There’s a numbness around the bankruptcy of General Motors that belies its significance for the American economy, society and culture. Of all U.S. manufacturers, the “General” is perhaps most intertwined with the country. Its successes were American successes.

And its failure is now, literally, an American failure. The automaker has accrued debt of $172 billion, it was revealed Monday, with its viability now only secured through an immense government investment. Its bankruptcy will symbolize this recession for generations to come.

Many promises were made Monday — the “New GM” will be rededicated to customers, be responsive to market conditions and create products to satisfy consumers. It sounded odd to see basic business principles be bandied as epiphanies, but GM has arguably forgotten about them over the years.

A GM post-mortem will reveal an insular, bureaucratic corporate culture, obsession with market share instead of profit, an over-reliance on product marketing instead of product quality and an unshakable belief that a result like bankruptcy was impossible.

The larger question, though, is where the “New GM” is heading under its shared stewardship between two countries, a labor union and a bevy of bondholders. There are two possible outcomes, we see: the first is this public-private partnership works as planned and the New GM re-emerges revitalized.

In this case, this success could spark a new era of government and business relations. After the strict laissez-faire capitalism under the Bush administration, the GM experiment could spark partnerships anew between business and government.


“What is good for GM is good for America” is not hyperbole, after all. The recession has turned this slogan into prophecy. Relations between business and government are more complex than merely regulated and regulator, or as in the financial markets, the unregulated and the silent overseer.

Extremes never work. Over-regulation strangles private innovation and flexibility, while de-regulation can abdicate the government’s responsibility of protecting consumers and monitoring the economic trends. There is a delicate middle balance that must be adhered.

The process of rebuilding an American industrial titan could usher new understandings about government’s role in business, and business’ role in government. America does thrive when these entities can work together in a holistic way.

Yet this positive outcome is just one possibility. The other would be the inability of GM to regain footing as a private company, leading to an existence as a ward of the state. Of all the endings to the story, this one is most frightening.

A failure of the New GM would undermine public confidence in the government and investor confidence in the American manufacturer. If this occurs, the cost of intervention into GM will be measured by more than the billions already sunk into its survival.

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