Tuesday, March 31, 2009

More About GM

Looking down on a lighted walkway in Detroit's Renaissance Center, and, below that, a display of GM cars.
I never did figure out how to actually get to that walkway.

My family continued to weigh in on the troubles of the Big Three auto makers. In the comments on my last GM post, Brock Yates Jr., second cousin on my dad's side, referred to his dad's recent critique of the Big Three, Grosse Pointe Blank.
The Big Three’s bosses work is unlike that of any other boss of a major manufacturing operation. In a sense, they must function more like television or movie executives. They must link with their audiences’ daily lives– and dreams– or lose business. They must be one with their sales people– and the “real” people.

And yet, the geography of the business and its “show biz” component makes the men who run Detroit's car companies a culture unto themselves. They live in fancy houses well away from inner city squalor; their private clubs are among the finest in the world. Their social set links them with each other, and connects the major companies like Europe’s nobility linked eighteenth century nation states. They are seldom fired, downgraded or even moved laterally. They are stars in their own little universe. but this universe is distant, and finite.

You could even say these execs live cloistered lives. The Motor City’s Princes and Kings have more privilege and perks than other major executives, yet remain behind closed doors. They make millions from but rarely deal with the Union men who actually build the cars upon which their livelihoods depend. PR flacks protect them from the snooping media. And they seldom deal with the public– beyond an occasional visit to a motor show or a speech written by their media men delivered to some fawning special interest group.

In the world of powerful men, here or in Europe, few live within such a bizarre combination of privilege and insulation.

Like many bosses in industries under assault from "barbarians," Detroit’s isolated auto execs work tirelessly to maintain the status quo. Safe in their gilded cages, they continue to ignore their customers' changing needs. And they continue to build the same products over and over: the same damn automobiles that their fathers and grandfathers built.
There is a lot of meat, even in these few paragraphs. The auto execs' implicit assumption is that America will buy what Detroit decides to produce. When we can't or won't buy they cry foul, even though many of us bought American vehicles long past the point where it made sense.

My parents were loyal GM buyers for decades. They lived in a GM town, Mom had grown up in a GM family, worked at GM on summer break when she was in college. Grandma and Grandpa were retired on a GM pension. When Mom's last GM car spontaneously combusted with a few thousand miles on the odometer, she called the dealer to report the unusual event. At least my mom thought that having to escape from a flaming automobile in the course of an otherwise normal drive to town was an unusual event. Nobody at GM seemed surprised, or apologetic, or even curious. Her hometown Chevy dealer said "You're in luck! I've got another one like it right here!" assuming that she would collect her insurance money and settle into an identical vehicle. that was the end of a lifetime relationship.

My brother Chris, the small business guru, describes a hierarchy of customer loyalty:
.....I’m always looking out for good and bad customer experiences. Like many of you, I keep a mental list of businesses that I’ve placed on “probation” (I’m not going there for awhile), “double secret probation” (Why did I come back here again?) and “boycott status” (I’m not ever coming back here again!).
For most products and services companies move down the ladder of shame one step at a time, and even a monumental experience like my Mom's could be turned into a positive experience if the customer is treated with respect and empathy. Taking customer loyalty for granted is deadly.

If GM was losing my parents' generation, they never had my generation. When I was in high school, during the first oil crunch, the gear heads were already dividing up into two groups: there was the "go fast" group, but there was also the guys looking to stretch their paychecks by eeking more mileage out of their vehicles. Cousin Brock Jr accurately describes how GM failed to honor that subset of car lovers:
During the first fuel crisis in 1973 consumers witnessed the contempt Detroit had for the marketplace as they tried to discredit small cars with such swill as the Pinto, Vega and Pacer. This allowed the Japanese and Germans footholds in the country where before they were less than niche brands. Over time, as the executives became more insulated from the marketplace, they become increasingly incapable of understanding what consumers wanted and started losing market share.
I always thought I would someday buy a GM car, once they got their act together and built a car for the future, one with breakthrough gas mileage. GM has tantalized people like me with various concept cars, basically holding off the environmentalists' criticisms by showing us technology that was perennially "on the horizon." Suddenly it's the future already. Everyone from our governor to the electric company to the county extension agent is bullish on wind energy, expecting GM to honor its 2010 launch date for the plug-in hybrid Volt. While Michigan's cheerleaders are looking for GM to help turn the state around, automotive insiders are skeptical, as Jack Lessenberry notes in a recent column:

Now, people are pinning their hopes on the Chevy Volt, the new electric car scheduled to go into production next year. Last week, I talked to the man who may be most responsible for making electric and hybrid cars happen, the legendary Stanford Ovshinsky.

He was the principal inventor of the nickel-metal-hydride battery that powers your cell phone. He worked for years on an earlier GM attempt to build an electric car, the EV-1, until GM got cold feet.

If you want to know more about that, go rent the movie "Who Killed the Electric Car," in which Stan and his late wife Iris play starring roles. Stan, by the way, recently launched a new company, got remarried, and is working as hard as ever. And why not? He is only 86. I asked him about the Volt. "Well, it is a start," he said. "They will probably sell a few thousand, but... they are fourteen years behind the Japanese." Back in the 1990s, he went to Japan and saw that the hybrids were coming. He tried to tell GM, "and they laughed at us. They said they would never work, or sell."

Ovshinsky hopes the Volt is a success. But, as he noted, the company still hasn't decided on the battery to run it. The car will also cost more than $40,000, out of many people's reach.

It's so tempting to throw up our hands and let the car companies sink or swim on their own. Here in Michigan, things are more complicated. It's not just that Michigan's economy is intertwined so thoroughly with the auto industry. Michigan is a place where people know how to do things, to grow things, to make things.

This era's broad declarations about the new "idea economy" sound just as stupid and unsustainable as the broad announcement of the new "service economy" did back in the 1980's. America's auto industry is the backbone of our nation's manufacturing industry, the same "we can do it" people that churned out the tanks, planes, and armaments that won WW II. Lately we have been experimenting with outsourcing almost all of our nation's manufacturing, and a lot of the food production, to whoever could promise to do it cheapest. Even in peacetime this outsourcing gave us lead in the toys, fake medicine, and melamine in the pet food. Could you imagine if we were actually at war?

Maybe my dad gets at the root of the problem when he talks about the adversarial relationship between management and union workers. Union workers, with no big war to win, went to work winning better contracts and better benefits. Somewhere along the line, the auto workers went from leading the way in improving the lot of the working people to becoming an elite class onto themselves, with benefits (cosmetic surgery? free legal advice?) that leave the rest of us shaking our heads. Management seems to have missed the news that American workers as a whole have seen stagnant wages and increased costs over the past twenty years. We just can't afford to buy a new car every three years, no matter how much they spend on advertising.

Maybe my kids' generation is key. They are so overexposed to advertising hype that they seem practically immune. Many twenty-somethings like cars, for road trips, but aspire to be car-free in their day to day lives. Paying for car insurance, car payments, and running the risk of getting pulled over on the way home from a night out seems like a rat race, without even thinking about the hassles of actually commuting to work. No wonder they are looking at walkable communities and filling the Amtrak trains. What would you have to build to sell to the next generation? I have an idea that the answer is something as far from today's cars as the Model T was from a horse and buggy.

It all looks to me like that picture of the lighted walkway at the Renaissance Center. The people on that walkway were going somewhere, talking to each other, busy at their tasks, never noticing the rest of us. Now they need a bridge loan? Maybe they should walk alongside the rest of us, and we'll talk about it.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Produce Under Snow

The garden at 8 pm -- not yet dark but certainly dusk.

We had yet another snowstorm early Sunday, with a fresh new 6 inches of wet snow. The sun is high these days, as high as it is at the end of August, but it never seems to burn down to the bare ground of the garden. under that snow there are parsnips and carrots overwintered, arugula, parsley and French sorrel ready to poke through, and a big crop of rhubarb gathering up all the snow melt moisture. I have already been cutting chives, thyme, and oregano from the bed up by the house, but that got covered again on Sunday.

The warmest bed, down by Richard's shop, had lettuce and arugula already sprouting from seeds that fell off the bolted plants last fall. I'm trying to figure a way to start parsnips inside (in toilet paper tubes?) since they grow so slowly that they tend to get lost in the weeds. Spring harvested parsnips are a sweet and tasty treat, even if they didn't come in early spring when we are craving garden produce.

We are still eating canned tomatoes, dried tomatoes and peppers, apples held in the basement, dried apricots, pickles from the gallon jar in the fridge, frozen blueberries, cherries, and pesto, and garlic from the basement. I'm ready to plant peas as soon as I can find some bare ground. The chickens are really thinking spring -- they're laying at full tilt and I'm hoping it warms up enough to put a broody hen on some eggs.
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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Sugarloaf Petition

I still have my Sugarloaf sweatshirt.

I just signed the Sugarloaf Petition. It asks the county to purchase and redevelop the closed and deteriorating Sugarloaf Ski Resort as a Brownfield Redevelopment project.

I'm not a skier, but I sure appreciated the winter business that the ski resort brought into the county. The resort has been closed and neglected since 2000. At various times the owner was in jail for tax evasion, the new owner was rumored to have bought the place to house a rehab center, and several parties have tried to buy the place but were thwarted by the odd business practices of the nominal owner.

Friends have seen squatters living in the building. Kids have taken to exploring the abandoned buildings and some were caught lighting fires. The roof was reported to be leaking about five years ago already; I'm sure that mold alone is enough to qualify it as a brownfield. I'm glad to see Chauncey Shiflett, my county commissioner, taking the lead in this.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


They got out the chainsaws and the beer last Sunday and cut a "partyberg" out of the ice of Lake Leelanau. The big berg got hung up somehow and wouldn't float down the river, so the chainsaws came out again and pretty soon there were two partybergs. Liz took this picture near the end of the ride. She saw one guy jump completely into the river to "save the beer". Soon after this the dog in the picture bailed out and swam for shore.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Ice Castles

The beach at Reynolds Street in Leland.

I spent most of the day driving down to Kalamazoo to pick Liz up from the train station. I was irritated to find that snow had fallen again, glazing the pavement from Bingham to Cadillac, allowing me to drive about 45 mph at most. Her train was early and I was a few minutes late, but we met and enjoyed conversation the whole ride home.

Living in the snow, I tend to think about how to best get from here to there. Coming from Chicago, Liz wanted to see what the beach looked like. We gathered up Anna and headed off to Leland to find ice stretched almost to the islands. Anna wanted to climb the ice foothills, but we know that those lumps are often hollow and if you fall through you will be in a ice cave filled with icy water and the roof far above you.

This winter has dragged on and on, but these late winter scenes are more and more extravagant. The landscape is transformed daily, if not hourly. It's nice to have Liz here for a few days to drag me out to see it all.
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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

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Snow Totals

Our four foot chain link fence with our 4+ accumulation of snow.

The weather varies wildly, up to 46 today and down to the teens tomorrow with 50 mph winds. The good news is that there's not much snow predicted in the next storm. The bad news is that the last storm was predicted to be "2 to 6 inches".

The reality, here in Leelanau, was as much as 23 inches (just north of Leland) in our yard well over a foot. It fell at a rate of 3.5 inches per hour, or as my neighbor Kathleen put it, "It fell like cement." Kathleen is just back from two years in Thailand in the Peace Corps. She found the snowfall to be thrilling. The rest of us are sick of winter, but I saw more than a little pride in how fast roads, driveways and sidewalks were cleared. Shoveling snow when it's 40 degrees and sunny is far superior to shoveling when it's 10 degrees and bleak.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Thunder Snow

On the eastern edge of one of the Great Lakes, a thunder snow is often the first or last snow of the season. Last night was just a lot of wet snow, coming fast and furious for about four hours. Somehow, the snow was greasy on the bottom and blowing on top.

We kept table games open an hour later than usual, to accommodate the people who had stopped in because they couldn't make it home. I wasn't in a hurry to leave, as I wanted to wait until the plows could get out and make a dent on the main roads. As I dug my car out of the parking lot there was a front end loader clearing big bites of snow. At one point I saw it sliding backwards and sidewards down the driveway, dropping its blade to try to slow down. I inched down that driveway, sliding, but slowly, coming to a stop on the frozen chunks that were M-22.

I crept over the top of M-204 hill, not wanting to have too much momentum on the long downhill slope. My rider had to walk the last four blocks home though the village of Lake Leelanau, as there was no place to turn off the main highway. By that time it was a pleasant night, not too windy and surprisingly warm, so I wasn't too worried about him.

My heart sank as I got to French Road. There seemed to be no lane plowed at all, but at the last minute I saw a narrow lane in the snow bank and went for it. I had hoped to break through that last bank at my driveway, but my luck ran out. I ended up on top of the bank, wheels barely touching the ground, and I had to dig for the better part of an hour to get that last 12 inches of my car out of that narrow plowed lane. I was about done when the sheriff deputy came by and helped me back out and then push it the rest of the way off the road.

Richard got up at dawn and ran the snow blower, rescuing my car before the plow came by and buried it further. You can see where I strayed off the path last night, into thigh deep snow.
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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Drunk Herding

I'm still thinking and writing about GM, but I'm also in the middle of my 3 day work week, three 12 hour shifts in a row. the casino has been busy on the weekends, with a moderate amount of drunk monitoring. The video reminds me of a Saturday night.