DETROIT MISSES THE MARK, AGAIN

'HYPOCRISY is the homage vice pays to virtues," La Rochefoucauld wrote. Detroit's current battle against fuel efficiency and imported minivans is a case in point.Despite the war in the Gulf, the auto oligopoly once again is fighting efforts to improve automotive fuel economy, to reduce America's gasoline consumption, and to lessen the nation's dependence on geopolitically vulnerable foreign oil. With theatrical flourish, the auto giants are wrapping themselves in the flag of "free consumer choice.It is our customers who determine the fleet fuel efficiency by the kinds of vehicles they purchase," the Big Three proclaim. "It's not a matter of what the manufacturers can do, it's what people buy." They castigate "command-and-control" government fuel-economy standards which, they protest, "run contrary to consumer choice." But did the oligopoly commercialize the fuel-efficient cars it had developed from the 1940s onward? Did it deign to make this option available to consumers long ago, when it was technologically feasible? Did it permit consumers the freedom to choose from an expanded menu of fuel-economy options? No. Instead, Detroit withheld fuel-efficient models from the American market over most of the post-World War II era - even while marketing them abroad. It berated consumer preference for anything other than two-ton, gas-guzzling, chrome-laden land arks. In the 1970s, confronted with oil crises and a new-car fleet averaging a pitiful 13 miles per gallon, the oligopoly fought mileage standards to raise automotive fuel efficiency. Improved fuel economy, Detroit protested, was absolutely impossible - although the Big Three subsequently doubled the fuel efficiency of their fleets once the standards were imposed. Later, when consumers began to exercise some freedom of choice by purchasing fuel-efficient imports, the oligopoly discarded "free consumer choice," unleashed a furious lobbying assault on Washington, and extracted government restrictions on Japanese imports. Obviously, these restraints subverted freedom of choice while inflicting billions of dollars in artificial price hikes on car buyers. The Big Three's war on consumer choice continues unabated: In a full-court press before the International Trade Commission, the Commerce Department, and Congress, Detroit is demanding that government restrict imported minivans. This in spite of the fact that the Big Three account for 90 percent of all US minivan sales; that Chrysler alone sells four times more minivans than Mazda and Toyota combined; and that another target, Mitsubishi, hasn't even begun to sell its minivans in the US market. More ludicr ous yet, Chrysler itself is the nation's largest importer of minivans, importing 60 percent of its minivans from Canada, while Ford and Chrysler have contracted to market Japanese minivans under their own domestic nameplates. The crux of the oligopoly's latest complaint? Foreign competition has "suppressed" its ability to raise minivan prices to the American consumers for whom it professes such warm solicitude. In safety, too, the Big Three have cloaked their record of delinquency, obstruction, and delay in the mantle of "free consumer choice.Safety doesn't sell" has been the industry's slogan - not surprising, since for decades the Big Three have done everything in their power to withhold safety features from the market. Air bags are an obvious example. For years the oligopoly refused to commercialize air bags - despite findings as long ago as 1971 (in surveys quietly conducted by the Big Three themselves) that a majority of auto buyers valued air-bag protection and were willing to pay significant premiums for it. What was Detroit's response to this clear signal of consumer preference? Decades of neglect, resistance, and outright suppression, followed in the mid-1970s by Rube Goldberg interlock-buzzers, and in 1984 by "p assive" belts requiring the agility of a contortionist to negotiate - and grimly prone to decapitate their users. Nevertheless, General Motors was actively discouraging air bag sales. Only in 1990, after decades of government pressure did the industry finally begin to make air bags available. The enthusiastic consumer response demonstrates that genuine freedom of choice yields outcomes quite different from Detroit's version of manipulated choice. The Big Three dictate the options from which consumers are allowed to choose. They control the choices consumers will be allowed to make. And they justify it in the name of "freedom of consumer choice." Freedom of consumer choice? Consumer sovereignty? Only as Orwellian doublespeak is this claim credible.

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