If you held a public vote on helping the American auto industry, I'd bet Detroit would lose.
My experience is that most Americans dislike Detroit and its three auto makers.
Older folks have a grudge: They owned a Detroit car a couple decades ago. They had problems; the company didn't care; the dealer didn't care and they took a beating on the trade-in. Detroit may be “born again,” but that doesn't matter to millions of disaffected consumers: They were betrayed once and that was enough.
Younger people just believe foreign brands have better quality. Even if they don't dislike Detroit cars as much as their parents, most of them buy Toyotas or Hondas or BMWs and are happy with their choices.
The fact that Americans actually buy more foreign brands is proof of the disdain our citizens have for Detroit's offerings. They do like Detroit's pickups and big SUVs, but those markets are in decline.
And the typical American doesn't feel Detroit auto workers' pain. They remember buying Detroit cars and finding screws on the floor that the workers didn't bother to tighten.
They remember stories of union workers laughing about how they deliberately left Coke bottles inside door panels. And they know those auto workers made more money than they did, and had better benefits, but never stopped complaining and asking for more.
And they believe Detroit brought the troubles on itself, which is true, and don't see why they, the taxpayers, should bail them out.
The worse thing is there's no Lee Iacocca around — no one who can wrap himself in the flag and say “If you can find a better car, buy it.”? No one who says he'll work for $1 a year until the company is saved. No one who inspires us to want to help Detroit. No one shouting, “Yes we can.”
The industry leaders go to Washington and sit around the table with politicians. They don't speak to us on TV or in newspaper ads. They don't ask us for help, as Lee did nearly 30 years ago. They make it clear that we, the people, don't count to them. Our job is to shell out our tax dollars.
Despite all this, I favor help for Detroit. Maybe it's because I was born in Detroit. Or maybe it's because I have a soft spot for cars. Or maybe it's because I remember that Detroit helped save America once.
They called Detroit “The Arsenal of Democracy” during World War II. You know I-94? That started as the Willow Run Expressway, to take our people to the bomber plant where Ford made B-24s. I remember that. And I remember “Keep America Rolling” after 9/11 when General Motors helped blunt the economic shock of the terrorist attacks.
Maybe Detroit will be saved, maybe it won't. But when you see an insurance company that's getting, at last count, $150 billion, and the billions going into Wall Street and countless banks, I think the taxpayer has a better chance of getting his money back from Detroit.
Jerry Flint is a columnist for, and former senior editor of, Forbes magazine.