U$A Inc.November 15th, 2008

If the United States government acquired the facilities for big-time automotive manufacturing and committed the nation to operate such an enterprise, employing factory workers and producing motor vehicles, it might make an interesting experiment in post-capitalist economics. We could manufacture the government fleet and transform it. We might provide for employee governance of day-to-day operations and a US government board to oversee the business, for example, or we might make it an independent agency. It could work if our factories made decent cars that were worth the cost of production, something the US for-profit sector hasn’t been able to do.

What we wouldn’t want would be a joint venture between government and private manufacturers for mutual profit. Public policy would have to run in favor of the government-sponsored enterprise and against competitors. That would signal the end of open markets in the automotive business and in every other industry in which government dabbled.

Private parties would have access to the federal treasury in such a scheme, and profits would be guaranteed. Try to imagine the new ways businessmen would find to corrupt public officials with the proceeds. We can see it already in government contracting, most recently with the conviction of a senior member of the US Senate, soon to join a contingent of congressmen in the federal slammer. With the government’s acquisition of a share of private business, rich profiteers would wield greater influence than ever before over public institutions, public assets, and public employees.

Government participation in private business has been tried before. It was a mainstay of the National Socialist agenda in prewar Germany. So successful was the experiment that the Third Reich eventually turned conquered populations into a supply of slave labor for German business. The Nazi government’s military adventures in Europe quickly became a profit-center for privileged capitalists, creating new incentives for a policy of conquest and occupation.

Another problem with public-private enterprise is selecting what to invest in. We seem to be concentrating everything on failing industries. The proposed partnership with GM and Ford is on the table, but the ink is dry on the deal with banking and finance. Finance used to be a conservative enterprise. Decisions were made with great deliberation and for the long term. Risks were kept to a minimum, largely because of the regulatory structure imposed on the industry after the crash of 1929.

With the rise of right-wing government and the corruption of conservatism by big money, predators gradually took over, detailing moles to Congress and the executive. Their mission: to destroy the regulatory framework that had kept racketeers at bay for 60 years. Facilitated by corrupt voices in the commercial media and both major political parties, the mission was accomplished.

Drunk with deregulation, banks and other financial networks defied tradition and ethical practice, bidding up assets with easy money, grabbing their profits up front and handing them out promptly to rich folks and their acolytes in organized crime, banking and government. These are the people we’ve just gone into partnership with. A better idea might have been to take control of all of the assets of an insurance company, for instance, and use the corporate infrastructure, including employees, to administer a single-payer health insurance plan.

And what about car manufacturing? The decision-makers in that industry bet everything on the filthy, wasteful technologies of the 20th Century and the foolish habits of a small number of sociopathic drivers. If the public ever accepts a stake in this, we become responsible for maintaining a market for the internal combustion engine, whose utility, outside of racing, is history. Moving a ton of steel at 90 miles per hour is so wasteful as to border on criminal conduct, and yet that’s what the US car industry is peddling. It’s unfortunate that the personal craving for speed and power, now obsolete, generates the principal livelihood of a considerable proportion of the working class. This is a model of economic instability, and it’s an industry without a future.

Aren’t we throwing good money after bad when we keep these failed concerns going just so people can go to work every day? Might as well invest in the buggy whip industry or horseshoe nail futures. Manufacturing concerns that trade on brand identification instead of quality and progress should perish along with the owners that spawned them, and banks that embraced the new model–get the money up front and damn the long term–should go the same way. Businesses that stuck to basics will survive without help, and they will take up whatever slack is created by the failure of their cutting-edge competitors. This is natural selection, where mortality makes for stronger institutions and a hardier economy.