's entirely possible that most of those jobs will be vaporized by technology.
Historically, bad things can happen to societies in which large groups of people are hurting financially and feel that they have been shafted by the system.
It's probably neither desirable nor even possible to reverse globalization and technological change. But we need to have a constructive, fact-based conversation about how to help the people and communities that lose ground in this period of rapid disruption.
Maybe after the election?