The GM Ignition Switch Crime

A grieving Laura Christian (far right) appeals to GM and America for justice (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
A grieving Laura Christian (far right) appeals to GM and America for justice (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

W.J. Astore

Truthout has a powerful story on the GM ignition switch design flaw, the one that killed at least thirteen people, and possibly as many as 29 (or more).  If many are so eager to support capital punishment for mass murderers, why not the death penalty for GM?  GM knew about the problem with their switch, but apparently decided it was more cost effective not to engage in a recall that would cost the company roughly $1.5 million, or 57 cents per car.

As Truthout suggests, the big problem is no one is held responsible for corporate murder.  Some money washes hands in various lawsuits, perhaps a big fine will be levied by the government, but no one goes to jail, no specific person is punished.

This sad and tragic fact put me to mind (once again) of Don Henley’s song, “If Dirt Were Dollars,” in which he sings:

“These days the buck stops nowhere/no one takes the blame/but evil is still evil/in anybody’s name.”

If corporations are people, as the U.S. Supreme Court decided, and as Mitt Romney reminded us while he campaigned for president, can’t we punish them as people?

The death penalty is popular in many places in America — it allegedly deters the worst crimes, its supporters claim.  Isn’t it time for an ignition kill switch to be activated against GM?  That would certainly deter future companies from valuing their bottom lines more than the lives of their customers.

But I’m dreaming, of course.  Corporations are citizens, my friends, except they are much more equal as citizens than you and me.  How can we measure their value?  Look again to their financial bottom lines, and how much “free” speech that allows them to exercise in the halls of power.

And so it goes in the land that equates speech and honor with money and power.


Of Tail Fins and Fighter Jets: Artificial Obsolescence and Economic Bankruptcy (Updated)

The Good Old Days of Artificial Obsolescence
The Good Old Days of Artificial Obsolescence
A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon flies a ...
A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon.  Not stealthy, but still a great jet.  And compared to the F-35, very cheap indeed! (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Harley Earl was Vice President of Styling for General Motors and considered the father of American automotive design.  Since its inception in the 1920s, GM styling was based on a concept known as “artificial obsolescence,” which involved redesigning and retooling the entire line of cars every two years so that car owners would want to sell or trade in their old car and buy the “latest” model.  It worked so well for GM that Ford and Chrysler were driven to follow the same business model which ultimately, years later, led to the financial collapse of the automotive industry.

The economic waste due to the enormous cost of retooling body parts and production lines so that automobiles could present a “fresh face” to consumers was of little consequence to executives.  What mattered was that to be “in” consumers had to have the “new” model.  This manufactured need boosted short term profit for the companies.  When I [b. traven] worked in Detroit, I had an older utilitarian Ford station wagon which drove my co-workers crazy.  It was disloyal to my GM employer, but it got me where I wanted to go.  Even back then I was a brand and style contrarian.

Artificial obsolescence and manufactured need is of course not limited to cars.  Consider America’s defense industry and its high-ticket items.  Let’s kick the tires of the F-22 Raptor “stealth” fighter and the F-35 Lightning II “stealth” fighter-bomber.  First of all, stealth technology (involving esoteric and expensive radar absorbing and reflecting materials) adds billions of dollars to the sticker price of these planes, yet the need for this “option” is marginal (at best).  There’s little need to evade sophisticated radars in a world with only one superpower.

Leaving that aside, consider the effectiveness of previous American fighter jets, such as the F-15 Eagle (available in air superiority and “strike” versions), the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the F-18 Hornet (and Super Hornet), even the ungainly A-10 Warthog.  All of these planes are proven performers; they are also far cheaper than the F-22 and F-35, and arguably more effective.

Even our profligate Pentagon spenders stopped buying F-22s because at roughly $400 million a copy, they were just too expensive (and also too prone to killing their pilots).  Yet the Pentagon is persisting in plans to spend roughly $400 billion to acquire F-35s (despite serious teething pains and horrendous cost overruns), even though older and more reliable models like the A-10 or F-18 are perfectly capable of accomplishing the mission.

That’s the story of our military-industrial complex and the compliant representatives of the people who approve these foolish expenditures.  They’ll spend countless billions on the equivalent of new tail fins for their latest Cadillac fighter jet.  Harley Earl is laughing somewhere.

But what’s really obsolete is our thinking, which prefers the new and shiny, never mind the cost, all in the name of short-term profits for industry.  It’s an economic model that wasn’t sustainable in the automotive industry.  And it sure isn’t sustainable in military circles at a time of supposed fiscal austerity.

But, heck: We’re winning style points even as we imperil our economy.  Hooray, America!

Update 1 (10/3/2013): The Inspector General (IG) for the Department of Defense has identified 719 problems with the F-35 fighter-bomber.  Efforts to solve these problems will continue to drive up the per unit cost of the F-35.  Meanwhile, Predator and Reaper unmanned drones continue to supplant manned fighters.  And when we need a pilot in the cockpit, legacy fighters such as the F-15, F-16, and F-18 continue to perform the mission.

Actually, what matters more than new planes to combat effectiveness is the skill of pilots and the weapons attached to those planes.  Yet with the F-35 we continue to pursue the “bleeding edge” of aircraft technology — and hence our country continues to bleed scores of billions for a plane we arguably don’t need.  But we are scoring style points…

Update 2 (10/25/2013): For a detailed (and very sobering) article on the F-35 and all its problems, see Adam Ciralsky, “Will It Fly?” at Vanity Fair.  Link here.  Also useful is this article by JP Sottile.

b. traven and W.J. AstoreImage