Saturday, December 13, 2008

What's REALLY in the National Interest?

Sad that Congress or the President would have to:

  1. School the car makers on PR. The private plane thing was pure melodrama ... but how'd they not see that coming? For chrissake, how much have these guys spent on advertisers, marketers, spinsters?
  2. Dictate glaringly obvious management strategies such as Bob Corker's 3-part plan: negotiating with debt holders; forcing management to innovate or get out of the way; and negotiating wages down to the market price.

I loved this ad-spoof that Autoblog put up recently. Blaming shitty cars is funny, but it's not really the issue. Kias aren't exactly Mercedeses, but they sell just fine ... AND at a profit. Were the car co's not so terribly hamstrung by a hundred years of collective bargaining and tacit-to-explicit government support on many levels, they hopefully would have been intelligent and ballsy enough to make the necessary business decisions (product innovation being but one) long ago. As it is, Washington has to spoon-feed them the most basic business life-support in the form of cash and directives.

Romney, well placed at the nexus of Michigan and (failing) business, is clearly wrangling for Car Czar. I'm OK with that as long as he calls a spade a spade and changes his name to Wesley Mouch. I'll give ya a car czar: it's called the bankruptcy court. Out with the old detritus and in with the new.

I guess I should be a little gentler on governmental ineffectiveness. It's not ALWAYS bad. At least their ineptitude at getting things done has (so far) forestalled the ridiculous waste of my future tax dollars.

The argument that "all the other countries are doing it, so we should" is so juvenile to refute, I can only take a fatherly tone in response: "If everyone else jumped into the Grand Canyon, would you?" Actually, the correct (and my favorite) response is this: "Great! Buy more foreign cars then!" If Japan, China, or Germany is willing to government-subsidize those companies, this is the same as a government rebate to US buyers of their cars ... provided by other countries, and thus free to the US. It is a straight transfer of wealth from German or Japanese taxpayers to US consumers. In these economic times, what could be better??

And then there's the argument that it's government-provided health care abroad that cripples the US manufacturers. If only GM didn't have to provide insurance, they'd be fine ... right? Guys, don't say that one too loudly or you might scare off Mercedes, Honda, Toyota, and the other foreign companies who manufacture here in the US ... and actually make money at it!

Or how about the "strategic industry" argument, that says domestic heavy industry is in the national interest, for example in case of war. By this argument, our national interest is already a complete basket case. We are not a country which can throw up mile-high steel walls and continue our way of life in a vacuum:

  • Our economy relies on foreign buyers of our goods and services. Suddenly absent these, we'd certainly undergo some length of depression.
  • Our economy relies on imported labor to support our domestic production of goods, services, and intellectual capital. Without dishwashers, strawberry pickers, IT consultants, physicians, and physics PhDs (just to name a few), our domestic economy would falter on multiple levels. Cost of production would shoot up, prices would skyrocket (or red ink would flow), lines would grow long, quality of service would suffer, as would our ability to innovate.
  • Our economy relies on a vast array of imports. We could not support our current demand for anything from TVs to computers to sushi to gym shoes solely based on domestic supply. Let's be clear: I'm not saying we COULDN'T produce those things. We haven't forgotten how. We just couldn't make/cultivate enough of them cheap enough to keep prices at a manageable level.
  • Even our national security, and that of our citizens abroad, cannot be 100% guaranteed by our many current forces of persuasion. We rely on neighbors, friends, allies, and enemies alike for some explicitly or tacitly agreed level of security assistance. Calling all the troops back home to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on the border simply wouldn't guarantee safety, as we've seen many different ways in the past few decades.
  • Even in case of war, should we decide GM, Ford, and Chrysler need to stop making SUVs and switch to tanks, it could not be done immediately. There would be a massive retooling and engineering period before this could be executed, just as there would be if we had to ramp up production from a much leaner auto-industry.

Bottom line, the George Washington-style bunker mentality didn't even work in HIS time, much less now. Obama is wrong on many things, but here he's right. Our national interest, our future prosperity and security can ONLY be furthered with deep, ubiquitous engagement with our fellow Earthlings. If you need any further evidence why, Tom Friedman's mantra "hot, flat, and crowded" pretty much sums it up.

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