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Opinion Focus

Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, December 16, 2008 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Eugene Robinson was online Tuesday, Dec. 16 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss his recent columns and the latest news.

Discussion Group: Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood

The transcript follows.

Archive: Eugene Robinson discussion transcripts

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Eugene Robinson: Hello, everyone. The news never sleeps, does it? President-elect Obama just announced his new education secretary and faced more questions about Gov. Blagojevich, who seems determined to hunker down and stay in office. My column today was about how the Senate Republicans torpedoed the Detroit bailout, achieving what is sure to be a Pyrrhic victory. And, of course, we're still trying to process that amazing scene in Baghdad -- the president of the United States, dodging shoes aimed squarely at his head. My colleague Joel Garreau has promised me a lunch if I can get the phrase "Weejuns of Mass Destruction" into the newspaper. My position is that this discussion counts, so I'll be notifying Joel of my choice of restaurant.

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San Jose, Calif.: But only a free-market fundamentalist, a lunatic or a Senate Republican -- perhaps that's redundant -- would conclude that now is the moment to hasten Detroit's demise.

Why not now? Most of the time, we let companies, good and not so good get by. Recessions are a time when we test the mettle of each and cull a few. Your opinion seems to be made of fear that the economy could get worse. Fear mongering.

The die for this recession was cast months and years ago. During that most recent expansion, we accumulated a certain amount of rot. The question now is not how bad will it get, the question is: how bad did it get? We can't just stick our head in the sand and pretend the rot isn't there. The economy will stink until the rot is removed. Putting off the demise of one or more of the big three will just drag on the malaise even longer, and probably soak up some good money keeping them temporarily afloat, rather than restructuring for profit later.

I'd rather have a short deep recession wherein we decisively deal with our problems than Japan's flavor where we wallow paralyzed for decades, unable to deal with what ails us.

Eugene Robinson: There are two reasons "why not now": First, this isn't an ordinary recession, according to economists. It's not fear-mongering to point out that the situation at present is very dangerous, and that letting the Big Three fail right now could only make things worse for all of us. Second, we're talking about a whole industry here -- one that has been of vital importance in the past. Many people believe it's important that the United States have a domestic auto industry. If we're going to decide otherwise, at least we should think and talk about it first.

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Fairfax, Va.: Mr. Robinson,

Two points. First, name calling is beneath you, sir. Essentially calling Senate Republicans lunatics was unnecessary.

Second, why do you not place ANY of the blame on the UAW? They refuse any responsibility for the current crisis, despite the fact that they have refused to accept the realities of the modern economy. It's no longer the 1950s. According to the New York Times, the average UAW worker makes $55 an hour, $70 if health care and retirement benefits are considered. That is fantastic money, especially when one considers the buying power of such wages in the places where auto plants are located. Sorry, but they need to sacrifice a little personally. Better to make less while working than not to have a job at all.

Eugene Robinson: I don't blame the UAW for seeking the best wages and benefits it could negotiate for its members. In fact, the union was prepared to make concessions now and more in the future. Maybe if the Senate Republicans had also insisted on sharp pay cuts for auto company employees who are not covered by the union -- and, of course, the same for all those financial sector employees who got bailed out so handsomely -- I'd be more sympathetic.

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Re: Auto bailout: There is an article in today's Post that says most Americans oppose a bailout of the auto industry because the public thinks the automakers brought their problems on themselves. While that may be true, how come this thinking doesn't work for the Wall Street bailout, when it has been documented, proved, etc. that Wall Street also brought its troubles on itself?

washingtonpost.com: Majority of Public Opposes Auto Rescue (The Washington Post, Dec. 16, 2008)

Eugene Robinson: Good question. As I recall, polls showed that many Americans also opposed the Wall Street bailout. I doubt that bailouts are ever going to be genuinely popular.

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Grosse Ile, Mich.: While I do not directly work for the auto industry, everyone in this area is tied in someway to its existence and therefore we all hope that the LOAN will happen. However, on one hand you make a comment, "But our domestic auto industry has been thoroughly out-thought and out-hustled by the foreign competition, and no infusion of public funds is likely to change this pattern." and on the other hand you admonish the Republican Senators for attempting to destroy the industry. While I disagree with your belief of domestic incompetence etc., why LOAN the auto company money if you think the product is trash and nothing will change?

The American automobile will die as long as you and others continually belittle their accomplishments and changes while supporting the myths of the imports. Seems you want it both ways and Detroit is not looking for welfare.

Eugene Robinson: I sympathize with your point of view but can't totally agree. In what sense is the perceived advantage of the imports based on "myth"? People buy Camrys and Accords because they think they're better than Malibus. The auto industry needs to make better cars. Now, it's true that there are a lot of other factors we should look at -- assistance that foreign carmakers receive from their home-country governments; tax breaks and other benefits that they get from U.S. state governments to locate plants here; etc. But it's still true, in my opinion, that the Big Three have been sluggish and myopic, and that they're missed too many market opportunities to count.

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Vienna, Va.: Hi Gene, while I find the throwing of the shoe humorous and symbolic of the Bush policy in Iraq, I'm a frustrated by the anti-American sentiment in the region. Although many of our policies have been dubious, we've probably given more aid and resources to that region than anyone else. A part of me wants us to pull all of our resources (humanitarian and military) from the entire region. Why should we care about "peace in the Middle East" when the Middle East is so contemptuous of us? Our new Middle East policy should be NO Middle East policy. We should only give humanitarian aid, and even then, would be limited to extraordinary circumstances.

Eugene Robinson: Setting Iraq (and the huge expense of the war) aside for the moment, the biggest recipient of U.S. aid in the Middle East would be Israel. The second-biggest would be Egypt. The main point of those huge expenditures is to keep the peace between these former enemies. It's easy to get frustrated, but staying engaged with the Middle East -- and giving aid -- works a lot better than ignoring the region.

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Bowie, Md.: I am not sure whether to laugh or be upset by the ability of a reporter to throw not one but two shoes at the sitting U.S. president. I mean if they weren't shoes, but something more dangerous then would we be looking at a Dick Cheney White House? I can only say that I hope the president's security detail gets better as our first black president comes into office.

Eugene Robinson: I was just saying to a colleague here that President-elect Obama should be taking a really keen interest in this incident. To paraphrase Jay Leno, shouldn't a Secret Service agent at least have thrown himself into the path of the SECOND shoe?

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Herndon, Va.: How did the auto workers bring this on themselves? They negotiated with what were the top business people in the U.S. to get what they have. The U.S. automakers have been in business for 100 years they have huge legacy costs. The foreign automakers haven't been around long enough for anyone to retire, and since they had the sense to locate in anti-union states there won't be any legacy costs. Retirement is your baby. What kind of subsidies do those foreign firms get from their governments that help them stay over here and what kind of subsidies did they get from job desperate Southern states to locate there? Workers get the best deal they can for themselves and managmment tries to give as little as possible. That's how it works and if you're jealous of the UAW, oh well.

Eugene Robinson: I agree that it's difficult to blame a union for negotiating the best package of wages and benefits it can get for its members. It's also true -- and the UAW acknowledges this -- that regardless of who was at fault, the industry may need some givebacks to survive.

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Grosse Ile, Mich.: "People buy Camrys and Accords because they think they're better than Malibus". I agree they 'think' they are better but they are not. (Look at JD Powers et. al.) And as long as you and others in the media perpetuate that myth, who will buy the product? Sorry if we seemed a bit thin-skinned but it seems Detroit bashing is becoming the new sport.

Eugene Robinson: I'm not picking on you, Grosse Ile -- or on Detroit. But I don't think people rely on my opinion to decide what car to buy. The automotive press is, I think, very kind to Detroit. People go out to the lots and look at American cars and foreign cars, and too many end up buying Japanese or Korean or German. Whatever the difference is -- features, fit and finish, whatever -- it's time for Detroit to figure it out.

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N.J.: One of the things that seems ironic to me is that the people I know who are most vociferous about not loaning money to the auto industry and citing their bad decisions that got them this way, are the same people who LOVE their SUVs and have opposed any laws to impose stricter gas mileage standards. I certainly think the senators against the bill were not for tightening the standards. Isn't their attitude rather contradictory? They support the gas-guzzling culture, yet now have contempt for the companies that enabled it.

Eugene Robinson: Good point.

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Manassas, Va.: I know you're gloating about Bush and the shoe incident, but give the guy a break! He demonstrated his quick reflexes and his sense of humor afterwards. Seriously, though, if Bush had been Hussein, the dude who threw the shoes would have been dumped in a tub of acid by his henchmen.

Eugene Robinson: No, I'm not gloating. The incident was so bizarre that it's hard to be sober and stentorian in talking about it. But the truth is that I don't want the president of the United States to have to be dodging shoes flung at his head, I really don't. I acknowledge and celebrate the fact that the president's reflexes were incredible. And it's true that under Saddam Hussein, we would never have heard of the incident -- at least not until long after the perpetrator had been eliminated.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Hi Eugene -- Believe me, I'm no fan of this president, but I do have to say that there was something almost...elegant in the way he dodged those shoes. That said, the fact that it happened in the first place is disturbing to me; how far our standing in the world has fallen in the last eight years. I have a hard time seeing something -- shoes, marshmallows, whatever -- being tossed at Clinton or even Bush senior.

Eugene Robinson: Like I said, the reflexes were genuinely impressive and the fact that the incident took place at all is wrong.

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Re: UAW wages: Fairfax is mistaken; the $55 figure is the cost with health care and other benefits, the $70 figure includes RETIREE health care. Any worker who joins the UAW now gets no pension and a much smaller retirement (health care). The fact is, the UAW members could work for free, and that would not solve the problems of GM or Chrysler. The UAW is one of the interested parties here, but this is not their fault.

Eugene Robinson: You raise an interesting point. Most of the difference in "labor costs" between U.S. and foreign carmakers is in benefits being paid to retirees. Current labor costs represent between 10 percent and 13 percent of the cost of an American car, it has been reported.

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Washington, D.C.: I agree with you that everybody involved with the car companies has to give up something -- UAW workers, execs, suppliers, other creditors, and shareholders. That's why I think that reorganization bankruptcy, with the companies as debtors in possession, is the best of bad set of choices. Then a bankruptcy judge can make the hard decisions, shielded by his life-time tenure. Yes, that will put a dent in sales, but only temporarily, as buyers realize that the companies are in reorganization, are on-going concerns, and can and will honor warranties. I don't see any of the Detroit automakers being forced into liquididation bankruptcy, as the value of their inventories and factories is solid. And going into reorganization bankrtuptcy won't put any line workers out of job, at least not for months, if not years.

Eugene Robinson: My belief is that bankruptcy would put more than a dent in sales. I don't think people will buy cars from a bankrupt company. It's too big a purchase; and service and warranty are too important to the equation.

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Detroit, Mich.: From a free trade perspective, Japanese and Korean suppliers are allowed into the Big Three's factories, but as an American supplier I can't get into Toyota factories in Japan. Why hasn't Congress picked up on this issue?

Eugene Robinson: Good question. Seems only fair that you should have equal access.

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Gainesville, Fla.: What's the buzz on the future for Jesse Jackson Jr?

Is his going to be the classic fallen-hero story? Could he be the guy who follows the rules and does everything right until that desperate covetous overweening lust for power, privilege and ambition clouds and overshadows all good reason -- much like the cautionary tale so well told in the classic film "All The King's Men" with that larger than life 'man of the people' played by Broderick Crawford in the movie based on Robert Penn Warren's book (and based on Huey Long of Louisiana, of course).

What road to redemption for Jackson? (Willie Stark apparently never found it of course.)

Eugene Robinson: I'm not sure that we need such an epic frame of reference to talk about Rep. Jackson's future. Just being named as Candidate 5 in the affidavit may be enough to rule him out for appointment as senator this time around, even if he did nothing wrong. But he's young and has time to do whatever image rehab he needs to do before running for higher office.

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Helena, Mont.: If we want our industries to be more competitive, we have to move to a government-backed health insurance rather than employee-backed health insurance. Had the Republicans in the Senate looked at the costs for the Big 3, health insurance would have to be a biggie -- for retirees and for current employees. McCain had this cockamamy idea that we would just throw everyone into the private insurance pool and give a laughably small amount of tax credit to pay for it -- as if anyone would even notice that the tax credit helped pay health insurance premium. If Big Business were smart, they would have gotten onto having the government take over the health insurance from them long ago, but they have been too ideological. Which means everyone is going to be looking at Tom Daschle and see what he offers to fix this. But this is one of the areas where the U.S. can make our businesses more competitive.

Eugene Robinson: Good point, although I should point out that foreign-owned auto plants in the United States have to deal with the same health care system that domestic-owned auto plants have to deal with. That said, much of corporate America is coming around to the idea that maybe the government should take the health-care burden off the shoulders of business. There has been a real shift in attitude, I think.

Folks, my time is up for today. See you next week!

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