"See the USA in your Chevrolet!" trilled Dinah Shore week after week on TV.
Can you still see the USA in your Chevrolet? Through a windscreen darkly.
General Motors now has a market valuation about a third of Bed, Bath & Beyond, and no one says your Swash 700 Elongated Biscuit Toilet Seat Bidet is too big to fail. GM has a market capitalization of about $2.4 billion. For purposes of comparison, Toyota's market cap is $100 billion and change (the change being bigger than the whole of GM). General Motors, like the other two geezers of the Old Three, is a vast retirement home with a small money-losing auto subsidiary. The UAW is AARP in an Edsel: It has three times as many retirees and widows as "workers" (I use the term loosely). GM has 96,000 employees but provides health benefits to a million people.
How do you make that math add up? Not by selling cars: Honda and Nissan make a pretax operating profit per vehicle of around $1,600; Ford, Chrysler and GM make a loss of $500 to $1,500. That's to say, they lose money on every vehicle they sell. Like Henry Ford said, you can get it in any color as long as it's red.
In the 20th century, most advanced nations made automobiles but only America made them mythic: "Drive the USA in your Chevrolet!" sang Dinah. "America's the greatest land of all!" America had road movies. With car chases. Thelma and Louise drove their vehicle off the cliff and, unlike the Old Three, they didn't demand American taxpayers come along for the ride. But, if you didn't want to hit the open road, you could just hang around, being cool. In Chuck Berry's immortal quatrain:
"Riding along in my automobile
My baby beside me at the wheel
Cruising and playing the radio
With No Particular Place To Go."
Not if you were a European teen. Cruising was an American activity. A Saturday night out for a Brit meant hanging around at a rain-streaked bus shelter hoping the night service would show up. Even if you had a particular place to go, you had no means of getting there.
So many areas of endeavor that once embodied the youth and energy of this great land are now old and sclerotic. I include, naturally, my own industry. I loved the American newsrooms you saw in movies like "The Front Page," full of hard-boiled, hard-livin' newspapermen. By the time I got there myself, there were no hard-boiled newspapermen, just bland, anemic newspaperpersons turning out politically correct snooze sheets of torpid portentousness. The owner of The Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune recently filed for bankruptcy protection. The New York Times is mortgaging its office to fund debt repayment. The Detroit Free Press is cutting out home delivery except on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, thereby further depressing sales of delivery trucks in the Motor City.
The newspapers blame the Internet, just as Detroit blames Japan. But the Japanese have problems of their own. One day they'll get theirs. That's the beauty of capitalism. Nothing is forever. The big railroad barons smoking cigars and enjoying pheasant under glass in the dining car on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe thought Henry Ford was a schmuck. Who'd want to ride around in that thing? Next thing you know, everyone's getting their kicks on Route 66:
"You'll see Amarillo
Gallup, New Mexico
Don't forget Winona
Kingman, Barstow, San Bernardino."
Ah, California. The Golden State! To a penniless immigrant named Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was a land of plenty. Now Arnold is an immigrant of plenty in a penniless land. What's the motto on the license plates? "Ah'll be back …for more of your money!" In California you don't have to be an orange to have your pips squeezed. The Terminator makes Gray Davis look like Calvin Coolidge. Care to terminate a government program, Governor? Hey, great idea! We'll hire 200 people to do an impact study on terminating the Department of Impact Study Regulation and get back to you in a decade. And when Gov. Girlyman has run out of state taxpayers to fleece for his ever-more-bloated bureaucracy, he'll go to Washington to plead for a federal bailout of Cantaffordya.
California! The state that symbolizes the American Dream! If you can make it there, you'll make it anywhere!
No, wait, that's New York. "This is the worst fiscal downturn since the Great Depression," announced New York Gov. Paterson. So what's he doing? Why, he's bringing in the biggest tax hike in New York history. If you can make it there, you'll be paying state tax on it, sales tax, municipal tax, a doubled beer tax, a tax on clothing, a tax on cab rides, an "iTunes tax" on downloads from the Internet, a tax on haircuts, 137 new tax hikes in all. Call Albany today and order your new package of tax forms, for just $199.99, plus 12 percent tax on tax forms and 4 percent tax-form application fee partially refundable upon payment of the 7.5 percent tax-filing tax. If you can make it there, you'll certainly have no difficulty making it in Tajikistan.
Hey, and who needs to make it therewhen you can just get appointed there? Gov. Paterson is said to be considering appointing Princess Caroline of Kennedy to Hillary Clinton's vacant Senate seat. After two and a third centuries of republican experiment, America has finally worked its way back to the House of Lords.
"Friends Say Kennedy Has Long Wanted Public Role," Anne Kornblut assured readers in an in-depth Washington Post tongue-bath. She hasn't "long wanted" it to the extent of, you know, running for dog catcher in Lackawanna and getting – what's the word? – "elected," but, if you have a spare Senate seat, she's graciously indicated that she'd be prepared to consider accepting it. As lady-in-waiting Anne Kornblut pointed out, Caroline is highly qualified, being "the author of several books." It's true! She's an experienced poetry editor. She edited "The Best-Loved Poems Of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis." Jackie Kennedy wrote poems? Of course! She wrote so many poems that some are better loved than others.
See the USA from your Chevrolet: An hereditary legislature, a media fawning its way into bankruptcy, its iconic coastal states driving out innovators and entrepreneurs, the arrival of the new Messiah heralded only by the leaden dirge of "We Three Kings Of Ol' Detroit Are/Seeking checks we traverse afar," and Route 66 looking ever more like a one-way dead-end street to Bailoutistan. Boy, I sure could use a poem by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis right now, even one of the lesser-loved ones.
"I feel like I lost my country," the Hudson Institute's Herbert London said the other day, wondering whatever happened to the land of opportunity and dynamism. But I'm more of an optimist. Maybe Princess Caroline will be appointed CEO of GM and all will be well. Or maybe Bed, Bath & Beyond will put wheels on the Swash 700 Elongated Biscuit Toilet Seat Bidet.
And on that cheery note let me wish you a very Hopey Changemas.