Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

The twisted politics of enforced economic pain

Nicholas Wapshott
Nov 25, 2013 16:16 UTC

By the end of the year, American taxpayers will no longer be part owners of General Motors. That is good news all around. Nationalization of a private company rarely makes economic sense. Even for red-blooded socialists, the ownership of the means of production has long been an empty threat, a totemic cul de sac that for years led socialism down the wrong path. Regulation is a far better way to ensure an industry works for the public good.

The federal government is not best-suited to administer a private industry. The emergency that once threatened American motor manufacturing has passed. State intervention has forced much-needed restructuring into a hidebound business riddled with grandfathered practices and anachronistic benefits. Intervention avoided the deleterious knock-on effects of the collapse of a major domestic industry, helped the external balance of payments, and saved thousands of skilled jobs in good time.

The return of GM to wholly private hands will no doubt set off hand-wringing from those who would have preferred GM to go properly bust during the financial panic of 2008, then restructure itself without state help. Those who opposed Steven Rattner’s motor rescue argue that government intervention to prevent a company from going broke interferes in a timeless process of rebirth as natural as the change of the seasons.

Quoting the Austrian Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of “creative destruction,” a term borrowed from Karl Marx, such dogmatic harbingers of woe welcome bankruptcies and business collapses as a means towards purposeful regeneration. Expect them to concentrate on the costs to the federal government of keeping the American motor manufacturing industry alive; do not expect them to estimate the real cost — to the shareholders, to the motor workers, to the nation — of allowing it to die.

Other “Austerians” point to the Austrian thinker Friedrich Hayek’s warnings of governments encouraging investment in the wrong industries, leading to more unemployment in the long run than can be saved in the short run. But Hayekians tend to be backseat drivers, always quick to criticize and slow to offer any alternative except a hopeless shrug.

Romney’s auto bailout dodge strains credulity

Nicholas Wapshott
Oct 17, 2012 21:05 UTC

There is the truth. Then there is the whole truth. Mitt Romney is still lagging behind the president in Ohio, the weather-vane state that has voted for every president since Abraham Lincoln and where Barack Obama is credited with saving millions of jobs in the auto industry. But the governor’s insistence in the second debate that Obama’s rescue of General Motors and Chrysler was the same as his plan was only half the story.

When Romney said “[W]hen you say that I wanted to take the auto industry bankrupt, you actually did. … That was precisely what I recommended and ultimately what happened,” he was leading voters to believe there was little difference between restructuring by the federal government car czar Steve Rattner and his own prescription: to let the firms go bust, let the markets clear, then reassemble the broken parts.

Romney’s surrogates blame a headline in The New York Times, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt”, over an op-ed by Romney in October 2008 for fueling confusion over where their candidate really stands. The opening lines appear to contradict their version. “If General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler get the bailout that their chief executives asked for,” he wrote, “you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.” He went on to argue for a managed bankruptcy, but was vague about the role federal officials should play.

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