It was refreshing to see President Barack Obama employ some "tough love" with the automobile industry yesterday, warning Chrysler and GM that the clock is ticking on their re-structuring plans and sacking G. Richard Wagoner, Jr. as CEO at GM. After all, if we taxpayers are footing the bill for keeping Detroit afloat, we should have some say in how these companies go forward.
But, why the disconnect with the government interventions on Wall Street? The government did install a new CEO at AIG, but even the president’s language is different. Yesterday, it was all about restructuring and building new and better products. That has not been the language applied to the financial services sector.
I would submit that we Catholics understand the difference better than most. We have always understood the importance of the physical: Our sacraments and sacramentals excite our senses of taste, touch, hearing, smell and sight. We eat the Eucharist. We smell the incense. We hear the chants. We see the vestments and the stained glass. We wear our scapulas and hold our rosary beads.
Detroit actually makes something real, a car that you can see, touch, smell and hear – better not to taste it unless you are at Willy Wonka’s factory. So, it is easier to imagine a restructuring of something real and tangible. The products produced at AIG – derivatives, credit swaps and the like – were presented as if they were ethereal but they turned out to be only ephemeral. You can’t touch a credit swap and, in the event, you wouldn’t want to.
But, the physical "incarnate" aspect of a sacrament is not the whole story: Yes, the symbolism of baptismal water is rich with meanings, but after the priest pours that water and says the words of baptism, that baby really is baptized. We can smell the sacred chrism, which lifts our hearts and minds to heaven, but when the Bishop confirms that young woman, she truly receives the Holy Spirit. It is still not clear to me how these financial instruments called derivatives and credit swaps actually represented anything real and not a confidence game.
It was disappointing to see the President standing in front of the door to the Blue Room of the White House when he announced his administration’s plans for the automakers. The Blue Room is one of the most sumptuously decorated of the formal rooms in the executive mansion. President Obama should have been standing in front of a factory in Detroit. And, he should be reminding the nation that we converted those same factories within months at the start of World War II from making cars to making tanks. And, he should have pledged that the federal government would replace it entire fleet with Detroit-made hybrids within three years and that we would pay for the states to do the same. Nothing like a large order to bring down the overall costs of these new cars and to stimulate growth in the industry.
We can hope also that the President can use his "tough love" approach with Detroit on Wall Street the next time they come begging. "What’s good for the goose is good for the greedy," Congresswoman Linda Sanchez told a group of cheering union organizers last week. Tough love has its place, and that place is on Wall Street too.