Los Angeles is the car capital of the world, but how many Angelenos tuned into the congressional hearings for the proposed taxpayer bailout of the Detroit Three? As the CEOs of Ford, Chrysler and GM took a pompous, self-aggrandizing, but nonetheless, incisive lambasting from our national legislature, the landscape of driving in America changed forever.

America is a country of cars, a vast landmass ripe for plunder by oil companies, rubber companies, the automobile industry. Los Angeles, both before and during its post-war boom, allowed itself to be bought and sold by powerful interests determined to see the car – not the train, not the bus, not the bike – become the dominant, exclusive means of transportation in a metropolis seemingly bound by nothing.

Look back at old photos of the city and the vestiges of the trolley on Bunker Hill downtown and realize that this land of convertibles, hands-free cell phones and 10 lane freeways wasn’t a foregone conclusion when the first settlers spied the Pacific. As California grew grandly and recklessly, the car got us there fastest with maximum profits, pedal to the metal.

Smog and congestion followed, naturally, and were inconveniences that Angelenos grew to live with, even begrudgingly hold as badges of honor over pokey Midwestern burgs. Mandatory smog testing took a bit of the brown edge off, carpool lanes alleviated some of the strain for people who could bear being in a car with another human being and a pitiful (but growing less so) subway allowed film crews to imagine Los Angeles as something it wasn’t.

The gas crisis this past summer ended all that. Smack Americans in the pocketbook and they’ll bleed and cry.

My roommate from college was spending $800 a month on fuel at the peak of the madness; it ended up being cheaper for him to buy a second, more efficient car than to drive his guzzler.

With gas at $5 a gallon, the fundamental structure of the city was in jeopardy: Could a city built on the accessibility and feasibility of the automobile survive, particularly when millions of its poorer residents would soon pay more to travel to work than they might earn that day?

Now, the gas crisis has temporarily abated, prices falling back to artificially low levels as the worldwide economy struggles to keep its collective head above water. All is well in the tire-squealing City of Angels, unless you drive an American car. Many don’t.

American cars have not been competitive with their foreign rivals for many years, but the prospect of a complete collapse of the domestic auto industry is an ominous prospect beyond Detroit, beyond Michigan, beyond the stock market.

The slow decay of the Big Three speaks volumes about America’s standing in the world and the fundamental changes taking place in our economy and in our way of life. Our industry is no longer competitive with others in the world, many of whom are nationalized or otherwise supported by their governments, and any sense of duty to “Buy American” is blunted by the current lull in American pride and inability to stomach spending precious dollars on an inferior product for ideological reasons.

So if Americans won’t buy their cars, the CEOs – Richard Wagoner of GM, Alan Mulally of Ford, Robert Nardelli of Chrysler – begged our representatives to have us loan them our money. And we will, and at this point, we probably should.

The bleeding is so pronounced that it has to be stopped before this significant cost becomes an unmanageable one. Thousands, if not millions, of jobs and livelihoods hang in the balance, an entire sector of the economy stands at the brink. Michigan, a wounded state, would sink deeper and chart a course into previously unimaginable of levels of depression.

Think Detroit’s got troubles now? Just wait. Los Angeles, a major artery of Detroit’s lifeblood, will feel it too.

Will a semi-nationalized car industry demand new fuel standards and save this city from itself? Will the collapse of the industry flood the market with better foreign cars? Worse? Will car prices skyrocket as the U.S. imposes heavy duties on auto imports to stem the tide racing to fill the domestic production vacuum?

The auto industry is the tip of a dangerous iceberg. If a critical, longstanding sector of U.S. goods falls off the map, what could be next? Are we then running on empty, running on reputation alone in a global marketplace that has passed us by? Please say the day will never come when our only major exports are “Paris Hilton: My New BFF,” Carrot Top and Happy Meals.

And just so, Los Angeles is the tip of the country. The effects here on cars, transportation, lifestyles and local economies will radiate outwards.

May there never come a day when this city’s exports are reduced to seismic waves and prescient harbingers of troubles to come.

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