Nationalization (Not Loans) Can Save US Auto

11-18-08, 9:40 am

A raging debate is underway across the country, in Congress, and between the incoming Obama and outgoing Bush administrations on the fate of the US auto industry. Today CEOs of GM, Ford and Chrysler will face tough questioning in Congress. GM comes to Washington to beg for a $25 billion bailout to keep it and its ailing Detroit counterparts going next year. But nobody seems too thrilled about the prospect. Some dwell on the companies' gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles. The right-wing obsesses over all the well-paid union members with alleged gold-plated benefits. (You would think it a crime to fight for full medical coverage for workers and their families!) Not just conservatives pile on the unions but the New York Times and Washington Post – also feel free to falsely double the average wage and benefit costs of US automakers by folding in all legacy retiree obligations in their reporting on what a UAW covered auto worker is paid. 'The downfall of the American auto industry is indeed a tragedy,' the Washington Post editorial board sermonized recently, 'but the automakers and the United Auto Workers have only themselves to blame for much of it.' And, if they have only themselves to blame, the argument goes, why do they deserve taxpayer help? Let them fail and file for bankruptcy. In the long run, the economy will be stronger and the workers better off. It'd be worth the short-term pain, which might not even be so severe – and so what if they cannot recover, maybe its time for Japan and Germany and Korea to produce all the cars of the world. (Of course that means all the engineering would head off shore too.)

The essential argument for letting GM fail is the assumption that bankruptcy would be no big deal: But, while bankruptcy has worked OK for reorganizing airlines, among others, it's very unlikely a GM failure would have the same result. In order to seek so-called Chapter 11 status, a distressed company must find some way to operate while the bankruptcy court keeps creditors at bay. But GM can't build cars without parts, and it can't get parts without credit. Chapter 11 companies typically get that sort of credit from something called Debtor-in-Possession (DIP) loans. But the same Wall Street meltdown that has dragged down the economy and GM sales has also dried up the DIP money GM would need to operate.

Thus GM would not qualify for Chapter 11, and instead end up in Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which would entail total liquidation. The company would close its doors, immediately throwing more than 100,000 people out of work. And, according to experts, the damage would spread quickly. Automobile parts suppliers in the United States rely disproportionately on GM's business to stay afloat. If GM shut down, many if not all of the suppliers would soon follow. Without parts, Chrysler, Ford, and eventually foreign-owned factories in the United States would have to cease operations.

Restaurants, gas stations, hospitals, and then cities, counties, and states – all of them would feel pressure on their bottom lines. A study just published by the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research (CAR) predicted that three million people would lose their jobs in the first year after such a Big Three meltdown, swelling the ranks of the unemployed by nearly one-third nationally and leading to hundreds of billions of dollars in lost income.

The auto executives cannot be rewarded for their decades long inefficiency, short-sightedness, and outright corruption. If you are wondering why mass transit, energy, and transportation policy are 40 years behind where it should be – just consider the example of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), chair of the House Energy Committee, whose wife (a member of the founding GM Fisher family) is a well-paid PR and lobbying rep for GM!

It is difficult to imagine the combination of legislative strings attached to a 'bailout' package that would change the behavior of Auto execs enough to return them to profitability, or return to the public the modernized, fuel-efficient cars that the US and the world need in exchange for our investment. Consider Vice Chair Bob Lutz, for example, along with Alaska oil-flunky Ted Stevens, is one of the most notorious and shameless ridiculers of climate-change theory.

Nationalization is the only appropriate form in which the necessary re-organization and re-tooling of the US auto industry to meet the requirements of the high-tech and fuel efficient future can succeed.

Only nationalization provides an opportunity to show how a concentrated effort can renew a great industrial city like Detroit.

Only nationalization provides the framework in which collective bargaining over the pay and working conditions of workers in the automobile industry can result in a fair agreement that ends the destructive two-tier arrangements of the recent past, and grants auto workers with a sustainable, long-term stake in the industry.

The US auto industry, like the major financial institutions, is 'too big to fail' in the words of Federal Reserve Chair Bernanke. But its executives cannot be trusted with public funds.

Once retooled and re-focused, it's possible the government could resell the industry in whole or in part back to private producers if that proved to be more efficient. This writer would hope that the government – UAW partnership in rebuilding auto could create a sustainable, profitable, public enterprise. But regardless, for now, nationalization is the only practical course with any reasonable chance of success for the foreseeable future.