Congress drove the Big Three CEOs out of Washington, D.C. last week, ordering them not to return with their tin cups until they could guarantee their companies would be viable after a $25 billion bailout.
Just days later, Citigroup, a bank that had already received a $25 billion bailout in October, held its hands out for more. Within 48 hours, federal officials approved giving the bank another $20 billion and providing backing for $306 billion in its risky loans and securities. Even though Citigroup was failing just weeks after getting its first government bailout, Congress didn't subject its CEO to the public lecturing and demands for business plans that it did the Big Three.
The message here could not be more clear: Washington will bailout out those who shower before work but not those who shower afterwards.
Washington, D.C. is a white collar town. President Bush and members of Congress understand their suited counterparts on Wall Street. In fact, several prominent figures in the banking industry - including Citigroup's Robert Rubin, a former Secretary of the Treasury, and UBS Investment Bank's Phil Gramm, a former Texas Senator, - worked in Washington first, aiding and abetting the current crisis by de-regulating the financial markets and everything else they could.
Detroit, by contrast, is a blue collar town. It's a place where workers at the Big Three earn thousands of dollars -- the average production employee making $67,480 last year -- not hundreds of thousands, and certainly not Wall Street's millions. The Citigroup CEO credited with overseeing the bank's ill-fated investments, Charles O. Prince III, was forced out a year ago as the bank's massive sub-prime losses began mounting but the board of directors still gave him a $12.5 million bonus, $68 million in salary and accumulated stockholdings, a $1.7 million pension, an office, and a car and driver for up to five years. Heading the board executive committee at that time was Rubin, who would briefly serve as chairman and receive $17 million in compensation as the bank declined further into financial ruin.
Detroit is a place where workers are unionized; Wall Street is not. And right-wing Republicans and conservative pundits have made it clear they want the union workers to suffer. They want federal aid denied to the Big Three so that the firms go bankrupt. Then the companies can renege on pensions they guaranteed to retirees and can break salary and benefit promises to workers in current contracts.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl writes on his web site that Chapter 11 bankruptcy would be best for the Big Three because it would enable them to break their pledges to retirees receiving health care and other benefits earned over decades of service, what he calls "legacy debts": "Like many other industries, including the airlines, the goal under Chapter 11 is to gain temporary protection, reorganize in a way to reduce legacy debts, and emerge as a more viable and competitive company."
Conservative columnist George Will, similarly, wrote: "Do nothing that will delay bankrupt companies from filing for bankruptcy protection, so that improvident labor contracts can be unraveled. . ." Will's fellow Washington Post Columnist Martin Feldstein blamed all of Detroit's problems on the unions, writing that the basic reason the Big Three can't compete: "is labor costs imposed by union contracts." He said if Congress gives the Big Three a loan, it must require "that the unions accept reductions in wages and benefits to levels that allow the firms to compete with imports and with non-union U.S. auto firms. The trustees of retiree benefits should be required to accept reductions in those benefits."
They want the unions broken. They want retirees' benefits slashed and union workers' wages and benefits cut, which, of course, will enable the foreign auto makers - whose U.S. plants are non-union - to reduce their wages. It'll be an all-American race to the bottom, rather than the preferable opposite, where workers and retirees are treated with dignity and respect for their hard labor.
None of those conservatives, however, is calling for Citigroup's Charles O. Prince III, who took down Citigroup at a cost of untold billions to taxpayers, to return his $1.7 million pension, office and car and driver.
Unlike Citigroup and the other Wall Street banks, which have their very own inside-the-beltway apologists in the form of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to argue their case before Congress, the Big Three CEOs had to appear before Congress to plead for themselves.
There, legitimately, lawmakers grilled them about flying to the hearings in expensive private jets and about their multi-million dollar compensation packages. Still, none of the lawmakers has asked Citigroup's CEO, Vikram S. Pandit, to take $1 for next year's compensation, as they did the auto executives. Nor have they asked any of the CEOs from the nine banks that shared $125 billion in bailout money in October to sell their private jets, as they did the auto executives.
Conservatives also argued that the Big Three should be left to die because in a free market, that's what happens to poorly operated companies offering inferior products.
Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, said, for example, "I do not support the use of U.S. taxpayer dollars to reward the mismanagement of Detroit-based auto manufacturers."
Shelby made this accusation while part of the Congress that ran up the largest federal deficits known to man and allowed Paulson to broker a deal to sell troubled Wachovia bank to troubled Citigroup -- a bank that so far got two bailouts, the first of which arriving within weeks of the failed Wachovia marriage.
Shelby, of course, has a lot to lose if Michigan does well. His home state of Alabama gave tax breaks to foreign car companies Mercedes-Benz, Honda and Hyundai to locate factories there - hardly a free market approach.
So, like many conservatives, he twists reality to suit his circumstances. He's right that American car companies made mistakes. In October, GM's sales were off 45 percent from the year before, Chrysler 35 percent and Ford 30. But he's wrong about that being a result of mismanagement alone, well, unless he thinks his precious foreign car companies made the same mistakes. Toyota was down 23 percent, Honda 25 and Nissan 33 for the same month.
And if aid denial is based on bad products, Wall Street definitely should be the first refused. Its firms built and sold what are now being called "toxic securities," products so defective that they took down banks, the U.S. economy and international financial stability -- creating the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Now that's mismanagement for you!
When the representatives of blue collars went to Congress hat in hand, lawmakers insisted that to get loans automakers would have to present viable business plans. Congress didn't impose similar conditions, however, when Bernanke and Paulson went to Congress seeking grants for reckless white collar firms.
In fact, they gave $125 billion to nine big Wall Street banks in October, contending the direct infusion of money would melt frozen credit. It didn't. The firms apparently didn't lend the money, and the deal didn't require them to. There's a viable business plan for you!
Paulson and Bernanke gave insurance giant AIG $85 billion. And when that didn't work, they forked over more until it all added up to $150 billion. Now, it's not clear that will be enough to resolve AIG's problems. Sen. Jon Kyl, the Republican from Arizona who voted for the Wall Street bailout, didn't demand a viable business plan for AIG or Citigroup, yet said this about the auto industry request: "There's no reason to throw money at a problem that's not going to get solved."
This year, as Wall Street's recklessness destroyed the American economy, a million Americans lost their jobs. It's no wonder no one is buying cars. It's not just that they can't get credit. It's also that they don't have money to spend or they're afraid to spend the money they have.
Some of those furloughed had been on Wall Street. Citigroup announced recently it would cut 52,000 jobs by early next year. But of the million jobs lost so far, 100,000, or one in ten, have been auto workers or employees of auto suppliers. Unemployment in Michigan is 9.3 percent -- while in the rest of the nation it is 6.5.
Just like Paulson who couldn't see that Citigroup was too weak to buy Wachovia, the conservatives intent on denying the Big Three loans are shortsighted. They don't see that 2.3 million jobs in and dependent on the auto industry could be lost. They don't see the effect of slashing the wages and benefits of people who get their hands dirty for a living.
It would mean even more mortgage foreclosures and even more credit card debt unpaid to those struggling banks. It would mean the Big Three defaulting on the $100 billion they owe to those weak banks and bondholders, some of which is secured, some not.
It's the big circle of economic life. If Congress spits on the autoworkers and the millions whose jobs depend on the Big Three, the lawmakers may find themselves using more and more taxpayer dollars to scrub new blood off Wall Street.