Steve Chapman

In the New Testament story, a man has two sons. One of them demands his inheritance, runs off and squanders it all having a wild time, and ends up penniless.

At that point, he slinks home in disgrace, assuming he will have to beg forgiveness. But his father is so thrilled to have him back that he kills a fatted calf and throws a party to celebrate the prodigal son's return.

Not a bad deal, huh? Unless you're the other son, who worked hard for his father and avoided loose women but never got the big fiesta. He felt cheated, and it's hard to blame him.

People employed by automakers other than General Motors and Chrysler would be justified in feeling the same way. Last fall, facing bankruptcy, those companies sought and received some $17 billion in federal loans intended to keep them in business. Now they are back asking for more -- $16.6 billion for GM and $5 billion for Chrysler.

That doesn't count the $7.7 billion GM wants to improve fuel economy or the $5 billion its financial arm got from the Treasury Department. Nor does it exclude the possibility that they will demand more help in the future.

And what about the automakers that have not run themselves into the ground? They get nothing. Actually, they get worse than nothing: They get the privilege of competing not just against GM and Chrysler but against the federal government, which has unlimited resources and is now in full partnership with the two.

It's not just Ford, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen and all the other companies that sell (and often build) cars here that are seeing their wisdom and restraint punished. It's also the American people -- most of whom voted with their pocketbooks not to support GM and Chrysler but now see their money forcibly diverted to those automakers anyway.

For years, Detroit has been relentlessly driving customers away. In 1985, the Big Three accounted for 80 percent of all the cars sold in this country. Today, their share of the market is just 43 percent.

Their high costs and inferior reputation for quality have hindered them in competition for some 30 years. So in good times and bad, they lag behind more efficient rivals.

The financial losses they've compiled recently convey an unmistakable message from consumers: We are no longer willing to buy your vehicles at a price that pays you to make them -- if we are willing to buy them at all. The Big Three had a fat inheritance, and they managed to blow it.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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