The 21st Realist Watch*: Giving a Needed Lease to America’s GM

Dillon Zhou

If one were to ask any knowledgeable and worldly individual to name a representative company that describes America’s looming presence during the 20th Century, they would inevitably name General Motors Corporation (GM) as one of the titans of American economic primacy due to the company’s legacy as an automobile powerhouse during most of the last one hundred years. The automotive industry gives Americans a feeling of prestige and pride due to recognition of the GM brand name across the globe.

Despite the fact that this All-American company has helped America win two World Wars and given so many ordinary American workers a living for a century, the company faces some real trouble. The considerable challenges that this great company faces right now are the same ones that it’s faced since the 1970’s – including fuel economy, labor unrest, and the emergence of potent, foreign newcomers like Toyota and Honda – the corporate leadership has been able to initiate a tangible recovery strategy to bring GM back to the forefront of the industry since that time. The recent economic crisis has obviously been a crippling blow to this recovery process, since it has come in conjunction to the considerable long-term problems for economic health of GM.

An era of darkness has fallen on GM and its American peers. Recent downturns in the American economy have made the survival of any American automotive company open to question. Japanese automakers have surpassed the three American auto giants in terms of market share of the American automotive market. The United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (also referred to as the UAW) has continued to keep up unrelenting pressure on GM to fulfill its obligations in maintaining the expensive compensation policy that’s currently in place to insure the livelihood of GM union-members in factories and facilities. Fuel economy remains when compared to most foreign carmakers, especially the Japanese. Perhaps most alarming of all is the fact that GM has now declared bankruptcy and has been cannibalizing its assets – including its stake in Suzuki – to finance its latest revival effort. It goes without saying that GM needs help in making a comeback, since this company means too much as a symbol of American greatness – which is in serious doubt without a stimulus package from the US Government.

By the looks of the proceedings on Capitol Hill, on Thursday of last week, it appears that the US Government will not be doing any rescue actions, without a concrete plan from GM. It appears as if Uncle Sam has become a cautious lender, and not without reason – though it remains galling to onlookers who have an interest in the future of companies like GM. The once staunch supporters of American Giants in the Republican Party have come out to denounce any effort to help these ailing companies. Last Sunday, Senators Richard Shelby of Alabama and Jon Kyl of Arizona openly declared that it would be a blunder to use any of the Wall Street aid funds to buttress the automakers. The senators said an auto bailout would only put off the industry’s inevitable downfall in the near future. “Companies fail every day and others take their place. I think this is a road we should not go down,” said Mr. Shelby, the senior Republican on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. “They’re not building the right products,” he said. “They’ve got good workers, but I don’t believe they’ve got good management. They don’t innovate. They’re a dinosaur in a sense.” Mr. Kyl, the Senate’s second-ranking Republican, went further: “Just giving them $25 billion doesn’t change anything. It just puts off for six months or so the day of reckoning.”

On the other hand, the majority House Democrats have gone on a very different tangent by supporting a bailout plan with their majority. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said over the weekend that the House would offer help to the ailing industry, though she did not put a price on the table. “The House is ready to do it,” said our very own Representative Barney Frank, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee. “There’s no downside to trying.” But the Democrats have only a marginal majority in the US Senate, and President Bush opposes the idea. That raises the likelihood that any help for automakers will have to wait until 2009, when the “candidate of change,” President-elect Barack Obama, takes office and the Democrats swell their majority in the Senate.

Some notable Americans, like our former Governor, have made some very unsettling remarks about this matter. In fact, Mr. Romney has gone as far as saying, in a New York Times op-ed piece, that the three auto giants need to be recycled in order for America’s native car industry to start anew. He points to the fact that any money sent to aid the sick companies, who have stubbornly stayed on a “suicidal course of declining market shares, insurmountable labor and retiree burdens, technology atrophy, product inferiority and never-ending job losses.” His op-ed makes several logical but obvious suggestions: cut costs of labor, materiel, and adjustable expenses to compete with the foreign automakers; get rid of the insider executives in favor of fresh faces from other industries to get new ideas the brainstorming process; make a roadmap for alleviating the friction between the workers and managers to retain the good workers that is needed to reinvigorate the company.

Finally, Romney says that: “It is not wrong to ask for government help, but the automakers should come up with a win-win proposition. I believe the federal government should invest substantially more in basic research – on new energy sources, fuel-economy technology, materials science and the like – that will ultimately benefit the automotive industry, along with many others.”

This conclusion doesn’t seem bad, since the loan would be a high risk on the part of the US government, especially when they’re using the tax dollars of their voting constituents. However, it’s equally important to remember that it would be extremely difficult to start new auto companies from scratch in the economic recession that we’re currently experiencing.

I urge my fellow Americans to think carefully on the bailout decision. Is it worth the risk to help our sick auto giants, who’ve given America so much to gush about during the past century? Or is it truly better to let these incorrigible companies to die in the sunlight and allow new American sprouts to rise for a better future? I can only say this: don’t be hasty and weigh your options carefully. Investing in new companies, while relying on technical innovations that are still in the oven, is not the most prudent choice. Therefore, we must diversify the US government’s “recovery portfolio” for the automotive industry by urging consolidation amongst the American auto giants and make it attractive for a potential new generation of American carmakers to take up root. I believe in the spirit of the American people and their ability to make pragmatic choices while weathering tough economic times.

* After some serious thinking, I’ve decided to change the name of my column to match the quintessential nature of my view of the world. The 21st part was a stylistic reference to the current century that we live in.