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Driven Into the Ground

General Motors is on its last tires. Also: Pennsylvania crack-up. Low-brow expectations. Another Tucker classic. Plus much more.

1.19.06

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ENJOY THE DEM SHOW
Re: Steve Hornbeck's Howard Dean Usurped:

After drying my eyes from laughing my way through this hilarious send-up of Dems in disarray, a sobering thought hit me -- this entire article could be true.

If ever an argument were to be made for mandatory psychiatric examinations of all presidential hopefuls, Al Gore and Howard Dean qualify.

Does anyone remember Al Gore's final concession speech at some sort of gala he and Tipper hosted? Al was in shirt sleeves outdoors in December 2000 (everyone else was suitably bundled up against the weather). But there was Al, sweatin' like a cotton chopper in July. He had perspiration underarm "puddles" the size of picnic plates. That is not normal. Well, who knows what is normal for Al? But if space allowed, I could name a few mood altering drugs that cause excessive perspiration -- but this guy gives new meaning to the term, "hyperhydration"! And if the "drenched in dew" was not a clue, certainly his behavior from that day forward -- including his Saturday Night Live hot tub gig -- is that of a seriously unbalanced man. No one has said, but how is his venture into cable TV going?

As for Howard Dean, the banty rooster who would be King -- maybe that "Eeeearghhh" was some kind of premature crowing.

Can't wait for 2008. Bring on the clowns.
-- Diane Smith
South San Francisco, California

LOSING DRIVERS
Re: Eric Peters's GM's Accelerating Death Spiral:

Bravo on the finest and most succinct piece yet illustrating the manifold woes of GM.

The Titanic vignette of the passengers huddled in their beds as the water seeps under the door to the accompanying list was precise and to the point.

It appears that the final analogy will be the comparison to the great extinctions of the past. Will it resemble the rather long Permian or that of the shorter Cretaceous?

But based on the actions of GM's leadership and the refusal of the UAW to grasp the implications of the zero sum game they are playing, it will inevitably be extinct. Better buy the spare parts for that classic Saturn now.
-- John Burtis
Derry, New Hampshire

Excellent article. A couple of comments:

1. I bought a Chevy Cobalt for my daughter during the employee pricing sale. It really is an excellent little car. Not anywhere near as poorly built as Chevy's used to be in the '70s and '80s. GM really does make better cars than they used to.

2. I was stationed in the Detroit area from 2000 to 2004. Many of the reservists I managed worked in the auto industry. I learned a lot about the business from talking to auto industry executives. Information I gleaned was that they were all very concerned about improving product quality and cutting material costs, particularly by playing hardball with their suppliers. There was no interest whatsoever in taking on the unions or cutting labor costs. It seems they'd given up on that battle long ago or that it was such an intractable problem they didn't want to discuss it. On the other hand, it's possible the Board of Directors at GM has simply become too ossified to deal with the crisis they now have on their hands. This ossification problem is a common disease in large, established companies. Many a management book and MBA program has addressed it. Looks like it's GM's turn in the barrel.

3. From a marketing perspective, it seems GM is holding on to some obsolete concepts about their customers. GM in particular still believes in the "start 'em young by selling them a Chevrolet and move 'em up through Pontiac, Buick, and finally Cadillac, (as they grow older)." I have never met anyone who actually followed this buying pattern, other than possibly GM employees. It is part of the marketing delusion they suffer from and which is perpetuating the multiplicity of competing divisions your article refers to.

4. GM's financing department has been a bigger source of revenue than their manufacturing process for many years and has been masking the profitability problems they've been having in selling cars for a long time. But the loss of market share has now caught up with them and financing can no longer cover the losses.

Bottom line is GM must fix all the problems you describe AND bust the unions if they plan to survive. I don't think current management is up to it (and neither does the stock market).
-- Paul Doolittle

I agree that GM has too many different models and it affects far more than the competition: it affects quality as well. We succumbed to the Employee Pricing and bought a Suburban (we also bought some energy sector mutual funds to break even). While we love that truck, since July we have taken it in for the air conditioner, the heater, the back door gasket, the back seat, and now the driver's seat memory doesn't work. My Acura, on the other hand...aaahhhhh, my Acura. I'm just praying that if there is something major league wrong with the truck it shows up within the warranty. I realize that GM's plight is more complicated than the quality of my truck, but if they can't make a decent car, solving their benefits problems won't put them in the black.
-- Andrew Macfadyen
Omaha, Nebraska

Now I have no expertise in the automotive industry except that I have been owning and driving automobiles for a couple of ticks over 50 years. Nevertheless, I would like to agree in part and disagree in part with Mr. Peters.

Yes, GM could well reduce the number of cars/models. I well remember the time when ALL GMC brand vehicles were trucks. Last year at the Barrett-Jackson Collectable Car Auction, a 1954 Olds F-88 2-seater convertible concept car sold for $3 million. This year the Pontiac equivalent will be hammered down. The vehicles were designed and built by the legendary Harley Earle. My point being that even GM realized that they did not need a Corvette type car in each of their lines.

When I was an obnoxious teenager, you could make an argument that GM cars ranked by economic niches were Chevy, Pontiac, Buick, Olds, and Caddy. Since GM has kissed the Olds good-bye, they should do the same with the Pontiac. Three divisions of the overall auto market should be quite sufficient. Corvettes are, of course, a niche all their own that defy economic status classification. I really wonder, however, if you could ever get enough Chevy owners to enthusiastically shift to a Saturn. That would be the equivalent of asking a Silverado owner to switch to a GMC pick-up. Unthinkable! You might as well ask them to switch to a Ford F-150.

Yes, the number of makes and models could stand a good weeding out, but that without the concomitant closing of additional plants and the modernizing of the remaining ones, and the further paring of the workforce, will NOT, in my opinion, lead to the Promised Land. It is quite possible that a fairly lengthy UAW strike might help GM a lot. A draw down of current inventory would not be a catastrophe. That might also induce some reality into the thinking and strategy of the UAW. Many of the Asian autos are made right here at non-unionized plants in the South, and they are running circles around the traditional big three companies. Union attitudes simply MUST change to accept the newer highly robotic assembly lines and a lot fewer workers.

As for the dealer network, the Big Three have been using the same structural model, as near as I can tell, without significant change for 60 years or more. Many dealers are almost in rebellion due to the auto makers forcing the dealers to take delivery on inventory beyond their needs. This is simply a means for the car makers to force the dealers to finance the unsold inventory. This practice drastically misstates the status and economic health of the auto makers themselves. A drastic restructuring simply must take place, but NOT without a complete rethinking and significant changing of the ways the dealer network is structured and the rules under which they operate.

Finally, I have owned SUVs from both GM companies and Nissan, and my current '04 Caddy Escalade is about as fine an SUV as I could want. I have looked at most all the makes, including the Asian and European ones, and I wouldn't trade mine for theirs without they pay me, instead of me paying them.
-- Ken Shreve

I love GM cars... been buying them for 50 years. And the Buick (now GM) V-6 is the most reliable engine that has ever been put in any automobile.

But GM is going to lose me too. They have stopped making the larger cars with the roomy, comfortable interiors. I hate driving a car where you can't squirm around or lean over and put your shopping bag on the back seat. Or move your legs around on a long trip. My Oldsmobile was wonderful, but those are just memories now.

By going more and more compact, GM has shut out millions of older drivers (who usually have more money to spend). It's a shame because, like Eric Peters says, they are superbly well-built cars.
-- Bill Schumm
Falmouth, Virginia

Thank you for the article detailing the challenges that General Motors is facing.

I have been told that around 1978, American car manufacturers removed their quality control departments at the end of the manufacturing process. At the time, they told the dealers, "We will give you a $100 to $200 allowance with each car we send so that you can go over the car and see if everything is all right. If you find something wrong, fix it and we will reimburse you."

The car dealers then allowed the customer to be the quality control department, telling the customer, "If you have any problems with this car, bring it back and we will fix it."

About this time, the Japanese were looking to enter the American car market. They asked the question, "What do people want when they buy a car?" They came up with ideas such as value, quality, and low maintenance (other than scheduled routine maintenance checkups). They proceeded to offer these features in their cars and the American people began buying the foreign cars.

In the past two years, how many "recalls" have there been for American cars because a hose, a switch, or something else has had to be replaced? How many recalls have been made by foreign manufacturers?

In 1980, I purchased a Pontiac Sunbird --a General Motors product -- saying that I wanted to own an American car over my father's suggestion that I buy a Toyota.

The Pontiac was a nightmare for me. The engine's timing would go out if I hit a big bump in the road, and I would have to have it adjusted. This was caused by polystyrene being used in the gears of the timing mechanism instead of metal. Also, if I went 50 miles, I would become drowsy and have to pull over to the side of the road and get a nap to continue driving safely. I found out that the car's engine block was not sealed properly and carbon monoxide was leaking up the sides and through the windows, causing the drowsiness. The engine block finally had to be replaced (under warranty since I had less than 10,000 miles on the car). I decided at this time that this would be my last American car.

I traded this car for a Subaru and about 4 years later, bought a Toyota. I maintained these cars properly and had no trouble whatsoever with them. I have been a Toyota customer ever since.

I really don't want to take the chance that I would have problems and factory recalls with an American car now that I know about the quality that is available in Japanese cars.

Perhaps the American car companies would be wise to put a quality control department back into their plants rather than continue sending out new models, hoping that the customers will buy them.
-- Bill Reynolds

In response to Eric Peters's article, my only question is what is the difference between Toyota and GM's capability of making money on their cars? Toyota does not have the union pulling them under like GM does.
-- Glenn Wagner

Stick to politics and culture, guys. Your article is a day late and a dollar short.
-- Greg Swenson
Cleveland, Ohio

GRIFTER POLS
Re: Ralph R. Reiland's Crooks By Any Other Name:

It seems quite straightforward to me that a small group of men and women, sufficiently arrogant to believe they are anointed by God (the Republicans) or the motive force of the universe (the Democrats) to tell the rest of use how to live (the Republicans) and also what to think (the Democrats) would believe that each and all of them are entitled to any emoluments they can corral. After all, the altruism that motivates them (not to mention the power, sex, free goodies at every turn, tax benefits, the world's greatest retirement and medical plans, free staff and offices for life, the absolute lack of accountability or need to actually accomplish anything) requires great sacrifice.

For example these heroic folks give up the 50-week, 40-hour-a-week jobs we all find so enthralling. They give up responsibility for their families and move to D.C. They give up worrying about how to make ends meet -- if nobody gives them money they just vote themselves a raise, (or marry a billionaire like Mr. Kerry, who is actually a Forbes himself). They give up the dignity that work provides the rest of us to talk. Just talk.

No wonder there is a modicum of corruption here and there. Well I have a modest and Clintonion proposal. Let us just define corruption as "in excess of..." For example: Mrs. Clinton's minions have just been fined for falsifying election records. Mrs. Clinton need not concern herself with such trifles and so we could define this corrupt activity as corrupt only when the "falsification exceeds $5,000,000." Or we could just insert in bribery as it applies to our leaders as money received in "excess of $1,000,000 per illegal activity."

I can assure you that this would as they say, have legs in Congress. Can't you see the great puff of pride and self importance as one politician after another rises, florid of face, stating we will not need to vote ourselves an pay increase this year as we have raised the "in excess of the amount which costs taxpayers not a dime!" It brings a catch to my throat and a tear of joy to these old eyes.
-- Jay W. Molyneaux
Wellington, Florida

Once again, I find it difficult to disagree with anything that Ralph is saying in his article. Politicians are corrupt. Lobbyists are corrupt. The political system is corrupt.

But why did he stop there? Why not include a few other revelations like: the sky is blue or the sun rises in the east.

As a concerned American, I have been following the story of Darth Abramoff, and, as a resident of Pennsylvania, I have been held absolutely spellbound by the unfolding of the epic scandal of the Commonwealth's legislators. It will be very interesting to see if the repeated op-ed pontification calling down the wrath of God upon the heads the crooks will cause voters to "throw the bums out." With the surprising dismissal of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice in the last state-wide election, the possibility seems tantalizingly within reach.

But, in my opinion, Ralph and other political columnists and commentators in Pennsylvania have not answered one very basic question: How do we attract honest, competent people to government service?

Sure, the present Pennsylvania legislators are crooked. Toss 'em out wholesale. And by all means cut back on the total number of legislators, there are way too many for a state this size. But what makes anyone think that, even in a leaner legislative body, their replacements will be any better?

The sad truth is that government service it not a compelling career choice for the best and the brightest (to use a trite phrase). The Pennsylvania annual budget is over $2.4 billion. The operation of the state is similar in many respects to that of a large corporation, revenues come in (taxes) and payments go out (in the form of services). And the legislators are the ones who are supposed to manage the budget. Plus, on top of their economic responsibilities, the legislators are also (by definition) the people who make our laws. They debate and vote on the laws that reach into every aspect of our lives, from jay-walking to estate taxation. It seems to me that being a legislator is a fairly important job.

Yet there seems to be a strong feeling among op-ed writers that people should be willing to take on the job of legislator for bargain basement pay. A favorite ploy of the writers is to repeatedly proclaim that the current pay rate for a legislator is double or triple what the average citizen earns in Pennsylvania. My answer to that is "so what?" A top quality surgeon probably makes ten times what the average citizen earns, but I haven't seem many news articles suggesting that surgeons should be replaced with minimum wage workers. And when I need work done on my house, I hire the best contractor that I can afford. Paying a fly-by-night contractor who doesn't know his business does not save you money in the long run. Shouldn't legislators receive compensation commensurate with their duties?

Or to put it another way, ignoring the law making aspects of the job of legislator for a moment, do we really want our tax dollars to be managed by people who aren't competent enough to hold a job of similar responsibilities in the private sector? The op-ed writers seem to think that government employees should work out of a sense of altruism. Let's consider a person who graduates from college at the top of the class with a degree in finance. The graduate could choose to work in the private sector or enter politics with the hope of becoming a legislator. But even if the graduate can get elected (not by any means a sure thing), his/her salary will be a fraction of what can be made at a private company. Ralph Reiland is a college professor. Does he see his brightest students heading into government service? Or a better question would be, if his students do chose government service out of a sense of altruism, how many of them stick with the public sector for a whole career? How many young, enthusiastic people get burned out because of the long hours and low pay that we expect of our elected officials?

Professor Reiland teaches at Robert Morris University, a relatively small school that has grown impressively in the past few years. According to a news story in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review from November of 2003, the President of Robert Morris was then making at least $300,000 a year, or roughly three times what a Pennsylvania legislator makes. I suppose that the President could have taken a pay cut since the article was run, but I suspect not. Isn't being a legislator at least as important as being a head of a small university?

The common wisdom among government critics seems to be that we don't have to pay anywhere near top dollar for our public servants. But another piece of common wisdom is that you get what you pay for.
-- Robert F. Casselberry

What childhood deficit or abuse drives politicians to seek power over their fellow humans? As has been often stated, those who seek political office should be disqualified on that basis. Moreover, there should be term limits on every political office, now including the Supreme Court, since they make major laws the Congress fears to touch. Each legislator must read every word of every bill they vote on, and they must do their own taxes. Only when they become victims of their own arrogance will they care. Oh, one last thing, hold Congress only two weeks per year, in Barrow, Alaska.
-- David Govett
Davis, California

The magic words here are TERM LIMITS. If limits are good enough for the President then the houses of Congress should be limited to 12 years. Just maybe they could keep their hands out of lobbyists pockets for that long and do our work they were sent to do. I know, I know, I did say MAYBE, but at least it would be a start. Being in Congress should NOT be a life career.
-- Elaine Kyle

HIGH-BROWED
Re: Yale Kramer's Brokeback Mountain and the Romance of Gayness:

I dig you guys, really I do. I tried to read that article about the "Romance" of gay folks and all that. But, I ain't gonna read a Micheneresque-sized blog-roll about a movie or a "lifestyle choice" I couldn't care less about.

It's obvious that the "artsy" community loves stickin' this kinda stuff in our faces. And we show our appreciation by watchin' football and staring at babes. We, the average "Joe" proletariat, whom even if we claimed we "got it," would still be contemptuously held by those "artsy" types when out of earshot.

I don't need their cocktail parties, their movies, their music, or their recognition. They're not looking for our respect or acknowledgement either. They HATE us for being "average American Joes" who like football, car racing, beer and chicks.

Let's get back to Iraq, those nutty Iranian Mullahs, the patient genius of Alito, our KICK-*** military, and Republican strategy stuff. I don't have all day for "high-brow" Upper West Side "culture."
-- P. Aaron Jones
Huntington Woods, Michigan

ON THE SAME SIDE
Re: P. David Hornik's On the Left, Terror, and Friends:

The author has highlighted some psychological reasons for the Leftist liberals to support Islamic terrorism. There are some phony leftists and armchair liberals marketing mindless root causes of Islamic terrorism including Western and Israeli interference, low self-esteem, economic deprivation, poverty, need for affiliation, dysfunctional family, lack of education and so forth. And of course, these are phony excuses. The misguided leftists miss the point. They have no clue for Islamic terrorism.

In a civilized world, we cannot function if we believe in phony explanations for Islamic terrorism. Widespread irrational acceptance of terrorism will have serious consequences. The leftist and Islamic cognitive-behavior processes are the same and it is a symptom of deep rooted pathology stemming from their "addictive" thinking on closed ideology including Islam. Leftist ideology (communism) and Islam are control systems. It is designed to exclude dialogue, outside input, and forbid free thinking. Whatever Muslims do, wherever they go, Muslims are mandated to maintain status quo and the closed paradigm. Communists do the same. Muslims and the Communists use control mechanisms to maintain closed systems. No wonder why the leftists have no sympathy for the victims. They prefer to identify with the terrorists.
-- Dr. Babu Suseelan

CONTENT OF VICTORY
Re: Greg Richards's letter (under "Peace Through Victory") in Reader Mail's Never Again and P. David Hornik's On the Left, Terror, and Friends:

Arafat wanted the annihilation of an entire race of people. His DEFINITION OF VICTORY made him a bad person. Without the war he was nothing, and if there were a Hell he would surely be there now.
-- Angela Seeley
Clarksville, Tennessee

MUSIC IN YOUR PALM
Re: W. James Antle III's Downloading Blues

I also have an iPod. I LOVE it. I have been thru albums, cassettes, CDs, and now record my own CDs, and the pod beats them all by a mile. I have nearly one thousand songs on my iPod and it will hold more than that.

Recently, in a fit of cleaning frenzy, I purged most of the old albums (not the original Beatles or Stones, or a few choice others) and I understand the thrill of looking through the music files to see what you may or may not have in common with the person. However I disagree about perusing someone else's list. True you don't have the 'feel' of the album, but having a pod means I no longer have to lug around many CDs to be scratched or lost, and I have EVERYTHING at my fingertips.

When I browse through someone's music files I get a little thrill seeing how much we may have in common musical tastes. Music is a major part of my life, and the iPod makes it so much better!!
-- Janis
Independence, Montana

GRAY EMISSIONS
Re: Patrick J. Michaels's Warming to Efficiency:

"The New York Times recently reported that the 2004 change in overall emissions was nearly double the annual average, neglecting to report that single-year statistics are virtually meaningless."

Honest to Pete! I'm shocked, I'm appalled that the Gray Lady might've omitted something like that.

By the way, a search on the NYT's website for "global warming" shows it's mentioned 4,353 times since 1981. During that same period, "carbon dioxide" and "greenhouse gases" are mentioned 3,316 and 1,038 times, respectively.

And "energy efficiency"? 896 times.
-- C. Kenna Amos Jr.
Princeton, West Virginia

SCHUMER IS FINISHED
Re: Jay D. Homnick's Race to the Finish:

Thanks to Jay Homnick for bringing out this story of hypocrisy on the part of Chuck Schumer. I haven't read this anywhere else. So I have passed the article around to everyone I know, posted it on the blogs, and to radio talk show hosts.

If the mainstream media is going to carry water for this racist, the rest of us WILL know about it.
-- Joyce Romano
Redondo Beach, California

ANOTHER TUCKER CLASSIC
Re: William Tucker's Guilty Again!:

I was laughing through this laceration of the media and started to ask myself, "Who wrote this?" and waited till the end to find it was William Tucker, who I remember from years ago always writes a delightful yarn of an expose, and this was no exception.
-- M. Scott Horn

TAKE YOUR LUMPS
Re: Mark Gauvreau Judge's Robo-Pic:

Sorry, Mr. Judge, most lawbreakers have excuses. Trying to find a bathroom is a good one, though.
-- Elaine Kyle

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