The Road and the Car in American Life
The Automobile Industry Since 1945
The American auto industry is at the moment notoriously paranoid about its public relations. Although it pays for nearly 10 percent of all national advertising, the industry feels that it is treated unfairly by journalists, academics, and consumer advocates. The new chairman of General Motors, Richard C. Gerstenberg, has described the “developing crisis in communications” between the public and the business community, notably the automotive community. GM’s retiring chairman, James M. Roche, often addressed himself to the same problem. In a valedictory interview with the Wall Street Journal he urged that Americans stop attacking the auto corporations and pay more attention to the positive aspects of their lives. A few months before, he had pronounced that “American business, from the perspective of the world, is plainly in trouble.” “When free enterprise needs support,” he complained, “it finds itself the target of much irresponsible criticism that causes disunity in our society.”
Surrounded by this common contemporary suspicion, the auto corporations’ PR departments must be astonished to find two entirely responsible studies of the automobile business, published recently by the Harvard and MIT presses. Studies so responsible that they seem left over from the high tides of the Eisenhower years, from 1955, in fact, when US manufacturers sold more, larger cars than they did in 1970 and when Americans enjoyed the peace with prosperity that President Nixon is now trying to re-create: “In the past forty years we have had only two years with real prosperity, without war and without inflation,” the two fat years being, according to a White House gloss, 1955 and 1956.
The two authors are at least as positive-spirited as Roche and Gerstenberg. Lawrence White aspires to a dignified neutrality about the social merits of the American automobile. He writes that “a discussion of automobiles and the automobile industry can, in some circles, turn into a highly passionate argument with heated opinions traded on all sides.” He himself has never been an auto enthusiast. He possesses (and trades) no “strongly held opinions about the superiority—or inferiority—of the products that Detroit produces.” John Rae goes even further than White in rejecting vulgar modern fears about the economic role of the automobile. He too dislikes manifestations of passion and heat: “Unfortunately, urban transportation has…become an emotionally charged issue [and] generate[s] heated reactions from individuals and groups.” But where enthusiasm is unavoidable, he is an eager partisan of existing automotive arrangements. “Transportation,” he writes, “is social progress,” and “there is no substitute in sight for the highway and the motorized vehicle.”
Both authors ignore such popular criticisms of auto transportation as have become familiar since 1956. The purpose of White’s calmness is to make possible a “scholarly” economic description of the auto industry. The American auto business, he writes, is a “classic case of a tight oligopoly” (an oligopoly being, in the competitive theory of industrial organization, a market of few competing sellers). When he is forced to deal with noneconomic facts, he tries to …