The danger is, this mindset is guiding the decisions that will determine America's industrial/manufacturing policy!
This began as a response to an editorial written by Dan Becker (Safe Climate Campaign) and James Gerstenzang (former LA Times correspondent). After a while, we realized it might make a nice poster. So feel free to print this one out for your friends.
This editorial offers a view of the blame-Detroit mindset that has existed on the fringes for decades, and has now become mainstream. Notice that while a fifth of the text criticizes "Detroit" for advertising highway fuel economy numbers, it's never mentioned that this is standard advertising practice, regardless of proximity to the Motor City. (Watch a commercial for the pitifully low mileage 31 MPG Kia Soul (1.6L) subcompact; Only the 31 MPG highway mileage figure appears at the end.) But you know what's even worse? Using the same EPA source, you'll find that every "non-Detroit" mid-size sedan attains nearly the same (or often worse) mileage as the Chevy and Chrysler sedans singled out for criticism. But that's just the tip of the slanted iceberg...
Yellow journalism on Wall Street?
An accepted definition of Yellow Journalism is as follows:
A biased opinion masquerading as objective fact. Moreover, the practice of yellow journalism involves sensationalism, distorted stories, and misleading images for the sole purpose of boosting newspaper sales and exciting public opinion.
Now I can’t say what the piece below did for Wall Street Journal sales, but I have no doubt the public is eager for information that fits nicely within their stereotypes of American industry. Sensational? What would you call the images painted of people being burned-to-death in a car, especially within a business text? Misleading? The omission of related facts to add perspective? We’ve got it all below.
What’s most disturbing is that not only did this piece appear in an October edition of the Wall Street Journal, (Titled “How Detroit Drove Into a Ditch”) but it’s now making its way through the internet on various blogs (for example: boingboing.net ) ...and most insidious of all, it appears on the Wall Street Journal “classroom edition” website as teaching material!
Henry Ford said that history "is more or less bunk." Those words are ironic when you consider that a poor knowledge of history might be what dooms the American auto industry.
The public's distaste for the industry likely began in 1965 when then-mighty General Motors Corp. executives decided to investigate a little-known lawyer named Ralph Nader, who had published a book portraying its unconventional Corvair in a most unflattering way.
For the next 40-plus years, it would seem that the industry could do nothing right. Even the city of Detroit, whose name has been interchangeable with the three surviving domestic auto companies, makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. These three distinct companies are bound together by a negative image that could leave even the best public relations man crying in front of his typewriter.
A proper knowledge of history is probably the only friend we have. The image of Detroit as the arsenal of democracy is well established, but it honesty doesn't resonate with at least 75 percent of America. We need to start at that critical time in the 1960s when baby-boomers began to view Detroit as the enemy, rather than the industry that made it possible to put Americans on the moon. Oh; you didn't know that Chrysler built the Saturn V rockets that got us there?
But getting back to earth, Detroit began working at least as early as 1955 on the problem of Los Angeles smog, and within a few years, cars started getting a lot cleaner. Things got much more serious in 1971 when General Motors engineers committed to developing a device that removed 98 percent of the pollution from auto exhaust. Today that device is found on virtually every new automobile worldwide, even if it did take the Europeans 18-years longer than the United States to mandate its use in their own countries.
Has the domestic industry challenged environmental regulations along the way, often from well-intended but science-challenged bureaucrats? Certainly, that's called due process, and it's supposed to be the admirable base of our legal system. Have foreign manufacturers done the same thing in their home-markets? Absolutely.
The most important breakthroughs in pollution control and safety have all come from our auto industry. To doubt this is again to have a poor knowledge of history. Our planet would be both more dangerous, and more polluted in the absence of Detroit innovation.
Certainly those pension and benefit costs are an example of union excess? Again, a little history.
Fringe benefits attached to employment became the default U.S. health care system as a result of wage and price controls mandated by our Federal government to control post-World War II inflation. Today every other industrialized nation ultimately puts that burden on taxpayers. Our system worked as long as we had enough high-paying manufacturing jobs. Remember that we used to make television sets, furniture and clothes. The fact that our auto industry could support them until this late date is testimony to how much value automobile production creates from raw material, not an indictment on union greed.
Combined with closed foreign markets, we're now in a position where profitability comes only from large, high-priced vehicles. When the credit flowed freely, and gas burned cheaply, it worked.
There is arrogance in this historical tale, the mistake of thinking it could be sustained, even if oil remained cheap. While many in positions of celebrity and power are quick to point out the Prius, they forget the simultaneous launch of Toyota's huge trucks and SUVs that were developed as profit centers, not just "green" image builders.
I'm a person that still believes in taking market territory back, and rebuilding a golden age right here in the mid-west. Making that happen will require several "fronts", and two of them must be:
♦ Leveling the playing field, not on the backs of the working people, or through protectionism, but through mirror-image trade policies. If we continue to enjoy the cheaply priced fruits of exploitation, we are no better than 19th century Europeans ignoring our conscience and enjoying cheap cotton.
♦ A serious image-overhaul. If that means shattering a lot of stereotypes about Detroit and reminding the world who-invented-what, then so be it. We are no longer the big kid who can take punches without swinging back.
Thankfully, the products are either in showrooms or on drawing boards. You need only to have driven a Ford lately, list the awards for GM products from Chevy to Cadillac or know which company is building minivans and trucks for prestigious foreign brands. History will judge us by what we do next.
Chris Vitale lives in St. Clair Shores, MI and is an engine auditor at the Chrysler Conner Avenue Assembly Plant in Detroit, MI.