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Reich: GM Bailout a Cover for Not Doing More to Help Workers

Robert Reich, economist and former Clinton administration labor secretary, doesn’t think much of General Motors expected bankruptcy filing today, as the nation’s largest automaker prepares for a de facto government rescue and takeover. If the United States really wanted to help GM, Reich wrote in an op/ed for the Financial Times, it would try a different tactic. It would pursue an aggressive policy of retraining workers and providing them with extended unemployment insurance. But that’s not happening. The government is bailing out GM not because it thinks it can be saved, but because it’s easier politically and less painful economically to stave off for as long as it can GM’s inevitable failure.

The only practical purpose I can imagine for the bail-out is to slow the decline of GM to create enough time for its workers, suppliers, dealers and communities to adjust to its eventual demise. Yet if this is the goal, surely there are better ways to allocate $60bn than to buy GM? The funds would be better spent helping the Midwest diversify away from cars. Cash could be used to retrain car workers, giving them extended unemployment insurance as they retrain.

But US politicians dare not talk openly about industrial adjustment because the public does not want to hear about it. A strong constituency wants to preserve jobs and communities as they are, regardless of the public cost. Another equally powerful group wants to let markets work their will, regardless of the short-term social costs. Polls show most Americans are against bailing out GM, but if their own jobs were at stake I am sure they would have a different view.

So the Obama administration is, in effect, paying $60bn to buy off both constituencies. It is telling the first group that jobs and communities dependent on GM will be better preserved because of the bail-out, and the second that taxpayers and creditors will be rewarded by it. But it is not telling anyone the complete truth: GM will disappear, eventually. The bail-out is designed to give the economy time to reduce the social costs of the blow.

Beyond GM, an even bigger worry should be the continuing long loss of well-paying, middle-class jobs that once allowed significant numbers of Americans to share in the country’s prosperity, Reich said. The government bailout of GM, he wrote, will do little to address that problem — in fact, it will only worsen as the automaker cuts jobs to stay afloat for as long as possible. In this new economy, GM’s old adage has been turned upside down, according to Reich. What’s bad for GM these days is what’s bad for America as well.

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