For more than 40 years, a 25% tariff has kept out foreign-built pickup trucks even as a studied loophole was created in fuel-economy regulations to let the Big Three develop a lucrative, protected niche in the "passenger truck" business.
This became the long-running unwritten deal. This was Washington's real auto policy.
For three decades, the Big Three were able to survive precisely because they skimped on quality and features in the money-losing sedans they were required under Congress's fuel economy rules to build in high-cost UAW factories. In return, Washington compensated them with the hothouse, politically protected opportunity to profit from pickups and SUVs.
...the muddled, covert bailout continues: Washington's latest fuel-economy rules actually reward manufacturers for increasing the size and weight of some vehicles. The truck tariff remains in place. The fuel-mileage rules continue to protect the UAW monopoly by discouraging the Big Three from shipping small-car production offshore.
Lately some have doted, with wonderment and admiration, on the Obama administration's apparent willingness to drive a hard bargain with the UAW as it tries to impose a stage-managed replica of bankruptcy on GM and Chrysler. Please.
In a real bankruptcy, which is the natural fate of companies unable to meet their obligations, Chrysler and GM would be run (or liquidated) for the benefit of their creditors, not their workers. But, here, "pattern bargaining" will remain the law of the Detroit jungle. The UAW will continue to use its unnaturally augmented clout to extract uncompetitive pay and benefits (it can do no other given its internal incentives). As it has for 40 years, Washington will pitch in with one improvisation after another, disguised as energy policy, trade policy, health-care policy or environmental policy, to stop the rivets from popping off. Politics, especially Democratic electoral politics, will play a more dominant role than ever.
Look closely and the hidden subsidies to keep the dismal beast alive have already started flowing -- tax credits for UAW retirees to make up for reduced health-care benefits, loans to help Detroit "invest in green cars." And plenty more will be needed to sustain Obama Motors on life support, at least through the 2012 election.
The Obama strategy does nothing to change the basic dynamics of the homegrown auto sector -- a labor monopoly combined with endless finagles in Washington to help the Big Three survive competition from Japanese, German and Korean auto makers. But maybe the shock of seeing GM nationalized will at least cause some in politics and the press finally to think about how we got here.
The travesty is how long this will continue to play out to the detriment of the US auto industry and especially to the US taxpayer.