Charlie Wilson’s War Is Over. He Lost.


That’s GM’s former boss, “Engine Charlie” Wilson. And we’re the victims.

“What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” OK, so GM’s big boss in the ’50s, “Engine Charlie” Wilson, was quoted somewhat out of context when he said something like that during his confirmation hearings as Ike‘s Secretary of Defense in 1953.

As it turns out more than 50 years later, as GM goes down the tubes, so is the rest of the U.S. economy. So Wilson was actually right, whether or not he was misquoted.

Witness the Fed’s panicky interest-rate reduction. Are we headed toward a recession? Probably not. It may well be a depression.

Only a few months ago, I would have given good odds that I would fall into another one of my major depressions before the country did. But my mental health seems to be stronger than the country’s economic health. Believe me, that should cause great concern among all Americans.

Apparently, “Engine Charlie” Wilson was asked back in ’53 whether he could make decisions as the war secretary that would be bad for GM, and he replied that such a situation was unthinkable “because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.” Reporters picked up on part of his quote, turned it around and mis-recorded it for posterity.

No matter, really. What was once unthinkable last century is now a 21st century reality: The long-ailing auto giant has taken another step toward oblivion.

Word is just out that GM has lost his long, long grip as the world’s largest automaker. Agence France-Presse reports this morning:

General Motors Corp., which has reigned for 76 years as the world’s top automaker, ended 2007 in a virtual tie with Japanese rival Toyota Motor Corp., sales figures from the US giant showed Wednesday.

GM, which has faced a steady loss of market share in its key home market, reported global sales of 9,369,524. Toyota earlier this month reported it sold 9.370 million vehicles for the year.

The Detroit firm’s sales grew three percent in 2007 while Toyota sales increased six percent.

GM has been the world’s best-selling automaker since 1931 with an all-time record of selling 9.55 million vehicles in 1978.

For a comprehensive look at GM’s woes, check out Carol Loomis’s February 2006 Fortune piece “The Tragedy of General Motors.”

She blames GM’s bloated pension plans for helping drag down the company. Actually, it’s the insane investment games played by the trustees of the pension fund that may be more to blame. But she’s a damned good writer and is known for being prescient. As Loomis pointed out then, the company was on a seemingly inexorable path toward bankruptcy:

Bankruptcy isn’t going to occur next week. But down the road — say, past 2006 — its probability is high.

And two years later, it’s higher than ever. Meanwhile, the Fed’s interest-rate cut, prompted by a panic in the Asian markets, means that you’ll be able to get even more credit cards at lower rates. You’d be crazy to assume more debt, of course. But going crazy is what descending into a major depression is all about.