COLUMN: Bankruptcy or 35 mpg

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By John Loehr

I confess that I’ve always been a car nut. From my first car (a much-used Oldsmobile Rocket 88), more than half a century ago, to my current monthly readership of every known English-language car mag, I’ve loved cars and enjoyed the driving — and racing — pleasures of Alfas, BMWs, MGs, Porsches, big American iron, the best of the Asiatic offerings and everything in between (including some fast motorcycles).

Most people with this emotional automotive history are in favor of the coming “bail-out” of GM and Ford (Chrysler, a once proud brand, really doesn’t exist anymore), if only because we recall the pleasures derived from using some of their products. But I’m not an advocate of this, unless our government exacts some extraordinary quid pro quos for the billions of taxpayer dollars we will spend to save these sadly anachronistic businesses.

The fiscal system problems of the USA — with its contagion infecting the rest of the world — are in significant part due to our voracious appetite for oil and the annual export of the hundreds of billions it costs to “fill ‘er up.” And, a major contribution to that outflow comes from the creators and sellers of the monstrously consumptive, over-powered, over-weight mainstream American autos and trucks.  The Big Three’s persistence and successes in fraudulently convincing Americans that we need those giant V8s mounted in two-ton-plus boxes have helped to drive fossil fuel demand to unsustainable and costly levels and, perhaps even more dangerously, unrealistically raised aspirations in less developed nations. Receding glaciers and increasing global warmth are due in part to our carbon-gobbling Detroit and Dearborn behemoths.

It shouldn’t be difficult for the Obama administration to make some demands for saving the failing capitalist auto barons with our tax dollars. A beginning requirement of a 35-mpg CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) target, achieved in 2012 (with no fudging on the vehicle mix), should be easy.  And a 50 percent base price excise tax on any fossil fuel burner of more than 2.5 liters — about half of a current basic V8 — would be welcome, with incentives and tax advantages for non-fossil fuel burners a part of this. Mandatory and total recycling to offset the high life cost of a vehicle should also be included.

Some people are already ahead of this game. I have noticed that, in my own family, we have completed a two-generation metamorphosis that should send chills down the spine of any GM or Ford executive.  My dad was an American car addict and was firmly committed to the big V8s from Chrysler. Of course, gas was 19 cents a gallon when he filled the tank on that big, loping Hemi (I loved to look at that engine and would tell any lie to get to drive it!). My children, however, demonstrate different consumer tastes, buying fuel-miserly Hondas, Toyotas, Subarus, and Nissans (and some very nice bicycles), but no big American sedans to transport their families. They are the unmet sales challenge for the failing U.S. companies, but I fear that these once brilliant marketers have become deaf to what America needs. They’ve confused torque and horsepower with patriotism, a sad and ignorant situation that won’t change no matter how many U.S. flags and country-western songs are utilized.

Sadly, letting them reap what they’ve sown, e.g., the bankruptcy that capitalism promises to their brand of stupidity, will create such widespread fiscal and employment havoc that we’ll very probably engage in some version of socialism to keep them alive. I only hope we exact a sensible accommodation from them as a price, especially because they wouldn’t do it on their own, for the good of their shareholders or their country. And it might not be a bad idea to complement this effort at controlling corporate ignorance by adding a $1 tax to each gallon of gasoline sold in America to start building the kind of public national transportation infrastructure that we know our grandchildren will need. This could serve as a frequent gas pump reminder of the corporate hubris and greed that has put us in this jam and helped to diminish our economic health.

John Loehr lives in Montezuma. He may be reached at 505-454-1731.