General Motors Zombie Watch 7: One Way Out
I can’t decide whether GM’s “reinvention” will fail through government action or inaction. On one hand, I share the commonly held belief that GM’s product portfolio will be skewed towards small cars, to satisfy the Obama administration’s love of all things green and beautiful. Even without express orders to do so, GM’s craven executives will seek to please their elected overlords’ politically-driven desires. On the other hand, paralysis. The last thing GM’s cumbersome, dysfunctional management needs is another layer of command and control—especially one where accountability is measured in votes and patronage, rather than dollars and cents. The tendency to do nothing slowly, as is the way of all government, is great. If I had to guess which way this is going to go, I’d say both.
There’s a superabundance of evidence that the Obama administration will actively intervene in GM’s affairs. First and most incontrovertibly, the feds are on the brink of nationalizing the company, assuming a sixty percent share of “New GM.” In fact, the administration’s promises to be a “hands-off” owner reminds me nothing so much as Rasputin’s philosophy: sin is the key to redemption. We have to be hands-on to be hands-off. You have to wallow in sin to know the value of repentance. We had to fire the CEO to find a CEO who could operate effectively without government influence. Same deal.
More metaphorically, the feds have broken their interventionist cherry. Why not continue to fuck with GM? The government’s already bobsledding down that slippery slope; from appointing the entire GM Board of Directors to killing brands to killing dealers. The Presidential Task Force on Automobiles (PTFOA) says the changes are necessary, but that it will back off when post C-11 GM finds it sea legs. In this case, momentum speaks louder than words. Once a pattern of behavior is established, continuing it is easier than changing it.
Ah, yes, change. In announcing its one trillion dollar health care reform package, the Obama administration is once again showing us its willingness to enter a realm formerly reserved for free enterprise. Just as Obama wants a federal health care program to go toe-to-toe with private insurers, a federally owned GM will be soon be competing with privately held automakers.
The rationale underlying Obama’s intermingling of private and public organizations: Something must be done! As Obama said today, “the status quo is untenable.” GM can’t fail. Health care can’t fail. Same deal. Here’s another quote:
The German and American New Deal may have been merely whatever Hitler and FDR felt they could get away with. But therein lies a common principle: the state should be allowed to get away with anything, so long as it is for “good reasons” . . . It represents the triumph of Pragmatism in politics in that it recognizes no dogmatic boundaries to the scope of government power.
Author Jonah Goldberg is dismissed as a right wing crank by his many detractors, but there’s no getting around the fact that president Obama is shunning free market principles to boldly go where Chrysler’s previous elected saviors didn’t dare go before (federal loan guarantees are a far cry from public ownership). The conflict of interest in is inherent. The same government that regulates the entire automobile industry will now have an enormous stake in one of its biggest players.
This will undoubtedly lead to unwelcome distortions, and, ultimately, disaster. Because even as the feds attempt to literally reform GM, they will be unable to institute the dramatic changes GM needs to survive. It’s not just a matter of political meddling, of which there will be plenty. It’s also a question of corruption.
If you think GM’s previous Board of Bystanders was incapable of policing GM’s arrogance, stupidity and sloth, wait to you see what won’t happen when Uncle Sam is paying the bills. Actually, there’s no need to wait. In today’s New York Times, we learn that the United States trustee overseeing GM’s bankruptcy case (another layer of management) called the fees collected by GM’s bankruptcy consultants “staggering” and “excessive.”
In one year, Alix Partners and Evercore soaked the taxpayer to the tune of $130 million, including a $17.9 million “success fee.” Oh and an as-yet-unknown “discretionary fee” with “no boundaries in amount and scope . . . calculated in an unknown manner.”
As anyone familiar with government procurement knows, that’s small beer. Suffice it to say, in this regard, New GM will not be a microbrewery. Anyone who thinks that the feds will cancel these fees—or institute the kind of product planning, brand building and financial controls that New GM needs to earn a profit—is as delusional as a government that thinks there will be a graceful exit strategy for this unbridled adventurism. There’s but one way out of this mess, and the Obama administration isn’t even looking for the door.
More by Robert Farago
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