Executives need to learn impact of public perception

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" goes the old put-down.

Watching the recent goings-on in Washington, a better question might be, "If you're so rich, why aren't you smart?"

You'd think some of the Big Three auto executives would have heard the axiom "perception is reality," or at least to not have had the gall to fly in their top-of-the-line private jets to the capital to ask for a handout from the taxpayers.

The reality is, the thousands of dollars it cost to fly the executives to Washington was less than coffee money for GM, Ford or Chrysler, but reality doesn't always matter on the television news channels.

Just ask the executives at AIG, who persist on having lavish weekend retreats after begging for money from taxpayers, many of whom are losing their jobs and watching their retirement funds evaporate.

Or the folks in Ketchikan, Alaska, who saw the government force them to accept an airport on nearby Gravina Island, then reneg on a promise to connect the town and island with a bridge for the 200,000 passengers who use the airport each year.

The situation is good business for the ferry that carries about 118,000 vehicles each day to the island.

Such is the power of perception of the phrase "bridge to nowhere."

The private jet controversy, coupled with the idea that autoworkers at American-owned plants are overpaid compared to foreign-owned factories, seems to have derailed any chance the automakers have of a government bailout.

The salary discussions -- while one executive volunteered to work for $1 a year but two others declined to give up their multi-million dollar pay -- didn't help, either.

While it's been pointed out that one company pays more than $70 an hour for labor, compared to $30 less an hour for another, Japanese-owned company, lost in the debate are lower wages in the new union contract, although GM, for example, still will pay about $9 more an hour for labor than Toyota.

Much of the difference results from pension costs the Japanese companies don't have.

Business and congressional representatives need to have sober, thoughtful debate over the issues.

Millions of jobs -- including many in Southwest Nebraska -- depend on the survival of American car companies.

But if top-tier executives continue to be oblivious to public perception, it may, unfortunately, take something as drastic as bankruptcy to get them to change.

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