Peering down the road at what lies ahead for auto journalists would ignore the obvious: the big block in the road for the auto industry itself. True or not, self-inflicted or a consequence of the extreme economic downturn, Detroit’s need for a bailout, rescue plan or loan has filled the media with fear statistics akin to the Treasury’s plea for helping Wall Street. Warren Brown’s widely reprinted Washington Post column provides a more human perspective on what the domestic auto industry has meant to America. Titled: “An America Without Manufacturing Becomes A Starkly Divided Society,” it makes the point that along with building cars the domestic auto industry built the black middle class, providing steady work and reliable incomes that allowed workers to buy homes, educate their children and enjoy hope. As a self-described black child of the South he tells of watching “legions of neighbors and relatives flee economic apartheid in pursuit of opportunity in the automobile factories of Michigan and Ohio and in the steel plants of Pennsylvania and Indiana.
“People who left the South as field hands to become factory hands spawned generations of teachers, doctors, lawyers, technicians, engineers, inventors, designers, scientists, politicians — and more than a few journalists. A country without a viable manufacturing infrastructure, a nation lacking a commitment to excellence and innovation in manufacturing could not have authored such progress.”
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times Columnist David Brooks, the yin and yang of Jim Lehrer’s PBS TV News Hour, Shields from the left and Brooks from the right, agreed that Detroit should get help. They also agreed that it should be helped but with conditions and that Detroit as we know it will be restructured and vastly different within five years. They see a need for controls from outside of the industry but questioned if one man could be wise enough to be a “Car Czar.”
Expecting top executives to remedy the situation they helped create is denying the ego, arrogance and aggressiveness that drove them to the top and fits Einstein’s definition of insanity. Those same qualities would defend their past decisions and obstruct change. Lee Iacocca was able to do it at Chrysler (and repay Government–backed loans with interest) because, in addition to his talents, he was not vested in the leadership that put the company in need of Government help.
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The main difference between Chrysler in the 1980s and all three companies now: there was a lot of low-hanging fruit in the 1980s. A mediocre front-drive compact sedan was sufficient to boost sales. The Japanese were voluntarily limiting imports. There weren’t many transplant factories. Large new product segments opened up, and Detroit was the first to serve them.
The point was that Iacocca’s ego did not get in the way of whatever accounted for Chrysler’s recovery because he was not party to the decisions that led the company to seek the loan guarantee and therefore had no need to defend or justify the company’s past behavior.
The same could be said now for Alan Mulally at Ford.
The same is true for Nardelli. Leaving?
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