The 'bigger is better' myth

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Supersize that Big Mac meal. Get that large ‘O’ fries.

And then, when you’re all done, try taking on America’s most megalithic, over-inflated company: the General Motors Corporation.

As students, the rise and fall of our country’s biggest slow belly-flop is a prime lesson in “precisely what not to do.” We’re at a stage where analyzing our mistakes is a matter of course. And if there’s anything in American culture that screams to be fixed, it’s the “bigger is better” mentality that affects not only our consumers, but our corporations too.

“Hungry Jack” TV dinners aren’t the only over-indulgent things the country is gobbling up. And we’ve been doing it for decades.

General Motors is a mirror of our culture. In 1955, it became the first American corporation to make over $1 billion a year — an enormous achievement in the post-war boom where your car was your status symbol, and the more chrome the better. From 1954 and on and off through the ’90s, GM ballooned to become the largest U.S. corporation in history. Even today, as the world’s largest auto manufacturer, it sells one out of every four vehicles sold in the States.

It’s too bad, then, that in 2005 GM lost over $8.6 billion, and that it loses money on nearly every car it sells in the U.S. today.

GM is a culture of excess, of mammoth proportions and corner-cutting engineering. You don’t need to look any further than its brand garage to gauge its girth: The General has owned or had a partnership in over 18 car brands worldwide. As you read this, it still has three brands abroad and eight sprawling brands in the U.S. alone: GMC, Cadillac, Buick, Hummer, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Saab, and Saturn. It’s enough to make you wonder what they’re doing with all of them, considering at least two (Saab and Saturn) have never even made Detroit a dime.

The rebadging bungles, management inflation, brand identity loss, and a culture of follow-the-industry (instead of leading it) are just the tip of the iceberg.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s look at just how much GM has made us buy into the supersized culture. And to do that, there’s no better decade to look at than the disco era: when your parents were sporting bell bottoms, and when Cadillac was busy remodeling one of the largest cars in history.

The year 1971 saw GM’s Cadillac Eldorado become America’s quintessential “land yacht”: A two-door car that weighed over two and a half tons and seated six, even in its convertible form. For a self-indulgent U.S. culture, Cadillac was selling the height of obscenity: Even the auto press from that era, in Automobile Quarterly, griped that “there is absolutely no reason for owning [this] Eldorado.... In terms of efficiency, it ranks somewhere near zero.” Yet this was the early-1970s version of today’s 20-inch rims on your Escalade: Then, even more than now, efficiency didn’t mean squat next to struttin’ your stuff on a grandiose scale.

The Vietnam era saw the collective American ego grow larger than the Titanic. We could do no wrong, and certainly didn’t want to hear evidence to the contrary. An Eldorado or an Impala meant you were so cocky, you didn’t care that you knocked over your neighbor’s mailbox every time you backed out of the driveway.

Bigger was better — and, by God, you were gonna flaunt it.

But every giant falls. And when this one fell, the entire country felt it.

The 1973 oil crisis was the American consumer’s wake-up call: where the smaller, energy-efficient German and Japanese imports finally started to make sense. A Datsun could get you to and from work without worrying about sending your kids to college, but a Buick meant you’d be sitting in a gas line for half the morning. A consumer could tell that the VW Rabbit’s 27 miles per gallon was smart; but for GM to shift their entire engineering ethos away from 12-miles-per-gallon giants, it meant turning six entire car companies away from one massive tailspin.

And so the corporation that brought us tailfins and 8.2-liter engines finally ate their own extravagance — without ever fully learning anything. In a way, we’re all at fault: Although the public started buying BMWs and Toyotas, we never really lost our American sense of megalithic extravagance. So when consumers started clamoring for SUVs in the ’90s, could you fault GM for following the trend?

Take a look at your garage at home, and then try to waggle your finger toward Detroit. Chances are, your foot’s going to find your mouth first.

There’s a lesson screaming out from GM’s car woes. Simply put, we’ve created a country of excess in every sense of the word. We drink ’til we pass out, we celebrate the “world’s largest burger” as an American achievement, and we drive Hummers to soccer practice at $112 a tank. General Motors will go bankrupt before they learn their lesson, but our opportunity is a daily one.

Try not to get suckered into any of life’s Eldorados, and you might just make a dent.