You just bought a car company. Now what?

By , Blogger for The Christian Science Monitor

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    Do you like this truck? Good, because you now own several thousand of them.
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If you're an American taxpayer, congratulations! You are now the owner of one of the world's largest auto manufacturers.

Maybe you never wanted to buy a car company. Maybe you hoped that your tax dollars would go toward something else, like fixing potholes, building schools, or perhaps a conducting a bombing raid somewhere. But you don't get much of a say about where your taxes go, and the people who do have a say decided that your money should buy a controlling interest of General Motors, and that's that.

So now that you have a car company, what are you going to do with it? It's a tough question, and there are no shortage of people weighing in.

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Lefty filmmaker Michael Moore, who first became famous for his 1989 film, “Roger & Me,” which described what happened in his home town after the GM plant closed there, has big plans for the company. He wants to retool GM's plants – and retrain its 60,000 workers – to make bullet trains, light rail systems, energy-sipping buses, solar panels, windmills, and a few hybrids and electric vehicles. To pay for all this, he proposes a $2-per-gallon gas tax.

The editorial board at the Nation, who, it's safe to say, share many of Mr. Moore's political views, call for pretty much the same thing.

Over on the other side of the political spectrum, New York Times columnist David Brooks is warning that all this government meddling in private industry will invite nothing but heartbreak for everyone involved. GM, writes Mr. Brooks is a thoroughly dysfunctional workplace , and by forcing the company to "serve two masters" – the market and the administration's environmental goals – the White House is wading into a quagmire that Mr. Brooks compares to the Iraq war. (Yes, he really says that.)

At the Atlantic, blogger Marc Ambinder suggests putting Detroit native Mitt Romney in charge, because what's needed is "forceful, even ruthless, leadership" from someone unafraid of "bringing the hammer down – repeatedly" and "jack[ing] up the stakes." Plus, installing a Republican would give Obama some political wiggle room to turn the company around swiftly. Mr. Ambinder doesn't get into exactly what GM should do, only that it should do it right away.

Keith Johnson, the Wall Street Journal's eco-blogger, wonders if GM will need to abandon the Volt, the company's plug-in electric hybrid vehichle scheduled to go on sale late next year. Noting the compact's $40,000 price tag, Mr. Johnson lays out the options:

GM can focus on making mass-market cars that sell well and abandon the Volt. Or it can carry on with the Volt and hope either costs come down or consumers suddenly change their habits and run out to buy a $40,000 compact sedan.

Treehugger's Michael Graham Richard calls this a false choice. Oil was selling at $20 a barrell in 1997. What if Toyota decided to abandon the Prius then? Where would it be now?

If GM wants to be successful in the future, it has to aim for the future, not for the present or the past. So the advice of dropping the Volt because it is too expensive now is simply shortsighted.

Mr. Richard notes that this is almost exactly what GM did in 2003, when it scrapped its EV1 program.Viable or not, it looks as though the Volt is here to stay. As Autoblog Green reports, the company has stated that the electric car will play a key role in the "new GM."

Last December the LA Times's Pulitzer Prize-winning automotive writer Dan Neil drew both praise and scorn (but mostly scorn) with an op-ed titled "Nationalize GM," in which he called for a government takeover of the ailing company. Now that the government has done exactly that, he looks back at where it all went wrong.

His conclusion: the collapse of the US auto market, gas prices, and the credit crisis. Also, the company seemed far too obsessed with extending its market share, even if doing so meant losing money.

But Neil remains optimistic about the automaker's future. He writes:

The post-imperial GM will be smaller, leaner, smarter and hungrier. I hope. Bankruptcy's purifying fire will burn away debt and, as important, a legacy of comfortable arrogance. And it will be truer than ever: What's good for GM is good for America.

- Monitor staffer Eoin O'Carroll blogs about the environment.

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