Much Ado About GM

Buzz, buzz, buzz, though nothing with quite the eloquence of my rant last June.

When people-who-get-it discuss the appropriate level of response to climate change and peak oil, the two most often cited examples are the Manhattan Project and the Space Program. And what do these two achievements have in common? (Hint: It says something about the myth of the free market.)

Yes indeed, both of these superhumanly successful projects were funded and managed by the federal government. People sweated blood to make the impossible happen without being motivated by a sweet package of stock options.

To faithful free market ideologues, such a scenario does not compute — it is impossible for the government to be efficient or innovative because there is no profit motive. And therein lies the poison of our dominant economic world view: it diminishes us all by negating our capacity for doing good work for its own sake.

The free market is a highly effective system for producing widgets. But when it comes to massive, transformative change, the human passion for transcendence is what matters most. The most revolutionary art, science, and political movements of history were not about making a quick buck.

All of which is a drawn out way of saying this: We should nationalize GM. Because we need a revolutionary change in motorized transportation, and we need it now. And because the free market is not up to the task.

The mission of the new GM would be simple: Produce the most efficient, affordable motorized transportation the world has ever seen. Every resource would be made available to support this goal, with the exception of excessive salaries — the nature of the mission itself would attract the best minds in the world.


Disclaimer: I have no doubt that most Americans would find the notion of nationalizing GM somewhat ludicrous. Me too. Even though logic may lead me to believe it is an option worth serious consideration, there is a gut feeling deeply embedded in my psyche that causes me to recoil at the thought. But for the moment I’m allowing myself to think outside that box. Try it.

9 Responses to “Much Ado About GM”

  1. Matt the Engineer

    I’m not totally against the idea. Perhaps with the thought that after a few decades we let it free again. Either way, we have the power and definitely the need to change this company completely. If we don’t nationalize it, we can at least attach strings to every dollar we give them – changing the specifications of cars they produce, or even having them produce streetcars or even wind turbines for sale to government entities at a discount.

  2. jcdk

    Doestoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was written quickly so that he could make money to pay off a gambling debt.

    Oscar winning films make good money, usually before they are Oscar winning films.

    Ford massively transformed the way many live and do business by his innovative manufacturing method.

    The human genome project has its private protagonist.

    America produces better music and film than Canadians on the whole and yet Canadians offer a lot more government support for the arts.

    In the Greater Toronto Area, hydroelectricity (Niagara Falls) was nationalized because privately owned, small and medium sized businesses lobbied the government for it. And that to me is a great picture of a healthy relationship between the state and industry.

    Yet, today, Ontario Hydro is so subsidized by the government, that free market solutions such as solar cells and geothermal make only a wee bit of economic sense.

    So while in Toronto, I’ll go with Jane Jacobs and say that the survival of the polis is dependent on maintaining the distinction and worthiness of the guardians (law makers and keepers) and the bourgeoisie (entrepreneurs and people of industry). They are both important components to an economy and have the same potential for producing transformation, but don’t mix the two up too much.

    The problem with the big three auto makers is that they already are too much nurtured by the government. I know it is a controversial question, but what subsidy did Toyota get for creating the Prius (another example of a revolution through private industry)?

    The government is there to set guidelines for industry where it happens to fail to do so itself – that I believe: car’s should be this safe, and they should be at least this fuel efficient – the market will take care of the incentives. And, yet, really, how good is the government’s track record on simply defining a minimum standard of efficiency?

    I’m not sure that I would agree with the sentiment expressed for the Manhattan Project and the Space Program. Not human greatness, but American greatness, and American security – motivated funding for these projects. I need someone to explain to me how they were done for their own sake. Nuclear power for the sake of power? Heck, even for its own sake it sounds bad.

    The Internet was invented publicly, but perfected through a private-public consortium coordinated more by the industry and consumers than by government. Apple, Google, and even non-profits like Mozilla (non-government), W3C or Wikipedia – their widgets are revolutionary, no?

    Thomas Friedman’s argument for buying out the auto industry and privatizing it after resetting its priorities sound like a better idea to me than nationalizing the auto industry for good. Even then, the treasury would perhaps do a better job at cleaning up the books and thereby forcing change than congress legislating a course for truly revolutionary vehicles (GM: An American Revolution. More like a bloody oxymoron).

    A private solution to the auto industry’s failure and public safety net for its workers, however, may be better than nationalizing the industry. Provide people health care and unemployment benefits and I think we will see something become of the market of skilled labor. If the Big 3 is on the dole, trains and trams will likely not emerge as a significant industry in the US.

  3. John of Humdinger

    “People sweated blood to make the impossible happen without being motivated by a sweet package of stock options.”

    Let’s leave Obamaland for a few minutes and approach reality.
    What is NASA?
    NASA is a government bureau that gives out contracts. BIG contracts.
    Private, for profit, business enterprises bid on these contracts.

    Who put our men on the moon?
    Boeing. Draper Labs. Honeywell. Lockheed Martin. Raytheon. Teledyne. And a whole bunch of other profit seekers.
    These companies don’t give out stock options?????
    Only in Obamaland.

  4. dan bertolet

    That’s right JOH, not a single scientist or engineer works for NASA. Just a bunch of bureaucrats. No doubt the heroic CEOs of Boeing etc. were the true ringmasters of the operation, and probably even wrote JFK’s speech for him.

    jcdk, thanks for the thoughtful comment. Agreed about there being a place for both private and public efforts. If I am overstating the importance of the public side, it’s just my reaction to a country that has tilted so far toward the private. I have to say though, Oscar winning films usually aren’t the best example of the profit motive creating great art.

  5. John of Humdinger

    JFK’s speech was indeed a magic ingredient.
    (It was very refreshing to hear a politician suggest spending tax dollars on something other than buying votes with more giveaway programs to make the sheeple more dependent on Big Brother.)

  6. joshuadf

    I’d rather see something like what was done with WaMu. Nationalize the factories and run them or sell them off to a more worthy owner, and leave investors holding the bag.

  7. golumbeck

    Makes sense, Dan, I’ve been thinking along the same lines myself. See my post at

  8. joshuadf

    Russell Banks talks a bit about fear motivating Americans in _Dreaming Up America_. He points out that the Marshall Plan and Space Race were sold as idealism but had a lot to do with the Cold War as well. I only hope we can tackle the impersonal enemy of climate change.

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