Tone Makes the Difference – and GM CEO’s Is a Wreck

By RICK MELLERUP | Jan 09, 2019

If there is any justice, there is a special place in hell for Mary Barra, chairman and CEO of General Motors.

It was bad enough when GM announced on Nov. 26 it was laying off some 14,000 workers, cutting back production of smaller sedans such as the Chevy Cruze to concentrate on manufacturing larger vehicles, especially pickup trucks and SUVs, while simultaneously allocating more funds to developing electric cars.

But such a move was an understandable if regrettable reaction to market forces. Whenever the price of oil and gas drops, many Americans typically react by running out and buying larger automobiles, leaving smaller cars to collect dust on dealers’ lots. Sure, Barra should have been sentenced to at least 20 Hail Marys and 10 Our Fathers for announcing such layoffs on the Monday after Thanksgiving, but this country’s bigger-is-better mentality is just as much responsible.

Plus you have to give Barra and GM credit for realizing that gas prices will someday climb again and that consumers will eventually return to looking for fuel-efficient alternatives. Car makers and consumers have gone through the big cars-small cars cycle several times since the oil crisis of 1973. So a move toward electric cars, predicted to make up over 50 percent of new car sales by 2040, makes sense, and for once GM seems to be getting ahead of the curve instead of lagging behind.

No, Barra’s mortal sin wasn’t making a sensible if brutal business decision, but rather allowing GM to rub salt in the laid-off workers’ wounds by running “Join Our Family” TV commercials over the holidays that offered all customers an employee discount for a new vehicle purchase. This from a company that is busy throwing 14,000 family members out of the house.

Talk about tone deaf!

Tone is very important.

Over the holidays I returned to the town of Woods Hole on Cape Cod, visiting the Coast Guard station where I had served over 40 years ago and also partying with a friend of mine who now lives just a few miles from the base.

We became friends due to a highly unusual conversation that took place in Doyle’s in Tuckerton in the spring of 2008. Both progressives leaning toward democratic socialism, we were talking about that year’s primaries and somehow mentioned Pat Buchanan, the conservative commentator, author, columnist and broadcaster who was an adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan and who sought the Republican nomination for president himself in 1992 and 1996 before running on the Reform Party ticket in 2000. It turned out we had both respected Buchanan. Two left wingers actually liked Pat Buchanan!

That was because of two of his books, 1999’s A Republic, Not an Empire, and 2001’s The Death of the West. In the former, Buchanan argued that our foreign policy should follow the advice offered in George Washington’s farewell address and concentrate on the American continent and not overseas. In the latter he warned that western culture is imperiled by its lower-than-replacement birth rates while populations are exploding in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Hmm, America First positions including a withdrawal from being the world’s cop and a warning about increasing migration sound a lot like Donald Trump, right? But Dori and I freely admit we are not fond of Trump. So why did we like Buchanan?


We appreciated his well-researched and plainly written arguments. Trump, on the other hand, apparently has never read a book, to say nothing about writing one (yeah, right, he, not Tony Schwartz, penned The Art of the Deal – lol). Buchanan’s speeches, like his books, were well reasoned; Trump’s are nothing but doom and gloom and fear-mongering.

It is a matter of tone! When Buchanan argued for stricter immigration policies, he used numbers and history to make his point; Trump simply says Mexico is sending us its rapists. I can be persuaded by reason but not emotion, especially fear. Besides, I know many Mexicans who are hard workers and family people, not drug smugglers and rapists. Say they are depressing wages for unskilled U.S. workers and I can get into an intelligent conversation with you; dismiss such immigrants as disease-carrying animals and get away from me ASAP.

There is room for serious debate over issues such as immigration, trade and America’s military role in the world, but not for those who argue there are easy answers for every problem. Over the years, for example, I’ve heard far too many end-of-the-bar blowhards who have recommended using nukes to solve every foreign policy incident in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or North Korea. We’d all be dying of poisoning from radiation in the atmosphere, even if Russia or China hadn’t gotten involved. “Easy answers” usually have devastating unintended consequences and are mostly advocated by fools.

Back to Barra. Besides owing an apology to the laid-off GM employees, she owes one to taxpayers who saved her company a decade ago. Because although a plant in Ohio that calls itself the “Home of the Cruze” will be shuttered, that model will continue to be manufactured. In Mexico!

Still, the automobile industry, like so many others, is an international affair these days. Sure, our companies farm out factories to foreign lands – GM alone manufactures vehicles in 37 countries. On the other hand, according to Forbes, more vehicles were projected to be manufactured in the U.S. by foreign-owned companies than American companies in 2018, providing many thousands of jobs. So how outraged can we be?

It is, to a great degree, a matter of tone, and Barra’s is horrible. An appropriate hell for the GM head would be spending eternity driving a rusted-out 1976 Chevrolet Chevette. If you remember the Chevette, I’m sure you’ll agree that would be a 10th circle of hell Dante could have never imagined.

Rick Mellerup is a SandPaper staff writer.


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