One of the more endearing qualities of the American people is their appetite for excess. Bureaucrats have fashioned careers on wagging their plump fingers at excess, and documentary filmmakers built an industry on reprimanding free people for living their lives, but then again, these merchants of guilt could find fault with box seats at Wrigley.
Excess is nothing more than the individual paying homage to how good life is. And life in America has been very good. Over the past 20 years, Americans built McMansions and installed home theaters to rival the great concert halls of Europe. Acts as simple as going to the movies and ordering a Coca-Cola now means receiving an icy beverage the size of an oil drum.
Few industries have responded to America’s enjoyment of life better than the automobile industry. In 1990, when Ford introduced the Explorer, it became the “it” car of the next decade. Ford was on to something. SUV’s became ubiquitous overnight, making the 1990s a fascinating time to take to the highways.
In a time of domestic peace and ample paved roads, Americans began driving vehicles better-suited for urban warfare. Tax attorneys and soccer moms took to the roads in 4x4s, and by the mid-1990s the Long Island Expressway looked like a slow rolling military convoy. This had little to do with the realities of daily life. It had far more to do with the individual’s need to know that anything is possible—all the time—including going AWOL from suburbia. That is hope. When you are raised in a culture that admires rugged individualism, few discoveries are more off-putting than learning that a college education is a blueprint for a life fighting with Xerox machines, jammed printers, and untangling mice not from traps, but from a web of computer wires. SUVs were the perfect counterpoint, promising the ability to escape at the crossroads of the next frustration.
In cultivating the SUV, a near century after introducing us to the assembly line, the Ford family had again figured it out. Their latest boon to wisdom came by rejecting government bailout money.
The problem with taking bailout money—as the major banks learned before promptly paying it back—is that it forces you to talk to people who have no idea what they are talking about. Accepting government largesse guarantees a place in your boardroom for central planners whose sum knowledge of the auto industry is derived from Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me.”
In an age in which it has been difficult to laud corporations, Ford is a story that commands a smile. March sales point to a resurgent auto industry. Over the past two weeks, the details of this resurgence tell the better story. Americans may be sentimental at times with their votes, but as consumers they are never sentimental with their money. They make decisions independent of government posturing, as evidenced by the ongoing wait list for the gas-friendly Toyota Prius and the rise in affection for Ford. The Wall Street Journal reported that the Ford’s F-Series has overtaken the combined sales of GM’s Silverado and Sierra pickups, reflecting a migration away from GM in the wake of the government bailout. If Americans are eschewing GM, it is because they find something deeply offensive about paying for the same car twice.
Ford refused taxpayer money at a time when every wayward corporation had its hand out, choosing instead to take their destiny into their own hands. As a result, they emerged stronger. This is a lesson Washington should learn in preparing for the midterm elections.
A consumer culture as dedicated to enjoying life as Americans is one that has little appetite remaining for manufactured drama. Americans work more hours than any other industrialized nation solely to enrich their lives, and they have no patience for being hustled. In not partaking in the hustle of these years, Ford, more than our own government, has honored an unspoken pact with the American people. The people have responded by granting Ford our oldest form of approval: profit. While the auto maker is hardly out of the woods, I suspect it is nearer to a clearing than our elected officials, who will need more than four wheel drive to make it through November.
Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.