Obama's Auto Industry Repair Dream Team
No reasonably intelligent politician wants to become the Obama administration's car czar. That's because if one or more of our venerable Detroit automakers bite the dust under a czar's watch, it's his or her fault. Since the new president has appointed key administration and cabinet officials to press his aggressive green agenda, there are few advocates for good business judgment to pick from. And probably fewer who have spent time in the driver's seat of a car.
So far, we've learned that there will be not one but two czars: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers. The two will oversee an across-the-government panel of officials from the Treasury, Labor, Transportation, Commerce and Energy departments, as well as the National Economic Council, the White House Office of Energy and Environment, the Council of Economic Advisers, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Anyone who thinks this gaggle of Beltway bureaucrats will accomplish anything that resembles change Detroit can live with is living in a universe that's dramatically different than mine. It's like counting on Barney Frank and Chris Dodd to help fix the financial system.
So after thoughtful consideration and employing my trusty dartboard, I've come up with my own panel of people who could give automakers advice that they could actually put to use. Some are true car enthusiasts and all are known and admired by the American public -- a phenomenon that's unlikely with the president's pundits. I've decided that the goals should be to build cars fellow taxpayers want and make money for shareholders after paying back the loans.
I've started with Jay Leno, a great guy who earns lots of money entertaining people to support his voracious car habit. Jay would be in charge of performance, something he lives for. It doesn't matter whether it runs on gasoline, electricity, or recycled French fries, if the result doesn't produce a grin, Jay will surely veto the effort.
Of course there's more to a vehicle than the power plant, so I've picked Ralph Lauren to oversee styling. Here's a guy that has great taste and a car collection that rivals Leno's. Even small, inexpensive cars could have style and elegance that might help ward off the feeling that we had to take this poverty thing too seriously.
When Steve Jobs recovers his health, he would be the perfect pick for the driver/vehicle interaction, a function that's currently labeled multimedia interface. No one would be better able to direct a team to make the instrumentation, navigation, phone, and entertainment work without hours of practice and endless menus to click and point through. And it would look smart and contemporary.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has embraced the environment with a giant bear hug, so he'll be in charge of fuel economy and pollution. As part of his responsibilities, the former terminator will have to drive whatever mean, green machine he mandates. In other words, he can't ride around in big Ford Crown Vics, Hummers, and Lincoln Town Cars while demanding that the rest of us leave a tiny carbon footprint.
We keep hearing about how car buyers would rather get a root canal than visit a dealership. So to change this dynamic, I've selected John Nordstrom to not only enhance the shopping experience, but to assure that the sales staff is fashionably attired. Under Nordstrom, if for any reason you aren't pleased with your purchase, just bring it back for a cheerful refund. How's that for painless?
We'll need to finance all this, so Warren Buffett will be recruited to handle the money. With Buffett aboard, we won't need those obstinate banks or the former captive financial arms like GMAC that don't want to make car loans these days. Warren can lend the money directly and make a reasonable return on his capital.
So there you have it. My simple yet elegant solution to an auto industry restructuring board. Of course there's no way the administration will buy into the plan. Beltway panels are picked for politics, not skill, so we'll get a gaggle of connected pundits from the Obama team. If there's any good news from D.C., it's that a couple of administration choices, including Ron Bloom, are tough negotiators. But they're up against a variety of competing interests that are all well represented and politically connected. This whole affair should be entertaining to watch, unless you're a Detroit car executive.