The Common Good

Automakers: Apology Accepted

This week GM printed a full page ad in Automotive News magazine to make a public apology. They said:

While we're still the U.S. sales leader, we acknowledge we have disappointed you. At times we violated your trust by letting our quality fall below industry standards and our designs become lackluster. We proliferated our brands and dealer network to the point where we lost adequate focus on our core U.S. market. We also biased our product mix toward pickup trucks and SUVs. And we made commitments to compensation plans that have proven to be unsustainable in today's globally competitive industry. We have paid dearly for these decisions, learned from them and are working hard to correct them by restructuring our U.S. business to be viable for the long-term.

This gesture could easily be interpreted as "too little too late", a desperate P.R. campaign, or as a "bizarre" and "pointless exercise" as some analysts have put it. While I do not know the hearts of the executives at GM, I would like to take this apology at face value and accept it.

The heart of our faith is about relationships. How they are broken and how they are fixed. Righteousness is the term we use that means "right relationships." It may sound like an oversimplification, especially in light of all of the complex market instruments that are in use today, but the root of all of this financial mess and turmoil are broken relationships, broken social covenants.

The relationship between employer and employee. The relationship between corporations and community. The relationship between stock holders and executives. The relationship between consumers and their creditors. The relationship between the businesses, the government, and our civic institutions. The relationship between people and the planet we live on. These relationships are broken, distorted, and even abandoned. All of them are in need of redemption.

If all that come out of this crisis are some new regulations on naked short-selling, transparency in hedge funds, realistic credit ratings for mortgage backed securities, and a slap on the wrist for those who spent more than they had, then we have missed the point. All or some of these actions may be good and may be necessary, but no maze of regulations or army of watch dogs can ever change the fact that we have broken and abandoned the relationships that build up the foundations of a good society. As I have said before, this economic crisis is both structural and spiritual.

If we only treat the symptoms of the problems without also seeking personal and communal transformation, we will find ourselves on the losing side of this battle. However, if we fail to regulate our markets and hope that the "invisible hand" will turn all our vices into virtues, we fall into the painful naiveté that brought us to this place to begin with.

Part of what scares us when we see a company like GM collapsing is that we can see our own vices writ large against the sky. When we hear that these companies have been producing not the best that they could, but only what would just get by, we think of our own failings. When credit freezes up and lenders do not trust borrowers or borrowers trust their lenders, we think of all the times that we have refused trust to others and the times that we've broken the trust that has been extended to us. When we watch the bubble burst, we see the futility of our own greed and our inability to say that enough is enough.

If we are honest with ourselves, we realize that the very mistakes the leadership of GM, Chrysler, and Ford have made are all too recognizable in ourselves-even if there are drastic differences of scale. All I can say is, apology accepted. Maybe we all need the chance to make a fresh start and begin to slowly dig our way out of this crisis.

Being from Detroit, I hope that Congress will pass the loan package for the auto companies-with a whole range of tough conditions, clear oversight, and a goal of becoming the world's leading innovators in green automotive technology. Because bailouts without apologies, penance, and true change are never a good idea for any of us.

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