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|February 26-March 4, 2009
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Task Force Detroit rolls with the Rising Sun
by Paul Danish
It turns out that the people who President Obama picked to bail out America’s foundering car companies don’t have much use for the guys they are supposed to save.
Last Friday Obama appointed eight members of the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry (the formal name of the committee that’s going to oversee the bailout of the domestic car makers), along with 10 senior advisers that will assist them. Within nanoseconds of the appointments, the Detroit News dispatched reporters to find out whose cars the task force members were driving.
Short answer: not Detroit’s.
The intrepid scribes spent the weekend slogging through motor vehicle purchase and registration records and interviewing informed sources like task force co-chair (and Treasury Secretary) Timothy Geithner’s father, but they couldn’t find a single member of the task force who owned an American car. (Two members — Energy Secretary and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu and White House Climate Czar Carol Browner — don’t own cars period.)
Among the 10 advisers, only two had Detroit iron in their driveways. One owns a 2003 Lincoln and another a 1998 Chevrolet. (A third owns a Harley.)
To be sure, the situation may be more, uh, nuanced than it first appears. The News wasn’t able to do a complete survey; it couldn’t get any information on car choices of two task force members (Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Council of Economic Advisers Chair Christine Romer), and two task force members have yet to be named (the Commerce and Labor secretaries.) Also, it’s not clear if the study took leased cars into account.
But the fact remains that, insofar as is known, the people charged with saving American auto companies have pretty much given up on them when it comes to their own rides.
Just for grins, the CEOs of Detroit’s rapidly downsizing Big Three should ask the 18 smartest guys and gals in the room why they prefer Japanese, German, Swedish, and, God preserve us, French cars to American ones.
The answers, of course, have been known for 30 years — quality, reliability, performance, fuel economy, safety, overall value — but, who knows, maybe this is a teaching moment.
Then again, maybe it isn’t.
Churchill (Winston, not Ward) once said Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing — after they have tried everything else. But the Detroit Three are the exception. They keep doing everything else over and over again. That’s why they have to be bailed out by millions of taxpayers who drive Toyotas, Hondas and Audis, and who, believe it or not, resent it.
And that’s why Obama should expand his task force beyond its initial 10 members by adding the following five people to represent their interests:
Amory Lovins. Lovins, the Chairman and Chief Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Aspen, is the high priest of energy conservation in America. In recent years he’s devoted a lot of attention to designing super-efficient automobiles. He should be on the task force to speak for efficiency, an area in which Detroit’s failures have cost it millions of customers and cost the American people hundreds of billions of dollars.
Richard Petty. Probably the greatest living NASCAR driver, he should be on the task force to speak for performance. Petty’s role would be to keep reminding everyone on the task force that performance sells cars, and GM, Chrysler and Ford aren’t going to survive with short performance in their products, no matter how fuel efficient or safe they might be.
Tom and Ray Magliozzi. The hosts of NPR’s Car Talk program, they should be on the task force to speak for reliability and reparability, two areas in which the domestic car companies are chronically behind the curve. If the taxpayers are going to pour $40 billion down Detroit’s rabbit hole, what comes out the other end better not be a lemon. The Magliozzi Brothers’ role should be to minimize that prospect.
And the Brothers Magliozzi should be there to mercilessly ridicule the Big Three for their past business and design mistakes and to remind them of what their ex-customers think of them. That might provide the country’s most obdurate companies with a few moments of clarity, and it would be great for the morale of the taxpayers.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb’s claim to fame is that he wrote a book titled The Black Swan, which dealt with how people and institutions respond (or fail to respond) to the challenges posed by totally unexpected events. Taleb’s name isn’t exactly a household word, but he might bring the most important perspective of all to the to the task forces’ work. That’s because Detroit’s single greatest failing is that it keeps getting sand-bagged by unexpected challenges, like spikes in gas prices or the appearance of German and Japanese imports or the eruption of concern over global warming — and by its own lead-footed response to them. Taleb’s role would be to insist that the industry develop the habits of responding swiftly and competently to the unexpected — and of seeing it both as a challenge and an opportunity.
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