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GM, Chrysler Suing Taxpayers with Taxpayer Money

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Can hubris like this go unpunished?

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As I recall from my college Greek mythology course, arrogant mortals ultimately learn -- and quite harshly -- the folly of excessive ego. The stories usually end with Zeus smiting with a few choice lightning bolts. Arrogance never escapes punishment from the gods.

For a modern-day example, we can turn to the automakers. They are the mortals; President Obama, the god. Except this is no myth.

Earlier this week, Obama instructed the EPA to reconsider the case of California's existing proposal to raise fuel-efficiency standards. The automakers have been fighting California and other states in court for several years. Last week, they pledged to continue that fight - despite the president's instructions and, to a larger extent, his consistent and unequivocal insistence on a "green" auto industry. Except, as it stands now, the automakers are basically using their bailout money -- from taxpayers -- to turn around and sue…the taxpayers themselves.

Last month, General Motors (GM) and Chrysler LLC begged the federal government for $14 billion to stay afloat. They got it - and now they're biting the hand that feeds them. As arrogance goes, not even Ovid could have crafted a finer tale. What remains to be seen is how the offended god will respond.

As California's attorney general, Jerry Brown, pointed out on NPR:

"The irony here is the auto companies want a bailout, in many ways because they weren't building the kind of cars that were compatible with today's energy market – and at the same time, they want to keep going with their lawsuits, which have already cost millions and millions of dollars."

During the Big 3's testimony before Congress, several politicians asked the executives why it made sense to provide them with money: Wouldn't they just use it to continue fighting old battles. The heads of the Big 3 dodged the question, saying they'd prefer a single national standard. Well, they have now answered Congress's question, and in the affirmative.

"Keep in mind that the money that was given was to 2 manufacturers [GM and Chrysler]," Charles Territo, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which is a party to 2 of the lawsuits, told The New Yorker. "And all manufacturers have opposed the standards. Those lawsuits were brought by the entire industry, to protect the longstanding federal law that says that fuel-efficiency standards should be set at the federal level and not by individual states."

According to The New Yorker, the auto manufacturers have so far lost all the cases that have gone trial.

Mr. Territo and the rest of the industry refuse to see the forest for the trees. Do they actually believe the federal government won't eventually codify higher emission standards, following California's lead? Gone are the days when the industry could deny climate change and break promises to voluntarily cut emissions. Waging a public-relations battle against the Obama administration -- especially given the Big 3's well-documented tone-deafness to public opinion -- is just asking for harsh retribution. Just like in ancient mythology.

So how will Obama enact his revenge? I found one hint from his inaugural speech: "What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply."

The mortals of the Big 3 should watch where they're walking.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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