By on June 1, 2009

GM was a politburo building cars. GM died for the same reasons that the Soviet Union died: because it killed initiative and proved unable to manage its resources at a pace that matched competing economies. Just as the Soviet politburo promoted the party faithful, demanding adherence to the party line, GM management brooked no discontent, and would get rid of any dissenting voices, banishing them to the corporate equivalent of Siberia: away from RenCen. The Soviet Union destroyed itself because of its unwillingness to accept reality. Spending untold billions on a show military force, it starved all other facets of its economic life. The Soviet leadership also accepted incredible inefficiencies in its production apparatus and failed to exploit its vast reservoir of natural resources. Ditto GM.

Among car makers, GM at one time had the size of the Soviet Union among nations (Russia alone covers 13 time zones). And just as the Soviet Union proved too big to manage, once the frailties had been exposed, GM also proved unmanageable, having been set on a course of self-destruction years ago. The leadership was unwilling to turn away from its crash course; that would have meant accepting they were wrong. The Soviet Politburo was never wrong. GM leadership was never wrong.

These were self-evident truths and had to be accepted. Filling its organization with sycophants and nodding-heads, the GM leadership willfully remained oblivious to the changing world outside its walls. Occasionally, demonstrating the obduracy and carelessness of Soviet leaders, they would dismiss what other car makers were doing, often ridiculing initiatives that would later prove their own undoing.

Living in the false security that they could always slap around any dissenters in their own ranks, thus ensuring discipline, GM let “too big to fail” cloud its judgment. The adage “What’s good for GM is good for America” permeated the walls, and allowed the company to grow complacent and ignorant.

Case studies will be mining the GM example in years to come, just as scholars of politics and international relations are still trying to come to grips with the fall of the Soviet Union. It’s worth remembering that until just a few months before the Soviet Union fell apart, the CIA and other intelligence bodies around the world were convinced no such thing would or could happen. This was because they and the nations and militaries they served, were dependent upon a strong Soviet Union for their own reason for being.

Likewise, with GM, we have seen a skull-clanking failure to accept the truth not just inside GM, but in the surrounding world. Corporate ignorance results when companies operate with blindfolds. It results in organizations that are change averse, and that think strength lies in never questioning its few basic tenets of faith.

One could claim that the fall of the Soviet Union was the result of bad engineering and outdated technology. If the place had been better run, if it had been in the hands of forward-thinking people, who allowed initiative and rewarded successful solutions, then we might not have seen the dissolution of the Soviet communist empire.

While the Soviet politburo devolved to cant and polemic in the service of a failed ideology, the GM politburo resolved to make money by financing cars that were subpar. Both believed propaganda could make up for the flaws in their products. Towards the end, GM was channeling hundreds of millions for campaigns that sought to establish differences among car platforms that were obviously similar to any outside observer.

Both organizations failed to “walk the talk.” The Soviet leadership rewarded itself with an opulent lifestyle completely divorced from the realities of life for ordinary people. In the end, the dissonance became impossible to hide or defend. Special auto routes for the apparatchiki through major cities; special airports; secluded residential areas; segregated shops and resorts—all contributed towards telling the Soviet “nomenklatura” that things were just fine.

Similarly, operating out of RenCen, the GM apparatchiki had also locked itself in a bubble. Occasionally, pronouncements from the elders would reveal how out of touch they were. Rich people didn’t care about the price of gasoline; global warming was a crock of shit; and it was hell to be standing in line at the airport, waiting for a flight.

The last hand on the rudder at GM was that of an accountant, and his manifesto was a spreadsheet. As the bow of the leviathan they had constructed struck land, the members of the GM politburo looked up from the spreadsheet, cried out for the people to save them and then abandoned ship.

The individual republics of GM, the car brands, have been left to their own. Some will disappear, a few will reconstitute themselves. All should curse the politburo that destroyed them.

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27 Comments on “Editorial: General Motors Death Watch 258: Stein X. Leikanger’s “GM Politburo”...”


  • avatar
    dex3703

    Excellent analysis.

  • avatar

    GM has long acted as if it’s executives already knew all it needed to know, so no other viewpoints were needed.

    They did hire this and that outsider in the past decade. Girsky and the jouranlist from PM come to mind. I wonder if either felt they had an impact.

  • avatar
    Potemkin

    Excellent and oh so true. The only thing I have to add is that the world you describe at the Ren Centre extended to the shop floor. There you had people spending untold hours on non-value-added work. The emphasis was on form and not substance. It was more important to give the appearance of efficiency than to actually be efficient. Sad to say but without a wholesale firing of everyone but the clerks and secretarys at the Ren Centre there will never be real change at The General. Like the Russians have done many times the old guard needs to be removed.

  • avatar
    announcerguy

    “…promoted the party faithful, demanding adherence to the party line…”

    “…management…would get rid of any dissenting voices…”

    “…leadership rewarded itself with an opulent lifestyle completely divorced from the realities of life for ordinary people.

    …locked itself in a bubble. Occasionally, pronouncements from the elders would reveal how out of touch they were. Rich people didn’t care about the price of gasoline; global warming was a crock of shit…”

    I’m confused. Are we talking about modern-day GM, or the modern-day Republican party?

  • avatar
    windswords

    The Soviet Union was at it’s height and reputation in the late 50′s and early 60′s, just like GM. Co-incidence?

  • avatar
    tsofting

    @Stein:
    “If the place had been better run, if it had been in the hands of forward-thinking people, who allowed initiative and rewarded successful solutions, then we might not have seen the dissolution of the Soviet communist empire.”

    I beg to differ on this. Communism is inexorably linked to totalitarianism, and there isn’t one case where it has been combined with freedom for those unlucky enough to be stuck in that quagmire. So – the Soviet Union lasted as long as it could feed its citizens is a very basic way, and as long as it controlled every facet of a citizen’s life. But, it was doomed the day information started flowing, and its citizenry had satsified their most basic desire; food and shelter!

    Apart fram that, I find the analogy you are making very good and intriguing!

  • avatar
    windswords

    announcerguy,

    Please keep saying this, right thru 2010.

  • avatar
    Stein X Leikanger

    @tsofting

    We’re in agreement, and they’re three pretty big IFs that I’m postulating for a possible reversal of fortune for the SU.

    1. forward-thinking people
    2. who allowed initiative
    3. and rewarded successful solutions.

    What the SU and GM were stuck with were laggards who squelched initiative and stole credit.

  • avatar
    86er

    In Soviet Russia, car drives you!

  • avatar
    Ingvar

    “If the place had been better run, if it had been in the hands of forward-thinking people, who allowed initiative and rewarded successful solutions, then we might not have seen the dissolution of the Soviet communist empire.”

    The dissulotion of the Soviet Empire came as a consequence of forward-thinking people, who allowed initiative and the pursuit of more successful solutions. Remember Gorbatjev, perestroika, glasnost? The whole point of that, was that the new leadership once and for all recognized there was no turning back, it was do or die. That the changes made the whole communist economy redundant was only a drastic but logical consequence. Most apparatchik saw the winds turn, and changed direction like they had done nothing else before.

    The parallell between Soviet and GM is only valid if the Soviet empire had not changed leadership in 1985, but continued the old Breznjev dogmatics until the bitter end. Instead of a chock therapy of economic change, there would most certainly have been a devastating collapse and civil war throughout the entire empire, as old russia would have crippled itself economically until a great unrest was the only thing left.

    And likewise, had GM:s downfall been this drastic and dramatic, if they had went into Chapter 11 in 1992 or 2005?

    On a sidenote, that Tchaika is one sinister looking car. I want one…

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    The issue with GM is top-down management. In the ’50′s and ’60′s the brands had their own president, separate HQ, designers/engineers and assembly plants. They could customize their platforms in response to the dealers’ feedback.

    In the ’60′s John DeLorean could drop a big block V8 into a compact Tempest, call it a GTO and get away with it. Chrysler was the same way, with Plymouth creating the Duster, a BIG success, without corporate HQ even knowing it.

    Roger Smith tried to reverse that with Saturn, with its own HQ, dealer network and assembly plant. The GM/Borg collective absorbed that threat. If there’s any GM restructuring, the top-down management has to be job one, or any other moves will fail.

  • avatar
    Phil Ressler

    Outside of space, military projection of power and posturing with strategic weaponry, the Soviet Union struggled for relevance for most of its post-WWII existence. But in those three areas, it was able to keep the world’s attention and retain relevance disproportionate to its economic weight in the world until precipitous decline. The Soviet Union essentially divorced itself from accountability to its own people, and the community of nations.

    GM actually was a nearly $200B revenue corporation. It actually had to go out an win the sales that resulted in that revenue. Its executive management was guilty of arrogance and insulation, just like every other business entity that overstepped its market mandate and grew too comfortable. Anytime a large and complex organization fails, many common contributing elements and practices are identifiable, be they countries, companies or institutions. Still, GM had to persuade merit huge numbers of people to part with large sums of money. This alone makes GM fundamentally different from the USSR.

    Companies being private entities, or imperially-managed public ones, can stumble badly, lacking the accountability of elections of public life in representative democracies. Generally in the US, our appropriate wariness of socialism and social respect for capitalist success combine to lend too much respect to business executives.

    Everything about corporate governance today encourages imperial executive behavior in large companies. The system for promotions instills belief that progress is merit-based. Recruiting from outside assumes that prior success in another sector is sufficiently dependant on a person to be replicateable if the person can be hired. Annual meetings are organized and run to be orderly for the many rather than favorable to the few who might dissent. Meaningful discussion is truncated. Management hopes shareholders and their proxies will accept what’s reported.

    But the errors of our way of deference to the Alpha business leader have more often than not yielded greater success than other business cultures that reign in individuals. But sometimes there’s a spectacular crash.

    Larry Ellison nearly lost Oracle four times before his board saved him from himself and steadying hands were brought in. Relatively few people have the persistent intelligence and company-building intuition of Bill Gates or Jack Welch. Even fewer have the strength of will, market-making chops and confident vision of Steve Jobs, Craig McCaw or even Andy Grove. If you put a critical (and critically huge) organization like General Motors in the hands of second-rate people like Roger Smith, John Smith, Ron Zarella and Rick Wagoner for years on end, there will be unfortunate consequences in a competitive world.

    The Soviet Union failed because of the flaw in its existential argument, exacerbated by hidebound, control-minded leadership. That can sound much like GM but Brezhnev, Andropov, Gorbachev and others weren’t the mediocre talents of their world that Zarella, Wagoner, et al were in theirs. The Soviet Union was an artifice; the Russian nation is not. On the other hand, companies are dynamic, not tied to geography, and none have lived long enough to have the deep-seated cultural imperative we see assigned to nationalism.

    We used to talk about corporate “Politburo” behavior in college and graduate school in the 1970s, as though it was something new. It was superficial then, and remains so still.

    Phil

  • avatar
    agenthex

    We used to talk about corporate “Politburo” behavior in college and graduate school in the 1970s, as though it was something new. It was superficial then, and remains so still.

    Sure, it’s “superficial” in the sense that it’s only an analogous situation, but the relative totalitarian nature of corporations past their competitive stage is quite realistic. In fact, it’s a good point I’ve repeated before.

    -

    Still, GM had to persuade merit huge numbers of people to part with large sums of money.

    Apparently it take decades for capitalist “rational actor” to figure out GM was a bad deal, lol. The USSR dissolve through disillusionment of its citizens after quite some time, so the point isn’t really there.

    -

    In the real world, if we’re to believe in causation, optimal results are achievable almost by definition through a meritocracy. The overall effectiveness of any other system can be estimated by its proximity to that. The social system that you see in successful nations (or companies on a smaller scale) are very much collections of policies that balance people’s motivational characteristics towards maximum productivity.

    Hardcore socialism failed because there was insufficient opportunity for innovation. Laissez faire ironically failed early on for the same reason (tho more due to oppressive economics than oppressive politics).

    The same problems exist for both in compensation. One has the problem of properly rewarding incremental productivity increases, and the other with rewards completely disproportionate to social benefit/cost.

    Unfortunately, the first insurmountable hurdle for this country is still the inability to carry out a rational dialog due to the massive amount of modern propaganda that dominates the ordinary citizen’s thoughts.

  • avatar
    Phil Ressler

    …but the relative totalitarian nature of corporations past their competitive stage is quite realistic.

    So is the relative totalitarian nature of corporations in their competitive prime, but so what?

    Apparently it take decades for capitalist “rational actor” to figure out GM was a bad deal, lol. The USSR dissolve through disillusionment of its citizens after quite some time, so the point isn’t really there.

    The large difference is that the USSR only had to rely people living in a 1000 year authoritarian culture to accept a heavy hand. GM had to convince a large number of individuals accustomed to choice to proactively choose them, then voluntarily dig into their pockets to pay.

    The social system that you see in successful nations (or companies on a smaller scale) are very much collections of policies that balance people’s motivational characteristics towards maximum productivity.

    Something that on a comparative basis with nations, the US excels.

    Unfortunately, the first insurmountable hurdle for this country is still the inability to carry out a rational dialog due to the massive amount of modern propaganda that dominates the ordinary citizen’s thoughts.

    Get on a plane or prowl the international regions of the web more if you think that somehow American public dialog is somehow uniquely handicapped. You’re citing a human problem, not an American one, and our flexible dynamic culture mitigates the human liabilities more than most.

    Phil

  • avatar
    agenthex

    So is the relative totalitarian nature of corporations in their competitive prime, but so what?

    Totalitarian regimes tend to incite the same responses in humans.

    The large difference is that the USSR only had to rely people living in a 1000 year authoritarian culture to accept a heavy hand. GM had to convince a large number of individuals accustomed to choice to proactively choose them, then voluntarily dig into their pockets to pay.

    Have you ever seen psychological experiments like stanford prison or Obedience of Authority?. While there’s a distinctive cultural element to people, there’s a substantive instinctive/genetic component. Also, cultural changes can easily occur within a generation or less as visible in any developing country, and if you observe a multiplicity of them, they are all strikingly similar.

    -

    Something that on a comparative basis with nations, the US excels.

    Sure, except when you look at social-econ movement across gens, we actually lag behind the more socially progressive nations, not surprisingly, so it’s possible to do better. The US has had a significant advantage in terms of selective immigration amongst other things so you can’t necessarily compare in absolute terms.

    -

    You’re citing a human problem, not an American one, and our flexible dynamic culture mitigates the human liabilities more than most.

    I never claimed it’s unique, only that it’s a significant problem, even particularly so in the US given our development of modern propaganda (PR). In any case, if we’re so special (and I take it you mean special-ops, not special-ed), then why are we slightly behind in terms of social progress, especially give a head start?

  • avatar
    unleashed

    A great article and a nicely thought out analogy that can be expanded on every recently bailed out company.

  • avatar
    Stein X Leikanger

    @agenthex

    Hardcore socialism failed because there was insufficient opportunity for innovation. Laissez faire ironically failed early on for the same reason (tho more due to oppressive economics than oppressive politics).

    The same problems exist for both in compensation. One has the problem of properly rewarding incremental productivity increases, and the other with rewards completely disproportionate to social benefit/cost.

    In both there are issues of securing ownership in ways relative to the contributions of individual actors.
    The Soviet Union confiscated property, and redistributed access to privileges in a manner that makes nepotism look OK.
    The US corporate culture devolved into a rapacious executive as raptor game where there was no connection between actual contribution and distributed rewards, with the latter being inflated wildly by financial legerdemain. Just as the Soviet leaders kept lying about the nation’s productivity and ability to compete, the Detroit leaders kept lying about their companies’ viability. While in both instances, the leaderships appropriated privilege and whatever value they got their hands on.

    In a nation not gone to sleep, what the 2.5 did would have incited a revolution by those directly affected. And when looking for a reason for the bailouts, one doesn’t have to go farther.
    Robert Reich was on BBC this morning, stating that the bailout money was to help the communities transition, but that there had to be better ways to spend that money than to buy GM …

  • avatar
    Phil Ressler

    In any case, if we’re so special (and I take it you mean special-ops, not special-ed), then why are we slightly behind in terms of social progress, especially give a head start?

    By exactly what measures is the US “behind in terms of social progress”? Is there suddenly a universally applicable index for social progress? What country had not only our beginnings but also continuing mass assimilation of global immigration that puts many ideas for societal composition and governance in play at any given time? What other country has similar range of cultural, political and individual diversity to accommodate in such a flexible institutional structure for deal-making and compromise while workably containing polarization? Do we have to have Sweden’s wealth distribution + Japan’s longevity + Canada’s health care + Korea’s devotion to rote education + Germany’s automaking to not be “behind in social progress?” How perfect does a country have to be to both huge and diverse yet homogenized and efficient? For all our faults, I’ll take our trade-offs, knowing we’re going to improve the bargain made.

    I remember in the 1980s when Japan was going to eclipse the United States, and Alan Bloom launched his diatribe against slothful American students and the education system they attended. And then the world learned that there’s something unquantified in the cultivated creativity of truant American students who neglected to shore up our test scores.

    We need to do better and it is always thus. And, surprise, we actually do it. We’re going to add 100mm more people by ~2040. In which more perfect haven of social progress would you rather live assimilation of that magnitude? As long as the US continues as a dynamic, assimilating country, it will “lag” a few partners and competitors on social progress.

    Phil

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    This is a very valid comparison. And it rhymes with the troubles that the USA is going through. You cannot ignore reality. The president shouldn’t run a car company. You can’t spend more than you make indefinitely. If you are broke, don’t increase spending. If you can’t afford a war, don’t start it. One nation can’t police the entire world. Government should serve US, not vice-versa. Crash !

  • avatar
    ihatetrees


    The only thing I have to add is that the world you describe at the Ren Centre extended to the shop floor. There you had people spending untold hours on non-value-added work.

    +1. I’m convinced that subtle union shop work rules easily tripled Big 3 labor costs over those of the transplants. And that’s BEFORE adding legacy costs.

    Ingrassia’s WSJ piece describes the insanity at Flint in ’98:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124389995447074461.html

  • avatar

    One backstory I am watching appears to be cynical enough for the old Soviet Union. The stories about the VEBA have focused on how the UAW is getting a disproportionate share of the estate of GM and Chrysler. Time says that the funds only have enough to fund 3 years or so worth of claims. It seems like their benefits are being saved long enough to keep them on board for Obama’s reelection campaign, only to “unexpectedly” run out right after his recoronation thus presenting a crisis for socialized health care to solve.

  • avatar
    agenthex

    but that there had to be better ways to spend that money than to buy GM …

    Well, GM (and Chrysler) do face immediate liquidation with gov dip financing. But it’s fair to ask whether it’s “the best” way, keeping in mind that money is going to be spent one way or the other.

    -

    By exactly what measures is the US “behind in terms of social progress”?

    We’re behind on many front, all of which you should know. High expenditure on medicine and education for poor metrics everywhere. It’s really quite fortunate we can attract the immigration to pick up the slack on the latter.

    You can’t really point to racial segregation up to the sixties and the its present legacy as a symbol of efficient progress. You can try to cast the gullibility of the populace for claptrap wedge issues as universal, but it’s clear that while our intellectual elite are peerless, our lower ranks are intellectually impoverished (and they vote).

    -

    An interesting connection from the material above is that one of our most influential exports today are our PR/psych methodologies. Buy this car because you’re a free outdoorsman! Buy this computer because you’re creative! Exploiting insecurities and offering to fulfill them, amongst many others.

    The old fashion dictates that tell people what to do are quite ineffective compared to even lower level stuff like conditioning, all the way up to setting the agenda inside their head.

    In the old world, irrational belief in the supernatural as a method of control was found rather coincidentally, but through time we’re turning it into a science (literary, experiments and stats and all). The communists certainly did it for politics, but we’re more advance because our methodologies are far more transparent. It’s all rather awesome.

  • avatar
    Phil Ressler

    High expenditure on medicine and education for poor metrics everywhere.

    In education it’s quite likely we — and everyone else — measures the wrong criteria. Test scores, time spent in the classrooms, etc. have poorly correlated to innovation. In medicine, people in universal health care countries come here for treatments. The UK and Canada are sufficiently dysfunctional in their “allocation” of medicine that I know numerous people personally who simply threw up their hands and traveled to the US or elsewhere to buy the treatment they needed. In any case, I doubt our health care/health metrics will ever be at the top compared to the relatively small, relatively homogenous countries that do well. Just keeping up with the dynamic health needs of the immigration stream will pull down our numbers, but the average results don’t reflect the mainstream experience.

    …but it’s clear that while our intellectual elite are peerless, our lower ranks are intellectually impoverished (and they vote).

    Perhaps. But if the lower ranks are “intellectually impoverished,” that’s not the same thing as lacking common sense. Excepting the peculiarly American attraction to the superstition of religion (which does come with the positive virtue of certain desirable inculcated values), the aggregate common sense of those alleged lower ranks is more often than not impressive or at least quite credible.

    The communists certainly did it for politics, but we’re more advance because our methodologies are far more transparent.

    The quest for market efficiency is amply fueled and a ton of talent applies itself to the problem. The methods are freely circulated in a free market of ideas as well. But really…you don’t actually believe marketing makes you buy an SUV you didn’t actually want, do you? It simply lubricates the exercise of an impulse that already exists.

    Phil

  • avatar
    agenthex

    In education it’s quite likely we — and everyone else — measures the wrong criteria. Test scores, time spent in the classrooms, etc. have poorly correlated to innovation.

    “Innovation” requires a supportive ecosystem and is quite separate from “education”. In any case it’s somewhat overrated as the vast majority of work, even highly technical work, is based on turning the crank with bits of minor evolutionary improvement in between.

    However, education is important. Why else would we import so many educated people?

    -

    Just keeping up with the dynamic health needs of the immigration stream will pull down our numbers, but the average results don’t reflect the mainstream experience.

    Sure, our lack of universal care pretty much drags down anyone in the lower half.

    You are probably acquainted with people nearer the top, who are more concerned with money-is-no-object care.

    However, “social progress” tends to be measured by averages, if only because social unbalance is not healthy.

    -

    the aggregate common sense of those alleged lower ranks is more often than not impressive or at least quite credible.

    Are we reading the same blog/threads? :)

    Ok, sure, I’m not insinuating americans are particularly dumb, but it should be safe to say that the fundamental education mentioned above is especially useful for the lower-mid rank jobs. The intellectual structure is still bit of a pyramid, but I would agree that a cultural pragmatism where the rubber meets the road is highly beneficial for us.

    -

    The quest for market efficiency is amply fueled and a ton of talent applies itself to the problem. The methods are freely circulated in a free market of ideas as well.

    I wouldn’t call brainwashing “quest for market efficiency”. On the other hand there is desirable side-effect of a consumer culture which is favorable to growth-based economies.

    Also, free circulation of ideas doesn’t mean what I think you imply. The vast majority are quite oblivious to the scientific, methodical manner in which every piece of mass market info pervades their life.

    While it’s true a car ad by itself is unlikely to result in a direct purchase, the measurable manipulation of “lifestyles” is now culture as manufactured. Witness the creation of the “mook” and the “midriff” (terms from a frontline special), and the marketable memes which sell to them.

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    Excellent and original point, DonRobbie.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    Similarly, operating out of RenCen, the GM apparatchiki had also locked itself in a bubble. Occasionally, pronouncements from the elders would reveal how out of touch they were. Rich people didn’t care about the price of gasoline; global warming was a crock of shit; and it was hell to be standing in line at the airport, waiting for a flight.

    Sort of like how McCain wrecked his chances with me during the election when he defined the middle class as the $250K and up crowd. Means everybody I know is “poor” including doctors and lawyers. Also means McCain may not have a very good grasp of how us working folks live here in TN.

    Yes, the folks at the top need to really work hard to get in touch with how ALL of us live. At least Barack Obama came from a modest start.

  • avatar
    50merc

    From that WSJ article:
    “thanks to the labor contract amendments imposed by the Treasury’s task force, UAW members will be required to work 40 hours a week before getting overtime pay. Less encouraging is that workers still will be allowed six unexcused absences before being fired.”

    Looks like being a UAW member is still a pretty neat deal. Even a factory closure won’t stop the gravy train immediately.

    BTW, Phil — you’re wasting your considerable talents arguing with people for whom facts are irrelevant.


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