Thursday, December 11, 2008

THE LATE GREAT AMERICAN AUTO INDUSTRY

News flash from the U.S. Senate: it's the auto workers union that's going to be the cause of the demise of the Big Three. Oh give me a break!!!!

I've thought a lot about the auto industry bailout, and (with apologies to our Detroit-area relatives) I'm leaning towards saying "goodbye and good riddance!" I've made lists in my mind - reasons to bail them out in one column, reasons to not bail them out in the other column. The "bail them out" column really has only one item - avoiding massive lay offs of working people, people who have no control over the decisions made by the automobile industry. The collapse of the American auto companies will be disastrous for working people and the economy, but I think there are ways the new administration can organize a recovery.

The "don't bail them out" column has a long list. For decades, the American automobile companies, now known as The Big Three, have made business decisions intended to do one thing - increase and protect profits. Yes, this is the goal of business, to make a profit. But the auto industry profits, for the years that the companies made them, were based on massive hidden costs to American taxpayers - and people around the world. The Big Three built their profits on death and destruction, the resulting costs of which have been borne by everyone living on the planet. The automobile, as I've discussed in several previous posts over the last few years, became the central feature of our society, it's use dominating and dictating the realities of urban design, transportation and commerce. America became addicted to foreign oil, our cars and trucks spew millions of tons of carbon dioxide and poisons into the air and water, and thousands of people are injured and killed in auto accidents.

The American auto industry has fought tooth and nail against almost every proposed safety standard, fuel efficiency measure, and emission standard. And they're still at it, challenging the new State of California emission standards in court because they claim that they can't meet them. This is, of course, more of the same BS for which the auto industry is famous. And in the meantime the climate changes more quickly, asthma and other respiratory illnesses are on the rise, and our roads get more gridlocked than ever. None of this is a news flash, we've all known about these problems for years. And yet the Big Three have continued to tell Americans that what we want is bigger and faster cars, behemoth trucks and SUV's, all designed to use gasoline as if it's an unlimited, benign and cheap resource.

So why should we, the taxpayers, bail out these greedy companies? The executives at GM, Ford and Chrysler have made bad decisions, and their chickens have come home to roost. Isn't that what it's all about, we're told, free market, market forces, trickle down, and all that other capitalist mumbo-jumbo? Hey fellas - you snooze, you loose.

There's an aspect of the proposed bailout that isn't discussed: if the government loans these guys money so they can stay in business, who's going to buy their cars and trucks anyway? We are in a recession (yes, it is now official - duh), many thousands of people are losing their jobs, their homes, their savings and retirement funds. Car dealers are going out of business, and new cars from Asia are sitting in giant parking lots in west coast ports with no buyers in sight.

I think this is a giant lemons-to-lemonade moment in U.S. history, and I'm hoping our political leadership undergoes a miraculous transformation and actually does the right things. We need to plot a course away from the automobile as the centerpiece of our culture, and become a more sustainable society. We need to rethink the most basic assumptions about our culture and our economy, and make wise choices that will push us in new directions. There are plenty of jobs to be had in a green economy if we have the backbone to make some tough choices, roll up our collective sleeves, and rebuild an America that makes sense.

I, for one, am tired of being pushed around by big companies with fleets of lobbyists and attorneys and over-paid executives who decide how my world should be - for their profit. To the Big Three I say - get out of the road, the times they are a'changin, and you guys are just in the way.

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