Wishing on a Tsar

Fight Club’s upcoming bout is on “Time for a Model Change” by Graeme Maxton and John Wormald, two car industry veterans and writers for the Economist.  So, I thought it was fitting that this morning’s Business View in the Economist was an entertaining review of current status of Detroit bail out.

gremlinThe automakers are arguing that unlike the airlines, bankruptcy would be devastating for two reasons: 1) airline tickets are short term commitments 2) the car industry has a long supply chain with 3 million workers.  And, as Jon Stewart deftly pointed out with a Hot Wheels version of the AMC Gremlin he drove in high school, that unlike the Financial Services bail out, at least the automakers produce something useful (even though they lose $2K/car they sell).

So, all this has led to the need for a Car Tsar.  The Economist (link above) gives us a little background on the various Tsars [or Czar (derived from Caesar) originally meaning Emperor in the European medieval sense] we’ve had since 1982:


The first such tsar is believed to have been America’s Drug Tsar, first described thus in 1982, who had a mandate to oversee America’s war on drugs, which included activities by several government departments. Since then, the term has been used on many occasions to describe officials with grand cross-departmental responsibilities. Even the Bush administration has had a war tsar, a bird flu tsar, and a bank bailout tsar, while Al Gore reportedly declined Mr Obama’s offer to make him the climate tsar.

The word “tsar” is used because its sounds powerful, though government tsars often find the opposite is true in practice. For one thing, they tend to be appointed during a crisis, and are often invested with unrealistic expectations. Also, having responsibility for activities in several government departments often turns out to mean no power over any of them.

Still, if there is car tsar he will have a huge advantage over other tsars: namely the threat of handing the whole mess over to someone with real power—a Chapter 11 bankruptcy judge, and nobody wants to face the sayonara tsar.

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