Friday, November 21, 2008

Auto execs take the train (and love it)

So, it's been a bad week (month? year? decade? two decades?) for GM, Ford and Chrysler. Depending on the time span in question, they are failing financially and politically, not to mention competitively. Should we add environmentally, morally and millenially? As it turns out, with health care, pensions, housing and employment growing ever more problematic for millions of us, there is still some truth to the notion that as GM goes, so go we all.

This past week, the CEOs of the Shrinking Three got spanked in Washington, but still couldn't get paid. Rebuked for flying their separate corporate jets to town at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars, the sound of slamming doors had barely stopped ringing in their ears when the door opened one more time so that the House Democratic majority could kick Rep. John Dingell (D-GM) to the curb. The Dear John message was obvious as the Dems replaced Dingell with Henry Waxman (D-CA) as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

In a separate press conference, congressional leaders suggested that the auto companies shouldn't bother to return to Washington without a plan we could believe in. A commentator on CNN suggested that the CEOs might have gotten a better response if they'd rode a bus to D.C.

But it's time for a compromise here. How about if they'd taken the train together from Detroit? Would that be better? Imagine all that time together--the ability to both relax and focus, to plan, even.

Cynicism aside, the execs (Richard Wagoner of GM, Alan Mulally of Ford and Robert Nardelli of Chrysler) are smart and experienced people who lead huge organizations with lots of resources and, even, creativity. Surely, they saw major parts of this crisis coming. And they have groupings within their organizations who have developed and promoted programs and projects that could be part of a creative plan to save the core of the domestic auto industry.

Sixteen hours on a train together discussing the obstacles and challenges might have resulted in the three arriving at Washington's Union Station as something other than puppies due for a whipping. There might have been more "you know, we've been talking," more "we can fix some of this," more "here's an idea I love," more "this is going to be painful, but here's the beginning of a plan for a greener transportation system in the United States and for Detroit manufacturing's role in that system."

Imagine Wagoner, Mulally and Nardelli running off the train yelling excitedly at each other. "You call, Pelosi. Tell her we'll be late, but we'll be there. We gotta find a Kinko's, make 500 copies of this proposal."

"I'll do it," shouts Wagoner. "But make it 1,000 copies. The press will want their own copy."

But the opportunity has passed them by. They came. They saw. They failed. And, anyway, you can't relax on Amtrak. It almost never runs on time or on decent track. Is there even rail service from Detroit to D.C.?

Still, there's always hope. And if they do come up with a plan that Washington can believe in, maybe they'll think to put a better rail system in it.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Blaming the sub-prime mortgagees for the sins of bankers

I keep trying to explain the current financial crisis to myself for two reasons. One, I believe there must be simpler explanations than the ones that seem to prevail in media reports and on op-ed pages. And two, I'm discovering that far too many people believe that one of the major causes of our current problems lays with homeowners who took mortgages that they couldn't afford.

There is of course, still a class of pundits who believe that too much regulation is a significant cause of the collapse of the financial markets, the freezing of credit, and the abysmal performance of American auto companies. We are going to have to agree to leave such people out of the conversation--they are market fundamentalists whose cultish practices are no doubt constitutionally protected however much they might frighten children and the simple-minded.

But to apply, at least minimally, the notion that it is markets that decide (rationally or otherwise) who gets what, when, where and why, it seems both wrong-headed and unkind to blame individual homeowners who have fallen behind or defaulted on their mortgages for our current financial difficulties. These homeowners must live with the decisions of markets. They are not the deciders, as our soon to be ex-president might say.

After all, a good many people who received sub-prime mortgages actually qualified for conventional mortgages at more favorable rates. They were channelled into the sub-prime market, which created huge difficulties for them when affordable adjustable rate mortgages suddenly climbed to much higher rates after the housing bubble popped. It is shoeing the wrong horse to ask such people to predict the end of the bubble when bankers themselves believed (or pretended to believe) that we were all going to profit from an endlessly inflating housing market.

Mortgage applicants are consumers, not financial experts. They rely, mistakenly as it happens, on the expertise of others.

It is arguable, of course, that it is the buyer who ought to beware. But historically, it is banks and mortgage companies who have decided who is eligible for their services and who is not. If we are to take reasonable steps toward resurrecting the housing market, it makes far more sense to examine the practices of bankers, mortgage brokers and the buyers and sellers of bundled mortgages than it does to swing away at people who are losing their homes.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bailout and regulate

Not that Charles Krauthammer needs to acknowledge my existence, but I feel like he's here to nullify mine. I only wish I could swing enough weight to nullify him back. I would regard the fact of his nullification, second only to the existence of my children, as my greatest contribution to life and culture to come.

In "A Lemon of A Bailout," Washington Post, Nov. 14, Krauthammer claims that some sort of rescue of the banking industry makes sense because " is a utility," like "...the electric companies." This observation comes on the way to his larger point that extending the federal bailout to include the auto companies is arbitrary and inefficient. After all, Krauthammer might claim, capitalism can't exist without a financial sector, but we could all muddle through with a shrunken and bankrupt auto industry.

If that were actually true, then exactly what would be the point of having a capitalist system? I mean, if capitalism offers nothing to the many, if jobs and products aren't the principal parts of that commitment, then 90 percent of us (at least) have no use for it, at all. Who agreed to this deal?

And, if Krauthammer's assertion that finance is integral to capitalism, but auto as a dominant industrial presence (at this point in time) is not necessary to capitalism, is not true, then it follows that not only should we rescue, but we should regulate with an eye to maximizing employment and making autos and jobs as people-friendly and earth-friendly as possible.


Monday, November 3, 2008

All I'm Saying Is


Brendan said
There’s too much bread
in the butt
And I was like
Too much bread in the butt
And I was like
And Marrianne said something
But I was feeling the hurt
And didn’t hear
So I was like
And she was like
The crusts are very thick
The crusts are very thick
And then I was like
That’s why Brendan’s trading
the heel of the bread loaf
to me
for a slice from the center
And I was like
I like a lotta bread
in the butt