As I read "Tough Times in Troubled Towns," today’s third installment of Nick Turse’s Tough Times series, this one on the nationwide meltdown of America’s most vulnerable municipalities, I couldn’t help thinking about an old line that, by my childhood in the 1950s, had become a kind of national folk wisdom: "As General Motors goes, so goes the nation." (Indeed, as befit the rise of the U.S. as an imperial power, "nation" was sometimes replaced with "world.") Of course, in those days, if you were the head of General Motors, it wasn’t so unreasonable to imagine that you controlled the fate of the nation and the planet. Not only were you atop a global powerhouse of a company, but you might still be going places.
After all, in 1953, Charles Wilson, GM’s president, did become President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s secretary of defense. Asked in his Senate confirmation hearings whether he would have a problem making governmental decisions that might not be in the interest of GM, he famously replied that he found it hard to imagine a conflict of interest "because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa." (Soon, that would be simplified to: "What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.")
Only a few years after Wilson stepped down, a new President, John F. Kennedy, asked Ford’s president, Robert S. McNamara, to step into the very same post. At that moment, it seemed true indeed that, as Big Auto went, so went the world. Of course, that was before McNamara and his "whiz kids" got us deep into, but not out of, the Vietnam War. Now, that’s so much ancient history — though today, you might imagine a new version of the old adage, based on Bush and Obama administration staffing decisions at the Treasury Department: What’s good for Goldman Sachs is good for the country.
In any case, if Wilson’s statement seems like history, the old GM line doesn’t. As General Motors goes, so goes America. How sadly true. We know just how GM is going these days — down the tubes; and, as Nick Turse indicates, so, too, go the towns and small cities not only in the vicinity of the Big Three’s collapse, but countrywide. He concludes:
"It isn’t surprising that towns which relied heavily on the collapsing auto industry and the building trades are going belly-up first, but what about the rest of America’s towns and even big cities? The same economic forces are battering them, and while they may have been able to withstand immediate collapse, there’s no guarantee that town after town won’t be deep in the red, drowning in joblessness, and facing catastrophe as the American depression drags on."
Charles Wilson must be tossing and turning in his grave.