Friday, December 12, 2008

Hire the Best

The apparent selection of Steven Chu, the Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to be the new Secretary of Energy looks like a good choice. Since he is already employed by the Department of Energy, he understands the organization he would lead. The lab he currently heads does important work on renewable energy and efficiency, which President-Elect Obama emphasized throughout his campaign. Bringing in a Nobel Prize winner in Physics to run DOE exemplifies the principle of hiring outstanding individuals with deep, relevant experience to manage complex problems. Let us hope that the outgoing and incoming administrations can agree on someone equally qualified to oversee the restructuring of the US auto industry, should Congress ultimately pass a version of the emergency assistance legislation on which the US Senate could not agree last night.

Dr. Chu, who is also a professor at UC Berkeley and the former chair of the Physics Department at Cal's cross-bay rival, Stanford, seems well-qualified to manage an organization that must balance the application of chemistry, physics and biology to a wide variety of existing and emerging energy sources with the legacy of the Big Physics project of a previous generation: the nation's aging nuclear weapons complex. A quick review of the Lawrence Berkeley website turned up some fascinating work, including the Helios Project, which aims to produce new carbon-neutral fuels through accelerated artificial photosynthesis. Although there were some other fine people in the running, and only time will tell how well this pick will turn out, Dr. Chu certainly brings an appropriate mix of technical knowledge and administrative experience to running this large and complex agency. Overseeing a federal bailout and restructuring of the "Big Three" US carmakers--an eventuality that looks less likely today than it did yesterday--would require an equally apt selection.

If a Detroit bailout does come to pass, one of the most critical decisions will be the choice of a federal trustee to guide the restructuring of the industry. Rumors that the former head of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund was the front-runner have given way to a more familiar name, that of former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. His experience, including with the Chrysler bailout in the 1970s, certainly qualifies him for the post of federal "car czar." But as much as I admire him for his role in extinguishing the US price inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s, and for his handling of the investigation into the UN Iraq "Oil for Food" scandal, I wonder if an even more experienced car hand might be called for. The person I have in mind would be a long-shot, not least for being a Frenchman and a current competitor of the Big Three. Yet I can't think of anyone who better epitomizes the global auto industry with which Detroit has failed to keep pace than Carlos Ghosn, with his proven track record of turning around two car companies, Renault and Nissan, both of which he now heads. If we really want to make Detroit competitive again, I see no one better qualified to direct that initiative.

The drawbacks are obvious: cultural, political, and practical. All of those could be turned into advantages, particularly since Mr. Ghosn has become a keen advocate of electric cars, which would play well in the new DC atmosphere. In any case, I doubt that he would find the presumably-obligatory compensation limit of $1 a year an impediment, weighed against the historic challenge of restoring GM, Ford and Chrysler to global leadership, or at least global parity. I admit it's highly unlikely to happen, but perhaps we could just get him on loan, as a favor from President Sarkozy, with whom both President Bush and President-Elect Obama seem to have an excellent relationship.

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