USA : Public policies to "Protect" firms and workers
United States

Historically in the United States, the government has rarely stepped in to protect individual businesses from changing levels of demand or competition. There have been some notable exceptions, including the federal government’s guarantee of $1.5 billion in loans to the Chrysler Corporation, the nation’s third-largest automobile manufacturer, when it faced bankruptcy in 1980. Another exception occurred in 2008 when the Federal Reserve System and the Department of the Treasury rescued a number of major banks and the world’s largest insurance firm as a financial crisis brought on by a rapid decline in housing prices and risky investments in mortgage securities and derivatives resulted in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Although direct financial assistance to corporations has been rare, the government has provided subsidies or partial protection from international competition to a large number of industries. Economic analysis of these programs rarely finds such subsidies and protection to be a good idea for the nation as a whole, though naturally the companies and workers who receive the support are better off. But usually these programs result in higher prices for consumers, higher taxes, and they hurt other U.S. businesses and workers. For example, in the 1980s the U.S. government negotiated limits on Japanese car imports, and the price of new Japanese cars sold in the United States increased by an average of $2,000. The price of new U.S. cars also rose on average by about $1,000.

Although the import limits did save some jobs in the U.S. automobile industry, the total cost of saving the jobs was several times higher than what workers earned from these jobs. When fewer dollars are sent to Japan to buy new automobiles, the Japanese companies and consumers also have fewer dollars to spend on U.S. exports to Japan, such as grain, music cassettes and CDs, and commercial passenger jets. So the protection from Japanese car imports hurt firms and workers in U.S. export industries. Still other U.S. firms and workers were hurt because some U.S. consumers spent more for cars and had less to spend on other goods and services.

It is simply not possible to subsidize and protect everyone in the U.S. economy from changes in consumer demands and technology, or from international trade and competition. And while most people agree that the government should subsidize the production of certain types of goods required for national defense, such as electronic navigation and surveillance systems, economists warn against the futility of trying to protect large numbers of firms and workers from change and competition. Typically such support cannot be sustained over the long run, when the cost of protection and subsidies begins to mount up, except in cases where producers and workers represent a strong special interest group with enough political clout to maintain their special protection or subsidies. When the special protection or support is removed, the adjustments that producers and workers often have to make then can be much more severe than they would have been when the government programs were first adopted. That has happened when price support programs for milk and other agricultural products were phased out, and when policies that subsidized U.S. oil production and limited imports of oil were dropped in the 1970s, during the worldwide oil shortage.

Shoppin mall
Shoppin mall. Encarta
For these reasons, if public assistance is provided to a particular industry, economists are likely to favor only temporary payments to cover some of the costs of relocation and retraining of workers. That policy limits the cost of such assistance and leaves workers and firms free to move their resources into whatever opportunities they believe will work best for them.
Most producers in the United States and other market economies must face competition every day. If they are successful, they stand to earn large returns. But they also risk the possibility of failure and large losses. The lure of profits and the risk of losses are both part of what makes production in a market economy efficient and responsive to consumer demands. Encarta
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