Wasteful Obama Auto Bailouts Disturb Even Liberal Washington Post

by Hans Bader on May 30, 2009

Even the liberal Washington Post, which endorsed Obama and has not backed a Republican for president since 1952, is getting fed up with the Obama Administration’s wasteful and politicized bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler. Today, it laments the
“imminent transformation of General Motors into a government-owned company, infused with upward of $50 billion in federal money.” “It doesn’t take much imagination to forecast the political pressures that will buffet the government-as-auto-executive. We’ve seen one effect already in the preferential treatment of the autoworkers’ union at the expense of private creditors. . . . the union can boast that it has been promised no loss in ‘base hourly pay, no reduction in . . . health care, and no reduction in pensions,’” even though excessive union wages and benefits helped sink the company. And politics will now divert the company’s attention away from making cars consumers actually want. “Influential members of Congress will insist on jobs in their districts; environmentalists will want electric cars; overseas sourcing will be frowned upon. How such decisions affect profits could become secondary.”

That’s what happened in Britain in the 1970s. The government took over and attempted to bail out the country’s auto industry, and ruined it in the process, destroying whatever chance it had left to survive. The British auto industry ended up being run mainly to benefit the unions, and produced politically-correct cars drivers didn’t want.

Earlier the Post argued that Obama “should stop bullying the company’s bondholders”: “While the Obama administration has been playing hardball with bondholders, it has been more than happy to play nice with the United Auto Workers. How else to explain why a retiree health-care fund controlled by the UAW is slated to get a 39 percent equity stake in GM for its remaining $10 billion in claims while bondholders are being pressured to take a 10 percent stake for their $27 billion?” “If this were a typical bankruptcy, the company would be allowed by law to tear up its UAW collective bargaining agreement and negotiate for drastically reduced wages and benefits. That’s not going happen. Phrased another way: The government won’t let that happen.” Instead, the government is moving towards “financial engineering that ignores basic principles of fairness and economic realities to further political goals.”

The automakers would have been better off simply filing for bankruptcy last fall rather than seeking a taxpayer-funded bailout. The bailouts have cost taxpayers tens of billions, but made it harder to fix the root causes of the crisis facing the Detroit automakers, such as excessive labor costs.

The federal government poured billions of dollars into Chrysler, which then went bankrupt and now is in the process of merging with Fiat. But Chrysler may never revive, thanks to absurdly generous compensation for the company’s union employees. The Obama Administration has refused to cut union wages substantially, though it had no compunction about ripping off the pension funds and other lenders who loaned money to Chrysler to try to keep it afloat. Even union members seem surprised by how little they were asked to sacrifice. (The Administration is also seeking to rip off GM bondholders to benefit the union).

Moderate Democrat Mickey Kaus, who reluctantly voted for Obama, notes that the federal bailout may yet fail because of Obama’s failure to reduce excessive labor costs:

“Before the deal, Chrysler’s UAW workers made $28 an hour. After the deal, they’ll make $28 an hour. They gave up a scheduled increase in wages, plus a couple of scheduled bonuses. That explains why Chrysler’s Belvidere, Illinois workers told TV station WIFR that ‘the plan is not nearly as drastic as they expected.’ …As for Chrysler’s ‘chance for long-term success,’ it appears vanishingly small. Italian manufacturer FIAT is supposed to save Chrysler with new products, but according to a recent Automotive News article, ‘four of the six new vehicles from Fiat will enter the small-car segment,’ which is highly competitive but ‘covers only 14 percent of the entire U.S. light-vehicle market.’ . . . Pathetically, Chrysler hopes that even if they don’t save the company the new small cars will ‘[b]urnish the environmental image of Chrysler brands,’ says Automotive News. Unfortunately, the pipeline for those brands’ other, larger, products–burnished or not–is pretty much empty. If Chrysler workers were paid, say, not $28 an hour instead of $24–still not bad–the firm might actually have a ‘chance for long term success’ through charging lower prices. But that wasn’t a sacrifice Obama was ready to ask (even if Belvidere workers were apparently willing).”

In addition to leaving General Motors and Chrysler saddled with excessive costs and union ownership, Obama harmed them by radically ratcheting up federal CAFE fuel-economy standards, which affect them more than their foreign competitors. 50,000 jobs could be lost. And his global-warming regulations will destroy countless jobs and cut “household purchasing power,” reducing auto sales and Chrysler’s chances of survival.

Rick S May 30, 2009 at 7:54 pm

Lucky for Chrysler and GM that history never repeats itself.

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