Another Perspective

Czarist America

This part of the auto industry bailout is likely to drive supporters of limited government crazy.

By 12.12.08

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Help Wanted
Position: Car Czar

Duties:
Restructure "Big Three" U.S. automakers
Save unionized jobs, American manufacturing, future U.S. competitiveness
Repeat the phrase "too big to fail" over and over while appealing to Congress for billions of dollars in taxpayer money

Qualifications:
Detailed knowledge of congressional preferences essential
Must be willing to work without supervision 
Detailed knowledge of auto industry not required

Despite some resistance in the Senate, the federal government seems destined to pass a $15 billion bailout of Detroit-based auto companies. As part of the proposed legislation, President Bush would get to appoint a "car czar" to oversee the domestic auto industry comprised of the "Big Three" automakers: Chrysler, GM, and Ford.

The front-runner for the position is said to be attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who has received heavy criticism for the way he ran the compensation fund for families of the victims of September 11. Obviously his background in law and victim compensation more than qualifies him to fix the "Big Three" automakers.

Americans have had czars before. We had an inflation czar and an energy czar in the 1970s. We have had drug czars since the 1980s. These czars were appointed by U.S. presidents to lead us in battle against some of our nation's worst enemies: rising prices, shortages, and uncontrollable dependencies. But like some of the czars in Russia, our czars have not been too successful.

Now, some of Russia's czars weren't all bad. Czar Alexander II -- remember him? -- did some things right. He ended serfdom. But that was more than a century ago. Yet, his model of governance -- rule by decree -- seems to be what Congress and the Bush Administration are envisioning for the next U.S. czar.

And there could be more czars to come. Rumor has it the Obama administration will appoint czars for climate change, energy policy, and technology.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi is optimistic that picking a car czar will rescue the auto industry. She said, "Come March 31, it is our hope that there will be a viable automotive industry in our country with transparency and accountability to the taxpayer." 

Three months to fix an industry that's been in trouble for decades? That seems implausible to me. More likely on March 31st our policy makers will understand that a czar can no more rescue the U.S. auto industry than he could reform Russia. A million people losing their jobs under czarist auto industry policies should be a more than adequate critique of the czar-strategy.

Or maybe they won't understand. Like Russian monarchists clinging to their memories, American lawmakers want to wish away insolvency by conjuring up billions of dollars out of nowhere and handing taxpayers the bill. Taxpayers will have to pay the bills of the banking industry. And AIG. And the state of California. Why not cars?

I wish the car companies well. In the meantime, I'm updating my resume for the next available czarship. My lack of qualifications and inexperience in education policy has prepared me to be the education policy czar. I'll bring a "fresh" perspective and I'll have those schools turned around in no time.

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About the Author

Eric Heidenreich is a writer in Alexandria, Virginia.