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Scapegoating Toyota

I have mixed feelings about the shit getting dumped on Toyota lately, the kind of mixed feelings that invariably accompany conflicts where everyone is behaving badly.

On the one hand, Toyota cars have been failing in dangerous and spectacular ways of late. That’s just a statement of verifiable fact. By any reasonable standard, the rate and nature of these failures, most notably but not limited to the possibility of accelerating beyond 100mph, is unacceptable. Learning of these problems, the highest echelons of management decided to do…nothing. For fear that publicly recognizing a problem would hurt the company’s image and/ors open it to lawsuits—either way, hurting the bottom line. Only after the silent treatment failed to contain a public reaction did the company agree that, yes, okay, there’s a problem but that they would fix it, if everybody’s going to be so fussy about it. Not that they’re really sorry about the safety issues or the cost-cutting that created an environment where safety issues could get out of hand; they’re just sorry to be held to account for them. You can read it in the tone and oh-so-carefully phrased words of the CEO and heir as he apologizes, regretting that the company may lose market share but admitting nothing that could offer an actual basis for a lawsuit. “Okay, sorry. Jeez! Now can you get out of my face?”

This is not acceptable behavior for a large, financially successful, and politically powerful corporation, any more than it’s acceptable for an individual, and Toyota deserves both the hit it’s taking in public confidence and the litigation that I doubt will materialize.

On the other hand, the forces driving Toyota to apology and grudging attempts to do the bare minimum to correct the situation are pretty blatantly unconcerned about public safety. Congressional committees don’t display anything like this degree of interest when Ford or GM produces a similarly dangerous car. The national news media are somewhat better about calling out American car manufacturers, as any alarmist message (“Your car could kill you!”) helps ratings, but I can’t recall them displaying anything like the glee they now exhibit at Toyota’s reversal of fortune—even NPR is reminding us regularly and with relish of the scandal. Does anyone doubt that the public outcry is dramatically magnified by a desire to get a little of our own back after economical, efficient, and reliable cars coming out of Japan made American car manufacturers look so bad in the ’80s?

America was and is a culture of automobiles, and American dominance of the markets post-WWII was a matter of national pride. The blatant schadenfreude of both news and Congressional investigations is little more than an ill-concealed Japan bashing and a protectionist urge hiding behind safety concerns.

It’s not that Toyota deserves to be treated any better; I just think a lot of other large corporations deserve to be treated equally harshly. Not just American auto companies, but any American company that bribes its way out of regulation with large campaign donations, or that uses lawsuits to intimidate and wreck rising competition, or that finances political smear campaigns. Also foreign companies that compete with American manufacturers in our own markets by paying starvation wages in poisonous working conditions. They all have to be taken to task—and more, hit in the pocketbook, whether by federal law or consumer reaction. Insofar as we’re willing to leave public outrage to the satisfaction of knowing that the Japs make crap, too, or insofar as we’re willing to treat a backlash against Toyota as a good day’s work, Toyota is being unfairly scapegoated, to its loss and to our collective loss.

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