To bail or not to bail…

27 November 2008
To bail, or not to bail: that is the question: Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageously low gas mileage, Or to take measures against a sea of warming vehicles, And by opposing end them? They have not born the whips and scorns of time, Auto conscience does make cowards of us all; And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pith and moment With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action.
The “Heartbeat of America” has suffered a major myocardial infarction. In one year, Chevrolet --as American as apple pie -- has slashed 25,000 jobs and closed a dozen of its U.S. factories. General Motors’ auto parts manufacturer, Delphi, went into declared bankruptcy -- another 14 factories and 25,000 more jobs gone by 2010. Don’t worry, however, GM’s competitors, Ford and Chrysler, also announced major bad health news. By 2012, Ford will eliminate at least 55,000 jobs. The once haughty CEOs of the auto industry strutted through the Halls of Congress giving orders. Now they beg, in vain, for bail out money -- although it’s not clear what they would do with it. reported that GM North America president Troy Clarke emailed 29,000 employees: “Your elected officials must hear from all of us now on why this support is critical. ... This level of economic devastation far exceeds the $25 billion of government support that our industry needs to bridge this current period.” (Nov. 12, 2008) Reuters reported that GM dealers received a letter from GM sales chief, Mark LaNeve, encouraging them to do something about “the deepest crisis our industry has ever faced.” Even the United Auto Workers Union conceded billions of dollars in hard-won gains to keep the factories open. They let the companies cut the retired auto workers’ health benefits. But the workers don’t accuse the UAW of selling out. They understand that the cars they made do not compete with Toyota and Honda. The trendy SUVs, Hummers and other heavy gas drinkers slowly rust away on auto dealers’ lots -- many of which have already shut down. The Big Three’s real gold mine was the phenomenal growth of sports utility vehicles (SUVs) during the 1990s, rising from 7 percent of the total car and truck market at the beginning of the decade to roughly 20 percent by the end. (Mark Brenner and Jane Slaughter, Labor Notes,, Nov. 19, 2008) The elite economists and members of the business and chattering classes wring their hands in despair. The U.S. economy has revolved around the car for almost a century. Think of the millions of miles of highways built for it and its big brother, the truck. Think of the infinite number of parking garages and lots. Think of how each house has at least a one, if not a three car garage. How will we get to work, take the kids to school, shop, get away from the house and family, or -- for teenagers -- find a place to have sex? As Congress debates what to do to save the car industry, few Members consider the incompatibility of life ruled by the automobile and the continuation of life itself. Indeed, if China, India, Brazil and other “developing” countries continue to produce cars, along with the Western, Japanese and Korean factories, the earth’s climate will become less hospitable for human beings -- even if the techno geniuses figure out how to use fuels more harmonious with Nature than gasoline. Think of what the manufacture of cars entail -- the amount of metals, chemicals, plastics and other less than healthy products! Think of the waste on concrete, steel and other material to build endless garages and ribbons of highway. The car and the city never got along unless one believes rush hour in the major capitals of the world make cities hot. Then there’s pollution, stench and frustration, not to mention the amount of resources cities must spend to meet the needs of the auto. Delphi’s CEO Steve Miller signaled what was at stake: “I want you to view what is happening at Delphi as a flash point, a test case, for all the economic and social trends that are on a collision course in our country and around the globe.” (Brenner and Slaughter) Some of my friends have already converted their cars’ engines to burn used McDonald’s grease; others await the electric versions run off power generated by the sun or wind. None of them, however, can conceive of living without their cars. How does one confront the reality of Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”? Unless we change our ways, he warned and keeps warning, the environment cannot sustain our species. Gore’s alerts focus on the mantra of continuous and unthinking growth. The city itself presents a basic challenge. Stare at the skylines of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco or Detroit! Skyscrapers that require heating and cooling 24/7, 365 days a year -- buildings in which nothing gets produced! Tens of thousand or millions of cars enter and leave underground or above ground garages each weekday -- for which the drivers pay do their vehicles occupy a space. The cars’ occupants often produce nothing tangible. From their offices, they send out millions of emails relating to businesses that often produce nothing you can touch, invoices, statements about stock and bond sales. At lunch hour, many race to their cars to meet a friend or lover for a meal -- or drive to a motel for a “nooner.” Then, back into the car, back into the garage and back into the artificially cooled or heated office to manufacture more data on the computer. The late afternoon rush hour often begins before 4 p.m. and endures until 7. Drivers or passengers allow the frustrations of their unproductive day to simmer or sometimes boil inside of them. The car has also become an instrument used by temporarily psychotic drivers: road rage. Others have developed a highly unnatural relationship between themselves and their mobile pieces of metal and plastic -- some give them pet names! Think of the car as an instrument people use to kill each other or themselves. Or, think of the car as the weirdest way ever invented to transport people. Vast social entities -- cities like Los Angeles -- virtually require inhabitants to own at least one such vehicle. Don’t think of the manufacturing process in which over nearly a century workers have sacrificed their physical and mental health over smoky, noisy, fast moving assembly lines. How can one conceive of life without the ubiquitous car? Indeed, even more remote: what will we do with the cities replete with non-productive skyscrapers and garages? Fanatic “deep ecologists” have even hinted at a Khmer Rouge (of Cambodia during the late 1970s) solution -- without the killing fields -- and call for the gradual extinction of cities and other technology deemed destructive to Nature. What does President Obama think? He will confront demands to save, at any cost, the auto industry and the millions of jobs connected to it. He might start his era of change by reversing the old slogan: “What’s bad for GM is good for America -- and the rest of the world.” Then, he might think of constructing public transportation -- jobs for millions -- in a scientific and efficient manner, much the same way he ran his presidential campaign.
Saul Landau is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and a senior fellow of the Transnational Institute. His latest book is A Bush and Botox World. His latest film is We don't play golf here! And other stories of globalisation .