Editorial: General Motors Death Watch 214: Whose Car Company is This Anyway?

editorial general motors death watch 214 whose car company is this anyway

In the legend of Faust, the protagonist sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for knowledge and power. Needless to say, things end badly for one member of the transaction (hint: it’s not the guy with the horns on his head). A “Faustian bargain” has come to mean a deal where you surrender what’s truly important to achieve an ultimately worthless goal. Yes, I’m talking about GM. If the artist once known as the world’s largest automaker avoids Chapter 11 via a bailout deal with Washington (a.k.a. Mephistopheles), the contract will ensure its final, irretrievable doom.

In this case, as in so many others, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Ostensibly, bailout supporters want to “protect” Uncle Sam’s “investment” in GM– otherwise known as fighting a rearguard action against those who see a GM bailout as GMAB (Good Money After Bad). To that end, lawmakers crafting the $25b-plus suckle are talking-up the “strings” attached to the cash.

Speaking on yesterday’s Face the Nation, Barney Frank laid out his prophylactic proposals. The Massachusetts representative tasked with writing and proposing the bailout bill says the feds will only tender taxypayers’ money to Motown mismanagers if the beneficiaries agree to end to shareholder dividends, ban bonuses for employees who earn more than $200k a year, and submit to a government oversight board with power to veto corporate decisions.

First, the idea that GM would pay out shareholder dividends when it’s nose-up in the North Atlantic makes no sense at all. Oh wait. They already did that, didn’t they? For years. OK, well, what difference does a dividend payment make when GM is burning through one— make that two billion dollars per month? More to the point, since when does the U.S. federal government have the right to decide if and when a publicly-held company should or should not set a dividend? Frankly, Frank, it’s none of your goddamn business. At least it SHOULDN’T be.

As even a casual reader of this series will know, I consider GM CEO Rick Wagoner’s tenure at the top an utter failure. The GM Board of Bystanders that elevated and supported Red Ink Rick in his Reign of Torpor is criminally liable. In fact, there is but one group of people on planet Earth who could make more of a mess of GM than its current administration: politicians. To wit…

For better or worse (worse), politicians are paid a flat fee. Here in the real world, executives work for a salary and an annual bonus. In the ideal real world, the bonus is tied to something called “performance,” sometimes involving a personal target, sometimes company-wide. Many times, the system works (hence its existence). Other times (i.e. Rick Wagoner), it doesn’t (hence GM’s destruction). Normally, the free market cleans up the mess.

Removing the executive bonus system to satisfy a politician’s idea of class warfare is patently ridiculous. If GM is to recover, it needs [NEW] top executive talent. To attract same, it can either pay-out bonuses for top performance or… what? Inflate the base salary and benefits to skirt the issue? Maybe so. But again, is anyone more uniquely unqualified to make that decision than Washington politicians?

This brings us to the third leg of this inherently unstable federal stool: an oversight committee. With veto powers, no less.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the bailout bill will require the automakers and their unions to draw up plans on “how the companies would return to financial health in the longer term.” Congress will then appoint “guardians” who will tell GM how to implement the Congress-approved plans. Oh, and there could also be a Car Czar to tell the oversight committee what to tell GM executives.

Yeah, I want to buy a car from THAT company.

In truth, I’d rather the feds just GIVE GM the $25b, no strings attached. At least GM would have to come back with their begging bowl after they’ve pissed the cash away, rather than simply slipping an item into next year’s appropriations bill. I mean, when was the last time a federal organization said, right, we’re done. Disband us, close the office and fire the secretaries so we can all go home?

The federal proposal to “save” GM et al. is not a bailout. Not anymore. Now it’s a Faustian bargain between a failed company and a power-mad government. If approved, it will allow your duly elected representatives to gain control of an American carmaker to manipulate it for their own ends. Anyone who thinks those ends will be determined by a desire to create product and customer service excellence is seriously, dangerously deluded.

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  • CommanderFish CommanderFish on Nov 19, 2008
    Kevin: It worked? So Chrysler’s NOT in Washington right now with the beggar’s cup outstretched? It’s OK for a company to have to be bailed out by the federal government every 20 years? The Chrysler bailout was a failure; today’s events prove that. Chrysler SHOULD have been allowed to die, and THAT might have proved to be the best thing that could ever have happened to GM and Ford. Bull. It did work. During the 90's, Chrysler was on top of the world. They could design cars with the best of them, and could do it cheaper and faster. But instead of correcting the problems with the cars by using better materials and what not, Eaton bailed and threw Chrysler to Daimler, who proceeded to drop Chrysler off a cliff to make Mercedes look good. It had nothing to do with the 1979 bailout. Chrysler was a successful business in between there and now.

  • Nonce Nonce on Nov 20, 2008
    So Ford, Gm and Cry-sler can’t make money on cars in America? So how did Toyota, Honda, Nissan even Hyundai do it?By not having massive legacy costs, and by having flexible labor contracts. They were able to watch the Big Three and their labor contracts and say "let's not get ourselves some of that."

  • Syke Thanks, somehow I missed that.
  • 285exp I am quite sure that it is a complete coincidence that they have announced a $7k price increase the same week that the current administration has passed legislation extending the $7k tax credit that was set to expire. Yep, not at all related.
  • Syke Is it possible to switch the pure EV drive on and off? Given the wonderful throttle response of an EV, I could see the desirability of this for a serious off-roader. Run straight ICE to get to your off-roading site, switch over the EV drive during the off-road section, then back to ICE for the road trip back home.
  • ToolGuy Historical Perspective Moment:• First-gen Bronco debuted in MY1966• OJ Simpson Bronco chase was in 1994• 1966 to 1994 = 28 years• 1994 to now = 28 yearsFeel old yet?
  • Ronnie Schreiber From where is all that electricity needed to power an EV transportation system going to come? Ironically, the only EV evangelist that I know of who even mentions the fragile nature of our electrical grid is Elon Musk. None of the politicians pushing EVs go anywhere near it, well, unless they are advocating for unreliable renewables like wind and solar.
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