According to the MOP [Mob of Pundits] crowd, American car companies have messed up -- making too many trucks and sport-utility vehicles, ignoring consumer and governmental demands for more fuel-efficient vehicles and, as Will stated in a column last week, entering "improvident labor contracts" with the UAW.As Brown reminds us, Honda, Nissan, Toyota and even Mercedes-Benz all had some kind of truck or SUV too because they were following "market demand." Nobody twisted our arms and forced us to buy the gas guzzlers.
Americans went truck crazy in the 1990s and in the early years of this century, making light trucks more than 50 percent of new vehicles annually sold in this country, for the same reason they are in danger of re-embracing that madness -- cheap gasoline. They were enabled by lawmakers who, with one hand, pushed car companies to increase technical fuel efficiency while using the other to give American consumers the least-expensive gasoline in the developed world.
Increased technical fuel efficiency plus low-cost gasoline fueled consumer demand for more driving and bigger and more powerful vehicles with which to do that driving. Gasoline consumption in the United States soared . . . until high fuel prices restored some sanity to the U.S. consumer automotive market.
What about the critics who say, "but look at that fuel-efficient, gas-electric Toyota Prius hybrid?"
Go ahead and look at it, preferably in Japan, where the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) has done a marvelous job of coordinating industrial and energy policy into a vehicle development and consumption strategy that makes sense. We have no such government-industry cooperation in the United States. We have no industrial policy, no energy policy, which largely is why we now have a core segment of our natively owned manufacturing infrastructure teetering on the brink of collapse.Furthermore, Brown points out that European and Asian countries tax horsepower. The least-efficient motor fuels are taxed heavily, while favorable treatment is given to more efficient fuels, such as diesel.
That cost-sharing creates a kind of honesty. Car companies aren't inclined to design, develop and produce gas-guzzlers because European and Asian consumers are not inclined to buy them. It creates market predictability, contrary to what we have in the United States, where vehicle markets can flower or wither in an instant, depending on the price of fuel.What did Brown have to say about the unions?
It is the rankest hypocrisy for well-paid journalists to decry the "high" pay of UAW-represented employees. I doubt that there is one UAW critic in the media, or on Capitol Hill, who would be willing to settle for a UAW paycheck. I'm almost certain there isn't one who would be willing to trade his or her relatively cushy employment for a year on an auto plant assembly line.Brown doesn't excuse the Big Three and he admits they've made mistakes, but he also points out they've done many things right - "contributing to the defense of this country; helping to create a viable middle class, especially in America's minority communities; and contributing to technological advancements in the global automobile industry."
Criticism of "improvident labor contracts" thus smacks of class bias. It reeks of the notion that some work, such as that involving manual labor, inherently deserves less compensation than others, such as expressing one's opinion. It's more baloney.
The bottom line: "The potential failure confronting GM, Ford and Chrysler is not Detroit's alone. It belongs to all of us."
The solution to this problem belongs to all of us too - consumers, domestic automakers and the government. We have to keep pushing for meaningful energy policies regardless of the price of gas and we have to demand industrial policies that level the playing field for our domestic automakers and workers.