Will General Motors ever live down the bailout? That's the biggest question that surfaces when you consider the National Legal and Policy Center's campaign against a GM-sponsored "free enterprise" tour put together by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Here's the lowdown: the U.S. Chamber is in the middle of On the Road With Free Enterprise, a two-month tour across this great nation of ours in which a pair of their bloggers tell the stories of small business owners, like a 72-year-old inventor who is taking on disappearing wetlands in Louisiana or some intrepid startup guys in Austin. Some of their stories are actually quite interesting, but overall, it seems pretty innocuous.
Except for the fact that the tour is sponsored by General Motors. (And T-Mobile, but nobody seems to have a problem with that.) This has rankled the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative-leaning nonprofit organization that promotes "ethics in public life through research, investigation, education and legal action."
As pointed out by BuzzFeed today, they have even built a website, called Faux Enterprise, designed to mock GM's involvement with the U.S. Chamber's project.
As you can see, it's heavy on the anti-bailout rhetoric. Their premise is that GM's bailout, which cost taxpayers about $49 billion and possibly an additional $10 billion, means the company is in no position to advocate for free enterprise.
Faux Enterprise carries a bunch of links to websites and articles that pan the bailout, public subsidies to private companies, government purchases of the Volt, and a bunch of other topics.
Yes, people are still talking about the bailout. And by all rights, we should be, given that the costs of bailing out GM and Chrysler probably won't be fully seen for years to come. Remember, the government still owns a big chunk of GM, which is part of the reason the automaker is desperate to rid themselves of that ugly "Government Motors" reputation.
One could even accuse GM's participation in this project as whitewashing the issue, trying to clean up their tarnished reputation after the bailout.
But here's my question to the NLPC: What do you want exactly? A refund? Their desired outcome, if they have one, is pretty unclear. It's one thing to want to hold GM accountable for taking public tax dollars in the first place, or to skewer them for the entitled attitude they had during the bailout proceedings, but these days it's awfully hard to argue with the bailout's success.
Purely in terms of economic theory, bailing out GM and Chrysler goes against the nature of free market capitalism. But when you consider that a huge number of jobs — those directly from the automakers, parts manufacturers, dealers and countless related industries — were saved by the bailout, it's hard to really classify it as a failure. Both Chrysler and GM have dramatically improved the quality of their products as a result. As for Chrysler, they have repaid most of their loans from the government, and ahead of schedule.
Yes, GM's participation in this PR campaign is a bit desperate and tone deaf at best and whitewashing at worst. And we will likely be paying for their bailout for some time. But I would argue that this country, and millions of workers, would be worse off if it hadn't happened.
So let's go back to the original question that gets raised here: Will GM and Chrysler ever live the bailout down? What will they have to do to win over their critics?