TROY, Mich. – Episodes of congressional disarray feed an ideologically loaded narrative that government is hopelessly incompetent and can never be counted on to do much that is useful.
Even if President Donald Trump and the Republicans ultimately come to bear the burden for Washington’s disarray, episodes of this sort bolster the standard conservative view of government as a lumbering beast whose “meddling” only fouls things up. The private sector is cast as virtuously efficient and best left alone.
The power of this anti-government bias is enhanced by our failure to revisit government’s successes. We don’t often call out those who wrongly predict that activist politicians and bureaucrats will bring on nothing but catastrophe.
This is why conservatives would rather lock up the government rescue of General Motors and Chrysler under President Obama in a memory hole. In the end, taxpayers invested some $80 billion in the rescue and recouped all but approximately $10 billion of that. And that figure does not take into account the taxes paid by workers who might otherwise have been unemployed.
Remember that when this was debated, critics insisted that the federal government could not possibly understand a complicated business and that it would turn the auto companies into some kind of patronage dumping ground.
If the bailout happened, Mitt Romney famously wrote, “you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye.” Rush Limbaugh accused Obama of trying to “take over” the American auto companies in order to turn them into “another industry doing his bidding.” Former Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said the bailout would amount to throwing good money after bad. “Just giving them $25 billion doesn’t change anything,” he said in November 2008, citing the estimated upfront cost at the time of saving the companies. “It just puts off for six months or so the day of reckoning.”
In fact, in the most capitalist of terms, the initiative worked spectacularly well. Auto sales rose for seven straight years starting in 2010, before finally taking a small dip in 2017. On May 29, 2009, GM stock cratered to 75 cents a share – yes, 75 cents. The restructured company went public again in 2010 at $33 a share, and it was trading at around $43 a share last Friday. Fiat Chrysler, the merged company that came out of the government-led restructuring, debuted on the New York Stock Exchange at $9 a share in October 2014 and is now trading in the range of $24 a share.
Although Obama organized the details of the rescue and took the heat for it, former President George W. Bush deserves some credit here. While he was initially reluctant to do so, Bush responded to Obama’s desire to keep the future of the companies open. He eventually fronted GM and Chrysler some $25 billion from the funds set aside for the bank bailouts after the economic implosion.
Bush said in December 2008, “If we were to allow the free market to take its course now, it would almost certainly lead to disorderly bankruptcy.” For such a staunch capitalist, it was a candid – one might say courageous – admission that the market, operating on its own, would create chaos.
And this bedlam would have taken a severe human and social toll, since the job losses from that “disorderly bankruptcy” would have hit not only the auto companies themselves but also their suppliers and other enterprises, large and small, that served them.
Instead, Michigan, along with other parts of the region, has staged an impressive comeback. The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate peaked at 14.9 percent in June 2009, fell to 5.1 percent by December 2016, and has continued to drop, to 4.6 percent last November. In Detroit itself, unemployment declined from 28.4 percent in June 2009 to 7.8 percent in November 2017.
Wages, it should be said, have not fully recovered from the Great Recession. The real median household income in Michigan stood at $57,910 in 2006, sank through 2010, when it hit $50,943, and was at $57,091 in 2016. So there’s still work to do. But imagine what the trends would look like if government had made the irreversible choice of letting GM and Chrysler go under.
The price of our collective amnesia about the moments when public action kept capitalism from flying off the rails is very high. Once a crisis is over, extreme forms of deregulation return to fashion and our political discourse falls lazily back into cheap government bashing. That Trump and Congress sometimes make this easy is no excuse for forgetting why government is there.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EJDionne.