Friday, February 20, 2009

Bailing out GM and Chrysler

So GM and Chrysler need more money. Not surprising, somehow. I'm mostly supportive. I don't know whether or not the worst is over; I doubt it. But the arguments in favor of the original bailout still apply.

We are not bailing out GM and Chrysler. We are bailing out a generation of old white guys. Consider someone a GM retiree who turns 90 this year. He would have been born in 1919, just after WWI, when Woodrow Wilson was president, and before Marilyn Monroe was born. Let's say he started working at GM at the age of 20, in 1939, and worked there for 30 years, until 1969.

This guy survived the Depression, helped America win WWII, then survived the Cold War and Vietnam War. He's proud of the sacrifices that he made, he's proud of the fact that he worked hard, he's proud of his kids and grandkids.

If he retired in 1969, he's been retired for 40 years, which is longer than he worked. He might live another ten years. He grew up believing that working hard early in life would guarantee an easy life in retirement. That was the deal that he made.

Somewhere along the way, the deal changed. Now we can't afford to pay people to be retired for longer than they worked. And that idea - that you could live off of your pension for decades - was a historical anomaly.

In retrospect, it wasn't a great deal, because now the Big Three are burdened with huge legacy costs.

But hindsight is 20/20. None of us can know whether or not we would have made a different deal. We cannot perform a real cost/benefit analysis. We cannot calculate the benefits of white guys who spent more time with their families, who volunteered more in their communities, who started other businesses, because they retired early. We also don't know how many of them were white guys. We don't know how many of them are women, or minorities. We have no idea how many African American men pulled themselves up by their bootstraps because in the 1940's they could stand up for long periods of time. We can assume that there are more white men in this group than black women, but we don't know what the ratio is.

What we do know is that we are living in the world that those white guys created. We are dealing with the legacies of their health care costs, their incredibly generous pensions, the pollution of the industries they worked in, some dysfunctional corporate cultures, some laws that inhibit change.

But we are also living in the world of the interstate highway system, the Internet, an unparalleled system of higher education, increasingly clean air and water, an ever-more diverse society, and (relative) peace.

We are living in a world created by white guys in the 1950's. We have inherited their legacies, both good and bad. We are changing the world in ways that they do not always understand or appreciate, and which they occasionally resist. Those guys still have an inordinate degree of influence, because they have money, and they hold positions of influence in their communities.

We have very little choice but to support these old white guys. But to do that, we are going to have to change things that they grew up with. We should be grateful to them. But they are going to have to let us do our own thing.

No comments: