Unrealistic 'green' expectations must be lessened from autos

Tuesday, December 16, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:34 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009

For a number of years, whenever columnists lacked a subject for easy social commentary, they could wax effusive over America’s love affair with the gun or the automobile. They were veritable gold mines for the holier-than-thou journalist as each enabled a feigned good-natured but pointed ridicule of the cowboy mentality or macho image of man and his machine.

More recently, that infatuation with the automobile has assumed a greater relevance, one which ebbs and flows in import relative to the going price and availability of gasoline. Additionally, the nattering of the global warming crowd as well as the worshipers of all that is green threatens to make pariahs of any who dare to operate the (gasp) sport utility vehicle or other “gas guzzler” and would “uninvent” the internal combustion engine in favor of nonpolluting transport which, unfortunately, neither exists nor will soon be available.

Exacerbating the discussion is the current economic downturn and impending possible collapse of an already shaky U.S. automobile manufacturing industry. By the time this column is published, Congress will have agreed or failed to agree on a financial package to enable the “Big Three” of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler remain in business. The impact of auto industry failure cannot be overstated inasmuch as the resultant unemployment effect would spread throughout the goods and service supply in related fields.

The reasons for the decline in the U.S. auto manufacturing viability are as numerous as there is blame to be shared. Those culpable include the unions, the states, the environmental lobby, Congress and the auto manufacturers themselves. From United Auto Workers' negotiated pension/health care benefits making hourly labor costs for Detroit producers $73.21, well over the non-Detroit average of $44.21, to unreasonable CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) mandates, to legislative meddling to shoddy manufacturing practices–the scope of the problem is hardly a surprise.

To those who wish to blame the influx of foreign imports and later location of foreign auto plants (primarily Japanese) in the U.S. for the downturn in the industry, a bit of history is necessary. Many of you remember the late '60s and the '70s, shoddy workmanship and poor quality control combined to make a product (pickup trucks excepted) that would virtually self-destruct in three years. The introduction of well made imports with superior maintenance-free performance forced the Big Three back to the drawing board, resulting in autos that could compete quite favorably.

This industry is a vital element of our economy as the auto is a necessary transport to work as well as recreation. Mass transit is neither available nor feasible in most of America – electric cars, bicycles, hiking and PedNets are but pipe dreams. A realistic “bailout” must include curing the warts that caused the problem in the first place without killing the patient.

First and foremost, the industry must be permitted to produce vehicles that American consumers will actually buy rather than be forced by CAFE fuel economy standards to make small cars that will sell in Europe but not in Peoria. Americans drive longer, farther and haul and tow things – they are not about to sacrifice comfort and safety by agreeing to operate virtual skateboards. There is no secret to increasing miles per gallon – simply reduce vehicle weight but, who wants to bounce over the road in a chassis stamped from beer cans?

Accordingly, either the environmentalists must lessen their demands and/or Congress repeal the CAFE standards as both are unrealistic. The fuel-efficient green autos and trucks that thrill the climate change/global warming crowd do not at all excite the consumer and will not unless the price of gasoline rises above the current range. And, in today’s economic downturn, raising gas prices by taxation or other means when unemployment is on the rise is an act of sheer stupidity.

For its very survival, the UAW must come to grips with the fundamental truth that the union is the proximate cause of the hourly labor cost of cars made in Detroit averaging $29.00 more than those made by Toyota, Honda and Hyundai and make concessions as necessary. Also, this might be an opportune time to cease and desist paying of thousands of auto workers 95 percent of wages not to work.

I have saved Congress for last – its initial reaction when receiving the auto executives in hearings demonstrated exactly why that august body’s approval ranges between 9 and 13 percent. The pompous posturing and pontificating over the auto executives ill-advised arrival in private jets and subsequent return jammed into hybrid cars was perhaps good theater but rather childish and hypocritical considering the source.

While it often seems woefully misplaced, I still have faith in the system. So, let's fix it now and share the blame later, none will emerge smelling like the proverbial rose.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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Mark Foecking December 16, 2008 | 12:43 p.m.

Let's fix it by letting 'em fail. They have consistently put quality and features last, and have shied away from the innovation that the Japanese car makers are known for.

When car companies have to appeal to people's patriotism to sell cars, rather than the quality and features of their products, it's time they go the way of the dinosaur.

Let's let Honda and Toyota make our cars. The marketplace has spoken. And when gas prices go up again, it'll speak even louder.

BTW, PedNets work if you stop making excuses, and just do it. There's no place in Columbia I can't reach by bicycle, and I can haul up to three hundred pounds behind me too. But everyone's got an excuse, right?


(Report Comment)
M L December 16, 2008 | 12:57 p.m.

Driving gas guzzling SUV and massive trucks that serve all those huge number of people "haul and tow things" seems like a slap in the face of national security and American prosperity. It is no secret that our dependence upon foreign energy is both an economic and security risk, yet you say we should not be forced to sacrifice our apparent god given right to drive large vehicles. In difficult times people must sacrifice, and that means making an effort to change your own habits. Driving a large truck or SUV doesn't make you an American it makes it clear you don't understand America.

(Report Comment)
Ayn Rand December 16, 2008 | 1:29 p.m.

I agree that the Big Three should declare bankruptcy if that's what it takes.

But I'm surprised that no one in the press -- at least from what I've read -- has bothered to compare the amount that the Big Three are requesting to what foreign automakers have to pay. From a letter to the editor in today's Wall Street Journal:

"As proposed, the requested bridge loans represent roughly $4 billion in assistance to U.S. auto makers, that is, the cost of a low-interest loan. With 240,000 employees spread among the three U.S. companies, that works out to less than $16,000 in temporary taxpayer assistance per job.

"By contrast, foreign auto makers receive far more from U.S. taxpayers in various forms of government assistance. In Tennessee, for example, state and local authorities offered Volkswagen $577 million in lowered taxes and other benefits in exchange for the plants it is constructing, at a staggering cost of $288,000 per job created.

"Similarly, Toyota is receiving $300 million in support for its plant in Texas, or $150,000 per job created. Alabama provided Hyundai, Toyota, Honda and Mercedes an average of $111,000 in incentives per job. The list goes on. Unlike the temporary assistance GM, Ford and Chrysler are seeking, in almost all the cases, U.S. taxpayer subsidies to foreign companies never need to be paid back."

(Report Comment)
Vincent Cacioppo December 16, 2008 | 11:09 p.m.

I just filled up for $1.95 per gal, unleaded. It was almost $5 per gal just a few months ago. What happened? I was told by al gore that the earth was going to burn up in a ball of fire. Now for the past year, the globe has unexplicably cooled and enormous glaciers are starting to grow in places they never had been before. WHAT HAPPENED? My Ford Expedition carries my family of six comfortably and safely and uses about the same amount of fuel in one entire year that ONE ROUND TRIP PRIVATE JET does. So, before enviro-bots go around accusing others of not sacrificing, not being patriotic, and jeapordizing national security and prosperity, they should grow up and realize that they are on a fools errand of the left. I think Karl Marx called them "useful idiots".

Vinny the Plumber

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