11/1/2009 | 4 MINUTE READ

Who's Next?

Will we get fooled again by Detroit?
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Will we get fooled again by Detroit?


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I recently picked up a CD, The Ultimate Collection by The Who. I found it amusing that it was covered with stickers, indicating, for example, that the music found on the discs is used for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and for a Nissan commercial ("Bargain," in case you missed it and are wondering). I am of an age where I still think that the music is important, but that's something for another day, or another venue.

So I'm driving to work on a Monday morning, thinking about some of the political punditry that I'd listened to the previous morning on the TV talk shows. Much of the discussion had to do with the economy which at present (early October) is showing signs of recovery (e.g., the stock market is improved markedly), yet the jobless rate continues to rise. While the auto industry is something that prior to, say, last December, was never a topic of conversation on those shows, ever since the two former and one still-current chairman of the Big Three appeared on Capitol Hill, it pops up with some frequency. Now the people in Washington and New York know that there is an automobile industry in the U.S. Given the so-called "bailouts" of two of the companies—a comparative drop in the bucket vis-á-vis the monies spent to deal with the banking industry, to say nothing of the billions being spent in the Middle East—there is an underlying rancor, and not just among a few senators who have non-indigenous factories in their states. And as the September sales numbers had come in a few days earlier indicating that there was a 41% fall-off in deliveries for that month compared with August, when Cash for Clunkers was in full swing, that, too, was a reason for more than raising an eyebrow by the pundits, as they questioned not merely the Administration, but, in effect, the viability of at least Two of the Three. And during commercial breaks, there it was, the commercial starring Ed Whitacre, chairman of the board of GM, admitting that he had been skeptical about taking the job, but now that he's seen what GM has—and there is a tracking shot of Whitacre, walking through a studio bustling with young, cool designers who are working on vehicles and—gasp!—using computers, like this is something right out of the Future, and all that's missing is a backing soundtrack of Donald Fagen's (he of Steely Dan) "I.G.Y.": "Standing tough under stars and stripes/We can tell/This dream's in sight/You've got to admit it/At this point in time that it's clear/The future looks bright"—he's sold.

So I'm thinking about all that, when "We Won't Get Fooled Again" comes on. It is a song that I've heard countless times since buying the album in '71. But what struck me was that while the title of the song is definitive: "We won't get fooled again," the actual lyric is actually unclear: "And I'll get on my knees and pray/We don't get fooled again." No sure thing.

At this point you may be wondering whether I had too much or too little coffee this Monday morning. But here's where I am going with this. During the past couple of months, I've had the chance to talk with a number of people at GM at various levels of the organization, from the executives to engineers. And all of them seem to be reciting from the same hymnal, with the tune that goes: "We understand, we get it, we're going fast, and we're making great products." And, yes, there are certainly improved products rolling out. But then I thought about how during the many years that I've been covering GM there have been all manner of initiatives, ranging from paper weights on executive's desks with an array of arrows all in alignment (the "one team, going in the same direction") to the "29" lapel pins indicating the market share they were shooting for. (According to Autodata, their market share through September this year is 19.7%). I thought about president and CEO Fritz Henderson, who has been with the company since 1984, and Bob Lutz, who has been there since 2001, and it is worth noting he started his auto career there, starting in 1963, staying until '71.

And then I heard the lyric: "Change it had to come/We knew it all along/We were liberated from the fall that's all/But the world looks just the same/And history ain't changed/'Cause the banners, they all flown in the last war."

And I wondered: will there be change, change that will prove the pundits wrong, change that will mean that the U.S. auto industry is the world-class competitor that it ought to be, change that means that people will have good jobs in the U.S., change from the status quo and insular thinking that has been characteristic of Detroit for too long? Or will it be "the world looks just the same. . .'Cause the banners, they all flown in the last war"?

Hand holding a crystal ball

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