Nobody can assume anything these days. But let's imagine that President Bush does release enough money to prevent General Motors and Chrysler from collapsing before the end of the month.
So then what?
What has to happen is an intelligent, radical plan to restructure and refocus the auto industry, and soon. You see, they are going to need more money. Lots more, and what they are doing isn't working.
President George W. Bush is almost certain to release a few billions to keep the wheels turning. Somewhere in whatever passes for his cerebral cortex, there has to be some realization of how badly he's screwed up just about everything he's done. We have a failed war, failed diplomacy, and a deficit out of control. Dubya's approval ratings are virtually the lowest in history.
The Shrub, in other words, badly needs a high note to shuffle off on. He got that chance when a bunch of Confederate senators unexpectedly derailed aid to the auto industry. Creatures like Richard Shelby of Alabama, "Call Girl Dave" Vitter of Louisiana and Bobby Corker of Tennessee — Republicans all — demanded that in return for loans to their employers, the United Auto Workers immediately agree to non-union wage rates prevailing in the South.
When the union declined, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and his troops refused to allow the full Senate to vote on the package, raising the real possibility of causing the car companies to collapse, and creating millions of jobless. If that happens now, the voters would certainly blame President Bush — and the Republican Party. That also would mean decades before the GOP manages to win another election.
Schoolchildren would learn for years that George W. Bush was the worst president we've ever had. Whoever the Republicans run in 2012 probably wouldn't even be able to set foot in Michigan or Ohio. To avoid this, and to look like a moderate hero, all Bush has to do is release enough money to keep the automakers going for a few more months, till the problem is squarely President Obama's.
So that's what is likely to happen. Let's assume it does. The little band of zealots who killed the bailout bill were indeed vindictive, nasty men who hate the unions and hate the North. Yet let's face the truth: They are not totally off-base in their criticisms of the auto companies.
Giving them enough money to survive for a few months is the right thing to do, yes. But it doesn't address any of the long-term problems. Their business model hasn't been working for a long time. Yes, the reason they are immediately in danger of collapse is not their fault. However, they have been losing money for years. The credit crunch caused by the Wall Street collapse speeded up a problem that has been building for a long time.
General Motors hopes the Chevy Volt will lead them to profitability, but they don't really know. Chrysler has no plan to become profitable; nobody who knows anything about the business thinks the company can survive. Most of its 49,000 workers are going to end up without jobs, probably sooner than later.
What we have to figure out — the government, the industry, all of us — is what to do. Even in the best-case scenario, there is going to be lots of pain involved. Michigan State University economist Charles Ballard has been saying that we have a choice about the economy. We can opt to make it a rocky but survivable landing, or we can have "wreckage strewn all over the runway."
Naturally, there are all sorts of ideas about how to do this. Michael Moore, who manages to be both brilliant and crazy, sometimes in the same sentence, posted a solution on his website: He thinks the government should buy the Big Three, and force them "from this point forward, to build only cars that are not primarily dependent on oil, and more importantly, to build trains, buses, subways and light rail." Meanwhile, he would create a "corresponding public-works project across the country," to build rail lines and tracks. That is intriguing, and may happen someday. But not yet. Even if we had a government and a population intellectually ready for that, it would take some time to get there.
What will happen instead is not clear, but we can't go on throwing money at these companies to let them go on losing it by making cars that too few people want to buy.
Indeed, President Obama's first major test may be figuring this out. Let's hope that he has dreams of a workable future, and the audacity to be bold enough for success.
Justice delayed, but justice at last: If you saw George Clooney's movie about Edward R. Murrow, Good Night and Good Luck, you undoubtedly remember the case of Milo Radulovich, who was one of the Red Scare's most innocent victims.
Radulovich, a veteran of World War II (he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps at age 17), wanted to be a weather forecaster, and was working hard to get a degree at the University of Michigan in 1953. Then came the knock at the door. He was being thrown out of the service and his GI benefits taken away, because his sister and father were seen as "security risks."
His sister, Margaret Fishman, was a left-wing type who protested great American institutions like the racism that prevented Paul Robeson from staying in the Book-Cadillac Hotel when he came to Detroit. Milo's father was a Serbian immigrant who took a newspaper from the old country to keep up with the obituaries and other local news. But Serbia was then part of communist Yugoslavia. Tsk-tsk. For that, they wanted to take Milo's commission away. Never mind that he had worked on top-secret U.S. intelligence projects.
Murrow took up his cause. He did a See it Now program which exposed the injustice of all this. That saved Milo's commission, and gave Murrow the ammunition and power to go after the most dangerous man in America, Sen. Joe McCarthy.
Thanks in part to Milo's guts, McCarthy was destroyed. But the stress meant the Raduloviches fled Michigan one semester before Milo could finish his degree, partly at his wife's insistence. The marriage died anyway, and while Milo eventually did become a weather forecaster, his career suffered badly as a result.
For years, people have asked the University of Michigan to award Milo Radulovich the degree his heroism cost him. Finally, last Sunday, the university did just that, with a ceremony in the Bentley Historical Library, where Radulovich's papers are deposited. "It is important to record and remember this, so that the students of today resolve never to let this happen again," said Dean Terrence McDonald before he presented the diploma to the Radulovich family. Sadly, the event was missing the one man who would have appreciated it most: Milo himself, who died a year ago.
I was lucky enough to have several dinners with Radulovich over the years. Not long before he died, he told me that he didn't really care if he was ever awarded his degree. (That was the only time I ever thought he was less than truthful.) I do know that he thought a whole lot more in his last years about what was happening to civil liberties in this country, and it made him sick. "This feels like McCarthyism, the same thing, all over again," he told me. I just wish he could have lived to see this day.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at email@example.com