Howes: Two sets of rules govern a ‘rigged system’

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Judging by this year’s wild presidential campaign, accountability is a foreign concept in today’s politics. But the auto industry? Not so much.

Delegates cheer on the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Ask Volkswagen AG. The $14 billion price tag for its diesel deception is creeping closer to $20 billion, and new lawsuits from three state attorneys general say knowledge of the long-running fraud runs all the way to the office of the new CEO. What a surprise.

Ask Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV. Following intermittent battles with federal safety regulators, FCA’s Auburn Hills-based arm is now under investigation for allegedly falsifying monthly sales numbers in an effort to make its performance look stronger than it otherwise was.

Ask Tesla Motors Inc. Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s automaker now is being scrutinized by the Securities and Exchange Commission for failing to tell investors that a customer was killed when the automaker’s misnamed Autopilot mistook a semitrailer for the bright Florida sky.

Ask General Motors Co. It paid $900 million to settle a federal probe into its handling of a faulty ignition-switch scandal blamed for at least 120 deaths. Now a federal judge says the automaker’s epic bankruptcy cannot be used as a shield against more ignition-switch lawsuits.

There’s a pattern here: official tolerance of industry malfeasance is evaporating. In its place stand muscular regulatory and legal forces that are rejecting the continued coziness of the past; they’re committed to prosecuting dishonesty even more sharply than mere technical incompetence.

Bottom line: Lying and dissembling in today’s auto industry, however profitable and productive its operations are, will exact steep prices in dollars, brand equity and corporate reputation.

This is the exact opposite of the overarching “The System is Rigged” theme animating this year’s presidential race from the left and the right. Namely, that there are two sets of rules, and the evidence suggests the big people with the right connections and, of course, the right intentions seem never to get punished.

Not the bankers and Wall Street sharpies blamed for their complicity in the global financial meltdown. It claimed jobs, homes and the retirement savings of millions, but it didn’t deliver high-profile prosecutions, much less jail.

Not the Republican nominee who lies as effortlessly as breathing. Donald Trump’s path to the nomination is littered with the kind of half-truths, distortions and personal attacks that would sink any other mortal politician.

Not a former secretary of state who passed government secrets through unprotected servers. In her zeal to shield her correspondence (official and otherwise) from prying journalists and partisan hacks, Hillary Clinton exposed classified information to global adversaries.

Not Michigan bureaucrats. Decisions by the state Department of Environmental Quality effectively tainted the city of Flint’s water supply with lead, an appalling breach of public health now more than two years old. Only one person has been fired.

Not the Democratic National Committee, Monday gaveling to order its quadrennial convention to nominate its ticket for this year’s presidential campaign. Courtesy of WikiLeaks, supporters of Bernie Sanders now have documentary proof the DNC worked its back channels to sink the Vermont senator’s improbably strong challenge to Clinton.

The price for all that lying and dissembling — on Wall Street and in Flint, in Clinton and Trump campaigns, through the servers of the DNC — ain’t what it is for the auto industry. That’s because there really are two sets of rules, and only one of them demands accountability.

That’s wrong. It’s also why neither the Republicans nor the Democrats meeting this week in Philadelphia have ably managed the parallel furies roiling their respective bases: their leaders are among the last to realize their hollow bankruptcy, their utter lack of accountability, are destroying credibility with their own people.

Practically speaking, there are no federal regulators to demand accountability for political malpractice and self-dealing. No one to levy fines on baldly dishonest politicians and staffers. No bureaucratic mechanism effectively empowered to reshape how leaders run things, as the auto industry has been reshaped by the searing experiences with the feds of VW, GM, FCA and probably Tesla.

Only the ballot box can exact a price for dishonesty and self-aggrandizement. Come November, it probably will in ways that are not yet clear in the hot days of July.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.