GM Janesville plant


Paul Ryan gave a speech last night to the Republican National Convention. It's gotten some really, really big thumbs-downs:

* "brazen lies"

* "brazen dishonesty"

* "post-truth politics"

* "profoundly dishonest"

* "breathtakingly hypocritical"

* "brazenly willing to twist the truth"

* "it's a wonder his tongue didn't catch on fire"

The lesson? You may want to avoid "brazen," at least for a few days.

Who torched Ryan's speech the hardest? Fox News: "an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech."

One of the "facts" that have been cross-checked by virtually every news organization to attempt it is Ryan's contention that Barack Obama broke a promise to Ryan's hometown of Janesville—that the president, through the auto-industry bailout, would keep the GM plant there open. It ususally goes something like this, in Fox's version:

Fact: While Ryan blamed President Obama for the shut down of a GM plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, the plant was actually closed under President George W. Bush. Ryan actually asked for federal spending to save the plant, while Romney has criticized the auto industry bailout that President Obama ultimately enacted to prevent other plants from closing.

It's a reference to this passage in Ryan's speech:

My home state voted for President Obama. When he talked about change, many people liked the sound of it, especially in Janesville, where we were about to lose a major factory.  

A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: “I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years.”  That’s what he said in 2008. 

Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year.  It is locked up and empty to this day.  And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.  

What actually happened is a bit more complicated.

On February 13, 2008, early in the campaign, Obama gave a speech at the GM plant in Janesville, several months before the closing of the plant was announced. And he said this:

I know that General Motors received some bad news yesterday, and I know how hard your Governor has fought to keep jobs in this plant.  But I also know how much progress you’ve made – how many hybrids and fuel-efficient vehicles you’re churning out.  And I believe that if our government is there to support you, and give you the assistance you need to re-tool and make this transition, that this plant will be here for another hundred years.  The question is not whether a clean energy economy is in our future, it’s where it will thrive.

In context, Obama wasn't speaking so much about the auto bailout (which was just gearing up) as the idea that clean-energy investment could allow Janesville to remake its industrial sector, as made clear by the two previous paragraphs:

I believe that we can create millions of those jobs around a clean, renewable energy future.  A few hours northeast of here is the city of Manitowoc [MAN-a-ta-WOC].  For over a century, it was the home of Mirro manufacturing – a company that provided thousands of jobs and plenty of business.  In 2003, Mirro closed its doors for good after losing thousands of jobs to Mexico.

But in the last few years, something extraordinary has happened.  Thanks to the leadership of Governor Doyle and Mayor Kevin Crawford, Manitowoc has re-trained its workers and attracted new businesses and new jobs.  Orion Energy Systems works with companies to reduce their electricity use and carbon emissions.  And Tower Tech is now making wind turbines that are being sold all over the world.  Hundreds of people have found new work, and unemployment has been cut in half. 

It wasn't a promise to keep the factory making cars; it was an expressed belief that a sweeping energy policy could give the town the resources to produce something else, like passenger rail cars.

Two days before Christmas, 10 months after his speech and three months before Obama would become president, the Janesville factory ceased to manufacture SUVs, as virtually all the plant's employees had been or were laid off that day; 50 stayed in the massive plant until late April, making trucks for Izuzu.

So by April, Obama was president and the plant was finally, fully idle. But was it closed? It sort of depends on what you mean. GM put the plant on "standby"—in the event that sales picked up, GM could fire the factory back up again. This was hopeful yet unfortunate for Janesville—it didn't employ anyone, and the city couldn't do anything with the site. So by that summer, Wisconsin offered GM $200 million in incentives to locate new small-car production in the old SUV plant; Ryan, Herb Kohl, Russ Feingold, and Tammy Baldwin all met with GM officials to get the plant back online. But Wisconsin was beaten out by Michigan; GM moved the production to Lake Orion, where another GM plant was scheduled to close.

Since then, the plant has remained in limbo, and the Janesville Gazette has continued to follow the now-quiet saga. In 2010, GM signaled that it would move work to one of its two standby plants, the other in Spring Hill, Tennessee—which, at the time, was not entirely idled, but operating below production. In 2011, GM reopened the Spring Hill plant, keeping Janesville on standby.

It's still owned by GM, and still in standby mode.

Ryan's comments on the Janesville plant were deceptive, but rather than obscuring a simple truth, they obscure a complex web of economics and politics. The plant closed under George W. Bush, but it's remained in play as a GM plant into the Obama administration—which you could view as giving some weight to Ryan's charge, but it's also limited the use of the plant to re-tool in the way that Obama originally proposed as a candidate. The auto-industry bailout did aid GM in saving jobs, including the jobs of Janesville plant employees, but only for those who relocated; the jobs were lost to Janesville itself. It's possible that, had the economy recovered more quickly, GM would have the demand required to bring the Janesville plant back online, as was suggested in late 2011, but that also reflects back on Ryan's support for the auto bailout versus his opposition to Obama's stimulus package. And the unemployment rate in Janesville has improved greatly since early 2009, though it remains above the state's unemployment rate:

The facts aren't what Ryan presented last night, but the truth is more complicated than the bare facts.

Meanwhile, filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein was there on the scene, filming the 2012 doc As Goes Janesville, the latest from Kartemquin:


Photograph: cliff1066™ (CC by 2.0)