Going once, going twice

May 6, 2009 at 5:00 am

It’s time to pull the plug. I know thinking about it is painful and there are moral arguments to be made, but it’s time to face facts. Prolonging this isn’t helping anyone. We need to let go. 

Once upon a time General Motors produced 50 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States. Now, 84 years later, the automaker is barely hanging onto an 18 percent market share. The White House has already removed GM’s CEO and reconstituted its board of directors and now, in an 11th-hour move to stave off bankruptcy, President Obama’s Auto Task Force wants to partially nationalize the company.

All that making your head spin like a vintage GTO doing donuts in an empty parking lot?

Here’s the bottom line: GM isn’t GM anymore. It’s a shadow of its former self.

So much for “We build excitement.” Last week, GM killed off Pontiac. And Saturn. And a few other once-showcased brands. The automaker also handed pink slips to 21,000 more employees. This after declaring 13 American plants would shut down for nine weeks because dealerships are already sitting on so much tin, vehicles on their lots are practically stacked on top of each other.

Forty years ago, General Motors employed nearly 400,000 workers. When this new round of bloodletting ebbs, the auto manufacturer will have only 38,000 union employees on its payroll. In 1970, GM had 150 factories operating in the United States. Soon there will be 34.

All this and still Washington won’t give up the Ghost of GM Past. Can’t anyone but the public hear the chains rattling? That sound’s not coming from the powertrains.

In addition, GM intends to eliminate more than 2,600 dealerships. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association, that’s another 137,330 workers who will lose their jobs.

“We’ve got to save Detroit,” scores of analysts have professed for months now. “We can’t put thousands of Americans out of work.”

Don’t look now, but the car companies have already done it. 

A few months ago, a lot of us shuddered at the idea of letting one of the Big Three declare bankruptcy. Never! We wouldn’t! We couldn’t! Even the inference of bankruptcy would seal the fate of the company. No one would buy a vehicle from a company in bankruptcy.

Only maybe they would. Funny how a few months can change a nation’s tolerance level. We’ve become more comfortable with the concept of a Chapter 11 filing ever since we were told Washington would hold GM and Chrysler’s hands through this dark period. Heck, the government has even said it will reach out to wary consumers and back their vehicle warranties. In fact, so very much help is on the table I’m surprised it didn’t offer to check our oil after every fill up.

Is it really worth billions and billions and billions of taxpayer dollars to do all this for two Motor City companies that are now Hot Wheels-sized? Perhaps instead we should accept the terminal diagnosis and concentrate on making the inevitable end as comfortable as possible.

No sign of that happening. GM’s Right to Lifers have long made the argument that one in every 10 American jobs relates to the automotive industry. They have warned that if even one of the Big Three falls the other two will follow (although Ford seems to be doing just fine on its own). They have nervously reminded us to “think of the parts suppliers” (you know, that industry, which has already had its own head-on collision with the Grim Reaper).

So apparently we’re going to have a go at resuscitation. In addition to federally controlled banks, we will soon have a partially nationalized automaker. We’ll also have one owned by the UAW, or at least its trust fund.

Ford UAW members now belong to a union that owns a controlling interest in Chrysler. Not only is this arrangement incestuous; it poses a major conflict of interest.

The so-called brains in D.C. are so obsessed with rescuing these companies that in the process they’ve failed to properly assess whether GM and Chrysler are companies that are actually worth saving.

My father used to repeat an old adage: “As GM goes, so goes the nation.” I hope not. GM is already pretty much gone.