Fancying himself “Savior of the Auto Industry,” the president deserves credit only for choosing to insulate two companies (and the UAW) from the consequences of their decisions. But with that credit he must accept responsibility for sluggish U.S. business investment, limited job creation, and the anemic economic recovery, which is due in no small measure to the regime uncertainty that descends from his intervention in the auto industry.
The administration suggests that the entire cost of the auto bailout is captured by the outlays that haven’t or won’t be returned. Despite much smaller claims from the administration, that figure will be about $5.5 billion in Chrysler’s case (the administration is overlooking $4 billion written off when New Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy) and somewhere from $7 to $15 billion in GM’s case (depending on average share price for 500 million shares). Should that loss have to be reported to the FEC on a dollar-per-auto-worker-vote basis?
But the costs are much greater than these outlays.
The most compelling objections to the bailout were not rooted in the belief that the government couldn’t use its assumed power to help Chrysler and GM. On the contrary, the most compelling objections were over concerns that the government would do just that. It is the consequences of that intervention — the undermining of the rule of law, the confiscations, the politically driven decisions, and the distortion of market signals — that animated the most serious objections. Ford never publicly objected to the interventions to rescue its rivals. Do you think Ford may feel entitled to a future bailout if needed, having foregone the recent one? Does Ford think it has a pretty good insurance policy if it takes excessive risks that go awry? This is a cost that’s tough to measure, but an important cost nonetheless.
Any verdict on the outcome of the auto industry intervention must take into account, among other things, the billions of dollars in property confiscated from the auto companies’ debt-holders; the higher risk premium built into U.S. corporate debt as a result; the costs of denying the other, more successful auto producers the spoils of competition (including additional market share and access to the resources misallocated at Chrysler and GM); the costs of rewarding irresponsible actors (like the UAW) by insulating them from the outcomes of what should have been an apolitical bankruptcy proceeding; the effects of GM’s nationalization on production, investment, and public policy decisions; the diminution of U.S. moral authority to counsel foreign governments against market interventions that can adversely affect U.S. businesses competing abroad; and the corrosive impact on America’s institutions of the illegal diversion of TARP funds to achieve politically desirable outcomes.
Let’s make the auto bailout a campaign issue and see if we can’t reconcile all of its costs.