How can a Jeep TV commercial make more sense than America's economic policy?
I don't usually pay much attention to television commercials -- most of the time I just hit the mute button. But lately, an ad for the Jeep Grand Cherokee has literally commanded my attention, and when it comes on I turn up the volume and listen.
I think it was the rhythmic clapping and steely hammering at the opening of the ad that first caught my attention. It is reminiscent of that syncopated steel-driving beat that was made by gangs of gandy dancers as they laid down the railroad tracks across America decades ago.
Images of a train crossing a high trestle, a steel mill, a Manhattan skyscraper, a welder at work, World War II Jeeps helping liberate Paris and others flash across the screen as a masculine voice with a sound of authority spells out the message:
The things that make us Americans are the things we make. This has always been a nation of builders -- craftsmen -- men and women for whom straight stitches and clean welds are matters of personal pride. They made the skyscrapers and the cotton gins, Colt revolvers, Jeep four-by-fours. These things make us who we are.
As a people, we do well when we make good things, and not so well when we don't. The good news is, this can be put right. We just have to do it. And so we did.
At this point, the viewer sees images of the 2011 Grand Cherokee splashing though a forest stream, followed by glimpses of auto plant scenes as the vehicle is built. The voice concludes:
This, our newest son, was imagined, drawn, carved, stamped, and forged, here in America. It is well made and it is designed to work. This was once a country where people made things -- beautiful things. And so it is again.
It is a simple message backed by powerful images that evokes a blend of emotions -- national pride, to be sure, but also a sense of loss. What we have lost lies not merely in the millions of manufacturing jobs that have disappeared in recent years but also the sense of pride in our work, and quality in our craftsmanship.
In a few words, the Jeep ad captures much of what I think is bothering many Americans -- the sense that the nation is in decline, that our best days are behind us, and that we don't have the will and the guts to do what needs to be done to right the ship.
The commercial evokes some of the same feelings that songwriter Merle Haggard captured in his great lament, "Are the Good Times Really Over for Good?"
For those who don't remember, here is the chorus:
Are we going down hill like a snowball that's headed for hell? With no kind of chance for the Flag or the Liberty Bell. Wish a Ford and a Chevy could still last ten years like they should. Is the best of the free life behind us now -- are the good times really over for good?
While the Jeep ad evokes similar emotions, it pivots to a more upbeat message that things can get better. The commercial pitch here, of course, is that Jeep is again producing quality vehicles that are built to work, and doing it here in America. Not having driven a 2011 Grand Cherokee, I can't say, but I am willing to believe that. Ford and Chevy now are building cars to last 10 years like they should, if you can believe the generally positive reviews in the automotive press -- and maybe Jeep is too.
The broader point is that America could become a nation of builders and makers again, if only our political leaders and policy makers cared more about making that happen. What amazes me, though, is that they don't seem to care much about reviving America's manufacturing industries.
Take, for example, the spending priorities evident in the $787 billion economic stimulus bill that President Obama and the Democratic Congress passed in February 2009. It was very heavy on handouts, entitlements, jobless benefits and bailout money for state and local government, and very light on anything that would create jobs in manufacturing or construction.
The stimulus bill spent $288 billion on temporary tax breaks, including $500 rebate checks for nearly everyone (including those who do not pay any income taxes) -- a one-time handout that had no visible effect in creating jobs. It earmarked another $224 billion for entitlements -- Medicaid payments, unemployment compensation, aid to local schools, etc. That's more checks in the mail to favored Democratic constituencies, but no job-creating punch.
Compared to those money spigots, the amount devoted in the stimulus package to actually building and making things was puny. Only about one-tenth of the money, $81 billion, was marked for infrastructure. Only $51 billion of that amount was for roads, bridges, railways, sewers, public transportation and the like. That kind of spending creates real jobs in construction and manufacturing -- in the steel mills, equipment industries, machinery, and the like.
Why is it that Congress and the president don't get the simple message of the Jeep ad: "As a people, we do well when we make good things, and not so well when we don't"?
The stimulus program's failure to create jobs and to keep the national unemployment rate from rising apparently has made no impression on Obama and the Democrats in Congress. Since then, they have rammed through policies that will only make it harder for American industries and small business owners to remain competitive.
By imposing new health-care costs, much more Federal regulation, and talking about plans to raise taxes in 2011, the Administration has created an anti-business climate that chills investment and job creation. The current stall in the fragile economic recovery is a product of that climate.
"It's pretty hard to be pro-job and anti-business," Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, one of the Republican presidential hopefuls for 2012, told an Iowa audience recently. "That's like being pro-egg and anti-chicken. It doesn't work out so well."
In this political environment, what America has become good at producing are Federal debts, budget deficits, long-term joblessness, entitlements that the nation cannot pay for, more people dependent on the Federal dole, and frustration and anger among people who work hard, pay their taxes and their bills, pay off their mortgages, and don't expect handouts. These are not the people high on the priority lists of the Obama administration or the Democratic majority in Congress.
I am not sure that the Republicans really get the message of the Jeep ad either, or can offer the policies to make America a nation of builders and makers again. I think if one of them could articulate the message as well as Jeep did in this commercial, voters would listen and cheer.