Let’s not allow Congress and members of the bailout parade panic us into allowing them to do things, as was done in the 1930s, that would convert a mild economic downturn into a true calamity. Right now the Big Three auto companies, and their unions, are asking Congress for a $25 billion bailout to avoid bankruptcy. Let’s think about that a bit.
What happens when a company goes bankrupt? One thing that does not happen is their productive assets go poof and disappear into thin air. In other words, if GM goes bankrupt, the assembly lines, robots, buildings and other tools don’t evaporate. Bankruptcy means the title to those assets change. People who think they can manage those assets better purchase them.
Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, where the control of its business operations are subject to the oversight and jurisdiction of the court, gives companies a chance to reorganize. The court can permit complete or partial relief from the company’s debts and its labor union contracts.
A large part of the problem is the Big Three’s cozy relationship with the United Auto Workers union (UAW). GM has a $73 hourly wage cost including benefits and overtime. Toyota has five major assembly plants in the United States. Its hourly wage cost plus benefits is $48. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out which company will be at a competitive disadvantage. Then there’s the “jobs bank” feature of the UAW contract where workers who are laid off workers get 95 percent of their base pay and all their benefits. Right now there’s a two-year limit but in the past workers could stay in the “jobs bank” forever unless they turned down two job offers within 50 miles of their factory.
At one time job bank membership exceeded 7,000 “workers.” GM, Ford and Chrysler face other problems that range from poor corporate management and marketing, not to mention costly government rules.
Two vital marketplace signals are the profits that come with success and the losses that come with failure. When these two signals are not allowed to freely function, markets operate less efficiently. To be successful, a business must take in enough revenue not only to cover wages, rents and interest but profits as well. To accomplish that feat, executives must not only satisfy customers but do so in a manner that efficiently utilizes all their resources. If they fail to cover costs, it means resources are not being used efficiently and/or consumers don’t value the good being produced relative to some other alternative.
When a firm routinely fails to turn a profit, there are bankruptcy pressures. The firm’s resources, workers, building and capital become available to someone else who might put them to better use. When government steps in with a bailout, it enables executives to continue mismanaging resources.
How much congressional involvement do we want with the Big Three auto companies? I would say none. Congressmen and federal bureaucrats, including those at the Federal Reserve Board, don’t know any more about the automobile business than they know about the banking and financial businesses they’ve turned into a mess.
Just look at the idiotic focus of congressmen when the three auto company chief executives appeared before them. They questioned whether the executives should have driven to Congress rather than flown in on corporate jets. They focused on executive pay, which is a tiny fraction of costs compared to $73 hourly compensation to 250,000 autoworkers. The belief that Congress poses the major threat to our liberty and well-being is why the Founders gave them limited enumerated powers. To our detriment, today’s Americans have given them unlimited powers.
Walter E. Williams is a nationally syndicated columnist and a professor of economics at George Mason University.