A Case of the Bailout Blues

I am not a football fan. I don’t care for it on T.V. and I certainly don’t care to play it myself. Most people who know me won’t be surprised to hear that, but they may be surprised to hear that I did in fact watch just a little bit of last week’s BCS Championship game. Naturally, the game was of little interest to me but the five-minute portion of the telecast that I did watch left such an impression on me that the only way I can explain it is to write about it. Lucky you.

But what was so impactful about what I watched, you ask?

It was a commercial. A commercial in which Pontiac, a division of General Motors, had offered to give $100,000 to the university whose football team was voted to have carried out the “Play of the Year” as determined by fan voting.

This is the same General Motors that just pleaded and begged Congress for a $17.4 billion “bailout” package to avoid bankruptcy. Evidently the Armani suit-wearing, luxury jet-travelling corporate boys at GM seem to think that there is no better way to spend American taxpayer dollars then on college football and thinly-veiled advertising.

I understand that it’s perfectly normal to fly into a rage and curse at the T.V. during football games, so I’ll just assume that my behavior was normal even if the game wasn’t playing during my own little diatribe.

I’m a smart guy so I certainly acknowledge that maybe there was some kind of prior contractual obligation between GM and the BCS or Fox, or maybe a long-term business arrangement of some kind that obliged the fine folks at GM to make such a generous donation of money that wasn’t theirs, or even some other detail that I’m overlooking, but I was angered on general principle.

If there is any benefit to bankruptcy, it’s that it forces a company to almost completely reorganize both its structure and its business plan, and to open its books to the public. These new “bailouts” don’t seem to have the same requirements. GM is content to go on as usual, ignoring past mistakes, thinking that somehow things will be different this time.

Now I do have a point to all this. In the spirit of a new year, a new semester and a new beginning, I think that it’s worth taking a step back and seeing that there is something to learn from this debacle. The truth is that we can’t go through life thinking that our problems will be solved if we continue to approach them with the same thinking that got us into those problems in the first place.

As any history major (including this one) will tell you, one thing that we can learn from the past is that we rarely learn from the past. From the highest levels of business and government all the way down to each of us on an individual level, we too often think that each new problem or issue is its own separate entity that has nothing in common with what we may have faced in some time in history.

I may not like football, but I am a baseball fan, and I think that we seldom realize that almost every one of life’s curveballs has been thrown at us (or someone we know) before, and we shouldn’t think that we’re ever going to hit that curveball without adjusting our swing. To approach each problem with the same mentality that caused it only exacerbates the situation and leads us to seek out quick fixes to things that don’t allow us to grow and mature from our experiences. I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t help but think that this is exactly what General Motors, Daimler-Chrysler, and much of the US financial services industry are doing. Hopefully, all of us can learn from their mistakes and realize the lesson to be learned. Hopefully they will too.

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