David Rothkopf

Ever wonder why the fast and the furious were actually so furious?

In March, for the third month in a row, more cars were sold in China than in the United States. Admittedly, there are many more Chinese. But this is a sign of a permanent change in the structure of the global auto industry that even an army of car czars will not be able to ...

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In March, for the third month in a row, more cars were sold in China than in the United States. Admittedly, there are many more Chinese. But this is a sign of a permanent change in the structure of the global auto industry that even an army of car czars will not be able to reverse. Even if we had car czars that actually knew something about the industry. Even if the American auto industry did not think the height of innovation was the reintroduction of a 1960s muscle car for the Vin Diesel crowd like the new(ish) Camaro. (Although even tuners prefer to nitro boost foreign-made vehicles as well illustrated in this week’s gearhead superhit, the subtle and heart-breakingly beautiful, Fast and Furious.) 

Last week, in the lead story in the New York Times, we also saw that China was actually going to have something like twice as many electric cars as the United States in the next couple years and that the country was poised to lead in electric car technology. While we actually could be competitive on the technology front, the problem we have with electric cars runs deeper. American car owners want longer range, faster, more powerful vehicles than the Chinese (and consumers in many other countries). Sure, I’ll take your damn green car, we say helpfully, but only if it is the same as the gas-guzzling, road-rocket I’m used to. Oh, and please be sure it has three rows of seats, a beer cooler in the glove compartment and twin flat panel screens so the kiddies don’t have to watch the same episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants (because we don’t want them fighting over which life lesson they will gather from their favorite gay underwater kitchen implement).

In other words, our consumers don’t look like the consumers in the rest of the world. That’s been a challenge to American car makers for some time (the appetite of international consumers for smaller cars led to the rise of the Japanese, European, and later Korean auto industries at the expense of American manufacturers). But with the rise of China and India and other emerging car markets and the more willing embrace of greener standards in everything by Europeans, our consumers are sending a market signal to car makers in the United States that is just completely out of whack with much of the rest of the planet. 

Some of that is, of course, due to the success car manufacturers, oil companies and others have had in keeping U.S. mileage standards artificially low and in dragging their feet on efficiency. Some of it may be due to the same auto manufacturers’ ability to persuade American men that cars are somehow direct extensions of their penises. (Oddly, I don’t know that the reputation of French lovers or other Latin lovers has suffered because they drove Renaults or Fiats…even if it should have. In fact, I know for a fact that the very handsome and irresistible editor of Foreign Policy drives a Smart car that looks like a toaster on a roller skate and yet, still the legions of policy groupies gather each day outside the FP headquarters just to catch a glimpse of him.) But part of it is that American consumers are spoiled and have gigantic rear-ends that don’t fit in little tiny car seats. The Obama administration can help to change this (the auto innovation and buying habits parts) with new standards and with incentives for car makers and car buyers to invest in more efficient cars going forward. U.S. consumers will also have a role to play in all this too, of course…they will have to respond to the incentives. (As for the rear ends, all of you now: clench…maintain…release…clench…maintain…release.) But the cultural shift we need can’t just stop there. For one thing, it might be helpful if U.S. politicians stopped referring to the Big Three as “the U.S. auto industry,” since there are hundreds of thousands of Americans employed by great companies that contribute to American growth like Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai, Mercedes, and BMW. And who knows, if we took that step, we might actually be a step closer to tuning out the idiot-populism currently clouding this issue such as that by people like noted auto industry economist John Rich (of country music’s only economically titled duo Big and Rich). Writes Rich in his current hit “Shuttin’ Detroit Down”...

Cause in the real world they’re shuttin’ Detroit down,
While the boss man takes his bonus paid jets on out of town.
DC’s bailing out them bankers as the farmers auction ground.
Yeah while they’re living up on Wall Street in that New York City town,
Here in the real world they’re shuttin’ Detroit down.”

Admittedly, this is poetry. Neither Shakespeare nor later day innovators like Bukowski never dared experiment with anything quite so incomprehensibly moving as “DC’s bailing out them bankers as the farmers auction ground.” But the song does have so many flaws you couldn’t have hid them all under Carrie Underwood’s gigantic dress at last Sunday’s Academy of Country Music Awards. Not the least of them being that a.) as noted earlier many of the auto companies in America are neither the “big three” nor are they doing anywhere as badly as the big three and, oh yes, b.) D.C. is actually bailing out Detroit, too. (Although it’s still a horse race to see which bailout packages are actually less successful. I’m splitting my bet. We’ll waste more money on Wall Street but dollar for dollar we’ll be less successful in Detroit.)

Because in the end, we also need to recognize, adjust to and respond with creativity and innovation to the fact that there are secular trends afoot that make it increasingly unlikely that so-called American brands will ever dominate worldwide as they once did. Even if we do reduce the size of those ginormous tushies.  

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

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