Debating The Auto Bailout: What If GM Were Intel? - InformationWeek

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11/18/2008
08:41 AM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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Debating The Auto Bailout: What If GM Were Intel?

It's always dangerous to discuss politics or religion, so of course I'm going to tackle both today: the politics of a GM bailout and whether that comports with the faith we have in free-market capitalism. I say, yes, we can rescue the American automobile industry and still live with ourselves, economically speaking, in the morning.

It's always dangerous to discuss politics or religion, so of course I'm going to tackle both today: the politics of a GM bailout and whether that comports with the faith we have in free-market capitalism. I say, yes, we can rescue the American automobile industry and still live with ourselves, economically speaking, in the morning.I was watching Morning Joe on Monday on MSNBC, where host Joe Scarborough and commentator Pat Buchanan -- neither of them raging socialists -- were arguing in favor of a bailout of General Motors on the basis of "economic patriotism." Buchanan pointed to the European consortium Airbus as an example of a case of governments (England, France, Germany) propping up a venture because it's strategically important to their national interests. He moved on to China, railing against its "auto dumping." (I think what he really meant was that China has made it difficult for outsiders to compete against local producers in its burgeoning domestic automobile market.)

Rounding out their triad of "economic patriotism" arguments was the mention of the impact of U.S. industrial might during World War II. Detroit made tanks, aircraft, and more -- famously, our factory capacity fueled the "arsenal of democracy." What are we to rely on in the future if we're nothing more than a nation of burger-flippers (or latte sippers)?

The counterargument against propping up GM rails against the notion that a free-market system would go around picking winners and losers, which is what a bailout would implicitly be doing. "Damn right, we're picking winners -- U.S. winners," was the response from Messrs. Scarborough and Buchanan.

Throwing a potentially clear two-sided debate -- let market dynamics decide versus let Washington throw taxpayer money onto bonfire (potentially good after bad; or bad after bad, depending on how you look at it) -- into nuanced confusion is another fly in the ointment. Namely, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulsen has already spent a good chunk of change bailing out the banking and securities industries.

The spawn of that spending is two subsidiary arguments. Pro-bailout forces argue that "we bailed out the rich bankers, so now it's only fair to bail out the middle class autoworkers, too." The anti-bailout people say, "you bailed out the bankers, and that didn't work, so it doesn't make sense to throw more money at the auto industry."

Straddling the fence are the have your-bailout-and-eat-it-too supporters, who say we should prop up Detroit, but only after we pull the legs out from under management. OK, I don't really mean to be pejorative: What they say is, we should fire management and give GM (and possibly Ford and Chrysler, too) the money on the condition that they embark on a massive, green-car initiative to build a 100-mile-per-gallon auto which American consumers will undoubtedly want to buy.

Now you're beginning to see where all this stuff gets sticky, right? Because there's clearly no easy answer to the conundrum of GM's impending collapse. Me, I can see both (all?) sides of the argument. However, what worries me most is the potential, long-term hit to America's industrial capability. As an engineer, I innately believe in building stuff, as opposed to manipulating symbols on paper or in cyberspace (which is what I do now for a living, but I digress).

While I can see that there will be lots of additional, wasted money -- and perhaps even long-term futility -- in an attempt to right the wrong-headed domestic auto industry, I still think we should give it a shot. Please remember that Detroit does not build crap anymore. That's a false argument used by those who would denigrate everything our carmakers do. You can say that GM and Ford management have gone for the wrong product mix, and you'd be correct. (On the other hand, prior to the massive gas-price spike, they built SUVs as part of a strategy to deliver the profits they needed to manage to Wall Street's expectations, but that's another story.) But their cars are mostly decent these days (particularly Ford's).

So here's my final thought, which gooses my own internal argument that final little bit toward coming down in favor of a bailout: What would you think if Intel were about to go under? That could never happen, I hear you say. Really? What if a consortium of foreign chip suppliers -- say in Taiwan, or China -- were given unlimited government resources so that they could undercut one of American's technological crown jewels until it cried "uncle." I'm just asking.

Sure, the Detroit situation may be different, but sometimes the details don't matter as much as doing what's in the long-term interests of one's country, which is what I believe an intelligent bailout package could be.

What do you think? Please leave a comment below, or shoot me an e-mail directly at [email protected].

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