Ed Driscoll

'A Culture of Complete Acquiescence and Intimidation'


I’ve looked at corporatism from both sides now.

Corporatism is the socialist fusion of Big Government and Big Business, working strong-arm and arm, one mode clearing a path for the other, and neither side losing much sleep over what the customer wants, until the preference cascade kicks in and begins to snowball, and everyone eventually wakes up to reality with a raging hangover. In its pre-breakup day, think of Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine the Bell Telephone operator smugly blustering, “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the Phone Company.” Or today, the handlers of Harry Reid, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Barack and Michelle Obama screwing journalists. Or the disastrous late period products of General Motors, even before they became for several years under the Obama administration, Government Motors.

The Pontiac Aztek, in production at GM from 2001 and 2005, was sort of the equivalent of East Germany’s Trabant — both cars were designed by committee and were so bad they became goofy pop culture icons (the Trabant via the rock group U2, the Aztek via Breaking Bad). In a series of vignettes at Car & Driver, Bob Lutz, the chairman of GM during the period when it hit all the icebergs and sank into the abyss of Government Motors explains how the disastrous Aztek came to be:

I kind of got hired [as GM’s vice chairman of product development] because of the Aztek. I was getting an award, and [then-GM chairman] Rick Wagoner introduced me and took a couple of funny digs. When I gave my speech, I said, “It’s curious that the man who oversaw the Aztek would comment on my failures.” It brought the house down. When I apologized later, he said, “Ah, I was expecting it. We’re disappointed in the Aztek. I’d enjoy hearing what you think we’re doing wrong.” After three conversations, he offered me a job.

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A bad car happens in stages. The Aztek concept car was a much leaner vehicle. Decent proportions. It got everybody excited. At the time, GM was criticized for never doing anything new, never taking a chance. So Wagoner and the automotive strategy board decreed that henceforth, 40 percent of all new GM products would be “innovative.” That started a trend toward setting internal goals that meant nothing to the customer. Everything that looked reasonably radical got green-lit.

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These things require a culture of complete acquiescence and intimidation, led by a strong dictatorial individual who wants it that way.

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The guy in charge of product development was Don Hackworth, an old-school guy from the tradition of shouts, browbeating, and by-God-I-want-it-done. He said, “Look. We’ve all made up our minds that the Aztek is gonna be a winner. It’s gonna astound the world. I don’t want any negative comments about this vehicle. None. Anybody who has bad opinions about it, I want them off the team.” As if the public is gonna give a sh** about team spirit. Obviously, the industry is trying to get away from that approach.

That last paragraph is highly indicative of the other side of corporatism, isn’t it? As Megan McArdle wrote last November (ironically at Bloomberg.com, the “unexpectedly!” Website that often serves as a corporatism cheerleader for the Obama administration) during the rollout of Obamacare, the Pontiac Aztek of health insurance:

When the tech geeks raised concerns about their ability to deliver the website on time, they are reported to have been told “Failure is not an option.” Unfortunately, this is what happens when you say “failure is not an option”: You don’t develop backup plans, which means that your failure may turn into a disaster.

In the years before it became Government Motors, while its unions were busy devouring their host, GM was dubbed “a health-care provider that makes cars as an industrial by-product.” No wonder it and the equally feckless Obama administration were made for each other.