Is Detroit Too Black to Fail?
What Obama's car commission needs to look like.
Obama's car task force will have to rethink American cars—who builds them, who buys them and who’s making the payments. And while the president tries to save Wall Street and Main Street, he needs to look out for 2300 Jackson Street.
The blacker the city, the bailout’s less pretty;
In congressional committee, most options are shitty.
Detroit is the blackest city in America. And after witnessing New Orleans, another venerable majority-black city, go down for the count in 2005, by way of government indifference in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it behooves President Barack Obama to do everything he can to help save Motown and its auto industry.
This doesn’t mean that Obama should prioritize African-American concerns over those of the broader polity—after all, African Americans supported Obama knowing that he wasn’t pushing a “black” agenda. But black people don’t expect to ride the back of the proverbial bus, either. Keeping Detroit afloat is good for the country and good for black America. It’s also a way for Obama to throw a lifeline to unions before he carefully sidesteps the coming debate over the politically non-starting Employee Free Choice Act.
The president wants Detroit fixed,
But old methods will have to be nixed—
He’s got multiple czars,
For American cars;
But some CEOs should get deep-sixed.
Rather than installing one all-powerful “car czar,” the president will put in place a new task force on the U.S. auto industry, set to work with both management and labor to maintain viability among the Big Three automakers—General Motors, Chrysler and Ford—and the myriad supply-chain businesses counting on their survival. The Washington Post reports that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner (him again?) and newly appointed corporate restructuring specialist Ron Bloom will be important players in solving the automakers' puzzle.
But this is Detroit, and these are cars we’re talking about. Obama should consider rounding out that team with a few brothas. We’d need:
Somebody’s uncle—the guy who goes out every three years and leases a new Buick, Lincoln Town Car or Lexus. Think of a retired Charles Barkley. He’ll sit in on design meetings to tell them what the people who still have disposable income actually want.
A fix-it guy—There’s one in every neighborhood. He’s the dude who you take your car to when you don’t want to pay dealership prices for an oil change. You need a friendly brotha who can let clueless management types know when they’ve taken things too far with the car’s guts. Picture Craig Robinson as Mr. Goodwrench.
A pitchman—to help figure out how Americans who like the sound of “E-Class” and “3 Series” are gonna buy a car called “Volt.” Thirty years ago folks might have been hyped by cars named “Malibu” and “Impala,” but nowadays all we really want is something that gives us that deep, reassuring, made-in-Japan “thunk” sound when the doors close. Let’s see if we can get Berry Gordy to come out of retirement for this one.
It’s pretty clear now:
You’ll subsidize it.
Bailing out banks is one thing. Everyone has to deal with them. Not everyone has to buy American cars. That simple fact should give Obama’s team the leverage it needs to wrest a few big concessions from management and labor before coughing up additional cash.
Mark the cars at 10 percent over invoice to get rid of haggling over the sticker. Get rid of “options” so dealerships and supply chain outlets can focus on two or three different trim levels of each model. Cap auto execs’ pay at $500K just like banks receiving TARP money, and use the savings to increase the wages of salesmen and people on the line. Up-armor as many Humvees as we possibly can—these wars aren’t going anywhere.
Whatever you do, think outside the box. All the Kate Walsh TV spots in the world won’t turn a Cadillac STS into an Audi. The Bob Seger “Like a Rock” demographic and the Mary J. Blige “Real Love” set stayed loyal to American cars all these years, but the rest of the country moved on to gluten-free corn flakes, iTunes and Volvo.
The task force will rethink American cars—who builds them, who buys them and who’s making the payments. And Obama has to remember what happened to Bourbon Street. While he’s saving Wall Street and Main Street, he needs to look out for 2300 Jackson Street. Washington, D.C. might be Chocolate City, but Obama also has to look out for Motown—the Chocolate-est City.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.