By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Dec 05, 2008 at 11:17 AM

I just can't put my finger on how I feel about the plea from Detroit automakers for gigantic loans from the federal government.

On one hand, the collapse of the "Big Three" would have devastating ripple effects on the U.S. economy, and it could likely usher in a depression. That's right, depression with a "d."

On the other hand, Ford, Chrysler and GM are being run ineptly, making bland, gas-guzzling cars, and somehow, they didn't see this coming. Do they really deserve any pity, and even if they get bailed out, how long can they stay in business by operating under the status quo?

First, a word of clarification about this bailout. Even if the three companies receive $34 billion in loans, remember that they are just that: loans. This isn't free money, it's a promise to pay back the government, and if the automakers can turn it around, it shouldn't be that big of a big deal, especially if the loans have interest tacked on. Keep in mind that while $34 billion seems like a tremendous amount of money -- and it is -- the 2009 federal budget is $3.1 trillion. We spend that kind of money all the time, and frequently much more. For comparison's sake, the United States has spent about $1.3 trillion on the war in Iraq from 2002-08. We live in a big, rich country that raises and spends a lot of money. It's a tough pill to swallow, but $34 billion, even if it was a straight-up gift, is a drop in the bucket.

Further, the auto industry directly or indirectly employs more than 2 million workers across the country. If most or all those people lose their jobs, they will not be easily re-employed, and the effects will be absolutely devastating. In an economy already stumbling around the ring, an auto industry collapse would be a knockout blow that would take years to recover from. The stakes are higher than ever, and an America without an auto industry would make the Great Depression look like a typical day on Wall Street.

When you look at it like that, it's obvious what to do. How can the government not bail out the "Big Three?"

Except that who knows if $34 billion will solve the problem or just delay the inevitable?

Apparently, between the bumbling management and its short-sighted unions, Detroit didn't see this coming. Instead of investing in greener, more fuel-efficient cars years ago like Toyota and Honda did, they waited until gas hit $4 a gallon. We've heard about the electric Chevy Volt for years, and it'll be years until it hits the market -- at an unaffordable $40,000 price tag. Instead, Ford, Chrysler and GM continue to build gigantic, uninspiring SUVs -- and when they make a small car, it's a dud (see the Chevy Aveo).

Seriously, I can hardly think of an American car I'd like to own. I've already bought a few of their foreign subsidiaries like Volvo and Saab, and frankly, those were buggy, weird cars, too.

Domestically, show me a reasonably-priced car that you'd choose over its European or Japanese equivalent. Jeep still makes unique and distinctive cars, but that's about it. The new Ford Flex is innovative, but it's still a big SUV. The Ford Escape Hybrid is OK but gets tepid reviews from experts. The Mustang is cool on the outside, but the interior build is chintzy. The Chrysler 300 is nice, but you can do better for $30,000. The Buick LaCrosse looks nice, but it's a Buick. Why wouldn't GM launch a brand (that's not Saturn) that appeals to buyers younger than 50?

Meanwhile, Toyota is building cars in the United States, keeping its union-free employees happy and well-paid. Subaru is donating $250 to charity when you buy one of its cars. Honda is focusing its time on the compact Fit, a new hybrid Insight and a fuel-cell vehicle already on the streets of California.

But let's just say that you're fine with driving around in a Cadillac Escalade that gets 12 miles per gallon in the city. Let's assume that gas stays cheap (but it won't) and you want to support your country at any cost and "buy American." Then you must be at least a little puzzled that the executives think they can stay competitive with the existing union structure in place, one that provides life-long pensions, salaries higher than job descriptions really deserve, and 95 percent benefits for out-of-work employees.

And the auto executives are just telling us now that they're in serious trouble?

Here's the thing: When the CEOs flew to Washington in their private jets, hats in hand, it didn't really matter how much those flights cost. The private jets aren't the problem, nor are their salaries or stock options. What matters is that the leadership of these companies is woefully out-of-touch. PR debacle aside, only now -- when it's probably too late -- are the Big Three talking about changing the way they do business, killing stale brands, bringing better models to market, and streamlining their businesses. The fact that they waited until the 11th hour shows that while they certainly need loans, they don't deserve them.

If the government is expected to bail these companies out, and they should, then they should also clean house of the entire upper management teams and bring in executives who know a thing or two about agility. Poach executives from Toyota or VW or Silicon Valley. But expect this first round of loans to serve as the tip of the iceberg, then earmark billions more for future loans.

Yes, this sounds a lot like socialism, putting the nation's auto industry partially in government's hands.

Democrats don't like it. Republicans don't like it. Taxpayers don't like it, either. But it beats the hell out of the alternative, which will cause ripple effects in everything from national security to Social Security. It's a bad situation that can either get a little worse or a lot worse.

America can't afford to prop up an inept auto industry. But it can't afford to let it go out of business, either.

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.