Wednesday, April 01, 2009

no more hummer nation

NYTimes | How big do we need to be to still feel American? How big can our national debt grow? How big can our cars be? And how big is our clout abroad these days? Will Michelle’s style in Europe make as big a splash as Carla Bruni-Sarkozy’s?

The cowboy push by W. and Dick Cheney to be a hyperpower and an empire left America a weakened and tapped-out power, straining to defend its runaway capitalism even as it uneasily adapts to its desperation socialism.

How do we come to terms with the gluttony that exploded our economy and still retain our reptilian American desire for living large? How do we make the pursuit of the American dream a satisfying quest rather than a selfish one?

Many people were wringing their hands about the president forcing the resignation of Wagoner, whose G.M. lost $82 billion in the last four years, took $13.4 billion in bailout money and asked for $16.6 billion more, even as the carmaker’s market share melted from 33 percent to 18 percent and its stock slid from more than $70 a share to less than $4 — about the price of a couple gallons of gas.

But Mr. Obama’s move was bracing, a sign, at long last, that the president will not tolerate failure, not when he has to print all the money in the universe to underwrite obtuseness. Wagoner showed no foresight or willingness to curb an unhealthy appetite for the big. He failed to eliminate brands and launched the Hummer line in 2001. (Hummers remain icons of power in Iraq.)

“I thought it was absolutely bizarre,” said Maryann Keller, an independent automotive analyst, adding that “it was aimed at people who didn’t know what to do with the money they had. It was discretionary spending by males who clearly had other cars in their garages.”

Wagoner stuck to gas-guzzling pickups and S.U.V.’s long after it was clear that higher gas prices meant he should vary the fleet with more fuel-efficient vehicles.

The Iran hostage crisis in 1979 put America on notice that future relations with the Middle East would be volatile and that we had better get some methadone or ethanol or switch grass or something and get over our addiction to oil.

But Detroit defiantly stuck its head in the sand. A lot of longtime auto watchers felt relief and excitement at Wagoner’s crisp dismissal, knowing that the reckoning is at last here. The problems in the car industry have been so apparent for so long, and the failure to face up to them and move into a greener future has been so frustrating.

President Obama must nurse us through our affluenza, addressing both our visceral need to be big and our cerebral decision to be leaner — and much, much smarter.