Uh oh – forget the bailout – Detroit already sat on its brains too long!

I read Friedman’s column this morning with that mixed feeling you get when you suddenly meet the future and find it both exciting and devastating because there is something here that feels right, big time, and makes the auto industry bailout feel wrong – big time – and that means we’re in for one of those painful life lessons.

Bailout foes have been focusing on the sense of moral outrage we all feel for salvaging the bastards who made a lot of money while sitting on their brains. That’s a mistake. They need to focus on the Ipod. The real future comes at you from directions you don’t anticipate, but when you see it, you know it, and Friedman sees it and describes it well. Here’s how he sums it all up at the outset after bemoaning Detroit’s lack of initiative.

Why do I bring this up? Because someone in the mobility business in Denmark and Tel Aviv is already developing a real-world alternative to Detroit’s business model. I don’t know if this alternative to gasoline-powered cars will work, but I do know that it can be done — and Detroit isn’t doing it. And therefore it will be done, and eventually, I bet, it will be done profitably.

And when it is, our bailout of Detroit will be remembered as the equivalent of pouring billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the mail-order-catalogue business on the eve of the birth of eBay. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into the CD music business on the eve of the birth of the iPod and iTunes. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into a book-store chain on the eve of the birth of Amazon.com and the Kindle. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into improving typewriters on the eve of the birth of the PC and the Internet.

Did you get that – my emphasis added – the thing about the “mobility business.” Now that’s what I mean. People get all wrapped up in the technology. They mistake the artifacts for the art. Librarians got all in a tizzy a decade ago as the web came on the scene. They thought they were in the book business. They were in the information business. Information storage and retrieval. That’s the skill they brought to the table. The technology used is secondary. Same with traditional paper media. Newspapers are not about printing presses and turning trees into pulp. They’re about filtering information and presenting it in digestible – meaningful – chunks. And the auto industry? it’s a misnomer. It’s the mobility business. it’s about freedom of movement at low cost.

Friedman’s examples are beautiful, his column on target – if I were investing in such things I’d put my money on “Better Place.” I’m not into speculative investing these days – haven’t been for some years – but this new company has the kind of thinking that is so far beyond anything coming out of Detroit these days it’s laughable. And the whole show is a prime example of how the fatcats are their own worst enemies – and ours, too, when we let them hold our future up for ransom this way. Congress and the white House are about to invest in the printing press.

I keep remembering a good friend telling me over and over again about a decade ago when I tirelessly promoted the Web that yes, it sounds like a good idea, but no one knows how to make money off it. Don’t worry – they’ll find a way, I said, and they did – ways like Amazon and Ebay and others most of us never dreamed of at the outset. And Better Place sounds like the outfit that may have found the way to make money off of the electric car – not by inventing a better, more efficient battery, but by coming up with a whole new business model. Ipod indeed!

Yes the failure of the auto industry will hurt a lot of people a whole lot – and all of us a little – but throwing good money after bad doesn’t solves anything. You can get them to cut salaries and end ridiculous perks, but you can’t get them to think tomorrow because that thinking had to be done yesterday and it wasn’t.

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