Monday, February 15, 2016

Bad Vibes

Photo by Bo Mohl 

       As we approach the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Marx's Das Kapital (1867), I want to use a piece of my limited private property, my 2003 Pontiac Vibe hatchback (shown in photo above), to discuss the disturbing way in which capitalism  is giving off "bad vibes," to use a popular expression. Merriam-Webster dates the first documented use of the noun "vibe," meaning  "a feeling that someone or something gives you," back to 1967, with the phrase "bad vibes" arriving, as I recall, not long afterwards. "Bad vibes" was already part of the American vernacular when the soon to be defunct Pontiac brand blithely chose to call the new hatchback they began manufacturing in California in 2002 the Vibe. Early in the twenty-first century, cheating has become the blatant rule not only in business but in practically every phase of American life, but particularly in politics and athletics, which have become big businesses themselves, businesses that give off vibes that are so bad they suggest a burgeoning crisis that makes the problems that world capitalism  experienced in the Great Depression of 1930s and the Great Recession of a more recent decade pale by comparison. At least in those crises  no one, let alone a Nobel Prize economist, was saying seriously that one of our two political parties had lost its mind.

      That's my Pontiac Vibe in the photo above, my bad Vibe as I came to think of it, on 4th Street in Portsmouth, Ohio, in the winter of 2015-16. Most Vibes are front wheel drive, which is supposed to give vehicles an advantage in snow and rain, but that was not the case with my Vibe. From the start, traction was poor, not only in snow but also in rain. I mistakenly thought the problem was with the tires that came with the car. Though there was still lots of tread left on the them, I replaced them early on with a brand that was recommended by Consumer Reports. But I soon learned  the problem was not with the tires but with the Vibe itself. I discovered online that I am not the only Vibe owner who complained of poor traction, although Pontiac and Toyota have apparently not acknowledged traction is a problem, perhaps because Vibes had so many other problems Pontiac wanted to leave bad enough alone.

     There had been serious problems from the start, serious enough to require a recall. On March 26, 2002, when the first Vibes were fresh off the assembly line, they were recalled for bad rear brakes. The 2002 and 2003 Vibes were later recalled, in April 10, 2008, because the automatic windows on the driver and front passenger side, because of faulty bolts, could crack and shatter while being lowered and raised, endangering the driver and front passenger, possibly leading to the loss of control of the vehicle by the driver. Even the name Vibe, since it is derived from the word vibration, perhaps should have been recalled. Who wants a car that vibrates?

Vibratory Trends

      The Vibe was the first American car I owned. All my previous cars had been German or Japanese: Volkswagens, Mazdas, and Subarus. I am a member of a generation that grew up believing that the Germans and the Japanese, though they had lost the Second World War, were much better at technology than Americans were, which was why their cars were so much more reliable. So I regretted  that I hadn't  continued  buying  German or Japanese cars. But I shouldn't have jumped to that conclusion because the Vibe, I later learned,  was a joint venture between General Motors (the parent of Pontiac) and Toyota, with Toyota being its principal begetter, supplying the problematical design and engineering. In fact,  in terms of engineering and design, the Vibe was more Japanese than American, almost as Japanese as the  Toyota Matrix hatchback, which was a virtual twin of the Vibe. I found it hard to believe that any company, but especially a Japanese one, would have failed to discover in the simplest kind of road tests that the front-wheel traction of the Vibe  was poor because there was not enough weight in the front of the vehicle to provide adequate traction. But that was not the only miscalculation by Toyota. The height of the vehicle, to my view, is higher than it should be considering the car's relatively short length, rendering it aerodynamically unstable in making turns in bad weather and high winds, especially when accompanied by poor front wheel traction. In that respect the Vibe was a sharp contrast to the low slung and wide muscle cars of an earlier decade that Pontiac was credited with inventing, muscle cars that handled much better on curves. The failure of Toyota-Pontiac to acknowledge the Vibe's for poor traction was a glaring failure, which can be attributed to the ethical limitations of not only the American but of the Japanese and German car makers as well. The profit motive is great in harnessing human acquisitiveness, but when acquisitiveness morphs into greed, it brings out the worst in people and corporations. For one thing, over time, in  highly competitive industries, the profit motive led manufacturers to cheat like hell

      As hazardous as poor traction and brakes and breaking windows were, they were not as dangerous as the faulty airbags that led to the recall of  the 2002 and 2003 Vibes on January 30, 2013. According to a warning issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on the Vibe, "The supplemental restraint system (SRS) are susceptible to internal shorting . . . which may create an abnormal current flow and increased heat which can damage the circuits." Damaged circuits could provoke the inadvertent deployment of airbags with the consequent crash of the vehicle. Vibes shared these risks with the Toyota Matrix and other Toyota designed cars. On April 11, 2013, Toyota issued a recall of 2002-2003-2004 Vibes because the passenger side airbag, when deployed, could be accompanied by the rupture of the inflator "with metal fragments striking and potentially seriously injuring the passenger seat occupant or other occupants." Vague instructions in this 2013 recall led to a  corrective warning being published by NHTSA on  June 11, 2014. This corrective warning included the information that "The manufacturer has not yet provided a notification schedule." Why had Toyota not provided a notification schedule? Because it didn't have the parts to correct the problem and it was some time before they did have them.  I recall waiting months and in one case years for the proper replacement parts. Meanwhile I was driving with airbags that might deploy at any time. Between the conflicting information supplied to me by Toyota and by the dealer, I didn't know whether my Vibe was coming or going. The large number of Toyotas and Vibes put a great strain on the dealer, where the women who answered the phone in the office and the mechanics with the wrenches in the shop were not always on the same page when it came to airbags.

Takata Takes its Time

      The real villain of the airbag debacle was not Toyota but Takata, a Japanese automobile parts manufacturer established in 1933 that began producing airbags in 1988. Up to now, Takata has recalled about 53 million vehicles in some dozen Japanese, American, and German vehicle brands. Takata was slow to take responsibility for the  faulty airbags, which it knew about as early as 2000 but kept secret for eight years, a coverup for which it was fined $200 million in November 2015 by U.S. federal regulators. Takata had previously  displayed a coverup policy in response to criticisms of its malfunctioning seat belts. Indeed the whole automobile industry is guilty of trying to coverup problems to protect its profitability. Since profits in the highly competitive automobile industry are what is most important to that industry, it is inevitable, given the nature of human nature, that the truth will be suppressed and the public could end up paying literally through the nose in the form of one of those metallic fragments from an exploding inflator.

      The  first casualty in a war, the saw  says, is truth. The ultimate, if not the first casualty in business is the public. No business can survive if it is not profitable, and when there is a conflict between profits and the public welfare, as there sometimes is, it is the public that usually loses. This has probably always been the basic operating procedure, but the contradiction between profits and the public welfare has now apparently reached an acute stage, producing adverse publicity and, yes, bad vibes that can lead to political as well as an economic crashes.

The Crazy Presidential Campaign

Donald Trump has become the Dracula poster boy
 billionaire businessmen
      The current presidential campaign is certainly giving off bad vibes and may result in a political crash. In its presidential campaign,  the Republican Party appears to be losing its mind. Hillary Clinton's ties to Wall Street  notwithstanding, Republicans are traditionally closer than Democrats to the business community. The current leading Republican candidate, Donald Trump, is a wealthy businessman. He is not only the wealthiest but also, according to some in his own party, the craziest candidate. The Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman recently wrote in a New York Times column, "Economic Stupidity," that "Economic views on that [Republican] side of the aisle, range from fairly crazy to utterly crazy. Leading the charge of the utterly crazy is, you won't be surprised to hear, Donald Trump . . ." Marxists have long been criticized as economic reductionists who explain everything by, and trace everything to, economics. But I think a good case can be made that the acute economic contradictions of capitalism created not only "bad vibes," but  the crazy crop of current Republican candidates, of which Trump is the crown—or should I say—the clown prince. Perhaps all the Republican candidates should be recalled as many Pontiac Vibes have been more than once, but unfortunately the National Highway Transit Safety Administration is not empowered to remove those kind of nuts from the road.

Et tu Roy Williams?

A photo of Roy Williams the pious and some  suspect hypocritical
UNC coach, taken during an Atlantic Coast Conference game

       Like the automobile industry, American athletics is giving off very bad vibes. Cheating is so pervasive in both professional and collegiate athletics that fans have become somewhat desensitized and even complicit. In baseball and football, in cycling and track, the use of performance enhancing drugs (PED's) was rampant. Just as the seven-time winner of the Tour de France, Lance Armstrong, became the poster boy for cheating with ped's in cycling, so did Alex Rodriguez in baseball. Even one of the good guys in the American-dream-turned nightmare may prove to be one of the bad guys. Just in the last couple of days it has been revealed that the University of North Carolina (UNC), which is considered an exemplary institution among major basketball powerhouses, has been dealing from the bottom of the academic deck for  some time, and not just in the basketball program. UNC turns out to be not so different from the University of Miami or University of Nevada at Las Vegas (UNLV) when Jerry Tarkanian was its controversial basketball coach.  Williams has not yet been implicated, but it would be surprising considering how long and how deeply involved in UNC's program Williams has been  that he would have been unaware of the many violations taking place under his nose. Williams is one of those respected figures—Peyton Manning in professional football is another—who are treated with kid gloves by the American media. ( For a recent, rare  washing of Manning's dirty laundry, click here.) The NCAA investigation of UNC found widespread violations, particularly in what was previously called the African and Afro-American (AFAM) Studies department. If there is such a thing as reverse racism, a controversial concept, the existence of the AFAM department at UNC may be an example of it.

American Studies and the Cold War

Portrait of Norman Holmes Pearson by Deane Keller
      At this point, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention my own relationship to an American academic discipline that gave off bad vibes during the Cold War, namely American Studies. An undergraduate English major, in switching to American Studies as a graduate student,  I experienced a fall from grace, exchanging Shakespeare for interdisciplinarity. What I did not know when I received a Coe fellowship to pursue a doctorate at Yale, in 1958, was that the  fellowship I received had been funded by a wealthy, politically conservative, Wyoming businessman who wanted to counter what he considered the strong communist influence in American higher education. Though I had been a radical in the 1960s, Yale was about as communist in the 1950s as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and so it probably made sense for the anticommunist crusade in higher education to begin at Yale.

      Starting out in the late 1930s as an experimental interdisciplinary academic field, American studies became after the Second World War an ideological recruit in  the Cold War, with logistical and financial assistance for "Americanists," as those in American Studies were called, being provided mainly by the State Department. The man who was considered the father, or godfather, of American Studies at Yale was Norman Holmes Pearson, a faculty member from an old New Haven-Yale family who had served in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), informally known as the Secret Service. During the Second World War Pearson  had helped lay the groundwork for the Central Intelligence Agency, the Cold War successor to the OSS. Most faculty at Yale were absorbed in the publish-or-perish mania of higher education and had little time for students, especially for graduate students. Burdened with a severe physical handicap resulting from complications from childhood tuberculosis, the tenured Pearson had failed as a scholar at Yale, or so he and others felt. So he devoted himself as department chairman to helping students, especially graduate students, like me, who were in danger of failing to succeed academically. He considered himself,  in an ironic phrase he borrowed from Stendhal, "médiocre avec éclat," a brilliant mediocrity. How lucky for me and other students that he was, though it was agony for him, I felt, to pretend to accept his failure so cavalierly. America is a highly competitive society where success is an obsession and where there is no niche for failure, though Pearson had managed to carve out one for himself at Yale.  It was through his influence that after receiving my Ph.D. in 1971, I was invited back to Yale for several years, becoming a visiting Research Associate in American Studies and the Coordinator  of the Bicentennial Committee of Americanists, helping to organize a series of international Bicentennial conferences.

      I returned to Yale with misgivings. By that time the American Studies program at Yale, through the entrepreneurial Professor Robin Winks of the history department, had become somewhat indiscreetly a State Department satellite. My salary and the international conferences were funded indirectly by the State Department. Winks began life in Indiana, not New Haven, which explains a lot. At the time I was married to a Midwestern Yale graduate student who had given birth to our son in 1972 when we were both teaching in Poland under the Fulbright exchange program. In returning to Yale, I was trying to save our marriage. What moral capitulations have been justified on the grounds of family considerations! I bailed out of Yale in disgust before the Bicentennial arrived and it was only a matter of time before my American Studies marriage, itself so full of bad vibes, ended too. So maybe it was fated that my first American car wouldn't really be American and would have so many defects. Perhaps a Vibe is what I deserved. In my own defense, I will say that I have not received so much as a parking ticket in twenty-five years of driving in Portsmouth, Ohio, a Midwestern river city where running red lights and going well above the speed limit appears to be in the DNA of many residents, whose records of moving violations are sometimes as long as their arm. Moving violations appear to be as time honored a sport in Portsmouth as cricket at Oxford. It is all part of the city's bad vibes, which I have been inveighing against in my blog River Vices for over a decade and which I have continued to do in this rambling post.