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The U.S. government is about to offer billions to an industry that spent much of the past decade indulging itself in short-term strategies to boost profits and avoid reckoning with harsh reality.

No, this isn't about Wall Street. This is about Detroit's auto makers. Compared to the $700 billion in federal aid proposed to salvage the financial industry, the $25 billion in loans that Congress approved for the beleaguered auto makers don't any longer look like such a big deal -- even for people who opposed the idea on principle. Free-market conservatives have a bigger target now.

These loans -- and other forms of federal assistance that may be offered through the tax codes and, potentially, the financial-system bailout -- could form a vital bridge to get the Detroit auto makers across an economic abyss that now threatens to swallow them.

But the companies that make it to the other side of the current slump won't look much like the companies we've known for the past 100 years -- from the vehicles they offer to consumers to their business structure and possibly ownership they will be radically changed.

The Detroit auto makers need a lifeline from the federal government for a variety of reasons. Some aren't entirely their fault, such as the mess in the credit markets that's choking off their access to capital to finance operations and consumer lending.

Still, the Detroit auto industry has only itself to blame for clinging to an approach to business that was in deep trouble 20 years ago, and has been obviously doomed since early in this decade.

If America's taxpayers lend a helping hand to the Detroit Three, in the form of subsidized loans, the auto makers will face enormous pressure not to squander the opportunity by using the money to do business as usual.

The government loans are targeted to subsidize the production of cars with breakthrough technology to reduce oil consumption. That means that to get the money, the Detroit Three will have to stop showing off prototypes of high-technology vehicles and start building them. They seem to be prepared to do this.
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