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LETTING THE BIG THREE automakers fail - as they are in immediate danger of doing - would be playing Russian Roulette with the American economy, says Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd.

But the odds of the United States surviving a collapse of its domestic car industry aren't as high as all that. So, even if you would rather walk than ever buy an American car, you have a major stake in Congress providing bridge loans for GM, Chrysler and Ford. Unfortunately, the $15 billion House Democrats came up with over the weekend to tide over the industry - a special session this week could finalize it, at least until a new Congress and president can come up with a more permanent plan, comes from a fund that was reserved for developing more fuel-efficient cars. But there really is no alternative.

A collapse of the American auto industry would mean the loss of 3 million jobs nationwide in the first year, according to the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, Mich. That includes not only the direct loss of auto-worker jobs, but indirect losses from the bankruptcy of industry suppliers and ripple effects in the wider economy.

Contrary to what senators from southern states with non-union, foreign automakers believe, that wouldn't be good news for them, either, since they are dependent on the same suppliers.

The loss of jobs would result in a drop in Social Security payments and income-tax revenues, and the government would lose at least $60 billion in the first year, almost double the $34 billion "ask" from the auto company CEOs who appeared before Congress last week.

Bankruptcy isn't a realistic option, either, since consumers aren't likely to buy cars from bankrupt companies, and the companies would go belly-up anyway. We can't risk that level of shock to our already-reeling economic system.

It's true that American auto companies have been guilty of near-criminal myopia over the years, and that their CEOs were tone-deaf as well, arriving on private jets to testify before Congress a couple of weeks ago.

But the vehemence of attacks, not only on the quality of American cars (most of which are comparable to foreign makes) and the alleged greed of the union workers who make them, reveal a not-so-veiled attempt at scapegoating.

Pennsylvania's U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a member of the Senate Banking Committee who strongly supports making the loans, went so far as to call them "lies." Most egregious: the assertion that union auto workers earn $73 an hour in wages and benefits compared to $42 an hour paid to non-union workers making foreign cars.

The truth is that hourly wages for UAW members are comparable to those of non-union workers. The extra money includes the costs of health care, pensions and other compensation for millions of retired workers, which aren't in any way worker "earnings."

Concessions from the UAW and planned oversight of the proposed deal make this reasonable risk to take. But American cars will never be able to compete in the global marketplace until U.S. automakers no longer are burdened with the costs of health care for their current and retired workers, which right now add about $2,000 to the cost of each car.

While U.S. car makers are in extremis, most foreign auto companies are in big trouble as well. At a time when European governments are shoring up their own hard-hit auto industries, this nation can't afford not to do the same.

The future of our middle class depends on it - no matter what kind of car they drive. *