Tag: general motors

P.J. O’Rourke, Driving Like Crazy

img_3445What do automobiles and  American founding principles have in common?

At a Cato forum Tuesday, P.J. O’Rourke, author of the new book Driving Like Crazy, said well, plenty.

“Cars fulfilled the Americans’ founding fathers’ dream and ideal,” said O’Rourke. “Of all the truths that we hold to be self evident, of all the  unalienable rights with which we are endowed, what is the most important to the American dream? It is right there, front and center…freedom to leave…freedom to get the hell out of town.”

Indeed, the American automobile as many have known it is fading fast. After years of government incentives to build certain types of cars, tax credits to buy smaller ones, higher gasoline tax proposals, and the government takeover of General Motors, the cars that so represented American freedom and individualism won’t last long, he said.

“Pity the poor American car when Congress and the White House get through with it,” he said.  “A light-weight vehicle with a small carbon footprint using alternative energy and renewable resources to operate in a sustainable way– When I was a kid, we called it a Schwinn.”

O’Rourke said that going after the automobile is just a way for bureaucrats in Washington to take control over another part of Americans’ lives.

“I’m old enough to realize that freedom is always under attack,” he said. “This is a never ending struggle.”

You can watch his entire speech, or listen in on a Cato special podcast below.

Photo credit: Kelly Anne Creazzo

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Week in Review: A Speech in Cairo, an Anniversary in China and a U.S. Bankruptcy

Obama Speaks to the Muslim World

cairoIn Cairo on Thursday, President Obama asked for a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” and spoke at some length on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Cato scholar Christopher Preble comments, “At times, it sounded like a state of the union address, with a litany of promises intended to appeal to particular interest groups. …That said, I thought the president hit the essential points without overpromising.”

Preble goes on to say:

He did not ignore that which divides the United States from the world at large, and many Muslims in particular, nor was he afraid to address squarely the lies and distortions — including the implication that 9/11 never happened, or was not the product of al Qaeda — that have made the situation worse than it should be. He stressed the common interests that should draw people to support U.S. policies rather than oppose them: these include our opposition to the use of violence against innocents; our support for democracy and self-government; and our hostility toward racial, ethnic or religious intolerance. All good.

David Boaz contends that there are a number of other nations the president could have chosen to deliver his address:

Americans forget that the Muslim world and the Arab world are not synonymous. In fact, only 15 to 20 percent of Muslims live in Arab countries, barely more than the number in Indonesia alone and far fewer than the number in the Indian subcontinent. It seems to me that Obama would be better off delivering his message to the Muslim world somewhere closer to where most Muslims live. Perhaps even in his own childhood home of Indonesia.

Not only are there more Muslims in Asia than in the Middle East, the Muslim countries of south and southeast Asia have done a better job of integrating Islam and modern democratic capitalism…. Egypt is a fine place for a speech on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But in Indonesia, Malaysia, India, or Pakistan he could give a speech on America and the Muslim world surrounded by rival political leaders in a democratic country and by internationally recognized business leaders. It would be good for the president to draw attention to this more moderate version of Islam.

Tiananmen Square: 20 Years Later

tsquare1It has been 20 years since the tragic deaths of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in June 1989, and 30 years since Deng Xiaoping embarked on economic reform in China. Cato scholar James A. Dorn comments, “After 20 years China has made substantial economic progress, but the ghosts of Tiananmen are restless and will continue to be so until the Goddess of Liberty is restored.”

In Thursday’s Cato Daily Podcast, Dorn discusses the perception of human rights in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre, saying that many young people are beginning to accept the existence of human rights independent of the state.

A few days before the anniversary, social media Web sites like Twitter and YouTube were blocked in China. Cato scholar Jim Harper says that it’s going to take a lot more than tanks to shut down the message of freedom in today’s online world:

In 1989, when a nascent pro-democracy movement wanted to communicate its vitality and prepare to take on the state, meeting en masse was vital. But that made it fairly easy for the CCP to roll in and crush the dream of democracy.

Twenty years later, the Internet is the place where mass movements for liberty can take root. While the CCP is attempting to use the electronic equivalent of an armored division to prevent change, reform today is a question of when, not if. Shutting down open dialogue will only slow the democratic transition to freedom, which the Chinese government cannot ultimately prevent.

Taxpayers Acquire Failing Auto Company

After billions of dollars were spent over the course of two presidential administrations to keep General Motors afloat, the American car company filed for bankruptcy this week anyway.

Last year Cato trade expert Daniel J. Ikenson appeared on dozens of radio and television programs and wrote op-eds in newspapers and magazines explaining why automakers should file for bankruptcy—before spending billions in taxpayer dollars.

Which leaves Ikenson asking one very important question: “What was the point of that?

In November, GM turned to the federal government for a bailout loan — the one final alternative to bankruptcy. After a lot of discussion and some rich debate, Congress voted against a bailout, seemingly foreclosing all options except bankruptcy. But before GM could avail itself of bankruptcy protection, President Bush took the fateful decision of circumventing Congress and diverting $15.4 billion from Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to GM (in the chummy spirit of avoiding tough news around the holidays).

That was the original sin. George W. Bush is very much complicit in the nationalization of GM and the cascade of similar interventions that may follow. Had Bush not funded GM in December (under questionable authority, no less), the company probably would have filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 1, at which point prospective buyers, both foreign and domestic, would have surfaced and made bids for spin-off assets or equity stakes in the “New GM,” just as is happening now.

Meanwhile, the government takeover of GM puts the fate of Ford Motors, a company that didn’t take any bailout money, into question:

Thus, what’s going to happen to Ford? With the public aware that the administration will go to bat for GM, who will want to own Ford stock? Who will lend Ford money (particularly in light of the way GM’s and Chrysler’s bondholders were treated). Who wants to compete against an entity backed by an unrestrained national treasury?

Ultimately, if I’m a member of Ford management or a large shareholder, I’m thinking that my biggest competitors, who’ve made terrible business decisions over the years, just got their debts erased and their downsides covered. Thus, even if my balance sheet is healthy enough to go it alone, why bother? And that calculation presents the specter of another taxpayer bailout to the tunes of tens of billions of dollars, and another government-run auto company.

GM’s Nationalization and China’s Capitalists

GM’s restructuring under Chapter 11 includes plans to sell off the Hummer, Saab, and Saturn brands. Well, just one day after GM’s bankruptcy filing, a Chinese firm has come forward with a $500 million offer to purchase Hummer. The prospective buyer is Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery Co Ltd, a manufacturing company in western China, which hopes to become an automaker.

Not only is the Hummer offer the first bid for a GM asset in bankruptcy, but the bidder is foreign. Not only is the bidder foreign, but Chinese. And not only is the bidder Chinese, but the Hummer was first developed by the U.S. military. Thus, this is certain to be characterized as a national security matter, and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) will have to review the proposal. There should be little doubt that the economic nationalists will be out in full force, warning CFIUS against transferring sensitive technologies to Red China.

Let me offer two quick points, as the bulging veins in my temples pulsate with disdain for official Washington.

First, if this deal is rejected (even if the bidder is scared away by detractors), any remaining credibility to the proposition that the United States will once again become that beacon on a hill, exemplifying for the world the virtues of free markets and limited government, will vanish into the ether. There has been too much U.S. hypocrisy on free trade and cross-border investment and too much double talk about the impropriety of government subsidizing national champions, that another indiscretion in a high profile case will blow open the already-bowing flood gates to economic nationalism worldwide. Considering that U.S. companies sell five times as much stuff to foreigners through their foreign subsidiaries than by exporting from the United States, investment protectionism is as advisable as nationalizing car companies.

Second, the willingness of this Chinese company to purchase Hummer serves as a stark reminder of what could have been. Had George W. Bush not allocated TARP money to GM last December, in circumvention of Congress’s rejection of a bailout, then GM likely would have filed for bankruptcy on January 1. At that point, there would likely have been plenty of offers from foreign and domestic concerns for individual assets to spin off or for equity stakes in the New GM. There would have been plant closures, dealership terminations, and jobs losses, as there is under the nationalization plan anyway. But taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook for $50+ billion, a sum that is much more likely to grow larger than it is to be repaid. It is also a sum that will serve as the rationalization for further government interventions on GM’s behalf.

The Corporate Culture at Government Motors

David Brooks comes in for his share of criticism in these parts, but he has a very astute column today about the ways that government ownership will worsen an already problematic corporate culture at a once-great company:

Fifth, G.M.’s executives and unions now have an incentive to see Washington as a prime revenue center. Already, the union has successfully lobbied to move production centers back from overseas. Already, the company has successfully sought to restrict the import of cars that might compete with G.M. brands. In the years ahead, G.M.’s management will have a strong incentive to spend time in Washington, urging the company’s owner, the federal government, to issue laws to help it against Ford and Honda.

Sixth, the new plan will create an ever-thickening set of relationships between G.M.’s new owners — in government, management and unions. These thickening bonds between public and private bureaucrats will fundamentally alter the corporate culture, and not for the better. Members of Congress are also getting more involved in the company they own, and will have their own quaint impact.

The end result is that G.M. will not become more like successful car companies. It will become less like them.

GM’s Last Capitalist Act: Filing for Bankruptcy Protection

It’s not as if we didn’t know this was going to happen to GM for a long time now.

GM’s bankruptcy announcement today is perhaps the least shocking news we’ve heard about the company in more than seven months. It might well be remembered as the company’s last act of capitalism.

If GM emerges from bankruptcy organized and governed by the plan created by the Obama administration, it is impossible to see how free markets will have anything to do with the U.S. auto industry. With taxpayers on the hook for $50 billion (at a minimum), the administration will do whatever it has to – including tilting the playing field with policies that induce consumers to buy GM or hamstring GM’s competition or subsidize its costs – in order for GM to succeed.

Thus, what’s going to happen to Ford? With the public aware that the administration will go to bat for GM, who will want to own Ford stock?  Who will lend Ford money (particularly in light of the way GM’s and Chrysler’s bondholders were treated).  Who wants to compete against an entity backed by an unrestrained national treasury?

Ultimately, if I’m a member of Ford management or a large shareholder, I’m thinking that my biggest competitors, who’ve made terrible business decisions over the years, just got their debts erased and their downsides covered.  Thus, even if my balance sheet is healthy enough to go it alone, why bother?  And that calculation presents the specter of another taxpayer bailout to the tunes of tens of billions of dollars, and another government-run auto company.

Labor’s Waxing Political Influence

It has long been recognized that many capitalists are the greatest enemies of capitalism.  They want free enterprise for others, not themselves.

Unfortunately, organized labor tends to be even more statist in orientation.  Unions now routinely lobby for government to give them what they cannot get in the marketplace.

Labor influence is greatest in the public sector.  And as government’s power has expanded during the current economic crisis, so has the influence of unions.  Observes Steve Malanga in the Wall Street Journal:

Across the private sector, workers are swallowing hard as their employers freeze salaries, cancel bonuses, and institute longer work days. America’s employees can see for themselves how steeply business has fallen off, which is why many are accepting cost-saving measures with equanimity – especially compared to workers in France, where riots and plant takeovers have become regular news.

But then there is the U.S. public sector, where the mood seems very European these days. In New Jersey, which faces a $3.3 billion budget deficit, angry state workers have demonstrated in Trenton and taken Gov. Jon Corzine to court over his plan to require unpaid furloughs for public employees. In New York, public-sector unions have hit the airwaves with caustic ads denouncing Gov. David Paterson’s promise to lay off state workers if they continue refusing to forgo wage hikes as part of an effort to close a $17.7 billion deficit. In Los Angeles County, where the schools face a budget deficit of nearly $600 million, school employees have balked at a salary freeze and vowed to oppose any layoffs that the board of education says it will have to pursue if workers don’t agree to concessions.

Call it a tale of two economies. Private-sector workers – unionized and nonunion alike – can largely see that without compromises they may be forced to join unemployment lines. Not so in the public sector.

Government unions used their influence this winter in Washington to ensure that a healthy chunk of the federal stimulus package was sent to states and cities to preserve public jobs. Now they are fighting tenacious and largely successful local battles to safeguard salaries and benefits. Their gains, of course, can only come at the expense of taxpayers, which is one reason why states and cities are approving tens of billions of dollars in tax increases.

The government’s increased power over the economy also gives organized labor a new hook to lobby for more special interest privileges.  For instance, the AFL-CIO is arguing that the federal bailout of the auto industry should bar the companies from moving factories overseas.

Explains the union federation:

The pundits and politicians inside the Washington Beltway don’t get: If the United States continues to send its manufacturing jobs [1] overseas—as [2] General Motors and Chrysler are now proposing—the result will be more low-income U.S. families.

So today, workers, economists, academics and business and union leaders, fresh from the “[3] Keep It Made in America” bus tour through the nation’s heartland, brought that message to the policymakers’ doorstep as part of a teach-in on Capitol Hill.

The 11-day, 34-city bus tour showcased the ripple effect on communities of the lost jobs in manufacturing. ([4] See video.) Today, during the teach-in, those who took part brought the stories they heard along the tour and presented principles for revitalizing the auto industry to members of Congress and the press. 

Labor officials have been making similar arguments about bank lending.  If you got bailed out by Washington, then you have an obligation to keep funding bankrupt concerns.  Never mind getting paid back, and paying back the taxpayers.

Markets are resilient, but can survive only so much political interference.  If the American people aren’t careful, they might eventually find themselves living in an economy more appropriate for Latin America than North America.

An Overdue Reckoning in the Auto Sector

Bloomberg reports:

General Motors Corp., facing a probable bankruptcy filing by June 1, is telling 1,100 “underperforming” U.S. dealers they will be terminated as the automaker starts shrinking its retail network.

Most of the closings will occur by October 2010, and none are happening now, Detroit-based GM said today. The targeted outlets will have until the end of the month to appeal the decisions, GM said, without specifying the stores on the list.

The shutdowns are the biggest U.S. automaker’s first step toward paring domestic dealers to a range of 3,600 to 4,000 from 5,969 by the end of 2010.

To be sure, it is a very sad day for thousands of workers and businesses around the country.  But we’re in the midst of a deep recession, which may be nowhere deeper than in the auto sector.  Demand for cars and light trucks has absolutely tanked, which means the economy has an excess supply of inventory, productive capacity, and retail capacity.

Dealerships are closing, as they should be. Chrysler’s in bankruptcy, as it should be. GM is headed for bankruptcy, as it should be.

But this all should have happened long ago…

…long before President George W. Bush had the chance to circumvent the wishes of Congress to give Chrysler and GM more than $19 billion (not including GMAC) from the TARP allotment,

…long before President Obama had the chance to promise billions more and assume a large operational role for the U.S. government in Chrysler’s and GM’s future operations,

…long before President Obama had the chance to create a huge moral hazard by strong-arming Chrysler’s preferred lenders into taking pennies on their loan dollars, while giving preference to claimants of lesser priority,

…long before Ford, Toyota, Honda, BMW, Kia, and the rest of America’s automobile industry were implicitly taxed by the government’s insistence on preventing two firms from exiting the market or substantially reducing their presence in accordance with established bankruptcy provisions.

And most certainly, long before other businesses in other industries started to get the idea that failure is the new success.