General Motors changed its mind. Or maybe not. It is unclear that GM still has a mind of its own, so let us just say that GM changed its decision. The company first announced that it was going to close a parts-distribution center in Norton, Mass. Then it heard from the congressman who represents that community, Barney Frank.
That Democrat chairs the Financial Services Committee, which is mightily important to GM now that it is an appendage of the federal government, which soon will own 60 percent of it. Frank talked to GM's CEO, Fritz Henderson. So the distribution center will not be closed for at least another 14 months.
Is this a glimpse of what life is going to be like under the political economy of state capitalism? Heaven forfend, says Frank. To The Hill newspaper he said, "I don't think this will lead to a pattern," because, well, because the distribution facility was not a dealership or an assembly plant. If that strikes you as a non sequitur, this will, too: Frank stressed that what he did was not improper because he talked to Henderson rather than to someone in the Obama administration. Which is significant because ... never mind.
Frank's motive for intervening in GM's decision making was not political but altruistic. Really. He wanted to save the planet. If the Norton facility were closed, he says, GM parts for New England would be trucked from Philadelphia, and that would complicate the task of turning down Earth's thermostat.
Nowadays, green reasoning is the first refuge of scoundrels. Global warming has become like God: It is an explanation for everything and an all-purpose excuse for the political class to do whatever it wants to do. What a large portion of it wants to do—what it has a metabolic urge to do—is boss people around. It can maximize its opportunities for doing that if it maximizes the number of people dependent on government, and the number of ways in which they are dependent.
Sometimes bribing is a substitute for bossing, as with the "cash for clunkers" idea: Give vouchers worth up to $4,500 to people who trade in their vehicles for more fuel-efficient ones. One rationale for this is, of course, green: It would put a cool compress on Mother Earth's supposedly fevered brow. But the plan also is yet another bailout for the bottomless money pit called Detroit. The plan would entice customers into showrooms.
But in a cri de coeur published last week in The Wall Street Journal, two of the senators who dreamed this up lamented that something has gone horribly wrong. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat, and Susan Collins, the Maine Republican, are surprised and scandalized that their proposal for manipulating the market has been hijacked by industry lobbyists, who have a different manipulation agenda.
Feinstein and Collins tied their vouchers to purchases of vehicles meeting high fuel-efficiency standards. But the bill passed by the House, and a companion bill lurking in the Senate, would make vouchers available for vehicles meeting less exacting standards. This would help dealers move their unsold inventories of SUVs, pickups and other large vehicles. Feinstein and Collins denounce this as "handouts for Hummers" and say it is evidence of "how quickly a good idea can go bad in Washington."
Actually, it is evidence of what a bad idea they had—getting the government into the business of fine-tuning customers' choices. Once such market manipulations are given a seal of progressive approval, it is not a jaw-dropping shock that things will become messy, with factions competing to get the government to do their bidding.
Two other senators have three better ideas pertaining to the government's wallow in the auto industry. A bill written by Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander and Utah Republican Bob Bennett would prohibit using any more TARP funds for GM or Chrysler. And it would require that as long as the government owns stock in the companies, the Treasury would have a fiduciary duty to see that the government's investment is managed with the single objective of maximizing the return to taxpayers—not to advance any environmental (hi, Barney), trade, energy, labor or other policy. And it would require the Treasury to distribute, within a year, all its GM and Chrysler stock evenly to the approximately 120 million persons who paid 2008 income taxes.
Although two years ago a share of GM's stock was worth $40, last Friday it was worth $1.22, and now GM has a new government—chosen chairman of its board of directors, Edward Whitacre Jr., who says, "I don't know anything about cars," which means he is like those who appointed him. So the stock distribution will not soon be a bonanza to taxpayers. But unwinding the government's entanglement with GM might be.