Commentary: U.S. automakers are worth saving

For weeks I have been trying to make up my mind about whether I think the U.S. Congress should approve a $25 billion bailout for the Big Three U.S. automakers.

After some serious thinking on the issue, and after conjuring up some childhood memories of my days in Detroit, I finally have decided.

Admittedly my decision may be based more on passion than logic, but then emotions tend to have an impact on many of our choices when making crucial evaluations about issues.

Some of my fondest memories are of the Motor City. Although I was born and grew up in Fort Worth, I spent several summers in Detroit with my older sister, Cindy, and her husband, Dan.

In those days, Detroit was a thriving, throbbing city that clearly had been influenced greatly by the automobile business and the millionaire families it produced.

It was hard to escape the ever-present auto industry. There were Ford, General Motors and Chrysler signs all over. Hardly a day passed without news about something going on with one of the companies or with the society-doings of the Fords.

To get around town, you were likely riding on the Edsel Ford or Chrysler expressways, and it seemed that just about everyone you met worked for one of the companies.

Keep in mind, too, that I grew up in a family where relatives and neighbors often argued about the better car or pickup: Ford or Chevrolet? My father was a Ford man.

In nearby Dearborn — a place my family couldn’t have lived in those days; not just because of money — are still two of the nation’s greatest attractions: the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.

The museum pays tribute to Ford’s (and others’) ingenuity and his incredible entrepreneurship. The nearby village, sitting on almost 100 acres, is a "town" made up of restored homes and factories of some of America’s most famous innovators, including the Wright brothers, Thomas Edison and George Washington Carver. (Carver’s home is actually a replica.)

Both places take you back to a time, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when American imagination was creating things many considered unthinkable, among them the horseless carriage that we can’t do without.

I couldn’t have imagined then that the American automobile industry would ever be on the brink of failure and that its leaders would be car-pooling or flying commercial airlines to Washington to beg for handouts.

When the heads of the Big Three first appeared before Congress to request bailout money, they were met with skepticism and with a degree of ridicule for having arrived in their corporate jets. Basically, they were told that Washington would not hand out blank checks and that when they returned, they’d better come back with a plan for how they would change the out-dated industry model.

The American companies, facing declining sales, mounting debt and increasing retirement and pension costs, have only themselves to blame.

They continued to be out-managed and out-performed by competitors who were more streamlined, more innovative.

Five years ago, the three largest U.S. auto companies had 62 percent of the domestic market. Today they have about 47 percent, according to The New York Times. While the Big Three sell 112 car and truck models under 15 brands, the three largest foreign companies have a total of 58 models.

The newspaper said, "GM, for example, has about 6,700 dealers in the United States, compared with 1,200 for Toyota."

Both Ford and GM are talking about selling off some of their brands.

Leaders of the American companies go before Congress again Thursday to discuss their plans for restructuring and possibly cutting their multi-million-dollar annual compensation packages.

It may not be enough to win congressional support, but the lawmakers ought to give them the money in a last-ditch effort to save the industry. Should any — much less all three — fail, the ripple effect would have a severe negative impact on the already failing economy.

While it may be too little too late, if something isn’t done to turn these companies around, the museum in Dearborn will have to build several more wings for displays explaining the death of the American automobile industry.

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