06 January 2009


The other day I was struck by an article in the N. Y. Times by William Kristol about the Congressional "bailout" debate for the auto industry. The political grand standers had previously united and fell over themselves pandering to financial executives especially to hedge-fund execs, where the serious unregulated money is now made. Later on the same politicians publicly flogged auto executives and workers. I could only shake my head in sadness for those executives over this political whipping post theatre.

In our collective economic symbiosis the financial and auto business cultures and their political enablers have pandered to the worst material instincts of American consumers: homes and cars. I have long believed the auto industry was in a legalized loan-sharking business. Even some imagery in the adjacent 50's ad show melded dreams of car and home. Sadly both industries are vital to American economic health. But I digress.

William Kristol describes the political welcome the auto executives received in Congress.
Today, G.M., Ford, and Chrysler get no respect. Maybe they don't deserve much. Detroit has many sins to answer for, and it’s been doing plenty of answering. But — and I say this as someone who grew up in non-car-driving family in New York and who is the furthest thing from an auto aficionado — there is a kind of undeserved disdain, even casual contempt, that seems to characterize the attitude of the political and media elites toward the American auto industry.
Kristol goes on to quote Washington Post columnist Warren Brown. Brown writes about cars and the auto industry's culture. Brown is eloquent in defense of the good now produced by Detroit. He says the reluctance of Washington politicians to assist Detroit reeks of class-bias.
There is a feeling in this country -- apparent in the often condescending, dismissive way Detroit's automobile companies have been treated on Capitol Hill -- that people who work with their hands and the companies that employ them are inferior to those who work with their minds and plow profit from information. How else to explain the clearly disparate treatment given to companies such as Citigroup and General Motors?
OK the class-bias cat is out of the bag again. 

I know my parents were products and perpeptuaters of our American culture of class bias. It's tightly woven into the fabric of American aspirational culture.
"If you don't get better grades I'll send you to trade school!"
My Father bullied me when I was in junior high. He bore in on me, got in my face, thrust out his jaw, bared his lower teeth, threw off tiny bubbles of spittle. He was just beside himself, and about scared the pee out of me.

I didn't like schoolwork. I avoided it and made low grades. My parents were horrified, said I was lazy; well maybe. Yet I consistently got "98's" in "industrial arts." I liked the machines. I liked making things with them. I liked feeling my senses, the smell and feel of metal or wood, the sounds, the harnessed power. I liked using my hands with them. I could see what I was creating. It was like SenSuRound to me. Even better, I got awards for what I made. Alas we could not grasp what this "98" was telling us. The grades and awards was not perceived as natural aptitude. It didn't have practical value. It was a weapon for shame. Hmmm.

Of course self aspiration was exactly what my Father was uttering. His first and second generation Irish-American relatives were iron workers who worked the rail yards. His father trumpeted the value of the academic education as the vehicle for social and economic advance. My Father, and later his younger brother, were the first in their extended family to achieve scholastic success. I never saw my Father or my Uncle do a lick of labor. They would've been like blisters, showing up when the work was done. My Father's hobby was reading boarding school catalogues. He had a library of them. My family would visit campuses on family vacations. Just imagine, 

What did you do on your vacation?
We visited St. Georges School in Newport, Rhode Island!

Go figure; summer 1965 I went to summer school there for 8 weeks. Good grades in school, for admission to boarding schools, was the parental goal for the Collins children. My good grades in "industrial arts" was the shit hitting my parents' dream fan.

My older sister Tara attended Emma Willard School for Girls. My older brother Tom and I attended Western Reserve Academy. WRA was a college preparatory school for boys. At WRA an "industrial arts" course was required in the freshman year. Just two years later, as part of an academic restructuring, this "course" was dropped from the body of knowledge with which the school prepared boys for college.

My wife and I drive used Volvos purchased from a man we know and trust and serviced by a woman we know and trust. They specialize in used Volvos. I wouldn't dream of buying a new car today. And the idea of a new $40,000 Chevrolet Volt is ludicrous.

If my parents hadn't had their aspirations and dreams who knows what would have happened . I think it's more likely I wouldn't be writing this blog.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if Kristol is misunderstanding his read on the negativity towards the auto industry - or perhaps its a "generational lens" thing. My sense is that among my peers, the "Big 3" earn little respect due to the fact they've built less than compelling cars for the better part of our lives, and more importantly have severely lapsed building product that reflects their brand values, and thus have tarnished exactly what America's previous generation associated with these classic American marks. You yourself have a loyalty to Volvos... of old, mind you. Not the Volvos built today by Ford, but the Volvos that held more true to the boxy, safe, old-shoe qualities that Volvo is cherished for.

    My preference is that we let American auto workers continue to build cars in America. Whether they do this for American car companies to me is irrelevant. Honda, Toyota, BMW, Hyundai are creating thousands of non-union auto-jobs and with marketshare increases, will no doubt need more labor to propel their growth.

    I think a shakeout of the auto industry is in order. In fact, it is mostly white collar auto jobs that have underperformed in my mind. It's the marketing and strategy guys who set the product plans and negotiate the labor deals that have hampered the Big 3. Cost disadvantages and excess inventories have been their damnation. Shake some of the dead weight of these corporate warriors out, foster a flight to quality and take a cold hard look at what brands are sustainable, and desired, and you will have a renewed, leaner, meaner US car industry. What remain will be more secure, more likely to grow again. And though they will be on smaller footing, the blue collar army can hopefully find jobs at the Asian and European global car brands that are more and more becoming part of the landscape of our American heartland.

    Disruption is more the name of the game. Class preference I think is a characterization of a generation that perhaps has hypersensitivities to the matter. Unfortunately, I am afraid that respecting these sensitivities has contributed to the approval of the bailout... and this is unfortunate because I think it's a disservice to the economic forces and the invisible hand at work.