Other Editorials

Blame Game

Dan Howes
Friday, October 27, 2006

From Detroit News

Usual suspects may not be to blame for Detroit's auto ills

Good thing this town has the Tigers to cheer, because the hometown auto industry really is broken.

General Motors Corp. pops its third quarter numbers this week and calls them a success, despite a $3.8 billion cash burn, lower year-over-year U.S. market share and continuing losses in its auto business. With success like that, failure must be what -- last year?

Chrysler, reputedly the first to emerge from the trough a few years back, is back in it. Yet another whopping loss -- nearly $1.5 billion -- presages more Sturm und Drangin Auburn Hills. And Ford Motor Co.'s numbers, its worst in 14 years, are too depressing to even contemplate.

Which gives rise to a favorite question 'round here: Whose fault is it?

The 'enemy' is us

In the pantheon of blame, there are the usual suspects -- Toyota, other Asian rivals, NAFTA, high gas prices, dumb product decisions, gas-guzzling SUVs, currency manipulation, rich union contracts, fat executive bonuses, the Bush administration and, my personal favorite, American consumers.

You'll notice none of the would-be enemies, to paraphrase Pogo, is us. But recognizing that it might be, that the expectations of comfortable middle-class culture forged by industrial America are blocking change, would be a major step toward retooling for the 21st-century global world.

A new study by the Brookings Institution proposing strategies for reviving the "Great Lakes region" describes our prevailing culture as "plainspoken, hardworking, egalitarian and problem-solving" at its best. At its worst, it's "anti-intellectual, nativist and insular."

Sound familiar?

"A culture of expectation and entitlement grew around the economic success of its companies and the prosperous middle-class life they afforded," the study says.

'Things as they were'

"Unfortunately, the sense that this relative prosperity would always endure stifled the entrepreneurialism and economic churn that built the region. What was once a dynamic economy is now change-averse, weighed down by sticky attitudes of entitlement and hopes that 'things would stay as they were.'"

Nothing's wrong with such nostalgia, except that it a) doubles as denial and b) fails to recognize the world is changing much faster than the comfortable culture.

The chronic inability of Detroit's automakers to honestly assess where they stand in their own country is as much about an ingrained culture of comfort-cum-arrogance as it is about building the right cars and trucks for the right times.

The American exceptionalism that defined Detroit's golden era, the notion that this town and its industry are special, is being abandoned by broad swaths of America -- coastal consumers, politicians, opinion makers, even neighboring states like Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia who've eagerly wooed foreign automotive investment.

The overpowering temptation is to blame all of them. But if those in the middle of all this -- management, unions, employees, politicians -- can't fix their own problems, why should anyone else?

Daniel Howes' column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at (313) 222-2106, dchowes@detnews.com or his blog at http://info.detnews.com/danielhowesblog.