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Do It For Me, Matchbox Man

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From the fireworks in DC this week, you might think the auto crisis is out of your hands, but we're all complicit: government, CEOs, autoworkers, public. The Big Three automakers are incapable of imagining and executing better on a large scale, unless forced to do so. So the problem requires a hand to say: you industry barons will design a car that will meet our new needs. You will hit marks x, y, and z. And in exchange you, car industry, will be allowed to survive.

That's a little draconian, perhaps, but "The Big Three" automakers make cars which cost too much and waste even more. And government is happy to point the finger as Sen. Chris Dodd derided the Big Three CEOs this week:

"... for the most part, the top echelons of the Big Three turned a blind eye ...They have been content to not only satisfy but to in many respects drive the demand for inefficient, gas-powered vehicles that Americans have been going broke to gas up.

They have derided hybrid vehicles as making 'no economic sense.'

They have dismissed the threat of global warming, the role played by their products in creating it, and the strong desire of the American people to do something to stop it.

The prices of GM and Ford shares have been declining steadily and have now reached historic lows.

In short, the automakers have failed to adapt to change - and shareholders are rendering judgment on that fact. They have approached 21st century challenges with a decidedly 20th century mindset - and we are all paying the price."

But this DC dressing-down was more theater than resolution, here's a sample:

Why $25 billion? I mean why not 26? Are we going to divide three into 25?

Chrysler is asking for $7 billion.

Sir, it would be the rest based on the market share.

This is - I mean we're just spending $25 billion loosely. I mean this is loosey goosey, whatever's left, I'll take.

The Big Three CEOs didn't do much to help their cause, a morsel of contrition would have gone a long way. Rick Wagoner of GM, for example, said he'd make a pledge to not come back for more financial aid if Sen. Bob Corker (D-TN) could pledge that:

"the US economy would turn around at a certain period"

Corker can't promise that anymore than anyone else can. So 'it's the economy's fault' and nothing can be done about that, except perhaps - to give the industry what it wants.

The CEOs also showed a certain twisted stagecraft zooming in to Capitol Hill on jets; it was just the right ostentatious show of wealth that the media could show the public, the employee, the taxpayer: Now we have our villains, our inconsiderate CEOs! But like a wolf tracking a lost deer, not a surprise, these are the things that businessmen do.

At the same time, Detroit, Michigan and Indiana autoworker interests are aligning with management in this way: "Inaction is simply not an option," UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said this week, adding:

"If one of the companies go over the cliff, it could take one or more with it."

In other words, the auto worker is in crisis, and the repercussion/s on our interlinked affairs (all the folks doing business connected to the behemoth car industry) will be too painful to risk having The Big Three automakers fold. So that's where autoworkers and management interests converge: save us, save yourself.

But here is what is unsaid: we need to keep making a deleterious product, so that we can keep making a living.

We could quibble over that adjective -- deleterious -- but putting that aside for another essay, let's say, we need to keep making a product so we can keep making a living. If this fact holds true, what does the public say?

The public loves cars but it loves the traditional fare by Ford, GM and Chrysler less. What the public has shown is an appetite for innovation, like the GM electric car, the EV-1 or the Toyota Prius. By fits and starts the public has chosen to spend less or, pay more for more sensible cars. And, in a turn perhaps more indicative of The Big Three's financial troubles, than a shift in the public's tastes for speed: NASCAR's millions of devoted fans, who want "to go fast," like Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights, may see The Big Three exit the racetrack.

Me? I'd like an Aston Martin AMV10, a Ducati motorbike, a Mini, a Porsche 911, a Lamborghini, and a Ford Mustang with a racing stripe down the middle, and all of them in black. (I'd also like a fighter jet, not because I like flipping around and shooting things but because it really goes fast.)

Up against these desires, the industry must be led to do better.

Maybe down the road we will go for more shared spaces and ways of common travel (like greater prevalence of rail and subways across the country). But for now, cars reassure us that we are special, independent and unique, we view the world from a position of speed, separation and privacy. Common travel reminds us that we are connected, that we have to share and that we are vulnerable.

While these are things to aspire to, someone needs to envision and direct the car industry for today. And when you've got half a bucket full of money and the other party has its hand out, that's a good time to start making demands.

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