When I was a lad, we were a Pontiac family. That was the way families used to think about themselves back then: Pontiac families, Ford families, Buick families, Dodge families.
There were even Hudson and Studebaker families and we felt sorry for them when those brands went under.
Car manufacturers began to take advantage of that brand loyalty by making increasingly junky cars on the cheap. Why give quality when the suckers are going to buy whatever you slap your name on?
General Motors was the leader in this race to the bottom largely because of the evil genius who ran it: Alfred P. Sloan. Sloan did not invent GM but upon assuming control in the mid-'20s he made it arguably the most powerful corporation on earth by the time he retired in the 50s.
A virulent Roosevelt-hater, he was the quintessential capitalist, absolutely amoral in his pursuit of profits. Many credit him with devising a scheme to sabotage inter-urban rail companies in order to sell more GM buses. It was his European subsidiary, Opel, that was one of the chief forces in arming Adolf Hitler's war machine and, although GM steadfastly denies it, he had a hand in that. There was a Depression going on after all and a buck is a buck.
It was he who first instituted yearly model changes in order to stimulate sales. This eventually begat "planned obsolescence," the idea that if you made cars that quickly fell apart the owner would have to buy another---quickly. This in turn ushered in the "they don't make 'em like they used to" era of the American auto.
Planned obsolescence worked fine so long as American car companies didn't have much foreign competition. But when the Japanese began showing up with cars that actually worked and outlived their windshield wipers, people responded by buying them. Thus began the Sayonara era of the American auto and it's the one we're in today.
So now, we are treated to the spectacle of the high priests of our auto industry coming before Congress and begging to be rescued---rescued by the same people it has treated with such disregard for so long.
Part of me wants to say: "You can go straight to hell. You say you're being killed by health care costs. Where were you when the fight for national health insurance was going on? On the sidelines.
"Where were you when environmentalists wanted you to make cars that got better leage, which would have allowed you to better compete with the Japanese? Fighting them tooth and nail.
"Get off your knees. You don't deserve to survive. Die."
But come on, let's get serious. The collapse of GM would send a hurricane through the economy that would make Katrina seem like a spring zephyr. It would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs directly and millions more indirectly. It would compromise our national security and do irreparable damage to our international standing.
It is unthinkable that we let the Big Three go down. The question is, what kind of life preserver do we throw them and when?
We can't just give them money without strings; that would merely postpone the day of reckoning. But what strings? Congress has a hard time running a three-car funeral, let alone the auto industry.
Some advise bankruptcy and while that has certain advantages (restructuring being the main one) they would still need to get loans to stay afloat and no one's lending money right now.
I say this: use the unspent $25 billion already allotted them for retooling and technological upgrades, to tide them over. Require that the industry come back in three months (or six) with a plan for restructuring that makes sense. Make sure it includes no executive bonuses.
If they don't agree then just grit your teeth and say: "See you in bankruptcy court, chums."
Because if they can't do that much, they are beyond help and so are we all.
Don Kaul is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-losing Washington correspondent.