Obama’s Car Puzzle

Even as GM teeters toward bankruptcy and wheedles for billions in public aid, its forthcoming plug-in hybrid continues to absorb a big chunk of the company’s product development budget. This is a car that, by GM’s own admission, won’t make money. It’s a car that can’t possibly provide a buyer with value commensurate with the resources and labor needed to build it. It’s a car that will be unsalable without multiple handouts from government.

[Business World] AP

The first subsidy has already been written into law, with a $7,500 tax handout for every buyer. Another subsidy is in the works, in the form of a mileage rating of 100 mpg — allowing GM to make and sell that many more low-mileage SUVs under the cockamamie “fleet average” mileage rules.

Even so, the Volt will still lose money for GM, which expects to price the car at up to $40,000.

We’re talking about a headache of a car that will have to be recharged for six hours to give 40 miles of gasoline-free driving. What if you park on the street or in a public garage? Tough luck. The Volt also will have a small gas engine onboard to recharge the battery for trips of more than 40 miles. Don’t believe press blather that it will get 50 mpg in this mode. Submarines and locomotives have operated on the same principle for a century. If it were so efficient in cars, they’d clog the roads by now. (That GM allows the 50 mpg myth to persist in the press, and even abets it, only testifies to the company’s desperation.)

Hardly mentioned is the fact that gasoline goes bad after a few months. If the Volt is used as intended, for daily trips of 40 miles or less, the car’s tank will have to be drained periodically and the gas disposed of.

The media have been terrible in explaining how the homegrown car companies landed in their present fix, when other U.S. manufacturers (Boeing, GE, Caterpillar) manage to survive and thrive in global competition. Critics beat up Detroit for building SUVs and pickups (which earn profits) and scrimping on fuel-sippers (which don’t). They call for management’s head (fine — but irrelevant).

These pre-mortems miss the point. Critics might more justifiably flay the Big Three for failing long ago to seek a showdown with the UAW to break its labor monopoly. In truth, though, politicians have repeatedly intervened to prevent the crisis that would finally settle matters.

The Carter administration rushed in with loan guarantees to keep Chrysler out of bankruptcy. The Reagan administration imposed quotas on Japanese imports to prop up GM. Both parties colluded in the fuel-economy loophole that allowed the passenger “truck” boom that kept Detroit’s head above water during the ’90s.

Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi now want to bail out Detroit once more, while mandating that the Big Three build “green” cars. If consumers really wanted green cars, no mandate would be necessary. Washington here is just marching Detroit deeper into an unsustainable business model, requiring ever more interventions in the future.

The Detroit Three will not bounce back until they’re free to buy labor in a competitive marketplace as their rivals do. In the meantime, private money, even in bankruptcy, almost certainly will not be available to refloat GM and colleagues. Nationalization, with or without a Chapter 11 filing, is probably inevitable — but still won’t make them competitive.

History seldom affords such perfect analogies: In 1968, the Penn Central merger (a proxy for GM-Chrysler) was touted as a fix for a sagging rail business. In two years, the company was in bankruptcy. When a judge couldn’t find new lenders, Washington absorbed them into government-owned Conrail, but the death spiral continued. Finally, Congress passed the deregulatory Staggers Act, which overnight gave the rail industry back its future. Conrail was triumphantly reprivatized in 1987.

We’re about to replay this ordeal with the auto industry. Let’s at least give ourselves a chance to be successful on the first try.

The simplest step forward would be to get rid of the “two fleet rule,” devised by Congress’s fuel-mileage managers to keep Detroit making small econoboxes in high-cost UAW factories. Dumping the rule would force the UAW to compete directly inside each company for jobs against cheaper workers abroad.

Even better would be to dump CAFE altogether. If Congress really thinks consumers must be encouraged to use less gas, replace it with an intellectually honest gas tax. Mr. Obama promised to transcend the old stalemates — let him begin with the 30-year-old fraud that our fuel-economy rules represent.

He ran a brilliant campaign, but his programmatic prescriptions amounted to handwaving designed to capture the presidency rather than tell voters what really to expect. This may have been a virtue in campaigning but it becomes a handicap in governing. The public now has no idea what to expect — except miracles, reconciling all opposites, turning all hard choices into gauzy win-wins. Thanks to Detroit, his honeymoon is about to end before it begins.

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