Sunday, June 14, 2009
We had a falling-out, like lovers often will
And to think of how she left that night, it still brings me a chill
And though our separation, it pierced me to the heart
She still lives inside of me, we've never been apart.
Unlike Bob Dylan’s 1974 wistful song of an ill-fated love affair gone awry, America’s affair with the automobile is far from over. But as of last week, GM, who for years was without doubt the most popular girl at the party, is about to find out what it means to be alone on Saturday night.
Already, Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen and Hyundai have seen an increase in sales as a result of GM’s announcement that the once adored automaker has entered Chapter 11. America has always has a wondering eye when it comes to our insatiable consumption for consumer goods. But if the trend toward foreign femme fatales continues, our homegrown dance card is going to start to resemble something closer to a well-traveled passport.
Let's face it. Relationships are complicated. And GM’s relationship with America is no exception. Since 1908, the Flint, Michigan, automaker has sparked the imagination of America for over a century. So much so that the old adage, “as goes General Motors, so goes the nation,” wasn’t just some trite expression. It was an enduring term of endearment.
For years, we were obsessed with her stylish, shapely body; her lean, aerodynamic curves; her tight, taut lines. But as time went by, we grew bored and she grew complacent. And in recent years, GM all but completely let herself go— continuously losing market share to a barrage of suitors who weren’t afraid to appeal to our vanity. And it certainly didn’t help that she was going through money like it was going out of style.
And while we’ll probably never be able to pinpoint the exact moment the bloom was finally off the rose, one thing’s certain: It didn’t happen overnight.
As recent as December 2005, Business Week was banging the drum about the possibility of a GM bankruptcy. But then-Chairman and CEO Rick Wagner blindly dismissed the rumblings, declaring that Chapter 11 was contrary to the interests of "our employees, stock- and bondholders, dealers, suppliers and customers." A heartfelt entreaty, indeed.
But with 100,000 employees on the verge of losing their jobs, GM stock essentially worthless, and close to 4,000 dealerships on the chopping block, it turns out that in the end Wagoner only hurt the ones he loved.
There’s no question General Motors was once a great company. But like so many of those back pages we look upon with misplaced affinity and affection, maybe in the end the attraction really was only physical. Perhaps in hindsight it’s best that GM and America take a break. Who knows? Maybe the time apart will do both of us some good.
There’s always a tinge of shame associated with a failed relationship. GM, however, doesn’t have anything to be ashamed of. Admittedly, the federal government's decision to put the brakes on our relationship with GM has resulted in the fourth largest U.S. bankruptcy on record. But GM can take solace in the fact that three of the biggest bankruptcies in our nation's history—GM, the failure of Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual—have all occurred in the last nine months.
These aren’t just trying times for GM; they are trying times for America. A shattered financial system, a real estate market in disrepair, a workforce weakened by the highest unemployment levels in a generation. History comes in ebbs and flows. GM, it seems, just got caught on the wrong side of a financial tidal shift.
Maybe bankruptcy is the best thing that could happen to GM— and frankly the best thing that could have happened to us, too.
We’ve invested a lot in our relationship with GM. Close to $19.4 billion in at last count. But even that wasn't enough to keep the nation's largest automaker in the black. Now the government is on the verge of putting another $30 billion into GM just to keep it afloat while management restructures. And while this isn’t the end of the road for GM, those carefree, top-down days are undoubtedly a distant reflection in the rear view mirror.
So how does all of this relate back to Bob Dylan? It doesn’t. Not directly anyway. Bob Dylan has always been more of a train guy. But despite the relative absence of automobiles in his 500+ song repertoire, Dylan is hardly immune to America’s infatuation with cars.
If you need proof that the mystique has a hold on him, too, look no further than the 2007 ad promoting the launch of GM’s Cadillac Escalade. Dylan offers not only his endorsement, but utters the closing line, “What’s life without the occasional detour?”
At the end of the day, the mental road block GM seems to having a hard times getting around is accepting the fact that maybe the only way to save the corpulent car maker is to set it free.
GM advertises the fact they want us back
In an ad GM is running right now, GM says ‘they get it.’ The times have changed; they've changed; and now they want us to take them back.
We’ll think about it, GM. But in the meantime, don’t wait by the phone…
If you see her, say hello, she might be in Tangier
She left here last early spring, is livin' there, I hear
Say for me that I'm all right though things get kind of slow
She might think that I've forgotten her, don't tell her it isn't so.