Steve Chapman

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Todd Zywicki of George Mason University law school and James Sherk of the Heritage Foundation point out that "GM still has higher labor costs ($56 an hour) than any of its competitors" -- something a normal bankruptcy likely would have altered.

Even former Obama auto czar Steven Rattner has admitted, "We should have asked the UAW to do a bit more." But if they had done that, the UAW might not be so enthusiastic about re-electing Obama.

These costs are a particular burden to companies that can't charge a premium for superior reliability and design. When Forbes magazine compiled a list of the 10 worst built vehicles of 2012, eight came from GM or Chrysler. Consumer Reports' five top-ranked brands this year are all Japanese. The worst two overall? You guessed it.

"All I've learned about women is that whatever it is they want, it's what I don't have," grouses the narrator of Larry McMurtry's 1978 novel "Somebody's Darling." "Don't have it -- never had it -- can't get it."

GM and Chrysler have the same trouble in the pursuit of top quality. The secrets applied by Japanese rivals remain a mystery to Detroit. By now McMurtry's character may have overcome his deficiency. But for decades GM and Chrysler have been trying to catch up, and they are still falling short.

They are making money right now, but more because the economy is rebounding than because they have fixed their flaws. The long-term outlook for GM is not bright. Its share of the U.S market plunged from nearly 29 percent in 2002 to 20 percent last year and kept falling, hitting 17.4 in July. Chrysler has boosted its share of sales, but its quality problems don't bode well.

The bailout is the opposite of what is needed to foster general economic vitality, which means its overall effects, immediate and eventual, are bound to exceed the benefits. Eventually, we may arrive at a feeling many an impulsive car shopper knows well: buyer's remorse.

Steve Chapman

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

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