Everyone loves that gag about the high school reunion where the dumbest guy in the class turns out to be the richest. How did you do it, everyone wants to know.
“Simple,” he answers. “I make trinkets for a dollar each and sell them for five dollars. You make five percent like that often enough, and it starts adding up…”
Now we have a similar situation in reverse. The entire country has figured out how to make money in the auto industry but only the CEOs of the big three American companies have no clue. When they flew in private jets to testify in Washington, D.C. about their companies’ travails, every man in the street, man about town, man of experience, man of distinction and man for all seasons agreed on one thing: they showed poor judgment.
Well, maybe so, but only because when smart people act smart in front of stupid people they are being stupid. Had your average individual minded his own business instead of minding Detroit’s, the executives would have been behaving responsibly. Their time is worth millions and it should be hoarded. Instead we will now be treated to the absurd spectacle of the CEO from Ford spending eight hours driving from Michigan. Jews like to joke that people from Michigan are meshuggeners (crazy people), and they may be righter than they know.
Perhaps the plants themselves should not use such expensive machinery. It costs hundreds of millions of dollars just to run those things. How inappropriate in this time of national privation! Better we should go back to putting cars together by hand. It was good enough for the Model T, wasn’t it?
IT IS AN ODD FEATURE of our national consciousness that we are quick to accept the idea that blow-dried politicians who are adept at campaigning can spend trillions of dollars on what they deem fit, while truly capable business leaders who have worked their way to the top are easily second-guessed. The CEO of Ford has a much better grasp of what a billion dollars moving its way through the economy actually accomplishes. By contrast, politicians regularly negotiate among themselves if they will vote nine billion or eleven billion for this or that line item with no real sense of the consequences, good or bad.
The only solution may be to bail out the auto industry with one novel proviso. From now on, the position of CEO is up for election every two years, and all employees get one vote. If it is the main business in a town, all the townspeople get votes too. This way no company head will ever have to justify his expenditures, his deficits or his wrong decisions.
By the same token, it is hard to sympathize overmuch with the auto execs being lambasted and lampooned. They never have the courage to stand up to the politicians and blame their interference for damaging the industry. Instead they meekly swallow onerous restrictions and come crying for a bailout when the less encumbered competitor stomps on them.
At the end of the day, the Congress will emerge as the heroes. The weak pistons of Detroit will make Washington look like wizards. Yet even if the businesses are repaired, our prospects as a nation will have been damaged. Congress continues its cycle of weakening industries like automakers, health care providers and mortgage lenders by its screwy rules, thus forcing these limping giants to cede more power to the very people who pushed them down in the first place.
It reminds me of that other joke about the fire in the factory, with the desperate owner offering a hundred-thousand dollar reward to any firefighter who removes his office files intact from the inferno. No one even tries to enter the building until one fire truck courageously drives right through the fiery walls all the way to the office area. The men leap out, miraculously manage to grab the files and emerge to collect their reward.
Everyone asks: “What will you do with the money?”
“The first thing we will do is repair the brakes on that truck.”
Yep, American businesses will hopefully fix themselves, but who will fix the Congress?
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