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More Dogs On Main Street

The auto companies are back in front of Congress begging for money again this week. They tried it a while ago, and Congress sent them packing. "Come back with a plan," Congress said.

So they went back to Detroit and did some figuring. Once they put a pencil to it, they decided that the original ask of $25 billion was not enough. $34 billion should do it, complete with the floor mats and undercoating. And what do we get for that? Well, in GM’s case, we get 31,000 jobs cut, 11 factories closed, 2,000 dealerships closed (and their employees unemployed), and maybe Pontiac, Saab, and Saturn go away. Oh, yeah, and don’t forget about the million former employees who will get their pensions whacked. All of this is in the name of economic stimulus. I wonder what we’d get if we gave them $60 billion.

General Motors is in the worst shape. They said they need $4 billion just to keep the lights on until the end of the year. Then they need another $14 billion as a springboard to a profitable future which will last until mid-April when they will have spent it all. The glaring omission in the conversation is something to the effect that, "We have a product line that will kick Toyota’s butt and build market share."

Last time they were in Washington, they took a lot of criticism for having arrived in a fleet of corporate jets to beg for money. While the criticism is well taken, it lacked sincerity coming from members of Congress. The auto execs fly around in private jets owned by the companies. Members of Congress fly around in private jets owned by people seeking favors from Congress. There’s a difference there.

Anyway, somebody in the marketing department pointed out that they were supposedly in the business of making cars, and that among a large portion of the population driving someplace in your car is the typical means of transportation. At least when the Gulfstream is in the shop. So this week we are treated to the image of the CEOs of the Big Three auto companies driving themselves from Detroit to Washington. I hope that there is a documentary film-maker somewhere in the entourage. This has got to be good.

Imagine these guys dressed in jeans and T-shirts loading up the Malibu, Focus, or Town & Country minivan and heading out on a road trip. What do they have in the coolers? Alan Mulally, from Ford, looks like a jerky guy to me. I can see him pulling into a truck stop in Ohio to gas up and restock the Slim Jims. The restroom at the Flying J on I-75 isn’t much like the executive restroom back there in Dearborn. But they make a great microwave burrito.

The images would make great television. I can see them popping the hood when they meant to reach for the brake release. And look, over there is Rick Wagoner from GM trying to figure out how to work the gas pump. Rick, you have to stick a credit card in the little slot, and based on GM’s condition, you probably better use your own if you want it to go through. The gas doesn’t flow until the card is approved. Chrysler’s Bob Nardelli is a few hours behind because he can’t figure out how to program the GPS system in the minivan. The screen keeps showing "Hanna Montana" reruns.

Somewhere along the line they would buy novelty truckers’ hats. It’s a long drive. By some estimates, it might take nine hours. I’m not sure how they would pass the time. I guess Wagoner could count the number dealerships in small towns along the freeways that will be boarded up. GM wants to close about 2,000 of them nationwide. Nardelli could do that, but he might also watch for abandoned Home Depot stores. Under his skilled management, Home Depot stores became as ubiquitous as Starbucks, and the company’s stock plunged by about half while the rest of the market was soaring. I suppose some of them have been re-purposed as Toyota dealerships.

Sadly, the guys aren’t car-pooling. It would really be great theater to have them all loaded up in a big Suburban, taking turns driving, arguing about who paid for the gas last time, backseat driving, and arguing about which route to take or whether to stop at Taco Bell or McDonalds. They aren’t even going in a convoy. One person I heard talking about it on TV said they were all taking different routes to avoid the uncomfortable scene of all ending up at the same Chevron station somewhere along the way, and having to make small talk while they filled the tank. Another speculated that they were flat-out terrified that somewhere along the way, one of them would have car trouble. Now there’s the money shot. The odds of a new car breaking down in a 500-mile trip are pretty slim, but the stakes are life and death.

I saw a breakdown of the cost of driving compared to the cost of flying in GM’s private jet. It’s no surprise that driving is cheaper $50 in gas, $20 for burritos and jerky, $10 for Cokes. But then they plugged in Wagoner’s salary, which runs about $2,500 per hour, for a grand total of $22,580 to drive. The jet was cheaper when you throw the salary in there.

My guess is that with the rest of the economy melting down, Congress will be of a mind to throw money at three businesses that are the heartbeat of the Midwest, if no longer of America in general. But I haven’t heard anything that suggests that $30 or $40 billion would accomplish anything other than prolonging things. The drive to Washington is something of a stunt. It would be great if the CEOs took the time to hang out at the gas stations and fast-food places along the way and talk to the people who buy or don’t buy their products. That might be worth more than the cash Congress showers on them.

Tom Clyde served as Park City attorney in the 1980s and is the author of "More Dogs On Main Street." He has been a columnist at The Park Record for more than 20 years.


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