Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Yes we can (allow General Motors to die the death it deserves)

So, a week after the election, with the transition news settling into its Baby Boomer greatest hits groove, President-Elect Obama meets with President Bush. And uses the opportunity to ask Bush to bail out the big Detroit automakers. Is it okay to say, "WTF?"

To which the rejoinder might be, whaddaya want? The unions delivered big time for Obama all over the Rust Belt, as seen last Tuesday night, and probably made him prez. Which is okay, if we want to so quickly give the lie to the idea of a new politics. Because ideologically, it is hard to conceive anything more truly "conservative" one could do than preserve an ossified oligopoly of pre-World War II industrial conglomerates that have done more to damage the planet in the last 100 years than probably any other industry in the industrialized West. Along the way, killing basically all public transportation in America other than buses. You want me to pay my share of the losses of the people who bet their (and our) future on SUVs?

Granted, you are talking about 3 million jobs, $150 billion in personal income, and $60 billion in tax receipts in 2009. But there are plenty of other inefficient and outmoded businesses that won't survive the current credit crunch and consumer austerity. And don't deserve to.

The last American car I owned was a 1974 Chevrolet Caprice convertible that I sold in 1991. Since then, it's been an alternating mix of small cars from the leading Axis powers (that, and living walking distance to work or taking the bus). Driving to the coffee shop this morning, I was reminded why. I saw one of those new Chevy Malibus pulling into traffic. This is the car that is being widely touted as the hope for the future. Naturally, being a General Motors sedan produced after 1975, it is basically a mullet with wheels, as has been every American car I have rented in my adult life. The reason they are failing is because they so completely suck — as products, as businesses, as corporate citizens, as emblems of our American identity. (Unless you want a ranch-ready pickup, in which case they are right on the money.)

The only things the American automakers have really innovated in the past 30 years are (1) clever cupholders to holster the Big Gulps of saccharine and corn syrup that fuel the clotted vessels oxygenating our fat asses planted against the seat-heaters en route from our climate-controlled homes to our windowless cubes, and (2) televisions installed throughout the vehicle to anesthetize our mini-chubs with the latest sensory Soma from Disney. The Big Three are not our future.

The only hope for the American automotive industry is to allow Detroit to fail. Just as to bring back the healthy diversity within the soil you need to burn the ground cover clean, letting G.M., Chrysler and Ford and their earth-burning mega-cars collapse under their own weight will allow new transportation businesses to sprout, new businesses for a new era — people's versions of outfits like Tesla for those who want to drive, and news ways of moving us around that don't require navigating the on-ramp on insufficient stimulants. The pieces of Detroit that make sense will survive, sliced off through reorganizations that, like the hybrid lines and the utilitarian work vehicles (there will always be pickups and Town Cars).

And we will always have the ruins of Detroit, that American industrial Ozymandias monument whose own death has already been foretold in the urban shell of the city that once was.


TrendWatcher said...

Interesting post and blog. Relevantly, many prominent experts and publications have pointed out that Obama is part of Generation Jones, born 1954-1965, between the Boomers and GenXers.
This link takes you to a page you may find interesting: it has, among other things, excerpts from publications like Newsweek and the New York Times, and videos with over 25 top pundits, all talking specifically about Obama’s identity as a GenJoneser:

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

While I agree--in general--with these sentiments I can't endorse the whole "mercy killing" idea. Long, convoluted reasoning follows, which I'll spare you now.

The REAL issues it the fact that the Big Three are merely symptoms of a more chronic problem within the American industrial complex. So Detroit was arrogant in the early '00s about gas guzzlers? They chased the quick buck without planning any long-term strategy? Welcome to American business, which NEVER looks beyond next quarter's profit statement. Moreso than any bailout of AIG or GM or VISA and MasterCard (because massive waves of private credit default is LOOMING on the horizon) we need a serious taxation/incentive revamp that discourages the whole profit-taking mentality of Wall Street and encourages long-term, sustained growth. A wholly consumption-based economy like we have blundered our way into cannot remain viable over the long term.

Chris Nakashima-Brown said...

Thanks for the tip about Generation Jones -- I am a member of that demographic and had, amazingly, never even heard the term! Much to digest there. As for Obama and the Boomers, while he may not be one of them, and his most devotional acolytes appear to be among Generation X and younger, the thing that I am griping about in the post is how immediately Obama reveals his co-optation by Clintonian Boomer pols stuck in the mid-20th century.

Jayme, I agree with on everything except the delusion that tax policy can have any positive impact on anything other than the fiscal power of professional politicians. The consumption addiction will only ever be broken if our societies can overcome the unending imperative for growth. The evolutionary imperative to grow the species is probably the ultimate cause of the never-ending need for more more more, a basic part of the programming that needs to be hacked to put us on a more steady-state path — unless we can acquire some fresh predators. Maybe the near-future permeation of the species barrier (see below) will help reprogram all this as well.