Sam Smith

The debate over the automobile company bailout is a reminder of how many of Washington’s problems are not political, but cultural and psychological. What it comes down to is this: there is apparently no one in power who knows how to fix the situation nor even where to begin. Of course, no one wants to admit this and so we watch a cspanic charade on TV that increasingly looks less like a congressional hearing and more like the dinner table of some dysfunctional family.

This is a problem that requires a whole new perspective and not merely a new administration. We have, as a culture, created a class of leaders who are so far removed from the realities of what they are managing that they have little idea of what to do when something goes wrong.

It’s a problem that has been creeping up on us for a long time as trades were replaced by professions, boot straps by MBAs, lowly experience by higher education, empiricism by theory, and social intelligence by a form of high functioning autism.

Sixteen years ago, I ascribed this to a form of entropy that I dubbed global dumbing:

||| In physics, entropy is a measure of unavailable energy. In the natural world, entropy is reflected in the pollution from your car and radioactive tailings. If the world were perfect, energy would do just what it was supposed to do and not go wandering off like some groupie of that cosmic band, The Second Law of Thermodynamics. As it is, much of it is wasted and thus when you bake something, your kitchen as well as your oven gets warm. Such phenomena led the German physicist Ruldolf Clausius to propose in 1865 that we were losing energy everywhere and that we call this sorry state of affairs entropy. It’s been downhill ever since.

Cultures lose energy, too. Which is why the Egyptians don’t build pyramids any more, and why Guatemalans have to import digital watches rather than just checking their Mayan calendars. The creation of a great civilization or a great world power wastes a enormous amount of energy. As Barry Commoner put it, in nature there is no free lunch. . .

The global human mind faces a similar problem, thanks to such factors as the ubiquity of American film and television, excessively frequent summits of world leaders, international conferences on every conceivable subject, multinational corporations and other well meaning efforts that bring the world closer together but in so doing leaves no corner of it immune from human energy loss. If there is, in fact, a entropic collapse of the earth, the last sound may well be that of Larry King telling a caller from Bali to hold on a minute for a word from his sponsor.

Nor is this entropy limited to the more public pursuits. Indeed, a cursory examination of American business suggests that its major product is wasted energy. Compute all the energy loss created by corporate lawyers, Washington lobbyists, marketing consultants, CEO benefits, advertising agencies, leadership seminars, human resource supervisors, strategic planners and industry conventions and it is amazing that this country has any manufacturing base at all. ||||

While there is much talk about the inefficiency of the auto industry, no one seems to notice the inefficiency of those trying to correct it, symbolized by word that at least one government agency is holding planning meetings in preparation for transition planning meetings. If these people were in Detroit there would be no cars at all.

One of the blessed teachings of journalism is that you don’t have to know anything; you just have to know who does. But even the press seems to have forgotten this as they regurgitate the stalls, sideshows, and superfluities that pass for a serious discussion.

Is there any way out? In the spirit of the hope we have been so frequently promised of late, here are a few things that might help:

– Bring in people who are good at things to baby sit those in the auto industry who aren’t. A few examples would be the best from Silicon Valley and, if it doesn’t violate the current laws of patriotism, even those from other countries who know how to make and sell things. The purpose would not be to micromanage but to observe, suggest and report back to Congress and the American people what the hell is going on.

– Figure out how many and what sort of cars we are actually going to need if we really do go green. The answer to this will help us figure out what sort of auto industry we need.

– Take one third of the Defense Department’s research and development budget and use it for research & development of new forms of transportation and transit. Why one third of the Pentagon’s R&D budget? It turns out to be about $25 billion, a figure that’s being thrown around a lot these days as too much to spend to save the industry that built modern America.

– Go through all the patents that the auto industry bought up in the past in order to prevent competition with a strategy that has resulted in so much trouble. We may even find one for a car that runs on a USB connection.

– Start converting the auto industry into a mass transit industry. There is a precedent for this in the Budd Company that started building steel car bodies for Dodge in 1916 and ended up making modern Amtrak cars. It died in the 1980s because we thought cars were better than trains. Using billions to make equipment for the huge new rail system that we badly need would not be a bailout but a startup. And we could do it with government printed money – and not more debt – because it will be public works that creates wealth and employment rather than inflation.

– Bearing in mind that Detroit labor costs – despite conservative propaganda – is less than ten percent of what goes into a car, any adjustment in compensation should be matched by new forms of involvement by workers including board seats and novel ownership plans.

If you don’t like any or all of the above, come up with your own damn ideas. But note, in character and substance, how different these proposals are compared to the ones one more typically hears discussed in Washington, many of which involve little more than financial or legal manipulations of one sort or another. They are not unnecessary, but because of the inability of Washington’s elite to deal with practical ideas, the fiscal and legal ones assume a disproportionate role.

This is a town which primarily likes to deal with law and numbers, policies and procedures. Making a car is not in its job description. Yet – as the housing foreclosure mess indicates – we can not retrieve America by ignoring the practical and the real.

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