Monday, December 1, 2008

Star Parker and GM or how she failed to learn from history

I've written about the christianist rightwinger, Star Parker, before. She's a "syndicated columnist" who holds sway at the christianist rightwing "news" outfit, When I've taken sufficient Pepto-Bismol, I will sometimes read what she writes. But it's hard, like nails on a chalkboard. She lives in a fantasy world that has little or nothing to do with reality.

For example, in one recent column, titled "We fail to learn from history," Parker tells us that the reason the markets are flailing about and the auto companies are going down is because of ... are you ready? ... "Government control. Central planning. And Godlessness."

Yes, and those are precisely the things that define communism and socialism! And those are the twin diseases from which we suffer. And Americans must "wake up and realize that this election was not a cure for our problems but a symptom of the disease."

Consider, says Star, the auto industry. GM in particular. "In 1970," she says, "GM had 50 percent of the U.S. auto market. Today it has 20 percent." And then she asks, "What happened?"

Well, in 1973 the world "changed." OPEC "discovered its power, and drove up energy prices." But that was only part of it. If only the government had left the car companies alone! But, no, wails Parker. " our high-profile auto industry that's not what happened. Our politicians, with cooperation from our auto industry executives, decided that the auto companies could not be left to their own resources to adjust to new realities.

"First we enacted import quotas on Japanese cards. Second, we enacted fuel standards to dictate to our car companies what kind of cars to make. And, of course, third, the power of the union was left intact." Of course.

"Now," wails Parker again, "look where we are. We have destroyed an industry that is the product of Americans not being able to compete, but of allowing itself to become dependent on government.

"This is why our auto companies have failed. This is why communist and socialist countries have failed."

Who is this "we" she keeps talking about, and why in god's name would the auto industry execs cooperate with the government to bring down their own industry?

Parker is very confused. First of all, as I've said many times, communism, like democracy, is a political system and socialism, like capitalism, is an economic system. In the United States, a democracy, we have had a mixed capitalist/socialist economic system for most of our existence. And it's worked fairly well. The problems we've faced historically and the problems we face currently have not ensued from our "socialism," but from unbridled capitalism which operates on the basis of self-centeredness and greed.

When it comes to the auto industry and specifically General Motors, Star Parker is not only confused, but she's deep in the woods where darkness prevails.

In the latest issue of Fortune magazine, Alex Taylor III describes in detail what went wrong at GM. And he should know, as he's been a business journalist for the past 32 years with a special interest in General Motors.

Taylor, in an article titled "GM And Me," summarizes GM's problems this way:

Although GM executives have been "smart, sincere, diligent -- modern-day Eagle Scouts," they also "became comfortable, insular, self-referential, and too wedded to the status quo ... They prefer stability over conflict, continuity over disorder, and GM's way over anybody else's. They believe that hard work will overcome adversity, and that tomorrow will be better than today--despite four decades of evidence to the contrary.

"In many ways the story of General Motors since the 1960s is a tale of accelerating irrelevance. Customer preferences changed, competition tightened, technology made big leaps, and GM was always driving a lap behind. ...

"Ask Rick Wagoner [GM's CEO] why GM isn't more like Toyota, and he'd tell you, 'We're playing our own game--taking advantage of our own unique heritage and strengths.' Turns out GM should have forgotten that and become more like Toyota. Toyota's market cap is now $103.6 billion; GM's is $1.8 billion."

Taylor gets specific. In 1999, GM revealed the Pontiac Axtec, calling it a "lifestyle support vehicle" and the "most versatile vehicle on the planet." What they didn't say is that it was arguably the ugliest vehicle on the planet. GM had failed to do the most fundamental thing required of a car company: create a vehicle that people wanted to buy.

Then, in September of 2006, GM unveiled a fuel-cell car called the Sequel. It was a "game-changer" said the GM honchos. Four months later, the Sequel was history and GM was touting the electric Chevy Volt, which the honchos also called a "game-changer."

This kind of futility is not new. By 1980, GM was still growing, but chinks were appearing in its armor. "The company seemed to forget how to execute," says Taylor. "It started to downsize its model line after the 1973 oil embargo and change over to front-wheel drive, but it encountered all kinds of engineering problems." The Chevy Vega overheated which warped the cylinders in its aluminum engine block. GM's diesel engines couldn't handle the temperatures needed to burn diesel fuel. Because of a shortage of V8 engines, GM installed Chevy engines in Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles and Buicks. In 1981, customers rebelled when they discovered that the Cadillac Cimarron was essentially a Chevy Citation with a Cadillac crest.

Roger Smith came on board as CEO in the 1980s and had a basket full of ideas. He's the one who came up with the Saturn plan - "a revolutionary way of making and selling cars." It wasn't all that revolutionary, of course, and eventually bombed. "Smith spent billions to automate GM's factories with robots. Usually robots permit a car company to produce several different models in a factory. But GM, wanting to keep things simple, configured its plants to produce just one or two models--and ended up with a system that was no more efficient than the old one."

Taylor has much more to say, but one thing stands out, Ms. Parker notwithstanding: GM's problems had nothing to do with government interference or with GM becoming dependent on the government! GM has gone downhill all by itself!

Perhaps Parker could get a job writing for Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage, neither of which are encumbered by morality or truth.

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