When private, for-profit firms ask for public money, taxpayers tend to take a more personal interest in their goings-on. After all, they are, in a very real sense, still the partial owners of these companies, and they put up the cash to provide a second chance to companies that offer no similar reciprocation when consumers default on their own car loans. And though US taxpayers have earned the right to feel a sense of ownership towards GM and Chrysler, there are several groups of Americans who have shouldered a disproportionate amount of the burden of the bailout. First, the GM and Chrysler employees who were laid off despite the bailout must doubtless wonder why they had to both fund the bailout and lose their jobs (remember, cutting jobs was the most “positive” aspect of the bailout, according to the industry). Similarly, GM and Chrysler’s bondholders paid twice to “save” their failed investments, once with their tax money and again by taking a hefty cramdown. And finally, a third group paid far more than anyone else, not only funding the bailout with with their taxes, but also sacrificing compensation for injuries caused by GM and Chrysler vehicles. The WSJ [sub] reports
Among the creditors who suffered most, car-accident victims represent a distinct mold. Unlike banks and bondholders, this group didn’t choose to extend credit to the auto makers. As consumers, they became creditors only after suffering injuries in vehicles they purchased.
“This was not a normal case. The government was deciding who was going to be taken care of and who was not,” said David Skeel, a University of Pennsylvania law school professor and bankruptcy expert who has testified before Congress on the auto bailouts. Even if the auto makers had legal rights to leave behind product-liability claims, “there is a deep unfairness,” he said. “It would have been easy enough to set something aside for them.”
Given the celebratory, even triumphalist, rhetoric that’s being applied to the auto bailout after the fact, it’s important to remember that many suffered in order to give GM and Chrysler a second chance. Even those who are proud of the bailout’s accomplishment should acknowledge that the jobs saved carried a price that goes beyond any final accounting of anonymous billions lost from the federal budget. The pro-bailout crowd should take more care to recognize and heal the deep wounds that fester beneath their “Mission Accomplished” rhetoric… if only to prevent a repeat of these tragic decisions in the event of future industry rescues.