Lee A. Iacocca's recent book, Where Have All the Leaders Gone?, has received a good amount of press this past week, all centered around one specific passage:
Am I the only guy in this country who's fed up with what's happening? Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We've got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we've got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can't even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, "Stay the course." Stay the course? You've got to be kidding. This is America, not the damned Titanic. I'll give you a sound bite: Throw the bums out! You might think I'm getting senile, that I've gone off my rocker, and maybe I have. But someone has to speak up. I hardly recognize this country anymore. The President of the United States is given a free pass to ignore the Constitution, tap our phones, and lead us to war on a pack of lies. Congress responds to record deficits by passing a huge tax cut for the wealthy (thanks, but I don't need it). The most famous business leaders are not the innovators but the guys in handcuffs. While we're fiddling in Iraq, the Middle East is burning and nobody seems to know what to do. And the press is waving pom-poms instead of asking hard questions. That's not the promise of America my parents and yours traveled across the ocean for. I've had enough. How about you? I'll go a step further. You can't call yourself a patriot if you're not outraged. This is a fight I'm ready and willing to have.Makes me want to read the book. Though, of course, all the blogs I've read covering said passage have just left it at that. They might make some sort of comment about Iacocca's personality, or what he said about the current crop of domestic auto executives, but they don't really go in and dissect what he said. (I'll disclaim right here that I, like the zillion other blogs that have commented on the book so far, have not actually yet read the book, so if the passage - and my comments hereforth - were taken out of context, Mr. Iacocca, I apologize.) To start with, there is a sense of outrage among Americans. Perhaps more of a sense of outrage now than I've ever seen in my lifetime. It's there if you look for it - on the Internet, on college campuses, in demonstrations across the globe, in Keith Olbermann's words, in Jon Stewart's words. Many of us are not happy at all about the course of the nation. Where you're not seeing the outrage is in your daily newspaper, on your nightly mainstream news program, in comfortable suburban homes. I'm glad Mr. Iacocca, once and former business leader himself, has taken a stand against the modern business and corporate climate. If there's anything more sinister than the incompetence of the Bush administration, it's the measures that corporations have taken to ensure and enhance their profit margins. Take, for instance, the bankruptcy law revisions implemented within the last few years. Probably the most severe of those revisions now forces people who declare bankruptcy to continue repaying their debts rather than wipe the debts clean off the board. Granted, some people abused this in the past, racking up debt and then eliminating it via bankruptcy with no reprisal. But for the people for whom bankruptcy was designed - those facing serious hardships who simply need a break - these revisions make their situations worse, not better. In fact, I've yet to see any single benefit to the consumer - the people - and all the benefit to the corporation. What sense does it make to enact laws that give more power to the corporation than to the people? I know what you're thinking: The credit card companies and their Congressmen are in league. That may be the case, but I have no proof of that (blame a complicit media more concerned about Anna Nicole's babydaddy), and besides, shouldn't those Congressmen be on the side of the people they were elected to represent? Another example. The same bankruptcy revisions (or laws passed at about the same time) permitted credit card companies to increase their minimum payment calculations. If credit card debt - and debt in general - was not one of the major problems plaguing this country today, forcing Americans to carry the lowest amount of savings ever, then I'd say fine, such a measure will help Americans clean up their debt. But the end result is an increase in debt as Americans struggle to meet these higher minimum payments and turn to additional means to borrow money. Another example. Most, if not all, states now have mandatory car insurance. Of course, car insurance is a good idea (except when insurance companies cancel your policy after they're actually forced to pay out a claim - but that's another column) and you really don't want some uninsured jerk hitting your car and sticking you with the bill. But in reality, uninsured jerks will remain uninsured jerks. Or underinsured jerks. Making insurance mandatory will not make life any easier for you when one of those uninsured jerks whacks your car - it'll just provide more incentive for him to hit and run. What it will do is create a larger marketplace for insurance companies. Ever wonder why GM and Ford can't seem to muster the ad dollars for many time slots and programs that Geico and Progressive can? Even beyond those examples, businesses and branding have invaded our lives so much over recent years that we've become complacent to the attack. Do me a favor. Look up from your computer screen and without leaving the room count how many brand names you can see. When you next go shopping, examine the size of the brand name on the plastic bag they give you to tote your purchase around the mall. Did Best Buy or American Eagle pay you for the right to advertise on your belongings? No, you paid them and most people gladly pay them. One of the things I despise about modern hip-hop music - even more so than all the negatives being mentioned in the Imus scandal - is the glorification of brands. Are you paying to hear Fiddy rap about shooting gangstas and slappin' his hos, or are you paying for an hour-long Cadillac, Bentley and Rolls-Royce commercial? And to bring it all back to Mr. Iacocca, there is no outrage. Hell, one of the most stinging critiques that Mike Judge delivers in Idiocracy is that of the rampant branding and corporacracy - their clothes are plastered with brand names, a Cabinet member is paid to mention a certain brand in his everyday conversation and everybody has been brainwashed by advertising to believe that a sports drink is superior in every way to water. But most reviews attribute this to the idiocy of that civilization rather than the aggressive marketing practices of those corporations. So, Mr. Iacocca, what should we do about this? Just express our outrage on blogs and on message boards, get a bunch of people who already agree with us to agree yet again with us? The Internet is a great enabler of outrage. In fact, it's one of those things that only the Internet can really excel at. We can't all write books and enjoy the same sort of publicity as the man who introduced the Mustang to the world. We can vote. We can hold our elected representatives accountable. We can cast off the branding that we've allowed to work its way into our lives. We can buy local. We can buy independent. And we can make the same suggestions time after time and watch as people express their outrage, then take the easy way out and ignore all those suggestions. I really hope that Mr. Iacocca expresses some sort of solution in his book and does his best to implement that solution, because I'm sure as heck out of good ideas. UPDATE: Okay, I thought about it. There's at least one thing we all can do. Stop watching television. Seriously, how much TV do you think Mr. Iacocca watches? How much do you think Kurt Vonnegut watched? How much does Stephen Hawking watch? They have better things to do with their time, as do we all. The reason we haven't built a successful hybrid car, as Mr. Iacocca asked, is because that one engineer who has the talent to spearhead such a project and push it through is right now at home watching Dr. Who or CSI. The reason Wal-Mart reigned for so long atop Fortune 500's list isn't necessarily because of their low prices, it's because some whistling dancing smiley face on TV is goading them into shopping there. The reason you take your family to Olive Garden isn't necessarily because the food is good, it's because you saw the ad on TV right before it was time to make a decision about dinner for that evening. So I'll suggest now to not buy that new HDTV set you've got your eye on and when 2009 (or whenever the deadline is) rolls around and all television stations have to switch over to HDTV (do I smell another squeeze-the-consumer plannned obsolescence scheme behind this?), let your TV set go blank. Go outside. Lose some weight. Build that hybrid car. Write a book. Do all the things you can't do while staring at a TV set.