What has happened to the great American auto industry? Are General Motors, Ford and Chrysler headed for oblivion? And, more immediately, is there any way for General Motors to stop its dizzying free fall? Last week, the world’s largest automaker announced that it expects to post a devastating loss of almost $1 billion for the last six months-a portent of disaster.
If there’s a glimmer of light on G.M.’s horizon, we can’t find it. The company has $23 billion in cash, but owes about $30 billion. It’s original projection of a positive cash flow of $2 billion this year now looks like a negative cash flow of $2 billion. To add insult to injury, G.M. has to pay Fiat $2 billion to extract itself from a foolish deal the company made in which ailing Fiat would be given the right to sell its auto business to G.M. Meanwhile, G.M.’s credit rating is on the brink of being downgraded to junk-bond status.
Perhaps the most critical factor is market share. Twenty-five years ago, G.M.’s share of the U.S. market was over 50 percent. Ten years ago, they had 33 percent, and today they have just 25 percent. G.M. is not alone: In 1999, Detroit’s big three held almost 71 percent of the U.S. market; now they have just 58 percent, and that number shows no signs of changing direction. Indeed, Chrysler is basically out of business, and Ford is looking shaky at best. How did three of the world’s most recognizable brand names become dinosaurs on the brink of extinction? What happened?
A complacent arrogance on the part of the U.S. automakers’ management is largely to blame. Years ago, people went to work for G.M., Ford and Chrysler because they were great, cushy jobs. You didn’t have to do a darn thing, and as long as you showed up and kept your nose clean, eventually you could buy a nice pile in Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills. The problem was, these coddled executives eventually became upper management, and snoozed their way through the 1980’s and 1990’s as the foreign auto makers blew right by them. Now they wake up to find that they don’t have the engineering or the design to compete, and that the European and Japanese auto makers are eating their lunch. (In the old days, you couldn’t find a place to repair a foreign car. Now the network of foreign dealerships is so widespread, it’s as easy-if not easier-to get a foreign car serviced and repaired as an American model.)
And so the once-great American corporation that produced such brand names as Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Chevrolet and Cadillac-names that have long since lost their luster and market power-looks to be almost beyond saving. G.M. has announced plans to trim its bloated white-collar work force by as much as 28 percent in some departments. Not to mention that the company faces a bruising fight over health-care benefits with the United Auto Workers union.
Can G.M. turn around? The situation almost requires an extraordinary C.E.O. type to go in there and make the radical changes that might be necessary. But who would that be? And who might have the power to do it?
City Student Wins Intel Science Prize
Students from New York City schools regularly dominate the lists of semifinalists and finalists for the Intel Science Talent Search, the country’s most prestigious science contest. This year, for the first time since 2000, a New York City student has also won the top prize. And the winning project reminds us of how much the world has changed since the city’s last first-place finish.
David L.V. Bauer, a 17-year-old Bronx resident, was awarded a $100,000 college scholarship for his work on developing a new way of detecting toxic substances in the nervous system. The project is a legacy of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, when New York realized how vulnerable it was to all kinds of new and deadly menaces. David, a senior at Hunter College High School, began his research when he learned that a lab worker who had been at Ground Zero on Sept. 11 had a higher level of asbestos exposure than other workers. That inspired him to think about ways to quickly measure a person’s level of exposure to toxins in the event of another terrorist attack.
His research may lead to the development of a patch that could instantly detect toxins in the nervous system. As he noted, such a device would be of enormous help to firefighters, paramedics and other first responders. He conducted his research at the City College of New York, assisted by Professor Valeria Balogh-Nair.
The Intel judges have a knack for choosing talent: Past winners of the Intel contest-formerly known as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search-have gone on to receive six Nobel Prizes, 10 MacArthur Foundation grants and three National Medals of Science.
Two public schools-Hunter College High and CCNY-played an instrumental role in Mr. Bauer’s success. Granted, Hunter College High is not your average public high school. It’s highly selective, as are public schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science. But at a time when so many are willing to give up on the very idea of public education, it’s imperative that we remember that students like David Bauer are thriving in the city school system.
In fact, young David himself seems to appreciate the role that public institutions have played in developing his talent. He plans to attend the City University of New York’s Honors College next year, and says he hopes one day to teach at CUNY. If New York is lucky, David’s future successes will not lead him to reconsider that laudable goal. You can be sure that the nation’s top private universities will be bidding for his services one day.
One of the brightest lights of Manhattan went out last week, when the singer, piano player and entertainer par excellence Bobby Short died at the age of 80. For over 35 years, Short held court behind his Baldwin grand piano at the Café Carlyle on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, performing standards by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and all the greats, reflecting back to the city an aura of sophistication that became a set piece in Woody Allen films.
Short’s elegance, joie de vivre and infectious energy were born of hard work. At 9 years old, he was playing in roadhouses in his native Illinois, and when he first played piano in New York’s jazz clubs, he was just 13. He started playing all around the country and soon met Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Cole Porter and his beloved partner Mabel Mercer, with whom he performed a series of legendary concerts at Town Hall on West 43rd Street in the early 1960’s. After making a name for himself in Los Angeles clubs with his carefree and assured playing style, he came back to conquer New York in 1968. As effortless as his reign at the Carlyle may have seemed, he never stopped practicing his majestic piano and refining his purring, growling vocal technique.
He infused his audience with his love of the music, from the sand in his shoes to his white tie and tails. At the time of his death, he was booked to play his regular gig at the Carlyle this spring. As he often sang in the Cole Porter song he loved so well, for New Yorkers everywhere, Bobby Short was “the best, the crest, the works.”