In a remarkable spectacle, an Administration with a sustained record of economic blunders and failures finds itself aghast at the mistakes and mismanagement of U.S. automobile companies. Imagine Confederate General John Pemberton, after leading his forces to an historic defeat at Vicksburg, dismissing his cook for squandering the rum rations.
Yes, Americaâ€™s big three automobile makers (with an assist from the auto workersâ€™ union) have been so consistently unimaginative, self-regarding, and inept that theyâ€™ve brought themselves to the brink of bankruptcy. Now they find themselves pleading for a bailout which, under normal circumstances, most sane policy makers would dismiss out of hand. But circumstances today are as far from normal as most Americans have ever experienced, and the request requires a serious second look.
The automakers had been in deep trouble for some time; but until the economic crisis hit, their condition was far from terminal. The Bush administrationâ€™s inept strategies and incompetent management of the crisis then dealt a weak industry new, serious body blows. First, the sudden upheavals across the financial system, along with the administrationâ€™s inability to explain how it happened or how they intended to protect the rest of us from the fallout, bred such extreme caution and even panic among consumers, that most demand for Detroitâ€™s products dried up. Moreover, much of the shrinking cohort of Americans still prepared to purchase a new U.S.-made car canâ€™t find financing for it. Thatâ€™s because two decades of deep federal distrust of regulating most financial institutions allowed them to speculate so recklessly with borrowed funds, that now, even with the bailout, their balance sheets are so precarious that they wonâ€™t provide a new loan to anybody who couldnâ€™t pay for a new car without one. Finally, the crisis turned off the lines of credit and other routine financing that auto manufacturers need to operate. All three blows are consequences of the remarkable failures by the White House, the Treasury and the Federal Reserve to comprehend the dangers of the sub-prime mortgage market as it began to unravel and address effectively those dangers as the crisis snowballed.
So, the American auto industry now faces a kind of life-or-near-death moment, and if the President and Congress turn their backs, the results could drive down the economy much further. Thatâ€™s the only reason to countenance a bailout for an old industry that doggedly resists modernizing itself â€” but under the current circumstances, itâ€™s a compelling one. American businesses and consumers remain dangerously vulnerable to yet another economically bloody shock which could further shift expectations downward, which in turn could produce a depression-like state of mind and what economists call a â€œsub-optimal equilibrium.â€ Thatâ€™s a very unpleasant condition in which markets produce much less wealth, jobs and incomes than they could, because consumers, businesses and banks no longer believe that the conditions to support better times can be sustained.
Since the Bush Administration is at least partly responsible for what now faces the auto industry â€” and now faces the rest of us, too â€” they should put their weight behind new help for automakers and auto workers. But the bailout shouldnâ€™t be a handout. The industry needs both a shake-up and a technological shift, and strings tied to the federal assistance can help make both happen. The first part of the shake-up is simple: The current executive teams are out, and everybody takes real pay cuts â€” including some workers who at GM reportedly earn an average of $71 per-hour (including benefits), compared to Toyotaâ€™s U.S. workers at $49 per-hour. The aid also should be tied to a greater commitment to develop and produce new engines and cars with extremely high mileage per-gallon and a small carbon footprint, because thatâ€™s the market being created by high energy prices and climate change. And to provide additional motivation, the Government can conduct the kind of competition the Pentagon carries out routinely, in which the first automaker to produce a 75 or 100-mile-per-gallon, low-carbon automobile wins a ten-year contract to supply the Federal Government fleet. And the taxpayers providing the aid should not only get an equity share in return for their investments, but public-representative seats on their boards, to keep watch and keep tabs. Finally, the government should commit itself to cajoling or coercing the Big Threeâ€™s lenders to enter into debt-equity swaps with the auto companies, and so improve their balance sheets enough to attract new private investors (and so avoid a second bailout).
Rescuing the auto companies is, of course, a slippery slope; but the alternative may be to skip past the slope and head directly for the cliff. As it is, it still may not be enough. Home foreclosures continue to rise, and the additional losses to mortgage-backed securities and their derivatives may soon absorb much of the current Wall Street bailout. Further, the global recession has pushed a number of emerging-market and transition economies perilously close to sovereign debt defaults, which would deal another serious blow to the financial institutions that today hold the debt of those countries. At a minimum, neither the economy nor the auto industry will tread water while Americans wait for the new President and new Congress to take office. Thatâ€™s why, this time, the extraordinary conditions to justify bailing out a failing industry are present. And if a Republican President and his party in Congress keep their ideological blinders on and ignore those conditions, Detroitâ€™s demise could take the GOP with it, for a long time.