DID YOU KNOW...?...

DID YOU KNOW...? General Motors chairman Rick Wagoner has an op-ed in today's Los Angeles Times making the case that GM matters, not just as a car company or employer, but as a protector of Americana and a canary in the globalizational coal mine. It's a strange piece of work, most of all because it highlights GM's problems without offering anything beyond vague promises that said problems are being addressed. It doesn't suggest anything Americans should do to protect this storied firm, nor does it lay the blame anywhere in particular. One wonders why Wagoner wrote it.

Midway through the op-ed, Wagoner writes that "the most frustrating challenge facing all of us at GM is changing the misperception that our cars and trucks don't measure up to some foreign makes. The fact is, every major automaker makes good vehicles today. On a model-by-model comparison, different companies will be slightly ahead in different segments, but overall, GM cars and trucks rank among the best in terms of quality and value for the dollar." Quite a rousing endorsement -- various car companies are good at various things, and many are better than we are at particular things, but taken in aggregate, we're "among" the best! (And how many companies are allowed to be in "among"? And how wide is the margin for "the best?")

The problem is that GM is among the best in dying model classes. No one doubts the American automaker's ability to spit out a thickly muscled sports car, or a brutishly powerful truck. But when the question turns to economy cars, family sedans, and hybrid technologies -- all the classes that'll be crucial as cheap oil vacates the premises -- GM is far behind its Japanese competitors.

Worse yet is their branding. I was at the Improv the other night and the comedian, a midwestern-looking Gen X'er, went on a rip about GM. "Did you know," he asked, "that the Japanese have no word for tow truck? [switching to a Japanese accent] 'You put key in, car start. Why tow truck?'" Big laugh. "Stupidly, I told that joke in Detroit," admitted the comic. "They hung me from a tree by a fan belt. Which then broke. Thanks for using GM parts, guys!"

When you're a laughline at the Improv, it doesn't matter if you're a storied participant in the American economy. You need to change, and radically so.

--Ezra Klein

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