Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Problems With a Nationalized General Motors

From David Brooks in the New York Times, a catalogue of the ways in which government ownership will make GM a worse company.
First, the Obama plan will reduce the influence of commercial outsiders. The best place for fresh thinking could come from outside private investors. But the Obama plan rides roughshod over the current private investors and so discourages future investors. G.M. is now a pariah on Wall Street. Say farewell to a potentially powerful source of external commercial pressure.

Second, the Obama plan entrenches the ancien régime. The old C.E.O. is gone, but he’s been replaced by a veteran insider and similar executive coterie. Meanwhile, the U.A.W. has been given a bigger leadership role. This is the union that fought for job banks, where employees get paid for doing nothing. This is the organization that championed retirement with full benefits at around age 50. This is not an organization that represents fundamental cultural change.

Third, the Obama approach reduces the fear that impels change. The U.S. government will own most of G.M. It would be politically suicidal for the Democrats, or whoever is in power, to pull the plug on the company — now or ever. Therefore, the current managers can rest assured that they never need to fear liquidation again. There will always be federal subsidies for their own mediocrity.

Fourth, the Obama plan dilutes the company’s focus. Instead of thinking obsessively about profitability and quality, G.M. will also have to meet the administration’s environmental goals. There is no evidence G.M. is good at building the sort of small cars the administration demands. There is no evidence that there is a large American market for these cars. But G.M. now has to serve two masters, the market and the administration’s policy goals.

Fifth, G.M.’s executives and unions now have an incentive to see Washington as a prime revenue center. Already, the union has successfully lobbied to move production centers back from overseas. Already, the company has successfully sought to restrict the import of cars that might compete with G.M. brands. In the years ahead, G.M.’s management will have a strong incentive to spend time in Washington, urging the company’s owner, the federal government, to issue laws to help it against Ford and Honda.

Sixth, the new plan will create an ever-thickening set of relationships between G.M.’s new owners — in government, management and unions. These thickening bonds between public and private bureaucrats will fundamentally alter the corporate culture, and not for the better. Members of Congress are also getting more involved in the company they own, and will have their own quaint impact.

The end result is that G.M. will not become more like successful car companies. It will become less like them. The federal merger will not accelerate the company’s viability. It will impede it.
Five and six are the most scary. It’s not just that the socialized GM will lose money and be a drain on the taxpayers. It’s that the political class, Republicans as well as Democrats, will have an incentive to hamper competition to prevent their nationalized firm from requiring bigger subsidies or go out of business. Look, for example, for a drive to force unionization on auto plants in the South — plants that are now efficient and profitable. Look for plant closures to be in locations were people vote Republican, and not where powerful Democratic politicians live. Look for government “stimulus” and “incentive” plans skewed to help GM at the expense of Ford and the foreign makers.

Look, in other words, for the entire U.S. auto industry to be corrupted.

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