General Motors: Putting Corporate Profits Before American Lives

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CEO Mary Barra

[Speaking Truth To Power]

This week, General Motors CEO Mary Barra apologized to the families of 13 people killed by faulty ignition switches in several models of G.M. cars—during the start of a congressional inquiry that will look into the failure of the car company to take decisive remedial action to shelve the deadly vehicles.

Was General Motors reckless in its decision not to recall these vehicles of death sooner because it put profits over people’s lives? Did the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (N.H.T.S.A.) fail the public by not launching an investigation when there was apparently a trail of destruction left behind by these cars that they should’ve been aware of?

On Tuesday, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee started their examination into why General Motors failed to recall millions of cars after evidence surfaced of deadly flaws in several makes and models. Besides the House investigation, there has been promised action on the Senate side as well. In addressing the committee, and families of the dead, GM Chief Mary Barra apologized for the car crashes.

"Today's GM will do the right thing," she said. "That begins with my sincere apology to everyone who has been affected by this recall, especially the families and friends who lost their lives or were injured. I am deeply sorry."

The recently appointed CEO said she didn’t know why it took the company so long to acknowledge the dangers in the cars but vowed she would get to the bottom of it and would be “fully transparent” in doing so.

General Motors initially recalled 2.6 million cars but only after some 13 deaths linked to those cars became national and international news. Reportedly, management in the car manufacturer knew of the ignition switch flaw for over a decade.

An additional 14 fatalities may also have been caused by the defective cars. This week, GM announced the recall of another 1.5 million cars. The total number of cars recalled is now over 6 million.

The major defect at issue are faulty ignition switches that stop while the car is running which apparently also disables steering wheels, airbags, and brakes. Reportedly, the latest recalled cars have issues with their power steering. Among the cars affected are the: Saturn Ion, Saturn Aura, Saturn Sky, Chevy Cobalt, Chevy HHR, Chevy Malibu, Malibu Maxx, Pontiac Solstice, Pontiac Pursuit and Pontiac G6.

All models are said to be between the years 2005 to 2010.

Last weekend, a memo surfaced showing that GM officials approved the faulty designs even after they were warned by Delphi Automotive Systems, the company that makes the component, that the part didn’t meet industry standards. It remains to be fully explained why GM ignored those warnings. Another issue that arises here is: how much was the N.H.T.S.A. aware of the problems with these cars?

Were the potential financial losses considered something to be feared more than the potential deaths of GM customers?

On Tuesday, N.H.T.S.A. Administrator David Friedman defended the lack of action taken by the agency he runs. “When our team looked at the data, there was not a trend that stood out,” Friedman told the committee. “We are continuing our process to try to figure out how we can improve and catch these defects sooner and more effectively. One of the things that we supported in the last Congress was increasing our fines to $300 million.”

Interesting language -- "trend that stood out."

Some members of Congress weren’t satisfied with the answers of the GM chief or the N.H.T.S.A head. “I think it’s obvious that GM has some real questions that they’ve not done a very good job of answering,” said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas. “But I also think as the federal regulator on the block, there are some valid questions for your agency.”

Congressman Barton’s sentiments here are spot on. The tragedy of these deaths should be laid, first, at the doorsteps of the insensitive bigwigs at GM and secondly, at the feet of this regulator body which is supposed to be protecting the safety of the American public. The case is yet another example of why strong regulations on corporations are necessary.

General Motors knew for over a decade they had cars that were a clear danger to drivers and pedestrians. Yet they waited until at least 13 people died, with possibly, at least, another 14 fatalities before they did anything.  When reckless, negligent or intoxicated drivers kill people on the streets and highways, they are prosecuted by law. Given the fact officials at GM knew people had died years ago, and did nothing, shouldn’t some people be prosecuted here for these fatalities? If “corporations are people” why can’t they be held accountable?

General Motors puts Ms. Barra in front of the committee and most of her answers were of the “I don’t know” or “can’t recall” variety; like some sick replay from the time of the Iran-Contra era.

Why didn’t General Motors put someone with actual inside knowledge of the time period in question before this committee? Hopefully, Congress will require appearances by the real decision-makers; those who decided that it wasn’t beneficial to GM’s cost-benefit analysis to recall these vehicles before so many people lost their lives.

GM will pretend their concern for their company’s profit-margin wasn’t the issue here. They will likely feign ignorance, incompetence and a failure to connect the dots. But should we believe GM executives didn’t know something was seriously wrong here? Or, should we believe the fear of losing some money was more important to them than those who would die driving their cars?

These deaths are a clear example of what happens when regulations are weak, toothless or non-existent. Since the Ronald Reagan era, Republicans—sometimes with the unfortunate help of some Democrats, like President Bill Clinton—have advance the dangerous ideology that regulations are cancerous to American businesses. 

After corporate catastrophes and recent regulatory failures, like the B.P. Deep Water Horizon oil spill and the Wall Street crash of 2008, do Americans believe the nation can do without regulations to curb the excesses of big business and the greedy gluttons in the ivory-towers of corporate America?

Many Republicans lecture us with empty oratory about America being a “nation of laws.” Yet, they tell us there should be no laws governing the conduct of corporations—except for the “laws” corporations choose to impose on themselves, to police themselves. But this “let the market decide” mantra has only brought misery to the many living outside of the “market” manipulation of the one percent. 

Now, Mr. Friedman and the N.H.T.S.A are pointing the finger at General Motors saying GM hid data from them. However, how many complaints and deaths would’ve had to happen before the N.H.T.S.A launched an investigation? Moreover, if they are so dependent on GM turning over their files isn’t that a problem in itself?

When the government audits regular Americans does it depend on those they are auditing to furnish all relevant documents? Or, do they take steps to seize the documents themselves?

The real problem here is: big business barons don't feel they have to follow rules like everybody else—even if breaking those rules cause pain to other people. 

Worse of all, Washington politicians and government officials are usually too busy groveling and prostrating themselves at the feet of these corporate bigs for financial crumbs to really represent the interests of the American people.

 

 

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