Things are tough all over

Sam Fox has a Long Island auto dealership which sells Cadillacs, Saabs and Hummers. Let me rephrase that – those are the brands his dealership is authorized to sell. He’s not selling many vehicles these days. You don’t have to try to imagine his frustration because he has let it be known. Mr. Fox has written an op-ed which appears in today’s edition of the New York Post.

His outrage is over the manner in which the media has covered Detroit’s current problems. Mr Fox makes some good points. The press is always saying that the problem is that people don’t want to buy the cars that American automakers produce. The truth is that many do. As the dealer points out, General Motors has sold one-fourth of the cars American consumers have purchased over the past several years. Add Ford and Chrysler to the mix, and Detroit accounts for almost half of the new cars sold domestically. While that mix is way down from where it once was (GM used to have a 65% share of the American car market), a lot of Americans still like the American automotive product, even if its final assembly point is somewhere in Canada or Mexico.

That should be no surprise. Some of the models the Big 3 are making are the best cars they have ever built. As Mr. Fox says, The Cadillac CTS is a world-class luxury sport sedan. Ford’s Fusion is a match for the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, and it has better handling than either. The top performing vehicles in recent crash tests were not the products of Mercedes Benz or Toyota, but those of Ford and Volvo (which is owned by Ford). The Big 3 has made great gains in the quality of the cars it builds.

Yet the media gushes over Toyotas and Hondas while they continue to perpetuate the myth that the Detroit product is an inferior one to those made by the Japanese, or made by Americans in American plants for Japanese companies. Mr. Fox singles out New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, “who referred to GM as terrorists for marketing a campaign that provided gas relief and praising ‘green’ Toyota.”

It is true that Toyota has a green reputation, largely media-driven as Fox argues, because of a single model – the Prius, which is a hybrid that gets very good fuel mileage and has low emissions. But Toyota, eager to cash in on the SUV craze which persisted in the U.S. market for several years before gasoline went to $4.00 a gallon, had several models with V8 engines which, like their American counterparts, were gas guzzlers. Acres and acres of lots and fields in towns across this country are now full of Tundras, Lexus trucks and Landcruisers. Nissan also wanted to get in on the action, and it has the same problem with its unsold Titan full-sized pickups and Armada SUVs.

One difference between Toyota and GM is that when the bottom fell out of the SUV and large truck market, it had several fuel-efficient small models it could rely on to keep traffic coming in to its dealerships. None of the models carried by Mr. Fox’s dealership are what consumers interested in a fuel mileage champ would consider even taking a look at, let alone a test drive in. And that just illustrates another Detroit problem. It has too many dealerships, and some of them are too specialized in the models that they offer. I doubt many Hummers are moving off of the Fox lot these days, Saab has always been a low-volume product, and Cadillac is a brand that many consumers simply cannot afford. If Mr. Fox were also a Chevrolet dealer, he would at least have a few models to offer customers looking for smaller and less expensive vehicles. The scarcity of very fuel-efficient small cars in the model lineups offered by the Big 3 is not entirely Detroit’s fault. Ford, for example, has a model which travels 65 miles on a gallon, but it’s for Europe, not America. High U.S. taxes on diesel fuel, currency exchange rates and government emission regulations (especially in California) are keeping the efficient little car from our shores. Yes, Reagan was right. Government is the problem, not the solution. Big 3 bailout advocates please take notes.

Mr. Fox admits that GM has made it’s mistakes, but he thinks its unfair for the media to act as a PR firm for Toyota. I can understand his anger. As a political animal and a conservative, I’m angry that the media acted as an Obama PR firm during the recent presidential campaign. And it does so in the same hypocritical manner that it shills for Toyota. The media is not anti-GM, Mr. Fox, it is pro-UAW. And this hypocrisy is evident in the fact that the workers in the southern states who build Toyotas, the same ones that Thomas Friedman loves so much, are making less than half the hourly wage of the workers who assemble GM cars in Michigan plants. Those automakers in the south don’t have to fork over the generous employee benefits that northern autoworkers enjoy, either. Yet the same reporters and columnists who drive their Toyota hybrids and rave about them in the press have long defended the UAW and the big paychecks their members have been taking home for decades. They don’t put their money where their opinions are, opting to buy models made in the southern states or overseas.

Mr. Fox finds his business trapped between a rock and a hard place, and he’s frustrated and angered by the unfairness of it all. It’s not fair. The national media rarely reports that sales for all automakers, even the sainted Toyota, have also fallen off. But if the Fox dealership had added an additional line, perhaps Hundai or Kia, it would be selling at least some cars. That’s the personal responsibility angle of it. Republicans are also frustrated and angered by the unfairness of the way the media reported the campaigns. Perhaps if the Republicans in Washington D.C. had acted more responsibly, especially with the taxpayers’ money, the GOP “brand” would have a better reputation. Money is the gasoline of government, and perhaps if John McCain had been more fuel-efficient and opposed the big financial bailout, he would have done better. Perhaps if a solid conservative candidate had been at the top of the ticket, many of the millions of Republicans who stayed home during the recent election would have found some motivation to get out and vote. Perhaps more Senate Republicans are now beginning to show the courage of the House RSC members who opposed the financial bailout.

We cannot change that which is in the past. We can only take steps to avoid repeating those mistakes in the future. Conservative Republicans are arguing for more differentiation. The GOP cannot sell itself to voters unless its ideas are not only distinctly different from those of its major competitor, the Democrat Party, but also superior to it. Fiscal conservatives and social conservatives will have to work together to make that happen – a merger of sorts. Think of the various GOP factions as the Baby Bells, divisions of a giant telephone company which became individual companies and are now re-merging. Perhaps Mr. Fox can bargain with the owner of, say, a Hyundai dealership and effect a merger which will be beneficial to both partners. The Hyundai dealer will get a brand of luxury cars which it did not have to offer, and Mr. Fox will have something to offer the value-conscious consumer.

Things are tough all over, Mr. Fox, but I wish you well. I lost my job last summer and have been forced to take early retirement. Now my expenses greatly exceed my revenues. I’m cutting costs and looking for ways to increase revenues, but if something doesn’t change very soon, I’m SOL, as those who use the word “text” as a verb say. It isn’t fair, but we have to do what we can to rise above the obstacles that we face. Some of them are of our own doing, and some are not our fault. We have to deal with both. My prayer is a familiar one – God give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

– JP