Friday, February 02, 2007

Real answers for Big 3 sting

Wednesday, January 31, 2007
Daniel Howes: Real answers for Big 3 sting
ABC's Charlie Gibson asks tough questions of auto industry, but solutions are far from pat.

Charlie Gibson came to town this week to see whether Detroit still has a pulse and, if nothing else, left knowing it can still manufacture lots of excuses.

In his Automotive Town Hall, broadcast Monday on WXYZ (Channel 7), he asked whether America needs an American auto industry, a fair question considering nearly 50 percent of the cars and trucks sold here come from Detroit's foreign rivals. Instead, Canadian Auto Workers President Buzz Hargrove filibustered with a trade-deal rant.

Gibson, anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight," wanted to know if United Auto Workers members might need to pay more for their health care given the financial straits of their employers. Instead, the union's legislative director, Alan Reuther, reminded everyone that his members already gave at the plant -- which more than a few salaried employees might find amusing if it wasn't so infuriating.

Gibson wanted to know why Detroit metal still has such a bad rep among Americans, as if the reasons are among the great mysteries of the automotive world. Instead, he got quibbles from Ford's guy about the premise of the question, hyperventilation from GM's chief economist about currency manipulation and hand-wringing from Sen. Debbie "Our-Way-of-Life" Stabenow about Chinese wages.

There are, of course, sensible answers to Gibson's questions, however impolitic they may sound to this town's politically correct ears. Yes, America needs an American-owned auto industry because this country, the planet's richest automotive market for the foreseeable future, needs the capability, the independence, the technological innovation and even the pride.

Yes, UAW members should pay more for their health care, just like most of the rest of us in private-sector America. Yes, Detroit's products have a bad rep because GM, Ford and Chrysler built a lot of bad products, and the best way out of that jam is to build more of the good ones.

Beneath the 'wet blanket'

But if Gibson wanted to understand why Detroit Auto is teetering above a largely self-made abyss, he might have considered leavening his nuts-and-bolts tour with a helping of deep-dish Detroit culture -- like visiting one of the Ford child-care centers slated for closure.

Why? Because the brouhaha over the decision to close seven centers is a fresh example of Detroit's entitlement culture at work, a wet blanket still strangling companies that have lost tens of billions in just the past few years. Ford, you see, is supposed to baby-sit its workers' kids, too -- or be denounced as a heartless meany.

He might have asked about the bonus flap roiling Ford. You know, the charge-and-countercharge that makes grown adults sound like adolescents fighting over who got to choose the last family DVD instead of what's really developing there -- a principled discussion about crafting a single incentive plan for everyone.

Gibson might have asked about the town's corrosive obsession with blame and romanticizing the past instead of finding solutions and figuring out how the future will be different.

Or whether Michigan's Big-Company syndrome -- GM, Ford, Chrysler, Kmart, Pfizer, Big Furniture out west, Big Chemical up north -- smothered the spirit of entrepreneurialism that created them in the first place.

Change is hard to come by

He might have asked why a state that's about as liberal blue as you can get in the Midwest is so unshakably conservative, so fundamentally resistant to change, in the way it behaves -- in government, in business and in politics.

Or how corporate nannyism and Cadillac-style benefits forged in a long-gone era are still considered inviolate, even demanded, despite very different times -- and why that attitude is so hard to understand for so many on the outside looking in.

He might have wondered, if he cared that much, how Detroit's Big Auto and, especially, Gov. Jennifer Granholm's state of Michigan can credibly seek help from state taxpayers or from Washington if they have trouble helping themselves.

To move in Motown, it takes the kind of existential crises simultaneously lapping at Lansing, Detroit, the UAW's Solidarity House and the executive suites of GM, Ford and Chrysler. Even then, as the governor's revenue angst shows, there's no guarantee of decisiveness.

Yes, Charlie, this is the culture behind the Detroit story, circa 2007, and it's killing us.

Daniel Howes' column runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Reach him at (313) 222-2106, or

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