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 JKarlUSMC@aol.com.