The December 13, 2008
A not-so-endearing aspect of the human body is that it loses flexibility. If
you are of a certain age, 50 or so, you learn to stretch a little, loosen things
up, before attempting even a modest effort. It feels a bit like machinery that
corrodes slightly between uses, and needs a drop of oil (call it 'ibuprofen').
And having aged thus far, you lived through 'the sixties'. A friend sent a
forward including this link; enjoy: TakeMeBackToTheSixties
The intent is no doubt to invoke nostalgia for a more innocent era. But the
Almanack is reminded of the 'stuff' we made do with in the sixties, and before.
It's hard to remember how quickly stuff rusted. Everything, toys, cars, tools,
instruments, buildings, bridges, pipes, went back to nature at an astonishing
speed, beginning the moment it was neglected. We spent endless hours washing,
wiping, painting, oiling, wrapping and storing stuff so that it would be
protected and ready for use. Caring for stuff was considered a great virtue. A
neighbor who took good care of his stuff was trustworthy: if he borrowed your
stuff, it came back in good shape, not dirty or rusted, and his stuff was always
You could tell if a person was trustworthy by looking at the car in the
driveway. It took more care than anything else. If it was two years old and
didn't show any rust, its owner was undoubtedly a very solid citizen.
Post-war car makers learned that it was good business to build 'bio-degradeable'
cars, and change the styles every year. That worked on lots of levels: social
competition, boredom, and laziness. It was the most egalitarian society in
history, and new cars projected status; after two years of chauffering the kids
and soaking up cigarette smoke, the old jalopy was smelly and borrrring; and
most people just didn't care enough to keep the poorly-protected sheet metal
Lest the Almanack succumb to pure cynicism, a seldom-remarked side effect of the
rapid turnover of cars was that entry-level consumers with a little sweat equity
could have a quite workable machine for $100, when a new car was going for
$3000. Engine Charlie Wilson didn't really say, 'What's good for General Motors
is good for the U.S.A.', but close enough. And it was true.
Cars are much in the news lately because of their central role in middle-class
employment, and the car companies are taking a lambasting for building obsolete,
oversized junk that nobody wants to buy. Maybe that's fair. Technology has
changed the business model, beginning with 'space age' materials, plastics and
metals mostly, that don't fade, peel, crack or most of all, rust. According to
the conventional wisdom, planned obsolescence doesn't have much leverage, so
INNOVATION is the only thing prodding the consumer to buy, and that's bad news
for American car companies.
Gimme a large freakin' break. There hasn't been any innovation in cars since
1903, when a Model T got 25 miles to a gallon of gas. Better materials, sure,
and some very marginal safety features, and we'll stipulate that a new Mazda is
more fun to drive than a '64 Fairlane, but it's basically the same old 4-up gas
buggy. We love the new materials that make cars light and sturdy and
comfortable, but they're available to all car companies. People being people,
there are good designers on both sides of every ocean, and the labor that builds
Chevys lives in the same country as the labor that builds Hondas. And all car
companies for the last 3 decades have built only the cars that expensive market
research told them people want to buy. Have you weighed a Toyota Tundra?
Asian car companies came of age in the eighties, and they're just hitting prime:
no sclerotic, self-interested hierarchies, no burdensome pension funds, no
ridiculous finance arms.
American car companies, like the rest of us who grew up in the sixties, are
getting old and profoundly rusty. It may not be possible to scour and lubricate
all the critical parts of a machine as big as Detroit. Doesn't work too well on
arthritic human bodies, either. But we grew up knowing how to take care of
stuff. We just have to remember, and care.
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