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The Rise and Fall of Detroit

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When I was growing up, some kids dreamed of owning cars like a Trans Am, Camaro, Firebird, Corvette, Chevelle or GTO. Stock or tricked out, owning one of the fastest street cars that American automakers turned out was a dream come true. Mustangs were for the West Coast. Chevy ruled the road on Long Island in the1960's and 70's.

Back then, in the middle class neighborhood where I grew up, foreign cars were for foreigners. As fuel economy began to become an issue, NOBODY in my neighborhood gave a thought to buying a Japanese car. Nobody. OPEC appeared and gas shortages came and went. You went Ford, Chevy, Chrysler. That was it. I have a feeling that it was like that in most American middle class neighborhoods back then.

The fact that we have arrived where were are now is painful. Americans, who are being asked to invest billions upon billions of dollars in US automakers and their employees' futures, have already been investing in those companies, against their better interests, for decades. Now Chrysler is dead, GM is on critical life support and Ford has cancer but may beat it.

What do you care?

The heads of these corporations did not spend the last thirty years lying in bed each night, sleepless. They did not turn their spouses in the wee hours and say, "How do I serve the automotive needs of the American public and better protect their health and safety AND help them conserve energy?" They never said that.

Instead, they spent billions of dollars attempting to bribe the Congress to avoid putting in seat belts and air bags, installing catalytic converters and reaching more ambitious fuel efficiency standards. For the most part, they succeeded. Congress approached those issues with the same combination of sentiment, fealty and fear that Detroit's customers accepted. It was said to be "bad for Detroit." Little did we know that falling for that bull for so long was what was bad for Detroit. Now, the American automotive industry, once the industrial pride of this country and a source of so many great paying jobs that changed the economic fortunes of millions of Americans in assembly, parts, dealerships and service, is about to go away.

What do you care?

I feel horribly for every single man and woman who will suffer as the result of this heartbreaking turn of events. I was the voice of Chevy Tahoe TV spots for five years in the early 90's. I drove a Tahoe then and loved it. Now, I drive a Prius.

I've owned Mercs, Chevys, Fords and Jeeps. I'm in the market for a new car now. I'll probably get a hybrid from a Japanese company, manufactured at a transplant factory in the American South. (Read the excellent recent article in the New Yorker by Peter Boyer about the path the Big Three and the UAW took to get here.) I'd like to buy an American car, but I'd feel like a fool doing that now. The leadership of the biggest automakers made sure of that.

There can be only one legitimate response to this crisis. Let energy conservation and fuel efficiency rule the day. Let the carmakers go under. In the same way we have subsidized Big Oil by destabilizing the governments of petroleum rich countries, or outright invading them, we have subsidized Detroit long enough. Just as every barrel of oil is undervalued because we do not factor in that portion of the defense budget that helped bring that oil to market, so we have undervalued our government's, and therefore our, complicity in producing cars that not only were inferior, but drove Detroit itself right off a cliff.

From the ashes of such great innovation, hard work, beautiful design and extraordinary branding-as-myth-making, let's have better cars.

From the ashes of arrogance, greed and corporate cowardice, let's have better cars.

Until then, pull the plug.