Friday, November 14, 2008

On Letting Them Fail

There are good arguments for and against bailing out the auto industry. I think Josh Marshall saying is both nuts and a failure of imagination regarding claims the auto industry is part of the problem in re global warming and that we would be rewarding failure by handing out money to an industry that is sliding towards oblivion for good economic reasons is just plain wrong. It isn't nuts. These are both excellent points, the latter of which I have made a couple times.

Were the opposing arguments based either on easily falsified data, or faulty logic, I can see dismissing them out of hand. Yet both these points need to be kept in mind (although the second is far more important precisely because there has been no discussion of serious concessions from the auto industry such as, say, ditching senior management before making any cuts on the shoproom floor) precisely because they are rooted in facts, and are directly relevant to our current historical moment.

On the other hand, I do not think that liberal arguments in favor of bailing out Detroit are "nuts", or represent some sort of failure of imagination. Indeed, I think they have much merit, especially the consideration of the impact on the economy of tossing tens of thousands of workers out on the streets even as the economy hovers on the brink.

There are a couple points to consider. First, each of the big three could file for Chapter 11, which is a kind of bailout, and one far more stringent than the kind of free money being discussed (up until recently) on Capitol Hill. The part that worries me, however, is that any "restructuring" would almost assuredly include . . . tossing thousands of workers out on the streets even as the economy hovers on the brink. Rather, it might be considered good form to have those members of senior management who have refused to diversify, to retool, to invest in new physical plant and other capital improvements start looking for employment elsewhere. Of course, having the following on one's resume might not have employers beating a path to one's door:
Designing and implementing strategies for utterly destroying one of the signal industries of the United States through short-sightedness, a refusal to consider options, and the belief that things would get better one day.

In any event, I heard a discussion on NPR this morning, in which a reporter duly noted Chris Dodd's dashing of hopes of any bailout in the lame duck session. The discussion then turned to bankruptcy and failure as the only options left, unless the new Congress, seated in January, decides to do something. One reporter ominously noted it might be too late; what if the auto industry tanks before then?

While I appreciate the enormity of the potential impact of the demise of the American auto industry, I think that "failure" is a bit much. They might be purchased, their assets then sold off in pieces, creating smaller units that could compete more aggressively. They could file for Chapter 11 restructuring, downsize (I think some kind of serious pain is in store in any event), retool, and start designing and selling automobiles people buy. Or, they could cling by their fingernails until January, the new Congress could convene, and they could be given all sorts of money . . . to downsize, retool, and start designing and offering automobiles people might buy.

In the end, there will be job losses and pain. The question is whether or not Buick, Chevy, Mercury, and Dodge make it to see a new day. Part of me, nostalgic for the heady days when Americans designed and built excellent cars people would buy, hopes in my heart of hearts it is so. That hope is tempered, however, by the understanding that these automobile manufacturers, in essence, screwed themselves; we, the people who don't buy their product, are being called upon, in essence, to bail them out without any serious consequences. That I do not like.

I don't think it's a failure of imagination to consider the limited options, and the good arguments one way or another, and then come to a conclusion. I think this is an issue where reasonable people can disagree. That's all. In the end, I doubt the real-world results will look all that different one way or another.

Virtual Tin Cup

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