Thursday, December 04, 2008

Saturn Orbits the Drain

What can you say about the state of the American automotive industry other than it being a gargantuan exercise in denial? As far back as the 1970's, when the arab oil embargo ignited the country's interest in fuel efficiency, American car manufacturers have done everything they can to ignore reality, preferring instead to play golf while their markets deteriorated.

Now, sadly, body parts of all three car makers lie strewn about the economy. Oldsmobile is gone. Plymouth is poof. And all of American Motors brands, save Jeep, were buried long ago. Apparently, the next major brand with its head on the block is Saturn, which is too bad, because General Motors had long been touting it as "a different kind of car...a different kind of car company."

As it turns out, Saturn was anything but a different kind of anything, subject to the same kinds of denial and bloat that are bringing the Not So Big Three down to their knees. And that's really too bad, considering that Saturn could have been -- should have been -- the hallmark of a new era for GM. The country had been waiting for a new kind of American car since 1973 -- longer than most of you reading this have been alive. Even at that time, the Japanese knew what was up. Prior to 1973, Datsun (now Nissan), Toyota, Mazda, Subaru and others were barely a blip on the automotive radar.

Now, they own the radar.

I might add that the Japanese didn't succeed primarily because they made better machines. Look back and you'll find plenty of Mazdas that averaged 10 miles per gallon and Toyotas whose transmissions dropped out. No, the real reason why Japan succeeded is that American automobiles failed, becoming progressively worse in quality and responsiveness to the public's wants and needs.

In other words, more whistling past the junkyard.

Saturn was supposed to change all that. But it didn't, mainly because GM treated its "new" concept with its "business as usual" attitude. In case you're wondering how such highly paid incompetents could mismanage billions of dollars over decades, you have to look long and hard at the one thing they don't like to look at: reality.

The reality of the situation is that the chief executives of these companies are no smarter than you or me. In fact, they're not terribly bright at all. Oh, they look smart in their expensive suits and such. But believe me, there's not a lot of horsepower in those engines. Secluded in their old white boy networks, they reinforce each others' psychoses, assuring each other that there simply has to be more fat in the land on which they can live. Don't believe me? Then ask yourself how anyone in his right mind could hire Robert Nardelli as CEO of Chrysler.

Nardelli, as I've written here previously, is the clown prince of mismanagement, gaining just about all of his employment through the old boy favor network. Never one to leave a company better than he found it, it was Nardelli who nearly drove a once hugely-profitable Home Depot into the ground -- and then left with a $210 million severance package.

Just how dumb are these managers? Well, the firm that privatized Chrylser (itself a dubious decision) brought Nardelli aboard to "turn Chrysler around." Amazing. That's like hiring Osama bin Laden to conduct Yom Kippur services. Chrysler got what it paid for, though. And there's Nardelli, sitting in a crater across from Congressional bean counters, begging for money.

So Saturn, the brand that should have -- and could have -- gotten the American auto market back on the road, will likely get its plug pulled, while the guys whose plugs should have been pulled will live to see another day. Probably at another American company who can't get enough of that good old American Old Boy Ineptitude.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Recession Ends -- or Maybe Not

As America leads the way into the economic dumper, a host of whiners continue to cry out into the night, bemoaning the fact that things just aren't what they used to be. No, things definitely are not what they used to be -- and for good reason. Old white men, as we have seen, no longer enjoy a stranglehold on positions of status and leadership. The game's open to just about everyone now and while that may upset traditionalists, those same traditionalists just have to accept that if old, white men were still capable of genuine leadership, the 44th president of the United States would be John McCain.

In much the same vein, I hear lots of folks complaining about the demise of the newspaper as a media source of information. "The internet has taken over!" they wail, as publications like The Los Angeles Times continue to wither away on newsstands. Once great and proud, the Times barely resembles its former self. Thin, gaunt, with fewer pages and even fewer real news stories, the Times increasingly reminds one of a sickly patient who refuses to eat regardless of how much food is placed in front of him.

The Los Angeles Times, and papers like it, are in fact dying. And for good reason: It's not the internet at all. They simply suck at delivering the news.

The stewards of the Times, much like the drunken captain of the Exxon Valdiz have been so depressed, so unfocused and so reckless in their management of the Times that they've actually forgotten what a newspaper is supposed to do: Deliver independent perspective and impartial reporting of news events. Instead, like so many other devolved institutions, the Times no longer reports as much as it regurgitates information.

And most of its expectorant isn't news at all, as evidenced by the headline dated December 2, 2008:

"Recession Could Last Until 2010." How's that for a non-news story? Look closely and you'll find absolutely nothing factual -- or even close to factual -- in that headline. The recession could last until 2010? Okay, does that mean the recession might not last until 2010? Or that it could end next Tuesday, say about two thirty-ish?

I supposed I could accept this kind of inanity if it were produced by sixth grade elementary students, except for the fact that even sixth grade elementary students have the same resources from which they draw their news as does the Times: the internet. The Times has lost focus on its own brand; what it once was and no longer can sustain. It's a classic example of Caretaker Management Syndrome, where the descendants of the founder know only his fortune without ever knowing how he created it.

That's the reason why newspapers across the land are failing, by the way. It's a branding thing. We all still expect the curmudgeonly, sardonic, skeptical newspaperman to tilt his hat back on his head and clack out his scoop with a cigarette dangling from his lip. We want to believe he's out there, fighting for the common man, driven to expose the truth to a freedom-loving society.

Well, that was then. This is now. And these days, all you get for your home delivery is rehashed, groundless speculations that serve no purpose other than to sensationalize rumors and panic the public. And even then, they never do their own digging or support their stories with hard, cold facts. Everything is hedged, either for fear of attracting a too-hungry lawyer or in-house accountant.

No wonder so many people have stopped subscribing. If they can get the same garbage over cable television or the internet, they can get it all for free, in vibrant living color -- and if they're really lucky, from a really stacked blonde in a tight angora sweater.