Monday, November 24, 2008
Let Caterpillar Have the Big Three – Wall Street’s Hillary flop and Geithner bounce - Visualizing Roosevelt
by Bernie Quigley
- for The Hill on 11/24/08
We face here today a cultural sea change. Volvo-driving liberal Senators who have not driven an American car since their fathers taught them how to drive in ’52 Chevies with three on the column and brakes you had to begin to apply a block before negotiating the turn, are in a panic to pour money into Detroit. It would be a done deal already if Mitt Romney, who knows something about cars and about Detroit, hadn’t spoken up last Tuesday in a New York Times op-ed saying the car manufacturers would have a better chance of recovery if they were allowed to go bankrupt.
Panic is in the air but it is not clear that there is any need or reason for it. It would be good if Obama could avoid the denial/panic cycle that we have been chasing these last months and years. It leads to the Do Anything Syndrome. Ethanol? Rust belt bailouts? The war on Iraq? Windmills?
The current upheaval in the financial markets suggests a turning, but this has been suggested for months, even years. That it is happening now could well relate simply to the uncertainty of the November election, continuing now do to Obama’s administration picks and the apparent shift in theme from change to return: A return to Clintonism. It wasn’t what the world wanted. It wasn’t what the world expected.
Stocks rose 494 points in the last hour of trading Friday when word leaked that New York Fed president Timothy Geithner, 47, would be appointed Treasury secretary. They had dropped 873 points in the two days before after a general slide with the fatalistic news that the Clintons would be back in the White House administration with Hillary at Foggy Bottom.
Seen simply as products by us consumers, Geithner is a new face to us, young and unheard of by most although he is well connected to Treasury administrators Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers. That he has studied Japanese and Chinese and has lived in present-day Zimbabwe, India, Thailand and China (according to his Wiki bio) points in the right direction. And it might even offset the gnarly and contentious Summers, whose patronizing tutorials to Japan showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the East and his tenure as Harvard’s President illustrated a fundamental misunderstanding of most everything in human nature.
Geithner is what we want, what we chose and what we came to expect in a new Obama Presidency. In packaging alone, he looks smart. Even if he is incompetent we won’t know for at least six months.
Hillary on the other hand is the same old Chevrolet, retooled and recromed, but the same old wagon. The stock bounce at three o’clock Friday should help explain things. It should be a warning to Obama that his administration begins to look like Clinton III, as they put it in The Wall Street Journal. So far only Geithner breaks the pattern. And now with Bill Richardson on board it is again back to the Clintons. Obama needs new faces. All new faces. Young people like Geithner unheard of by us before. It is exactly how Kennedy and Reagan began to make their mark and it is marketing 101. There can be no turning back in this administration or it will fail and fail fast.
Hillary, Biden, Richardson . . . half the whole line up. You know what Obama’s problem is? He’s nice. That could be a problem.
Congress might think of convening a special session of realists, inviting only those among them who drive American cars and trucks. People like Senator Jon Tester, a farmer from Montana with fingers missing to prove it. He had some good comments at the car hearings last week about half tons.
Noel Perrin, a folkloric Dartmouth professor who recently passed away, might be researched as well by this lace curtain Congress. There was a time when urban types like the editorial board of The New York Times, which contracted the vapors this week when they saw a clip of Sarah Palin at a turkey farm, would read his First Person Rural books and want to move up here to become sometimes farmers like Noel, and buy an old truck and learn how to drive a tractor and work a chain saw. But it was revealed this week that the Times entire board of elders was apparently fully unaware that the turkey they will eat this Thanksgiving was once a living being.
You learn these things in the country. Brutal and strange things. Like the moon moves to different places in the sky at night while you are sleeping. Things happen. It can really creep you out. There was a time when great New Yorkers like E.B. White moved up here to leave that and find this.
There needs to be some original thinking here. Something more than a nostalgico FDR approach and a liberal Congress fully oriented to the last century visualizing Roosevelt in séance.
Some observations on American trucks for those who have never ventured past the Hudson River or the Potomac: In 1980 I bought a 1973 Dodge super cab truck that already had 186,000 miles on it. I bought it from a very nice Elvis worshiper in Silver Springs for $700 and sold it with about 400,000 miles on it 10 years later for $500 to a college professor who had read Noel’s books and was moving to the country. Those trucks were legendary. They used the engines to fly airplanes.
Last year I bought a Dodge Durango for hauling with 131,000 miles on it, expecting the same Dodge truck karma. I wanted a covered truck with all the features of a real truck including heavy shocks. But it had short shocks and floated on the highway. And at 161,000 it started making noises. I sold it cheap to a mechanic after putting only 30,000 miles on it.
The people I work with building stone walls, doing housing construction, landscaping and dairy farming mostly use American trucks. They are people like Todd Palin. As James Carville said last week, people like Todd Palin who are not “ . . . as complex” as Bill Clinton. My mechanic, who once called my house because he smelled something wrong with my truck when I drove by his garage, drives a Ford to do heavy plowing (we have snow on the ground as of this week). Most others I work with drive Dodges. That is because people who do that kind of work up here are fairly prosperous by our standards and they will sell their trucks and buy new ones when they get up by 80,000 miles.
But you can’t count on getting 400,000 miles on your truck anymore. They don’t make them like they used to.
I notice on the highway that there are not really many American cars anymore. There are vans, but a van like those used by people in the suburbs as I understand it is actually a truck chassis with the van thing built around it marketed by Detroit when they felt they couldn’t compete head on with Honda and Toyota in regular cars. (We have 265,000 miles on our Honda Civic and it runs like new.) There are Vibes, but they are really Toyota Matrixes. There are Escapes which are nice, especially the Hybrids, but they look like something else too. Most cars I see – cars like what my father would consider an actual car – seem to be made in Japan or Germany. Too bad. I got 260,000 miles with almost no repair costs out of one of the last Oldsmobiles made, then gave it to a kid.
What Congress, in constant panic mode probably inherited from the Iraq war where it proved its incompetence, seems to be doing now is imagining what Roosevelt would do; visualizing Roosevelt. Much as Richard Gere has asked us to visualize world peace. I have much greater faith in Richard’s efforts and try to do what he says in that regard and admire him for doing it, but I doubt it would bring forth a very good car or truck. In politics this is simply idolatry. Our world couldn’t be more different than Roosevelt’s. Today’s world is awash in cash. The cash is just not in our part of the world. Our circumstances are different. It won’t work.
With China and India about to enter the car market, pouring cash into Detroit to make a car that Joe Biden can drive around his district to emote conspicuous piety will be a short term novelty.
But from the point of view of people who work with their hands as I do, here is a thought. We use Caterpillars all the time in our work; excavators, back hoes, skid steers and other things. Farm equipment companies used to make trucks as well. Harvester International’s Scout was a classic. There is no reason why they can’t make them again.
Caterpillar is doing very well and China is a primary source of its growth. They make good machines. There might be opportunities for Caterpillar to converge its interests with the big three, at least in the realm of trucks and vehicles for working people. It would be nice to have an American truck again that could be counted on.
Recently Wesley K. Clark has called for the bailout of the auto industry because of military contracts and military research and development that car companies do. Those issues could solved by Caterpillar and other large equipment makers as well.
It would be a truck version of mergers and acquisitions: Let the healthy companies go to the failing and restructure them rather than turning them over to Congress and certain death.