Robert Reich Sees Other Agendas In The GM Bankruptcy

I rarely find myself being captivated by much of anything Robert Reich says or writes. It seems to me that he is a captive of the left and as such rarely steps outside his framework to view different aspects of a problem. That might be what makes his article in today’s Financial Times so exceptional.

Reich doesn’t think that the taxpayer has a snowballs chance in hell of ever getting their money back from GM and asks why then did the government go all in? 

From the FT:

But why would US taxpayers want to own today’s GM? Surely not because the shares promise a high return when the economy turns up. GM has been on a downward slide for years. In the 1960s, consumer advocate Ralph Nader revealed its cars were unsafe. In the 1970s, Middle East oil producers showed its cars were uneconomic. In the 1980s, Japanese carmakers exposed them as unreliable and costly. Many younger Americans have never bought a GM car and would not think of doing so. Given this record, it seems doubtful that taxpayers will even be repaid our $60bn. But getting repaid cannot be the main goal of the bail-out. Presumably, the reason is to serve some larger public purpose. But the goal is not obvious.

It cannot be to preserve GM jobs, because the US Treasury has signalled GM must slim to get the cash. It plans to shut half-a-dozen factories and sack at least 20,000 more workers. It has already culled its dealership network.

The purpose cannot be to create a new, lean, debt-free company that might one day turn a profit. That is what the private sector is supposed to achieve on its own and what a reorganisation under bankruptcy would do.

Nor is the purpose of the bail-out to create a new generation of fuel-efficient cars. Congress has already given carmakers money to do this. Besides, the Treasury has said it has no interest in being an active investor or telling the industry what cars to make.

The only practical purpose I can imagine for the bail-out is to slow the decline of GM to create enough time for its workers, suppliers, dealers and communities to adjust to its eventual demise. Yet if this is the goal, surely there are better ways to allocate $60bn than to buy GM? The funds would be better spent helping the Midwest diversify away from cars. Cash could be used to retrain car workers, giving them extended unemployment insurance as they retrain.

But US politicians dare not talk openly about industrial adjustment because the public does not want to hear about it. A strong constituency wants to preserve jobs and communities as they are, regardless of the public cost. Another equally powerful group wants to let markets work their will, regardless of the short-term social costs. Polls show most Americans are against bailing out GM, but if their own jobs were at stake I am sure they would have a different view.

So the Obama administration is, in effect, paying $60bn to buy off both constituencies. It is telling the first group that jobs and communities dependent on GM will be better preserved because of the bail-out, and the second that taxpayers and creditors will be rewarded by it. But it is not telling anyone the complete truth: GM will disappear, eventually. The bail-out is designed to give the economy time to reduce the social costs of the blow.

That’s pretty strong stuff. Actually, it makes as much sense as anything else that I’ve heard or read. Certainly, the Obama administration’s logic for the bailout is full of contradictions. The fact is that we may never know if Reich is right or wrong. He says GM will disappear but I would disagree. GM will become like any other government program, perpetually in place and perpetually funded regardless of whether logic would dictate that it be taken out behind the barn and put down.

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