It was only a matter of time before the imminent failure of one or more U.S. auto makers pushed AIG and the financial crisis off the front pages, at least temporarily.
And now that it's here, and we have to listen to talk of "restructuring" and "automobiles of the future" for the next month or so, I urge you to keep in mind just one historical fact:
At the beginning of World War II, the entire U.S. auto industry, then the largest industrial manufacturing center in the world, completely converted from making passenger cars to military vehicles, including tanks and airplanes, in less than one year. One year.
They went from producing 4 million cars in 1941 to virtually none in 1942-1944, as they pumped out a quarter million aircraft, along with tens of thousands of tanks and additional military vehicles.
Think of that whenever you get into and out of your car. One year.
This small miracle is emblematic of the group we call "the greatest generation." It exemplifies their discipline, willpower and ability to work collectively against great odds to win a titanic struggle. The sort of grit and American can-do personified by Rosie the Riveter.
It turns out, oddly enough, that Rosie was a lot more willing than the auto company executives, who had to be threatened and coerced by Franklin Roosevelt to make the shift. Which is one lesson the greatest generation has for us in our own time of titanic struggle: don't leave it up to the "captains of industry" to chart the path.
The more important lesson, though, is the sweeping, transformative nature of the changes they wrought - and the extraordinarily short time in which they were accomplished. The greatest generation didn't deal in half-measures.
A comparison to the present day is not a particularly favorable one. Short timelines notwithstanding, the Obama Administration is still leaving it up to the auto companies themselves to determine the "restructuring," with even greater layoffs and decreased health care for workers a given. And the President's goal of putting two million hybrid and electric cars on the road by 2015 represents a mere 2.2% of the roughly 90 million cars that could be sold between now and then (at 2008 sales rates) - and less than 1% of the 250 million vehicles currently registered in the U.S.
One year? More like one century.
If the twin crises of global warming and job loss are to be met, the greatest generation's approach would be far different. The President should simply tell the auto industry that it has one year to convert to the production of plug-in hybrids, electric cars and vehicles for mass transit, such as buses, light rail cars, etc. (They're made of the same stuff as cars, and it's what we want to encourage, right?) Oh hell, give ‘em two years - but that's it. They'll get all the support they need from Washington, including appropriate subsidies for consumer purchase and a desperately needed revitalization of our national and metropolitan rail systems. But just two years.
And if the industry execs don't like the idea, they should be shown the door as summarily as G. Richard Wagoner of General Motors was, and replaced with business leaders who do.
Are we capable of such truly great, transformative changes anymore? Because that is exactly what is required to meet many of the challenges we face. Simply spending prodigious amounts of money (borrowed money, lest we forget) is not a substitute for the systemic changes we need.
Take the health care crisis. President Obama is trying to cobble together more than $600 billion as a "down payment" on universal care, while leaving the system in the hands of private insurance companies that limit or deny coverage to increase their profits. The greatest generation would simply scrap the current dysfunctional system and switch to a privately delivered, publicly financed "single payer" system - one used successfully in other nations and which would be a huge boon to businesses struggling with health care costs (like the auto industry). But it's not "on the table" for discussion. Why not?
How about the collapsing financial system? Congress and the new President are continuing to dump literally trillions of (our) dollars into failing banks, with little or no evidence it's working, or any idea what we're getting for it. Why not, the greatest generation might ask, simply march in to insolvent banks, kick out corrupt bankers, clean up the books and then reopen under new management? (And if the companies are "too big to fail," but not too big to destroy our economy, then they should be broken up. The President should channel the other Roosevelt, trust-busting Teddy, on this one.)
Of course it's not just up to our political leaders. We need to make great personal changes ourselves. Americans in the 1940's sacrificed all manner of material goods to win the war. They learned whatever job needed to be done. They grew more than 40% of their own produce needs in 20 million Victory Gardens.
We all need to be part of the change. Because now is the time not simply for big or bold action, but for truly great action, something to make our grandparents proud.
Are we up to the challenge?