by Richard T. Stuebi

as published to Huffington Post

Lately, I’ve been listening a lot on my iPod to a number of pop songs from the late 1960’s: “Wichita Lineman”, “Love Is Blue”, “Everybody’s Talkin’”, “To Sir With Love”, “Classical Gas” and so on. These are some of the AM radio songs of my youth, sitting in the back seat of the car while watching the scenery go by.

My parents’ cars were always big and always American – Detroit steel. Although we did own a few Ford cars, my dad generally favored General Motors products: typically Chevy Impalas in my earliest memories, escalating to Cadillacs by the end of his too-short life.

In addition to the music from forty years ago, I remember most of those long-ago cars very well. For some reason, circa 1968, I vividly recall the first time I saw a seat belt, whose buckle was ornamented with the blue rectagonal GM logo, and its motto “Mark of Excellence”.

At the time, partly because of my dad’s loyalty to their cars (how could he be wrong?), I assumed that GM indeed did make superior automobiles. But as the 1960’s gave way to the 1970’s, as I grew from child to adolescence, it became clear to me that Detroit autos – and GM cars in particular – were generally of very poor quality and design.

During that lamentable decade (remember leisure suits, everyone?), between the cars my family owned and the cars we rented on trips, we experienced innumerable lemons during the 1970’s. These cars sometimes didn’t start, they would often sputter and stall, their bodies would rust through, trim pieces would be mismatched or fall off, and electronics wouldn’t work. My brother’s 1971 Chevy Vega was particularly laughable: it died an early death after but a couple of years and maybe 30,000 miles – the cylinder head blowing up one morning when he tried to start the engine.

As a senior in high school in 1979, my parents gifted me with a rust-colored 1975 Toyota Corolla with 75,000 miles on it (a lot of miles for a car in those days). It was butt ugly, and had no carpeting. It couldn’t outrun a tortoise off the line, nor outcorner a garbage truck. It was by no means a chick-magnet (or perhaps that was my problem?).

But, that car didn’t pretend to be anything it wasn’t. It had no stupid gimmicks or features. It got pretty good gas mileage (~25 mpg), was cheap to keep running, and it was damned reliable – as hard as I tried to make it unreliable, with misguided attempts to do my own maintenance (why did I even think about rebuilding the carburetor?)

As utterly unexciting as even that old beater Toyota Corolla was, I much preferred driving it to my parents’ 1979 Cadillac Sedan DeVille, which had the most god-awful bordello velour bench seats and a hideous vinyl roof that started peeling off within months. That awful land yacht clinched it: I had come to intensely dislike GM products, and vowed never to own one. And, I never have, and probably never will. I even avoid renting cars from Avis and National, because their fleets are heavily populated by GM vehicles.

I speak of my personal experience, but I think it is the experience of a significant segment of my generation: we walked away — no, ran away — from Detroit, by our choice. And even though American cars have improved dramatically, imported cars seized the opportunity of the 1970’s and have consistently stolen market share for decades. The brands were broken; Detroit couldn’t win us back.

A radical rethink is happening now across the U.S. auto industry, pushed in large part by the Obama Administration’s policy proposals, but it seems to be all too late for GM. The day of reckoning is now at hand.

The talk today is of the imminent bankruptcy of GM, with outpourings of grief throughout the Midwest, as if the company were dying just now. But, in my view, the company became terminal long ago, when a whole chunk of the U.S. population turned away from American to imported cars. And, the autopsy offers interesting lessons for the future industrial economy of the U.S.

Management was at fault, for designing and offering lousy products in which style trumped substance, and for dragging their feet on advancements in safety and efficiency. Labor was at fault too, for setting unreasonable wage rates, benefits packages and work rules, and for being so inattentive to the quality of the product coming off the line.

It’s impossible to date exactly when both management and labor started travelling down the slippery slopes, and when the decline became irreversible. However, something tells me that the late 1960’s represents something of a turning point — when U.S. industrial hegemony was seemingly permanent, and big American beasts powered by thirsty V-8’s roamed the newly-opened highways across our seemingly endless landscapes.

And while it’s embarrassing to reflect on the outright arrogance of thinking and feeling as if we ruled the world, it’s nevertheless still seductive to remember those sepia-toned days. Today’s economic difficulties, and the possible death (and certain major restructuring) of GM, intensify the bittersweetness of those 1960’s tunes, as we look backward in the rearview mirror to naively happier – though patently unsustainable – days.

In life, I have learned to find more satisfaction when looking through the windshield, to the future. In moving forward – rebuilding the U.S. auto industry, and growing the cleantech and green energy industry at large – we need to bear in mind the sobering lessons of the demise of GM, so as not to plant the seeds of future collapse.

Management teams cannot consistently insult the intelligence of their customers by offering crappy products with poor value. Labor must also keep the customer in mind, by not demanding unreasonable agreements that inflate prices or by producing inferior products. Management and labor must work together in much better harmony – and the unifying theme must be technological leadership to produce customer satisfaction.

If we want to build a sustainable economy, it means we need both economic and environmental sustainability. We need sustainable businesses, producing environmentally sustainable products with an economically sustainable business model – and economic sustainability only comes when management and labor work together to serve the customer well by superior product innovation.

Interestingly, many of today’s behemoth energy corporations – electric utilities and oil companies – are in a situation similar to GM’s 40 years ago. With little competition from alternative supply sources, token efforts to portray their meager technological diversification as leadership, and sometimes haughty disdain for their customers, their brands are weak: customers can’t wait to leave once a compelling option is presented to them.

When that day comes, many of today’s gargantuan energy companies may follow the same fate as we’re seeing now with GM.

Will the U.S. public care then? Will Houston follow Detroit? Will today’s kids be yearning for the songs of “American Idol”?

Richard T. Stuebi is the Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc. Later in 2009, he will also become Managing Director of Early Stage Partners.

General Motors Bailout

Op-Ed by John Addison (11/17/08). On September 24, Congress approved a $25 billion bailout for GM, Ford, and Chrysler. “It seemed like a lot when we first started pushing this,” says Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, one of the bill’s sponsors. “Suddenly, it seems so small.” The three troubled automakers are already back in Washington D.C. asking for another $25 billion.

A couple of weeks ago, GM said that the future of our nation depended on it getting added billions so that it could buy Chrysler. GM has changed its mind. It just wants taxpayers to give the Detroit three another $25 billion. The problem is that the total of $50 billion is paid by taxpayers like you and me.

Congress would do well to have some national goals for the $50 billion, not goals set by auto lobbyists. Goals include America’s need to become competitive with the world if we hope to create more jobs and end this recession. Workers need help by either keeping their jobs or by getting new jobs. Americans need cars that cost less at the pump and better alternatives to always using a car. America needs to be energy secure, not desperately dependent on oil. To meet these goals, several alternatives are being considered:

  • Another $25 billion with no strings attached.
  • Let GM reorganize under Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
  • Boost consumer auto purchases with tax credits for buying vehicles with excellent fuel economy.
  • Invest the $25 billion in rail and transit.

When Chrysler got its 1980 loan guarantee, Lee Iacocca cut his annual salary to a dollar and slashed the wages of other top workers by 10 percent. The tax payers never paid a cent. It was a $1.5 billion loan guarantee.

This time around, Chrysler will be fine. Chrysler President Jim Press, when talking in September at a Western Automotive Journalist meeting, stated, “We need a new business model based on one word – Reality.” The new management team at Chrysler inherited a 4 million car per year overhead with sales falling to one million per year. Chrysler is privately owned by Cerberus Capital Management. Chrysler has been actively downsizing to be smaller, agile and profitable.

Ford is also moving to a business model that matches the name of its best selling car – Focus. In recently discussing its third quarter results, Ford stated that it remains on track to achieve $5 billion in cost reductions in North America by the end of 2008 compared with 2005. After a quarterly pre-tax loss of $2.7 billion, Ford had overall liquidity of $29.6 billion. The company promised shareholders further cost cuts and cash improvements.

In his November 17 Wall Street Journal article, Michael Levine discusses why Chapter 11 bankruptcy is the best option for GM. Chapter 11 would allow GM to be more competitive with Toyota, which now has now the world leader in market share. Over the years, GM has lost about two-thirds of its market share. Only with bankruptcy can GM be free of restrictions that prevent it from being competitive. It has 7,000 dealers compared to Toyota’s 1,500 successful dealers. GM has enormous pension and health care costs that add thousands to the cost of cars. The burden is so great, that GM needs SUVs to make money and sees no margin in fuel efficient cars. Yet, it is fuel efficient cars that customers are now buying. If GM reorganizes under bankruptcy, creditors will be forced to give it breathing room and paralyzing restrictions will be removed.

Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary, wrote on November 11, “When a big company that gets into trouble is more valuable living than dead, there used to be a well-established legal process for reorganizing it – called chapter 11 of the bankruptcy code. Under it, creditors took some losses, shareholders even bigger ones, some managers’ heads rolled. Companies cleaned up their books and got a fresh start. And taxpayers didn’t pay a penny. In exchange for government aid, the Big Three’s creditors, shareholders, and executives should be required to accept losses as large as they’d endure under chapter 11, and the UAW should agree to some across-the-board wage and benefit cuts.”

Al Gore, in his November 9 NY Times Op-Ed identifies a major opportunity, “We should help America’s automobile industry (not only the Big Three but the innovative new startup companies as well) to convert quickly to plug-in hybrids that can run on the renewable electricity that will be available as the rest of this plan matures. In combination with the unified grid, a nationwide fleet of plug-in hybrids would also help to solve the problem of electricity storage.”

Now law, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 gives tax credits exceeding $7,000 for the purchase of plug-in hybrids. President-elect Obama, when campaigning, favored expanded use of tax credits to speed the transition to a competitive auto industry that makes clean cars. Consumer vehicle spending could be boosted now by expanding the offering to include a $2,000 tax credit for vehicles getting over 35 miles per gallon and up to $10,000 for zero-emission vehicles. Auto industry sales would immediately jump without a $25 billion give away.

In the seventies, I left my job with a major Detroit corporation, Burroughs, then the second largest computer firm. At the time, all makers of mainframe computers were in trouble, including IBM. If the government had done a massive bailout and protected their businesses, the United States would not have transitioned into the global giant of information technology. Lacking a bailout, IBM reinvented themselves into a global leader in IT services with a deep new patent portfolio. Burroughs became Unisys. Honeywell redefined itself. GE exited the computer field. An industry thrived instead of died. The transition made the United States the global leader in the Internet and technology innovation, creating millions of jobs.

Big corporations resist change, yet change they must. To grow and be profitable, the United States transportation industry must be innovative and responsive to customers.

Car customers are voting with their pocketbooks. The average car owner spends $8,000 on their car. The average household with two cars spends $16,000. People are demanding fuel economy. They have stopped buying vehicles with lousy mileage. They want hybrids that deliver over 40 miles per gallon. There is a pent-up demand for millions of electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids.

Only a smaller innovative customer-oriented GM can create permanent jobs. Yes, a GM bankruptcy reorganization could lead to the short-term loss of over 100,000 jobs at GM, its suppliers, and some of its dealers. These laid-off workers, however, could be part of a million new workers. Federal government tax credits could be given to any company hiring laid-off auto workers. Community colleges could be funded in Michigan and other states to retrain workers for jobs of the future.

$25 billion invested in public transportation would create over one million new jobs in the United States. The America Public Transportation Association has learned that every $1 billion invested in public transit capital projects generates 30,000 jobs, and the same amount invested in transit operations generates 60,000 jobs.

U.S. citizens want better public transportation as ridership soars to 11 billion this year. This November, voters across the country in 16 states approved 23 measures out of 32 state and local public transit ballot initiatives, authorizing expenditures approximating $75 billion. Clean Fleet Report

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to move forward with a bill that would give the auto industry access to the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program set up by the government in October to help ailing banks and other financial firms.

As Ben Franklin observed, “Great haste makes great waste.”

Congress may release the total $50 billion by Thanksgiving. Such haste sends all taxpayers a message, “Enjoy this turkey. You can pay for it later with interest.”

John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report.