November 25, 2008

Who Framed Rick Wagoner?

The City of Los Angeles - indeed, many American cities - once had an extensive surface rail system - the Pacific Electric Railway. Common lore holds that the Pacific Railway was destroyed by collusion amongst the oil, automobile and rubber interests, a story that was memorialized in part in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. As it happens, on the day that the railway shut down, there was a fire at one of the refineries in Long Beach. On that day, one of the men who ran the railway took some pictures, which he developed and made into slides, and those slides made it into one of the books of Americana published by Charles Phoenix. Curiously, when I introduced my wife, the artist Phoenix-Smith, to Charles, she was very taken by the art his slide collections represented, and got permission to make paintings from those works, and so hanging over my workspace at this particular moment are two paintings of the day the Pacific Electric Railway shut down, and it was truly a dark day.

I have always been a fan of rail, and these days I have the luxury of living in one of Northern NJ's train towns. New Jersey has an extensive system of commuter railroads running into New York City, and I have one of those railways literally in my back yard. I can leave my kitchen and be on the platform in just three minutes. And, on those occasions when I do drive, I have a hybrid Toyota Camry to do my driving in, and I take great joy in seeing just how few gallons I can use. I do indeed love visiting the gas station so infrequently that I forget where the fuel door release is.

So, you might think that I'm taking great joy at the spectacle of the modern descendants of the companies that drove the Pacific Electric Railway, the Key System in San Francisco, and other municipal railways out of business. After all, it has taken long enough for what went around to come back around.

And yet...and yet, maybe not so much. It's true that commuter rail is incredibly efficient at moving large numbers of people over moderate to large distances. Most of the systems that were destroyed, though, weren't commuter rail systems. They were trolleys, what we now call light rail, and in fact they were only as efficient as buses. Moreover, all it takes to change a bus route is a few signs and benches, some new schedules, maybe a new bus or two if the route is much longer. Trolley systems are great in downtowns where the geography is fairly fixed, such as tourist areas, but in areas where commerce, industry and residential zones ebb and flow, buses do in fact make a lot of sense. So, it may be that the old urban railways were on the way out anyway, and we don't need to invoke a conspiracy to explain what could have just been about efficiency, flexibility and cost-effectiveness.

Still, the Big 3 have done some awfully inane stuff. While other companies made it their business to figure out what people wanted and to make that, and to make it well and make it cheaply, the Big 3 decided that what they wanted to do was build big cars and trucks with big profit margins, and run lots of ads to convince the gullible that what they wanted was big cars and trucks that use lots of gasoline. I'm sure that the oil companies were very grateful, but apparently not grateful enough to rescue the car companies now that things have gotten tough.

Really, the question is, have they been bad enough to deserve to die. My answer is, well, probably. I think that the upper management, such as Rick Wagoner, GM's CEO, needs to be shown the door sooner rather than later. I think that if the US is going to buy GM for its $2 billion market capitalization - and we could probably buy it cheaper in bankruptcy court - we need to throw the bums out. Letting the companies die might be emotionally satisfying, and it might satisfy a few rabid right-wingers who think that the free market demands it, but it would throw an awful lot of havoc into an already-fragile economy.

After all, look what happened when Henry Paulson gave in to this "let 'em fail" impulse. Lehman collapsed and the waves swamped AIG, WAMU, and how many others? GM was the largest industrial company in the world at one point, and we already know that its supplier network is fragile. If GM goes, companies collapse downstream, dealers collapse upstream, pension and health benefits collapse and the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation - which is us, the taxpayers - has to clean up billions of dollars of mess anyway. We just need to be sensible about it, admit the economy can't afford another Lehman, and take the car companies over.

Goodbye, Mr. Wagoner.

Posted by scott at November 25, 2008 09:11 PM