On Detroit's Guzzling Ways

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

One of the more admirable qualities of the blogging culture is a relentless underdog streak. Anyone who mans the ramparts of a decent blog is forever scouring the worlds of business, media and opinion for an opportunity to attack the most prominent voices of the day. And TTAC is no exception: we certainly came up by attacking the apologists and Polyannas who are still massively overrepresented in the world of automotive commentary. But what a difference a bailout makes. While the mainstream automotive media spent much of the leadup to the auto bailout making apologies and excuses for Detroit’s decline, TTAC told the unpleasant truth, gaining us new readers and credibility every step of the way. Now that I find myself being asked to contribute to one of the most prestigious opinion outlets in the world (the NY Times op-ed page) on a regular basis, TTAC is no longer the underdog, and other blogs have stepped into the breach to attack us as the new status quo. Fair enough… let’s do this thing.

After an embarrassing hacker attack left its commenter base vulnerable and seething, it’s no wonder that Gawker’s Jalopnik car blog decided to lead the charge against my latest Op-Ed on Detroit’s “Guzzling” ways. And because the entertainment-oriented car blog has wisely decided to hire the former Detroit Free Press reporter Justin Hyde, they actually have someone on staff worthy of taking up the debate. Unfortunately, however, Hyde seems more interested in penning a takedown than actually engaging in a debate about the issues raised in the piece.

Hyde thesis is essentially that “Niedermeyer wants to blame Detroit for building the pickups and SUVs that remain popular with buyers” and that “Detroit can rightfully claim a share of leadership in green cars.” Towards the end of the piece he distills the argument:

So according to the Times, if gas prices don’t rise and Americans don’t buy greener vehicles, then the bailout of GM and Chrysler fell short. If gas prices do rise — creating the demand for the more-efficient models Detroit has now shown it can produce — that’s also bad, because the credit markets will suffer, and then flying unicorns attack Detroit and its Bailout II: Electric Boogaloo.

The implication is that I am somehow responsible for creating this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t dynamic. What Hyde clearly doesn’t understand is that I never took to a public forum and attempted to make a politically unpopular bailout more palatable among certain constituencies by claiming that it would transform Detroit’s automakers from truck and SUV-dependent “dinosaurs” (the White House’s words, not mine) into green car leaders. My op-ed wasn’t meant to suggest any particular policy, or to push Detroit into either being “Pelosimobile” pushers or SUV-dependent laggards, but to point out the disconnect between an important justification for the bailout (green transformation) and the reality (GM and Chrysler have the worst fleet fuel economy numbers in the business). Hyde accidentally puts his finger on this reality when he writes

It may be news to the anti-SUV crowd, but Detroit can rightfully claim a share of leadership in green cars.

The first half of this sentence explains why my op-ed was necessary (the second half is highly debatable, witness the fleet-wide efficiency reality). Like it or not, SUVs do have a terrible reputation around the world, and Americans who oppose them on moral grounds can’t be blamed for taking Obama at his word and assuming that the government-led “transformation” of Detroit would lead GM and Chrysler to de-prioritize large gas guzzlers. Nowhere do I state that the government should have forced GM or Chrysler to build certain vehicles, but I absolutely understand why Americans might be disappointed to find out that the green rhetoric surrounding the bailout turned out to be just so much hot air.

But there’s that Catch-22 again: either Obama had to intervene in the day-to-day operations of the automakers, exposing him to libertarian and conflict-of-interest critiques, or he had to let GM and Chrysler operate purely on the basis of profit motivation, allowing old, bad habits to continue unchecked. But did TTAC create this lose-lose situation, or did Obama himself create it by justifying the bailout on green grounds? The fundamental problem here is that the American people overwhelmingly opposed the auto bailout, and rather than simply sell the policy as “the right thing to do” (a line that did emerge in the Administration’s rhetoric, but only after the bailout improved the auto-sector job situation) he had to sweeten the pot by promising that Detroit would transform into green car crusaders. Obama, not TTAC, promised the “flying unicorns”… we simply pointed out that

the bailouts have created a perverse new dynamic. With G.M. stock now being publicly traded on Wall Street, taxpayers have every incentive to cheer on the bailed-out automaker as it overproduces vehicles and pushes cheap credit. After all, the sooner G.M.’s stock hits a certain level — likely around $52 per share — the sooner the Treasury can sell its remaining equity and get taxpayers out of risk.

There’s certainly an argument to be made that allowing Detroit to operate as a business, though detrimental to Obama’s green goals, was the lesser of the two evils. But, as is so often the case when Jalopnik strays into heavy opinion, Hyde refuses to even take that stand. Instead, he concludes with a paragraph that oozes the kind of thinking that has enabled Detroit’s complacency for decades:

For this holiday, I’d wish for a few days where we set aside the kvetching about what the U.S. auto industry is or isn’t, and simply enjoy the fact that we as a nation decided a couple hundred thousand people should earn a living in manufacturing instead of hearing their children ask Santa Claus to stop their electricity from being shut off. I would also wish for better insights into the auto industry from the New York Times op-ed page, but I know better than to ask for flying unicorns.

In short, the message is “quit your whining.” For a piece entitled What The New York Times Op-Ed Page Doesn’t Know About Cars, that’s a pretty weak payoff. The American taxpayers made a massive investment in an industry that is constantly plagued by boom-bust cycles, makes huge gambles that destroy billions in wealth, and follows interests which, in the eyes of many, fundamentally trades off with the well-being of America’s environment and economy… but Hyde would prefer that we didn’t discuss any such trade-offs inherent in this kind of intervention. Given that the piece in question raises a number of issues that aren’t huge problems at the moment, but are indicative of industry backsliding into old bad habits (fleet sales, incentives, etc), isn’t discussing their trade-offs and raising awareness of them a fairly reasonable topic for an opinion piece?

And this is where Jalopnik and Hyde let down the blogosphere’s proud tradition of attacking op-ed columnists: if you’re going to imply that someone knows nothing about cars, you need to do better than wishing an end to all criticism of the bailout, or discussion of its fundamental contradictions. Blogs are about ongoing debates, but rather than adding anything meaningful to the war of ideas, Jalopnik simply retreats into the kind of “leave Britney alone” apologia that screams “we can’t handle the truth.” Luckily, readers who share Hyde’s visceral disagreement with my words but want more substance than limp-wristed a plea for censorship can always turn to TTAC’s comment section, where a vibrant exchange of ideas is already under way. After all, we don’t mind at all when people disagree with us; we all learn by having their views challenged. But the debate must go on…

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Telegraph Road Telegraph Road on Dec 18, 2010

    Ed's journalistic brilliance is best observed by noting his complete absence of references to Ford, despite his many disparagements of "Detroit." I am sure I am not the only one willing to remind NY Times readers of TTAC's countless Ford Death Watch posts, had Ed provided the opportunity.

  • Bob Bob on Dec 20, 2010

    Consumers need a bigger nudge to make the move away from SUVs to more efficient cars and the best way to do it would be a hefty increase in the gas tax. And when Detroit starts producing non-electric cars with MPG numbers that beat Toyota and Honda, their car inventory will shrink and they move all the cash incentives to the hoods of their SUVs. For everyone who is keeping their ride for another year or two, there are plenty of ways to improve on fuel economy and save money. We have a few ideas at www.earthgarage.com

    • See 2 previous
    • Geozinger Geozinger on Dec 20, 2010

      @bob: In so far as 'nudging' consumers to purchase more fuel efficient cars via the gas tax, we don't have the intestinal fortitude to do so. Additionally, with the mood of taxpayers these days, even if the tax were only aimed at being used for one purpose, it still wouldn't happen. I'd like to see folks choosing more fuel efficient rides, but it's still a (semi) free country. Me personally after the summer of '08, I decided to downsize our main family car when it was time to replace it. After paying $60 (or more) to fill up a mid-sized car, that was my 'come to Jesus' moment. For me, fuel economy went to #2 or 3 in the priority list rather than 5 or 6 like it used to be. If the domestics (all of them) produced small cars as competent and complete as their larger trucks and SUVs they would have no issue selling them. Domestic small cars are considered inferior to their foreign counterparts, but the mileage is close, the difference is almost negligible in some cases.

  • Lou_BC Question of the day: Anyone actually care to own an old TVR?
  • Bd2 First, this was totally predictable. 2nd, Genesis already does have hybrids in the form of a 48V mild hybrid, but more performance oriented (supercharged and turbocharged), so not really helping with regard to fuel consumption. 3rd, Hyundai's hybrid systems don't really help as there currently isn't one that would be suitable power-wise and the upcoming 2.5T hybrid system would have to be heavily reworked to accommodate a RWD/longitudinal layout. 4th, it seems that Genesis is opting to go the EREV route with the GV70 the first get the new powertrain.
  • Bd2 Jaguar's problem was chasing the Germans into the mid size and then entry-level/compact segments for volume, and cheapening their interiors while at it.
  • 3-On-The-Tree Aja8888 I expected that issue with my F150 starting at 52,000mi. luckily I had an extended warranty and it saved me almost $8,000. No more Fords for me, only Toyota.
  • Lou_BC I saw a news article on this got a different read on it. Ford wants to increase production of HD trucks AND develop hybrid and EV variants of the SuperDuty. They aren't scaling back EV production. Just building more HD's and EV variants of HD's .