During a bout of insomnia the other night I sat down and tapped out the beginnings of a column:
Congress’ $700 billion bailout for the financial industry came with the understanding that banks wouldn’t repeat risky behavior and wouldn’t object to additional government oversight just to make sure.
But what about the automakers?
Will there be strings attached to the $25 billion loan that the House of Representatives intends to debate next week?
Will the companies, after decades of foot-dragging, be obligated to meet sensible fuel-efficiency standards? Will they finally agree to produce vehicles that are in the best long-term interests or the country and the environment? (Or will they slip back into the gas-guzzler business now that oil prices are falling again?) Will they be compelled to renegotiate their lavish labor contracts and pension deals to a level that, for example, provides UAW retirees no better health-care benefits than those that federal retirees receive? Will they issue an official apology to taxpayers for decades of blunders that transformed a great industry into a national embarrassment?
Now the shoe’s on the other foot
Charles Wilson said famously in 1952 that “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” but now, it seems to me, the shoe is on the other foot. What’s good for General Motors (and Ford and Chrysler), indeed, what’s necessary for their survival, is to do what’s really best for the country. And that’s to finally produce cars (not self-indulgent toys) that the nation needs at a crucial point in history.
That’s what I wrote. Turns out that Tom Friedman nailed the idea in his column the next morning in the New York Times. He did a far better job of finishing my thought than I could have ever done. If you missed it, here it is.
The main string Friedman wanted to attach was this one: no car company gets taxpayer money without demonstrating a plan to transform every vehicle to hybrid-electric technology.
Actually, Paul Ingrassia, the Wall Street Journal’s former Detroit Bureau Chief, had beaten Friedman to the punch with an earlier suggestion: GM gets the money only if it its board and management are ousted, its union contracts are torn up and an impartial government receiver is appointed to return the company, eventually, to private ownership.
The broader effect on cities
My broader point to you Cityscapers was going to be that cars, more than any force, have dictated the design of American cities over the past 60 years. Upon visiting here, an alien from outer space might easily conclude that cars, not people, are Earth’s chief inhabitants. Everything revolves around them. Wide roads and huge parking lots have eaten away the architectural character of older neighborhoods. And they’ve robbed newer sections of any chance at human scale.
As for government subsidy, cars already enjoy largesse far beyond the $25 billion that Congress will now consider. Gasoline taxes (user fees) pay only a small portion of their public cost, especially when you consider the layers of law enforcement, courts and medical trauma infrastructure needed to bolster auto use. Even that doesn’t include the foreign-policy and Pentagon muscle needed to assure America that her thirst for oil will be satisfied. Toss in the societal cost of global warming and you begin to realize that the cost-benefit analysis has begun to shift away from excessive and inefficient driving.
It’s a point that the automakers have missed, and missed badly. The cars they bring to market have a much higher calling than just the satisfaction of consumer whim. Bubba’s desire for a vehicle that’s big, fast and greedy may well deliver a higher per-unit profit. But that’s not the car America needs right now. In fact, we haven’t needed that car for a very, very long time. We might not need it again, ever.
Only if GM, Ford and Chrysler agree to get with the program should they get the money.