10 Nov Does Any Opinio Juris Reader Drive a Detroit-Made Car?
As discussions of a(nother) bailout for Detroit automakers continue, one question that intrigues me is whether any Opinio Juris readers drive Detroit-made cars – i.e., cars made by the Big Three US automakers? Please feel free to indicate in the comments.
My wife and I own two Hondas, one of them a 1993 Honda Civic that we bought used from the neighbor in 1999 with 30,000 miles on it; it now has 60,000 miles on it ten years later – I have the privilege of living a five minute walk from my law school office, so I don’t drive very much or very far. Indeed, a Lomborgian on environmental matters, I mostly get around on my bike or walking – despite the fact that DC drivers apparently lack the neural subroutine that includes “bicycles” as objects-that-exist. I thereby grant myself a ‘smuggy’ (i.e., a ‘moment of smugly virtuous self-satisfaction’). Note too that my Civic gets filled maybe once every couple of months – the last time was back in the summer. I thereby grant myself another ‘smuggy’. However, when we bought our second Honda, a quick survey of Consumer Reports and other guides convinced us that we didn’t want Detroit cars.
But here’s the point about the global economy. Does anyone think of a Honda today as being any less “American” than a Ford?
No, I’m not channeling Peter here. Why not? Why is this not a cosmopolitan sentiment? Because US consumers, so far as I can tell in buying cars, are not indifferent to whether it is American or something else – indeed, as expressed by the Veblen-status preferences of New Class elites among the professoriat, for example, who seem affirmatively to prefer something not from here. (Although, in the joy of the new administration and its attachment to labor unions, is it possible that professors will start buying American Detroit cars out of the ‘coolness’ of supporting labor unions? A car is an awfully large purchase by which to feel good about one’s politics, especially in a recession; on the other hand, leaving aside tenure, this is the prestige-goods inverse curve: only an awfully large (in dollar terms, not physical size) purchase conspicuously displayed will allow one to feel good about one’s pro-union politics, yes? And if they are forced to cut prices and offer zero interest financing? – zounds, everyone, even the budget-minded masses who ordinarily buy Honda or Toyota, might buy one! But then one would have expressed solidarity with the struggling masses, and so on, round and round.) The point, rather, is that Honda is as American these days, in the consumer mind, as much as anything made in Detroit. It is American, says the ruthless American consumer; it is also not Detroit.
And political Washington proposes to bail out Detroit for the second time in as many months to the tune of $25 billion each time and says it’s because Detroit is American – but surely more salient is that Detroit is union and Michigan, unlike the states where Honda is mostly located, went Democratic. (Interestingly, the New York Times editorializes against a second $25 billion.)
The pressure of the global economy does not merely mean that Detroit faces competition from a car made in Brazil or South Korea. The pressure of the global economy also creates intra-US competition. Which, of course, is the point: the competition, whether across borders or within borders, creates better products and prices for consumers. I’m buying a car that is, in my view, better designed than the car in Detroit, but it’s also cheaper, made with non-union labor in plants in the American south and, again in my view, better built by that same labor. The attitude of the new administration, however, leaves plenty of questions about its commitment to free trade. Who wins in that argument – labor or consumers – remains to be seen. But does anyone really doubt – least of all our trading partners in both the developed and the developing world – that support for free trade is in greater question in the United States than at any time since the 1970s at least?
I am one of those people who is utterly indifferent as to status in automobiles (don’t worry, there are plenty of other status markers in my life). I buy cars purely on affordability, fuel efficiency, safety, suitability for my modest needs, longevity without big repair bills and, best of all, not having to think about it. That decision-making process pushes me to Honda over Detroit. Others among OJ readers might have different senses of status markers – Prius, Morris minis, Volvos. What wins the OJ car survey? And, for whatever reasons – status, performance, price, whatever – does anyone want to own up to driving a Detroit car?
(Third update: Chris’s response in the comments interests me a lot – am I mistaken in thinking that American consumers think of Honda as “American”? Also, one thing I have always found incomprehensible is a super expensive car in a city where dents and fender bumps and scratches are just guaranteed, as Chris says.)
(Update: Not for owning a Detroit car, but rather for getting around on a bike, Patrick is hereby also awarded a smuggy!)
(Second update, from Mickey Kaus who, as befits a person who lives in LA, follows cars:)
The Big Three’s Little Secret: I hate to make invidious solidarity-eroding comparisons between competing UAW shops, but Detroit’s cars aren’t uniformly inferior to their Japanese competitors. Ford’s products have been consistently less unreliable, in recent years, than the other two members of the Big Three. From the most recent issue of Consumer Reports:
Ford’s three brands–Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury–continue to pull away from the rest of the Detroit automakers. Almost all Ford models are now average or better, with the exception of some that are truck-based. Excluding those, Ford’s reliablity is now on a par with good Japanese automakers.
GM is a “mixed bag.” Chrysler seems hopeless. “Almost two thirds of its products rate below average for reliability.”
I know reliability isn’t everything. Most Chrysler products are ugly too! … P.S.: If the automakers react the way GM reacted when its Saturn subsidiary actually started making good cars, their legislative strategy is clear: Figure out a way to punish Ford! …