Josh Marshall says an auto industry bailout could lead to electric cars:

More to the point of creativity — one of the things about crisis is that it opens opportunities would never exist in normal times. People have been looking for ways to get Detroit to get serious about developing cleaner, more fuel efficient cars for years. At this point, we’re beyond that. We need to get serious about cars that don’t use gas at all. If the whole domestic auto industry is all but asking to be taken into federal receivership, that tells me that the people running the federal government now have quite a lot of leverage.

A few things in response:

1 — I sure hope this is right, since it seems to me we’re probably going to do this!

2 — I think this sense of leverage is a bit illusory. If today Detroit has the political clout to get billions of dollars from politicians, then this is really Detroit having leverage over congress and not the reverse. And once important politicians have committed themselves to the idea of an auto bailout, it gets harder and harder for them to say “no, this isn’t working, we need to pull the plug.” And whatever leverage congress has is predicated on being seriously willing to say no.


3 — A lot of this talk has an air of socialistic hubris about it. If this line of thinking were correct and the primary impediment to the production of technological miracles was a lack of government leverage, then state-owned enterprises would have been a smashing success. In reality, outside of a relatively narrow range of utility-type activities, they’ve been flops. If the negative externalities associated with carbon emissions were correctly priced, I’m quite sure that would lead people in various places to develop lower emissions cars. But is just sort of pointing at GM’s engineers and telling them “make low-emissions cars!” really going to lead to the intended result?

UPDATE: Let me further add that the risk here, as I see it, isn’t that we’re going to waste too much money on a Detroit bailout. Rather, the risk is that we’re going to slide into a situation where big swathes of the economy are dominated by zombie firms. If firms with unviable business models are prevented from failing, then other more successful firms can’t arise or expand to fill the niche and the whole sector goes dysfunctional employing tons of labor and resources but not creating real value.

And then you have other sectors that are being productive but that are burdened with taxes that are being used to prop up sectors that aren’t creating value. Then, even if we manage to halt the slide into recession we’ll have created a situation in which it’s difficult to return again to growth. By contrast, even the total liquidation (as opposed to reorganization under chapter 11) of one or more of the “big three” wouldn’t cause all the resources as the liquidated firm to vanish. Rather, if GM vanished from the earth that would be an opportunity for the other car companies and whichever of them is best-situated to expand to fill the market share void left by GM could profitably some of the capital and labor currently in use. But if a dead firm is kept on life support, that weakens all its competitors’ positions without offering any promise of resurrection.