Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Auto Bailout?
A longtime reader asks why I haven't had anything to say on the proposed bailout of the auto industry. My first response is that I don't know the first thing about that stuff. But then, when has that ever stopped me from giving an opinion? So there must be some other reason I've been laying off. I think I know what it is: I'm genuinely conflicted.

Clearly, as corporations, the Big Three deserve to die. Their products have developed a well-earned reputation for being expensive, inefficient, unreliable and unattractive relative to their competitors. They have stubbornly refused to face the reality of the environmental concerns which now drive many of their would-be customers, and in fact would lobby the government to their dying breath to fight regulations (CAFE standards) and opportunities (the electric car) that may have saved their asses had they only embraced change instead of combating it.

On the other hand, we can't remove the cancer that is this corporate incompetence without doing great damage to workers and communities that don't deserve it, compounding the country's economic horror along the way. We would be sending the employees of these companies - and of the companies that depend on them for business, literally millions - to the unemployment line. And there is no booming manufacturing industry waiting to snap these people up, many of whom lack the education and training to quickly find another kind of work. We're talking about second and third generation factory workers, who traded in their chance at higher education for a union job that would help support a middle-class family. If we let these companies fall, the corporate executives who so miserably failed will be just fine. But we will be taking an entire region of the Midwest that is already struggling and decimate it, and send dependent pockets around the country crumbling.

Wesley Clark has another point as well. Suppose that during World War II, for example, we didn't have an auto manufacturing base in this country?

So, if it sounds like I'm leaning toward supporting a bailout I guess I am. But I do admit that I wonder if we wouldn't be better off in the long run re-building from scratch, investing in startup auto companies that emphasize electric and hybrid plug-ins and the chance to lead the global industry rather than always stumbling a few steps behind.

Of course, we should do both, right? Offer money to the Detroit auto industry but with significant strings attached. But how many times lately have we heard "No Blank Check" only to find out that's exactly what we've written. It's as if the government hasn't tied a regulatory knot in so long it just doesn't remember how to attach strings to corporate money.

So, if it sounds like I'm also leaning against a bailout, well sometimes I am. But in the end, I can't be one to support a plan that devastates that much of our economy. If I thought we could rebuild a manufacturing base from scratch in a few years, as opposed to the generation or 2 I suspect it would take, I would be more for letting GM get its comeuppance. Today, anyway, I'm hoping some middle road gets the job done more quickly and less painfully. But consider me persuadable.

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