Steve Chapman

I'm a little hazy on the particulars, but as I understand things from the Democratic convention, a team of Navy SEALs landed in Detroit to save General Motors, and then autoworkers ran over Osama bin Laden repeatedly with a Chevy Volt.

Or something like that. What was clear, regardless, is that the same people who are reluctant to shoulder responsibility for the overall state of the economy do not mind taking credit for every car sold in America in the past 44 months.

Barack Obama didn't just rescue GM and Chrysler, we are told. He preserved a million jobs. He saved the entire auto industry. He invented a catalytic converter that churns out rainbows.

Hosannas came from nearly every speaker, particularly former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, whose antics fell just short of the standards required for involuntary commitment in North Carolina. But the story is not quite so simple or rosy as you might conclude.

In the first place, Obama does not deserve all the credit for the bailout of the automakers. It got started under President George W. Bush, who reaped curiously little praise in Charlotte.

Nor is it necessarily true that had this administration declined to intervene, GM and Chrysler would have promptly disappeared. Plenty of companies continue to operate after filing for bankruptcy, including the one I work for, Tribune Co. Airlines, restaurant chains and clothing retailers have all gone into Chapter 11 and lived to tell the tale.

GM and Chrysler had a slightly harder problem because they sell long-lasting products -- and customers might have doubted they would be around to honor their warranties. But they could have contracted with independent companies to handle that job. Or the administration could have guaranteed their warranties, as it did, and stopped there, which it didn't.

Saving two companies is not the same thing as saving the U.S. auto industry, which includes a host of other corporations that make cars here. Not only did the others get nothing; they were penalized for prospering. Having kept labor costs down and quality high, companies like Toyota, Subaru and Honda lost many of the usual benefits of their achievement. Sales and profits they should have reaped, they didn't.

All the administration proved is that if you pump enough federal helium into a sinking business, you can keep it aloft for a while. By the administration's own estimate, taxpayers will lose $25 billion on the deal.

Steve Chapman

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

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