The congressional committee opened its hearings with this question: Who killed the American auto industry? A long line
of people waited to answer.
"I did," said the consumer who continued to buy from the Big Three, "by accepting an inferior product out of loyalty to the flag, by assuming that poor quality was the best I could expect, and by feeling no personal responsibility for environmental pollution."
"I did," said the consumer who bought foreign-made cars, "by assuming the Big Three would get the signals of my dissatisfaction sent through the market."
"I did," said the top-level auto executive. "My perks, my power, my prestige were far more important than my product. I had my vision blurred by the smog I created. I listened to those investors who demanded high rates of return every quarter. I did not focus on basic business practices nor accept my social responsibility."
"It was I," said the mid-level executive, "by currying favor and seeking higher status rather than being an effective communicator between top management and our many departments."
Who killed the American auto industry?
"We did," said the Big Three's marketing departments, "believing that we lived in a world of our own, untouchable by competition from abroad, afraid to differentiate ourselves from one another."
"No, we did," said the automotive engineers, "by focusing our imaginations on the trivial rather than the essentials of the product, by allowing our professional pride to be compromised by corporate timidity, incompetence and greed."
"I did," said the manager in the plant, "by letting myself become the adversary of the workers, by carrying infectious false confidence up the line to higher management and down the line to labor."
"I did," said the union worker on the line, "by allowing myself to become an adversary of the company, by demanding high wages for low-quality efforts, and by assuming indolence and insolence were my rights."
"Don't forget me," said the auto dealer, "living by sales quotas and incentives, allowing myself to become a caricature, a cartoon of commercial self-interest."
"I helped," said the supplier to the manufacturing giants, "by allowing myself to be flattered and then bullied by the Big Three, by failing to diversify my product and my customer base."
"We did," said the mayors of towns small and large, "by yielding to their pressure for tax relief and land-use domination."
"We were right with you," said the housing industry, "building a nation for the automobile despite its economic and environmental consequences."
"Oh, we did, too," cried the governors of many states, "by giving highways preference over railways as we submitted to the blandishments of the auto, petroleum and construction lobbies."
"We played a major role," asserted members of Congress, "with our generous local road projects that established national dependence on cars and gasoline. Particularly, recall how we let the industry delay improved safety and environmental standards and thus lose its technological edge."
"We did," sighed the elderly couple. "We bought their stock because we worked for them, but we weren't active stockholders. We put our money into their bonds, saying, 'What could be safer than the promissory notes of an American auto company?' We trusted them and didn't make an effort to be informed."
"Indeed," said the mutual fund and pension managers, "we propped up their stock prices because these firms enjoyed great public confidence. Our failure to pressure them for better long-term performance was consistent with our own short-term interests."
As each person or group gave testimony, it was replaced in line by another with a different story. Finally, the committee decided there were too many answers for its simple question and adjourned to the nearest oyster bar.
Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU's Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com.