Just as if Detroit were not having enough difficulty this year, comes now a clutch of Senators who demand that the Eisenhower Administration drag General Motors executives into federal court, there to try to find out whether they might not be guilty of some kind of crime. Their own investigation of G.M., the Senators hasten to say, yields absolutely no courtroom evidence that any crime has been committed.
All that the majority of the Kefauver Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly have to present is a bill of suspicion. They suspect that G M. seems able to:
§ Rig sales prices of new and used automobiles.
§ Corner the market in parts and raw materials.
§ Obtain preferential treatment from steel companies.
§ Drown any competitor in his last bucket of red ink.
§ Create either a boom or depression.
Again, the Senators are quick to say they don’t know whether G.M. does any or none of these horrid things, but–they say–if the possibility exists that it might do any of them now or later, then the Administration ought to chop the corporation up into little bits as a public service. Therefore, they ask, would the Justice Department be so kind as at least to ease, or at worst to confirm, the Senatorial suspicions?
Legal theory, of course, frowns on such fishing expeditions as the Senators wish the Justice Department to undertake, but there is plenty of daylight between accepted legal theory and actual practice, and nimble lawyers scamper through the open spaces all the time. Moreover, G.M. itself might consent to public examination merely to maintain good public relations, on grounds that continued refusal to submit fact and figure to the Government–no matter how innocent GM; no matter how legally correct such refusal might be–cannot fail to make the public suspicious. Making the public any more suspicious than current sales indicate is not good for General Motors.
Meanwhile, there is some merit to the cynical view that the Kefauver Subcommittee’s report is more of a political document than it is a legal complaint. It is difficult to imagine the Eisenhower Administration leaping at the chance to harass its big, best friend in Detroit. On the other hand, if the Administration does nothing, then even the most unimaginative Democrat will not find it difficult to locate still another stick with which to belabor a fairly dead elephant in the 1960 elections.
A more charitable view is that the Senators are neither Inquisitorial nor Machiavellian, but simply human, for the subcommittee report is more like a despairing cry of a customer sinking in quicksand than it is anything else. Here is unfolded the whole grimy story of the tortuous sales practices of Detroit and the dealers; of the repeal by GM of the laws of supply and demand; of the expensive asininty of styling, horsepower-races and lying advertising; of the fact that no manner or means of competition occurs in Detroit that could conceivably help the customer either to a better car or to a different car, much less to lower prices. All this is presented within an historical context that works as inevitably toward a hopeless conclusion as any Greek tragedy. Despite the uncomfortable prose that custom demands of The Congressional Record, the reader gets the point: the customer is inevitably done in by capricious forces beyond individual man’s control.