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Chrysler, Imported from Turin

[Guest post by Simon van Zuylen-Wood]

As Flint and Auburn Hills prepare to weigh in on the anti-bailout Republican field in the upcoming Michigan primary, it’s worth rethinking the political subtext of Clint Eastwood’s “Halftime in America” Chrysler ad. To refresh: The ad piqued Republicans like Karl Rove because it appeared to implicitly endorse the 2008 and 2009 government bailouts that saved the company. Eastwood (who criticized the bailout last year) demurred, claiming that the ad was simply meant to “be a message about job growth and the spirit of America.”

Whether Chrysler’s message was liberal or conservative is irrelevant. Here’s the problem with the ad’s jingoism: Chrysler’s not even an American company anymore. In 2009, Italian automaker Fiat bought a 20 percent stake in the company from the Treasury Department. In June it bought out the government’s remaining shares to become a majority owner, and last month it upped its stake to 58.5 percent. (The other 41.5 percent is owned by the United Auto Workers health care trust fund, a fact which opens up another can of worms.)

100 percent Fiat ownership seems to be a matter of “when,” not “if.” In January, The Wall Street Journal reported that CEO Sergio Marchionne aimed to buy the rest of the company in 2013, while the Times looked ahead:

The final step in the integration process will be to increase Fiat’s ownership of Chrysler from 58 percent to 100 percent… Once Fiat takes full ownership, Mr. Marchionne will be faced with the delicate decision of whether to locate its corporate headquarters in Italy, the United States or possibly a neutral location.

Of course, the more delicate issue here is the fate of Chrysler’s American jobs. According to figures provided by Chrysler, 39,200 of the company’s 57,160 employees are based in the U.S., an increase of 7,000 since Fiat jumped onboard in 2009. And of the company’s 25 plants, seven are located in Mexico or Canada. If the majority of Chrysler plants and jobs stay in the U.S., the question of foreign ownership becomes largely symbolic. (Ford and GM are still U.S.-owned, though the government holds a quarter of the latter.)

But even in the likely scenario that the jobs stay in Michigan (workers in Turin and Windsor, Ontario are likely more expensive), Chrysler’s “Big Three” status needs to be reconsidered. Put another way: Does Apple embody the “spirit of China” just because its products are made there?