There's been plenty of back-and-forth of late about the ultimate value and wisdom of the cash-for-clunkers program. But, even if it winds up achieving all that the White House intended, I can't help but remain pessimistic about the long-term prospects for Detroit.
Sure, by dangling a chunk of change in front of people to trade in their old gas-guzzlers, many will drive off in a brand new Ford or Chevy. But, more broadly, a huge swath of the country was furious about the auto bailout, and that resentment will linger--certainly until the economy is back up to speed and people stop fuming (no matter how unfairly) about how all the big boys got bailouts while the little guy got shafted.
I don't count myself above this phenomenon. Even though I thought some sort of government intervention was necessary, I find myself eyeballing American cars on the road with a bit of irritation. We are talking about an industry that was poorly run, then, when things went south, essentially black-mailed the government into saving its bacon.
Yes, I appreciate the argument that part of Detroit's troubles stemmed from the fact that U.S. automakers were among the last manufacturers to continue providing a nice middle-class standard of living to blue-collar workers. But that doesn't explain away the glut of brands or the irrational relationship automakers had with their dealers (way too many, and in arrangements way too costly to dissolve). Nor does it excuse the short-sighted focus on mega SUVs and trucks that delivered huge profit margins but were dependent both on perpetually cheap gas and on the driving public's give-a-shit attitude toward the environment.
Detroit saw this train wreck coming from miles away. And no matter how long and hard it now labors to explain to a cheesed-off public why the bailout wasn't about rewarding unsustainable business practices, my bet is that many, many Americans will not be in the mood to listen for some time--possibly until it's too late.