You remember Stuart Smalley, on Saturday Night Live, reassuring himself with his mantra, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough. . . Every discussion of the economic crisis by members of either political party begins with laudatory comments about how productive American workers are, how creative and gifted our entrepreneurs are. Then answer me this – why have American automobiles, which have lagged behind Japanese cars in quality rankings for decades, fallen even farther behind in 2009? What if, when we summon our best efforts, we just can’t cut it?

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The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, March 15, 2009. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

What if Americans aren't good enough?

You remember Stuart Smalley, on Saturday Night Live, reassuring himself with his mantra, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough. . .

Every discussion of the economic crisis by members of either political party begins with laudatory comments about how productive American workers are, how creative and gifted our entrepreneurs are. Sometimes, to allay our anxieties, they point out parallel economic woes in other economic powers, like Japan.

Car wreckHas anything been in the news (besides banks) more than automobile manufacturers lately? Then answer me this - why have American automobiles, which have lagged behind Japanese cars in quality rankings for decades, fallen even farther behind in 2009? What if, when we summon our best efforts, we just can't cut it?

I rely for my data on Consumer Reports (which, I admit, could be part of the communist conspiracy). In its April issue, CR evaluates the "bang for the buck" of each car - that is the quality and performance of cars per the cost to purchase, run, and maintain them. Of the 41 top cars in nine categories (e.g., upscale, small, minivans, pickups), 17 were Toyotas and 10 Hondas.

So perhaps America makes the best luxury cars (you remember Cadillacs). The five upscale cars listed as superior are Toyota, Infiniti (Nissan), Acura (Honda), and two Lexuses (also Toyota). Overall, of 41 superior value automobiles, 38 were Asian. Rounding out the total were one Swedish and two German autos.

Of the 38 superior cars manufactured by Asians, 35 are produced in Japan.  But the three others - Hyundais made in Korea - are actually the scariest.  Hyundai produced its first automobile for the Korean market in 1975, three-quarters of a century after the first automobile was mass produced in the United States, and it is now surpassing our cars.

How could there be no American car on the "bang for the buck" list, especially now that American manufacturers have slashed their prices so that their products are often the least expensive? Consider the article's opening paragraph:

If you're trying to get the most for your money when buying a new family car, you might think that a $20,900 four-cylinder Chrysler Sebring would be a better buy than a $24,800 Toyota Prius Touring. But . . .Prius is one of the best values you can buy, while Sebring ranks near the bottom of its class. (This discrepancy is due to quality, repairs, resale value, fuel efficiency.)

So even if extravagant worker benefits contribute so many dollars to the cost of American cars, it's not the pricing of autos that's the problem. It's the crappy cars Americans produce.  (This does not really eliminate the factor that we pay our workers more.  It simply passes the buck down the line to the consideration that we are no longer superior enough to justify our superior standard of living.)

Okay, one last piece of data. The same issue of CR asks "Who makes the best cars?" Of the 15 manufacturers rated, Honda is way out in front with a 78 score, followed by Subaru and Toyota. Other manufacturers string out through the 70s. The two lowest ranked are Chrysler (48) and General Motors (57) - the only two companies with scores lower than 60. Ford was 12th, with a 63.

(Ford, the one American automaker which didn't take a bailout, is clearly in a different category from the others, and is the most likely to succeed in the twenty-first century.  Its ratings still indicate it has a way to go, and don't really revise the questions being asked here.  But Ford has created the first viable American hybrid, the Fusion.  The bad news - the Fusion is being made in Mexico.)

Perhaps American manufacturers aren't aware that their cars are inferior. Just dial up one of the Big Three's PR machines to be informed that CR's ratings are full of crap. (I told you it was a communist rag, didn't I?)

On the other hand, perhaps we in the United States are incapable of disciplining ourselves and putting out the effort required to make a good car. Maybe we no longer recognize and appreciate quality (see politicians' pabulum and Big Three PR, above). Or maybe, even when we try, we don't have the ability, as a nation and as individuals, to beat out other nations through our performance. Just a thought.