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As both Congress and the White House decide if and how to toss a bone to the American auto industry those of us footing the bill…or, more accurately, the parents and grandparents of those footing the bill…are left to wonder who the losers and winners are in the proposition. The $700 billion bailout of Wall Street taught us one thing: that the habits of privilege are difficult to unlearn. That fragile tension that exists in capitalism (the balance of greed’s energy and lust) only works when everyone plays fair and someone is there to make sure of it. But when the fox is left to guard the henhouse and things go bust, who pays the costs? Two people make a bad decision in the marketplace and one person gets a bonus while another loses their home. One thing is clear in all the solutions being offered as remedies: profit is privatized while loss is being socialized. It appears we taxpayers now own AIG and that it’s likely we’re going to hold big stakes in both banks and car companies. Who knew that Big Capitalism would be what finally led the US to Socialism? And all this was proposed not by Obama, but by Bush. It’s the world turned upside down.
Now, none of the finger pointing that’s inevitable is going to leave its prints on only a single villain. It’s a complicated web of interacting characters that involves the global pool of money and its managers, unscrupulous lenders, rules so relaxed that they aren’t rules at all, Wall Street investors throwing kerosene on the whole thing, and borrowers who, to quote my mother, had “eyes way bigger than their stomachs.” Or their wallets.
People seem to have a bit more sympathy for the mortgage lending bailout than for the one being proposed for the auto industry. A half-century ignoring the inevitable need for more fuel-efficient vehicles has created little good will for the moguls of Motown. The workers who built the cars they were told to build are being demonized as the cause of the whole mess…despite major concessions in the last 3 contract cycles. But the nation’s lust for big gas-guzzlers cannot go without blame. And, in all this equation, there is one shadowy player who is the biggest winner of all. And no one is talking about them.
The major oil companies pocketed record profits in recent years, fueled, quite literally, by record numbers of automobiles driving record numbers of miles as though there is no tomorrow. Well, tomorrow arrived a few months ago for most of us. And that was when Exxon-Mobile, to cite one example, posted a record $14 billion in after-tax profits. For one quarter. That figure is curiously close to the amount we’re being asked to pony up for the auto bailout. Someone somewhere needs to start connecting the dots so that the pie is divvied up a little more justly. And that everyone takes their fair share of the castor oil. Just sayin’…
As I approach my Golden Years I’m ever more cognizant of the fact that I’m sounding more and more like a Cranky Old Guy. An email (or, god forbid!) a text message is not a proper birthday greeting. Powdered cream or soy substitute for your coffee, unless you are lactose intolerant, is an abomination. Anything other than maple syrup ought to be outlawed at the breakfast table. This is all to say that somewhere along the line we forgot about what is real and what is obviously false. We cut taxes while waging two wars and wonder why we’re broke. We buy things, from sweatshirts to houses, that we don’t have the money or the income to afford. Want is substituted for need and the virtues of prudence and self-control haven’t been taught or talked about since calculators were not allowed during math tests. Now I’m not saying that we don’t understand simple arithmetic any more, but we certainly don’t seem to know how to put two and two together.
Despite all this, I have great hope for the future. Part of this is because I am, by nature, a hopeful fellow. I know that the empirical evidence will always be on the side of the pessimist but that’s a horrid way to make your way through the world. A greater part of my optimism is that I find reasons for hope at every turn these days. I find hope in the promise of a new Administration. I find hope in my own children. I find hope in the many good people who are doing amazing things in their communities, despite and because of the dire times. In the face of such wonders, none of us, to quote Utah Phillips, can afford the luxury of despair.