Those two guys on National Public Radio's popular "Car Talk" show like to joke that their most important question in diagnosing a car's ills is determining its color.

For the U.S. automobile industry, the answer is job-cutting, plant-closing red.

And so it was that General Motors Corp. began the week by announcing 5,000 more layoffs on top of the 25,000 it announced in June. More shocking to its beleaguered workforce, the (still barely) world's biggest carmaker said it would be shutting down or scaling back operations at 12 plants.

Ford Motor Co., the other major U.S. owned automaker, isn't in much better shape. Big layoffs of its own are on tap for early next year, including at least 4,000 salaried workers, and Chairman William C. Ford Jr. came to Washington to plead with the government for help.

But not a handout, Ford was quick to say, such as the loan guarantees Chrysler Corp. got in the 1970s, before it was acquired by the Germans who make Mercedes-Benz.

No, Mr. Ford has discovered that this is not his great-grandfather's economy, and he thinks the country needs a national strategy to grapple with the forces of globalization.

Specifically, the scion of the industry's founding father said the federal government needs to provide tax credits for consumers to buy fuel-efficient hybrid vehicles and more tax breaks for companies to build them. The government also should invest more in retraining auto workers and in modernizing U.S. plants to make them more competitive with overseas rivals, Ford said.

But this White House and Republican-controlled Congress have shown little support for propping up old-economy industries in the face of technological evolution.

Globalization, in fact, is hailed in many business circles as a Darwinian engine for growth.

Outsourcing and its cousin, offshoring, aren't issues here, either. Indeed, many foreign carmakers attribute their success in the United States to the auto plants they have opened here.

And finally, while it's true that union contracts have made labor, health care and pension costs an albatross for U.S. firms compared with their rivals, foreign competitors are eating their lunch in the marketplace when it comes to building cars consumers want. The November sales figures for GM and Ford to be released on Thursday are expected by analysts to be off by about 15 percent.

The real questions are larger:

Do the automakers' woes signal, again, the impossibility of maintaining a manufacturing base in the United States with a well-compensated workforce?

Or, could this latest shakeout be a catalyst for companies, workers and government to figure out how to make heavy industry desirable in an information economy?

Betting on the latter is not for the risk-averse.