Eighty years ago the giant American company, General Motors decided on a strategy to sell cars, not Just to sell cars but to convert first the United States into an automobile owning democracy. ‘Automobile’ – a heavy and clumsy word, conveyed subtle hints of free range, autonomy and capitalist self determination. ‘Car’ – on the other hand was redolent of old fashioned modes of transport like street cars and railway cars all public transportation.
Though it was never put in these terms, automobiles would be the motive power behind leaving the herd and joining the rat race.
Beginning in the twenties, GM conducted widespread PR campaigns against public transportation, particularly aimed at getting streetcars - trams - off the roads. streetcars, buses and trains were limiting to personal mobility GM said. Although no one had noticed those limitations before, GM was selling the idea that cars were the ticket to the wide open spaces of America, although few roads then existed to get to those wide open spaces and there wasn’t much to be done there, except for hikers, nature-lovers and gangsters looking for places to dump dead bodies.
General Motors, through a dummy corporation, began buying up tramways and shutting them down on the ground that they were old fashioned, slow and got in the way of cars. in collusion with Standard Oil of California and Firestone (tyres) GM bought the largest makers of buses in the US so that public and private transportation would not only be controlled by Detroit but tied to the internal combustion engine.
Americans loved their cars. Some early movies seemed to be more about cars than people and pretty soon the charms of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” were blown away in the exhausts from “Route 66” where you could get your kicks fleeing dead ends like New York and Boston for the wide open soullessness of Bakersfield Calif or Oklahoma City, which was ‘mighty pretty’.
‘A basketful of King Cobras’
Detroit built automobiles, big, clumsy vehicles with soft suspensions and inefficient engines. In the 1950s writer Tom McCahill reviewed new cars for Mechanix Illustrated magazine though he continually lambasted American automakers for their sloppy suspension and inefficient engines. He once criticised the suspension of Ford’s Edsel as so dangerous that "I wouldn't own one except with the export kit; without stiffer suspension, a car with so much performance could prove similar to opening a Christmas basket full of King Cobras in a small room with the lights out".
But McCahill was also a nationalist and went along with the US auto industry as it defied commonsense and continued building gas guzzlers. Of course, at that time, gasoline was priced in cents per gallon, not dollars. But California was already beginning to enforce fuel consumption and air pollution standards on cars, so they can’t say they didn’t know which way the wind was blowing. McCahill did tend to laugh at the small European and Japanese cars which were beginning to nibble at GM’s near monopoly on the US market.
“Unsafe at any Speed’
Fortunately for him he didn’t live to see the huge swing to those cars, although Ralph Nader's sensational expose, a book entitled “Unsafe at any speed” revealed that many American automobiles were extremely unsafe. The worst was the Chevrolet Corvair manufactured by General Motors. This car was becoming notorious for accidents involving spins and rollovers, and there were over 100 lawsuits pending against GM in connection to accidents involving the Corvair. Instead of fixing the problem immediately, GM at first attempted to smear and terrorise Nader, hiring private detectives to tap his phones and investigate his past, and hiring prostitutes to trap him into compromising situations. GM had tried intimidating McCahill some years earlier, but McCahill a strong, burly six footer, beat up GM’s goons, sending one to hospital. Nader sued GM and won a hefty award which he used to set up his environmental investigative NGO.
GM never learned. Until recently they were still trying to belittle the Japanese hybrids like the Prius while continuing to build the Hummer – the most environmentally unfriendly and criminally wasteful vehicle ever aimed at a civilian market
Last week, GM, once the world biggest and most profitable company, was in Washington along with Ford and Chrysler, literally begging the taxpayer’s representatives for a bailout. Nearly 50 years ago, George Romney, Mitt Romney’s daddy briefly rescued American motors (Nash, Judson, Jeep) from financial disaster and became so popular in Michigan that he was elected Governor. His son, running on his dad’s name was a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination this year. A few days ago, in the New York Times, Romney came out against any bailout, it would he said, be throwing good money after bad. He thought the auto industry should go bankrupt and then shed many of its workers and its obligations to its pensioners. It didn’t seem to him that government would have had to bailout out the workers and pensioners and the nearly five million people directly connected to the industry, making almost all the parts used in Detroit's products. Detroit actually manufactures little more than the engines and gear trains of its vehicles. It then buys in the seating and furnishing like instrumentation etc from outside suppliers.
The problem is that not only do mastodons like GM corrupt the public agenda, multiplying the pace of global warming; they occupy such a large area of what should be public space that governments feel obliged to come to their rescue with the aim of rescuing their workers and the economy at large.
Even Tom McCahill may have seen this coming. He didn’t quite agree with GM’s former Chairman and Eisenhower’s secretary of Defence, ‘Engine Charlie’ Wilson that “what was good for GM was good for America” but like many other Americans he didn’t see too much wrong with it.
GM and the unbridled, go-for-broke capitalism that it epitomised has left the United States and the world between the devil and the deep red ink, between catastrophic climate change and perpetual debt and penury. Our children and grandchildren will be paying for those mistakes well into the next century.
The media in Jamaica are in one of their periodic froths about violent crime and capital punishment. Homophobia, having been exhausted, has been given a break.
Nobody seems to be aware of the real disaster on the horizon, the economic collapse, starvation, privation and public unrest that are likely to follow.
Have you checked the increase in the number of ‘sturdy beggars’ on the road. Unemployment and privation are increasing, fast.
While the small hotels and soon, some of the larger ones, will be asking for a government bailout, the government is digging down the beaches and offering all sorts of incentives to foreign hoteliers.
And worse, it is negotiating with a consortium of foreign oligarchs to finally destroy what is left of the Jamaican environment: it is planning to increase the rapacious exploitation of bauxite, turning thousands of hectares of Jamaica into desert for a pittance and destroying our atmospheric quality for a chimera known as clean coal technology.
This particular piece of lunacy has gained some respectability because Barack Obama has seemed to endorse the idea that it is possible to use coal hygienically.
It isn’t. The technologies now existing will still produce enormous quantities of particulates and ozone harming chemicals as well as increase global warming. More, ‘clean coal’ uses so much water than all Jamaica will be suffering water shortages unless somebody (guess who) sets up desalination plants. And pumping the pollution into the ground of this seismically active country is guaranteed to produce a new kind of environmental catastrophe.
The intention is to rape the parishes of St Ann and Trelawny, to destroy the Cockpit Country, its precious environs and environment and all presumably, because the Jamaican ginnigogs either can’t read or are afraid of the Swiss, Chinese, and Russian ‘investors’ who are planning to devastate this country.
I challenge Mr Golding, the Prime minister, to explain to Jamaica how it is possible for us to get greater benefit out of tearing great holes in the landscape, and destroying farmland than it would be to plant food to feed ourselves.
I challenge Mr Golding to explain why it is better for us to depend on foreign exchange from tourism and remittances – a diminishing resource – than to depend on our own talent for growing food and feeding ourselves.
I want Mr Golding to explain why he feels no pain in watching half a million tons of Jamaican topsoil end up in Kingston Harbour annually when the 5,000 acres of topsoil it represents is lost to productivity.
I want him to explain why we should sacrifice our beaches and our recreational possibilities to allow foreigners to destroy our assets while exporting the profits of that destruction.
The government and the media seem to expect that crime can be solved by hanging or by sending out more lethal policemen. I am reminded of a conversation I had with Michael Manley after the elections of 1972. The sense of the discussion was as follows:
Well, I said, we have a mandate for our austerity programme, to straighten out Jamaica, rebuild the community, increase employment, cut the crime rates and ask people to sacrifice for the greater good.
John, he said, how can I implement that programme after the tremendous support that the people have given us. I said that the people had given us that support because they expected to be asked for sacrifice in the cause of real development. He told me that what I proposed was not practical.
Mr Golding and the rest of our Parliament apparently think so too.
In 1972 I lost my temper with Michael Manley. I am too old to repeat that mistake.
I do know though, that if we take our destinies into our own hands, take care of our children, restore our communities, use Jamaican hands to grow Jamaican food and build Jamaican infrastructure, we have a chance. Especially if we insist that we will not pay the extortionate debt charges.
And I believe most Jamaicans agree with me.
Copyright©2008 John Maxwell