Time to shift frames on the auto bailout. The question lurking behind current thinking is “How can these companies make money again producing and selling cars?” This explains the obsession with labor costs, future product lines and the like. The short answer is probably, they can’t. Even if they do everything right from now on, a steadily shrinking car market is the logical implication of serious, grown-up carbon regulation. (I will post on that topic soon, focusing on the news from Europe.)
For an alternative, step back into history and consider the story of Lucas Aerospace, brilliantly chronicled by Hilary Wainwright and David Elliott in The Lucas Plan: A New Trade Unionism in the Making? Lucas made military aircraft and was facing devastating (but socially desirable) cuts in demand for their wares. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, production workers teamed up with engineers and conducted a detailed inventory of their firm’s capacity: what skills and resources they comprised. Then they canvassed a range of nonprofit organizations to find out what kinds of products served important social needs but were not being provided in the market, like improved prosthetic devices and equipment for upgrading railroad crossings. Putting two and two together, they proposed production plans to give the company a new lease on life. The final piece, however, never materialized. The social agencies needed the government to allocate funds for these new products, but the government didn’t come through, and Lucas eventually folded.
You can probably see where I’m going with this. Obama is proposing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on public projects to restart the economy, and forward-thinking observers, like Jamie Galbraith, are pointing out that we need long-term restructuring, not just a quick burst of stimulus. Who will build the transit systems, smart two-way electrical grids and other components of a clean, green America? If the auto companies are liquidated, we lose a ton of capacity it will be difficult and expensive to replace.
Message to the Obama team: begin formulating the reconstruction plan as a set of receivables and be ready to energize producers from the outset, perhaps with contracts having a loan component.
Message to the UAW and progressive-minded professionals in the auto industry: don’t wait for your top management to shuck the business plans they’ve staked their careers on. Begin a Lucas-like process of discovering what you can produce, and convey this directly to the federal recovery folks.