Chrysler and GM will rise again. I don’t make many predictions, but I’m comfortable with this one. But can this public-private partnership model really work? Is it possible for the U.S. government to run–more or less–a large manufacturer at a profit? The answer is yes, but you can pay dearly for their profits.
Consider that Washington is already providing these companies with an endless stream of taxpayer capital other carmakers cannot access. Government funds are also being provided to their finance wings to make it easier for their customers to purchase cars. Research grants and incentives indirectly fund the development of vehicles that will be required in Obama’s new “green economy.” Revised CAFE standards and other regulations will add production costs to all carmakers, while Chrysler and GM (and perhaps Ford) will have some of these offset by government subsidies. Government-run healthcare could transfer a huge industry liability to taxpayers as well. In addition, Obama’s weak dollar policy, which is supposed to promote exports by making U.S. goods cheaper abroad (a debatable proposition), will raise the cost of imports. In other words, steps have already been taken to make it easier for Chrysler and GM to compete in future years, while making it more costly for Toyota, Honda, and others. And if all else fails, another stimulus for federal and even state governments to “update their fleets” by purchasing new vehicles from the Big 3 will prop them up even further.
If you are a conservative doubting the efficiency of government-manipulated industry, you are right. But many of the long-term bailout costs will be hidden under the guise of economic stimulus, research incentives, environmentalism, and the like. The survival of GM and Chrysler will not mean that “business-government partnerships” work well, but instead that our government has both the power and audacity to spend enough of our money to keep them afloat. I expect socialists and some moderates to praise Obama’s business acumen when U.S. auto production appears to turnaround some time before the 2012 elections. I also expect to see a Heritage Foundation study that calculates precisely how much we spent—DIRECTLY AND INDIRECTLY—to save the carmakers and the UAW.
So here’s a word to the wise. When others laud the current administration for shaking things up at GM and Chrysler, don’t get caught predicting their demise. I suggest that you forecast their success. I can’t tell you what they will look like in a few years, but the political stakes are simply too high for the Obama administration to allow the perception of failure. Just don’t forget to keep track of what it’s really going to cost us when we’re done.