Friday, March 30, 2012

A Rebuttal to Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard . . .

I read the Weekly Standard very regularly. I enjoy and, usually, agree with its well-thought out long form articles. They go deeper than your average news piece and provoke thought.

Last Thursday, writer Fred Barnes published a piece entitled "Car Wars," which mainly featured responses from General Motors against the "Conservative media community." All the while, it insisted that General Motors was run by good conservatives, that the government never interfered, and that the Volt was the most awesome piece of engineering since the Space Shuttle.


In March, I wrote a story for in which I described some of the safety concerns with the Volt, not just the battery fires, but also the design itself. Fire fighters need specialized training to deactivate the battery before cutting into the vehicle. Although the gist of the story made it to The Blaze, the Washington Free Beacon, and elsewhere, it was not cited directly by Barnes.

However, I am part of the conservative media community that the piece disparaged, and I feel compelled to respond. I am sure that Fred Barnes, who I do admire as a writer and a thinker, does not read the Potomac Highlands Conservative, though.

Maybe someone would like to pass this along.

Barnes makes mistakes because he transmits the General Motors line on a number of subjects. First of all, he states that GM faced three choices: immediate bailout, crippling bankruptcy, or complete collapse. Private capital was simply not available to rescue the ailing company as a whole.

I buy that, if these are the only alternatives, then this is true. But this limited set of choices represents a failure of imagination. Ask a loyal GM customer where his or her loyalty lies. They will usually answer "Chevrolet," "Cadillac," "Pontiac," etc. Almost never GM. Customers on an intellectual level know that they are purchasing a GM, but they love their Chevy truck.

In the book Crisis of the Corporation and many other works, experts have demonstrated how General Motors in the 1970s and 80s undermined the identity of its brands and damaged its own marketshare. It saw itself as the king producer of cars and saw little reason to respond to consumer demand shifts.

Even worse, it turned to producing essentially the same set of several cars, Chevrolet vehicles getting the cheapest features, Cadillac the most expensive. I could even see that as a child when they did it in the 1980s. I told my parents that they should buy a Chevrolet and stick a Cadillac emblem on the front hood and no one would know the difference.

General Motors' very size has made it a stumbling elephant. A free market solution rarely mentioned would have been division. The most popular brands could hive off. Chevrolet and Pontiac could form one company, Buick and Cadillac another, maybe GMC Trucks a third. Sorry Oldsmobile. You wouldn't even get to survive in a what if, scenario. No loan could have saved GM, but a smaller private sector package could have helped a streamlined, stand alone Chevrolet.

Imagine the competitive dynamism that would have pushed the market worldwide. Imagine freeing Chevy and Pontiac from the shackles of GM to produce innovative and cutting edge cars.

General Motors has been too big for a long time. And it still is, thanks to the government.

That brings us to the Volt.

Maybe Fred Barnes is right. Maybe the federal government did not interfere a bit in the operation of General Motors. He also suggests that the federal safety inspectors ran the tests wrong on the Volt and that started the fire.

Even if all that is true, it leaves us with the bald faced fact that the government owned a large part of a car company. It has no incentive to enforce safety standards on a vehicle that it wants people to purchase. Government should be the referee in the private sector, an impartial enforcer of the rules. What if the opposing coach ended up being the referee? The perception of misconduct and unfairness is enough. And the government did enforce the same rules differently between General Motors and Toyota.

But the perception alone is enough to not allow government ownership of private enterprise. It is the most basic of conflicts of interest.

General Motors also complained because the "conservative media community" criticized and condemned their association with the government.

Sorry GM. It is a new day. Conservatives are increasingly skeptical of combining government and private power. And the media must do its due diligence no matter who the target is. As far as I am concerned, I don't care if my story killed the Chevy Volt. It hopefully reached the eyes of some fireman who had not yet heard about the dangerous design of that vehicle.

Conservative media outlets did right by their readers here. They did not merely accept that whatever was good for this business was good for everybody. They did their jobs. And if that upsets GM, then too bad.

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