Posted on March 23rd, 2011 No comments
Straw men are easy to construct and even easier to knock down. That’s really the idea isn’t it? Create a fake issue, then counter it, voila! Your argument is made and won, all in the same breath.
So it goes with Marty Padgett’s piece on carconnection, “Why Detroit Isn’t The “New” New Orleans“.
I was directed to this piece by John Voelcker, an associate of Padgett’s. I’ve read, argued with and agreed with John’s writing for years. Basically, John is a good guy and so, I am sure, is Mr. Padgett. Which leaves me wondering, what was the impetus for carconnection to deliver what’s really a flame at the people of Detroit. Was it really one sentence in some Jalopnik piece? And how many sentient beings out of their teens really take Jalopnik seriously about anything?
Let’s start with the straw man. Padgett writes…
They’re both withered and pretty much defenseless–but does that mean Detroit is the new New Orleans? Does it deserve some kind of federal intervention? Here’s what our colleague, Jalopnik editor @RayWert says:
“Detroit’s New Orleans-like loss of population received no telethons or FEMA assistance. America doesn’t care about Detroit people.”
About what I would expect from Jalopnik. And Padgett deftly explains that no, you don’t get FEMA assistance for the kind of slow burn economic disaster that’s befallen Detroit for the last two decades (or more). That’s obvious. And without reading the Gawker piece (after years of wasting my time, I just don’t bother giving Nick Denton the click) I can’t really further delve into why Wert wrote what he did. Nor do I care to. I’m much more interested in what Padgett wrote for his site.
My argument with Padgett begins here:
And yet Detroit got cash anyway. The city and its suburbs–via automakers and by extensions, suppliers, employees, and dependents–received billions in bailout loans in 2009 that probably prevented the city’s head count from falling twice as far.
We have to parse this one carefully to really see the folly contained inside. On the exterior, it seems to a reasonable, common sense remark but it isn’t and here’s why.
“Detroit” didn’t get the “cash”. GM, Chrysler and Ford have been getting the cash. The difference is enormous. That, for the most part, GM, Chrysler and Ford care really care less about Detroit and the other former locations where they once made cars is self-evident. In the rush to “stay competitive” the big three have off-shored as much production as they possibly can ignoring any tie to the communities left behind in the desolation.
Then Padgett drops the trickle down bomb, “The city and its suburbs–via automakers and by extensions, suppliers, employees, and dependents–received billions” but it’s a weapon of misdirection. Again, the people of Detroit, the city of Detroit didn’t get this money. The automakers who have become pseudonymous with the city they once built cars in got the cash. Some of that federal largesse went to facilities in Detroit, much of it, arguably most of it, did not. None of it went to the people of Detroit or the city of Detroit to help them grapple with the problems they face.
That doesn’t even begin to account for the ongoing subsidies Detroit gets indirectly from federal programs for investing in green-car technology and in sub-federal money that keeps factories alive when they probably weren’t viable on their own account.
Again, the difference between the city receiving monies and the car companies, two thirds of which are now located the suburbs surrounding the city, cashing in is enormous. In many cases the big three have invested that subsidy money, as they have to, domestically. Have that money been spent in Detroit? No, not in its entirety by any means.
As for factories that “weren’t viable on their account” who is to blame for that? The people of Detroit? Are they somehow less productive employees than other places? Or maybe it’s the city of Detroit, maybe the city itself is to blame? I think the blame for the viability of factories rests solidly, but not solely, on the car companies, their managers and executives. Those same executives, by the way, who have been real benefactors of the government bailouts Padgett mentions. Those execs have been collecting their salaries and bonuses while their former factories decayed and their business models were invalidated. Blaming it on the city or on the employees isn’t just wrong, it’s malicious.
Padgett continues to erect straw creations for ceremonial burning…
The second point’s much worse. “America doesn’t care about Detroit people” is political plutonium.
And then he launches into some sideways thing about George Bush. Look, honestly, America doesn’t much care about Detroit any more than it cares about Wilkes-Barre, Cleveland, Gary, Pittsburgh, Rochester, South Bend, Flint or Milwaukee (to name just a few cities). America, passively or otherwise seems to be pretty comfortable allowing the industrial part of our economy to wither and die only to be replaced by the service economy, yes, a nation of fast food and hotel employees. I don’t want to get off track and dig into the politics of all of that but I do think it bear mentioning that if we, as a nation, cared about this sector of the economy and the cities and states that depended on it, we might have talked about building other things or modifying the ways we build things here. Instead, most of us were perfectly content to encourage and subsidize the big three to move as much manufacturing out of this country as possible. If that is “caring” I’ll take apathy.
It’s inflammatory, much like the Jalopnik post that inspired Padgett to write what he did but I do think there is something valid in the comparison. Not a direct one to one comparison, life and reality is seldom that simple. But as a metaphor things like the image below help us see things differently. They force to re-evaluate the so odiously misnamed common wisdom and perhaps, see more truth than we did before. This is one of the first page of Michael Moore‘s 1996 book, “Downsize This!”
The top image is the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that was bombed by Timothy McVeigh. The lower image is a closed factory in Flint. Before you dismiss the comparison, again, not a direct one, consider the following. The Murrah tragedy was the act of one man intentionally trying to destroy federal property and maim and kill. The second image, the Flint factory was the direct result of auto executives making intentional decisions to close a local factory, fire workers there and demolish the building. They’re not the same acts by any means but the point Moore makes in his book is simple and obvious, both acts had much the same results. Lives were ended prematurely. Families were destroyed. Communities were devastated. Was this the fault of those workers? Were they just not good enough? Did they deserve what they got?
In his second to last paragraph Padgett blames Detroit’s ills on, “the unions, and an overbearing, overburdened city government”. Notice what’s missing?
Padgett won’t get an argument from me that some unions have, at times, been out of control. But it’s difficult to blame the big three’s ills on the unions, after all, did the big three also sign onto all those contracts? If those contracts are burdensome or badly negotiated, why did they agree to them?
And Detroit’s civis issues have been well publicized. Their laughable civic government is, well, laughable. And not defend them but allow me to add this. Anyone who has ever run a business can understand this. A growing business is one that is typically much more simple to manage than one that is shrinking. Detroit has been a basket for a long time because of an ever more eroding tax base, and ever increasing burden of costs associated with managing a shrinking economy. For anyone, even the best of civic leaders, Detroit would be a serious challenge.
And ponder this for a moment, what’s been run worse? The city of Detroit, with no federal help and a shrinking economy or the big three car companies with tons of federal assistance and a mandate from the government that they are too big to fail?
Padgett closes with the follow…
New Orleans has levees. Detroit has denial. They’re both Achilles’ heels, but one doesn’t have to be.
Wow, game, set, match. If only Detroit would just pick itself up by its rusty bootstraps and be a real city, it wouldn’t be losing population at a ridiculous rate, turning over entire blocks into improvised gardens and still be host to innumerable empty factories, homes and offices.
I would say that there is some serious denial taking place but it isn’t on Detroit’s part. No, it’s denial from those of us who think that a city devastated by outsourcing, rampant with private enterprise management as malfaisant as the very worst of its civic mishandlers, can just bounce back with a good attitude and the power of positive thinking. Detroit, as a place full of people, is emblematic of the what’s happened to once vibrant middle class this country had. And we ignore that lesson at our own peril.
My note: The title of this piece is, obviously, a line from Pink Floyd’s “Time” which, for some reason I only half understand, was resonating in my head while I wrote this. -russell
Posted on March 11th, 2010 1 comment
And here’s where I rip CNN a new one.
Let’s face it, running a huge multi-national, like the proverbial sausage factory, isn’t pretty but that doesn’t stop millions of people from gobbling up the product.
This story, no matter how it ends, is going to be real ugly for Toyota.
Apparently, a person whom CNN describes as “former in-house defense attorney Dimitrios Biller” resigned from Toyota, cashing in a four million dollar severance package and walked out with more than 6,000 documents and emails from his former employer. In the article, Biller claims the documents are damaging to Toyota, “Not potentially, they are. They are very damaging,”
There’s little doubt in my mind that just about any lawyer could produce documents that were damaging to a former client. That’s the nature of legal representation, right or wrong, we’re only pondering half the story if we can’t admit that. So even under the best circumstances, this is going to be another nightmare for Toyota.
So the real question is, so what does he have? What do these documents show us?
So what did CNN learn?
The documents — some of which were reviewed by CNN — were sent by Biller to Toyota officials. There are numerous references to so-called “Books of Knowledge,” highly confidential information on design, safety systems and testing records allegedly generated by Toyota engineers on everything from roll-overs and roof safety to sudden unintended acceleration.
Here’s a photograph of one of the not-so-secret “Books of Knowledge” I took in January of 2009. It happens to be “the Book” for the third generation Prius. The man holding it is known simply as the “The Chief”. He’s Chief Engineer of the Prius, Akihiko Otsuka.
And this picture…
And this picture of The Chief actually consulting the book to respond to a question…
So, yeah, secret book of knowledge. The Chief referred to this “book”, well, folder, that appeared to contain a vast amount of very well organized data on the the third generation Prius, many times throughout the presentation and questioning.
Here’s how CNN described it;
highly confidential information on design, safety systems and testing records allegedly generated by Toyota engineers on everything from roll-overs and roof safety to sudden unintended acceleration.
Of course any company that designs and builds a car has this information. In fact, I would guess that every car company has this information on every vehicle they’ve made and yes, it’s confidential. Is that surprising or somehow “damaging” to Toyota?
Again, the question is, depends on what’s in there. But by no means does mere existence of this information mean Toyota has done something wrong. This is shoddy, tawdry reporting. Give me an example of something that’s damning from these documents which CNN claim they have examined. CNN does, later on, but it’s, well, read on please…
So far, we know an ex-Toyota lawyer grabbed a bunch of privileged communications and is now, now that he’s out and has his four very-large bonus, he’s claiming these documents are damaging.
Further on we read about a specific liability case. A case, as it turns out, which Biller defended Toyota in. The accident was a Camry rollover which Toyota settled for $1.5 million. The plaintiff’s lawyer in the case is quoted as saying,
Embry, who added Toyota provided just enough information to show Toyota vehicles “met the minimum standards.”
Perhaps sad but again, what I would expect from any company defending itself in a multi-million dollar and not proof of guilt by any means.
Again, from the CNN article:
Included in Biller’s documents is an e-mail he said he sent to his bosses summarizing negotiations. It says, “TMS [Toyota Motor Sales USA] concluded that it would be better to pay a premium to settle this case and avoid producing the ‘Books of Knowledge.’”
So Toyota decided to pay off this claim rather than divulge what is basically a blueprint for building the Prius, even more, they’re the results of building the vehicle using those plans and testing it. I’m sure there’s a lot of folks that would like to get that information for free. GM claims to have spent three quarters of a billion dollars designing, building and testing the Volt, so far. Who wouldn’t love to see “the Book” on the Volt? Do you think GM would fight to keep that information secret?
Although Toyota calls the materials “trade secrets,” Embry said,
So why, if Biller knew a judge had ordered all information produced, didn’t he produce it? He said he tried but was stopped by a superior who told him, “You have to protect the client at all costs.”
“Even if that includes,” Biller asked, “committing criminal acts or violating the law?”
The answer, Biller said, was yes.
Did he break the law? “No, I did as much as I could as a lawyer for a client to not break the law,” he said.
At least he follows orders.
Toyota says publicly that Biller is full of it and they will continue to fight to keep those documents private. I can’t blame them but I will add this, if there is something in there that is truly damning, I’d be at the head of the line to kick some Toyota ass. But the evidence has to be there. I won’t do it on the allegations of a former lawyer who left Toyota years ago because of a “nervous breakdown”, grabbed a bunch of privileged communications and then, four years later, threatens to make them public.
I want evidence. Where is the evidence? We have enough allegation and assumption on this issue. Enough to clog the news organs of this country all too much. Where are the real facts?
There’s no doubt CNN should be reporting this story. My question for them, when will they actually do some reporting? If their goal was act as flack for this former lawyer, job well done. If their goal was to inform the public, they haven’t really bothered to tell us anything important, have they?
And as I said at the top, there’s no way this can end well for Toyota. It just adds more ironic gasoline to the fire. Even if Toyota is successful in keeping “the Book” and rest secret, then they lose image wise. If they make it public, everyone gets everything they spent millions learning.
Yes, this is going to suck for Toyota.
And by the way, just for laughs, here’s The Chief and I later in the day…